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A Complete SEO Guide For Small Businesses

Search engine optimization (SEO) is no longer the secret source that only a few tech-savvy businesses use. Today, SEO has become a familiar presence in all digital marketing strategies, and for many companies, it is the go-to strategy to grow awareness, leads, sales, and revenue. 

Irrespective if you are just learning about SEO or already have an SEO strategy, this post will cover all the basics and then go into specific tactics you should implement. 

What is SEO?

If you are unfamiliar with the term, SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. More specifically, SEO tactics aim to improve your website ranking in search engines like Google. And naturally, the higher your ranking in search results is, the more traffic you will attract to your website. Also, SEO is considered an “organic” marketing tactic because you are organically attracting traffic to your website (without advertising.)

The Early Days Of SEO

In the early days of SEO, simple tactics were enough to ensure you rank high in search engines like Google. For example, you needed a basic website describing your business, products, and services. And the right keywords sprinkled on a few important pages. For example, if you owned an accounting firm in the 2000s, you needed a home page summarizing your business, a few pages describing your services (e.g., bookkeeping, tax preparation, etc.), and then ten or more keywords that are relevant to your business. So, in our accounting firm example, we would make sure the following keywords are prominent on the website: “Accounting Services,” “Tax Preparation,” “Tax Preparation in Los Angeles,” “Bookkeeping in Los Angeles,” “Accounting Services for Small Businesses,” “Tax Preparation for Small Businesses” and so on. 

The idea is to predict which keywords customers will use in Google Search and then ensure they are prominent on your website. 

In the 2000s, this SEO strategy was enough to rank you relatively high in Google Search, especially if your business operated in a niche market. Why was it this simple? Because many businesses didn’t have an online presence. Also, most large companies didn’t fully grasp digital marketing and, more specifically, SEO; This early reluctance by large companies to focus on Google Search created an opportunity for many startups and small businesses to fill the void and rank higher than many well-established Fortune 500 companies. 

This was SEO in its infancy when optimizing your website for the search was much more straightforward. However, fast forward to today, and we live in a very different world.

The Challenge

As with all marketing channels, over time, they grow in popularity and become saturated, making it much more challenging to stand out. Today, we live in a world where 500,000+ websites are created every day, and large companies spend millions on digital marketing.

Ranking high in Google or any other search engine is much more difficult today. Gone are the days of finding large untapped markets. And today’s search algorithms are incredibly sophisticated; therefore, there are no shortcuts or tricks.

Simple SEO tactics are now well-known best practices; hence, most businesses use them. For example, specialization (content), building backlinks, focusing on specific long-tail keywords, having a mobile-friendly website, etc. These are all standard practices nowadays, so naturally, you need to do a lot more to stand out today in search results.

The Opportunity

If executed correctly, SEO is still one of the most cost-effective ways to grow your online presence. The return on investment can be off the scale if your website ranks on the first page in Google search. We have numerous clients who 10x-ed their website traffic with only a few high-ranked pages. With SEO, the potential (e.g., traffic growth) is almost unlimited! 

Also, the benefits are long-lasting. A web page you create today can bring you attention and traffic for many years. For example, one of our top-performing pages is a blog post we wrote four years ago. 

Great SEO Starts With A Great Website

Before we go into any specific SEO tactics, you first need to make sure your website is up to scratch. No matter how great your SEO strategy is, if you have a below-par website, you won’t make any significant improvements (e.g., search ranking).

Related: How to turn your website into a marketing machine

Google will scan your website multiple times a week, and if they find numerous issues, they will downgrade your website and ranking. Naturally, Google wants to show the best results to its users. Therefore, if your website is slow, has errors, has a confusing content structure, or doesn’t look great on mobile devices, you cannot rank high in search results. 

Related: Google’s mobile-first indexing change is a must read! (SEO)

One of the easiest ways to evaluate your website is to use Google’s PageSpeed Insights. Just enter your website URL, and you will quickly get a complete diagnosis of your website – performance, accessibility, best practices, and SEO.  

For example, when we plugged our blog post into PageSpeed Insights, we received the following score.

Desktop Score (above)
Mobile Score (above)

As you can see, the desktop version of our blog is doing great, but we have some improvements to make around mobile. In fact, the mobile score is more important. Why? Because Google’s search algorithm places greater emphasis on how your website content looks on mobile devices (phone, tablet, etc.). This shouldn’t be a surprise because most people use phones to search on Google.

