Why small businesses need to improve their SEO game

What is SEO?

SEO, or search engine optimisation, is used to improve a company’s position on search engine rankings. It falls under the broad category of inbound marketing – the practice of positioning a company to attract the interest of consumers organically. The practice of SEO is related to a variety of techniques such as content marketing, website optimisation, and even search engine marketing (SEM) via pay-per-click ads which can all positively effect search engine ranking.

As a digital marketing strategy, SEO revolves around the operations of search engines and how people search using keywords. It focuses on optimising websites for inbound traffic by making changes to display, content, HTML and other coding, and promoting a site to increase backlinks or visitor traffic.

Why is SEO so important?

The popularity of the Internet both for ecommerce and researching and contacting companies by consumers has made achieving a prominent position in search engine rankings hugely beneficial. Ranking in the top five for a specific keyword has been shown to significantly increase traffic to a company’s website.

SEO-techniques aim to improve a site’s ranking as much as possible via organic methods rather than paid advertising and are therefore accessible to all companies and extremely popular with small businesses and start-ups lacking a big budget for promotion and advertising.

With 80%-90% of adults utilising search engines appearing near the top or at least on the first page of the results for a relevant keyword is highly desirable as the click-through traffic falls off dramatically on subsequent pages. Research carried out by Caphyon in 2014 found that the first page on Google received 71.33% of organic traffic, pages two and three a mere 5.59% and pages six to ten only 3.73%, with the top five ranking’s on page one accounting for 67.60% of all click traffic.

Ranking highly for popular keywords can be an expensive proposition if search engine marketing (SEM) or other paid advertising methods are used, the opportunity to improve a website’s position in the rankings even mildly at a low cost makes SEO a crucial tool in any company’s marketing mix.

What do search engines do?

Search engines crawl the web tracking and categorizing the websites found there. They use complicated algorithms to rank these websites by category and keywords so the most popular/relevant content should appear at the top of the search engine rankings. They function by:

  • Searching the Internet, or sections of it, based on various words (known as keywords)
  • Indexing the words they encounter and the location where they are found
  • Enable their users to search for words, either individually or in combination, found in the indexes they create

Their goal is to return the most relevant content possible for visitors using their services. As a result, they look for the following when ranking sites:

  • Performance: The site’s ability to function properly and at acceptable speed is considered.
  • Popularity: The amount of organic traffic a site experiences, along with its authority rating, is taken into account. Authority is determined by factors such as links to other authoritative sites that use a site for reference or pull information from it.
  • Content: The theme of the site and the text found on the page should match the keywords being searched for. The page’s titles and descriptions should also correspond to the search.
  • Other factors: Ease of navigation on a site is considered, as are things like bounce rates (the percentage of visitors who leave a page immediately after selecting it), domain age and server-side redirects.

Why your URL and metadata are important

A page’s URL is used by search engines to identify websites for ranking purposes. It describes your site to the search engines and to visitors. As a result, it’s important to make sure that your URL, and its accompanying description, accurately reflect the business you are in. URL stands for Uniform Resource Locator, and it specifies your website’s identity and where it can be found. URLs consist of text readable by humans designed to replace IP addresses used by computers to communicate with servers.

For the purpose of SEO, your URL should be compelling, easy to understand, relevant to your company’s purpose/the products it offers and as brief as possible.

The following guidelines help to produce URLs with these characteristics:

  • Relevance: A keyword or keywords can be included in URLs for SEO purposes. Search engines typically pay the most attention to the first 3 to 5 words of a URL, so make sure your descriptive text is concise and to the point. Be sure that your URL accurately reflects the content of the site and page.
  • Semantic structure: Your URL should make sense from a semantic sense, this helps search engines and the humans who use them. It should also follow the naming parameters used by search engines to ensure that they can accurately categorise the page. Using numbers is discouraged. The structure of the URL should act to comprehensively define both parent and sub-directories. Proper semantic structure and brevity make it easier for consumers to type your URL in their web browser. URLs using hyphens and underscores for word separation are favoured by the search engine’s bots that crawl websites.
  • Links: When a URL is well-written it can also serve as anchor text in cases where it is used as a hyperlink on other sites such as blogs, forums etc.

Meta data is displayed beneath your link on the search engine results page (SERP), it should be compelling, relevant and contain the long tail keywords you would like to rank highly for.

Using keywords effectively 

Search engine algorithms have become more sophisticated over time. Gone are the days when simply adding large numbers of keywords to a website was enough earn a high search engine ranking, now this is more likely to penalise your ranking. However, keywords still serve a purpose by helping search engines properly categorize your page so that your chosen target audience can locate it. To do this, you need to find the keywords most suited for your business and make sure they are used in the right places.

The following steps can help you find the right keywords to use:

  1. Analyse what keywords your competitors are using.
  2. Use analytical software provided by Google and other companies to identify the most commonly used industry keywords.
  3. Conduct tests of different keywords in your content marketing and SEM campaigns to see which provide the best results

Selecting the right keywords can help you generate interested visitors. To find these keywords the first step is to evaluate their value. Asking the following questions can help accomplish this:

  • How relevant is the keyword to your products?
  • Will visitors searching via this keyword be happy with what they discover on your site?
  • Will they be likely to purchase your products or services?

