Small Business SEO 101 – First Steps To Page One Rankings with Dana Flannery

In our most recent Lunchbox Forum, Dana Flannery, owner of Talk About Creative, a digital marketing agency here in Brisbane, discussed ways the entrepreneur can get started down the right SEO path.

Entrepreneurial SEO basics

If there’s one start up mistake that causes pain and regrets – it’s bad small business SEO. Getting your SEO kicked off the right way saves so many growing pains down the line. The key to creating a powerful SEO presence from day one is to start up smart. Smart website choices, smart content creation and smart link building.

The three basic SEO must-haves

The three elements most important to website growth are:

  • A solid website
  • Awesome content
  • Quality backlinks

Each element is vital – because if one lets the team down, the other two must work so much harder to achieve the same results. SEO is a complex beast – with hundreds of elements working together to determine the order of search results. When you start a small business, you’re learning so many things and wearing so many hats that more advanced SEO can wait. There are a few habits and practices you can put in place every single day to kick start your SEO without having to learn EVERYTHING right now.

A solid website that search engines love to visit

The top mistakes a start-up makes when choosing a website are choosing a website that is too complex (and incurring the never ending costs of growing the site) and choosing a website that is too simple (and having to start over when your small business grows).
A “too complex” site is one that you pay a fortune to have hand coded with all the hand coded bells and whistles. This may mean using a “non-mainstream” platform on which to build the site. The issue here is that each time you want to make a little change or add new content, you’ll need to go back to the coder and pay fees for the work. Choosing a mainstream platform that has a user friendly content management system is the best way to avoid unnecessary costs.
The “too simple” website is built on a ‘drag and drop’ platform like Weebly or Wix. These sites are incredibly easy to design and use. So simple it’s like putting together a newsletter, not a website. The issue is that the more you learn, the more you know and the first thing you’ll come to know is all the limitations of sites like this. You won’t be able to add certain SEO elements so you’ll need to work twice as hard with content and link building to achieve the same results. You won’t be able to add other essential marketing elements like newsletter integration or ecommerce. As you grow, you’ll need to change to a more suitable platform. This means starting again from scratch and more than that, paying a web developer to do the “transfer” so you don’t lose any SEO gain you’ve made.

Recommended websites for start ups

WordPress. WordPress is the most popular web development platform on earth. This means that you can get “tech help” from other users when you need it. There are tons of reputable “theme” sites that sell beautiful looking sites. You just add your images and your colours and you’re good to go. The CMS is very simple to use. If you can use Microsoft Word you can pretty much use WordPress. WordPress has a host of free or cheap plug ins that allow you to do – well – anything. From a plug in WooCommerce shop to a beautiful blog, from a newsletter sign up interface, to high converting landing page templates… there’s a plug in for that. Just remember that plug ins can cause tech problems so don’t go crazy installing ALL THE PLUGINS! WordPress also offers the Yoast Plug in, the most widely used tool for organising your content in an SEO friendly manner. It’s nifty – especially for novices in the SEO world.
On the downside, WordPress themes can be a bit “bloated” – too many lines of code which makes it hard for Search Engines to “crawl”. More importantly, WordPress is the most hacked platform on earth! Hackers love a good WordPress challenge. Make sure your host has amazing security and that you get advice on the best software applications and the best practices for securing your WordPress site.

SquareSpace. A number of participants at the recent SLQ Lunchbox Forum have opted for SquareSpace. Think of SquareSpace as WordPress’s prettier yet not as smart, little sister. SquareSpace has come ahead in leaps and bounds and is offering more features all the time. This means it’s moving out of the “too simple” category and into a more suitable platform for small business SEO.
It’s hosted. That means higher monthly fees than WordPress but can also mean better security. Most SEOs complain about the limitations of their hosting though, so it may mean that you’ll need to exit Squarespace as your needs become more complex. It’s “drag and drop” and pretty as a picture. If you can build a Mailchimp newsletter, you can build a SquareSpace site. The most recent version of SquareSpace has most of the elements search engines need to understand your site (there are limitations on blog posts and shop pages and also with more advanced SEO elements). As an SEO, I can say that we mostly hate working on SquareSpace sites as the interface for doing basic coding and whatnot is a pain in the neck. You should consider this as most SEO companies and web developers will charge extra for work on SquareSpace sites as they are more time consuming and need more “work arounds’ to get results. When you do decide to leave SquareSpace, it’s the same as leaving any of these basic sites – the transition is fiddly and expensive.

Content creation and optimisation

Creating content is essential for demonstrating to search engines that your site is always growing and is highly useful for your audience. Search engines have moved the bar on content quality in the last year or two. This means it’s no longer enough to “slap up a blog” once a week. You’re better off pouring your heart and soul into one stunning piece of blog content monthly.

