The world of SEO can be a bit daunting—most of my family, friends and dates give me blank stares when I describe to them what I do here at Digital Third Coast. That's because there are approximately 200 ranking factors in Google’s algorithm for organic search, and the weight of these factors is changing all the time. What works for one company doesn’t work for another. It’s never a straightforward process and results are never linear. Owners of small and medium sized businesses, in particular, wear almost every hat—from the business function itself to making sure payroll is administered, hiring new employees, managing the office, etc.

To add the confusing world that is digital marketing on top of all of that, well, it can be frustrating. Where do you start? What do you do? And is SEO worth your time? Even if you’re a smaller business, you can still compete in organic search listings with little SEO knowledge to ultimately attract new customers through your website.

Learn To Crawl like Google

Before we walk, run and get grown-up jobs; we start our lives crawling. And in the same way, this is square one for SEO success.

“Crawling” in this context is defined as Google’s process of sending a robot to "crawl" i.e. read and analyze your website and the pages within and then index those results so they can be displayed in organic search listings.

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Before we get into all the "fun" parts of marketing—creating awesome content, showing off your expertise, etc.—we need to make sure that search engines have the ability to index that stuff and deliver it to the right people. We generally cover this in our website audit, and fortunately for you, I wrote an article on how to do your own basic SEO Audit. When it comes to making sure your website is crawlable and things are indexing correctly, here are the key items to complete:

Install Google Search Console:

This great free tool from Google is simple to install on your website (just needs a line of code). Google Search Console shows you how Google is crawling and indexing your site, from the pages being indexed to how it views your sitemaps. Visit google.com/webmasters to get started!

Robots.txt file:

Your website should have a robots.txt file that, at minimum, includes the address of the sitemap and exclusions for

  • Shopping cart pages
  • Pages behind a contact form (whitepapers, thank you pages, etc.)
  • Development directories
  • Admin/pages behind login walls

XML Sitemap:

Create an XML sitemap (you can use a free generator tool for this—use Google ‘xml sitemap’ generator) and upload it to the directory yoursite.com/sitemap.xml.

Fix 404 Errors

By creating 301 redirects from pages that no longer exist to the equivalent live page on your website.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, so if you want to dive further into indexation, robots and spiders, Adam has a great post about how crawl budgets work and some other more technical components you should address to ensure your website is indexed by Google correctly. At this point in the process it would also be a good idea to do keyword research and figure out which keywords you actually want to be ranking for. You can also check out Lauren's post on keyword mapping and strategy, for more information.

Give Google Relevent, Targeted, Valuable Content to Index

Now that Google can index our site and deliver our pages to potential customers, let’s give them something of value to index. We’re not going to bring in much traffic if we don’t have anything of value to provide searchers. There’s no shortage of articles about how to create great content, and you as a small business owner are thinking “I don’t have a designer. I don’t know how to talk to journalists. I don’t even know what content is supposed to mean!” Content marketing, when executed properly, is a powerful tool that can help your business. Let's start with how can you, the small business owner, create content that’s valuable and will help get your business noticed?

Google has a pretty clear set of values as a company. No. 1: Focus on the user and all else will follow.

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Replace the word "user" with your target customer, and then content—as well as many of the other things you should be doing with your website—becomes very clear. The content you create on your site should give your customers value. At DTC, the reason we create these blog articles is because we want to provide value to you. We want to help educate people who could be potential customers, and we want to show the world that we are knowledgeable on digital marketing. Take that approach and apply it to your business. Give people something of value. If you’re an HVAC contractor, you should have pages of your site for how to check your furnace filters, how to tell what kind of coolant my air conditioner has, the things I need to know when replacing my furnace. The best way to sell is to help your customer discover the solution that best fits him or her.

Your website is essentially an online salesperson. Is your website the type of sleazy salesperson who tries to trick customers, or the type of salesperson who gets recommended to new clients by existing customers because he or she was so helpful? Create content that helps your customer. It’s not as hard as it sounds. For more details on crafting great landing pages, check out my blog post on Perfect Local Landing Pages. Even if you’re not a local business, most of the same rules apply. Blogging also plays into this. Scope out our explainer video on how blogging helps your SEO efforts.

Use That Content to Build Links

SEO Commandment No. 1: Inbound Links to Your Website is the biggest factor when it comes to your organic performance. The quality and quantity of these inbound links is often the deciding factor between great organic performance and not ranking for much of anything.