Once you’ve selected several keywords search for them using the major search engines to see who else is using them. This allows you to weed out terms which are not commonly utilised in your industry. From this point you may want to use keyword analysis software to see how often these keywords are used in searches for your website or engage in test campaigns using your selected keywords to gauge how they perform. Once you’ve eliminated the poor performers you can move on with your campaign using the successful ones.

Paying attention to long tail keywords, or those consisting of three or more words, can also pay dividends. These might catch consumers who are further along in the buying process who are running more specific searches prior to making a purchase.

Constant searching and testing for high-converting keywords is a big part of the SEO. A variety of keyword analysis tools can help in the process of researching keywords. These include:

Google’s AdWords tool for keyword planning is a good place to begin the keyword research process. It can suggest keywords and provide estimates for their search volume. It also predicts the expense involved in running paid search engine marketing (SEM) campaigns using the selected terms.

A new business or one without a large budget for pursuing a concerted content marketing or SEM campaign to rank highly for a particular high-demand keyword may be better off targeting keywords that are relevant but not as expensive to achieve high rankings for. Various tools provide comparative scores to help identify the relative difficulty in ranking for different keywords. One of these is the Moz Keyword Analysis Tool.

The right keywords will not only enhance your search engine ranking. Social media is evolving to provide search capabilities to Google, so apply the same skills to your social media accounts and make your business easier to find there too.

The importance of link building

Search engine algorithms see external links to your site as markers of popularity or recommendations. They are good ranking factors that serve as positive “citations” for rating in Google’s PageRank algorithm. The best backlinks to acquire are on the sites and blogs of trusted influencers in your area of expertise and on other permanent industry-related sites. In addition to helping your site’s position in the search engine rankings, links can provide excellent sources of traffic.  When building links, quality counts more than quantity, as numerous links to low ranking sites will not do much to raise your search engine rankings and could even penalise them if seen as an attempt to spam or purchase links by search engine algorithms.

Getting backlinks and increasing traffic

There is a variety of methods for building links including hosting quality content that attracts links from other sites and more direct methods such as sharing your company’s expertise by posting on other sites or contacting webmasters of other sites and asking for links. Acquiring backlinks is a process that requires a concerted effort and there are a variety of actions you can take to encourage other sites to link to yours:

  • High quality content: Quality is better than quantity. By providing the best content, you increase your chance of earning backlinks. This can be done with a blog, by making whitepapers, video tutorials etc. This is only step one, good content alone will not work, you must market it.
  • Produce content people will want to share: If your product or niche is not very share-friendly then come up with related topics that are more link friendly.
  • Webmaster outreach: Reaching out to webmasters at industry authority sites and asking them to link to your site is another way to acquire links. The success of this approach will be enhanced if your site features quality content.
  • Social media outreach: Let the relevant audience know when you produce content such as blog posts or other informational material.
  • Contacting relevant influencers and sites that may be interested in linking with you
  • Submitting your website to directories of similar companies
  • Submitting your website to search engines
  • Ensure that relevant business associations have your correct link information for their published lists of websites
  • Publishing content such as articles and submitting them to directories allowing their members to publish the articles as long as they link to your site when they do so.

One method of finding sites to link with is to use a search engine such as Google and typing “submit link + keyword”. This will provide lists of potential link sites. Some of these are likely to be “reciprocal” link sites, which should be avoided as “traded” links such as this typically don’t help and can harm your search rankings. In addition, searching for authority sites in your industry and seeing who they have linked to is another way of finding potential sites to seek to approach.

Internal links are important too, having got a new unique user to your site you don’t necessarily want to send them away again. Linking between your own blogs, infographics and other sources helps your content work harder for you and shows search engines that your content is relevant

Anchor Text and its Importance

Anchor text is the clickable text that hyperlinks to another webpage, usually relevant articles, posts or recommended and associated websites. Anchor text is important for search engine rankings and best practice dictates that it is relevant to the page you are linking to rather than a non-specific anchor such as ‘click here’.

Use a range of anchor text including:

  • Branded – using the name of the site you are linking to
  • Naked – using the URL itself
  • Brand and keyword – using a longer anchor
  • Images -good for variation and attractive on the page
  • LSI or latent semantic intexting – using variations and synonyms of keywords
  • Exact match – an exact match to your keyword but be aware that too many of these and Google will penalise you)
  • Long tail – a long partial match anchor using your keyword among others

Optimise your site for mobile

With the rise of ever more powerful and user friendly smartphones more than half of Google searches are now made via mobile so ensuring your website is mobile friendly is key for ensuring that it is visible and hence ranks highly for mobile searches.

Understand Who is Visiting Your Site

Determining the nature of the traffic to your site is crucial when analysing the efficacy of your marketing efforts. It is also helpful in determining the characteristics of your audience. Traffic analysis tools such as Google Analytics can provide detailed metrics relating to traffic on your website. Factors to evaluate include:

  1. Where your traffic originates geographically.
  2. What type of browser/connecting software your visitors are using.
  3. What outside sites or links are being used to redirect visitors to your website.

Once you have a good handle on where traffic to your site is originating and how it gets to you this information can guide your SEO efforts.

Too much of a good thing

Having mastered all the best techniques for SEO, be careful not to get carried away. Search engines are in an arms race with webmasters who are constantly trying to artificially force up their site’s ranking. Google et al are trying to stop you gaming the system and will penalise you for what used to be quick wins. So it is possible to ‘over optimise’ your site by trying too hard – the art of successful SEO is to keep your site looking naturally good.