SEO tips for small businesses
Building your business online can be a long, drawn-out process.
I've personally been trying to dedicate time to it whenever possible, but life often takes over. House moves, employment changes, financial ups-and-downs...
In all honesty, developing and launching a new site could be considered the easy part. Improving your search rankings over time is where the real challenge lies and quite often, you will be entering a space where there are already established competitors. Your idea may be better than theirs, but getting your product or service noticed before theirs is a difficult task at the beginning.
If your site and domain is brand-new, your search ranking will be terrible. There is no other word to describe it. The reason being at this early stage your site needs to be crawled by search engines and the content indexed. The crawling process allows them to decide, algorithmically, the search terms your website is best suited.
And it is here, where search engine optimisation comes in.
Search engine optimisation (SEO) is the catch-all term for the continued improvements we should all make to our sites.
However, many business owners do not do this. Particularly small businesses who either don’t have the time, or the funds available to make the required changes.
With the small-business owner in mind, I thought I would focus this post on SEO that can have a real impact on their search rankings. These changes are often free and only require a small amount of time per day. Gradually, these marginal gains will compound and create an improved search ranking.
Hey Jack, would you like to buy some magic beans?
Since SEO became a mainstream part of website management, a number of snake oil salespeople have come out of the woodwork. They will offer SEO to small businesses for monthly fees, but in reality, they offer very little other than the basics.
However, I am not saying that all SEO is snake oil. Content optimisation, when done correctly, can be hugely beneficial.
Large companies who have high numbers of visitors per day can see huge financial gains with well thought out A/B testing. Once you understand how people (users) read and consume content, you can use that to your advantage. Guiding them through the buying process you have laid out.
But for small businesses, or sites with very little traffic, this method is not effective so you need to focus your time and effort elsewhere.
In the early days, it’s just a numbers game
If you don’t have high traffic numbers (users/customers) coming to your site the decisions and changes you make cannot really offer you much in the way of results. With higher traffic you can test layouts, colours, or wording and see what has been more effective in generating conversions (payments, goals…). With low traffic, this type of information cannot be gathered.
So you can see, early on, that it is a numbers game. The higher the number of users you have coming to your site, the better the chance you have of converting them into buyers, or supporters of your product.
Small businesses often need advice in the early stages. Where are they going wrong and improvements that can be made and give them the jump on the local competition.
This is where I come in. Offering advice.
I live in Inverness so I thought the advice would be based around local companies. Highlighting where I believe they might be have issues and offer insights and changes that can help deliver more traffic.
I’ve not notified any of these businesses, nor have I received any payment for including them. This is about supplying real-world examples.
So with the introductions done, let’s get started.
Understanding and gathering your traffic
How much do you actually know about the traffic coming to your site on a daily basis?
Or if you even have daily traffic. It may be the case you have many fallow periods, and the more often these quiet periods occur, the bigger the hit your search presence will take.
Search engines, such as Google (many flavours are available), have a main goal of serving up the most relevant content for a particular search query in the fastest time possible. Simply put, that is their main objective.
If your site is showing fewer ‘hits’ over a period of time, this is indicating to the search engines that your content is not considered relevant or worthwhile for the query. Eventually your business falls further down the rankings until you are on page 10, where you may as well not even exist.
You need to find a way of preventing this.
There are two vital tools for any online business that I am going to focus on. Google Analytics and Google Search Console. Again, other search engines such as Bing will have similar applications, but the Google offerings are some of the more powerful and well-documented.
Google Analytics. Data relating to your users
Let me start by saying gathering user data isn’t ideal.
The fact that businesses can track our every move, using that information to influence our behaviour when casually browsing is creepy. However, the genie is out of the bottle with this one and for a business to grow online you need to know more about the users you are getting on your site.
That’s the ‘boring legal bit’ out of the way. So what can an analytics programme do for you
Analytics provides you with a huge amount of anonymous data related to each user. How many pages they viewed on their visit, what page they exited on, how long they spent on each page, their general location and age range…
Quite a bit. Which means the data can be overwhelming for new users. However, the best approach is to gradually identify the areas that are of most importance to you. For new users I would suggest focussing on:
Average time on page
User data is an obvious one. You want to know how many people are visiting your site and if this is going up or down. If that daily user number is consistently going down, or zero, it suggests something is amiss and requires further investigation.
