What Every Small Business Owner Needs To Know About SEO
What is SEO? SEO is an acronym that stands for search engine optimizer or search engine optimization. It is a person or process that leverages tools, techniques and best practices to position your unadvertised web page or business listing at or near the top of search engine results when people search for the products and/or services you sell.
At 30,000 feet, successful SEO depends on having:
- the “right” words on your website (so search engines think you’re relevant); and
- enough “votes” to be considered popular and authoritative.
The “right” words are the words people use when searching for your products and/or services. Votes are links, citations and social mentions of your business or website. The more you have, the more popular you’re perceived to be. Not all votes are considered equal. Votes from high-ranking, frequently trafficked and high interaction websites like Wikipedia, Amazon and Facebook are considered authoritative.
Web pages and business listings that contain the words people search for and lots of important inbound links, citations and social mentions are considered relevant, popular and authoritative. These are the pages that rank the highest on search engines.
There are hundreds of search engines. Google is, by far, the dominant player. You really only have to focus your optimization efforts on Google. If you rank well on Google, you tend to rank well on all the search engines.
Now lets break the “what is SEO” definition down into its component parts.
A process is simply a predefined way of doing something; one that can be repeated over and over again to produce an expected result. A search engine optimization process is one that will produce a high-ranking web page for the “right” words.
Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. In Figure 1 below, you can see an illustration of the search process from about 30,000 feet.
People search for words on the Internet. Search engines maintain an inventory of all the pages on the Internet, their words and measures of their popularity and authority. When another web page links to you or mentions you, it’s equivalent to a vote and boosts your perceived popularity. If you have votes from powerful pages like Wikipedia and educational institutions, you’re considered authoritative.
Figure 2 shows how SEO plays into that interaction. SEOs interact with search engines to discover the words people use to search for products and/or services on the Web. They share those findings with website owners, who then decide which words their prospects and customers are most likely to use. SEOs then sprinkle the “right” words (also known as keywords) throughout pages of the website. They work closely with website owners to craft additional content to serve as bait for inbound links and social mentions.
As a business owner, it’s important to understand that SEO is not something you can do once and forget about it. There are parts of the process that need to be repeated. You should, for example, be monitoring your web pages on a regular basis to see how well they are performing. You should always be looking for new opportunities to attract links and social mentions.
SEO is a process rather than a one-time event due to the dynamic, ever-changing nature of the industry.
- The rules (algorithms) search engines use to decide who ranks on top change, on average, daily.
- There is constant jockeying for first place – new entrants, existing players “upping the ante”, and of course the inevitable fallout that occurs when new rules are adopted.
We saw several examples of fallout in 2012 when Google rolled out a series of algorithm changes called Panda and Penguin. These targeted websites and web pages that housed poor quality content or had unnatural linking patterns. Many sites saw their rankings drop.
Business owners should seek out companies that adopt process because it means you’ll get a better return on investment. It means the SEO company is staying “plugged in” and not just looking for quick wins.
Process tends to surface problems and opportunities quickly. Humans don’t like doing the same thing over and over again if there is a way to do it faster or to produce a better result. We like to be efficient and productive. SEO companies that embrace process and take the time to reflect on lessons learned tend to adapt and produce more efficient and profitable results. Process helps SEO companies keep their cost structures down, their productivity up, and their outcomes superior.
Ask prospective SEO companies if they have a process for optimizing websites. Ask them to tell you the last time they reviewed it and made improvements.
There are 6 categories of paid and free tools that can be used to lessen the time-consuming workload of SEO, and to increase its transparency, efficiency and effectiveness.
- Search engine Webmaster tools provide feedback on a website’s configuration, health, and traffic.
- Keyword tools help SEOs discover the words and phrases people use to search for your products and services.
- Competitive Analysis tools help SEOs assess the ranking ease and commerciality of keyword phrases.
- Editing Tools are used to create and edit web pages.
- Link building tools are used to discover link building opportunities and to automate some the more repetitive tasks associated with link acquisition.
- Reporting tools streamline our ability to measure progress and performance.
As a business owner, the tools you’ll probably care most about are the last grouping. You definitely want a way to measure your return on investment.
Don’t forget about these other tools though. Just like when business processes are used, tools create opportunities for SEO companies to pass cost savings and quality improvements on to you. Tools produce consistent outcomes that shorten the learning curve and provide a meaningful basis for comparison.
Techniques used to optimize a web page fall into three main categories:
- white hat;
- black hat; and
- grey hat.
White hat techniques comply with Google’s guidelines and will stand the test of time. An example of a white hat optimization technique is finding the words (keywords) people use to search for your product or service on the Web, and using those words sparingly, and in the right places, in your content.
Black hat is the opposite. Google has explicitly expressed disapproval of the technique, and threatens banishment or penalty if you’re caught. An example of a black hat technique is over-using (stuffing) or hiding keywords in your content.
Grey hat is a blend of the two, a tactic that doesn’t clearly fall into one or the other camps. It’s not clear how search engines will react. These practices are best avoided.
