Your business is nothing without customers. Whether you’re running a restaurant, a beauty salon or a garage, you need to make sure people can actually find your business online. Social media is a great way to get the word out – but if you run a small business, it’s easy to forget about SEO.
A study from Digimax found that 5% of small business owners don’t know what SEO is and how it can help their business.
If you already know how important search engine optimisation is and want to make it work for your business, we’ve covered the basics to get you started.
- What is SEO?
- Where do I start?
- What next?
- What if you don’t have the time?
First, what is SEO?
Search engine optimisation is essentially the practice of getting your website to appear higher in the list when people search for things relevant to your business on Google or Bing.
Whenever you search for something, the order of the list is determined by a number of different factors, such as:
- How relevant the website is to what you searched
- The quality of the website
- The number and quality of other sites who link to that website
- How long the website has been around
- How quickly the website loads
There are many other factors involved – around 200, in fact – but these are some of the main ones. SEO is all about trying to tick off as many of these things as possible.
SEO vs PPC
Don’t confuse SEO with PPC. PPC stands for per-per-click advertising, also called paid search advertising. With PPC, you pay for your adverts to appear in searches.
You can usually see PPC ads at the top of the search results list, marked with the word “Ad”:
With PPC, you can appear higher up the list by increasing the amount of money you’re willing to pay every time someone clicks on an ad.
SEO is all about influencing the order of the listings underneath the PPC ads, known as your organic listings.
Where do I start?
Create a website
It sounds obvious but… have you got a website? If you haven’t, you should think about getting one. Don’t worry – you don’t need a massive budget. Services like Wix and 1&1 IONOS make creating a website really easy and they usually only set you back a few pounds a month.
Here’s a great guide on how to build a website for your business, including a comparison of the different platforms you can use.
You can start appearing in searches without a website by adding yourself to the local listings. Most search engines have them – for example, Google My Business and Bing Places. They’re free but they’re only really for businesses which have local premises that customers can visit.
Identify your keywords
A keyword is basically what your customers will search in Google. The first step to a successful SEO strategy is to work out what your customers are actually searching in the first place. You need to know so you know where to concentrate your efforts when it comes to writing content for your website.
There are a few ways to find out what your keywords are:
- Have a look at your competitors’ websites – How do they describe what they do? What phrases appear on their website?
- Use Google’s keyword research tool – It’s free but you might need to sign-up for a Google account first. You can find out how to use the tool in this guide from Razor Social
- Ask a friend – This sounds like a weird one but it can be insightful. Tell a friend who’s not in your industry what you do and ask them what they’d search if they were looking for a business like yours?
Once you know what keywords you need to go for, add them to a list. Ideally, you’ll now have an idea of search traffic, which is an estimate of how many searches those keywords get each month on average. Google’s keyword planner tool can give you that information.
After working out your keywords and finding out the average search traffic for them, you’ll probably find you have a handful – usually one or two – which get searched most often, and many more which get searched less often. The most searched keywords are obviously the ones to aim for first and foremost when you start writing your content. But don’t forget the others – collectively, they’re called long-tail keywords.
The phrase “long-tail” comes from the way the keywords would look if you showed them on a graph. The small number of keywords which get a lot of searches appear on the left (in green) and the greater number of keywords which don’t get a lot of searches appear on the right (in yellow), resembling a head and and a tail.
If you run a florist, a long-tail keyword could be something like “purple bouquet for Valentine’s Day” or “how do I look after my cactus?” They tend to be quite specific.
It’s important to not forget long-tail keywords. Together, they can bring in a lot of traffic. They also tend to be less competitive than the top keywords, meaning you might have an easier time ranking higher up the list for them.
Write your content
Once you know what your customers will be searching, you can start writing content for your website. Depending on what you do, your website will need:
- A homepage, giving a brief overview of your company with links to some of your most important pages (usually product pages and a contact page)
- Product pages, giving detailed but succinct information about your products and services
- A blog, so you can publish engaging content that’s relevant to your business (this will become important later on)
When I say “detailed but succinct”, make sure you include all the information your customers need to know about your product and services – but don’t overload them! People get put off by too much text, especially if they just want to buy something or sign-up to something. Try to structure your content with:
- A brief overview at the top
- A call-to-action (a link, a button or a form which you want your customers to interact with so they can buy your product or contact you)
- A more detailed description of your product or service
Another good thing to include are FAQs (frequently asked questions). Use your knowledge of what customers have asked you in the past to generate these. Or try to anticipate the kind of questions they may ask.
If you don’t have the time or skills to write the content for your website, you can hire copy writers online. There are loads of websites where you can hire a freelance writer for a simple job. UpWork is a good one, for example.
A few things to bear in mind:
- Don’t ‘keyword stuff’ – This means that you shouldn’t overuse your keywords. Try to use them naturally in your writing. ‘Keyword stuffing’ was a popular SEO tactic that used to work in the past, but search engines are cleverer now. Search engines will usually penalise websites who use tactics like this, meaning you might not even get listed at all!
