Small Business Guides
SEO for small business
6 min read
As a business owner, it’s important you understand that ranking highly in search engines is vital for your website. In fact, it could be your golden ticket to immense profits. But how? The answer is search engine optimisation (or SEO).
How SEO improves your website's visibility
SEO is the process of making your website visible in search engine results pages (or 'SERPs' as they’re often called). And what a process it is. The Google algorithm considers over 200 factors when determining what websites to show for a certain search term.
It all starts with your website. Google sends out automated 'robots' (also called 'spiders' or 'crawlers') to visit every accessible page on every website across the internet. These robots gather information on each webpage and store it all on the many Google servers located around the world. This way when someone searches for a term related to your site, the Google algorithm goes to work, processing all the information that has been collected from your site and similar sites. It then determines which sites are most authoritative and relevant to query. The results are presented in the form of an ordered list, with the best options at the top.
To simplify things, think of the web like your local library. Your site is a new book that has just arrived and the librarian is the Google robot. She gets familiar with your book and determines the most logical section to display it in. A visitor comes to the library and they aren’t aware your book exists but they’re interested in the genre or topic. So they head to the relevant section, explore the different titles and eventually decide to check out your book because it’s just what they’re looking for. Success!
SEO is constantly evolving
Website owners have been thinking about how to make their sites rank in search engines since the rise of the internet in the 1990s. Along the way, some SEO practitioners figured out ways to trick the algorithm into thinking their site was more relevant and authoritative than it actually was. This type of optimisation was coined 'black hat SEO'. It quickly became frowned upon due to the negative experience it created for web users. Some SEO techniques were originally acceptable (known as 'white hat') but moved into the black hat category as they became overused or as the web matured.
Search engine algorithms are consistently updated to make black hat techniques less effective. SEO is always in a state of evolution – so it’s important to remember that what mattered a few years ago could now be less effective or completely discouraged. If the Google crawlers identify black hat SEO on your website, your site could be penalised and drastically drop in search engine rankings. The best way to avoid black hat SEO is to always ask yourself if you are improving the experience on your site or providing valuable and original information. If the answer is 'yes', you can feel confident that your website is search-engine friendly.
Seven ways to optimise your website for search engines
If you ever tried to learn about SEO, you’ve likely heard dozens of different things you should do. It can be overwhelming trying to figure out where to start.
The best place to begin is with the list below:
These are the queries that your prospects would likely search for when looking your type of business. Start by coming up with the obvious ones and then use a keyword research tool to identify other terms that could direct people to your site. You can get an idea of how competitive terms are and how often they’re searched for and go from there. Once you have your keyword list determined, you need to make sure these terms exist throughout your site.
It’s important not to overuse keywords – search engines will penalise any content that looks spammy. Aim for roughly 2 percent keyword density.
- Page copy
It should contain your keywords but be sure not to overdo it. The Google crawlers read text just like us humans do, so it’s more important that copy is readable and well-written. Many people use their keywords too much in their website copy, thinking they are really letting Google know what terms they want to rank for. In reality, they are writing poor copy which makes for a bad experience on their website and can actually hurt their site’s ranking. Before you publish a new page, double-check your copy. If your grammar school English teacher wouldn’t like it, neither will search engine crawlers.
- Title tags
This is the copy the appears as the clickable link in SERPs and in the tab of most web browsers. It acts as the title for each individual page so it carries a lot of weight with search engines. You’ll need to make sure each title tag is unique, contains relevant keywords and follows a consistent format across your site. It’s best practice to include a keyword specific to the page. If you have space you should also include your brand name. It’s best to use a hyphen (-) or a vertical bar (|) to separate keywords from your brand name. Keep copy to under 55 characters to make sure it's not too long to display.
- Heading tags
There are six different heading tags you can use (from H1 to H6). H1 is the most important heading tag to search engines and should be applied to the page headline. It’s important not to use the H1 tag more than once per page, as it could result in an over-optimisation penalty with Google. The other title tags can be used multiple times on a single page. On a page that contains a lot of copy, the H1 tag can act as the headline and H2s can be applied to each sub headline. This format sends signals to the search engine crawlers, while also making for a strong user experience by breaking text into separate sections.
