Google the question “What is SEO?” and you’ll pull up millions of search results. There are tons of blogs, whitepapers, videos, and lengthy eBooks dedicated to explaining the mystery that is search engine optimization. Overwhelming much??
Our careers may not revolve solely around SEO — yes, there are marketing positions like “SEO Analyst” and “SEO Specialist” out there — but we have a pretty extensive background in SEO (and Latasha even contracted with Children’s Hospital Colorado to boost their organic, branded SEO content).
Most importantly, though, we know why you, as a small business owner, should pay attention to SEO and use it in your own marketing efforts.
So, we’re here to talk about the basics of SEO, plus answer all the burning questions we’ve gotten while working as content and copywriting specialists over the years. Experts we are not. Instead, think of us as friendly tour guides helping you navigate SEOLand.
Ready to get started?
First, what is SEO?
In a nutshell, search engine optimization, or SEO, helps your site rank higher in organic (non-paid) search engine results. The higher your website ranks, the more site traffic you’ll get. The better your site traffic, the better your chances of attracting new customers and fans to your biz.
Note: Paid results are ads that show up on top of or underneath the organic results — the “Sponsored” listings you see on Google or Bing results. They’re ranked by how much the advertiser (the business) is willing to pay per click, which is where “pay per click advertising” or “PPC ads” get their name. Paid results don’t have anything to do with the organic results or SEO.
How does SEO work?
Let’s talk about how search engines work first.
Search engines, like Google or Bing, scour kajillions of pieces of content on the internet to figure out which content will best answer your search question. To get your list of search results, a search engine’s bots will “crawl and index” all the content on the internet, then “rank”’ it by how well it matches your question. Think of them like spiders, who dip into each page of content to scan things like meta title, meta description, your first header (H1), and a bit of the intro copy.
Effective SEO can get these spiders to spend a little longer on your listing, and make it more enticing for people to click your listing in search results.
How are search engine results ranked?
How the “best” result gets chosen is part of Google’s secret sauce, but basically, they use algorithms to rank pages based on lots of different factors. Two very important determining factors are relevancy and authority.
How relevant is your website, blog post, or vlog to the search question? Google may determine relevance based on the topic or specific words used in a search, and the presence of those same keywords or phrases in your content. (More on keywords in a moment.)
Next up: How reliable is your website? Google identifies high-quality, authoritative websites that “many users seem to value for similar queries,” as they put it. The more popular your website is and the more often it’s linked by other trustworthy websites, the more likely Google will view it as a valuable source.
You build relevancy by creating content relevant to how your audience searches, and you build authority over time by driving more traffic to your site from search, social, email, etc. Content is key in both — even if you remove SEO from the equation.
Why does SEO matter for my biz?
Not sold on SEO? You should be.
For one thing, SEO is a free marketing strategy that can generate traffic to your site. When you’re on a tight budget or just launching your small business, free is gold. You need to devote your time and resources to it, but when done well, it’s a worthy investment.
In a 2014 survey, a whopping 84% of Millennial respondents said that they don’t like or trust advertising. That means paid search engine results, paid social media ads, or email ads are much less likely to make an impact on your potential customers.
Instead, SEO can reach people who are already looking for something you offer with their search questions. Plus, if you have valuable evergreen content on your site, you can keep pulling in potential customers without having to lift a finger.
How do I start optimizing my site for search engines?
If we could give you an excellent SEO strategy in one sentence and send you off on your merry way, we would. There are so many SEO techniques and strategies out there; there’s no one right answer.
Plus, Google’s algorithms are constantly changing, as is the internet landscape. For example, Google updated an algorithm in 2019 that forced SEO pros to optimize content based on search intent rather than keywords. Keywords are still important, but so is the intention behind a search.
With that disclaimer behind us, let’s talk about one simple technique you can start with to give your SEO boost.
To rank highly for your customers’ search questions, you have to know what your customers are looking for first. And to find your website, it needs to rank for certain keywords, or exact phrases and words that your customers are plugging into Google.
Keyword research helps you figure out those search questions, so it’s a good place to start when improving your SEO. Here are some quick tips for getting started with keyword research:
- Make a list of about five to ten general topics that are relevant and important to your biz. Some topics for Uncanny Content, for example, might be “content strategy,” “content writing,” or “content marketing.”
- Write out keywords for each topic. What do you think your customers are searching for based on that topic? For example, “content marketing” might include keywords such as “what is content marketing,” “email newsletters,” or “brand awareness.”
- If you’re stuck finding keywords or phrases, just start typing ideas into Google search and write down the suggestions that come up. You can browse Google Trends, too. One of Latasha’s favorite tools is Answer the Public.
- Use a keyword research tool to choose the best keywords for your biz based on volume and competition. SEMRush is a good one, as well as WordStream. So is Google Keyword Planner. These are higher level tools, though, so don’t worry about this just yet if you’re getting started.
Once you have your keywords chosen, include them in important places in your content. Your primary keyword should be put:
- In your primary headline (H1) and secondary headline (H2) if possible
- Your URL
- Early on in the first paragraph of your content
- In the meta title and meta description
- In alt text and image file names (don’t just keyword cram, make sure the image is relevant to your keyword)
Track your rankings and traffic
When you start to use keywords — and fully optimize the pages on your website with meta descriptions, etc. — you’ll want to take a snapshot. Literally. Using an incognito browser, search for the keywords you want to rank for.
For example, we recently did this with a client who owns a Pilates studio in Miami. We searched “Pilates studio Miami,” and saw that their website was actually 17th (!!) on the list. Then we searched “Pilates Studio South Miami” and they were 11th. So we knew that we wanted to boost her content for Pilates studio Miami, and we also wanted to see improvement on the South Miami search.
Use this for your keywords. Did your website or blog pop up? If you’re still not popping up, you can even search for your keywords + brand name — “Pilates Studio Miami Pilates in the Grove.” This will show you if you even pop up with that. If not, you don’t have to get discouraged. You just know that SEO needs to be boosted.
Save your spot in current rankings (if you can find it), and then start optimizing your site with the tips we shared above.
Then, make sure you’ve got Google Analytics set up on your site. We’re not tech people, and we managed to do it — and Google has entire tutorials for you. Set that up and check in every 1 to 2 weeks to see how your traffic is growing.
You can use content drilldowns and acquisition filters on your data to see which pages get the most traffic and where that traffic came from. This is useful to see how your keyword and SEO strategy is working!
Track your rankings and traffic
Last but not least, we want to make sure you give any SEO strategy enough time to work. We tell our clients to wait at least 1 month, but preferably 3 — and to keep creating content with new keywords and audience-specific questions. This will continue to build your authority, give you tons of content to repurpose, and will build your rank in search over time.
If you’ve used those strategies for a few months and aren’t seeing any improvements, don’t be afraid to change keywords up. Your keyword strategy should adapt to and grow with your biz, as well, and you’ll want to revisit keywords from time-to-time to make sure you’re using ones that are most relevant.
A last piece of advice on SEO
We’ll leave you with one last note: Resist the temptation to prioritize SEO over your content. Keywords and optimization should never take precedence over producing content that’s actually useful for your audience.
SEO shouldn’t affect how readable your content is, nor how you write out thoughts on a topic. If your content is so heavily (and obviously) optimized for search engines, your audience won’t want to stay on your website, anyway. That kinda defeats the whole purpose of SEO in the first place, doesn’t it?
Remember, you want to build authority, too — and that doesn’t just come from SEO. That comes from being present in other ways, like your social media, your network, your email, and more.