Websites are to small business success today what door-to-door sales were to the success of Kirby vacuums in the ’80s. Despite the pop culture ribbing the company may now receive, their door-to-door sales efforts made Kirby Vacuum Cleaners a household name in suburban neighborhoods throughout the country. That marketing plan worked because of the consumer psychology at the time. On-page SEO and keyword research are integral parts of any small business Internet marketing plan – very much because consumers today demand more than what a single pitch from a salesperson can provide. For every product or service that exists in the world, there are numerous sources wanting to provide it.
Thanks to the Internet, a housewife in Arizona can hop on the computer and order a vacuum cleaner from a guy in New Hampshire without ever changing out of her PJ’s. And Billy Businessman in New Hampshire can thank the search engines for leading Bonnie Buyer from Arizona right to his virtual storefront. Not only is that kind of on-demand information and instant gratification great for consumers, but Internet marketing is the door that many small businesses need to target a nationwide audience, rather than being limited to a specific local or regional geographic area. On-Page SEO and keyword research are the keys that help today’s small business owner open that door!
The “CliffsNotes” Explanation of SEO
Simply put, SEO refers to the strategy behind achieving a strong natural ranking in the search engine results for specific keywords/keyword phrases. It is essential that a small business owner know what applicable terms are most popular with the people searching for their products or services. Keyword research will help to identify the most popular target terms in a given industry. When it comes to optimizing a site for the search engines, identifying the most popular target terms through keyword research should be atop the to-do list.
There are basically two core aspects of Search Engine Optimization: “on-page SEO” and “off-page SEO”. On-page refers to making specific changes to the source code of a website page. Common on-page topics include, but are not limited to: META tags, headings, text content, keyword density, ALT attributes, etc. Off-page refers to the tactics employed to build the site’s reputation (or “authority”) with the search engines by building links from other sources and utilizing a variety of Social Media / Social Networking resources to expose your site, and therefore your small business, to potential visitors. Links and visitors, as well as the authority that comes with both, can come from a variety of sources, like blogs, forums, discussions, online directories and social bookmarking sources like Del.icio.us and StumbleUpon – all of which fall into the category of off-page SEO.
Small Business Owners Better Get In The Game
Marketing has changed. I no longer have to settle for the products I can find in my hometown…I can order a handbag from the other side of the world, if I so choose. Thanks to search engines, a great deal on a Louis Vuitton knock-off is never more than a few keystrokes away. For that reason, websites and search engines are major marketing avenues of choice for large and small businesses alike.
The reason for the shift is that consumers, today more so than ever before, are turning to search engines to find important information about the products and services they need or want. They also use the Internet to find information about the companies they’re considering doing business with. The bigger and better your reputation is online (meaning the more interaction you choose to have with potential visitors), the more search users are apt to find you through a wide variety of sources – not JUST search engines.
Being a success in small business today means having to embrace a big picture mentality. Internet marketing has helped to level the playing field for many small business owners. Taking the time to implement a proper strategy that incorporates both off-page and on-page SEO can provide a small business with as much Internet exposure as a major corporation. Within the natural or organic search results, the financial resources of a corporation mean nothing. Organic results are unbiased (meaning you can’t “pay” for a position within the natural ranking) and rely essentially on how search engine friendly the site is from a design standpoint, as well as a number of off-page factors like link popularity.
Whether you already have a website or it is on your “to-do” list, it’s never too late to get started with keyword research. Once you know the specific terms your site should target, you can move on to the other the tasks ahead of you. Those tasks include everything from developing unique META tags for each page of the site to creating keyword-rich, robust text content for the pages being optimized. There will be future posts on these topics. You can’t hope to build a search engine friendly site without starting somewhere – and that “somewhere” is keyword research.
On-Page SEO Strategies Depend On Keyword Research
Small businesses whose marketing plans exclude online marketing struggle to succeed, and typically end up failing in the long run. That is a harsh reality of the Information Age. That said, simply having a website isn’t enough…not only must the site exist, consumers must be able to find it. Learning more about SEO can help you understand how to help consumers find your site more easily…and what the search engines look for in a “search engine friendly” website.
When a user inputs the phrase “refurbished bose speakers” into a search query, the search engines’ goal is to list the sites that provide the most useful, relevant and popular information about “refurbished bose speakers” that exists in the index. SEO helps to ensure that sites which have been optimized to target the term “refurbished bose speakers” appear more highly in the results, making those sites easier to find. Keyword research can help you determine the most popular terms the apply to your site and greatly increase the potential traffic to it!
SEO vs. SEM?
SEO is the acronym for “Search Engine Optimization”, while “SEM” is the acronym for “Search Engine Marketing”. But aren’t they the same thing, you ask? No…they’re not the same thing at all. Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is dedicated solely to improving the ranking of a website within the natural or organic SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages). Search Engine Marketing, or SEM, basically refers to any and everything that goes into generating business through the search engines – including, but not limited to: pay-per-click advertising, lead generation services, banner advertising, etc. Both rely a great deal on keyword research to identify the terms most often used by consumers in a search.
Organic vs. Pay-Per-Click
How easily visitors find a site depends on it’s position within the search results. The ultimate goal of SEO is to help search engines identify the most user-friendly sites and position them near the top of the natural search results. Sites that aren’t properly optimized to be user-friendly must rely on pay-per-click advertising campaigns and appear within the “Sponsored…” or “Featured…” results above, below or beside the organic listings.
