Search engine optimization, or SEO, remains a vital but often mysterious marketing channel for small business owners.
If you’re considering digital marketing in any way for your business, creating a successful SEO campaign is at the top of your list. And it should be. Search remains the most popular activity online, and it’s also the one that produces the most value when targeting consumers.
But SEO, as a tactic, can be frustrating. Search platfoms like Google are intentionally secretive about how they rank content to keep people from gaming the system. Today, it’s almost impossible to manipulate search results.
SEO today is also interdisciplinary. Your online networking, social media, website design, and content creation all impact it.
Below are four concepts to help you get a sense of what it means to optimize content for search. Use this as a starting point so you can make better decisions about creating SEO campaigns for your small business.
#1. SEO is Content Creation
The first thing to realize about SEO is that it’s inexorably linked with content creation. If SEO is the recipe, the ingredients are content.
In short, this means to execute an SEO strategy you need a copywriter. You need your website content and blogs to feed search engines while engaging your audience. You’ll also benefit from video creation, social media activity, and other PR work.
We sometimes still speak to business owners who think SEO is nothing more than keyword research and website meta information. They still think they can buy links, spam content, or practice other black hat SEO tactics. Worse, they get told this by SEO consultants with thin offerings.
But SEO without a content plan is like a medical diagnosis with no curative actions. When people do a search, they’re searching for valuable content that solves their problem. If you are in a competitive market of any kind, you’ll need content to drive organic traffic.
#2. SEO is Not Always a Mega-Challenge: Find a Niche
You can climb this mountain!
Before we go any further, let’s put this in check. SEO tactics are not all Mt. Everest. Sometimes getting high ranking isn’t that hard.
SEO ranking is often competitive. But not every business is trying to rank for competitive terms.
This is why, in online marketing, we often use the term niche. Finding a specialized area with a specific target audience is a basic precursor for most small business SEO.
Say, for example, you want to sell shoes online. You’re not just going to start-up and outrank Zappos for general shoe search terms. In fact, for something like “women’s dress shoes”, it’s conceivable that you’ll never rank on page one.
However, if you have a niche like “snakeskin women’s dress shoes”, the competition for search ranking is far lower. Now you have a chance.
You might wonder: Can I sell enough snake skin shoes? Isn’t that too specialized?
Enter the magic of internet marketing. Your product is highly specialized, but the internet gives you an unprecedented level of reach. Through targeted search and other digital marketing channels, you can – literally – reach everyone in the world who might have an interest in your niche. With that level of exposure, it can turn into a significant target audience.
As a start-up small business, niche targeting is likely to be the only SEO strategy you can pursue. On occasion at Marketing 360®, we still get excited calls from entrepreneurs who want to compete with Amazon, eBay, or Craigslist. Great!, we say. Have fun climbing Mt. Everest in flip-flops and shorts.
Niche SEO also happens based on location. If you’re a local business targeting a limited geographic area, you’re dealing with a different marketing landscape.
We recently spoke with a woman who was a Rolfing practitioner (Rolfing is a type of specialized muscle and joint therapy) who wanted to start a practice in Salina, Kansas. She wondered if she could rank for organic search. Indeed, with a little research, we found she would be the only Rolfing practitioner in Salina. With some site meta optimization and set-up on Google My Business (which creates your Maps listing), she was at the top of page one in just a few weeks.
Usually, you’ll have more competition than this, but you get the point. Lower competition with geographically limited targets means easier SEO. Some local businesses can rank with just basic site/maps optimization and do very well. However, the more competition you have, the more content creation tactics you’ll need to employ.
#3. Understand the Searcher’s Intent
You may not want to understand all the intricacies of SEO (and we don’t blame you). But you should understand your audience’s intent.
While we use the term keyword research, you’re actually better off thinking of this as careword research. When you understand what searchers care about, you can match your content to their need. This is at the heart of SEO work today.
There are three types of intent that – in general – fit most searches.
Informational: This is the huge range of queries that make-up the majority of online searches. For business SEO, informational queries are a way to engage prospective clients at the research phase of the buying cycle. For example, our snakeskin shoes seller might create a blog article about how to match snakeskin shoes to different evening gowns. The Rolfer could create a video discussing common yoga related injuries, and how Rolfing therapy helps.
Building a base of informational content is a long-term SEO strategy, but it’s effective when you have a product where purchase is usually preceded by research. Given that the internet is a massively used research tool, the SEO opportunities are considerable.
Again, content plays a huge role in this process. When you have comprehensive content that does the best job of answering informational queries related to your niche, you can gain valuable organic traffic.
Transactional: A transactional search has the intent of completing a task. Often this is buying something, but it also includes scheduling an appointment, signing up for a newsletter, or finding the best local service.