- Don’t copy anyone! – Another big no-no is copying other people’s content. Search engines are smart and they’ll know if you’re doing it, and they might kick you off of their listings. Make sure that what you write is unique. If you’re going to quote someone else, make sure you link to them and don’t quote too much
Structure your website
You’ve written all your content so you’re ready to publish it on your website. But you should pay close attention to the structure of your website. How your website is structured can have a big impact on your SEO success.
To understand what we mean when we talk about the structure of a website, imagine them as like an organisation chart.
Your homepage is the big boss, and everyone else sits below him. Directly underneath him, you might have a few middle managers – for example, your main product pages, your contact page and your blog. And underneath them, you have the staff – each reporting to different middle managers. And then they might have people reporting into them and so on.
For example, here’s a structure for a florist’s website – each blue box is a webpage:
As you can see, each page has a place in the hierarchy. If you wanted to add a new bouquet, you’d add it as a “child” of the bouquets page. If you wanted to add a new product category, you’d add it as a “child” of the homepage.
Not only does a clear and logical site structure help your SEO, it also helps your users. If users know where to look for things, they’ll have a better experience on your website (and will be more likely to spend their money!)
The structure of your website has an effect on your website’s address – or URL (uniform resource locator). Each page has its own URL.
A URL is made up of the following components:
The URL basically represents the hierarchy of your website – but it can be confusing because the hierarchy goes in opposite directions depending on the part of the URL.
In the example above, “www” is a subdomain (a child) of “florist.co.uk” – so the hierarchy goes from right to left. But “red-bouquet” is a subpage (a child) of the “bouquets” page – so after the domain and subdomain, the hierarchy goes from left to right.
The most important thing when it comes to your page URLs is to make sure they’re descriptive. This is not only good for search engines – it’s also good for your users. For example, www.florist.co.uk/blog/best-flowers-for-a-wedding is a better URL than www.florist.co.uk/blog/article?id=14567&category_id=456!
Search engines learn about your website by “crawling” across the pages, like a spider crawling over a web. They do this by following links. To make sure the search engine can get from page to page, you need to make sure they’re linked together.
It seems obvious but the same also applies to your customers! They get from page to page by following the links – this is called navigation.
Make sure you make it as simple and as logical as possible for your customers to navigate around your website.
You can do this by including a clear menu at the top of every page so they can always get back to your homepage or find your most important pages. Base the design of your navigation menu on the structure of your website.
You can also include contextual links. This basically means including links in your text where you mention certain words you have pages for. For example, in your ‘How to look after your flowers’ blog post, you might mention bouquets – so link the word bouquets back to your bouquets category page.
You can find out more about contextual linking – why it’s important and how to do it – in this guide from Webbee.
Breadcrumb navigation is a great way to make your site easier to navigate. And they also have benefits when it comes to SEO. You’ve probably seen breadcrumb navigation before. For example, if you were on the red bouquet page on our imaginary florist website, you’d probably see something like this at the top of the content:
Home > Bouquets > Red bouquet
The breadcrumb shows what page you’re on now (at the end) as well as the pages that are higher up in the hierarchy. If you were reading the blog post on ‘How to look after your plants’, you might see this instead:
Home > Blog > How to look after your plants
Most website builders include breadcrumb navigation in their templates automatically.
You can find out more about breadcrumb navigation and how it works in this guide from Big Commerce.
Page titles and meta tags
Part of SEO is making sure that if your website appears in a search, people are likely to click it. There’s no point being listed if no one clicks on your results! You can do this by optimising your page titles and meta descriptions.
To show you what we’re talking about, let’s look at a search result from Google:
(Our office is based in Chelmsford and this florist is just round the corner!)
This is roughly what your website will look like when it shows up in a search. It’s made up of three main elements:
- Title – This is what shows as the link for your listing. It’s also used for the top of your browser window and for bookmarks that people make of your website
- URL – This is the address for the webpage in the listing
- Meta description – This is taken from the code that makes up the webpage – your customers will only see it on search engine listings and if they share your website on social media
The key to optimising the page title and meta description is to make sure you include relevant keywords and describe as best as you can what your page is about. Be aware that page titles and meta descriptions get cut off if they’re too long.
Most website builders let you update the page title and meta description for each page. Refer to the user guide to find out how to do it.
You can find out more about how to optimise your page titles and meta descriptions in this great post by Alexa.
Submit your website to the search engines
Now your websites ready, you’ll need to tell the search engines it’s live and ready to be crawled. If they don’t crawl it, they won’t be able to start including it in their listings. Submitting your website is free and usually only takes a few minutes.
To submit your website to Google, you’ll need to sign-up and add it to their Search Console. You’ll have to verify that the website is yours – usually by adding a piece of code to your site – but Google will give you instructions on how to do this.
You can also submit your website to Bing using their Webmaster Tools. The process is very similar to Google. Yahoo! uses the same results as Bing so you won’t need to submit your website to them.
You’ve got a website, full of unique, relevant content, that’s logically structured, easy to navigate, and crawled and indexed by the search engines. What else can you do to optimise your website for SEO?
One of the main ways for search engines to assess the value of a website is by how many other websites link to it – these are called backlinks. You can think of links to your website as like a vote – someone is saying that your website is worth visiting for some reason.
