It’s an age-old battle.
The family-run small business battling for visibility in a world of goliath corporations. However, where bottomless pockets for advertising and brand recognition have always been small businesses’ biggest threats, there’s a new digital front that’s evening out the playing field.
Small business SEO, or search engine optimization, is an often overlooked and misunderstood tool that every entrepreneur has access to. It takes time to nurture and see real results—sometimes up to 12 months—but SEO has lasting benefits that can completely overhaul a small business’s bottom line.
In 1996, Bill Gates wrote an article that predicted just how powerful content marketing on the Internet would become for the smaller players.
“Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting…But the broad opportunities for most companies involve supplying information or entertainment. No company is too small to participate.”
Since then, SEO has evolved to include more than just content marketing on blogs. Yet no matter how much it’s changed to incorporate eCommerce SEO or local SEO, one thing has remained consistent.
Small business SEO lets anyone compete for a place on Google’s most coveted first page.
How SEO benefits small businesses
Why engage in SEO over other marketing channels like social media, email, or paid ads?
SEO combined with content marketing (like blogging, for example) takes the lead in return-on-investment (ROI) compared to other digital marketing channels. In fact, companies with blogs bring in 68% more leads than those without.
SEO is a long-term strategy that sees true results months down the road, but when that happens it can drive stable revenue with very little intervention. For small businesses without a designated marketing manager, a hands-off approach to marketing makes the most sense. Additionally, SEO is a form of inbound marketing that draws in customers who are already searching for you.
On the other hand, paid ads on social media and search engines have instant visibility, but they drive up costs for every click and require constant oversight to perform well.
Email marketing and social media management both also need almost daily in-house care to ensure successful campaigns.
As an SEO agency and small business itself, Markitors has seen first-hand how powerful SEO is. Appearing on Google’s first page for “digital marketing company” and other similar terms has meant we’ve never needed to run paid ads. We also have never had to pick up the phone for a single cold call. With SEO, customers who are searching for our services find us on their own.
How does small business SEO work for other companies?
Well, measuring success starts with identifying clear goals for SEO.
1. Replace expensive paid ads
Some industries face steep competition for paid ads, with Google Ads’ cost per clicks sometimes ranging upwards of $20. If 10 people click on your ad in a day but quickly leave your site, you’ve already spent $200 without a lead. Small business SEO can replace that spend with a steady stream of web traffic and without the daily costs.
Small business insights
“This is probably true for any business, but adoption is a very cutthroat and competitive area. […]. As an example, the cost per click for “I want to give my baby up for adoption” is about $18, and it’s very, very hard to predict what expectant mothers will be Googling for. We’re only three years old and our attorney recently told us that, based on our last fiscal year, we might be the largest agency in our state, and he works with a lot of adoption agencies. I attribute that to a lot of things, but very, very much so the long-term work that Markitors has done on our site.”
2. Increase the number of new leads
Companies may choose to continue to run paid ads and are looking for additional marketing channels to drive leads.
Small business insights
“Approximately 75% of all new business over the last three years is the direct result of marketing. While Markitors previously handled all marketing aspects, they helped us internalize the management process a year ago, so I like to think this success is a sign of our effective partnership.”
This staffing agency started their SEO engagement in January 2015, when their website was bringing in the paid ad equivalent of $100 each month. In other words, the organic search queries taking visitors to the site were the equivalent of $100 if coming from paid ads instead. Their website now sees around $10,000 of traffic value each month. Needless to say, they no longer have a need for paid ads.
Small business insights
“In the last year and a half, we’ve probably come close to doubling sales because of SEO. Our phones are growing and we have to try hard to keep up with our emails.”
3. Boost website visits coming from search engines
While more leads are usually the goal for SEO, sometimes the objective is to simply raise brand awareness by driving more traffic to a site.
Small business insights
“Our small, niche, regional site often drives more traffic to clients’ career portal than our clients’ LinkedIn and Glassdoor profiles. Additionally, [Markitors’] comprehensive ROI reporting has helped us retain, renew, and update clients. I’m looking to double my client-base this year, and if we succeed, it will be because of the ROI story and messaging Markitors has created for us.”
Seeing SEO churn more profit for small businesses speaks for itself, but it’s important to understand exactly why SEO works. These statistics paint a picture of why SEO has become increasingly widespread in even the most basic of marketing strategies.