How Search Engines find and prioritise your content

Search engines find your content and understand its purpose by the identifying keyword phrases you include. Keyword research is one of the most important, and complex processes in SEO and when budget allows, you should consult an SEO company to help you. For now, you can make a list of terms you believe people would search to find your content (each page or post should have its own target keyword phrases). Google those phrases. Are similar businesses targeting them? If it’s only GIGANTIC competitors, chances are your small business SEO won’t be strong enough to take on the big guys. Narrower keywords are less competitive and if they’re BANG ON, will bring you higher conversion rates. If you sell T-shirts, you may find that page one for the keyword “Buy T-Shirts Online” is full of big name t-shirt companies, department stores and fashion designers. By checking “Custom T-shirts Australia” you may find that the search results are more open to smaller businesses. Your content should answer the keyword exactly or you’ll find your bounce rate will increase. If you don’t do custom t-shirts, don’t target the keyword!

Content needs a purpose

Content for content’s sake doesn’t do you many favours. Each piece of content you produce should have a purpose in mind. Whether it’s copy that explains the features and benefits of your products or an infographic that will wow your audience into sharing on social media and linking to your site, all content must have purpose. Most commonly it’s some or ALL of these:

  • Showcase your brand and brand values
  • Attract search engines and assist with rankings
  • Be highly relevant and useful for those Googling the target keyword
  • Give the user a compelling reason to take the next step in the buying process
  • Explain a problem and give a solution
  • Inspire social click through and sharing
  • Wow people with your brilliance or talents

Helping search engines understand your content

For a computer, Google’s got quite the brain! In the last couple of years, Google has employed new tactics for assessing the quality of user experience on your website. The way your users engage with (or don’t engage with) your content is a growing factor in where you’re ranked in search results. But, with all that binary brain power, Google still rewards site owners that do the basics to help it quickly and simply understand your goals. This is called content optimisation and is a major part of “on page optimisation”.

This is just “Yoast” right?

The WordPress plugin Yoast is all about this element of SEO. Ensuring you’ve got your keyword mentions in all the right spots. These “spots” are the places on your web page that Google checks when trying to understand what your site is about. What Yoast fails at is understanding Latent Semantic Indexing – or LSI keywords. These are synonyms, adjectives and related words that show Google that your content is well written and has depth. Yoast is not the be all and end all of content optimisation. Yoast is a very nifty tool, but it does tend to over optimise and over simplify. Use it, but don’t let it stop you learning more about this area of SEO.

Where should keywords and LSI keywords go?

  • Meta Title – also known as SEO Title
  • Meta Description – this is a short “ad” for the content on the page. It’s not strictly SEO optimisation but you do want click through, and your keyword will be bolded in search results
  • Your “Heading 1” – each page should have a single “main heading” that is formatted that way – don’t use bold, use the drop down menu under “paragraph” to make it a Heading 1
  • Your “Heading 2” sub-headings. Each paragraph on the page should have a sub-heading that is highly relevant to the content of the paragraph. Again, use the Heading 2 formatting, not bold.
  • Your “Heading 3” sub-sub-headings. Every new relevant paragraph under a Heading 2 (H2) should have a Heading 3 (H3) sub-sub-header. This goes on and on but most content won’t need to go beyond heading 3 or 4!
  • In the first and last lines of your text. Make the subject matter immediately clear and sum up and create a meaningful call to action (reason to move forward in the purchase process) at the end
  • Naturally throughout the text
  • In image file names and “alternative text” (also known as Alt text)
  • As links from other pages on your site to this content. When you mention this content anywhere on your site, use the keyword or a variation on the keyword to create a link to this content. If you’re talking about how awesome your custom T-shirts are on a blog, and mention your “Puppy T-Shirt Design”, highlight those words and click the link button. Create a link to the “Puppy Shirts” page. This is called Anchor Text and you can use it not only on your site (internal links) but also when getting links from other people’s sites. Don’t overuse it though, you could trigger a Google Penguin penalty!

Small Business SEO and Link Building

SEO Companies start at about a grand a month. That’s a lot of investment for a startup. If you don’t have the funds, you can start doing “off page” SEO, also known as backlinking, yourself. In fact, by putting a little “best practice” in place from the get go, you’ll save yourself tens of thousands of dollars in SEO services in a year’s time!

