Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Basics for Your Small Business Website
Update: On April 21st, 2015, Google rolled out its mobile update. Here’s a good article from Moz on what you need to know about the update, and how to make sure your Google search rankings stay in-tact.
On May 5th, 2015, Google officially announced that there are more searches on mobile devices than desktop computers in 10 counties, including the US and Japan.
What is Search Engine Optimization?
To put it simply, Search Engine Optimization is the process of making your website the best it can be in the eyes of Google, by being the best it can be for real people. Google’s goal when it serves up search results is to provide searchers the most valuable and relevant content that matches their search intent. If you want your website to show up when your potential customers search for your products or services, you have to put in the work up front to make your website the best it can be for both Google, and for real people.
The benefit of having your website show up when people search for your products or services is obvious. Once your website is optimized, the traffic to your website keeps flowing, and you can keep acquiring customers with no extra costs.
SEO has one of the best ROIs of any marketing channel you can utilize.
SEO Doesn’t Have to be Confusing
SEO is much simpler than a lot of people try to make it, if you’re doing it correctly.
There are a lot of self-proclaimed “SEO Experts” out there that will make claims of having secret tricks and insider information to get your website to the top of the search results practically overnight. They will tell you that you can’t do SEO on your own, and it takes someone with years of expertise. They promise unrealistic results, and charge thousands upon thousands of dollars for access to these “secret” methods. When people get burned, and the results never happen, it gives the entire SEO field the reputation of being a scammy, dark corner of the internet.
Fortunately for us, SEO isn’t really that complicated, and Google constantly looks for people using those “tricks” and shortcuts, and penalizes them heavily. With a few proven, simple steps, and by putting in the hard work to make your website high quality, valuable, and relevant, you can achieve the SEO results you’re looking for, without getting burned and wasting tons of time and money.
Quality, Quality, Quality
Google is constantly improving the way they determine whether a website is high quality and relevant. SEO can oftentimes take care of itself if you have put in the legwork to make your website useful for searchers. If you haven’t put in this legwork, no amount of SEO work will help you show up in Google’s search results.
Just a few years ago, getting your website to “rank” highly in search results was fairly easy. Before Google got more sophisticated, there were tons of low quality, spammy websites ranking highly by using tricks, and what are now called “Black Hat Techniques”. Google realized that in order to survive as the top search engine in the world, they had to improve the way they deliver search results to people like you and I, in order for us to keep coming back.
Now, Google updates their algorithm frequently, and almost all of those low quality websites have been scrubbed from the search results in favor of websites who have worked hard to do things the right way. By starting off focusing on being high quality, you will have a foundation to build on for years to come, and you will never have to worry about being penalized by Google.
A simple rule of thumb with SEO is, if you are doing something to improve your search results, Google will likely figure it out eventually. If you are focusing solely on giving searchers the best experience possible when they arrive on your site, Google will eventually reward you with higher rankings. The more impressed people are by your website content, the more they will share it to social media and link to it, which indicates to Google that your website is high quality, and should show up at the top of the search results.
With that said, there are some things that you can do to help Google find your website easier, especially if you are trying to rank for a competitive search term.
To rank highly for a competitive search term, it is important to focus on these 4 core aspects of SEO:
- Keyword Research
- Competitive Analysis
- On-Site Analysis
- Link Building
Another word for “search term” is a keyword. In the realm of SEO, a keyword is a word, or group of words, that people are typing into the Google search engine. You want to align the content on your website with these keywords so that people can find you.
For example, if you own a maid service in New York City, you want your website to show up when people search for “maid services in New York City”, or “cleaning company in New York City”, and any other variation of those search terms.
There are likely to be a lot of other maid services in New York City who would also like to show up when people search for those terms, so those would be considered very competitive keywords to rank for. If you want to outrank all of your competitors, you have to make sure your website is the best and most relevant website on the entire internet for those keywords. How do you do that? By offering the best content on the entire internet that people can’t help but sharing and linking to.
Here’s the problem, if your competitors are huge, national companies with their own, in-house SEO team, it’s going to be nearly impossible to outrank them. They have all of the brand recognition and authority, they’ve been around longer than you, and are going to be using all of the SEO tactics you are, and more. Simply put, in Google’s eyes, they are the more relevant website for those keywords.
So, how can you possibly compete? Keyword research.
The purpose of keyword research is to find keywords that a lot of people are searching for, but few other websites are trying to rank for. You will eventually want to try to rank for competitive keywords, but you can achieve a lot of success in the short-term by ranking for a bunch of less competitive terms.
