What is SEO?
If we take it back to basics, SEO is a process of improving how websites appear and rank organically within a search engine results page (SERP). And to answer the obvious question, SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation. You’ll notice we used the phrase process of improving, and that the O in SEO stands for optimisation.
Why do you want to rank well on the search engine results page? The higher you appear in search for relevant queries, the more traffic that will come to your site. Easy! Broadly SEO fits into the category of digital marketing. While SEO is a single channel amongst many marketing channels small businesses can implement, if done right it can be a powerful and cost-effective way of growing your business.
How will SEO improve discovery of my website?
When your customers have a problem, where do they go? More often than not, they’ll pull their phone out and jump into a search engine. They’re looking for a solution for their problem. Whether that problem is a leaky tap, a new pair of shoes or seeking help to grow their business, search is where many of us go to start the process.
Let’s says you have a great product. People love it, it’s beautiful, functional and will make them feel great. The only problem is your sales are only coming through word of mouth. You know that there are lots more people who would love your product but they’re just not finding it. And when they jump into a search engine like Google, your website isn’t coming up for what should be your key search terms. As a result you know you’re missing out on sales.
Search engine optimisation is the process that will help your website show up for your key search terms. While there are hundreds of factors search engines like Google consider, SEO sits on three critical pillars.
- Search Intent and Website content: Is it educational or transactional?
- Technical SEO: Does Google understand your website?
- Backlinks and Authority: Who else is endorsing a visit to your site?
If your website isn’t being discovered in search it will most likely come to down to a combination of these three factors. It’s easy to make SEO more complicated than it needs to be.
Search Intent & Website Content
As an example, let’s say you want to rank for the term ‘cafe Mornington’ but there isn’t any content on your site: keywords, copy, images, video, that aligns with that term. It won’t matter how good the other aspects of your SEO are. Unless your website content is aligned with search intent you simply won’t get results.
While it seems like an obvious place to start it’s an important part of the process that can often get overlooked.
When it comes to content there are two aspects that are important to consider. Is your content educational or transactional?
Simply, are people looking to learn something or looking to buy something?
Educational content is designed to help inform users about your services or answer questions they might have. It is less about making a purchase and more about learning something. With this consideration, creating content that answers important or popular questions might be a great place to start.
As an example, if you’re a local coffee roaster and are looking to grow your wholesale business, putting together a piece on ‘how to choose a coffee machine’ could be a great place to start. Why is that? Your audience are most likely cafe owners looking for help, so you can offer them written advice which increases the relevant content on your website, may increase site traffic, and might even be valuable enough that this new cafe owner wants to find out more about your wholesale coffee as a result.
Does Google understand your website? Can it crawl it? Is your website fast? Does your navigation make sense? Website design and development can really impact the performance of your site in search. We wrote a great guide on the seven step process to a great website.
Without getting too technical, how your site is built really matters. And how you maintain your site does too. Sorry set-and-forgetters but this is where regular check ups and optimisations make a difference.
While you could have the most beautiful website in the world, unless Google and other search engines are able to craw your site and index it – adding your content to their inventory – it’s never going to reach its full search potential.
Technical SEO isn’t all nerdy behind the scenes things either, it really matters for small business SEO. Really practical examples of this are page speed and responsive design. Google actively prefers to show sites that are optimised for mobile and that load quickly. Why? We all expect websites to load fast, and we expect to be able to understand the website we’re viewing on a number of different devices. In really simple terms this is basic user experience design. While it’s classed as technical issues, it’s all about how we make sure your website provides a great experience for people viewing it.
Backlinks & Authority
This part of SEO happens offsite. Backlinks are simply links from other websites that navigate to your site. Google interprets these backlinks as votes of confidence from other sites. Essentially a link to your site is an endorsement, the linking website is saying to its users, ‘this website is relevant’. This is why the Internet is referred to as the web, it’s a giant collection of interconnected websites. While it’s tempting to go and get as many links as possible, you want to get links from other sites that are in your industry, or category. If you’re in fashion, and all your links are from gardening sites, Google and other search engines will be confused about your place in the giant web.
