Are you a small busi­ness own­er look­ing to get start­ed with SEO? Colum­nist Mar­cus Miller has writ­ten up this starter guide for begin­ners out­lin­ing what you need to know.

Being a small busi­ness is tough. Many busi­ness­es fail in the first year, and many more will not make it to the five-year mark. But even estab­lished busi­ness­es can fail if they are unable to adapt to chang­ing times.

Mar­ket­ing is dif­fi­cult — dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing even more so. And the black-box nature of SEO can make it the most dif­fi­cult form of mar­ket­ing your busi­ness. Yet when done well, there is lit­tle that can com­pete with strong, organ­ic search engine vis­i­bil­i­ty to pro­mote your small busi­ness. Organ­ic list­ings build trust with local cus­tomers, and all the best busi­ness rela­tion­ships are built on a foun­da­tion of trust.

In this arti­cle, I want to look at SEO as a mar­ket­ing tac­tic specif­i­cal­ly for small busi­ness­es. I will share every­thing we have learned work­ing on hun­dreds of small busi­ness SEO projects. My inten­tion is to arm you, as a busi­ness own­er, with the knowl­edge and pow­er to make the right deci­sions when imple­ment­ing an SEO strat­e­gy — whether you choose to do some or all of the SEO work your­self, employ an in-house SEO or out­source the work to an SEO agency.

It is a giv­en that search engines and SEO will play an impor­tant role in the future of your busi­ness. And the goal of this arti­cle is to use my 20 years of SEO expe­ri­ence to help you make the best pos­si­ble deci­sions when putting SEO to work for your small busi­ness.

What on earth is SEO?

In 2017, this is a hell of a ques­tion. Is SEO mar­ket research? Key­word research? Is it build­ing a per­fect­ly opti­mized web­site? Is it copy­writ­ing? Is SEO con­tent mar­ket­ing via search engines? Build­ing links and author­i­ty? Is SEO con­ver­sion rate opti­miza­tion and ana­lyt­ics? Is SEO ensur­ing you present a high­ly pos­i­tive and cred­i­ble image to poten­tial cus­tomers? Is SEO usabil­i­ty and UX? Is SEO mobile opti­miza­tion?

The answer to all of these is yes. And much more. SEO is a com­plex, lay­ered dis­ci­pline. There are dif­fer­ent types of SEO and many fac­tors that can influ­ence your SEO. An expe­ri­enced SEO con­sul­tant will help you iden­ti­fy the type of SEO that is impor­tant for your busi­ness. This will be influ­enced by the indus­try you’re in, the geog­ra­phy in which you oper­ate, and your SEO strengths, weak­ness, oppor­tu­ni­ties and threats.

A help­ful way to look at this is to con­sid­er that a search engine is just a refer­ral engine — a tool that pro­vides the best answers to users’ ques­tions. For your small busi­ness to tru­ly suc­ceed in this search land­scape, you must do every­thing in your pow­er to be the best result. What­ev­er your prospec­tive cus­tomers need to make a deci­sion, be dri­ven to pro­vide it. This has the ben­e­fit of help­ing you con­vert more clicks to cus­tomers as well, so this is a sen­si­ble all-around approach.

For small busi­ness­es, the main SEO areas to con­sid­er will be:

  • Web­site. A well-struc­tured, fast, mobile-friend­ly web­site is essen­tial.
  • Con­tent. Your con­tent should help demon­strate why a cus­tomer should choose you.
  • Con­tent mar­ket­ing. Infor­ma­tion­al blog con­tent can put you in front of a wider audi­ence.
  • On-page. Basic opti­miza­tion is impor­tant so think page titles and meta descrip­tions.
  • Local SEO. Local busi­ness­es need to con­sid­er local SEO best prac­tices.
  • Author­i­ty build­ing. Links are still high­ly cor­re­lat­ed with strong search engine results.
  • Cred­i­bil­i­ty. Case stud­ies, port­fo­lios, reviews and tes­ti­mo­ni­als help you clinch the deal.

SEO can be com­pli­cat­ed. So under­stand­ing your cur­rent sit­u­a­tion and mar­ket­place is key to mak­ing the right deci­sions. And for­tu­nate­ly, for small­er busi­ness­es we can often strip away much of the com­plex­i­ty, and the con­ver­sa­tion ends up being about con­tent, links and web­site design.

Is SEO right for your small business?

Search engines are a key way in which we all now look for prod­ucts and ser­vices. So, in the major­i­ty of cas­es, search is a great way to get in front of poten­tial cus­tomers. This is not to say that it is the right mar­ket­ing approach for every busi­ness at any giv­en time.

The following should be considered:

Bud­get. You may not have the bud­get to com­pete with estab­lished com­peti­tors.
Speed. SEO can take a long time to deliv­er results, espe­cial­ly in com­pet­i­tive mar­kets.
Com­pe­ti­tion from ads. Ads now occu­py a lot of screen space.
Big com­peti­tors. Some search terms are dom­i­nat­ed by titans, and it can be hard to com­pete.
So, while organ­ic search vis­i­bil­i­ty is always desir­able, it should not be relied upon sole­ly, espe­cial­ly if you need results fast and have a long way to go. Typ­i­cal­ly, oth­er meth­ods like PPC adver­tis­ing can deliv­er fast results while you start run­ning the SEO tur­tle race.

Gen­er­al­ly, some form of SEO is cer­tain­ly a good fit for most busi­ness­es, but the real ques­tion here is whether SEO is a good fit for your require­ments right now. Con­sid­er your bud­get, speed and start­ing posi­tion to deter­mine when this valu­able tac­tic should be intro­duced. (I cov­ered the top­ic of how to deter­mine if SEO is a good fit for your busi­ness in a pre­vi­ous post.)

In many cas­es, a com­bined approach using PPC and SEO can deliv­er the best results. PPC deliv­ers quick results at a cost, and when your organ­ic vis­i­bil­i­ty builds, you can look at dial­ing back on your paid search mar­ket­ing.

So, you may not rank quick­ly with SEO, but the soon­er you start invest­ing in your SEO strat­e­gy, the soon­er you can ben­e­fit from this high­ly pop­u­lar mar­ket­ing chan­nel.

How to choose an SEO provider

This is tough and does require some ground­work on your part. Does the free­lancer or agency have a good rep­u­ta­tion and pos­i­tive reviews? Do some dig­ging, and don’t take things at face val­ue. Who is the own­er of the busi­ness? Who are the SEO con­sul­tants? Are they known and respect­ed in the indus­try?

The fol­low­ing ques­tions can pro­vide a good start­ing point to gen­er­ate a dis­cus­sion with poten­tial SEO com­pa­nies. Cer­tain­ly, under­stand­ing these ques­tions and poten­tial answers make you a more edu­cat­ed buy­er and as such will help ensure your SEO com­pa­ny becomes a secret weapon rather than a wood­en leg!