The Small Business Guide To SEO (Search Engine Optimization)

If you’re moving slowly or have yet to implement search engine optimization (SEO) strategies as part of your overall marketing efforts, you’re falling behind your competitors.

Even if your competitors aren’t thinking about SEO, you’re still missing out because 93 percent of online experiences begin with search.

Let’s take a look at the top ten things you can do to make SEO an effective part of your marketing strategy:

1. Set specific goals

Like every other strategy, it will prove impossible for you to measure the effectiveness of your SEO tactics unless you establish clear goals.

Why this is important: If you don’t establish specific goals, you will not be able to evaluate the opportunity costs of your SEO efforts, or you might give up too quickly.

For example, SEO typically takes months to implement properly. You might be tempted to stop too early without seeing immediate results. Or you might see some early benefits and more conversions (i.e. more traffic to your site). Still, you will have difficulty assessing whether you could have increased the traffic even more through other marketing efforts. You’ll also have difficulty scaling your efforts. 

Tip: Think about what needs to happen for your business to succeed. For most businesses, success translates to more revenue (and profits).

For example, if your revenue model is driven by advertising on your site, one interim goal could be to drive a certain amount of additional traffic to your site. If your revenue model is the sale of a service or product, your goal could be to get your cost per conversion below a certain amount after 90 days. SEO strategies, if done properly, can definitely help you do this. You can learn more about setting goals in Lean Marketing 101: Setting Goals.

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2. Define conversions properly

A conversion is an action that a user performs on your site. For example, if you care most about registrations of new users, a user who registers on your site from an SEO lead will count as a conversion. If you care most about traffic to your site, then any user that comes to your site from an SEO link will count as a conversion.

Why this is important: Conversions are important because you will want to know the cost to obtain each new conversion on your site. Although many SEO strategies have soft costs (your time to create great content, for example), there are still opportunity costs (and often hard dollar costs). You’ll want to keep the conversion cost below your profit from each transaction (unless the value of the customer to you over a period of time is sufficiently high that you’re willing to pay MORE for the conversion cost than your profit for the initial transaction). Even if you measure your SEO investment in sweat labor only, you might find that investing your personal time in other marketing efforts could benefit you more.

Tip: Do your best to keep conversions tied to the same outcome for the various SEO campaigns you’ll undertake. Having multiple desired outcomes is OK, but it’s confusing if you keep changing between them.

We made the mistake of regularly changing our definition of “conversion” early on, which created two problems.

First, it created useless data because we could not compare conversion rates later in our campaigns to the earlier data. Second, it made conversion a moving target and difficult to evaluate our success. Once we settled on a defined conversion, making decisions and looking at comparative metrics was much easier. Today at crowdspring, we measure client conversions based on the number of clients who sign up and how many projects are posted due to a specific marketing strategy.

3. Leverage online tools

Many excellent online tools will help you with SEO campaigns. Not all are useful. Some won’t give you meaningful answers. Others will be very difficult to use. In the Tip below, we list some of our favorite tools (some have free plans, others have modest monthly costs). You should find a tool or two that helps you execute your SEO strategy. It’ll prove difficult for you to succeed without some help.

Why this is important: SEO is a very complex area, and you’ll quickly lose yourself unless you learn how to leverage the excellent tools others have built to help you. For example, one effective technique for SEO is to examine how your competitors are doing with their SEO strategies. This is very difficult to do without proper tools.

Tip: One of the most important tools for any effective SEO strategy is website analytics. There are many paid options for website analytics. Some are outstanding, while others – not so much.

We like and use Google Analytics. It’s free, powerful, and easy to use. Without a comprehensive website analytics product, you’ll be blind to how your SEO campaigns are performing, and you’ll be unable to tweak them to improve conversions.

Once you’ve taken care of analytics, you’ll want to identify some tools that will help you with keywords. Here are some excellent tools that can help you:

Surfer SEO is one of our favorite tools. It will help you discover keywords and write effective copy.

EpicBeat is a free data-driven platform that helps to highlight content trends.

If you have a small budget, BuzzSumo has a good product (the cheapest option is $99 per month) that can help you identify the content most shared on social media. Their product can also help you track how your content is shared on social media.