Keep in mind that not all backlinks are created equally. A backlink from a popular site like news.com.au is going to be worth more to your site in authority than a link from a regular website. That’s not to say regular website links don’t matter, they definitely do. Another factor to be aware of is that in reality, it’s a lot easier to get an inbound link from a regular site than it is from a national, or international site as a small business.
To go a layer deeper on backlinks, there are two kinds we should touch on: do-follow and no-follow. Whilst getting a link from a big website like news.com.au sounds like an appealing way to achieve an SEO gold-star, you will likely find that large websites aren’t going to go and share their credibility willy-nilly. If you right-click on a URL from a large-scale website you may find that these links are tagged with <rel=“nofollow” > code. These types of backlinks don’t pass on authority, only the ability to navigate.
This is where acquiring great backlinks requires a great strategy.
Creating great content is a great place to start. When you write a really informative, helpful and relevant pieces, you’re more likely to impress visitors on your site searching for the information you’re providing. They might even be so impressed, that they share a link to the piece on their own website or social media.
How to create great content for people
- Publish regularly
- Be Relevant
- Be Unique
- Take an opinion
8 Tips on how to optimise your small business site for SEO
Keywords are the queries or search terms that prospects search when looking to solve their problem. They might search for your or your competitors business name or they might search for a generic category name or phrase. What’s really important is understanding the search terms people use when looking to solve problems that you can help solve. Use a keyword research tool like Ahrefs, SEMrush or Keyword Planner to help determine keyword opportunities, search volume and how competitive your keywords are.
Create a quick list of keywords you would like to rank for and review your site to see if this list is reflected on your website. Be careful not to overuse keywords, Google and other search engines know when people try and manipulate them. As a guide, if it’s feeling spammy or doesn’t make sense when you read it, you might have over done it.
2. Page Copy
In short, don’t over use keywords. It’s called ‘keyword stuffing’ and it’s a technique that used to work, until Search Engines cottoned-on to websites who were trying to hack the SERPS. It’s easy to think if you jam your site full of your favourite keywords you’re just giving Google a helping hand. Unfortunately Google doesn’t see it like this. Why? When writing is poor, doesn’t make sense or isn’t helpful this ultimately will impact your user experience. Google cares about making sure the sites people visit in search are great, relevant and helpful.
Make sure you create new content for your website. Needless to say, ‘borrowing content’ from other websites is a surefire way to go backwards. If you’re not much of a copywriter, it’s definitely worth finding a copywriting partner who can help support you to create unique and relevant copy.
3. Title Tag
The title tag appears as the clickable link in the search engine results page. It tells users and Google what to expect from the page. Because of that, Google and other search engines weight heavily the keywords and phrases included in your title tag. Each page on your website should have a unique tag that indicates what content is on that page, remember to include your most relevant keyword for that page. Be sure to keep your copy between 50 and 70 characters. If it’s too long it will be truncated when it shows up in search results. On the other hand, if it’s too short it might not best describe the content on your page in the best possible way.
4. Meta Tag
The meta tag is the description of a particular page on your site. If the title tag is the leading piece of information on the page, the description is the summary. It tells both users and Google what to expect in support of the page title. If you don’t specify the meta description of the page, Google will autofill it with what it thinks is the most relevant information on your page but it might not mean anything to the user actually viewing this in the SERP. It’s best practice to keep the meta description copy between 100-155 characters and to include a call to action to encourage response.
5. Heading Tags
There are six heading tags you can use, H1 through to H6. Heading tags are HTML elements, meaning they’re distinct from a regular text elements, and are different again from just bold text. Heading tags help tell Google and search crawlers what the most important information on the page is, starting with the H1 tag. Use a H1 for the headline of your page, and use H2s and H3s to support your headline and structure your content.
It’s best practice to avoid excessive use of heading tags on your page, and good to keep your headlines short and to the point.
A great way to think about heading tags is to consider them like chapters and sections within a textbook. Use them logically to distinguish the flow of your content and make sure you use your headings to create structure, not just for styling your text.
6. URL Structure
Search engines need a unique URL for each piece of content.