45% of small businesses don’t have a website
Even in this digital age where the first place people look for information is a search engine, almost half of small businesses don’t have a website. Word-of-mouth is the most common way that customers receive information from a small business. However, even if the 45% of “website-less” businesses rely purely on word-of-mouth, they are missing out on a massive amount of referrals from search engines like Google. Lost sales for them, but ripe opportunity for you to compete.
53% of shoppers always do research before they buy to make the best choice
Information about a company, product, or service is only a quick Google search away. People want to learn more before buying through websites, reviews, images and competitors. Without clear online visibility, you’re leaving a hole of knowledge that may push customers elsewhere.
The most used channels for research before making an online purchase include website (74%), email (43%), social media (38%) and retailer’s mobile apps (36%)
Regardless of what generation your customers represent, this statistic proves that an optimized website is a must. Even if your product sells through a third-party platform, such as Amazon, nearly three-fourths of buyers will go hunting after more information on your company website.
The 1st result in Google’s organic search results has an average click-through-rate of 31.7%
Almost one-third of people who search on Google will click on the first result. And, the chances of your website getting seen after that fall a staggering amount. In fact, only 0.78% of Google searchers clicked on something from the second page. Third page? Forget it.
46% of all searches on Google are seeking local information
Local customers are out there and not all of them will talk to a neighbor for recommendations. If half of Google searches are for local businesses, you need to make yourself visible.
97% of people learn more about a local company via the internet
Where to start with your SEO journey as a small business
People are afraid of technology and unfamiliar acronyms.
And yet, the remarkable thing about SEO is that everything you need to know lives on the Internet.
Worldwide, over 90% of searches happen on Google, which is why the SEO industry focuses so heavily on this massive search engine. The constantly evolving Google algorithm remains largely a mystery, so education and best practices around SEO rely heavily on Google’s limited statements, extensive studies, marketing experience and sometimes shady rumors.
There’s a lot of noise out there, so where do you start to unravel this complex topic?
We’ll cover the basics below, but these are a few of our favorite beginner-friendly resources to help get started.
- Google’s Official SEO Starter Guide
- SEO Basics from Ahrefs (our go-to SEO software)
- SEO Training Course from Hubspot (interactive course with videos)
- Beginner’s Guide to SEO from Moz
Identifying quality SEO
Whether you are interested in spearheading your own small business SEO initiatives or trusting an SEO agency with your website’s growth, it’s necessary to distinguish between good and bad SEO.
Why does it matter?
There’s no official governing body over the Internet telling websites what they can and can’t post. However, search engines like Google have complete control over the quality of content that appears in their results.
How does Google choose first page results?
Google filters through billions of pages to decide which best match a search query—all within a second. But, what exactly makes it to the top and why?
Google states that its algorithm considers a few key factors when deciding on the winning results:
- Meaning of your query
- Relevance of webpages
- Quality of content
- Usability of webpages
- Context and settings
Ultimately, search engines make money from finding the best content to satisfy people’s search queries. SEO’s role is to optimize webpages to link together search queries with content that best fulfills what Google and humans want to see.
Google’s official guidelines
Because Google is where the majority of search happens, let’s get a closer look at what Google considers best practice.
- Create high-quality content that your visitors are looking for
- This is the absolute center of SEO. Ultimately, the number of keywords on a page or how fast your website loads won’t determine successful SEO alone. There is no magic formula without good content.
- Only natural links are useful for the indexing and ranking of your site.
- Links back from other sites indicate that your website is valuable. However, Google’s algorithms can identify natural and unnatural links. Manual manipulation of links won’t help you.
- All pages should be linked from somewhere else on the site.
- Information on each page should be accessible to both web crawlers and visitors alike.
- Meta title and descriptions should be unique and accurately describe what’s on the page
- Meta info hints to search engines what a page is about and is what visitors see on search result pages, as illustrated below.
- Logically format content with header tags
- Formatting and headers better organize thoughts and make it easier to navigate through a page
- Descriptive URLs better organizes sites
- Rather than having a page named markitors.com/y872310931h, for example, it would be better to name it markitors.com/seo-services. This makes it easier for others to link, reference and visit.
