Small business SEO | A Primer in 4 steps

As a small business owner who's in it for the long run, you really need to come to grips with SEO (Search Engine Optimisation). It's the cheapest, and often-times most effective channel you have of marketing your business and generating sales.

In a nutshell, it is the process by which we maximise our visibility in Google's results pages. There are of course other search engines, but Google owns around 65% of the market share, making it by far the most important.

But the topic of SEO can seem murky and impenetrable. Jargon abounds, and bite-size answers are rare. There are over 200 factors which cumulatively determine how well your content will rank in Google. Questionable agencies and freelancers offer the #1 spot on Google with undeserved assuredness, while algorithm updates and the threat of a Google penalty can scare off even the most reputable business owner.

This blog post exists for those of you who want to leverage Google's awesome power in a safe and sustainable way. It is by no means comprehensive and there is an entire field of study out there to discover. For more reading information, I highly suggest you check out the must-reads listed here.

By following the 4 steps outlined below however, your small business SEO can bring new customers to your site for years to come, with only a few hours of work a week.

What is small business SEO?

Google has become such an natural part of our online experience, that it's easy to forget how powerful the search engine has become. According to Internet Live Stats "Google receives over 57,000 searches per second," which equates to roughly 2 trillion searches per year.

No matter how niche your product is therefore, you can count on the fact that someone, somewhere is searching for it! By doing good small business SEO, you can ensure that your website shows up as a result when a potential customer is Googling for a term relevant to your business. Once the searcher has seen and clicked on your website in Google, you have a great opportunity to convert him/her into a paying customer.

As an example, let's assume you run a website on which you sell beer and wine home brewing equipment. It's a young and growing business, but you're finding it tough to attract paying customers. Sure, Facebook advertising and Adwords have brought some traffic, but only a few purchases were made hardly justifying the costs.

Now imagine that whenever someone types in "home brewing equipment" into Google, your website appears at the top of page #1. Not only would a large percentage of the monthly 3,600 searches for this keyword click on your website, these visitors will prove more valuable than those from most other marketing channels.

Remember, people haven't landed on your website because they saw a nice advert on Facebook while scrolling nonchalantly through their feed. These visitors have actively searched for this keyword, meaning that the intent to learn and purchase is much higher. As a consequence, organic traffic (ie. traffic coming for free from search engine's) typically has the highest conversion rates.

With that tasty example behind us, I hop (pardon the pun) that the power of Google has become clear and you are dying to know how you can grow your sales with small business SEO.

Step #1 - Nailing your keyword research

The first thing we need to do is find out what search terms (keywords) people are searching for. Specifically, what do potential customers put into Google to find goods and services relevant to what you are offering?

We can find the answer to this question by doing keyword research. Now, researching every possible permutation of a keyword can take as long as you want it to take. Here, we will do basic keyword research perfectly suited to he demands of small business SEO.

To start off, you will need a Google Adwords account. This is Google's advertising platform which provides free access to the keyword planner; a fantastic tool which gives you a good estimation of the search volume around any given keyword.

The screenshot above shows the keyword planner results for the term "home brewing equipment".  As you can see, Google is showing 1,900 monthly searches for this keyword. Importantly, this number should only be used as a guideline and not an exact measurement. The actual number of monthly searches can vary significantly due to Google's recent decision to throttle data, but it's still perfectly serviceable for small businesses.

Once you have access to the keyword planner, take some time to think about which niche's are relevant to your business, and which keywords you would like to target.

Enter your ideas into the keyword planner, and download the results as a CSV. Then import them into a spreadsheet and begin assessing their quality.

Finding high quality keywords for your business

Not all keywords are created equal.

Here is how you can easily identify keywords with the most value to your business.

High value keywords have:

  1. High relevance to the product or service you are selling
  2. High purchasing intent (includes words like: "buy", "get", "reserve", "book")
  3. Relevant search volume (Aim for more than 300 searches per month)
  4. Weak competition

By following these four rules, you can ensure that your SEO has maximum positive impact on your bottom line. More specifically, the content you create will focus on keywords which are highly targeted to your ideal audience member. This results in more sales and faster growth for your business.

With this in mind, I always suggest small business owners new to SEO, start off with relatively low-volume keywords. This increases your chances of ranking on the first page. It's better to get 10 clicks a month, than none at all.

Additionally, your optimised content will rank for similar relevant keywords. As a result, a piece of great content ranking for the keyword "where to buy beer making supplies" will most likely also rank well for the keyword "where to buy brewing supplies".

Step #2 - Creating content that will rank highly in Google

You should now have a list of highly relevant keywords, with a clear idea of the most valuable 5-10 search terms.

As a next step, we need to start creating content targeting these keywords. But how do you create content that targets a specific keyword and ranks well in Google?

Like everything in SEO, there is no guaranteed road to success. There are plenty of poorly optimised sites which rank #1, and countless websites with excellent SEO that never get a sniff at the front page.

That being said, there is a basic blueprint for content which will hit more often than miss. Let's take a look at this awesome explanatory Infographic designed by Backlinko, which shows exactly how to create and optimise content for search engine's.

With the first two steps in mind, you should now:

  1. have a comprehensive list of highly relevant keywords
  2. have optimised your homepage for one or two valuable keywords
  3. have at least 3-4 pieces of SEO content on your blog and/or product pages

Content freshly published, it's time to build some links.

Step #3 - Building links to your content

Effective link building is the next step in our small business SEO strategy. I've written a comprehensive blog post about it, but I'll quickly summarize the most important points here.