SEMrush is an excellent paid tool (the cheapest plan is $69.95 per month; we use it at crowdspring) that can provide detailed analytics on the top keywords used in search engine marketing by your competitors, but also which of your competitors receive the most organic search engine traffic. SEMrush has some free options too, but they’re not nearly as useful or powerful as the paid plans.

We also love and use tools from Moz and highly recommend them (particularly Moz Pro, which starts at $99 per month). BuzzStream (starting at $24 per month) can help you research link-building possibilities. We’ve never used BuzzStream but have heard good things about them.

4. Always A/B test

Every business is different. Generally, what works for one business (from an SEO perspective), may not work for another. That’s why it’s always important to constantly test different variations of pages (or selected content on the pages (called multivariate testing). You can’t simply copy what a competitor does and assume it will work for your business.

Why this is important: Unless you constantly test, you won’t be able to optimize your site to maximize your SEO efforts. By constantly forcing your best-performing pages to beat “challengers” (other pages you’ve created to see if they might perform better), you’ll continue to ensure that your landing pages convert well.

Tip: Products like Optimizely, a tool we use and like at crowdspring, will easily let you set up A/B tests (and multivariate tests) to test different versions of pages and content.

5. Pay careful attention to landing page design

User experience is important – probably as important as the content.

Why This Is Important: After a user clicks your search result in a search on Google, Bing, or another search engine, the landing page is the first thing they’ll see on your site. So spend some time thinking about where to send your users when developing your SEO-focused pages.

In some cases, it’s perfectly appropriate to send them to your home page (but this should rarely be your goal for SEO).

In other cases, you’ll want to create special landing pages tailored to your goals.

For example, although our homepage ranks pretty well for many searches, we’ve created custom landing pages for hundreds of different terms, including logo design, website design, stationery design, and many more. We’ve also been experimenting with new landing pages for certain categories, like the book cover design page you see to the right.

Tips: Most people tend to ignore landing pages, thinking that once the user is on your site after clicking on a result in a search, they’ll find their way around.

That’s a dangerous assumption.

And it’s wrong.

Similarly, many people don’t pay attention to bounce rates. Bounce rates measure how many visits went only to that landing page and nowhere else on your site. Bounce rates are not a complete measure but help you assess whether certain pages are better than others in drawing traffic further to your site.

You should worry about optimizing for user intent, not necessarily keywords. to keep a user on a landing page, be sure that your landing page content delivers on the promises you made in your search results. If you need some help, the terrific crowdSPRING designers can help you optimize your web design.

Also, remember that page load speed and whether your page is accessible easily from a mobile device are also important SEO factors. Pages that are not accessible from a phone, for example, will do poorly in mobile search results.

6. Research keywords

You’ll want to spend some time researching the keywords that will drive SEO traffic to your site.

This can take time.

Look at your competitors and find the keywords they use to market their products or services. Look at the meta keywords in their HTML code – these will give you lots of insight into the keywords your competitors consider important (but keep in mind meta keywords have become much less important over the years).

Use tools to create permutations of words to find singulars, plurals, synonyms, etc., of your intended keywords. You can also use Google search operators to help you find keywords.

Consider other resources that let you focus your efforts with some precision. For example, most small businesses are unaware that you can target very inexpensive advertising to hyper-local recipients on Facebook (see number 2 in that link). For example, a bakery can target recipients in their zip code and set up specific landing pages for those campaigns. That way, paid campaigns (like search engine marketing/PPC) can align nicely with SEO-focused campaigns.

Why this is important: The more granular your campaign, the better you’ll understand what’s working for you and what’s not. This will allow you to minimize your costs and maximize the return on your efforts.

Broad SEO campaigns simply don’t work.

You’ll have to pick specific keywords and phrases and focus your strategies on lifting your search results for those keywords and phrases. If you search for “crowdsourced logo design” for example (in Google), what are your top 2 or 3 results? Most will see crowdSPRING in the top or second spot.

Tips: Keep an open mind about keywords. Are there other ways to refer to the same terms that are not quite as popular? Long-tail searches can take longer but might allow you to build your overall SEO strategy more rapidly. Use a keyword brainstorming tool to develop ideas.

