Running a small business in today's world means having a website. If you want to drive customers to your business, you'll need an online presence.
Gone are the days of customers wandering the streets looking for new businesses. When someone needs something, whether it's a product or service, they Google it. If you're a local provider of that good or service, you want to be on the first page of those Google results, which is something the business.com community constantly asks about.
An entire industry has emerged to do just that – provide businesses with a high ranking on Google. There are a lot of "experts" out there who charge a significant amount of money for (what turns out to be) baseless theory.
"SEO is the snake oil of the 21st century, with hucksters shilling keywords and contextual phrases, as if these tiny agencies that charge their clients thousands each month are somehow smarter than the hundreds of MIT grads programming Google's algorithms," said Tony Panaccio, a media veteran of 35 years and senior counselor at Wilson Advertising and Media. "They're not, and they never will be."
What's a business owner to do when they need to rank well on Google but have no experience in the area? Panaccio suggests following Google's own instructions for how to rank well organically. It can be as simple as that.
"You should build a website to benefit your users, and any optimization should be geared toward making the user experience better," reads Google's own guide to its algorithm and SEO. "Search engine optimization is about helping search engines understand and present content."
If you're considering hiring an SEO expert, Google suggests doing a fair amount of research both into potential candidates and the nature of SEO. Irresponsible SEO can kill your small business's website.
If you're looking to learn more about some basic SEO steps to help your site, we've listed five below. Otherwise, it's important to use Google's resources, and, if you want to go this route, work with an experienced professional that you've vetted through your own basic understanding of SEO.
1. List your business on Google My Business.
The best first step toward healthy SEO habits is listing your business on Google My Business. By doing this, you'll appear on Google Maps and on Google's search results page if your business is searched for.
Google creates a profile of your small business where customers can easily find your contact information and can leave reviews about your business. Beyond having a profile on Google, registering with Google My Business can help your rank.
"Having a Google My Business account also allows small businesses the opportunity to show up in the local three pack, the first three search results on the results page that will always go to local businesses when relevant," said Morgan Hennessey, search analyst with Electric Enjin.
The basic logic is that if Google doesn't know your business (and that its website exists), how could it list it? Google My Business is a great way to get active online and start building your business's presence.
2. Focus on local SEO.
One advantage small businesses have over enterprise companies is their presence in the community. This advantage extends to the online realm as well. Google prioritizes local businesses where applicable. If you can rank for certain search terms in your area, that could mean more customers walking in the door.
"Many small businesses have fewer marketing dollars to spend, which is why I tend to recommend reviews and local SEO in the beginning in order to make the biggest impact and get clients the biggest bang for their buck," said Christina Brodzky, founder of MediaSesh.
By focusing on local SEO, you can build a customer base and community both online and through your storefront or location. Google My Business and other local website providers, like Yellow Pages, are great places to start.
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3. Set up a blog.
This may not work for all businesses, but if you run a small business where how-tos and other lifestyle-based articles can depict your products and day-to-day processes, a blog may be a good way to drive SEO. By garnering more views on your pages, and building backlinks, you can signal to Google that your website is trustworthy and provides users with valuable information.
That's the key here – your posts should provide valuable information to readers. Avoid starting a blog as a gimmick, and don't force it if your industry doesn't translate well via a written article. Once you set up a blog, update it regularly so potential customers know you're an active and engaged business owner.
"Publish original content on a regular basis," said Bryan Pattman, SEO analyst at 9sail. "[Business owners] should write in-depth articles on topics in their niche and share them through social media once published."
4. Establish backlinks.
While setting up a blog is a good way to establish backlinks, it's also possible to garner backlinks without a blog.
Backlinks show that other sources on the internet are citing your website, which communicates trust to Google. Backlinking to your site can often be treated as a hunt, where business owners or SEO specialists request media outlets or other businesses to link to a certain page.
To stay consistent with Google's original how-to guide, establishing good backlinks should be an organic process. Trying to track down websites and conduct shady deals for backlinks isn't a good idea. Instead, just have great content that people naturally want to feature.
"The biggest SEO gains I have seen are often as a result of gained backlinks to a website," said Alex Ratynski, founder of Make Bank Blogging. "When looking to get more backlinks, focus first on improving your content, truly have the best, most comprehensive content, and it will be link-worthy."
5. Be wary of the SEO "expert."
It may be in your best interests to work with an SEO expert. If you decide to do this, make sure you research typical SEO practices and properly vet candidates. Some people, like Panaccio, advise avoiding SEO experts entirely. You might be better off handling SEO on your own, but it's important to know that if you want to work with an expert, you should find one that has the right mentality toward building organic SEO value.
"Stop selling, start telling," Panaccio said. "No one likes to be sold, but most B2B and B2C audiences love learning something they didn't know. Establish thought leadership in your industry by writing and recording videos about the intelligence that drives your business."