SEO is dedicated to ranking a site well in the natural listings – helping to eliminate the a potentially large pay-per-click investment. A natural listing can drive a thousand visitors to your site a day without costing you a dime. The same thousand visitors from a pay-per-click campaign could cost in excess of $100…$500…$1000 or more, depending on the cost-per-click. And there is no guarantee that any of the thousand pay-per-click visitors will convert into incoming revenue. That’s a pretty big financial gamble for most small business owners.
So, what’s the best alternative to pay-per-click? Learn the best practices of SEO in order to create a search engine friendly website that will rank well in the natural results, that’s what. Ignorance is often costly when it comes to online marketing – like the assumption that pay-per-click advertising will lead to more sales. It has been my experience using SEO to achieve high rankings in the natural search results lead to greater conversion of site visitors into paying customers.
Sold – What’s Next?
Start with keyword research. Nothing else matters unless you know what terms people use to find your products or services in a search. You’ve got a lot of work ahead of you as it is, not doing keyword research is the best way to guarantee you’ll have to do it all twice. Aspiring small business owners must be prepared to wear many hats. There is a lot more to marketing a successful small business than there was before the advent of the Internet. The success or failure of many small business today hinges on consumers finding a website on the Internet. Having a better understanding of SEO and how search engines drive traffic to websites is essential to your success.
Keyword research will provide you with invaluable information – and, provided that you are willing to do the work yourself, all it will cost you is time. There are hundreds of self-proclaimed “SEO experts” out there ready to take your money. As with many aspects of running a small business, doing some or all of the SEO work yourself will be a far less expensive route. It’s not that it won’t cost you anything – but the cost will be time, rather than money. The real question is whether you’re willing to learn how to do the required work yourself or whether you should hire an SEO firm to do it for you.
DIY (do-it-yourself) or DIFM (do-it-for-me)?
There is literally nothing that an SEO firm can do to improve a site’s ranking that you can’t do yourself, if you’re willing to learn what to do and how to do it. Whether you decide to hire an firm to do the legwork for you or invest the time to do it yourself, you should still have a basic understanding of the process. At the very least, I would recommend doing some keyword research on your own. Even if you ultimately decide to hire someone to do the work, you will have the peace of mind of knowing whether the terms they suggest you target are ever used in a search. You can tell a lot about the legitimacy of an SEO company based on the terms they provide you with as “target terms”. It’s not much of a gamble to guarantee a page one ranking for “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious cupcakes”…ranking on page one for “iPods”, on the other hand – that’s another story altogether.
DIY On-Page SEO Step One: Detailed Keyword Research
A successful SEO strategy hinges upon identifying the most popular target terms that apply to the site. Imagine you’re on a ship at sea…you want to chart a course for the nearest port, but have no idea where to go or even where you are. A navigation system not only knows where you are, but can also chart a course for any destination you desire. Keyword research is like turning on a ship’s navigation system…leading the way toward increased website traffic like a lighthouse on the shore. Keyword research should be the very first task on any SEO “to-do” list.
First, make a list of all of the terms you believe search users would input into a search query. Remember, the more keywords and keyword phrases included on your original list, the more complete your research will be! Once you’ve completed the list, you can use one of many free keyword research tools available. While there are numerous keyword research tools out there, here are two of my favorites:
SEO Book – good comparative data on average daily search volume from Google, Yahoo!, MSN, etc.
Keyword Discovery – cumulative data from a variety of sources indicating search volume over twelve months
Creating an SEO strategy is really like putting together a puzzle, with a good ranking in search engines being the finished picture on the box. Just like every puzzle is different, so is every website’s SEO strategy. While I’m no puzzle master, it has been my experience that it’s easier to put together the outside edges of the puzzle first. Think of the terms you identify through keyword research like the outside of the puzzle…providing structure and organization as you piece together the rest of the big picture. Without a doubt, all SEO strategies require proper keyword research before any work is done to the site itself.
Guarantees From “SEO Companies”
SEO horror stories aren’t hard to find. It’s not uncommon for me to hear, “I found a company that guarantees I’ll be on page one of Google for “weight loss” in 7-10 days…and it’s only going to cost me $2,000 up front and $100 a month…I have to sign a year contract, but its guaranteed, so…”. I’m sure you did. And I’m sure they’re a reputable company and that guarantee doesn’t sound at all like it could be TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE.
There are many search marketing firms out there ready to take advantage of your SEO ignorance. Sorry, but it’s true. They’ll often approach business owners with promises of increased traffic and sales – which are both reasonable expectations of any worthwhile SEO strategy. What should raise a red flag are the promises that seem too good to be true…like “page 1 in 7 days…” and “10,000 links within 48 hours…”. Like most everything else, there are proper ways and improper ways to achieve the same goal. Many SEO companies sacrifice long term results for short term gains, because they know by the time your domain is thrown out of Google, they’ll already have your money.
That’s right, thrown out of Google. Sites discovered employing what are considered “black hat” tactics are simply banned from the index altogether – never to be allowed to return. What good does it do to con Google into ranking a site on page one, only to have the site kicked out completely a few months later? Unless you only intend to keep your small business open for 6 months, you should look into a better online marketing strategy – I’d suggest doing SEO the right way!
Be leery of any SEO firm that offers a guarantee…particularly guarantees of “page 1 rankings…” and “page 1 of Google in 7 days or less…”. If Matt Cutts can’t guarantee the top position in Google for $500,000, I certainly don’t see how anyone else can.