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Taming the Small Business Search Engine Beast

In this post Mark Hayward shares some search engine optimization tips for small business blogs.

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image source: smemon87

When it comes to your small business blog, do you care about search engine optimization?

I think many small business owners would like to have a better understanding of search engine optimization (SEO) but most are just too busy trying to run their venture and don’t necessarily have the time to learn.

When I started my business a few years ago, I knew if I was going to succeed I would have to get on to the front page of most major search engines. Subsequently, I began to read everything I could related to SEO.

Because search engine optimization is an ongoing science and art, I continue to scan all I can on the topic. Recently, I was perusing WordPress SEO: The Only Guide You Need and thought that it would be great if I could ask the articles author, Glen Allsopp, a couple of questions that could help small business owners to better understand SEO.

Question 1. In layman’s terms, what is search engine optimization (SEO)?

Glen: The saying “build it and they will come” sadly does not apply to the internet. Even if you provide the best service in a certain small business niche, or have the most informative and valuable content on your blog, it doesn’t mean that people are going to be able to find your venture on the Internet. There are lots of ways to get people to your business blog and one of the best sources of traffic (of course) comes from search engines.

Search engine optimization (SEO) is about helping people to find your small business online by creating a search engine friendly website and blog. An effective SEO strategy takes time, patience, and consistent hard work. For a small business owner who is just getting started in the SEO process, they can work on their search engine rankings by improving the relevance of the content on their site and increasing the number of backlinks pointing to their pages, among other things.

Question 2. Why should small business owners care about SEO for their blog?

Glen: Many people will tell you that the best thing about SEO is that it brings brings free, targeted traffic to your small business blog. While this is true in some regards, you have to remember that it’s likely you’ll have to put a lot of time into making a quality, optimized website in order to increase your rankings. So you may not pay in terms of money (unless you buy links), but you certainly will pay in some form.

However, time and monetary investment aside, the obvious benefit of increased search engine traffic is that it’s usually very targeted and specific to your business.

If you can rank highly in the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages) for phrases that are relevant to your small business niche, then there’s a good chance that you can make more sales, attract more clients, and get quality leads landing on your small business website.

Unlike many other sources of traffic, SEO is often something that you work hard on for a while and then you can usually put a lot less effort into it once you’ve achieved your specific goals. There are exceptions to this, of course, but for most industries, once you have achieved rankings you don’t need to do half as much work to maintain them.

Another reason small business owners should care about SEO is because not only can it help to bring more traffic to your site, but it can also protect you from any reputation management issues that you might have to deal with. If you sell products or services, the last thing that you want to have is for negative content to appear in the search results of your ranking and thus swaying potential customers away from using your company.

Question 3. If a small business owner wants to improve their search engine optimization, how do they know what words or which phrases to ‘rank’ for in their niche?

Glen: A good place to start is to have a clear view of what your business is about and the type of visitor you’re hoping to attract. Before you head over to keyword research tools, try thinking of the words and phrases you would use to find whatever it is your small business is offering. On a similar note, ask friends and family how they would search for the solutions that your business provides.

My two favorite tools for keyword research are the Google External Keywords tool and the free version of the Wordtracker Keyword tool. The Google tool is much better for search volume figures as you’re going directly to the source, but I like to use the Wordtracker tool as it gives me phrase ideas I would never have thought of.

When using the Google Keyword tool be sure to select All Countries and Territories from the drop-down option, but leave the match settings to broad or phrase while you’re browsing around. Once you’ve found a main phrase that you think will bring in targeted traffic then you can change the match to exact to get a real idea of how many people are searching for that term.

Please keep in mind, that although you may be excited by phrases which get a large number of searches, make sure you’re looking for visitors that are actually going to convert.

For example, if your small business specializes in selling lenses for digital cameras, then there’s no use in aiming to rank for the phrase “digital cameras.” First of all, it’s going to be very competitive because it’s such a broad phrase, and secondly, you aren’t going to get the real value of that audience unless you also have a lot of cameras for sale.

Conversely, I would recommend aiming to rank for less competitive phrases such as Nikon D3000 lens and then transitioning up to a phrase like Digital camera lens. This is just an example, but I hope it gets the point across.

Finally, before I start putting in the work to optimize for a phrase I’ll run it through Google Trends to see whether the term is declining in popularity, staying steady, or increasing. After all, you don’t want to put in lots of work on a term only to find that nobody is searching for it 6 months later.

