Ah, summer. It’s a time for lounging in the sun, enjoying backyard barbecues, spending time with friends and family, and relishing the long days and warm nights. For entrepreneurs and small businesses, summer is also a great time to catch up on their to-do lists and tackle marketing challenges that were put on the back burner in busier seasons. And if the requests I’ve been fielding lately are any indication, I’m not the only one reading business books at the beach!
This month our inbox has been full of questions on search engine optimization (SEO). It’s an important topic for anyone with a digital presence to understand because it’s a key part of how customers and prospects find you online.
The definition of SEO
In a nutshell, search engine optimization (SEO) is the art and science of ensuring that search engines like Google can find, read and understand your site—in order to get you more organic traffic. While there are other search engines, we’ll focus on Google because it fields the vast majority of searches, and the same tactics will help you on other engines.
Organic vs paid results
To understand organic vs paid search strategy, it helps to review a Search Engine Results Page (SERP). While ads come in different shapes and sizes, in the screen shot below the first four results are paid Search Ads, meaning that the business owners are running a targeted advertising campaign on these keywords that involves strategy and bidding to show up in a specific position. Search Ads are one part of a suite of advertising and marketing tactics called Search Engine Marketing (SEM), which on Google are run through the AdWords platform. It also offers display ads, video ads, and app ads - and If you’re considering paid search, you may enjoy/be horrified by the current most expensive keywords.
The rest of the page is organic results, essentially free traffic, and ranking higher up on this list of results is the goal of SEO. The holy grail would be to show up in the very first position for the keywords your target audience uses, driving traffic to your business—and ultimately, leads, conversions, and sales.
The basics of SEO strategy
There are several building blocks of SEO that are important for just about any business to address, and each pertains to a different aspect of your site structure, strategy and content. While SEO encompasses both on-page tactics (improvements to your website) and off-page tactics (link-building and social media), let’s focus on the on-page portion:
- Site structure & navigation: If the bot that crawls your site doesn’t understand the structure of the site, it won’t be able to return pages appropriately in a search. While some sites have on main navigation at the top of the page or in a hamburger menu and others choose to split navigation into a second section near the footer, whatever method you choose should be clear and concise. This is something that should be considered from the very outset as you begin planning and designing your site.
- Site speed and mobile compatibility: Nearly 60% of Google traffic is mobile, meaning that your site really needs to load quickly in order to avoid frustrating your potential customers. According to a Google e-commerce report, you’ve got three seconds, but I’d argue it’s less than that for digitally-savvy consumers. You don’t need to go so far as to create content on Google’s Accelerated Mobile Platform (AMP), but you do need to ensure that your site loads quickly and works well on mobile devices new & old.
- Page titles, descriptions & URLs: Google could return any page from your site on a SERP in any order, depending on what people are searching for. This means you won’t be able to control the order in which people read your site, so it’s critical that every page on your site has a clear and compelling title, description and URL. This helps serve the page to keywords, makes it clear to the reader what the page is about, and gives you a better chance at earning the click.
- The content on your site: Sketchy tactics like link-buying and keyword-stuffing (filling a page with a ridiculous amount of the same word or phrase) could get you blacklisted from Google altogether. The better way to think about content is creating real value, things that people will actually read, watch, enjoy and share. If you’re planning content around the questions that customers ask and topics they value, the keywords should come naturally without you having to force-fit anything in.
- Match your customers’ language: Ask your customers and your staff: what are people talking about? What words and phrases do they use most often, and how closely do those align with what’s on your site? It’s very possible that the phrases you use are different from what consumers say, and in this case, the consumer is definitely right—use the words they do, rather than trying and change their lexicon.
- Define your goals & volume: If you’re looking to increase traffic for a particular section, product or service, focus your efforts there and do some competitive research to see how you stack up. Another trick you can use to get a sense of what people are searching for is to sign up for an AdWords account and use their keyword planner to see search volume on specific phrases and get ideas for more. It often inspires both SEO improvements and SEM campaigns for our team, as well as content and blog ideas.
Should you invest in SEO?
The short answer is yes. If you’ve never analyzed your site, the first place to start is working with a marketing expert to conduct an SEO audit or investing the time to learn about the field and conducting one yourself. Then make the necessary changes to your site and content, and revisit it in a month or two to see how you’re performing, both by looking at your SERP performance and your site’s analytics—including referrals, pages per visit, bounce rates and conversions. Beyond that, it’s important to understand that search engine optimization is a specialization in the marketing field, and it’s entirely possible to spend a large portion of your budget on it.
Should you invest beyond the SEO basics? Perhaps not, and here’s why: your ability to compete on specific keywords is going to depend on your industry, your competition, and your budget. If you own a toy store and you’re hoping for national traffic, you’re going to have a hard time competing with Amazon and other online stores on specific product keywords—just search for fidget spinner to see what I mean. It’s a very different proposition than a coffee shop looking to increase visibility, who could drive traffic with SEO and SEM by targeting specific neighborhood names, roasting company keywords and matcha seekers.
SEO should be considered one tool in your marketing team’s toolbox, and evaluated as such. There are other ways to boost your ranking in search, establish yourself as a thought leader and drive organic traffic back to your site—such as a content strategy that includes publishing evergreen, valuable articles to earn links and referrals back to your site and grow your reputation over time.
Do you have a question about SEO or another marketing topic? We'd love to help: Ask us!