What is backlinking

Backlinking is where other websites refer to content on your website, using a link. In essence they’re recommending you to their readers. If you think of your start up website as a water park with tons of pools and different attractions. At the beginning, your pools are pretty empty. You need to fill them with “SEO juice”! Your home page is an Olympic sized swimming pool with nothing much in it. Your product descriptions, the toddler play area…bone dry.
When another website links to your home page they may pass you “SEO Juice” to start filling that pool up. If that website is a government department, a university or a massive news site like the BBC, they’re going to give you a fire hose to fill your pool with. If it’s your mate’s website or a local blogger, it’s going to be more like a garden hose… but still, you want that link juice! As long as the link is from a nice, legitimate website, every drop counts.
When you link from one page on your own site to another, you’re moving a little of that link juice from the Olympic pool to the toddler pool or over to the water aerobics area (our services page, shop page etc). Moving that link juice around means Google can swim in all your pools – and rank all those pools in search results.
Don’t just get links into the home page, if you’re getting a link from the suppliers of toddler pool toys, get them to link directly to the toddler pool. So if you’re getting a link from the suppliers of red t-shirts, get them to link to your red t-shirt category! This is called deep linking and it’s a good way to fortify your website against Google algorithm changes while getting more pages ranked in search results.

When a website poops in your pool

Getting links from dodgy websites is the quickest way to ruin your website. Don’t be tempted to get yourself a link from a site that calls itself AAABestSEOLinks because it’s spam and will essentially poop in your link juice pool. Enough poop and Google will shut down your waterpark altogether.

What is a NoFollow link?

NoFollow links are links that drive people to click through to your website but they don’t directly pass SEO juice. Plenty of SEO experiments have proven that nofollow links are still good for helping your site to rank. This is likely because a mix of followed and nofollowed links trigger “higher trust” in your website and Google likes a trustworthy site. For now, don’t obsess over whether a link is followed or nofollowed. Just focus on the quality of the website linking to you.

So, how does a small business owner build SEO valuable links?

Unless you’re doing something press worthy, you’ll unlikely attract huge links without actually going out and getting them. Creating content that is so WOW that everyone links to it is the only true form of What Hat SEO…. For most businesses, this is a wonderful goal to have but is unlikely to come to fruition.
So how do you do it?

  • Ask for them. Ask your suppliers, retailers, friends and contacts to link to you
  • List your business in legitimate directories serving your industry or city
  • Offer to create content for other people’s websites in exchange for a followed link (this is called guest blogging and should only be done in a totally legitimate way – don’t’ sign up for dodgy blog link ups!)
  • Take part in cross promotions with related businesses. Do a T-shirt giveaway in partnership with a shorts company!
  • Outreach to bloggers who share your audience and offer them stock to giveaway or review. Most bloggers will want cash payment but you can try putting your product out there on local blogger outreach apps.
  • Do good things. Help your local school or community group so they mention you as a sponsor or partner
  • Join your local Chamber of Commerce and get networking
  • Offer yourself up as a source for media sites or podcasters using services like Source Bottle
  • Join Facebook and LinkedIn groups that call for guest bloggers and interview sources. Vet every offer carefully and make sure it’s a legitimate website before accepting
  • Google “Write for us” +”your industry” using the inverted commas. This will bring up a list of industry related blogs that accept guest blogs. Again, only write for legitimate publishers.
  • Set yourself a “one a week” goal and by the end of the year, you’ll have fifty good quality links. That might be a drop in the ocean compared to the big national brands pursuing your keywords, but it’s fifty times better than the other start-ups doing nothing! For smaller, specific keywords that don’t bring a lot of traffic but that have good conversion rates, fifty inbound links could be enough to get you to slot one! As long as your website and content are good too. If you’ve chosen a poor website or created poorly optimised content, you will need 100 links to achieve the same results. All three matter!

SEO Resources for small business

During my presentation at the State Library Lunchbox Forum, I suggested these resources to help entrepreneurs get started, get growing and get learning.

Essential Google Tools

Google Analytics. Track what’s happening on your website
Google Search Console. Track how your website is engaging with Google.
Google Adwords Keyword Planner. Get approximate search numbers on potential keywords. Pay $30 a month for ads to get more accurate search data.
Google Webmaster Guidelines For Beginners. The official Google handbook for first time SEOs.
Google Academy. Online small business SEO courses and certifications from Google.

Other small business SEO tools

Content Optimisation Tips
Free SEO Moz Community Blogs and Forums.
Open Site Explorer Free SEO Analysis Tool.
Small Group SEO Training

Change the way you think about Small Business SEO

By bringing best practice into your life, you’ll save yourself a world of pain and expense in the future. Take care when uploading new content to ensure it’s simple for Google to understand. Remember to “ask for a backlink” whenever the opportunity arises. Actively build your “real life” network to ensure more opportunities arise! By making sure your site, content and link profile are all best practice, you’ll see your Google traffic and sales grow… and it could only take a few months to see a real difference!


Dana Flannery – Talk about Creative

Guest Blogger