Bringing in new customers is a critical part of business success. And one of the best ways customers find you is through organic web searches on Google.
But how do you ensure those customers find your business and not the one down the street? That’s where Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, comes in. A website with solid SEO will rank higher in search engines and will be found by more people.
Many people think SEO is a mystical science available only to big corporations or people with deep pockets. While you may think there’s no room for a little website like yours against big companies like Amazon, don’t lose hope. With a little work, even small businesses can rank highly on Google and reap big rewards as a result.
Let’s take a quick peek behind the curtain to see how Google’s search engine works, and then we’ll discuss some of the simplest ways you can boost your SEO without paying expensive consultants or having a huge advertising budget.
The Wizard of Google
Google knows that every time someone goes to “google” something, there’s an expectation that a relevant and useful answer will appear within in the top five results. Because of this, they (and other search engines like Bing, which models its service after Google’s) invest massive resources into their efforts to return relevant and useful results for every search.
The trick in SEO is understanding how Google ‘thinks’ so that you can rise to the top of the results and be the business everyone wants to visit.
Although regular folks won’t ever know everything about what happens at Google, we do know that the artificial intelligence system known as RankBrain drives the Google search engine. RankBrain implements a series of sophisticated algorithms and machine learning to understand search queries to determine what the best results should be.
Google’s system makes millions of searches and calculations every second, always learning and improving based on user actions. It sees which of the search results someone clicks on, and how long the searcher remains where they clicked. In turn, the search engine can make highly-educated guesses based on that data for the next search on the same topic or other similar ones.
The goal is to always deliver the most useful, relevant, and trustworthy content possible using a huge number of different signals for each piece of content.
As we will examine below, Google factors in a dizzying number of data points as it looks for content to display. Before your website shows up on the search engine results, it has to run the gauntlet.
Google scrutinizes everything including the nature of your website content, the site’s speed, the data you include (such as titles, identifying keywords, and labeling images), and your site’s overall reputation (calculated through a number of data points including backlinks, site age, and traffic). Only if it passes muster with the Google algorithm will anyone see it in their results.
That may seem intimidating, but it’s actually good news for responsible content creators. Just as Cinderella needed a nice gown for the ball, knowing what Google wants to see will ensure your website doesn’t get passed over for someone else. Even better, the algorithms go a long way to leveling the playing field for businesses of all sizes and budgets.
So if you run your own small business, how do you win against artificial intelligence? Let’s take a look at some of the easy solutions every business can implement on their website to improve their search engine rankings.
Content is Your Trusty Steed
As long as Google’s been around, the number one thing that determines your site rank is your content. An overused cliché you’ve probably heard is “content is king,” but, like any good fable, it’s memorable because it’s true.
No matter what your business is—whether you sell yellow bricks or glass slippers—your website needs solid content.
To start with, your main site should be clean and well-organized, with text-based navigation that is labeled clearly. If you run a brick-and-mortar shop, make sure to display your location (ideally using Google Maps), business hours, and services on your home page.
Beyond the basics, do everything you can to stand out from your competitors. Show off your work in the form of seasonal menus, customer stories, contests, and store or product photos. Include a blog where you can dig into your area of expertise, highlight upcoming promotions, and engage with your customers.
You should strive to create original content that your customers (and potential customers) can’t find anywhere else. Give them thought-provoking ideas or useful tips they can implement in their own lives.
If you’re not sure if you should write a blog—or what you should write about—our article on the business case for blogging should help you out.
By Broom or Ruby Slippers: Customers are on the Move
When Dorothy needed to find her way, she had Glinda the Good Witch to help her out. Nowadays, it’s easier to just pull a cell phone out of our pocket.
Think about it: if a potential customer is looking for a place to get their car inspected or the perfect spot to take the family for Sunday brunch, you want to be ready for them.
- Optimize for Mobile. When someone is on their phone, they don’t have a lot of time or patience to sift through search results. Anticipate what they’ll be looking for, and make sure they can find what they need on your website right away.
That means having a well-organized home page like we mentioned above, but it’s more than that. Your website needs to be optimized for mobile devices. A potential customer doesn’t need to see a bunch of pretty design work. Instead, they want your address and phone number, your hours, and a quick link to your menu or other services. And they should be able to see all of it at a glance, without having to pinch or scroll to get to your vital content.
If you’re not sure if your site is responsive (e.g. ‘mobile-friendly’), you can visit Google’s own guide to make your site mobile friendly, or you can check out Search Engine Watch’s comprehensive guide for optimizing your site.
- Set up your Google My Business page.The ‘My Business’ page gives you a huge boost in local SEO by teaching Google who you are and what you do.
This tells it when it’s appropriate to return your business in search results. Your My Business page also may be the first thing a customer learns about you, so be sure it’s up-to-date. You also want to ensure you have a responsive mobile site, because many people will click on the website link to learn more—and you don’t want to lose them there.
