Search engine optimization, or SEO, is essential to most businesses in today’s digital age. For a lot of small businesses, SEO is necessary to survive; it can drive higher quantities of organic traffic to their websites and also drive higher quality traffic—i.e., traffic that is more likely to convert into paying customers.
Search engine optimization is a useful marketing tool for businesses because people who are searching for a product or service are likely ready to make a purchase, says Jordan Brannon, president of SEO marketing firm Coalition Technologies. “For most small businesses, SEO allows you to connect directly with qualified leads or customers quickly, unlike most forms of sales or marketing,” he explains.
According to Moz, search engines like Google operate by using “crawlers” that collect information about a website’s content to create an index of that site. It then “feeds” that index through an algorithm that tries to match a user’s search query with the content Google finds most relevant. The optimization portion of SEO comes in on the business’s end: what you put on your website and how you describe it will determine whether you show up (“rank”) for the desired search terms.
“That essentially means making your website and other online properties or profiles more accessible and desirable to users of major search engines,” Brannon clarifies.
However, Brannon adds that SEO strategies need time before business owners start seeing any kind of results. “A well-managed, professionally executed SEO campaign typically is going to take three months to begin demonstrating positive impact on the business, to six months to generate a positive return-on-investment,” he explains. “For new businesses or new websites for businesses, that timeline can be exaggerated by as much as 6-12 months.”
“For most small businesses, SEO allows you to connect directly with qualified leads or customers quickly, unlike most forms of sales or marketing."
“The biggest mistake small business owners make is they think about chasing the search engine instead of chasing the customer,” says Brannon. “Search engines are chasing your customer, too, so if you’re chasing search engines who are chasing your customer, you’re always going to be a couple steps behind.”
Some businesses might populate their websites with keywords to make search engines think that they are highly relevant to a search term and rank them higher, but Brannon warns against that. The majority of search engine penalties (negative impact on rankings) occurs when a business tries to “chase” the search engine, he says. For example, Google launched its “Panda” algorithm to specifically target “thin” content (sites or pages that do not offer much information), low-quality content (pages that offer little or no informational value to users) and duplicated content (content that appears in more than one place).
“But if you’re thinking about how to add value to your customer experience, how you address them and provide a great experience for them, that’s going to be a successful outcome for an SEO campaign in most instances,” says Brannon.
Particularly for small businesses, it’s important to go into detail when populating your website with product or service descriptions and other useful information. If your business has a unique product or service, that can also help differentiate you from similar businesses competing in the same space.
Brannon suggests writing down most of the key information about your products or services and then publishing that online. “We find that a vast majority of (small businesses) lean on vague, incomplete and sometimes incoherent presentations on their products or services on their website,” he shares. “As a result, customers aren’t interested in it and neither is the search engine.”
However, Brannon warns that when business owners are trying to rank for certain keywords, they should be careful about how they describe their products and services. They should avoid using terminology that is only used in their industry or field, and instead think about what a potential customer might type into their Google search.
"The goal of a website shouldn’t necessarily be to click a ‘call now’ button. It should be to answer the majority of those questions and concerns online first, so that the person calling is much closer to making that purchase."
“There’s a tendency to use terms that are used internally,” explains Brannon. “Like a mortgage broker—they have technical terminology that is common to them but uncommon to their customer. Often, they’ll want to pursue ranking on those terms and have a lot of other mortgage brokers visiting their websites instead of customers.”
With the diversity of options available online, it is imperative that small businesses “sell” themselves on their websites. Although it might seem counterintuitive, Brannon recommends that small businesses be more candid on their websites about what makes their products special and what makes their particular service unique.
“As much as possible, try to avoid requiring someone to contact your business to get information,” he says. “The goal of a website shouldn’t necessarily be to click a ‘call now’ button. It should be to answer the majority of those questions and concerns online first, so that the person calling is much closer to making that purchase.”
Along with making it easier for potential customers to find you, search engine optimization can also help with customer service, hiring and reputation management.
Brannon says that people often use search engines to seek help for particular issues. By creating website content that addresses those questions, small businesses can not only rank for those search queries, they can also increase customer satisfaction and loyalty by providing helpful and easy-to-access information.
SEO can also help small businesses save money on hiring services. Instead of using a recruiter or head hunter, a small business can try to rank for specific job openings in their local area and get candidates to apply with them first. Brannon cites Coalition as an example. “We have roughly 10,000 applicants per month,” he shares. “We’re not a small business anymore, but we have a much, much higher applicant pool than many Fortune 500 companies each month because of our effective SEO.”
Another big concern for small businesses is online reviews. “Many brands find that one of the first major challenges is a dissatisfied and vocal customer, who is quickly publishing a lot of negative things about the business, or things that are just out of line with the normal customer experience,” says Brannon. “SEO can not only help put those things in the proper context, but it can even diminish the visibility to future customers.”
Brannon suggests a few methods that small businesses can utilize. The first is to set up and claim all of the different business profiles that are relevant to them and optimize the descriptions of each. It is also important to “cross-publish positive reviews” between your social networks and to set up a customer testimonial page on your website.
If a potential customer is interested in your business or service, they are likely to search for reviews online. Normally, a review site like Yelp will be the top search finding, but Brannon says that if a small business is thorough in its cross-posting, it’s possible for them to outrank them. Google will accrue authority to pages that have content relevant to search terms. If your business has accumulated a decent number of reviews on Facebook or your website, then when a potential customer searches for reviews of your business, those positive reviews are likely to come up higher than other third-party review sites.
That being said, an SEO campaign isn’t always the right strategy for every small business. Brannon says that he has worked with some businesses, such as niche, high-end clothing brands and boutiques, where it was difficult to find a keyword that was both searched widely enough and that accurately described their products.
“Trying to convey that and target rankings through SEO is likely to lead to just a consistent loss in expenditure,” he explains. Instead, Brannon recommends businesses like those use search engine optimization as an “ongoing base-level optimization” and to “focus their marketing dollars elsewhere.”