You can access user data by going to Audience > Overview in the side menu.
In my opinion, bounce rate is a somewhat undervalued metric.
If a user comes to your page and does not interact with anything, leaving almost immediately and not viewing any other pages, this triggers a ‘bounce’.
There may be cases where this behaviour is acceptable or expected. Some users are performing research and find the information they are looking for straight away. In which case your content has done a great job.
However, some will view the page and decide it’s not relevant and move away from your site entirely.
You will need to identify the pages where a bounce is acceptable, and pages whose purpose is to guide users to other content. If these pages have high bounce rates you’ll need to explore their content and structure to try and reduce that rate.
Search engines take notice of this bounce rate. It gives them a good indication of suitability for a search query. If users ‘bounce’ from your site for a particular query the search engine pushes it further down the listings until it is out of sight. This is fine if you’re being picked up for unrelated queries, which happens all the time, but if that bounce is for one of your targeted keywords then you have a problem on your hands.
You can access your overall bounce rate by heading to Audience > Overview, or for individual pages, head to Behaviour > Site Content > All Pages. Here, you will see a breakdown of key data for each page.
Average time on page
Similar to bounce rate, the average time spent on each page could give you an indication of how engaging your content is.
For general content pages this time may only be in the seconds. Maybe 20-30 seconds. If it is a blog post, which tends to be longer and more engaging, the average time on page should be higher and could run into minutes.
Again, you can view this data on a page-by-page basis. If there are pages you feel could improve or have an average time on page less than 10 seconds, there may be a chance for improvement. On these pages, look at the content and ask is it performing the task it was set out for? Each page should have a goal for the user to complete (move on to related content, purchase an item…).
You can access the average time on individual pages by going to Behaviour > Site Content > Pages.
Most user traffic is through mobile devices. But the problem here is the sheer volume of devices and varying screen dimensions that make it very difficult to cater for.
In the early development process the best bet is to take a broad approach. Most devices will be Android and a significant portion of users will be on Apple devices. At this stage of development, unless you have previous user data, you cannot know what device sizes to target.
Once you have traffic coming in you can optimise your website to suit most common devices your customers use. There is no point focussing your time on a device size that accounts for <1% of your users.
Device information can be found at Audience > Mobile > Devices.
Google Search Console. Data relating to your site
How do you find out what search terms you are ranking for? How can you find out your average position in search. How can you find out if there are errors on your site preventing it from ranking?
This is where Google Search Console (GSC) comes in.
Check your website’s ranking
Google Search Console provides site owners with a dashboard, giving insights that allow them to monitor their website’s performance, particularly in search terms.
With GSC you can find out what terms your website is being ranked for, how many impressions you are getting for that term and the number of clicks. You’ll see terms in there that are useless, which is common and will resolve itself, but amongst them will be the terms you want to rank for.
You can access this information by selecting Performance.
Submit sitemaps and trigger crawls
As well as ranking information you can submit sitemaps and trigger crawls. This is useful because there are times where you could be waiting months for new content to be crawled. By updating your sitemap and informing GSC of the change you can ensure your pages are crawled faster.
You can also do this on an individual basis.
If you have made a change to content on one page, you don’t need to trigger an entire crawl. It’s not necessary and depending on the size of the website can affect the crawl budget. By crawling pages individually, or when they change, you could speed up when their new content is ranked.
You can submit a new sitemap under Sitemaps, and to trigger an individual page crawl head to URL Performance and enter the URL of the page that has changed.
There are times when something on your site is preventing search engines from crawling, or ranking it effectively. Often, they won’t be errors visible to standard users, but in the structure of the website. GSC will identify these for you, as well as security issues.
Head to Security & Manual Actions for more information.
Your content will always be king
In recent years there has been a push by search engines, mainly Google, to get developers to focus on speed. This is understandable because a slow website will frustrate your user. But there is a big difference between a slow site, and a sub 90 Page Speed rated site.