As mentioned in the introduction, around 200 factors cumulatively determine where any piece of content will rank in Google. The search engine's algorithm is constantly changing, but the key component will likely always be the number and quality of links pointing towards a website.

Indeed, when Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page first conceptualised a search engine fit for the 21st century, they based it entirely on links. Specifically:

The Google search engine […] makes use of the link structure of the Web to calculate a quality ranking for each web page. [Page 98].

This was in 1998 and Google's algorithm has changed immensely since then, but links are still considered the single most important ranking factor.

To illustrate how this works, imagine every link being like a vote. The more votes a website has, the better the chances it will rank highly in Google. Therefore, if you optimise your content in accordance with step #2, and build links (or votes) to your website, rankings will improve and traffic will grow.

Your homepage is your most important page, and it should be the center of your link building efforts. Also called your root-domain, a homepage with many links pointing towards it will strengthen the rankings of all ancillary pages as well.

One important caviat here is that we are talking about do-follow links. All links are do-follow by default, which essentially means they count as a vote. However, some websites add a no-follow tag to their outbound links, which stop Google from counting them.

When building links, be sure to use a tool like link parser to see if the domain you are reaching out to provides do-follow links. Also make sure to clarify this in any email correspondence you may have.

Now that we know why links are so important, let's take a look at my favourite way of doing effective link building. This involves writing guest posts for receptive and reputable online publications. It's by far the easiest method, although writing the content does involve some time.

That being said, it has some very attractive additional benefits, such as building your personal brand, and helping to form relationships with influencers in your industry.

So how do you start guest posting?

Head over to Google, and enter a core keyword + "write for us" or "gust post". This should give you a curated list of websites about your topic which take guest post submissions.

Well, that was easy.

Now we would check out each website manually to check out their guidelines and if they offer do-follow links. With this information at hand, head over to the MOZ domain authority checker and copy and paste the URL's to find out their domain authority. Attractive domains will have a domain authority of 30 or higher, but to begin with anything above 20 will do.

Once you've found the perfect website to guest post on, find their contact information and reach out. Ideally, you would reach out to two or three people per website to maximise your chances of getting noticed and subsequently published. Here are a few tips which have helped me in the past.

How to maximise your chances of getting published:

The perfect guest post should:

  1. solve a common problem faced by the readers of the blog
  2. contain images, graphs and/or statistics
  3. follow the style and formatting guidelines of the website
  4. focus on a valuable keyword
  5. link back to your homepage or landing page within the content, using your valuable keyword

The perfect email should:

  1. be short, personalised and addressed to the webmaster and authors of the website
  2. include your guest post as an attachment in the email
  3. include a separate bio with picture as attachments in the email
  4. include any images used in the guest post as attachments in the email

By following these guidelines, you ensure that the recipient can easily publish your guest post with minimum hassle. Every extra step or communication has the chance to derail the publication of your guest post.

Also, be sure to send a follow up email within 2 days. Chances are that the recipient received and read your email, but got side-tracked at a crucial moment. To track the open and click rates of your emails, check out YesWare.

Once you've done this a couple of time, and want to measure the results of your link building efforts, check out Ahrefs, a nice online marketing tool that provides a great overview of your link profile.

Step #4 - Optimise for local SEO

Most small businesses are bound to a physical location. If this is the case for you, it's time to learn about local SEO. This follows similar rules as the SEO discussed previously, but includes some additional aspects crucial to your website's local visibility.

A service called Google My Business is at the heart of local SEO. This is a curated directory managed by Google which straddles Google Maps and other Google services. It has a huge bearing on your rankings for local search terms.

"Cheap gym in Berlin", "buy flowers in Los Angeles" and "Italian restaurant in Glasgow" are just a few examples of search terms looking for local results.

As with all search results, those at the top of the page will get a disproportionate percentage of available clicks. There is no prize for landing on page #2.

Ranking factors for local small business SEO are:

  1. Backlinks (ie. links) to Google My Business Page
  2. Keyword usage and variations within content
  3. Larger word count on location-based content
  4. Accurate and clean citations
  5. Verified Google My Business Page, reviews and photos on the page
  6. Localized anchor text for backlinks
  7. Consistency of name, address and phone number (NAP) across Google My Business and website
  8. Customer reviews: quantity, velocity and diversity
  9. Proper categories on Google My Business
  10. Clear indication of services provided
  11. Uploaded photos on Google My Business pages
  12. Social signals: branding and engagement on Social Media
  13. Inbound links to domain
  14. Click-through rates from search results
  15. Domain authority
  16. Inbound links from locally relevant websites

By following these steps to the best of your ability, you should be able to consistently rank high for a plethora of valuable keywords. You don't need to have perfect local small business SEO, you just need to be better than your competitors.

Conclusion - Small business SEO

You should now be able to:

  • Research the keywords most valuable to your business
  • Create content that is easily understandable by search engines
  • Build links to help your content rank highly
  • Optimise your Google My Business account for local SEO

If any of these points are still unclear, please leave a comment below or reach out to me via email. If, on the other hand, you are full of confidence, the next step is to track and measure the results of your activities.

To do this, you will need one or two online marketing tools. We've already mentioned Ahrefs for link building, but should also mention Google Search Console and SEMrush for tracking your keyword rankings. Google Analytics will only be of limited value in tracking your keywords but should nevertheless be included here. With these tools under your belt, you will now be able to nail your small business SEO and build a free and sustainable source of revenue.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing from you in the comments.