As a small business, you may have heard about SEO and how important it is in driving traffic to your website. You may be asking yourself just what exactly is SEO, why is it important and should your small business even worry about it. If you have, then this article is for you.
Some basic concepts:
Before we go further, it is important to come to a broad understanding of some basic concepts related to the world of SEO.
Search Engines: The big three search engines are Google, Bing and Yahoo. These search engines have two main functions – crawling and building an index; and providing users with a ranked list of websites related to their search. So, when you search on Google for ‘women’s shoes’, the search engine crawls the web and delivers a list of sites that it deems relevant to women’s shoes. It provides this list in order of popularity. How it determines relevance and popularity is based on complex algorithms comprising hundreds of variables.
Search Queries: These are the words that people type into the Search box. In our example above, the search query would be ‘women’s shoes’.
Search Engine Traffic: This is the traffic that your website gets from search engines. It is highly targeted traffic, because people specifically searched for something related to your company. It can make or break the success of your website, because the more traffic you get, the more exposure your company gets and the higher you begin to rank in search engine results pages (SERPs).
Search Engine Results Page: A SERP is the page you see when you search for something on a search engine. Every SERP is unique because search engines take into account the searcher’s physical location, their browsing history and social settings. SERPs deliver two types of search results – organic and paid results.
Organic Search Results: These are the results that appear on the SERP as a result of the search engines algorithm and reflects the relevance and popularity of the listed pages in a ranked order.
Paid Search Results: These results have been paid for by an advertiser to be displayed. These are normally based on pay-per-click (PPC) rates. The paid results do not necessarily mean that the listings are the most relevant or popular, but because they appear in prominent areas of the search results, this is a good way to begin building organic search traffic.
Now that we have covered some of the related concepts, we can delve more deeply into Search Engine Optimisation or SEO itself.
What is SEO?
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is all about improving the chances of a webpage’s visibility in a search engine’s unpaid results. It is therefore aimed at organic rather than paid ranking. Because search engines do not see your site the way that you do, you need to optimise it in such a way that the search engine can understand what each page of your website is about and how it may be relevant to someone’s search query. SEO can be done both on-site and off-site. We’ll take a closer look at this a little later.
Moz’s Beginners Guide to SEO gives a great in-depth look at search engines and how SEO works. The image below, for example, shows the difference between how you may see your website through a browser versus how search engines see your website.
Image from Moz.com’s article, Beginners Guide to SEO (Chapter 4)
Understanding this is at the heart of understanding how SEO helps search engines find and index your web pages.
Why is SEO important for your website?
At this point, you may ask yourself whether it is important to rank high in search engine results? A study by Outbrain showed that search is the number one driver of traffic to content sites, beating social media by more than 300%. In fact, a 2016 study by Forrester found that 93% of online experiences begin with a search engine. That is an enormous amount of potential traffic you may be missing because your site cannot be found by search engines.
In addition to this, the kind of traffic you get are from people who are already interested in what you have to offer. Whether they are still looking for a solution to their problem or want to learn more about a specific solution, they are already in the process of decision-making.
On-site SEO Optimisation
On-site SEO deals with all those elements that are part of your actual website. Whatever you do off-site (which we will get to in a moment) complements your on-site efforts. The important thing to remember is to not overdo it. While you want to make sure that search engines find and index your pages, most will penalise you for over-optimising. This is because, above all, search engines want to deliver the most relevant results to their users. This means that the quality of your content plays a major part.
Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz.com puts it best: “There is no such thing as ‘writing for people vs search engines’. There’s only ‘writing for people who also use search engines’. Whenever you work on your site’s SEO, keep this in mind.
Keyword Research & Optimisation
Keywords are those search terms that people use when they do a search on the internet. When search engines crawl a web page, they measure how the keywords are used and this helps them determine how relevant it would be to a user’s search query.
So, if you want your web pages to rank for ‘women’s dresses’ in search engine results, then you need to make sure that the term appears on the crawlable content of your page. Because keyword optimisation is a highly competitive field, it’s important to understand your intended audience and how they would search for products or services related to your field. Keyword research helps you to uncover this, as well as giving you an indication of how difficult it would be to rank for certain keywords and alternative keywords or terms that you could use.
Long-tail keywords also helps to narrow the field a little bit. So instead of competing against every other company selling ‘women’s dresses’, use long-tail keywords such ‘summer dresses for women 2017’.
Again, don’t overdo it. Choose four or five of the most relevant keywords and use them naturally throughout your copy (about two to three times). Don’t stuff your copy with keywords – search engines have become more sophisticated in understanding web pages and Google will penalise your page for keyword stuffing.
