How small businesses can see big results with foundational SEO
Where can you put 20% effort for 80% SEO return? Contributor Marcus Miller outlines SEO tactics SMB owners can use for easy but effective wins.
Whether you are just starting on your search engine optimization (SEO) journey or have been at it for years, there’s a good chance some part of your site can be improved. In fact, from the hundreds of small business websites we look at every year at Bowler Hat (my agency), it is rare we see a site implementing SEO perfectly and completely.
Search engine optimization is not rocket science for any site, small and local businesses included. Yet, it is easy to get lost in trivial details before the essential, basic steps are put in place. This means for most businesses, there are easy wins on the table.
In SEO, as with many business endeavors, the Pareto Principle rings true:
…” for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.”
This is definitely accurate when we look at SEO for smaller businesses. Getting 20 percent of the work done to get 80 percent of the benefits is key to getting an early return from your SEO efforts. Let’s look at the basics and how to use that 20 percent to score easy wins you can put in place today.
Technical SEO can get, well, technical. Yet, don’t let the term scare you. If you make smart decisions at the outset, then much of the technical work is taken care of by your website hosting and website software.
Selecting a search-engine-friendly content management system (CMS) like WordPress will ensure you have a technically sound base for your SEO efforts. With the right kind of CMS in place, you will then want to ensure you host the site in an optimized environment.
In some recent testing we conducted, we compared a basic WordPress site on a standard web hosting to an optimized environment. The optimized environment did much of the technical optimization required to speed up WordPress. The physical file size was reduced by two thirds and loading time was reduced to one second from three.
All of this was done by making smart decisions rather than doing lots of work and performing manual optimization.
Or, 20 percent effort, 80 percent results.
The primary takeaway here is to make informed choices regarding your website content management system and hosting environment. Get this right, and the complexity melts away.
Understanding the language of your customers is the foundation that good search engine optimization is built on. This is key not only to improve your rank in the organic search results but also to help convince users to click on your site and then get in touch when they arrive.
The following is a straightforward way to get a keyword list together. I would generally use a spreadsheet for this so we can consider search volume, difficulty and existing rank, which helps us optimize pages.
1. Seed List. Start by listing all the important elements of your business. Typically, for small businesses, this is products and services along with any locations if you are optimizing for multiple locations. Organize your seed keywords in a spreadsheet.
2. Keyword research tools. There is no shortage of keyword research tools out there. They can help you understand the search volume and the potential value of keywords. A good starting place would be the following free tools:
- Google Ads keywords tool. Get volume by location and an idea of difficulty plus cost per click (CPC ) for ads. Keywords that perform will typically have a higher CPC and competition.
- Keywords Everywhere. This is a browser extension for Chrome that shows the search volume by country and a range of keyword suggestions. It’s a cool tool to keep keyword research on your mind as you browse the web.
- Google. I am a big fan of browsing the web for your keywords. Google will make keyword suggestions at the bottom of the page and we can also get a handle on what our competitors are optimizing around. Understanding searcher intent is key to ensuring you optimize around the needs of your prospective customers so don’t skip this step.
There are a number of paid tools including Moz, Ahrefs and SEMrush; they are all powerful tools but are not free. If you are a cash-strapped small business, take advantage of their free trials before signing up.
Your goal is to find logical groups of keywords that relate to one page or service. You will also want additional values like search volume, competition and rank by keyword so you can make the best possible optimization choices.
Let’s use a plumber that works in one location in the town of Birmingham as an example:
- Emergency plumber.
- Boiler repair.
We may expand on these keywords and group them logically as follows:
- Plumber. Plumbing. Plumbing services.
- Emergency plumber. Emergency plumbing. Emergency plumber 24/7. 24-hour plumber.
- Boiler repair. Boiler service.
What we end up with here is an expanded list of keywords that covers the variety of ways in which someone may search. Ensuring you use all of these variations in your sales copy and on-page optimization ensures Google has confidence that you can help this user. And this helps you rank more highly and generate business inquiries.
Another way in which we can help Google and users understand your site and business is to ensure the content is well structured. In my background as a web developer, we used the example of a filing cabinet to illustrate site structure.
The site is the cabinet. The drawers of the cabinet are the major sections. The files in the drawers are subsections (pages) and, if needed, the individual documents in a file are content related to a page.
For a typical business we assign services and locations as our primary pages so our structure may look something like:
- Location A.
- Location B.
- Location C.
- Service A.
- Service B.
- Service C.
This structure is something a search engine can understand and provides us with individual pages for each service and location we can optimize around. Here are the keywords we researched earlier:
- Services > emergency plumber.
- Services > plumbing services.
- Services > boiler repair.
We will also want to ensure we have a descriptive URL structure for these pages — we’ll use keywords in the directory of each:
- www. examplesite.com/services/
We now have descriptive URLs that describe the page content. This helps tick another optimization box and can help with clickthrough rates. Google can now show the most relevant page and we get the potential customer to the most relevant information.
This is where we tie all the work we’ve done together. Your keyword list can now be used on your well-structured site pages. This is why this procedural approach is just so important here.
