A good small business strategy starts with a clear idea of who your target audience is and how your offering is different from that of your competitors.
Good SEO is no different. Small businesses compete directly against larger competitors in the realm of search results. But by knowing your niche and using resources effectively, small businesses can still win the attention of people searching for information related to their business.
What is SEO?
SEO, or search engine optimization, is the practice of making your business’s online content more easily discoverable in search engines. The goal of SEO is to have your website show up on the search engine results page (SERP) when people search for terms related to your business. Google handles the vast majority of all searches online, so most SEO practices focus on optimizing for Google. Other search engines, such as Bing and Yandex, follow similar principles to Google.
SEO success is typically measured by the number of clicks to your website from search engines. This is often split into branded clicks that name a company (e.g. a search for “Nike shoes”) and non-branded clicks (e.g., a search for “basketball shoes”). Both are important, but many businesses put more value on non-branded clicks, since those searches are more likely to come from potential new customers. These clicks are also referred to as organic traffic, in contrast to paid search traffic, which comes from links that companies pay to place high up in the search results.
SEO involves technical work such as making your business’s website load faster, and marketing work, such as writing educational articles and asking your customers for reviews. Succeeding in SEO requires a strategy that unifies both kinds of work, as well as the resources to execute.
Whether you’re launching a new product, building a web presence for your retail location, or starting a dropshipping business, when you’re trying to sell online you have an important problem to solve: How do you get customers to find your store?Set up SEO for your site
How SEO can benefit small businesses
SEO may at first seem intimidating to small business owners who don’t specialize in it. But it can have several benefits, including:
When small businesses show up in search engines for search terms related to their business, they increase their visibility to new customers. For example, a leather shoemaker with an ecommerce store might gain new customers through referrals or social media. But if its website also shows up when people search for “leather shoes,” that will greatly increase the business’s brand awareness and potential customer base.
Cost-effective, targeted marketing
Advertising campaigns on social media, in newspapers, or on billboards, require a constant stream of ad dollars. Many of those dollars are spent on showing ads to people who may never become customers—only a small percentage of people who see the ad at any time may be interested in your product.
SEO works differently. It can take a longer time to start working, since it may take weeks or months for search engine results to change based on a change to your site. But when your business is ranking well in search results, it doesn’t cost money. Your content will also primarily reach people searching for specific keywords related to your business, making them much more likely to be a fit as a customer.
Studies show that consumers view showing up in search engines as a form of “social proof.” They trust that search engines like Google have mechanisms in place to understand which businesses are high-quality and relevant to their search. So if your business ranks highly, it is likely to help potential customers trust you.
Improving your business’ rankings on search engines can take months, or even years, to achieve. Ranking relies on your website’s track record over time, the quality of its content, and the perceived trustworthiness of your site. Once your business does rank highly on a search engine, though, its longevity, content, and authority act as a competitive “moat” that makes it difficult for other small businesses to easily outrank you.
How to implement an SEO strategy for your business
To succeed in small business SEO, you need to demonstrate to search engines that your business is a relevant, high-quality option for searchers. Here are four steps to tailor your web content to search engine criteria:
1. Keyword research and implementation
The first step in an SEO strategy is identifying what searches or words, called “keywords,” you want your business to rank for. A robust keyword strategy includes analysis of relevant keywords—their search volume, competitiveness, and the search intent behind them. An SEO strategist, as well as the SEO tools listed in the next section, can help you do this.
For small businesses, your best target keywords will typically be how you or your customers describe your business, in plain English, in the geographic area you serve (if you do serve a specific one). If you are a physical therapy clinic in Boston that focuses on knee rehab and foot injuries, for example, your best target keywords are likely “physical therapy clinic Boston,” “knee rehab Boston,” and “foot injury recovery Boston.”
Once you’ve identified your keywords, you’ll want to incorporate them into your website copy in natural, clear ways. This is sometimes referred to as on-page SEO. The most important places to include your keywords are in your metadata, like title tags, meta description, and at least one header per page. Search engines like Google consider these parts of your site the digital equivalent of the shop name sign.
2. Build links
When another website links to yours, it signals to search engines like Google that the linking website trusts your website enough to send visitors your way. Search engines consider that to be a vote of confidence for you, and that you are an authoritative source. The more of these votes of confidence, or links, the higher your website will ultimately rank it. This practice of gaining new links is known as off-page SEO.
Note that there are certain types of links that don’t have benefits for SEO. Social media links, links in the comment sections of a page, and links in sponsored articles don’t count toward your website’s link signals, according to search engines.