Unfortunately, not everyone has the long-term, sustainable results that come with Google’s guidelines in mind. Some find it easier to use disapproved tactics for faster SEO gains.
All the corner-cutting and shady individuals looking to make a quick buck off uninformed clients have given way to two distinct camps in the SEO world: black and white hat SEO.
Black vs white hat
Black hat SEO attempts to trick search engines with deceptive practices. In worst cases, Google can even ban websites affiliated with these tactics from appearing on their results at all.
These tactics have evolved over the years to keep up with algorithm changes, but here are a few persistent indicators of black hat SEO:
- Keyword stuffing, or using the same keyword an unnatural amount on a page
- Publishing a lot of low-quality content
- Buying links to your site
- Spamming links to a website in comments
On the other hand, white hat SEO works with search engine’s guidelines to achieve healthy long-term results.
This is how white hat SEO looks.
Understanding SEO foundations
There are a lot of moving parts that go into search engine optimization.
In the end, all SEO pillars work together for a common purpose and include on-page, off-page, technical, local, eCommerce and reporting.
On-page SEO focuses on the visible part of a website. That means anything from meta information that visitors see on search engines to the words on a blog.
This is a central focus for any SEO strategy, whether a business has a physical location or only an eCommerce store.
On-page SEO includes:
- Keyword research
- Content on the homepage, blog posts, service pages and any other customer-facing anchor page that draws customers from search engines
- Meta titles and descriptions that visitors see in search engines before deciding to click on a result
- User- and search engine-friendly URLs
- User- and search engine-friendly formatting
- Image optimization
- Internal linking between pages on the same site
The joining factor between all these areas is keyword research. Keyword research identifies a commonly searched query that best describes what a page is about. It takes into account search intent (what people expect to find when they search a query), difficulty in competing against already published pages and company goals.
Off-page SEO zeros in on external signals that build a site’s overall authority on the Internet. A better domain authority means it’s easier to compete and rank highly for desired keywords on Google.
Because large companies have a natural advantage in brand recognition both off- and online, off-page SEO is an important area for small businesses to build up.
Off-page SEO includes:
- Social media signals created by driving website traffic from social channels and having popular shared content pointing back to your site
- Naturally acquired links back to your site
Link-building is often a focus of black hat SEO simply because it’s so difficult to do. So, how do you get other websites to link to your site without paying or using spammy tactics?
*Unpaid* guest posts and digital PR are both authoritative, Google-approved methods to build up off-page SEO. Finding these opportunities takes a lot of leg-work, but the results are well worth it. Think about off-page SEO like traditional PR, where getting your name published and having others talk about you increases authority in your field.
Technical SEO encompasses the SEO on your website that you can’t see on the front-end. These are factors that impact how well on-page SEO performs by improving communication with search engines.
Technical SEO includes:
- Mobile usability
- Site speed
- Structured data
- Website migrations
- Managing indexing and crawling errors
- Site structure
Because of all the jargon and technical processes, technical SEO can seem daunting. However, you shouldn’t ignore it and forge ahead with creating an endless stream of blogs. Doing so may create complicated problems in the long run that can impact site performance and be difficult to fix later.
Local SEO is a small business’ bread and butter to increase online visibility through SEO.
On Google, local SEO helps any business with a physical location appear on Google’s first page for local features and Google My Business profiles, as well as Google Maps.
Whereas a general search may pull results from companies around the world, a search with a specified location renders location-specific results. Additionally, having location turned on within a browser means users can search “near me” with results from their immediate area.
This is where local SEO comes into play.
Three main factors feed into local SEO: distance, relevance and prominence. Distance is how far your business is from the location specified in a search. Relevance is how closely your website and Google My Business information lines up with what someone is looking for. And finally, prominence factors in business citations across the web, reviews and position in web results.
Local SEO efforts focus on optimizing for the relevance and prominence, as distance isn’t something you can change.
If you’re a business with an online eCommerce shop, then SEO will take a slightly different direction.
