One very real source of problems affecting small businesses is the unstoppable shift in the focus of commerce from the High Street to the server room.
Very few small businesses can afford to overlook the Web, but neither can they afford to deploy the same range of expertise as their larger competitors. It’s a sad truth that value from digital marketing spending does not scale downwards well. In a very real sense, the resources required to establish a bare minimum web presence for a small corner shop retailer are very similar to the equivalent cost for a large multinational organisation.
And even when funds are available to hire expertise from outside the business to help, business owners need to acquire the minimum background knowledge required - to avoid paying for services that might be more damaging to their digital reputation than helpful.
One of the most important facets of digital marketing for small businesses is ‘SEO’ or Search Engine Optimisation, which is the process of working to help a given web page to ‘rank’ for the most appropriate search terms.
In essence, every single web search can be ‘won’ by any indexed page on the Internet; each is essentially a race with billions of separate entrants. For most Web businesses, winning the right ‘races’ is critical. It’s the difference between being front and centre on the virtual high street, or relegated to a dingy trading estate in the digital docklands.
SEO is vital, but getting access to real SEO expertise, rather than ‘trust us, what can go wrong?’ SEO ‘expertise’, is well beyond the budget of many businesses.
There are plenty of SEO teaching resources and courses out there, and many business owners or marketing managers may therefore be motivated to experiment with the discipline themselves.
So… can you conduct your own SEO?
Well, yes you can.
While you’ll almost certainly never be able to optimise your site for SEO at the level of an experienced practitioner, there’s no reason why you can’t acquire the skills necessary to start making a positive impact on your SEO ranking.
The SEO sandbox is by no means devoid of landmines. There are a lot of ways in which poorly-considered SEO can negatively impact your business. The SEO landscape changes incredibly fast, and just as there are plenty of great resources available for would-be search acolytes, there are also many nuggets of very outdated, very bad advice scattered throughout the Internet.
So what can you safely do? and which activities should you steer well clear of?
Links are still important, but don’t try to buy them.
An excellent starting point when learning about those SEO is to take a look at Google’s webmaster guidelines. Remember that the vast majority of your potential audience is going to be using Google to find you, so not invoking their wrath is tremendously important to the continued well-being of your Web presence.
You’ll notice that the webmaster guidelines have a lot to say about things that you should not be doing, and especially with regard to link schemes.
Google considers links to essentially represent an endorsement of other Web content, and therefore also considers acquiring links the easy way - by bartering and trading for them - to be cheating.
It can be easy to view Google as the enemy when starting out in SEO, but it’s worth noting that it’s very much both in their own and their users’ interest to provide the most relevant search results. Otherwise people might start using Bing… something that I’m pretty sure is explicitly warned against in the Book of Revelations.
So how does good SEO work?
I’m going to risk the attention from the oversimplification police here by suggesting that all good SEO work can be observed as pursuing one of two slightly different objectives.
The first task is to make sure that search engines fully understand what you do, and which search terms you should be ranking for. This very generally tends to encompass ‘on-site SEO’ activity, which mainly consists of making sure you’re using the right keywords in the right places on your site. Search engines are not psychic - if you do not, at any point, use hair-related terms on your barbershop site - you shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself ranking instead for some wildly inappropriate search terms… possibly involving harmonised singing.
However, this type of activity will only get you to the top of a Search Engine Results Page (or ‘SERP’) if you don’t have any similarly relevant competition. You will not beat Amazon to the top of a SERP by shoehorning the word ‘book’ into every square inch of your web page.
This neatly brings us to objective number two which is essentially convincing the search engine that you’re actually good at what you do. This step is always substantially easier if you are genuinely good at what you do - a fact that’s most likely responsible for driving more SEO consultants to drink than any other.
This can be best demonstrated both by providing a high quality and easily navigable website for your customers to interact with (for example, one that doesn’t have the word “book” shoehorned into every square inch), and by acquiring a rich halo of social signals and authoritative links that suggest to a search engine that at least some other people can attest that you’re not terrible.
In the past link, acquisition mostly involved link building, which is basically placing the links yourself. It might not surprise you to find out that this is another subject about which Google maintains strong and vigorously-expressed opinions.
You may have heard the term ‘black hat’ expressed in relation to SEO. This is used to describe a broad range of SEO-related activities, most of which were perfectly effective back in the naïve early days of Google’s introduction to the open and honest world of marketing that we all know and love.
This is not the Google that exists today. The Google that exists today is the bitter and cynical veteran of a decade-long war against spam.
Most of these black hat techniques, if employed today, are not generally used in furtherance of long term improvement in a websites ranking. Rather, they’re used in the hope that they will keep some poor unsuspecting business propped up on the front page for a brief but glorious period before its rankings are obliterated… and its SEO provider disappears in a puff of invoices.
Most of these techniques are things that you’re unlikely to stumble upon by accident. Suffice to say that if you have a really clever idea regarding some way of ‘tricking’ Google into overrating your websites, you need to have a nice sit down and consider carefully how certain you are that the same idea has at no point occurred to one of the tens of thousands of professionals that have spent many of their working hours over the last ten years figuring out ways to ‘trick’ Google.
What you don’t do
Some of the things you shouldn’t be doing, but could conceivably do by accident or because you got bad advice.
- Listing sites in web directories that will never bring in actual human traffic through the link.
- Submitting guest articles that no-one will ever want to read.
- Structuring your website differently for users and search engines.
- Stuffing your website full of keywords in a misguided attempt to rank for all those things.
- Hosting material that’s exactly the same as other content from elsewhere on the web, including elsewhere on your own site - thus judged as being tedious in the sight of the Google.
- Using cheap web hosting or ad networks, or linking to terrible web content in such a way that you might be judged terrible by association.
- Buying links, trading links, or agreeing to trade goods and services for blatantly transparent ‘reviews’ of whatever you sell (those fashion bloggers would only have given you worthless affiliate links anyway, trust me on this).
What you do do
Instead, you should be doing the following:
- Ensure that the copy and metadata (if you don’t know what metadata is yet - you probably aren’t ready to play with metadata) on your website accurately expresses its purpose, and reflects the type of language that you believe people will use to try and find your website.
- Ensure that your website is well designed, straightforward to navigate, and suitable for its intended purpose.
- Create amazing, unique content for your website that will be enjoyed and shared by your target audience.
- Bring your awesome web site and content to the attention of the people that will like it
- …without bringing it to the attention of people who will not.
- Leverage your existing contacts and relationships to encourage those who genuinely consider your business exceptional to bring that good news to the Internet in as natural a way as possible.
SEO is neither as scary nor complicated as most people think. Yes - the cutting edge of SEO is difficult, technical, and a matter of both skill and experience. As with most things, you aren’t going to do a few short SEO lessons and suddenly be the best of the best. And yes - sometimes that bleeding edge is going to be necessary if you even want to dream about displacing Amazon from that top spot. However, if you cultivate an understanding of what search engines are looking for, and work to give them what they want, rather than trying to trick them into submission, you can make surprising inroads up the rankings with a fairly small amount of knowledge. You can certainly practice better, safer SEO than that nice man in the spam mail promising you big results for a low, low, price.
By Matt Leach, Marketing at Circus Street.
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