Question 4. What are five things that any small business owner could do today to help improve the SEO of their blog?

Glen: Before I get into the specifics, I do want to say that SEO is not just a ‘do this’ or ‘do that’ strategy. You should aim to take a holistic approach to the process, rather than focusing solely on one thing. Building links to your small business blog won’t get you anywhere if you haven’t optimized for your phrase. Likewise, you could have “perfect” on-site SEO and not rank because you don’t have enough relevant backlinks. Now, my five tips for improving SEO today are:

  • Optimize Your Small Business Site Around a Phrase

It’s likely that your homepage or the main page of your blog is going to become one of the strongest places on your site (in terms of how many links it has) so if you aren’t using that link juice to rank for something, you’re missing a big opportunity. Unless you have a mega-name like “ProBlogger” which people search for (anyway) without even knowing the brand, it’s good to pick something that is relevant to your small business blog topic.

For example, when I owned PluginID it was obviously very easy for me to rank the homepage in search engines for the brand name. Inevitably this also become one of the strongest pages on my site, so I used the ‘link weight’ it had and optimized for the phrase ‘personal development’ which is what my site covered. I managed to rank 10th in Google within a few months, despite the competitiveness of the phrase, and brought in a new audience that I wouldn’t have otherwise reached.

  • Write the Best Content You Can

With my internet marketing blog ViperChill, I haven’t actually worked that hard to build links to the site. Yet, Yahoo tells me that I have over 16,000 backlinks and the search engine traffic to the site is increasing drastically each month. The reason I’m getting a lot of links and more search engine visitors is because I’m writing helpful content that people want to share with their audiences and talk about.

Small business owners should know that I’m not some lucky exception and that they can do exactly the same thing for their small business blog. If they focus on writing genuinely valuable content, that’s an excellent strategy to increase the inbound links to their site.

  • Set-up Google Webmaster Tools

I don’t like to give Google too much information about me or my websites (I make my living online, so don’t want to give away everything I’m working on). But if you don’t need to be as secretive as me then I highly recommend that you sign-up for Google Webmaster Tools.

Not only will it tell you if your small business site has been hacked – which is common with blogs – but it can also help you to find pages on your site that are resulting in 404 errors (that people are linking to), whether your robots.txt file is valid, and which phrases your site is ranking for. If you have pages that don’t exist which have links pointing at them, then you can redirect them to relevant pages. Similarly, if you know you’re showing in the top results for a phrase then you can increase your traffic by getting more links to that page and thus, increasing your rankings.

  • Link Out to Other Bloggers

While I don’t recommend that small business owners do this as a form of ‘link exchange’ or even using your blogroll, I do recommend that now and then you link out to other blogs and bloggers in your business niche. When drafting content for your blog you can ‘link out’ first and foremost as a way to help find excellent content for your readers. Hopefully, the owners of the sites that you linked to will come and check out your blog and link to your posts, which is going to help your rankings.

  • Use the All-in-One SEO Plugin

I’m sure there are alternatives which do similar things, but I’m a huge fan of the All-in-One SEO plugin for WordPress, which can be found here. One great thing this tool allows you to do is to change the title tag of your individual posts. I regularly make mine different from an actual post title which gives me the chance to rank for a lot more long-tail keywords because of how important heading and title tags are.

Another great feature is that you can automatically insert meta-descriptions into your posts (the snippets you see in search results) based on the first few sentences of your blog posts.

While there are a lot more SEO tasks small business owners can do, these five items should start any blog owner off in a good position.

Question 5. Do you have any favorite online tools that can show a small business blog’s SEO strengths and weaknesses?

Glen: Sure, there are a few I would recommend checking out, but I do want to say that you shouldn’t take them too seriously. Instead, small business owners should use them as a guide to help figure out where they may be going right or wrong. SEO is not something that can be fully automated and dissected by computers alone…yet. ;-)

  • Rank Checker for Firefox – will help you to see how you’re ranking for your targeted phrases in Google and other search engines.
  • Playground by Dave Naylor – is a bookmarklet that works in most popular browsers that will show you when a site was recently cached and things like keyword density, so you can see what terms search engines are going to think your page is mostly about.
  • Website Grader – by Hubspot, will notify you of things like missing alt-tags and which pages on your site are missing descriptions.

