SEO remains a highly effective strategy for DIY entrepreneurs to compete with larger companies. To do so effectively, you have to play by a different set of rules.
One of the most important, and often overlooked, strategies for new online businesses is customer acquisition. You can have the best products, latest widget and a gorgeous professionally designed site, but with no visitors, it's all for nothing.
Fortunately, not every customer acquisition strategy requires bottomless budgets and a huge staff, if you have patience and perseverance. Within three years, I built a site that brought in more than 5,000 unique visitors a day, all intended traffic, in one of the most competitive verticles on the web – credit cards. I didn't have to pay for any of those visitors. Nor did I hire any staff.
To give you an idea of just how compelling those numbers are, imagine if you wanted to open up a chain of retail stores. Now imagine if each of those stores brought in 50 visitors a day. You would need the equivalent of 100 retail locations to match 5,000 visitors a day. Now imagine, if you didn't have to pay rent and had no payroll.
So how did I do it? Through search engine optimization (SEO). While there are plenty of sophisticated SEO strategies, I stuck to a few fundamental rules, which, over time, allowed the site to compete against competitors with much bigger budgets and resources. I want to share some of those principles with you below.
Write your own content
In the early stages of your site, I highly recommend you write your own content. Doing so forces you to understand your subject matter better. It forces you to understand who your customers are and what they're looking for. It gives you the opportunity to develop a tone, voice and style for your site. Having that understanding will benefit your site as it matures tremendously. It will also allow you to connect with your sites users in a way that large sites can't.
Believe in your content
Don't write anything you don't believe in. If you don't believe what you're pitching, your visitors won't either. Write as if you're trying to convince yourself. Be authentic.
Write unique content
Simply looking at what content is ranking in your vertical and trying to copy it won't get you very far. Google has already given that top-ranked content a place, why should it displace it with yours, especially if the other site has more authority? Come up with something unique and different. Originality will interest your readers, and, as a result, will interest Google.
Borrow from the best - in a different vertical
Large sites have huge budgets to test for things like user experience, conversion, retention and engagement. To avoid looking like a me-too competitor, take a look at what leading sites are doing in other verticals, or other countries.
Measure your content's success
So how do you know if you're creating good content? Use Google Analytics and check to see how long people are staying on the page you're measuring. I tried to have an average time on page of 2 minutes for an article. If the page received less, I'd redo my content over and over again until it received an average of 2 minutes or higher. I found this the best process to constantly improve my content, keep it fresh and ensure readers liked what they were reading.
Test, test, test
Try lots of new approaches until you land on one that works. Try writing on different topics, in different styles, using different formats, with different images. See which ones end up with higher average times on page, shares, links and rankings. When I started my first site, I thought my users would want every tool possible to discover the optimal credit card or loan for their individual need. After three years I randomly wrote a "Best of" article, with my top picks. Traffic exploded. It turned out most readers didn't want to be given the tools to do their own research, they just wanted to be told what to do.
Engage your readers
Ask for your readers feedback. Encourage them to ask questions in the comments section. But when they do, respond immediately with well-crafted and researched answers. When users start to see the owner of a website responding quickly and thoroughly, it encourages other readers to write in.
Do your absolute best to answer their questions and/or be an advocate for their customer complaint issues. This is something most large sites can't, don't and won't do, and it's a great way to differentiate yourself. Google also happens to love user-generated content. It's a strong indicator that the page and your site is current, engaging, and interesting to readers, giving it a higher chance of ranking well in search results.
Get links the right way
Links remain one of the most important factors Google uses to determine the importance of a page. If your page has a link from the New York Times, it will likely do a lot better than a page that has a link from your friends blog. Why? Because the New York Times is a reputable newspaper and if they're linking to your page, Google looks at it as kind of vouching for your pages quality.
So how do you get quality links? I did it by calling various journalists at the top-ranking newspapers in the country. I had them coach me on what kind of content they thought was interesting. I then created that content, emailed it to them and thanked them for their advice. Sure enough, they'd write about it and link to it. They also asked me for quotes when they needed insight from an industry insider. But I didn't wait for to be called. I reached out to them early to let them know of my site and expertise. Larger sites don't do that. Most hire PR agencies or SEO companies to get their links for them.
Do not buy links, and don't hire an SEO company to get you links. Many will use "black hat" tactics, to boost your rankings in the short term, which can result in Google penalizing you in the long term.
Hire an SEO consultant to audit your site once or twice a year
There is some SEO expertise that can be helpful, especially for what's called "on-page" SEO. On-page SEO focuses on things you ought to do on your own website, that will help you rank higher on Google's results search pages. Because I didn't have staff, I would hire an SEO consultant once or twice a year to review my site and let me know of any mistakes I was making, changes I should make and/or opportunities I should focus on. Don't just accept a canned SEO optimization report, which you can get done yourself. You really want to ask for insight. Doing this also gave me the opportunity to keep abreast of new SEO trends. You can find SEO consultants on pages like Moz's recommended list.
If you're looking to start an online business, don't make the mistake of forgetting about how you're going to generate traffic and acquire customers. SEO is only one arrow in the traffic generation quiver, but over the long term, it can generate significant targeted traffic very profitably. It's also a strategy where smaller, less-resourced sites can outcompete larger sites with elbow grease, creativity and persistence over the long term.