Two-thirds of consumers will start a new product search directly on Amazon, so it’s more important than ever for small business eCommerce sites to boost visibility across all channels, Google included.
eCommerce SEO includes:
- Keyword research
- Category page optimization with unique page descriptions
- Product page optimization with unique product descriptions
- User- and search engine-friendly URLs
- User- and search engine-friendly formatting
- Image optimization
eCommerce SEO attempts to match your products with customers who are ready to buy. Additionally, content marketing through a blog uses SEO to answer frequently asked questions, explain product features and compare product types. This avenue is a less direct, but equally effective tactic to bring customers to your site.
Reporting and analytics
Conversion tracking and results monitoring ensure that you’re actively working towards your goals. Data also helps to adjust strategies and craft future ones to account for successes and shortcomings in performance.
In addition, there are several SEO-specific tools that provide further insights on what keywords each page on your site has visibility for. Many also come with audit features to improve technical SEO and backlinking profiles to gauge where your site stands against the competition.
DIY checklist before hiring an SEO agency
An SEO agency isn’t right for every small business. Often, there are many basic steps to tackle on your own before seeking help.
1. Build designated landing pages that describe each product or service
An SEO agency will only know as much as you tell them or what they find on your website. Small businesses may come with a wishlist of keywords to focus on, but if their website doesn’t have pages about these unique services already, an agency will have to lean heavily on clients to build those pages with company-specific information. There is no need to pay someone else to transcribe what it is you do.
2. Include adequate and updated information on existing pages
All existing web pages should have enough information for both customers and an agency to understand what you do. The keyword research and SEO can come later, but you can’t optimize without valuable content present.
3. Organize your SEO objectives
Not yet sure what you’re hoping to accomplish through small business SEO? Understanding your own clear goals, such as replacing ad spend, will set an SEO agency up for success from the get-go so everyone can be on the same page.
Advice from small businesses who have worked with Markitors:
“Come to the first meeting prepared and know what results you want. They’re not mind-readers, and people mostly come in without feedback asking for a company to blindly make them money. Be able to vocalize what you want so Markitors has a fighting chance.”
“View them as an extension of your team and a part of your family. It’ll help create a really good relationship.”
4. Understand SEO basics
Learning about SEO seems counterintuitive if you’re seeking out expert help. However, the best partnerships happen when a small business is knowledgeable about an SEO agency’s activities and strategy. This also lends a level of trust, because you won’t be in the dark about what’s going on.
5. Set up Google Analytics and Search Console
These reporting tools are essential for any SEO activity and provide insights on everything from search engine traffic to the queries that people are using to find you. They are completely free for anyone to set up and allow website owners to give viewing permissions to third-parties, such as SEO agencies.
What does an SEO agency do?
Small business owners and in-house marketing managers can tackle the SEO basics on their own. However, once you get into the weeds, further work requires deeper expertise.
SEO agencies consist of subject matter experts in various SEO areas, such as local SEO, content strategy, technical SEO and reporting. They’ll also have a designated point person like an account manager to communicate with clients.
An established SEO agency will have a whole team working on a single client. This in-depth knowledge in each space is a strong advantage over freelancers and in-house employees who have split priorities and limited experience.
How much does an SEO agency cost?
As a small business, marketing costs need to be both affordable and worth every penny.
Some self-declared “affordable SEO services” fall as low as $100 or less a month. However, these services oftentimes deliver an equal value, meaning low-quality freelanced content, little transparency and a superficial job. They may deliver fancy reports with lots of big, technical words and numbers, but at the end of the day, you won’t see substantial results.
Small businesses need unique, strategic plans to grow their SEO to a level on par with the largest players and corporations. As stated before, SEO won’t get you anywhere unless you’ve made it to Google’s first page. Even if you achieve second or third-page results, the investment won’t be worth it if less than 1% of potential customers make it that far.
A healthy SEO package for small businesses should at the very least include on-page and technical SEO management. For small businesses with physical locations, local SEO is also crucial.
So, how much does quality SEO for small businesses cost on average? You can expect a well-rounded service to range from $1000-$3000 each month.
How to partner with an SEO agency for small businesses
The most successful SEO partnerships happen when small businesses have clear objectives, constantly communicate and trust an SEO agency to do what’s best for SEO. Working closely together to align company objectives with SEO expertise ensures that agencies have clear direction and businesses are empowered to know exactly what to expect.
If you’re a small business looking to learn more about how SEO can boost digital visibility and attract more leads in a sustainable, long-term strategy, contact us for a free consultation.