Coupled with the two keyword research tools I mentioned earlier, Google Webmaster Tools and the All-in-One SEO plugin for WordPress, most small business owners should end up with a great internet marketing toolbox.

I prefer to still do a lot of manual work to judge how competitive a niche is and use things like how many indexed pages there are of my site in Google, compared to how many are actually on the site, to determine whether there are things that need to be worked on.

Question 6. What is the easiest way for a small business owner to measure the SEO return on their time investment?

Glen: Don’t focus too much on keyword rankings. It may sound strange that I say that, based on what I covered earlier, but let me explain. I think it’s important to have phrases in mind that you want to optimize for and good on-site SEO in place, so that you can increase the long-tail traffic your website receives.

However, as an indicator to how well SEO is working for your business, rankings are not great. Instead, you should be looking at how those rankings are converting to see how effective your efforts are. Whether you want more RSS subscribers, product sales, or leads; it’s these things you should be tracking based on your search engine traffic, rather than where you rank for certain phrases.

As an example, many small business owners may be looking to increase the amount of subscribers their blog has in order to make their mark on an industry and later sell products or services. A great free tool that helps you track this is Get Clicky (though I recommend their premium version). With Get Clicky, if I go to the ‘Links’ section, and then click on ‘Outbound’, I can clearly see the sources of traffic to my RSS icon which in the situation for many people, is a conversion.

Instead of just focusing on certain phrases that are popular, I can focus on the ones which are resulting in people clicking on my RSS feed, rather than increasing the stats on my analytics account. Small business owners should always have some form of conversion tracking in place, even if it’s just for your feed, to judge how your SEO efforts are working out for you.

I would like to thank Glen (@viperchill) for the time he took answering the questions above. If you have further small business blog SEO questions, please ask them below in the comments.

Want more small business social media tips from Mark Hayward? Then subscribe to his RSS or email feed and follow him on Twitter @mark_hayward.

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. Aaron T says:

    Remarkably good post. It applies to me, and the funny thing is I’ve been looking for some SEO guides…I might give that WordPress SEO: The Only One you Need a try.
    Also, I have a question. If your blog’s nicheless, how does Google rate the related content?!

  2. Some excellent advice!. The best advice is tagging the home page because I have links for my overall site because it’s a memorable term rather than linking specific pages.

    Thanks

    :]

  3. Stacey Abler says:

    With one of my sites that has a forum attached, I asked members what search phrases they used when looking for information about that particular niche. The results surprised me and helped me in writing new articles for the site built around those search phrases. It helped a great deal.

    Thanks for the recommendations on Rank Checker and Website Grader!

  4. Chris Cobb says:

    Good solid information for small businesses, Mark. Now they need to turn their attention to Social Search Optimization as social marketing continues to grow.

    Who’s received their Facebook window sticker yet?

  5. Karri Flatla says:

    Small biz owners remain confused and overwhelmed by the “guru culture” of web marketing, so this boiling down of SEO to its essence is refreshing to see.

    Keep it up. More straight talk like this is definitely needed.

    Cheers,
    Karri

  6. Daniel Beer says:

    I was glad to see the thesis banner at the end of the post because it really is a great seo ready theme.

    My major problem right now is that I am optimizing each post as I write them but I have not decided on keywords for my home page outside of San Diego Home Finder, which I already rank well for. However, I need something else. Something with good traffic but not as competitive as San Diego Homes or anything like that. Need to find a happy medium.

    Thanks for the resources. Will be checking them out!

  7. Great post, Mark. Informative, and chock full of very useful resources.

    I have a small business client who’s very interested in optimising his site, selecting keywords, finding tools to help with the tasks. I’ve been considering putting a document like this together. Now, instead, all that was necessary was to forward a link in email.

    Thanks!

  8. Tyler says:

    I loved the information you provide in question four. Those are definately some techniques that will help SEO. Although, it doesn’t mention trackbacks in bullet four. Are trackbacks do-follow and do they help with SEO?

  9. I think your dead on when you state

    ” I think many small business owners would like to have a better understanding of search engine optimization (SEO) but most are just too busy trying to run their venture and don’t necessarily have the time to learn. ”

    The company I work for is small and they really focus on marketing the company but it seems they just realized the power of SEO, they are now looking to up there percentage on the social end but it seems they are heading down this venture at a late period.

    Now I don’t feel it’s ever to late but even 6 months ago would have been a good time to start this venture.

