Getting good rankings in Google can mean getting lots of traffic to your site and the chance to do more business so most website owners will make some effort to get their site listed.
What is SEO?
SEO is the act of improving a web page’s chances of attaining a high ranking in search engine results for a given search query. It’s important to small business owners as having good rankings for several search queries can mean a lot of visitors to a website (and therefore a lot of potential customers).
When we speak of SEO and high rankings on search pages it’s important to understand the difference between natural listings (also known as organic listings) and paid listings. Essentially the paid listings are ads placed by advertisers who pay to have their ads shown when searchers use certain queries, usually on a pay per click basis. This is of course in the hope those searchers will click on the ads to visit the advertisers website. You can read more on other tactics on our blog post about search engine marketing strategies.
SEO on the other hand aims to get those visitors for free.
What do the Search Engines Want?
So how does a web page rank highly in results for particular search queries? It’s really a matter of trying to persuade the search engines (SE’s) that your webpage is one of the best and most relevant pages to show to the person searching. Ultimately the SE’s don’t care too much about individual website owners, they prefer to care about the person searching. They know that if they consistently show great results, then people will continue to use them again and again and that can mean a lot of advertising revenue for the search engine as the bigger their user base, the more they can make through advertising.
So if we are to aim at getting our own web pages ranked highly then we can see that at the very heart of the rankings battle is the content of our web pages. It needs to be great, or at least it needs to be as good as the competition from other web pages for the same search query.
A good start then is to have a look at competitors web pages already ranking for the target search query. How good is their content? How much content have they published on the subject? Is it rich content with videos or other media? Is it very informative and detailed? Are there other pages on those websites that have more detailed content or related content that support and link to the page that was listed in results?
We should also look to other factors to help us decide if it is even worth trying to target particular search terms. Many search queries are going to be so tough to rank for that it’s just not worth even trying unless you happen to be a big brand with great authority in the niche. An example is the search query ‘jeans’. A new business just starting out is most unlikely to push the big brands out of the top 10 on Google.
That brings us to the subject of authority. Without getting into a lot of detail, search engines see some websites as highly ‘authoritative’, i.e. they are trusted and therefore can rank easily for relevant search queries. Gaining some authority is a good idea for any website and this happens over time through the acquisition of links to your website from others. These are known as backlinks and if you can get some from authoritative websites it helps to signal that your site also has some authority.
If you have the Google toolbar installed in your browser you can see if your pages have any PageRank assigned to them by Google. PageRank is an indication of how well your page is linked to by other pages and sites. The measure Google shows is not a real time value, in fact it is not even the one Google uses in its algorithms but it can still be useful as a very general indication of authority.
Good backlinks come from other relevant pages on other sites and they help to signal to search engines that the target page is a quality one. They act like votes for the target page in a popularity contest. Not all votes are equal however as links from highly authoritative sites have more influence than others. A single page of high authority linking to your page can make more difference than hundreds of links from less authoritative sources.
Some links have a special attribute called ‘noFollow’ which signals to search engines that they are not to be counted as votes for the target page. These are commonly used on links from blog comment areas and forum signatures. Their noFollow attribute acts as a deterrent to spammers as they are less likely to waste time leaving spam comments just to get links to their websites.
Choosing which Search Queries to Target
Choosing appropriate search queries to attempt ranking for is a big part of the process. Generally speaking one word searches are unlikely to be good to target. Those tend to be dominated by big brand websites that you’ll have little hope of fighting. Those single word searches are often not good business searches either as the person using such a search is likely to be more of a researcher than a customer.
Typically the sales cycle goes something like: a broad research phase (where the likely buyer is considering a purchase), followed by a comparison phase (where they try to find out more about the choices available) then finally the buying phase (where they select who to purchase from). As the customer gets closer to making a purchase her search query tends to become longer and more detailed. Instead of searching for ‘jeans’ she is likely to be searching for specific brands or styles of jeans.
Aiming at rankings for more specific three and four word search queries can therefore be a good idea as these tend to be easier to rank for and also tend to have the most conversions from visits into sales. Rather than try to chase a ranking for ‘jeans’ we can try to get a ranking for ‘women’s soft skinny jeans’ and several other specific search queries and so attract some likely buyers to our site while fighting an easier SEO battle.
When we choose which battles to fight we can plan on winning!
On-page Optimisation for Small Business SEO
After we decide on a search query to target we can construct a page with the appropriate content and start to get some on-page optimisation happening. On-page optimisation refers to the process of laying out the content of a page so as to make it as SE friendly as we can. This simply means trying to make it obvious to the SE’s what the page is all about. This we can do by customising the pages url, its page title, its image alt attributes and of course the text content.
Naturally the content should contain some mentions of the search query we are targeting but not so much as to look odd as that can backfire in two ways; a) visitors don’t like text that looks spammy and unprofessional and b) SE’s don’t either.
The text should be enough to ‘compete’ with the text on pages already ranking for the term and should be clear and read well. SE’s know that text on any subject is likely to contain mentions of related subjects so some semantics and synonyms are expected.
Probably the most important single factor for on-page optimisation is the page title, the one that shows to SE’s. Most human visitors don’t notice it though it only appears in the top margin of browsers like Firefox. It is sometimes referred to as the meta title though is not truly in the meta tags of a web page. If you look at the source code of a web page you’ll see it in thetags. It should contain the search query you are trying to rank for, preferably at the beginning of the tag and should be less than 70 characters long including spaces and punctuation.
The page’s url is another great place to include the target term, it’s a strong signal to SE’s as to the content of a web page. Headings and bold text are also sometimes used to emphasise the target terms though their effect is arguable. Images used in page content are also an opportunity to target search queries. Images filenames can be changed to appropriate names and their alt tags can also be used. It is important not to overdo it, don’t have several images all with the same alt tags as that might look spammy to search engines.