For smaller businesses, transactional searches are pay-dirt. They tend to indicate higher buying intent, so it’s important to try and rank for these searches.
Because of their performance, these searches also tend to be more competitive. You can bet every pediatric dentist in Denver is trying hard to rank for “best pediatric dentists in Denver”.
These are the keyword phrases that will be in your website’s meta information, and they’ll be the phrases you optimize for on local search platforms like Google My Business. Seed these terms throughout your content to build your relevance over time.
Because of their revenue value, transactional phrases work well for pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. In fact, you often have to use PPC to be visible for these phrases while you build up your SEO rankings. Invest in PPC for these searches as long as you can maintain a solid return.
Navigational: When somebody knows your brand name, they may perform a navigational search to find you. For example, “Marketing 360” is now one of our biggest organic search terms.
Navigational SEO has a lot to do with the cumulative effect of your branding. As people discover you locally, get a word of mouth recommendation, or hear about you on social media, they look you up directly. Also, navigational search is big with retention and repeat purchase. “Zappos” the brand name is their most valuable keyword.
Your informational SEO feeds into navigational search as well. Someone may find you via a long-tail informational search, then you retarget them to drive your brand name home. Later, when they’re ready for the transaction, they look you up by name.
Recognize how each of these types of searches works for your business, and tailor your content to each. When your content is of higher quality, it will draw in more inbound links, which are like popularity votes. The more high-quality links coming into your content, the better chance you have to rank for competitive terms.
#4 Keyword Research and Data Interpretation
Now that you understand more from 30k feet, let’s drop down a little and take a more detailed look at keywords and SEO data tracking.
Your first question about SEO was probably: How do I know what keywords to target?
And your second question was: How do I know if SEO is working?
Well, you remember how we said SEO can be frustrating? Hold on to your hats. Because the truth is there is no exact answer to either question.
But let’s state the obvious. If you are an HVAC with great service installing water heaters in Tampa Bay, you want rank for “water heater installation Tampa Bay”.
And consider something. You don’t even need to use a keyword research tool to understand this. Your service is unambiguous and the keyword variations that might be used to search for you are limited. Many smaller business with local targets can make valid assumptions about keyword targets.
But in many other cases, particularly when targeting informational searches, you want more data on what keywords searchers use. You can research on Google Keyword Planner, Bing Ads Intelligence Tool, Google Trends, or other free tools like Wordtracker.
Have some fun. And notice something. Each of these tools will give you different numbers on search volumes for the same phrases. Why? Because they only provide rough data. They’re not giving you an exact count of how often a phrase is used, nor do they do anything to help you establish intent behind the search.
For this, you need to use some human wisdom. Think of what phrases you’d use, and survey some real people to get their input. Then mix this with the data.
Too often, novices (and some less than stellar agencies) rely too much on keyword tools for their careword data. Take it with a grain of salt. To get harder data, test keyword phrases you think will convert well with PPC campaigns, where you can control your rankings.
Tracking organic results is also inexact. As we said, there is a lot of interdisciplinary and cross-channel impact on SEO. This carries over into your results data.
Let’s go back to the example of search on a brand name. Say, for example, someone does a search for “men’s dress shoe styles for 2019” on their phone. They find an article on the Zappos blog then do some browsing on the site.
Later that night, they go on their computer, search for the brand name Zappos, then buy a pair of shoes. The data will show the conversion tied to the branded search, even though the buyer learned about the brand via a different search on a different device.
People also do a lot of searches within searches. That is, they use search to educate themselves on how to do the search that will give them results. Because of this, some short, high-volume phrases may not be as valuable as they seem from keyword data alone.
Last, know that nearly of a quarter of searches done every day are unique. This number continues to rise because of the increase in voice searches (people phrase things differently when they speak).
Marketing software can give you a decent picture of your growth, but the systems are simply not perfect at tracking the variances of human behavior across devices, browsers, search engines, or time.
The big takeaway here is that SEO, while edified by technology, is an inexorably human discipline. It starts with a person’s needs and ends with a solution based on human connection.
As a marketing tactic, SEO is more intuitive than most people realize. Tools and data provide guidance, but not a precise plan.
SEO and the content that supports it are inseparable. There are no tricks you can hide in a website’s meta data that will give you ranking. The experience your content facilitates is the real key to SEO success. The more useful, interesting, and entertaining you are, the better the search engines will treat you.
SEO is a long-term marketing strategy. For some businesses, it takes years to see initial return. However, once garnered, that return can deliver value for the life of your business.
SEO, like all things of value, must be earned. Plan ahead, and the hard-work will pay off.