Improving the speed of websites is important, but it’s not the reason customers visit your site. Many developers can get too focussed on creating fast sites without addressing the main reason people come to your site in the first place.
As previously mentioned, search engines crawl your content and decide the best search terms to rank it for. If your site is light on content then you will struggle to get organic (free) traffic. You may pick up the odd search term but there won’t be much room for more obscure terms.
You want to cast your net wide in the early days when it comes to content.
Over the past year I have been regularly adding content to my own site. There is currently over 5000 words of web development-related content for search engines to crawl. Writing/typing that number of words in one go is technically possible, but I wouldn't suggest it.
The way I achieved it is quite simple.
How to write content
There were a few blog posts I wanted to write about which I felt were ‘evergreen’ topics. Most days I would commit myself to writing just 100 words. The good thing about that number is that it's really easy to achieve and you often end up writing closer to 500.
Over the course of a year that has the potential to yield 36,500 words.
The content doesn’t need to be search engine optimised in the first instance. By that I mean targeting keywords, you just need the topics and the content.
Once you have the content you can begin to see the search terms you are being ranked for and the impressions they are generating. If there are terms you wish to gain traffic for you can begin to expand upon what you have written. Padding the content by adding more keywords along the way, but always look to retain a natural, storytelling feel.
The aim is to create ‘evergreen’ content. Content that is going to stand the test of time, that your users are likely to search for year after year. Not content that can be easily dated.
Often online businesses, particularly small ones, would post regular content because this was the old advice that was given. The problem is it would be meaningless a month later or was just pretty much useless. You know the type of content, ‘We’ve just been on a team day out’. ‘Come and see us on such a date for a one off thing’ and claim that as writing regular content.
This is the wrong way to approach things.
Become an authority
We often forget that the web is an archive. One ginormous library that we can reach into at any point of the day. If you begin to treat your content as something that will be a useful reference for years to come, you’ll begin to write meaningful content.
Think about the business you are in. What are the questions you often get asked by your clients? How often have you wanted to delve deeper into those questions? Would giving your customer a better understanding of your business increase the value of your product?
Become an authority in your space by writing content that offers a deep-dive into complicated, or intriguing, business-related subjects. Eventually, search engines will begin to take notice and list your content for a variety of search terms. It’s this variety that can start to bring in more customers than your competitors because your site will begin ranking for some of the more obscure terms.
A content improvement example
Inverness is full of great restaurants, all jostling for position to get bookings. Often, a booking can be placed on recommendations but most times it's through a keyword search.
River House Restaurant in Inverness, has wonderful food. I’ve been there a number of times. One thing I have always hated is the selection of wine. I never feel I know enough and often pass the choice off to my partner for her to choose.
I doubt I am alone in this.
A great idea for an evergreen content for this type of site is ‘How to choose the best wine to accompany your meal’. A post that will stand the test of time because people will always be asking this question, as well as there being plenty of opportunities to mention food that is currently on the menu.
Yes, this type of post will have been written countless times before. But not by their competitors. And this is the key point to take away.
A search engine will identify the River House as having more ‘foodie’ content than their competitors, gradually giving them the advantage in search rankings if similar content is added over time.
Create a glossary of terms
Depending on the industry you are in, you may use terms that are familiar to you, but completely foreign to your customers. New or old. Web development is full of them so there is no doubt other industries have the same issue.
Could writing a glossary of terms help? Absolutely. Here’s why.
A customer comes to your site and reads through one of your service pages. If they come across an industry term that has not been expanded upon they are very likely going to make another search query on that term.
First of all, this takes them away from your site and their goal has now switched. Finding the meaning of that term. They may even find the answer on your competitors website, where they reset to their original goal and complete it on their website, not yours.
All of that from a term.
So by creating a glossary you have a much higher chance of keeping the customer on your site. It also increases their trust in your product because it's clear you have a complete understanding of the industry you are in, and not using buzzwords.
There are obvious content benefits to including a glossary too. These glossary snippets have the chance of being picked up in related queries, delivering users that would have been otherwise unreachable if you continued with basic content.
Think of your company website as a digital book of the business’ services, history, and knowledge. Direct and inform your customers in the same way and the rewards will come.