SEO will continue to evolve, and topics, not just keywords, will become important. This is known as semantic SEO. You can read more about this in a good post by Orbit Media Studios.

You should also pay attention to another trend – featured snippets in search results – that could impact your SEO efforts. Featured snippets directly answer a search result generated by Google from one of the results. It appears at the top of the search results and typically substantially impacts the efficacy of SEO efforts for a specific keyword or phrase.

7. End poorly performing campaigns and try something else

Sometimes, you might chase a search result that will prove impossible to win. In most cases, your competitors and many other companies are chasing the same keywords or phrases. Even if you successfully get to the top in SEO, you have to maintain your SEO ranking to have a long-term benefit. If that’s the case, think about other ways people could search for the same information and consider whether some of those longer tail results could prove more beneficial. Or simply shift to a different set of keywords or phrases.

Why this is important: You must look at all relevant data, and, indeed, more data is often better. But that’s not always true. Early in our campaigns, we waited too long to make changes and regretted waiting when we saw that our efforts were not moving the needle.

Tip: If you were a user of your service or buyer of your product, how would you find your company? What searches would you do? Look to see what results are coming up in those searches and study what others are doing for SEO. Whenever you search for something, you’ll see, at the bottom of your search results, other words and phrases others have used to perform similar searches.

8. Leverage professionals

SEO is a complex area, and while certain things might seem easy – effective SEO is anything but easy. I’ve invested thousands of hours into learning SEO techniques and strategy, and I know I still have a long way to go to master this skill.

Most importantly, the effort, especially for SEO, is ongoing, and unfortunately, SEO is constantly evolving and changing. Don’t be afraid to leverage professionals who specialize in this area.

You’ll find some of these people in SEO trends articles. You can also review this terrific list from MOZ – their recommended list of SEO/Web marketing consultants, firms, and agencies.

Why this is important: You can quickly get swallowed up by everything you’d need to do to execute an effective SEO strategy. This could be a full-time job. For several people. Make sure – when you spend your time on these efforts that there’s value to you doing it. And if there is – go for it.

Tip: Most people will need guidance about basic strategy – and nothing more. Others will need guidance plus execution. Everyone is different. When you engage SEO experts, talk to them about the types of services they provide and the cost of those services. Guides can help you assess the cost of specific services, like this guide on how much link building costs. Consider your needs, start lighter (with fewer professional services), and build from there. You can also leverage some tools (less effective) if you can’t yet afford professionals. For example, Raven Tools provides SEO technical analysis and online marketing tools, starting at $27 monthly.

9. Ignore the noise

Some content about SEO strategies and tactics is quite helpful. Much of it is useless – and even more importantly – much of it is wrong, written merely as clickbait.

Why this is important: Some SEO companies are outstanding. Others are average. Yet others will HURT your business.

We’ve worked with all types.

For example, there’s a lot of noise about various strategies that are not only wrong – but can cost you dearly in terms of SEO. These include hidden content, stuffing meta keywords with too many words, doorway/gateway pages designed for search engines, not people, and link farming (using link “farms” networks to generate cross-links among many sites).

Tip: Ignore Black Hat SEO techniques (like the ones I listed above). Ignore anyone who claims they can guarantee a top organic search result.

There are no guarantees.

Question anyone who says they can execute an SEO campaign in a few weeks. Especially for highly competitive keywords, effective campaigns take 3-6 months (or more).

10. Stay true to your business

Even though you’re executing an SEO strategy, write content for your audience and for real users, not for search engines. This is especially important in local SEO strategies. Compelling stories create content marketing unicorns, not keyword stuffing.

Why this is important: Many businesses forget that they have customers or users and are developing content for their community. Unless that’s all you’re trying to do, SEO is important – but not at the expense of gutting your site to drive traffic. Over time real and meaningful content will bring the right traffic to your site. Don’s sacrifice early short-term gains for long-term success.

Tip: Do optimize what you write for SEO, but don’t get fixated on SEO. Create good content, and SEO will, over time, take care of itself. Do think about landing pages and the user experience – these are both very important. Although search engines will be crawling your pages, your users ultimately help you make money – and you have to ensure that they find your site easy to use and navigate.

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