Getting quality links is hard. For every client, we have an account manager, an outreach manager, a content manager, a graphic designer, as well as a researcher. It takes a lot of knowledge, experience, time and resources to pull off quality content that publishers want to share. But, we’re a dedicated marketing agency. It’s highly unlikely that a small business has these people on hand—or that they have people with enough time to dedicate to these activities. So, how can small businesses measure and grow their backlink profiles?

1) Start by looking at the links you already have by using a backlink checking program.

Ask yourself, are most of the links in your report sites that you recognize or otherwise seem legitimate (i.e. local news publications, local business organizations, industry-related websites, etc.?) If you see a lot of junk in here, that might be a red flag.

2) After you’ve picked your own profile apart, shift your focus to your competitor’s backlink profile.

What are they doing? Do they generally rank higher or lower than you on targeted terms? Go through three to four major competitors and see what they’re doing. If someone is outranking you, chances are, they’re doing things right. Don’t copy them entirely, but rather, see what they’re doing and find similar approaches that work for your business strategy. If you’re a software consulting company and your main competitor who outranks you is active on software forums and writes articles for an industry organization, it’s time for you to find your own forums and industry publications to contribute to.

As we stated previously, it’s all about providing value whether it be to your potential customers or, in the case of link building, content publishers. One of the best methods for small businesses to achieve linkbuilding results is employing the skyscraper method of local link building—building an authoritative resource on a particular topic. Speaking of local link building, local content publishers are your best friends when it comes to acquiring quality links, and our resident senior outreach manager Matt has the playbook for building relationships with local publications to help you get started. This is perhaps the hardest and most frustrating part of the process, but one of the most critical parts of SEO, so don’t get discouraged, think outside the box, make friends with publishers, and your organic traffic will grow as a result.

When David Slays Goliath

For many small businesses, one of the biggest concerns is: “Well, the other guys are bigger. They can outspend me. How can I fight that? How is Joe’s Hardware Store in Wicker Park supposed to compete with Home Depot?" The key is to fight smarter. Fight locally. Home Depot is brute-force marketing. However if you’re crafty, you can exploit its weaknesses and carve out your own niche in the market. Lyndsey has the playbook for how small businesses can compete with larger brands, and it’s fairly straightforward in terms of how you can outfox them:

Symptom and Cure Searches:

Searches for a specific product or very general term such as “hardware store” are going to be insanely competitive and dominated by larger companies. However, searches for a problem the customer is looking to solve, i.e. “why is my water pressure low?” are likely to be less competitive, have higher volume and present an opportunity for you to capture a potential customer.

Utilize Your Expertise:

As anyone who’s been to Home Depot knows, the employees of Home Depot can be generally clueless. You, Joe Hardware Store, actually know what you’re doing, so show it off. Write guides on things like why the water pressure is low, how to change an outlet in your home, etc. That authoritative content will help you rank better and attract potential customers.

Move Faster, Move Smaller:

Big brands typically don’t focus their energy on long-tail keywords or local markets. They’re also very slow to change their strategy since changes need to go through several departments before being implemented. As a small business you can move faster in your strategy, find the niches they don’t target well, and become a local authority.

It is possible to beat the larger brands if you execute well. For many of these brands, they’re not doing "active SEO," they just have a website and expect people to visit it. If you put effort and energy into your website, in the right areas, there’s a ton of opportunity to steal back some market share.

In Conclusion: Be a Fox

You thought you were going to get out of here without a soccer reference, didn’t you? Too bad. This is the current English Premier League Table: league table You’ve probably heard of Chelsea Football Club, those guys down in 13th right now. They are arguably one of the largest soccer teams in the world and have an annual payroll in the range of 220 million pounds per year, which is the highest expenditure of any Premier League team. They won the league last year. Leicester City has a payroll that’s about one-fifth of Chelsea’s. They were projected to finish last this year. That has not been the case. Leicester City, aka The Foxes, executed well. They found affordable talented players, built a system around them, hired the right manager and played with no ego or expectation. Meanwhile Chelsea rested on their laurels, they did not add any new players, they thought they’d just win again because they spent the most money. Your business can be the Leicester City of your market—a team that surprises everyone and takes down competitors five times the size—if you put in the effort and execute well. In review:

  • Start with the technical basics—make sure robots.txt, sitemaps, etc. are good to go.
  • Create a site with content that provides value to users
  • Engage with local publications and industry publications to gain inbound links
  • Use size as an advantage—you might be smaller, but that means you’re much more nimble and can target niche areas that the larger brands overlook.