SEO describes a group of practices that drive organic traffic to a business website by boosting its place in search engine results.
If you're a small business owner and you use the internet to drive customers to your business (which should be most of you), you're probably at least somewhat familiar with search engine optimization (SEO).
SEO offers an exciting possibility: If you know how to use it properly, you can boost your business to the top of the search results for your industry, which is some of the best free advertising you can get. However, SEO can also be intimidating, in part because your competition likely well aware of it, and also because SEO can seem both straightforward and mystifying if you're not an expert.
To help you get a handle on what SEO is and how you can use it to your advantage, we've put together an introductory guide specifically tailored to small business owners.
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What is SEO?
SEO describes a group of practices designed to drive organic traffic to a website by boosting its place in search engine results. "Organic traffic" means people aren't clicking on an advertisement to navigate to a website; it simply comes up under the search results. It's everything that does not have an ad or Sponsored tag, and users tend to find organic search placements more credible.
You may have heard SEO described in terms of keywords, or that practicing "good SEO" is based on the clever placement of keywords in your content that causes search engines to recognize your website.
So, hypothetically, if you run a print shop in Providence, Rhode Island, the right SEO keywords would result in your business site being among of the first results for the search query "printing services Providence RI." That means the search engine has determined your website has the most relevant answer to the question the user is asking (“Where can I find a print shop in Providence?”).
That is not entirely off the mark, but it misses the finer points of SEO practices. One of the purposes of SEO is to help a website stand out within local searches. SEO can ensure search engines know where your business is located so people in your area find it more easily. Keywords are an important part of that process, but they're just one SEO practice and not synonymous with SEO itself.
As search engines have become more sophisticated and the way people use the internet has changed to include the use of mobile devices, the definition of SEO has changed. They're still an SEO practice, but reducing SEO to only keywords doesn't do justice to the complex marketing discipline it has become. A sound SEO strategy also avoids "keyword stuffing," or simply filling your website with relevant keywords – that doesn't fool Google.
Your content has to be truly useful and relevant to the person searching those keywords. It's also important to be mindful of where your keywords appear -- they need to be on prominent display within using each page's HTML tags. This is key to how a search engine reads your website. It helps to have at least a basic understanding of HTML here (or someone available who does, if not you).
The title tag of each page is the text of a search result's clickable link, and the meta description is the text directly underneath it, summarizing what the page is about. It's important you use these spaces to concisely and naturally communicate what each page on your website is about. Other than your page's content, your ability to optimize this text will have the biggest influence on your search ranking.
Think of your business website's place within search results as a "location," just as you considered both the geographic location of your physical space and how to make your space appealing to consumers. Also, consider search engines as a source of referrals. A good SEO strategy considers these elements together and will make it easy to direct customers to your business site while ensuring your site has what they're looking for. Your website needs to be useful and usable to improve its place in search results. That means providing quality content with your target customer in mind, rather than just a high volume of content – this is what will keep your business website at the top of search rankings.
The definition of SEO now encompasses your website's user experience, not just your ability to get users to click onto the home page from search results. Best practices for SEO are also often best practices for building a website. Users who stay longer on a website are more likely to become customers.
Further, the time users spend looking at your website directly factors into your search ranking. And since many people use the internet on mobile devices, particularly to look up local businesses, your website needs to be optimized for mobile use.
How to monitor SEO
Some business owners outsource their SEO. This may or may not be necessary, depending on the extent of your SEO needs and your own technical ability. If you're doing SEO on your own, the best and most important way to eliminate the guesswork is by tracking your results.
There are a number of free tools that will allow you to measure organic traffic to your website. The free version of Google Analytics, for instance, is designed to meet the needs of small enterprises. You'll be able to see what's driving organic traffic to your website, what isn't and how your well content is doing at convincing people to become customers.
While SEO may seem daunting, if you take the steps necessary to ensure your website is getting and keeping people's attention, you can generate more revenue than ever seemed possible.