Generally, you should shoot for a 70+ for performance, accessibility, and best practices. However, your performance score tolerance may depend on your business. For example, Photographers, Architects, Realtors, and Advertising Agencies often use a lot of media on their websites (e.g., high-resolution photos, videos, etc.) to showcase their work, which will impact load speed and performance. Of course, this is not an excuse for poor performance, but those factors must be considered. 

The good news is that new websites are inexpensive these days, so if your website performs poorly in one or more areas, you should consider redesigning your current website or building a new one. 

Related: 7 Signs your website is due for a redesign

The Right Content Marketing Strategy Is Critical For SEO

A content marketing strategy focuses on creating, publishing, and sharing content. But not just any content, the content your customers are looking for. What do they expect? What type of content is valuable to them? How do they want to consume the content? 

Customers should always drive your content strategy. 

One of the best ways to ensure you continually publish relevant content on your website is by creating customer personas and having a content calendar.

Here are a few content types that your customers are looking for:

  • Blogs / Articles
  • How-to guides
  • Case studies
  • Whitepapers / E-Books
  • Videos
  • Latest News
  • Q&As

Today, Google’s algorithm is highly sophisticated and can quickly differentiate great content vs. average content vs. mediocre content. Therefore, if you want to improve your search ranking, you have to publish great content on your website. Gone are the days of average or mediocre content surfacing at the top of search results.

Related: How to write content marketing that will sell your product/services/business

Focus On Long-Tail Keywords

In a nutshell, a long-tail keyword is a more specific keyword or phrase. For example, “affordable Bluetooth headphones” is a long-tail keyword. In essence, you take the primary keyword, “headphones,” and expanding on it.

You may think using long-tail keywords will narrow your reach and limit potential customers, and you would be correct. That being said, when you try to rank for singular keywords like “headphones,” you compete for attention with companies like Amazon, BestBuy, Target, eBay, etc. Can you win this battle? Do you think Google will rank your website higher than those well-known brands? 

Also, when was the last time you clicked on the second page of Google search results? More than 90% of Google users never click on Page 2. In other words, if your product or service is not listed on the first page, it might as well not exist. However, if you optimize your content using long-tail keywords such as “affordable Bluetooth headphones,” you are far more likely to be featured on the first page – which should be your primary goal. 

Lastly, users that use long-tail keywords are likely towards the end of their decision-making process. For example, if someone is searching for “Headphones,” they are still in the early stages of the decision process – researching different options (e.g., Wired or Wireless). However, if they search for “Affordable Wireless Bluetooth Headphones,” they have already decided on wireless and are now looking at prices; therefore, they are far more likely to make an immediate purchase.

Titles Are Very Important

You may have noticed that major publications (WSJ, NYT, Washington Post, LA Times, TechCrunch, Inc., etc.) continuously optimize their titles. In other words, they may publish an article with one title before quickly changing it to something else.

Title writing tips:

  • It should appeal to your audience (not everyone)
  • A title has to describe the content (and pique the interest of the reader)
  • Don’t use fear-mongering and click-bait
  • Mysterious titles don’t perform well, so avoid them
  • Never strive for a perfect title because you can always change it later
  • Having the right keywords in your title is essential, but never stuff your title with too many keywords

How often should you change/update your web page titles? Generally, we recommend that our clients revise their poorly performing web pages every quarter. For example, edit the title, content, media, etc.

Content Depth

Today, specialization and content depth are preferred over “general” and “shallow” content. We are not suggesting core pages (e.g., About, Services, Pricing, Landing pages) be highly detailed because, in most cases, they shouldn’t be. However, “Blog Posts,” “How To” articles, and other frequently published content pages typically perform better the deeper they dive into the subject matter. 

On the other hand, shallow pages (lacking detail, expertise, and unique opinion/voice) consistently have a higher bounce rate and lower average session duration – typical indicators of poorly performing content.

Every business is different, but as a general rule, we consider content under 500 words short-form, 500-1,000 medium, and over 1,000 long.

Related: Content Marketing – Should you focus on quality or quantity?

Use Media

Not every page needs an image or a video, but if you have those media assets available, use them. Typically, pages with some media (e.g., images) will perform better.

Our brains process images a lot quicker than text, so it should not be surprising that webpages with images are easier to process and consequently outperform “text-only” pages. Also, images give our eyes a place to rest – this is especially important on long pages.

Lastly, embedding videos (e.g., YouTube) will help keep visitors longer on your page. Why is this important for SEO? Google’s search algorithm considers “average session duration” when ranking pages. So, for example, if your average session duration is 20 seconds and your competitor’s is 2 minutes, your competitor’s page will likely rank higher. 

This shouldn’t be a surprise because if someone stays on a web page longer, it usually indicates that the content is better and more valuable. 