- URL structure
URLs present another opportunity to showcase your keywords to search engines. Be sure they’re included in the resource path – or the part of the URL that comes after the domain name or /. It’s best practice to use all lowercases and hyphens to separate words when optimising URLs. Here's a good example: rockyardshoes.com/running-shoes.
Search engine crawlers can't see images like humans so they rely on the code behind the image to understand what it is being displayed. They gather information from the alt tag, image title and filename.
- Alt tag text is the copy shown in place of an image when it can't be displayed – perhaps it failed to load, or the user is visually impaired and uses a screen reader. You should provide a brief explanation of the image for alt tag text. For example, 'Woman wearing running shoes’.
- Image title is the copy that appears when you hover the mouse over an image. The copy should build on the description the alt tag text provides. Think of it like an image caption. For example, ‘Orange running shoes for women’.
- Filename is the name applied to an image when it’s saved. For example image337.png isn’t great. But running-shoes-women.png is. Take a moment to make sure it is descriptive and only use lowercase text and separate words using hyphens.
- Meta descriptions
A meta description may seem daunting – but it’s just a name for the two lines of text that appear in search engine result pages under the clickable link and URL. If you don’t provide Google with a meta description, then it will display random text from your page that may mean nothing to a user. Meta descriptions no longer factor into search engine rankings, but they can help encourage searchers to visit your site by providing a preview of what’s in store. It’s best to keep the copy under 150-155 characters and to include a call to action. For example, 'Start your free trial today'.
This is what the HTML view of the title tag looks like
The title tag is the dark blue copy – this is what appears in SERPs
The HTML view of the meta description
Updating your website usually requires editing HTML code. However, many modern content management systems, like Squarespace, enable you to build and edit a website with no coding knowledge.
Commit to SEO for the long haul
Once your website is optimised for search engines, you’ll need to form an on-going SEO strategy. This is the hard part of SEO but it’s what will separate you from your competitors. Think of it like going to the gym. You need to devote time and energy, stick to a plan and patiently wait for results.
Three ways to provide visitors with great content
For the people at Google, the internet is all about the exchange of information. This means that the Google algorithm places a lot of weight on the quality of the content on your site how often you publish it.
Content is a blanket term that refers to the descriptive copy on your webpages, in addition to blog posts, articles, case studies, videos, infographics, slideshows and so on. Anything that provides valuable information and is accessible to search engine crawlers is considered content.
The key to producing great content for SEO purposes is to make it fresh, relevant and unique.
- Publish fresh new content frequently
This shows Google that your website is still active. Old content quickly goes stale if it’s in a prominent area of your site.
- Keep content relevant
Your content should be related to your website and what your business offers. Don’t stray off topic. It could confuse search engine crawlers, as well as visitors to your site.
- Always be unique
You should present information that is not available on other websites or at least in a different form than it exists on other websites. Never copy and paste content from other sites onto yours. It will do more harm than good.
The importance of inbound links
Links on other websites that point back to yours are known as 'inbound links' and play a huge role in obtaining favourable search engine rankings. If the web is all about exchanging information, then inbound links are essentially other sites endorsing what your site has to say.
Not all inbound links are created equal in the eyes of Google though. A single link from a major website like nytimes.com or bbc.co.uk can provide value equivalent to a dozen links from average websites.
Creating great content and obtaining inbound links go hand and hand. When you write a great blog post or guide, it’s going to influence Google crawlers. It’s also going to impress visitors to your site, who will want to share it on social media and link to it on their own websites.
Be visible to local searchers
If you run a brick-and-mortar business, you want your website to convince people in your community to visit in person. Optimising your site to appeal to people close to you is known as local SEO.
Be sure to include your location in your main keywords. If you run a seafood restaurant in Boston, you’ll want to be sure that your website is visible to local searchers seeking a seafood restaurant. You’ll want to optimise around the term 'seafood restaurant Boston' in order to let Google know where your restaurant is located.
It’s also important to sign up for a Google My Business account. This ensures that your business contact information is consistent across Google search, Maps and Google +. It also gives your business a greater presence in search results. Your customers can leave reviews, which naturally attracts new customers.
SEO will help your website succeed
As you can see, putting in place a strategy is essential if you want your business to succeed online. If you constantly improve your website and publish great content then you will have a better search engine ranking than your competitors. It’s that simple.