Keyword research is it’s own massive topic that I could write a book-length post on. For the sake of brevity, I will link to some awesome resources that cover the topic of keyword research in a comprehensive manner:
- Keyword Research: The Definitive Guide
- Chapter 5 of Moz’s “Beginner’s Guide to SEO”
- Chapter 6 of QuickSprout’s “The Advance Guide to SEO”
- HubSpot’s “How to Do Keyword Research” Guide
- KISSmetric’s “How to Do Keyword Research the Smart Way”
People search for 3 primary reasons:
- Navigation — They want to be directed to a website.
- Information — They need information.
- Commercial (or Transaction) — They want to purchase something.
Ideally, you want to rank for low-competition, high-traffic search terms that have “commercial intent”. You want to capture search traffic from people just before they buy your product or service. These are “transaction” searches.
To determine whether your keywords have “Commercial Intent”, check out BacklinkO’s guide here.
Once you’ve determined the keywords you want to rank for, go ahead and put them into Google, and see what shows up on the first page. There are a few benefits to doing this:
- Seed Keywords: By reviewing and analyzing your competitor’s websites, you can acquire even more keyword ideas you might have missed.
- Competitor’s Level of Competency:If you are in any kind of internet or tech industry, your competitors likely know about SEO, and spend a lot of time and money on it. However, if you are in a more low-tech industry, like a maid service, your competition might not even know what SEO is. By analyzing your competition, you can get an idea for how hard SEO will be for your business’ website.
- Capitalize on their Weaknesses: Find out what is working well for your competition, and what gaps they are missing that you can fill.
Competitive Analysis Resources:
- Raven Tools Competitive Analysis Checklist
- HubSpot’s “How to Conduct a Competitive SEO Audit to Outrank Industry Rivals”
- Search Engine Watch’s “Competitive Analysis: How to Become an SEO Hero in 4 Steps”
- Web Pro News Competitive Analysis
I stated earlier that you are likely headed down the wrong path if you are focused on search results, instead of focused on having a high quality, relevant website. There is nothing wrong with making it easy for Google to find your website, so that they can show it to people who search for your products and services.
Here is a list of just a few things you will need to make sure you have covered so that your website can be easily “crawled” and “indexed” by Google (if you’re not sure how to do this yourself, get your web developer or webmaster to look over it and make necessary changes):
- URL — This is the address (.com) people type in to get to your website. Make sure your URL includes your business name, and is short and memorable (the URL for Vicky Virtual Receptionists is just www.VickyVirtual.com).
- Title — Make sure that the titles of each page and blog post on your website include your top keywords near the beginning. You want the titles of your page to grab people’s attention, but also be relevant and descriptive, not misleading.
- Meta tags — Google provides great information about meta tags here. Like page titles, you want to include your keywords near the beginning in a way that isn’t “spammy”, capture attention, and be descriptive.
- Keyword Usage — Make sure to include your keywords in the body of your pages a few times as well. Just don’t go overboard. Google can tell when you are “keyword stuffing”, and the page looks over-optimized, spammy, and unnatural.
- SEO WordPress Plug-Ins — If you use WordPress to create your website, you can easily install free plugins that take care of a lot of your SEO for you. My favorite is WordPress SEO by Yoast, which I will talk more about later on.
- Unique Content — The best strategy to gain a lot of traffic to your website, and improve your ranking in Google’s search results is to simply crank out a lot of high quality, unique, and relevant content, and share it on social media. This can be in the form of blog posts, pictures, videos, eBooks, infographics, podcasts, etc. Make sure they are keyword optimized, and all link back to your website. For the most part, once you have their earned attention, and have gained their trust as a knowledgable and authoritative person in your field, they will willingly and eagerly purchase from you. They will continue coming back to your website, they will share it with their friends, and link to it from their own websites. All of this does wonders for SEO.
- Page Load Speed — If your page loads slowly because it is packed full of large image or video files, people are going to quickly click away from your site, and move on to another. Attention span is never shorter than when people are browsing the web. In fact, Amazon’s calculated that a page load slowdown of just 1 second could cost it $1.6 billion in sales each year.
- Bounce Rate — Bounce refers to when people visit your website, and quickly “bounce” away. This indicates to Google that they did not find what they were looking for on your website, and are going elsewhere for it. You want your website to be filled with great, relevant content, and have a user-friendly design in order to keep people reading, clicking, and browsing around, instead of going to someone else’s site. If your website is irrelevant, or hard to navigate, people will quickly “bounce”. Apple is known for not only their sleek, modern product and packaging, but also for their incredible website design. Take inspiration from company websites that are known for good design. Chances are, their websites are well designed to be easily navigated. The more user friendly your website, the more people will share it with their friends, and keep coming back themselves.
- Sitemap — Luckily, you don’t have to worry about generating an XML sitemap, because the SEO plugin by Yoast does it automatically for you. For more on what an XML sitemap is, and how to generate one, Google has provided a good article here.
- Rich Snippets — Moz has an amazing infographic on what rich snippets are and how to set them up here.