- Speed matters. It won’t matter if your site is mobile-friendly if it takes forever to load on a slower WiFi or cellular network. Google offers a free site-speed tool, along with a free report that can tell you how your site ranks in terms of speed and overall mobile optimization.
For more information on mobile optimization and boosting your local rankings, be sure to check out our recent blog post on optimizing your site for local SEO.
Keywords are Google’s Fairy Dust
If you learn just one thing about SEO, it’s that you need to use more keywords. If content is king, keywords are queen.
While keywords are critical to your SEO success, it’s not as simple as filling your website with a bunch of the same words over and over again. That’s a rookie mistake, and Google will penalize you if you engage in “keyword stuffing.”
Instead, try to put yourself in your customers’ shoes. What questions are they asking that could lead them to your site? These questions are also known as “long tail keywords.”
If you run a Harry Potter website, for example, you’d want to make sure you had the titles of all books somewhere on your site, even if you don’t actually sell the books themselves. You’d also want to consider what the most common questions someone might Google about Harry Potter.
Keywords, after all, are just the words, phrases, or questions someone types into the search box. If you think about your potential customers and what they want from you, your keywords should become obvious.
With the above example, perhaps you make hand-crafted wands. So your content should mention wands, as well as all of the characters who use them and what they were made of. So when some asks, “what kind of wand did Hermione use,” your website would have the answer (a 10¾” wand made of vine wood, with a core of a dragon heartstring).
This is one reason blog articles can be so valuable because, over time, you should naturally be writing about the exact same things your customers are searching for, and Google will reward you for being such a good muggle.
Here’s a helpful tip: for each page or blog post, try to choose a single keyword or phrase to focus on, and use it a few times (but don’t overdo it) in the content. And be sure to mix it up—avoid focusing on the same keywords throughout your website, because doing so will dilute your overall rankings for a given keyword.
Your Images are Invisible (to Google)
Working with images is one of the easiest ways to improve your website SEO.
Google, as they say, is blind. Although there are many efforts to do pattern and photo recognition, to date the search engine still cannot determine the subject matter in your website’s photos or other images. If you’re posting a photo of your sparkly pumpkin carriage, for example, you need to tell Google what the image depicts so it can add it to its search index.
Each time you upload a new image, give it an “alt” tag or attribute. This can be done easily in WordPress and most other content management systems. By identifying the content of the photo, it gives Google an even better idea of your content (because you are highly unlikely to add illustrations that don’t support your content). But make the attributes descriptive and short—this is not a place to pile up the keywords.
Adding alt tags also makes your site more accessible to people who have limited vision, so this is really a double-win.
Links Make Magic Happen
Google determines how reliable and important your website is by reviewing what other websites link back to you. Did your business show up in the New York Times or the Prime Minister’s press release? Chances are, you’re legit.
It wasn’t always this way. It used to be that quantity mattered more than quality. People used to pay companies to plaster their URLs all over the Internet. These links turned out to be the ugly stepsisters of a site’s SEO–since the websites linking to their businesses were low-quality spam sites, Google viewed the businesses the same way.
Now, it’s more important than ever to get legitimate, trustworthy, and highly-visible sites to include backlinks to you (like I did in the sources at the end of this article!). Those links could be in the form of blog posts (including guest posts you write) or even reviews on a site like Yelp.
Building these links will take time, but it can be done, even if you just run a donut shop on the corner. Get a few reviews in your local paper, or host a fun activity that gets written up in online event listings. And before you know it, you’ll have the entire kingdom eating out of your hand.
Improve SEO with Just a Wave of Your Hand
A lot of the tips above will take you time to implement. In the meantime, here’s something you can tackle over your lunch hour if you run a WordPress website. By doing this one thing, you can take a major step toward improving your SEO results right away—and still have time to eat that nice, juicy apple.
Go download the industry-standard Yoast SEO plugin. This is a free plugin that runs on millions of websites, big and small, and helps do a lot of the little things needed to optimize your website. (Many other website builders have similar built-in SEO helpers.)
For every blog post or page you create, you will be prompted for your primary keyword and meta description. The Yost plugin will automatically grade your content on readability and overall SEO, so you have a chance to edit your content and title before going live. While meta descriptions may not boost your rankings, when a customer can see a brief summary of your content in their search results, they will know whose pumpkin they want to hire.
SEO: As Easy as Making a Wish
SEO can be a complex process, especially if you run a large company or major media website. The above tips are by no means comprehensive, and in this article, we haven’t even scratched the surface of Google Adwords, how to measure traffic through analytics, or how to test your SEO efforts.
However, for the small business owner, these tips should be simple to implement. And given a little time, you should see your website climb up the search results without even needing the help of a fairy godmother.