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Marketing Insights for Entrepreneurs

SEO for Small Business: Where to Start

This is a guest post by Nate Dame founder and chief strategist at SEOperks.

For many entrepreneurs, search engine optimization (SEO) is like a mysterious black box. What do you do and where do you start? What works and what doesn’t? If you’ve been given some bad advice in the past, you might also see it as a black hole – spend money on SEO and it just goes away.

SEO is not all bad. In fact there are some huge opportunities in SEO when done right. I recently spoke to a theme park designer who won a contract with a new multi-billion dollar park (billion with a “b”) in Asia as a result of the SEO work she put into her site.

Smart entrepreneurs are benefitting from SEO every day. There are proven, reliable, safe and accepted SEO practices that search engines encourage – and even look for. When you tread carefully and invest wisely, SEO can produce a considerable return.

Below are my three top recommendations for the bootstrapped entrepreneur. If you are getting an SEO campaign off the ground, you need to think about these key areas.

Design a Beautiful, Trustworthy Website

Design a website people (and search engines) trust

If your website doesn’t look trustworthy, people won’t trust it. And if real people don’t trust your sites, search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo won’t either.

What does this have to do with SEO? A lot, honestly. Search engines are able to measure how users react to your website in a variety of ways. If people don’t spend a long time on your website or never share your site on social media, etc., search engines take note and this will affect your rankings negatively. However, if people love your site, spend a long time on it and quickly share it with friends, you have built a strong foundation for your SEO campaign.

Not to mention, trustworthy websites tend to generate more business. Crazy, huh?

Every day I come across websites from real companies that were clearly designed in the 2000’s (or designed by somebody still stuck in the early 2000’s). You’ve seen these sites too. Dark, unfriendly color schemes. Big photo of smiling people across the banner. Cluttered, blurry logos. And the list goes on.

When we see websites like this we all make assumptions. But a trustworthy design goes beyond the overall look of the website. Is there a “trust” seal next to where I am supposed to type in my credit card? Do you proudly display the logos of your important clients and industry associations?

If you already have a website, ask customers, colleagues and friends for their honest feedback. Ask if they would be comfortable giving their credit card number to your website. Ask if the design and layout of the website instills trust and confidence in your company. If you don’t like what you hear, commit to making changes.

Tip: Social share buttons are a great way to improve your website’s trust and social value. Make it easy for users to share content on your website by adding Twitter, Facebook and other relevant social share/like buttons. Tools like ShareThis make it easy to create these buttons. But be smart about how you add them. Many sharing buttons have counters to show how many times each page has been shared. If your site doesn’t get a lot of traffic yet, you may not want to use share buttons with counters, because users will just see a whole lot of “0’s” – and that doesn’t instill a lot of confidence.

Write Clean, Crisp Code

Coding a Website for SEO

This is when a lot of eyes start to gloss over. I’m not going to go too deep here. Stay alert and let’s get going!

Simply put, your website needs to be set up in a way that it is easy for search engines to access and understand. Logical navigation and site structure… No duplicate content… Fast server response times… Optimized Robots.txt and XML Sitemap… Minimize HTML errors… Utilize ALT text, page titles and meta descriptions…

Where’s an entrepreneur to start?

If you are on a limited budget, use WordPress. The WordPress core system plus a few key SEO plugins satisfy a lot of the basic SEO requirements. It’s not a 100% turnkey solution – nothing in SEO is press-a-button-see-results (if someone tells you it is, they’re lying). But a reliable WordPress developer that understands SEO can save you a lot of headache.

If you have a simple website with a great design that you already like, and if you want to start implementing SEO tactics, it is often more cost effective to transition your existing site to WordPress than to custom build all the SEO functionality you need. But be sure your WordPress developer really knows SEO. Some developers claim to “do SEO,” when in reality all they do is install some plugins. You want a developer that can show you case studies and a proven track record of generating business from their SEO strategies.

If you do try to go it on your own, you’ll want to learn more about coding a site search engines love. A good place to start is Google’s own SEO advice.

Post Content People Will Talk About

A strong website is bursting with thought provoking content (text, images, video, etc.). As a small business owner, you should spend a lot of time putting your knowledge and experience to work for you by writing (or hiring others to write) awesome web content.

“OK” content will not cut it. “Decent” content is not enough. Your content needs to be amazing, unique, and high quality. It needs to make people think differently, question their own opinions, and ask questions.

Use Words Your Customers Will Search – When writing content for your website, use the words that your customers use. You might sell a DXJ 5000 Photo Jet Paper Writer, but if people refer to it as a “photo printer,” then write “photo printer” (and its synonyms such as “color printer”) in the product description.

Blog About Common Questions – What do you find yourself explaining again and again? What questions does every customer ask at some point in the sales cycle? What industry myths are you always dispelling? These are the topics to blog about.

When you blog, go all out. Write detailed, in-depth resources and complete industry guides. 500 words doesn’t cut it. Create resources that others in your industry can reference as a reliable source. As people share and link to your content, you will become known as a thought leader – and search engines will take notice.

Utilize Keyword Research – Keyword research takes time to get used to, but it’s not impossible to learn. If you don’t have the budget to work with a reliable SEO firm and are ready to invest more time in your SEO and content strategies, here’s a great getting started guide.

Always remember that your website must balance the needs of your viewers with the requirements of effective SEO. With the Penguin update, Google has released an “over optimization” penalty, which essentially means that if you try too hard to “optimize” your website, you could be penalized. The perfect example is keyword stuffing – using your target keyword over and over and over in your website copy. This is unnatural and could actually hurt your rankings. Instead, use your keywords naturally. Remember, search engines love websites that people love (and search engines have a lot of ways of measuring whether people love your site or not).

Link Building

Link building - the single most important factor in SEO

You can’t talk about SEO without talking about link building.

If you want your SEO efforts to pay off, you need inbound links pointing to your site. Natural, real, high-quality inbound links from relevant, trustworthy websites pointing to your site. Links are the web’s way of voting, and the more votes search engines see pointing to your site, the more traffic you will get. By most estimates, links are the most impactful single factor of SEO.

Because so many people have abused link building in the past, search engines are very sensitive to unnatural links. If your website has too many unnatural, machine-generated, spammy or purchased links point to your site, you can be penalized in a big way. Most “link building services” are selling crummy links.

Run away from anyone who promises tons of links for cheap, no matter what they promise. One good link to your website could be all you need to get off to a rockin’ good start. But bad links will sink you.

You want natural, high-quality links pointing to your site. And it’s surprisingly easy to get started.

Start out by asking your friends, colleagues, vendors and trusted clients for a link. Don’t ask them to use your target keywords in the anchor text. Ask for a link that makes sense. For example, ask if they would link to one of your blog posts from their resources page, or add your company to their testimonials page. These requests alone are well worth your time and are an easy way to build long-lasting links that search engines will notice.

Bonus: You’re invited! My next free training webinar will be all about link building: Creating Game-Changing Link Building Campaigns, Tuesday January 15 at 2pm ET. Learn more / register now.

Wrapping it Up

The reality of today’s internet economy means that you must make an investment in smart search engine optimization. But there are a lot of opportunities to waste money on what people claim is SEO.

Be careful. SEO doesn’t produce results in 24 hours and nobody can guarantee #1 placement. If you are just starting out, and especially if you are doing SEO on your own, stick to these basics, and spend a lot of time over the next 6 months writing great content. The snowball will grow as it rolls down the hill. It will pay off.

About the Author

Nate Dame is founder and chief strategist at SEOperks, a boutique search engine optimization agency based in Chicago. He has led a variety of SEO campaigns including Sketchers USA and Grasshopper.com. He is also an author, speaker, trainer and consultant, as well as an avid family man and active member of multiple non-profits. When not crafting campaigns, he enjoys relaxing with his wife and two-year-old son at their home in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

Thanks to Juliana Coutinho, Matrixizationize, Lara604 and FutUndBeidl respectively for the great images.