Over time, however, these votes have got more complicated. As search engines have got smarter, they’ve got better at understanding the nature of a link as well as including lots of other different factors in their ranking algorithms.
A popular tactic for getting your website listed higher up in the search engines used to be to pay other websites to link to you. The problem with this was that the links were no longer an indication of quality or relevance – just of how much money the company was willing to pay.
Now, most search engines devalue links that they think have been paid for or that look unnatural. They can do this in a number of different ways, usually by asking:
- Is the link contextual? Does it make sense for this link to be here?
- What is the anchor text for the link? The anchor text is basically the words that appear as the link itself. For example, the anchor text for this link is “this link”
- Is the link surrounded by lots and lots of other links?
If our imaginary florist suddenly gets hundreds of links on different websites pointing to their homepage with “Cheap flower delivery” as the anchor text, those links probably aren’t natural – they may be paying for them.
If a search engine like Google notices this, it will first discount the links – so they won’t pass any benefit to the website. If they keep it up, and look like they’re continuing to try cheating the system, the website will be penalised. They could stop showing up in searches completely!
How do you get links naturally?
Getting natural links (links you haven’t paid for) isn’t easy, but there are many approaches that you can take to increase the changes people will link to you:
- Write great content and promote it – If you have a blog, write about things relevant to your business. Make it personal, make it funny, make it insightful, make it engaging. Basically, write stuff that people will want to read. Then promote it on social media or in an email newsletter to your customers. A few good ideas for content include:
- ‘How-to’ guides
- Interactive content
- Get in the news – This one can be tough if you don’t have the budget. The best way to get in the news is to hire a PR agency but you can also signup to wire services, such as PR Newswire, where you can submit press releases. If a publication writes about you, they may also link to your website. Links from reputable news websites can be really good for your website’s SEO!
- Build relationships – Get in touch with other individuals or companies in your industry and build a relationship with them. Maybe you can work together on a project or contribute to each other’s blogs
- Get your customers or clients to write about you – Depending on your market, you maybe be able to get your customer or clients to write a review about your products and services if they have a blog or site of their own
Just make sure you don’t do any of these things or you could fatally harm your website’s SEO:
- Don’t pay for links – Just don’t do it. It’s tempting because it’s so easy! But it’s not a long-term strategy. It’s also a lot less effective than it used to be as search engines are far cleverer these days. So you might just be flushing your money down the drain
- Don’t swap links on link directories – A link directory is basically just a website full of links to other sites. If it’s free to add your link to a site, it’s probably a link directory. Because anyone can add any link they like, their quality can’t be guaranteed – so search engines are likely to discount any links coming from them
- Don’t hassle people – If you’re contacting people and asking for a link, don’t be a nuisance! Don’t hassle people and don’t be rude. If someone doesn’t reply instantly, give them a few days – and then give them a gentle nudge. If you don’t hear from them, they’re probably not interested and you can do your business’s reputation harm if you harass them
For more information on how to build links to your site, there’s a great in-depth guide on Backlinko.
Monitor the results
Once you’ve put all of this effort in to optimising your site, you need to make sure you know if it’s working. There are two main ways to monitor your SEO performance:
- Rankings – Where does your site show in the lists for the different keywords?
- Visits to your website – How many people came to your website from the search engines?
If you only have a handful of keywords, you can probably monitor your rankings yourself by searching for them on Google or Bing and seeing where you show up in the list. If you’re going to do it this way, make sure you clear your cookies first. Most search engines customise your results based on websites you’ve visited, location and previous things you’ve searched. So you might not see unbiased results.
If want to be a bit more scientific or if you have too many keywords to measure manually, there are lots of tools out there that can automatically record your rankings for you – but you will need to pay for most of them.
Here are some of the best-known tools:
There are some free tools out there but they’re usually limited in the number of keywords you can track, and the number of times you can run a report.
Tracking your website’s visitors using web analytics software is a very powerful way of understanding how effective your marketing is. With a little bit of code on your website, you can see:
- How many people visited your website
- Where those people are based
- What pages they read
- How long they spent on your site
- Where they came from
- What they bought
- And a lot more
The best analytics package by far is Google Analytics – and the best part is that it’s completely free!
Moz has a great beginners guide on how to use Analytics that’s well worth a read. It covers how to set up your account and how to install the tracking code, as well as how to pull reports and look at the data.
What if you don’t have the time to do your own SEO?
If you simply don’t have the time, your best bet would be to outsource to an SEO agency. SEO is big business, and there are tonnes of agencies and freelancers out there who can help. But be prepared to pay for it!
Here are a few low-cost SEO services which might be worth checking out:
Just make sure you stay vigilant – there are some agencies out there who may try to cheat the system with forbidden techniques such as link buying. So check online reviews and do your research! Also don’t be afraid to challenge the agency and ask for details on how they’ll get links and write content etc.
Search engine optimisation is one of those things that sounds complicated when you first hear about it. And to be fair, there are quite a few technical and strategic considerations that go along with it. But once you start, it becomes an ongoing process and a natural part of your day-to-day business.