An example where this can work
Electrical work is one of the industries where there is a lot of terminology that is familiar to the company, but often homeowners are unaware of certain acronyms.
MJ Macpherson Electrical Contractors in Inverness could benefit from a glossary. Being able to up their content level with definitions would give them a boost in many electrical search terms. It would also improve their chances of being seen as the authority in the area, both by search engines and potential customers.
Create Landing Pages
Users will come to your site through a number of different channels so it is highly likely that they won’t enter through the ‘front door’ (home page).
Potential customers will enter a search query and choose the best result from there. The pages they are often presented with for these queries are keyword rich, media heavy, sales pages. Also known as landing pages.
So, what is a landing page?
Think of them as the sales person on the floor. These pages take a user through the sales process (sales funnel) by introducing the product, highlighting the great benefits, options customers have and prices they can expect to pay. At this point, the customer should be ready to convert, or buy.
You will have come across these types of pages before. A common example is the ones used for an Apple product launch. Whenever they release a new product, Apple creates glossy landing pages that have a single purpose. Convincing you to buy.
The Apple example, and others, is where your inspiration needs to come from. If one of your potential customers visits your landing page, you need to be able to get their attention immediately, and retain it throughout the entire sales funnel.
Once you have the basic content you can fine tune these pages based on the Google Search Console data and target them for the most valuable search queries.
This is where it is probably best to ring in a web development expert.
Now your content is in place you have a much better chance of ranking for a number of keywords, as well as a clearer understanding of the queries you want the business to rank for. It is at this point that you should consider performance improvements.
That is not to say that performance should be an afterthought. Performance is vital in creating great user experiences. There is a very big difference between a slow-loading site and a sub 90 PageSpeed rated site. Chasing high page speed scores before the content is in place is wasted effort.
What is Page Speed?
Google Page Speed measures how well your site performs on a number of metrics. If your site is performant you will receive a rankings boost. The emphasis should be on the word ‘boost’. Performance can help if you and your competitor are on equal content terms. If your site has a better Page Speed rating it is likely you will get the higher rank. But ultimately, the content is the main ranking factor to focus on.
Page Speed will return suggested improvements which can boost your score. Often, these require development work which is why it is best to employ an expert developer to resolve some of these.
However, there are some that you can resolve as a business owner.
Images are often the main cause for a slow website. If your website is content-rich you may be able to improve its speed by simply uploading smaller copies of images. Sometimes you will need a programme such as Photoshop to carry out the optimisations, but there are websites out there that offer basic image compression, such as TinyPNG.
Improve your hosting
You could have the fastest site possible but it can still be let down by the hosting provider. If you’re on a shared hosting platform you’ll often experience slightly slower response times. It’s just the drawback of using shared hosting.
By investing in better hosting your website could experience an almost instant page load, particularly if it has great caching attached.
Using developer tools
Desktop browsers have developer tools installed which, as the name suggests, help developers in the build process. A small amount of knowledge of developer tools can go a long way. Giving you a snapshot of issues customers may be experiencing. In particular, slow connection speeds.
In towns and cities we often experience 4G and 5G connectivity. 3G, although once an amazing technical feat, now feels like dialup because of the size of websites today. Some customers will be accessing your site with 3G still and seeing how your site performs in those conditions could help prevent a ‘bounce’.
For the purposes of this example we’ll use the desktop version of Google Chrome. Click the three dots in the top-right corner and select More Tools > Developer Tools. A new window will appear, from here select the Network tab at the top.
Don’t worry too much about the information on this tab, you are only looking to simulate a slow connection. Where it says No Throttling, select this dropdown and choose Slow 3G and reload your website.
How much of your content is visible and how long does it take to load fully? Is there any usable content on the site during the load process or does the user have to wait until it is fully loaded before being able to access the content?
If your website has problems using a 3G connection you may be missing out on potential customers, who got tired of waiting for your site to load and tried somewhere else.
With this new-found knowledge you should be equipped with the tools you need to grow your business online. Because many of these are free, the only cost to you is time. Which can be equally valuable but when it comes to business costs I know which one I would prefer.
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