Make sure your navigation is simple, so both crawlers and people can move throughout your site without getting lost or confused about how to find your content. It can be easy to accidentally create complex or confusing navigation structures without a plan in place. Make sure you have a naturally flowing hierarchy, allowing users to find similar pages easily without having to use a site search.
Consider the URL paths you create and how they can impact your site. It’s best practice to use lowercase and use hyphens to separate words. As an example coffeepeople.com.au/coffee-beans-for-home is much better than coffee.com.au/coffeebeansforhome
One day it might not be too hard to imagine search engines understanding the visual content on our website through machine learning, but for the time being, they don’t understand images in the same way people do. This means we have to help search engines understand the images we have our on pages. There are four things to consider when it comes to images.
Here’s an example of a complete image tag.
<img src=“cafe.jpg” alt=“coffee cup with people” title=“business name coffee cup”>
Alt Text Tags - This is the copy shown when an image isn’t loaded or cannot be displayed. It could be a connection issue or could be caused by accessibility software like a screen reader where the image isn’t accessible. It serves as a brief description of what’s being shown. As an example, 'Cup of coffee with friends’.
Image Title - Think of a caption. That’s what an image title will do. While it’s best practice to include image titles in your plan, it’s really unlikely it will affect your SEO ranking either way.
File Name - Does filepicture23411.jpg make any sense to you? I’m guessing not. It does’t make any sense to Google either. As an example cafe-mornington-business-name.jpg is much more helpful. Remember, lowercase, hyphen between words.
Size - Too big and your website will be really slow. Too small and the images will be pixelated. Both of these matter for SEO. If your site is slow, people will leave before they see your site. Google will record this as a bounce, and mark it as slow. If the site looks bad because the images are too small, in the same way people will leave as it gives a impression of low quality, something you also want to avoid.
We love a tool called Squoosh. It’s a really great place to start when it comes to optimising images so they’re the right size for your site.
8. Pulling The SEO Structure Together
Now that we’ve worked through our three key pillars of SEO, we’ve come up with some great content and have our structure nailed, what will it all look like on a page?
- Meta title
- Meta description
Bonus: Don’t forget to cross-link between pages on your site.
If we were to use our small business example of a cafe in Mornington, it could look something like this. Remember, just like in real life, we need to be really clear about what we’re communicating otherwise we’ll just end up confusing people, and Google. So think precision and accuracy.
- Meta Title: [Business Name] - A Delicious Cafe in Mornington
- Meta description: [Business Name] are a coffee shop and cafe based on the Mornington Peninsula. We brew tasty coffees and make delicious cakes. Book a table today.
- URL: businessname.com.au/cafe-mornington
- H1: A Delicious Cafe in Mornington
- H2s: [Structure the page using these. I.E Menu, Location etc]
- Include a phrase in your copy “cafe in Mornington”
And shazam! You’ve got a really nicely SEO-optimised page ready to roll. Easy.
How to use Local Search Engine Optimisation
If you’re a local business and you want people within your community to discover you in search or to visit you in person, you’ll need to consider local SEO as a part of your broader SEO plan.
Consider your location in your key search terms. If you run a cafe on the Mornington Peninsula, you’ll want to make sure you optimise your site around the term ‘cafe mornington Peninsula’. This lets Google know where you’re located, so they can let browsers find your great cafe. You can try optimisation around suburbs, regions or even cities. Remember it will generally be easiest to rank for suburbs first, then regions, and then cities as this will likely reflect the competition of keywords and search volume.
Claim your local business or create a new Google My Business listing. Google will use the information provided in My Business to show results across the search, and maps. It also creates an opportunity for customers to leave reviews and give other browsers confidence when considering your products or services.
SEO is always changing (Always!)
Just like the Internet is always changing, rules for SEO are always changing too. It makes a lot of sense. As technology, habits and expectations change, search engines change too. They adapt to continue to provide a great search experience. It wasn’t that long ago that Google said “Hey everyone, your site should be mobile responsive or else.”
When these changes are made, small businesses who don’t eventually adapt will run into trouble.