SEO can seem like a necessary evil for small businesses. It’s how you can reach potential customers on the web… but is it worth the time and money? Will you even be able to stand out among millions of webpages? But fear not! Optimizing SEO for small businesses is entirely manageable if the right steps are taken.

SEO is a powerful tool for not only finding customers but also building a strong brand reputation. Much of the anxiety about SEO comes from a misunderstanding of what it is and how it works. Without further ado, let’s dive into how SEO can be a pivotal part of your small business marketing strategy.

What is Search Engine Optimization?

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) includes any tactics designed to improve a website’s performance in search engine results. (The acronym can also be short for Search Engine Optimizer, i.e. someone who does SEO.)

Historically, SEO meant ranking high enough for the correct keywords. If someone searched for “bike store Gainesville,” search engines would deliver the results they deemed most reliable — i.e. that other sites were linking to them and the content contained that combination of keywords.

It’s a bit more complicated now. Led by the ever-innovating Google, search engines now focus on user intent. They draw upon each user’s location, previous searches, and behavioral cues to assess which pages best match the search inquiry.

Search engines can now also parse questions, which is how most users now enter their queries. In fact, more than 70% of searches are longtail queries. Ideally, your bike store would show up for both a basic keyword combination (e.g. “bike store Gainesville) and a longtail keyphrase, e.g. “where can I buy bikes near me?”).

This massive shift in algorithms was developed to solve two problems:

Black-hat SEO tactics

Because early search engines relied on keyword density and appearance, SEO strategists would “stuff” content full of keywords. This often made content virtually unreadable. We’ve all seen websites with opening paragraphs such as “When looking for a bike shop in Gainesville, it’s important to evaluate all bike store options in Gainesville to find the best place to buy a bike in Gainesville.”

Google now prioritizes content that engages readers. In their new focus on page experience, “time spent on site” is a critical metric for page ranking, which means clunky content is getting penalized.

Some unscrupulous SEOs even “cloaked” keywords, e.g. putting the text “bike bikes bicycles store shops buy a bike Gainesville” in white against a white background. Google now penalizes these tactics and will de-rank sites that use them.

False reputability

The original name for Google was “Backrub” (yes, really) because they were the first search engine to consider backlinks as a sign of reputable content. Their theory was that people were more likely to link back to sites they found valuable. Therefore, websites with the highest number of backlinks should be ranked highest.

Clever SEO strategists realized all they had to do was create backlinks to their site. For a while, there were even link farms in which webmasters could generate hundreds of backlinks.

Google eventually, of course, figured out that backlinks were being abused in this way. Now, only backlinks from sites with strong domain authority contribute to rankings. If you have a backlink to your site from Buzzfeed or Forbes, that’s a huge SEO boost. On the flip side, a link from means nothing and, if that site has been flagged as a spam site, could actually harm your reputation.

So, how can you put the right tactics of SEO into action for your business? Given the changes in search engine algorithms since the early days of the web, you may be wondering: “if keywords and backlinks don’t really matter, what’s the point of SEO?”

Make no mistake: keywords and backlinks still matter, but not out of context. As with most things in the world of marketing, aim for quality, not quantity.

To further illuminate the importance of SEO for small businesses, let’s bust some popular myths.

Myths and Facts about SEO for Small Businesses

Myth: SEO isn’t necessary.

Some people insist that SEO is dead because most businesses generate leads from social media or drive traffic with paid ads. While those are both effective tactics, SEO is still important — if only because today’s SEO techniques also tend to improve your customers’ experience.

In general, though, SEO is one of the least expensive ways to attract potential customers. Paid advertising campaigns can be cost-prohibited for a new business, and social media takes time to build. Besides, SEO now entails more than ranking high in search results — it’s also a means of boosting your online reputation.

Myth: SEO is expensive and a waste of money.

When done correctly and in line with your overall marketing strategy, SEO is not terribly expensive. The problem is that “snake oil” SEO companies have popped up, claiming they can deliver incredible results in just 30 days — for a price. Any agency worth their salt knows better than to make hard promises.

That’s because there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to SEO. Some brands may benefit from blogs that attract organic traffic, while others need to be optimized for local map results or voice search. In any case, SEO is much more than keywords and backlinks.

Myth: SEO takes a long time to work.

Many business owners immediately dive into paid advertising because they want quick results. That’s understandable, but ad campaigns often don’t deliver a high ROI right out of the gate. It takes time to tweak your audience, test creative variations, and optimize your ad spend.

By contrast, SEO works relatively quickly — although it’s also a never-ending task. Bots are constantly crawling the web, and if they discover valuable content on your site, they’ll show it to relevant users. Plus, SEO now includes Google My Business, which instantly pops up when someone searches for your business or industry. The average GMB listing appears more than 1,000 times per month. That’s free advertising!

Why SEO is Worth Your Time

Notice a theme here? SEO isn’t about hacking your way to higher page rankings. It encompasses your overall strategy for improving your online reputation and getting in front of the right users. This means you don’t have to cough up money for questionable SEO tactics. Instead, consider it an investment in your brand’s digital presence.

SEO as a Marketing Strategy

The first step toward getting more comfortable with SEO is to stop thinking of it as a “webmaster thing” and start seeing it as a crucial part of your marketing strategy. Yes, you may need a web developer or coder for some tasks, but they should work closely with your marketing team.

Here are the four main tasks to perform SEO in tune with your marketing goals:

  1. Align your target audience’s buying journey with your site structure. This can be as simple as breaking out your pages for different search intents (e.g. “bike repair Gainesville” vs. “buy bikes Gainesville”). To avoid confusing different audience segments and cluttering your site, create unique landing pages for each social media or ad campaign.
  2. Identify your ideal customers’ key desires, challenges, and “sticking points” (what resonates with them), then create content that matches those. Tap into common longtail queries e.g. “when should I replace my bike chain?” Give each page or post an optimized title that entices clicks when it appears in search results. Try to answer your target audience’s questions into your content’s subheadings to boost your chance of appearing in the “People Also Ask” section.
  3. Create a better user experience. This means getting rid of any keyword-stuffed or duplicate content, reorganizing your sitemap, implementing responsive design, and streamlining your code to speed up load times. Check to be sure there is at least one static text link on your site for each of your pages. (And don’t forget to fix any broken links.)
  4. Invest in local SEO. As mentioned, Google My Business is an excellent way to make sure your business appears in Maps results. However, GMB listings also appear alongside regular search results. You can also collect reviews, post updates, and otherwise manage your reputation. Claim your GMB listing and add local information (e.g. your address and phone number) to your website as well.

Wrapping Up

SEO doesn’t have to be a mystifying mix of keywords, links, and hidden code. In fact, it should be a natural extension of your brand alignment goals. Once you focus on delivering high-value content to the right people, SEO follows naturally. While it can be time-consuming, it’s well worth the investment if your digital presence consistently appears to your ideal audience. In SEO, a greater quality of web content leads to a greater quantity of leads and customers.

To streamline your website, track user behavior, and manage your content all in one place, look no further than SharpSpring. Book a demo now.

Rebecca Wentworth