Business owners should steer clear of SEO companies that toy with grey and/or black hat optimization techniques. Always ask a SEO if he or she follows Google guidelines. Google offers additional tips and suggestions for how to vet a SEO company about half way down their what is SEO page.
Best practices are the techniques that have become a defacto standard for search engine optimization. They consistently deliver results that are superior to those produced by alternative means.
In the SEO industry, there are generally agreed-upon best practices for:
- URLs (Uniform Resource Locator or the unique address of a Web page);
- content (also referred to as on-page SEO and copywriting);
- meta tags (title, description, keyword, robots); and
- internal and external links.
SEOMoz is a respected leader in the SEO world and a good source for best practices. A Google search for SEOMoz and “best practice” is an easy way to find their suggestions.
We offer our own best practices for SEO copywriting. Ours are written specifically for small business owners, whereas SEOMoz typically targets an audience of SEO professionals. The two complement each other.
Business owners should ask prospective SEO companies about their best practices, which ones they use and why. It will you give a sense of how mainstream and industry compliant the company is.
A web page is unit of content that can be uniquely referenced and viewed on the World Wide Web using a browser such as Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, Safari, or Mozilla Firefox. From a search engine optimization (SEO) perspective, it’s important to know that web pages are optimized, not web sites.
For your site to be optimized, more often than not, the content on the pages you want to produce results is going to have to change. At the very least, the pages are going to have to contain the keywords you want to rank highly for. This is one of many reasons why it’s good to bring a SEO on board when you are first designing your website. It prevents the need for redesign, rebuilding and retesting.
Search engines need a way to determine whether your page has the potential to satisfy a search query. It does that by comparing the words in an incoming query to the words on your page. If there’s a match, your page will be eligible to rank.
The key take-away for business owners is the knowledge that your website is going to have to contain the words people use to search for your products and/or services in order for you to rank well. Ideally we don’t recommend purchasing a domain name or designing and building a website until your know what those are so you can avoid the aforementioned cost of rework. If you already have a website, you will need to modify some of its content to reflect your chosen keywords after-the-fact.
The target audience of any SEO effort should always be the business owner’s prospects and customers:
- not search engines;
- not “anybody”;
- but a very specific and defined categorization of people who are in the market to shop for and purchase your goods and/or your services.
A good SEO values your time and respects your budget. He or she spends time learning what makes your business and customers unique. There is no point, for example, in trying to capture a high-ranking position for “meat lovers pizza”, or “pizza” by itself for that matter, if your business makes and serves vegetarian pizza only.
Again it’s all about “fit”. “Pizza” might drive more traffic to your website, but it’s going to take a lot longer and cost more money to rank well for “pizza” than it would for a more focused term like “vegetarian pizza”. Not only that, you risk disappointing visitors who arrive on the site only to find out it does not have what they’re looking for. These visitors tend to bounce (leave after only one page view). High bounce rates will lower your site’s rankings and your time, effort and dollars will have been wasted.
Ask prospective SEO companies to tell you the type of information they will want to gather at your first meeting. If they express no interest in trying to understand your unique value proposition, customers and goals, they might not have an appropriate focus. Ask them to tell you how they will ensure your website attracts the “right” audience. Ask them how they decide which keywords to recommend. Use answers to these questions to gauge their business savvy. SEO and technical understanding is simply not enough.
Search Engine Results
Search engine results are best explained by way of an example. I’ll use Google, because, as stated earlier, it commands the largest search audience.
In the screen shot to above, I have typed a very broad search term, “pizza near Philadelphia”, into Google’s search engine. Three different types of search results were returned:
- Sponsored or Pay-Per-Click (PPC) search results are shown on the top left of the page with a manila-shaded background. Website owners bid for the right to appear in paid search results, and pay a fee every time a searcher clicks on one of their links.
- Below that are organic (unsponsored) search results. These results represent web pages that meet Google’s organic requirements for relevancy, popularity and authority for the search term “pizza near Philadelphia”. In other words, Google thinks these are the best results available to match the searcher’s intent. Google does not charge page owners a fee to appear in organic search results.
- To the right and bottom are local search results. Local results are displayed when a business listing satisfies Google’s requirements for proximity, relevance, popularity and authority for a given keyword or keyword phrase. If no listings qualify, then no local results are displayed. Google does not charge for listing appearances in search results.
Search engine optimization (SEO) only pertains to the first two of these three categories – organic and local.
Sponsored results (also known as Google Adwords and pay-per-click PPC advertising) live together with SEO in an even broader category of Internet marketing called Search Engine Marketing (SEM). You can get really quick results from Google Adwords, but you need to proceed forward with caution as it can grow to be expensive quickly.
Search engine optimization or SEO is a way to increase your website’s rankings on search engines. Rankings matter. The top 3 websites in any industry earn 65% of the total industry’s online revenue.
SEO is a repeatable process that can produce remarkable outcomes when the right tools, techniques and best practices are put to use. Business owners should seek out companies who have a strong business orientation and value efficiency and quality in order to earn the best return on investment.
Was this explanation of “what is SEO” helpful? Do you still have questions? Please let me know in the comments so we can discuss.