Rather than looking at the screen wondering how to improve optimization of your page, you can simply work through the following steps.
Optimize page titles
Ranking factor studies tend to show the page title as the single most powerful on-page ranking factor and I would agree from a pure SEO perspective. But, page titles are also be thought of as a headline since they are frequently shown in the search results. Optimizing for clicks is as important as it is for ranking which is why I also like to weave in branding elements where possible.
If we revisit our plumber example, we can illustrate this point and show how to optimize our pages for all of the keyword variations, which will include our location and branding. Here is our example title:
Plumber in Sutton Coldfield – Marcus’s Plumbing Service
Our service pages can build on this:
Boiler Repair Service – Free Quote | Marcus’s Plumbing, Sutton Coldfield
Emergency Plumber – available 24/7 | Marcus’s Plumbing, Sutton Coldfield
Here we have page titles that tick all the boxes:
- Optimized with keyword variations.
- A call to action where relevant “Free Quote.”
- Location in the page titles “Sutton Coldfield.”
- Branding “Marcus’s Plumbing.”
These page titles are relevant, optimized and have marketing smarts. Get this right and your on-page optimization is off to a good start.
Optimize meta descriptions
Meta descriptions don’t directly influence rankings, which is why they are often neglected.
I like to think of meta descriptions as search engine advertising copy. The description helps build and reinforces the message in your page title which can help you generate more clicks.
I like to use the same approach here as I do for page titles:
- Use your keywords sensibly and detail your unique selling proposition (USP) and special offers.
- Include a call to action. Don’t overdo things here but use the opportunity sensibly and you can improve overall results.
Optimize page content
Next up is page content. We have more room to work with our keyword variations where needed. Be sure your content is easy to read and will resonate with your target audience. The last thing we want to do here is write something that sounds like it was written by a machine or is over-optimized and stuffed with keywords. Readability should always come first.
The main page components we have to work with here are:
- Header Tags. H1, H2, H3 etc.
- Body Content. The text on the page.
- Images. The images you use to support your copy.
Just use your keywords where it sounds natural; again, don’t overdo it. Make sure it reads well and you will be fine.
With page optimization done well, you will rank for a wider array of terms and you will be using language that appeals to potential customers. These are real-world benefits that also help improve your SEO.
Optimize internal links
The last element here to consider is to optimize your internal links. Start with your primary navigation but also use links in your content. This can help improve your SEO but also helps guide users where we want them to go.
Small business owners can benefit from interlinking service and location pages. For example, the service page links to all locations where the business operates and the location pages link to all the services provided in that location. This is a simple, common-sense way to use internal links that benefits the user and can help your SEO.
For local businesses, local SEO is a subset of traditional SEO that focuses on helping local businesses rank. Here are two factors to focus on: Google My Business (GMB) and citations.
Google My Business
This is Google’s business directory. You can provide information about your business to help drive visibility on Google Maps and in the search results. You will want to provide all of the relevant information about your business including the type of business (category), opening hours, contact details, website address, photos and more.
Other features include posts, reviews and the ability to receive messages from customers. You can even create a simple, one-page website if you are just getting started. Suffice to say this is a powerful platform and you should ensure all of your information is complete and you are using all of the options it offers to your advantage.
Citations are simply the mention of the name, address, and phone number of a local business. Sometimes citations are linked, most of the time they are not. Citations are seen on local business directories, websites, social networks and in apps. Citations help potential customers discover local businesses and can have an affect on local search rankings.
A good way to identify the important citation sites is to simply search on your keywords in Google and Bing. Where you see listings from directories, then there is a good chance this is a valid citation source. Adding your site to the local directories helps with SEO, but more importantly, helps customers find your business because they’re using the engines to search too!
When adding your small business to an online directory, be sure you submit to the correct category and provide a sensible business description that includes your main keywords, plus services and location.
Link and authority building are the most difficult and maligned aspects of SEO. The search engines still use links to help understand the relative authority of webpage and sites, but in local business, this is just one factor. Others are address, business category, and proximity to the searcher. You still need links, but it’s just smart to look at easy wins first.
The specifics will always depend upon your local business but, the following link and authority building tactics are all worthy of investigation:
- Links from suppliers & business partners.
- Sponsor local charities or clubs.
- Join relevant professional organizations that have profile pages.
- Relevant industry sites via submitted content (guest posts or a column for example).
- Partner with other local businesses.
- Offer testimonials or reviews (with a bio) to other local businesses.
There are many authority and link-building tactics available; try to focus on building links where they will add value. This could be resource pages on a popular site or simply a listing on a relevant directory.
You want the link you are placing on someone else’s web page to add value to your web pages. You may need to create content and offer it to a webmaster as a way to do this. Think about the type of content you can provide that will attract users and be seen as valuable to the webmaster you offer it to.
Search engine optimization is not easy for any anyone, including small businesses. It can be hard to know which activities to put your efforts behind and which will deliver results.
It also takes time. By focusing your initial efforts on the SEO basics covered here, you will get the maximum results from minimum effort.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.