  10. Tony says:

    Hi Mark,
    Can this be used for any blog or just business? My blogs are not business.

    Thanks,
    Tony

  11. Tony says:

    Hi Mark,
    Can this be used for any blog or just business? My blogs are not business.

    Thanks,
    Tony
    BTW I love your blog!

  12. Rome says:

    Great Article! I will try to catch some suggestions to improve the ranking of my website.. I am only not convinced about change of tags for the same page, is that good for SE alghoritms?

  13. Superb post that is very relevant to both new business bloggers and those of us who have been doing it for a while but still have lots to learn! Thanks for sharing this useful information

  14. BrandonBurgh says:

    Mark,Darren,and Glen,

    Thanks for the excellent post on this topic. I found it to be very well written and has plenty of great content.
    I absolutely agree that most small businesses are banging their heads trying to keep a business afloat that they don’t have time, or money sometimes, to even do some basic SEO stuff.

    BrandonBurgh

  15. witto says:

    It’s good to see articles on Problogger which are aimed specifically at small businesses. There seems to be a seismic shift happening online where the savvy bloggers are becoming more business-focused and the savvy businesses are beginning to focus on their blogs. As this evolves, Problogger is likely to become an increasingly relevant resource for small businesses.

    I know that this article/interview is essentially about the technical side of SEO. However, I do think it may have been beneficial for small business readers if more emphasis was placed on the importance of paying attention to user experience (and connectivity) in conjunction with technical SEO.

  16. Thanks for the excellent post! Every small business owner,especially those who are just starting up, should learn even the basics of marketing their website online. If Search Engine Optimization seems very complicated to you, networking with other bloggers will have a huge impact with your marketing campaign. Eventually, if your business grows, you can now leverage yourself by hiring good marketers to do the search engine marketing campaign for you. At least you’ve got the idea on how they do the thing because you’ve got the background in the first place. :)

  17. Sean says:

    Great resource. Thanks Glen for sharing your advanced knowledge about SEO and small businesses.

    I love how you so neatly emphasized the five things that any small business owner could do today to help improve the SEO of their blog. it’s simple and straight to the point.

    I’ll be using this post as a resource to my website. Thanks a bunch!

    - Sean

  18. Dude.. I am not much into reading, but somehow I got to read lots of articles on your blog. Its amazing how interesting it is for me to visit you very often.

  19. Recently, I didn’t give so much thought to writing comments on blog entries and have left comments even less. Checking out your insightful page, will probably encourage me to do so more regularly.

  20. How do you think that speed is going to effect rankings? Personally I think that although it might not be a big factor now, it’s going to get more important.

    Just for those who are concerned about speed, you can speed up the loading speed of most sites (by up to 4 times) using 2 lines of code if your server supports zlib compression. Do a search for it and you’ll see how easy it is.

    It doesn’t help with compressing css files though, you should Gzip those.

  21. Lately I have been doing a lot of directory submissions to build up my backlinks. I write an article and then submit it to the following sites for approval: 1. Ezinearticles.com (constanly crawled by google) 2. Goarticles.com (huge site, lots of traffic) 3. Rysite.com (tweets articles + quick indexing) 4. Articlealley.com (easy to submit to) 5. buzzle.com (has a high PR and is very popular) By submitting articles to those sites, i have recieved a lot of traffic. Especially from rysite.com because i get traffic not only from my article, but they tweet it to a following based on your keyword and as a result I get traffic from twitter as well. Hope that helps!

  22. Thi Greenan says:

    Lately I have been doing a lot of directory submissions to build up my backlinks. I write an article and then submit it to the following sites for approval: 1. Ezinearticles.com (constanly crawled by google) 2. Goarticles.com (huge site, lots of traffic) 3. Rysite.com (tweets articles + quick indexing) 4. Articlealley.com (easy to submit to) 5. buzzle.com (has a high PR and is very popular) By submitting articles to those sites, i have recieved a lot of traffic. Especially from rysite.com because i get traffic not only from my article, but they tweet it to a following based on your keyword and as a result I get traffic from twitter as well. Hope that helps!

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  24. Try and try, that is the key to success, giving up shouldn’t be included on our dictionary (i think).

  25. Max Willard says:

    I recently decided to grow my business so I created a website. I came across the problem of SEO after I had created my website, SEO is extremely difficult but this will help

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