Small businesses can get their links on other sites by pitching stories to local media and collaborating with other businesses on partner pages or shared content. You can also ask your network for like-minded companies that are willing to collaborate on relevant links. This is particularly effective for relevant sites from complementary businesses. For example, it can be very effective for a physical therapy clinic and doctor’s office to write an article together on back pain and link to each other’s websites.
3. Consider local SEO
Unlike general SEO, which focuses on websites, local SEO focuses on listings, or collections of information about local businesses. The most common listing is Google My Business, which contains the information displayed in a card format that shows up in Google Maps searches and local Google search results (i.e., “physical therapy clinic Boston,” and not “physical therapy clinic”). These card-based listings, which include a website, phone number, address, and more, can show up alongside regular, non-local search results, and now dominate local search results.
There are three key elements to improving your listing’s local SEO success:
- Consistent naming. Ensure the name, address, and phone number on your listing is the same as those on your small business’ website and profiles on social media platforms. If they’re different, search engines will see it as a risk that they’d send searchers to the wrong place. This will harm your listing’s rankings.
- Complete the profile. Ensure your Google business profile is 100% complete and has information including a phone number, photos, and a list of products or services that you provide.
- Reviews. This is the top factor for local business SEO. Businesses with a high volume of positive reviews are much more likely to rank highly in local search results. While it’s OK to ask your customers for reviews, search engines have complex systems to detect activity indicating that a business is faking their reviews or paying people to write them.
4. Measure and analyze results
Results for SEO take longer to see than those for other marketing like paid ads. Search engines can take weeks or months to register changes to your website or listing. They only release algorithm updates (the times most likely for large rankings changes to occur) once every quarter. So small businesses should expect to measure the outcomes of their SEO work, in the form of improved rankings and organic traffic, over three- to six-month timeframes.
There are several leading indicators a business can review monthly for signs they’re making progress on their SEO:
- Google impressions. This is the number of times in which your website or listing shows up in Google, whether or not it was clicked. Growth in impressions usually happens faster than growth in website traffic. While the majority of clicks go to the top-three search results, often the entire first page of results receives an impression. So this can indicate future traffic growth if the rankings continue to improve.
- New links generated. This should focus on “white hat” links—those that are generated through press coverage, collaboration, or partnerships, not through spam tactics.
- 4- or 5-star reviews on Google My Business. A good rule of thumb is 5%: If you can get 5% of your customers to leave you a positive review, you are on track to improve your rankings. Note that not every review needs to be a perfect 5—it’s more trustworthy to search engines if your reviews represent an accurate account of your business’s quality.
SEO tools for small businesses
The following tools are designed specifically to help small businesses succeed at SEO:
- Google Search Console. This free Google tool tracks your impressions, clicks, and ranking positions.
- Google Analytics. This Google tool, also free, helps you see what your site’s visitors do once they arrive on your site, such as what pages they navigate to or whether they complete a form.
- Moz.strong> Moz’s holistic suite of SEO tools offers actionable audits of your website and provides data on keyword search volume. It has a mix of free and paid options.
- GTMetrix. This free tool audits your website’s loading speed, another key website ranking factor. Unlike other website speed analysis tools, it’s designed specifically for Shopify stores, providing simple action items for you to implement to improve your speed.
- Ahrefs. Ahrefs, while not free, is the industry standard for tracking and analyzing your website’s links.
Free SEO tools
Checkout this list of free SEO tools to use for anything from keyword research to backlink analysis.Implement SEO on your site
Small business SEO FAQ
Does SEO work for small businesses?
Yes, search engines understand that some searches, such as ones for specific things or expertise in local areas, are better suited for small businesses to answer. They adjust their ranking factors for that search accordingly to prioritize results from local or small businesses, while still considering the overall quality of results.
Can I do SEO on my own?
Many small business SEO fundamentals align with general good business practices and can be done by any small business owner. Gathering customer reviews, defining your business’s keywords, and partnering with other businesses are three ways to start building an SEO strategy. When small businesses look to grow beyond their niche or win a highly competitive keyword, they may benefit from consulting an SEO expert.
What kind of time commitment should I expect for doing my own SEO?
As a small business owner executing your own SEO strategy, you should set aside 1 to 10 hours per week, with more depending on how much content you want to create. When you first start, you may need 8 to 10 hours per week to set up the strategy and update your website and listings. Once you’ve begun, you should just need an hour or two of work a week to generate new reviews and links.