Good small business websites build brands and bring in customers. In order for this to happen, people to actually visit, and for that to happen, a website needs to be designed around the principles of SEO, or Search Engine Optimization.
SEO, put simply, is how to make it easier for web users to come across your website when searching on Google, Bing, or any popular search engine. We’re not talking about Googling "Jerry’s Taco Kingdom" and seeing if you actually find Jerry’s website (if that’s not happening, then Jerry has other problems to worry about). If Jerry has effective SEO, then a web search for simply "tacos", "Mexican food" or "restaurants with tortillas" ought to bring up his site as an early result, thus bringing hungry new visitors to his page.
Why is SEO so crucial for a new, small business? With the right design, a SEO-friendly page can become more than just a helpful information source about your company; it can be a cost-effective, precisely targeted marketing tool, able to generate as much (or more) brand awareness as a mailing campaign or a television ad. Traditional advertising can certainly be effective, but it’s a blanket approach. For all of the eyeballs you’re paying to reach, you’re very likely spending money communicating with people who have no interest in your product. By comparison, anybody who arrives at Jerry’s Taco Kingdom by searching for "tacos" online is almost definitely already interested in them.
There are a number of potential ways to boost your site’s SEO -- caveat being "potential". Google, Bing, and Yahoo securely guard their search algorithms, so nobody knows just exactly what factors will boost you to the top of the results page. That being said, there are a number of tactics that can certainly knock you down several steps, which leads us to a list of do’s and don’ts:
1. Design for your target customer. When putting together the actual meat and potatoes of your site, you’ll want to make sure you’ve checked off a number of basic tasks -- ensuring the site appears properly in different browsers and complies with modern W3C standards, making sure all your images are linked properly, double-checking that viewing your site doesn’t lead to seizures in small children, etc.
When populating the body and tags with SEO-geared keywords, though, you may want to try being more specific than usual. To return to the above example with Jerry’s Taco Kingdom, the obvious keyword to include would be "taco". Even with tacos being as delicious as they are, Jerry will be competing with thousands of other sites in the always popular taco market, and his page may have a tough time getting bites -- yes, we went there.
So, what if Jerry tries to cast a narrower net? Perhaps the Taco Kingdom is one of only a few taco joints in his hometown of Wichita. Jerry might include keywords like "Kansas Tacos" or "Wichita Mexican Food". He’ll face less competition in those searches, and he is also more likely to get customers searching from the area his business serves.
2. Earn the Internet’s trust. It may sound like a Catch-22, but in order to get visitors to your site, you’ll want to prove you’ve been getting visitors to your site. As unfair as it might seem, SEO experts agree that a large portion of your SEO is based on things that occur outside of your website. It’s one thing for Jerry to claim that his site is the premier source for taco-based news and gossip, but if everyone else starts saying it by linking to his site, visiting his site and including his site in their social networks, the search engines will take notice.
The important factor in this step is patience: you can have your own content optimized perfectly on day one, but boosting your site’s trustworthiness will take at least a few months. Don’t try to jump the queue by paying sites to link back to you, either (see Don't suggestion #1).
3. Consider a blogging approach. You might think writing a blog might take far more effort than you’re prepared to devote to your website, but it’s no secret that writing fresh content is powerful for your SEO. Before you start putting together a plan for dozens of blog posts, it’s important to consider your approach. Do you want to run your own blog or would you rather contribute an article to another blog?
Doing the former will help you build up keyword-rich content that your users might find your site through. Be sure to use keywords effectively if you do that. When you contribute to other blogs with your unique expertise, the backlinks generated through those posts can be even more effective in building your SEO "juice". Of course, if you’re ambitious, you can do both and cover all your blogging bases. The important thing is to decide what you can handle and stick to your plan.
1. Don’t try to game the system. Your website needs to be genuine, full of user-friendly, original, and honest content. The general rule of thumb is to create your site for your visitors, not the search engines. Have you ever browsed a site and discovered, hidden at the bottom via invisible text, several paragraphs full of nothing but keywords? This is done in an effort to catch the eye of automated sitecrawling programs, which regularly scan the web on behalf of the major search engines to try and catalog the millions of sites that make up the Internet.
However, getting caught at this kind of tactic is a surefire way to get your site yanked out of the search listings altogether. The same goes for plagiarized content, inaccurate content or other methods meant to appeal to robots and not users. Fill your page with valuable content that an actual human would want to read, and you’re well on your way.
2. Don’t forget to track your progress. Like anything you want to see change. You need to track your progress and see if you’re getting closer to reaching your goals. With websites, this means setting up a package like Google Analytics and monitoring how people get to your site and if it’s happening how you expected.
3. Don’t set your expectations too high. Doing your own SEO strategy is a learning process. Unfortunately, you can’t see your results right away. It can take weeks or months for your tactics to play out and earn you the results you’re looking for. The good news is that with patience and practice with the items shown above, you’ll get to where you want to get with SEO.
Matt Shampine is co-founder of New York-based startup Onepager. Prior to Onepager, Shampine co-founded design agency Simande, where his responsibilities included business development, client relations and project management. He is also co-founded and currently runs website We Are NY Tech, where he profiles one person a day from the New York tech community and moderates the job board.