Not Every Web Page Has To Be An SEO Superstar

You don’t need all your content (pages) to do well (rank high). In our experience, most high-traffic websites have a handful of high-performing pages that attract most of the traffic – it’s not unusual to see 5% of the content responsible for 50% of the traffic. 

We are not suggesting you only need a few great website pages because it’s tough to predict which pages will surface at the top. We are just bringing up this point, so you don’t get discouraged. For example, you may publish 100 blog posts but only have 2-5 superstar posts that drive all your traffic. 

Furthermore, you never want to depend on one or two pages driving most of your website traffic because your superstar page may lose its high ranking. 

SEO is very competitive, and your competition is constantly publishing new content, which impacts your ranking, especially if this new content is deemed more valuable by Google’s algorithm.

Research Your Competitors

Research and understand the type of content your competitors are creating. Even with some basic research, you will notice trends and content gaps. 

Pay attention to the following:

  • Topics they cover
  • Frequency (e.g., how often they publish new content)
  • Content types they use (blog, PDF, how-to, checklists, images, videos, etc.)
  • Content length (e.g., number of words or pages)
  • Titles they use (e.g., length and keywords)

The idea is not to obsess over every piece of content your competitors publish but to:

  • Understand who you are competing with (SEO space).
  • To identify the type of content that performs well (you don’t need to reinvent the wheel)
  • Discover content gaps (find opportunities).

With SEO, You Have To Obsess Over Data

Improving your search ranking without keeping a close eye on analytics is impossible. The good news is you don’t have to become a data scientist or invest in expensive software.

For most small businesses, free tools like Google Analytics and Google Search Console are sufficient. It will get you 70% of the information you need to analyze your website and SEO performance. Of course, we use several additional SEO tools at Evolving Digital, but if you don’t have the means to hire an expert, Google Analytics and Google Search Console are adequate.

How often should you review this data? Once a month is our recommendation for most small businesses. However, if you are running an e-commerce website, you should do it more frequently. 

SEO Takes Time To Perfect

Search engine optimization takes time, so it is not the right marketing strategy if you need quick results. For example, Google may place your new page/content on the tenth page in search results. And when your page is that low in search results, you will likely get zero traffic.

Search engine optimization takes time, so it is not the right marketing strategy if you need quick results. For example, Google may not immediately show your new page/content in search results. And when they do, your content may be on the tenth page in search results.

Where Google places your new page (ranking) and how quickly it climbs will depend on many factors. As a general rule, the more niche your business is, the easier it is to rank high. For example, ranking high for the following keyword “best realtor in Orange County” is harder than “best commercial realtor in Orange County.” This is because, with the first keyword, you are competing against all realtors. With the second, you only compete against commercial realtors (smaller group).

Also, the market size and the number of competitors play a big part in how easy or difficult it is to improve your search ranking. For example, it will be easier to rank high for the “best realtor in Salt Lake City” vs. “best realtor in Los Angeles.” Why? There are more realtors in Los Angeles than in the whole state of Utah, so how many other websites compete for the same keyword plays a huge part in rankings.

With that in mind, you need to be realistic about SEO and how quickly you can reap its rewards. From our experience, it may take twelve months to see significant improvements. Of course, your industry, market niche, product/service, competitors, and the quality of your website and content will affect this timeline estimate, but you should give your SEO strategy at least twelve months.

Your SEO Return On Investment

If you execute SEO correctly, it will be one of your best returns on investments. For example, a single blog post that took a few hours to write can bring you over 100,000 visitors. If this number seems impossible for your startup or small business, it is not. We have several clients that boosted their website traffic from a few hundred a month to over 10,000 a month with only a few well-written blog posts.

Website Traffic (per month)

And the best part is you are not paying for SEO traffic. You would likely pay thousands in advertising every month to get the same level of attention. 

How To Improve Your SEO (Cheat Sheet)

  • Specialize
  • Create high-quality content
  • Have a mobile-friendly and secure (SSL) website
  • Prioritize User Experience (ease of use)
  • Learn what your competitors are doing
  • Obsess over data/analytics (e.g., Google Analytics, Google Search Console, Keyword research, etc.)
  • Get quality backlinks
  • Be patient 

Summary

SEO is certainly not a strategy that will change your business overnight because everything we outlined in this post requires dedication and long-term commitment. However, the results can transform your business if you really commit to SEO. 

Lastly, there are not many other marketing strategies that have the potential to attract thousands to your website with only a few well-written pieces of content. SEO can become your marketing superstar if you give it enough attention to succeed.

Related: How to grow your business (or startup) organically

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