The Meta Keywords Myth
Once upon a time search engines relied on meta keywords to help classify and rank pages and those meta keywords can still be added to pages today however it is best to avoid them completely! Unfortunately spammers ruined the idea many years ago as they started stuffing keywords into meta tags often with no relevancy to the page in order to maximise traffic to their pages. It became such a problem that the SE’s like Google simply stopped using them in the ranking algorithm. Now Google looks at meta keywords only to see if they look like they have been put there by a spammy webmaster, in other words they are now more likely to get you into trouble than do anything positive for your rankings!
The Meta Description Tag
The meta description is important though it does not help rankings, it can however be used to encourage search engine users to click on your listing rather than another. SE’s will often (but not always) use the meta description as the snippet of text quoted in search results. If you can include a ‘Call to Action’ and maybe some suggestion of why your page is best then you increase your chances of getting a visit when a searcher sees your listing in the results. Try to use your target search query in the tag for best results as the words will be bolded when your listing appears on results pages.
On-site Optimisation & Content Hierarchy
It usually pays to target one search query (maybe more if they are very tightly related) per page and to think of structuring your pages in a hierarchical order. For example, if we are targeting the search query ‘used widgets’ we might have sub-pages for more granular search queries ‘used designer widgets’, ‘reconditioned used widgets’ etc. We can structure these pages so that their urls give SE’s a good idea of their relative importance i.e. domain.com/used-widgets could be the ‘parent’ to domain.com/used-widgets/used-designer-widgets and domain.com/used-widgets/reconditioned-used-widgets.
Neatly structured internal links in a hierarchy like the example above are not as powerful as links from external web pages but are still helpful to ranking efforts. Use the targeted search query as the anchor text of internal links where it makes sense to do so. In the example above a link to the used designer widgets page would appear as used designer widgets.
Off-Site Optimisation for Small Business SEO
Off-site optimisation refers to all the tasks we might undertake to optimise our web pages which does not actually take place on our site. While we tend to think of link building as off-site optimisation, it does not stop there. We can for instance monitor how our site is performing using tools like Google Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics. We can also promote our site by linking to it from external blogs and social media as well as looking to obtain links from other websites.
Using Google Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics are in the ‘must-do’ category for most of us. The signup procedure is simple and after verifying the site really is yours, Google will provide a lot of useful information including detailed breakdowns of how our visitors are reaching your website and the search terms they are using before finding it as well as how they then navigated around your site. You can also see some of the sites linking to you and see if Google is having any difficulty crawling your website. If your site is brand new then registering with Google Webmaster Tools and Bing Webmaster Tools also flags to those SE’s that your website exists and should be indexed.
Developing Links and Traffic to your Website
When you have your content optimised it’s time to build some backlinks to help it rank. There is no real need to submit your website to search engines as they’ll find it through the verification process or by following links from other sites. So now it’s time to start building links to your website.
Most people start by getting links from some directories. General directories like Yahoo.com and Aussieweb.com.au are fine but won’t necessarily help your ranking. Specialist directories on the other hand can be very helpful so do try to find directories that specialise in your industry and seek links there. Even if they use noFollow links (the type that don’t help SEO) you can still benefit from the traffic they can send.
Often there are industry groups and associations that list their member’s websites and these can be quite helpful to SEO as they often have good authority themselves. Suppliers and clients too can sometimes be persuaded to link so do take advantage of that opportunity if it arises.
If there are discussion forums that are relevant to your industry they are another great opportunity to participate and gain reputation and links in your own industry. Forums vary in their rules but many allow you to link to your site from your signature if you are contributing helpful comment in their discussions.
Many industries also have blogs that cover developments in their niches, getting links from these can be very helpful. Getting links from these sites can be in the form of product reviews or very often those blogs will agree to you contributing an article on the industry in return for a link to your site.
If your site has something particularly newsworthy you could also prepare a press release for distribution to online news sites through agencies like PRweb.com and Newsmaker.com.au which can also be useful for backlinks depending on which other sites might want to publish the story.
If you are trying to rank for competitive search queries it might take lots of good backlinks and many months to see progress while less competitive search queries might not require many backlinks to aid ranking. It’s usually best to think of link building as an ongoing process to be worked at constantly rather than a once off activity.
Blogging and Small Business SEO
Running a blog on your site can be very helpful as the addition of new content regularly helps to keep both the SE’s and visitors coming back! New blog posts can be used to build the internal link count to your important pages and the constant addition of new content shows the SE’s that the site is being worked on constantly which is thought to be a good quality signal.
One of the real secrets to blogging for improved SEO is to interact with other bloggers in the niche. This can be as simple as linking to a blog post elsewhere that might be interesting to your audience. Bloggers tend to notice who is linking to them and will return the favour where you have something of interest to their audience. That sort of natural mutual linking can be very worthwhile unlike the old fashioned reciprocal links pages that used to be so common but which are now generally useless for SEO purposes.
Social Media and Small Business SEO
You can also use social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to develop reputation and followers which in turn can help your sites traffic and rankings. There is some evidence that SE’s are starting to take social mention into account in their algorithms which probably makes sense as sites with authority are likely to have some mention in social traffic.
By building a following with an interest in your own industry you can promote new content on your website and the viral nature of social media means that your message can spread beyond your own circle of followers and potentially attract more links to your site.
As we touched on earlier, SEO is largely about beating the competition and many small businesses don’t optimise so if you can action some of the steps above you will likely be putting yourself at great advantage in your own field.