- Social Media Share Buttons — The more your website and blog posts are shared, the more traffic you will get, the more people will link to you, and the higher search engine rankings you will attain. Because of this, you want to make it as easy as possible for people to share your website with everyone they know. WordPress has many free plugins that add social share buttons to your website.
This part may seem overwhelming and complicated, but it’s much more simple than it looks. Here’s a nice keyword-focused checklist form Salesforce:
Elements of a Perfectly Optimized Page from Moz:
Here are some more resources to get you started:
- HubSpot’s Marketing Grader Tool
- BacklinkO’s “Anatomy of a Perfectly Optimized Page”
- Google’s 200 Ranking Factors
- WebConfs 15 Minute SEO Check is how to get started when optimizing your website. It lists everything you need to pay attention to, and ranks each site component by importance. WebConfs also has a variety of other useful tools that can be found here.
- SEO Workers Site Analysis is going to do a basic analysis of your website, as well as tell you what you did right, and what you need to fix.
- SEO Moz Tools. You will need to sign up for a basic SEO Moz account so you can get access to their free tools. It is well worth it.
- SEO Book Tools. More free and useful SEO tools.
Start by taking all of your starting keywords and run your site through Moz’s Rank Tracker. Make a spreadsheet of the results, and then do it again in a few weeks to track your progress. Start by optimizing all of the “+3″ items on the 15 Minute SEO Check.
If you want to save yourself a lot of time and money, set up your website yourself using WordPress, and purchase a really nice-looking $50 theme. If you already have a website, at least set up a WordPress blog that you can create great content on, and then link back to your main site.
Again, I highly recommend installing the SEO plugin by Yoast, which you can find here. This simple plugin allows you to enter in an SEO title, meta description and focus keyword for each blog post, and will do a “Page Analysis” in one click that tells you what needs to be fixed.
It will also give you a “Snippet Preview” of what the post will look like when it shows up in a Google search result. Here’s an example:
(Click to Enlarge)
Just by utilizing this simple plugin, you will already have significantly optimized your business’ website. This plugin also automatically generates XML sitemaps and includes many more technical improvements to your site that you don’t even have to look at, all for free.
- Copyblogger’s “How to Set Up Your SEO-Friendly Wordpress Website in 15 Minutes”
- The Top 30 Most Popular WordPress Plug-Ins
Link Building vs. Link Earning
Google determines whether your website is high quality or not largely by whether other high quality websites are linking to it. A “backlink” from another website is essentially an endorsement of you in Google’s eyes.
So, how do you get backlinks?
You have to earn it, period.
How do you earn it?
By providing the highest quality content possible.
A couple of years ago, you could use all kinds of spammy “link building” tricks to rank your website for your target keywords. Beware of anyone who is charging you for “link building” services.
Google is cracking down more than ever on unnatural, low-quality, and spammy links. My simple advice comes from Google’s own Matt Cutts:
Focus on making awesome content that people naturally want to link to. Answer questions on Quora, in LinkedIn and Facebook groups, and link to your relevant content, use social media and Web 2.0 sites like StumbleUpon and Reddit to get more exposure, and do guest blogging, but don’t pay for links, or do anything else that Google will eventually hammer you for.
Social Media Sharing Resources:
- Buffer’s “The Ideal Length of Everything Online, Backed by Research”
- Buffer’s “Guide to High Quality Social Media Sharing”
For each blog post, follow the 4 steps of keyword research, competitive analysis, on site analysis, and link building. Regardless of what industry you are in, you can find topics to write blog posts about that will help boost your website’s search ranking, and get you in front of your ideal audience.
- HubSpot’s Blog Topic Generator
- Buffer’s “How to Write the Perfect Headline”
- Buffer’s “The Complete List of Evergreen Content Ideas for Your Blog”
In an article on Forbes.com entitled “The Simple Truth About SEO”, Bret Beshore writes the following:
I set up a meeting with a small group of highly experienced entrepreneurs who had built multiple Inc. 500 companies with SEO as a primary marketing strategy. Here’s what they explained:
The secret is that there is no secret. SEO isn’t complicated. Like anything, there is a depth of knowledge that helps fine-tune strategies, but 90 percent is merely about consistently doing what feels natural and testing. They specifically cautioned against trusting anyone who claimed to have an inside track. Instead, they recommended focusing on amplifying what feels like a natural extension of the business.
Do the basics. Google needs to be able to determine a general ballpark of where your organization is relevant. Proper site structure, meta tags, and keywords still matter, but they’re just the start.
Everything is moving to quality. Search engines want to provide the most relevant information. It used to be far easier to game the system with loads of links and specific anchor text. Times change. Now, the signals of relevancy revolve around a far more diverse set of information like social endorsement, repeat traffic, frequent mentions, and helpful content.