You can also use variations of your keywords. Do not use keywords in link anchor text pointing to other pages on your site. This is known as Keyword Cannibalisation.
The title tag is like a newspaper headline. It tells search engines what the specific page is about. Best practices include limiting it to 70 characters and to include your business name and the keywords that relate to that specific page. You can also try to keep the keyword to the beginning of the title tag as can be seen in this example from MRP.com.
The meta description is a short description of a page’s content. It is aimed more at your human audience and helps them to get an overview of what the page is about and how relevant it is to their search. Again, make sure that you use your keywords in your meta description. Google will bold these terms in the meta description to show how it relates to a searcher’s query.
Site Structure & Internal Links
When setting up your site’s link structure, make sure it is crawlable – meaning that it allows search engine crawlers to find the pathways of a website. You can make this easier by creating sitemaps and robot.txt files.
You can also try to link internally to other pages on your website within your copy. All of these will give the search engine a better understanding of your site and give you a better chance of ranking for your chosen keywords.
The most important consideration, however, is your user’s experience of your site. Your site structure should be easy to navigate and help your intended audience find exactly what they want in as few steps as possible.
Don’t forget about your url – the web page address – as this will also help search engines index your page and users understand what your page is about.
Header tags helps to break up your content into smaller, more digestible sections. It is the highest level tag that shows what your page is about. For instance, this blog article’s H1 header would be its title. A webpage that showcases your products’ H1 tag would be something like Our Product Range. Search engines give the H1 tag more weight than other sub-headings, so it is important to make sure that it is SEO optimised.
There should only be one H1 tag per page. Other sections can be broken up using H2 or H3 header tags. Try to use your page’s most important keywords in the first part of your header and check that these keywords appear in the page title, meta description and in the body of your text.
Image Names and ALT Tags
The primary purpose of image ALT tags is to describe images to those who are unable to see them, such as screen readers and users that are visually impaired. It is therefore an important part of making sure that your website is accessible.
It also helps search engines understand what the image is about and how it relates to the surrounding content. It further offers you another opportunity to include your keyword.
This image from Moz.com gives a nice overview of what a perfectly optimised page looks like:
Image from Moz.com’s article, A Visual Guide to Keyword Targeting and On-page SEO
Off-site SEO Optimisation
Off-page SEO Optimisation refers to those efforts that occur outside of your website. Strategies include link building, social media, content marketing and bookmarking. These off-page efforts help you gain more exposure for your website, that leads to more links, more visits and more social shares.
Link building is aimed at getting other websites to link to yours. Search engines use linking patterns to measure the popularity of a website – the more authoritative websites that link to your content – the more popular and valuable your information is deemed to be, which in turn affects your ranking. Earning links from trusted domains also indicates that your site is trusted which gives you a further boost in rankings.
Links also decay over time, so it is important to consider how fresh the links are. Search engines uses the freshness signals to determine if the links are currently popular and relevant.
You can build links by submitting to guest blogs popular in your industry or to reach out to businesses in your industry who may have a link page on their site. Also consider adding your site to local directories.
Search engines treat socially shared links differently than other links, but they still take them into consideration. As with backlinks, the quality of your shares matters a great deal. If industry influencers share your content, this can give your SEO more boost.
Your social media profiles also get listed in the top results when people search for your brand name, which gives you an additional chance of showing up in search results. Furthermore, people now also use social media to search for terms. Think about Twitter’s hashtags or how you find new pins on Pinterest.
The most important SEO factor – whether on-site or off-site – is quality content. Publishing content that is relevant and useful will always win you inbound links and social shares. Search engines use signals to determine if a web page offers quality content. These signals include engagement metrics (how long a user stayed on your website before going to the next search result), linking patterns (how many people link to your content) and machine learning, such as the Google Panda update that used machine learning to predict what humans would judge as high-quality content.
Writing quality content is key to SEO. Search engines index and rank site based on the relevancy and popularity of your content. Content marketing is all about creating relevant and useful content that is related to your keywords. The more content you create, the more chance you have of appearing in search results for the relevant keywords. The higher the quality of your content, the more people will want to link to your site and share the information with others, which again affects your ranking. Regularly publishing new quality content also helps keep your information fresh.
For more tips on how to create great content read our article on How To Make Your Small Business Content Stand Out.
SEO can seem like a complex and daunting undertaking, but getting the basics right is a first step in the right direction. Besides making sure that your website gets found by prospective clients, it also helps you to ensure that your website is easy to use and provides quality information to your users. After all, what is the point of creating a great-looking website when no one ever sees it or if it only ends up frustrating your potential clients.
Images sourced from: