Message to New Small Businesses – Focus on SEO First

As I’m currently knee-deep in Salesforce Admin certification training (don’t ask!), We have a guest post by Joe Shoop about SEO for small businesses this week! I’ll be back in two weeks with another update!

So, you finally took the plunge!  That business idea you’ve been kicking around for years is starting to come together, and soon you’ll have an actual business/side-business/side hustle/part-time passion project all your own. 

No doubt, you’ve researched a few names, printed business cards, and even paid someone to help you put a website together, and now you’re ready to really dig in and get started. You’ve networked, opened a social media account (or five), and can’t wait for the emails and calls to start coming.

The problem is – no one can find you online.

While you may – or may not – have a few clients in your roster to help get things rolling, you know that having a website and social media accounts that others can discover is crucial to keeping a new enterprise going.  The question is – what’s the best way to help people find you online? Is it paying for social media boosts? How about paid ads on Google or Bing? Maybe you just need to hire that guy in your inbox who promised to get you 100 new links for your website in a month?

The answer for nearly all small businesses is to focus your efforts on Search Engine Optimization.

Why SEO?  Doesn’t it take years to rank #1 for most competitive terms?  Isn’t it really tricky, and only understood by professionals? What if I mess up – will I be banned from the internet for life?

Yes, SEO!  Making the types of changes necessary to rank a site well (a simplified definition of SEO) isn’t complicated, and will help pay dividends in all of your digital marketing in the long run.  

How so?  There’s many different ways that this will help your site, including the obvious – a site that focuses on SEO will rank better on search engines, making your site appear more often by relevant searchers.  While you may not reach the top position for the terms that you’re hoping to secure, even a site ranking in the top three to five positions stand a much better chance of being clicked on than one ranking lower.  It isn’t essential to “rank #1” (which isn’t even really a thing anymore), but it is crucial to show up well for relevant search terms.

As an example, think about a customer searching for the products or services you offer.  Obviously, if they’re just doing a general search for providers in their area, you need to be visible to have even a chance of being clicked on.  However, in another scenario, imagine meeting a potential client, and giving them your business card. He or she returns home later that day, and decides to find out more about your business.  Instead of typing in the address on the card, they do what most would do in that scenario and perform a search for the business name or service offering. If you don’t show up well in this search, they may elect to do business elsewhere. 

Today, if you don’t have a site that ranks well for your line of business you could be passed by, even if your customers have direct contact with you. Few people will take a business seriously if they aren’t appearing highly in search engine results.

Looking beyond this scenario, we may begin investigating paid campaigns, whether on social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter, or on search engines like Google or Bing.  For new businesses, I typically recommend going against these avenues, at least in the very beginning.

By focusing your energies in improving your website for organic search engine rankings, you’re setting yourself up for improved performance in these channels later, as one of the key determinants in your ad spend is the overall quality of the site.  If you have a site that doesn’t do well on search engines, you’ll likely have to spend a fortune just to be seen in paid channels.

As if this wasn’t enough, if you get clicks from your paid campaigns you may have a hard time retaining users on your site if the quality of the site is poor. This will ultimately drive your paid advertising costs even higher, as these providers don’t want to continually advertise for a site that their users are clearly not engaging with. 

Beyond that, most small businesses that I’ve worked with don’t have large budgets, so going into these types of campaigns with limited funds and a less-than-desirable website is a recipe for disappointment.  

Maybe you have been thinking about traditional media outlets, like billboards, television, and radio?  Perhaps a newspaper ad could be a way to attract new customers? Unlike many who work in digital marketing, I still feel that these have great value, and can be a sometimes overlooked asset for new businesses – especially local businesses who can reach a geographic area well with these types of ads. 

However, there’s the issue of cost (see above), but with these outlets you have the added challenges of measurement and ROI (return on investment). These avenues have atrocious track-records in measuring the effectiveness of the campaigns, thus making the final calculations difficult to make. There’s no way to know how many people have seen your ad/billboard/commercial, so how can you know how many sales were made from those ads?  Could you spend less and get the same results? It’s nearly impossible to say, and for a newer business, it may be too costly to find out.

It is for these reasons that I feel the best investment one could make in these scenarios would be in SEO.  You may be saying: “OK, I’m convinced, but how do I go about doing that?”  

For most websites, the biggest problem is with the content.  You may have an attractive layout, great images, and a beautiful color scheme, but what about the message you’re sending across? 

Did you just build four pages that loosely state what you do with a phone number and email address, or did you provide additional pages and blog posts with helpful information that can be put to use and shared across the web?  Is your site full of basic content with the ‘A-B-Cs’ of your profession, but your clients want advanced information? Or, perhaps you’ve written some pieces with highly-technical data, but your clients really need basic information on the service you offer. 

You must understand the types of clients you’re looking for, and begin filling your site with types of information and data they need, not just whatever came to mind the last time you sat in front of a keyboard.  

The good news is that adding or correcting content can be a free or very low-cost endeavor.  It’s your business, so you should be able to put together pages and posts that will help attract the customers you want.  However, if you’re not a great writer or just aren’t comfortable posting things without a professional edit, you can hire solid copywriters to compose pieces outright or just ‘punch up’ articles you’ve written yourself.

Additionally, you’ll need to examine the performance of your site from a technical perspective.  Take a look at your site from a cell phone and a laptop – can you read the text on both without having to zoom in or out?  Does the site look OK? Can you navigate around and hit all of the pages easily with either device? Did it load quickly and fully?  Try searching for different pages on your site through Google and Bing – can you find them all, even if they’re all the way down on page 10?  If not, you may need a little help getting your site ready for primetime.  

This may be where you have to spend some money to help turn things around.  Thankfully, there are many independent consultants and agencies who offer one-time audits and can help make suggestions to you about how to fix some of the more complex areas that may be hurting your site.  You don’t have to be a web developer to have a great site, but you may need to hire one to help get you pointed in the right direction.

By improving the overall content of your site, along with making some improvements to its performance, will help make your site more search engine friendly.  This will help get your new business established more quickly than other avenues, as your costs should be manageable and your efforts placed in the most effective area possible.  Looking ahead, focusing on SEO now should help your future paid marketing campaigns, as you’ll already have a site that’s well designed and gets good engagement from its users. Finally, a business that focuses its attention to SEO early will begin to learn exactly what it needs to do to find its voice and speak well to its intended audience.

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