I’ve been getting a lot more requests from small businesses for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM), and I seem to be repeating most of the same advice to every new client. Put simply, it is more difficult for small businesses to compete on a global level for competitive terms with high profile companies, especially on a small business budget. But that doesn’t mean with hard work and determination that you can’t be competitive and build and market your brand successfully.
So presented here are the top 10 suggestions I make to just about every new SEO or SEM small business client that comes to me looking for online marketing assistance:
Website Design: First of all, spend some money on web design. If you have a retail storefront on Main Street, would you create the sign over the front door yourself with a piece of plywood and a spray can? No. Would you buy a cheap template for a sign which everyone on the block shares just to put your logo on it to try and make it look unique? No. It works the same with websites. Have someone design an attractive and intuitive design, and don’t buy some cookie cutter template site design.
There is no reason in 2009 for a small business website to look like you have a limited budget. Use your budget wisely and always invest in a professional designer. Whatever website you try to throw together yourself with Frontpage or Dreamweaver is not going to look professional, no matter how proud you are of it. If you don’t, the next steps won’t matter, because no amount of traffic to your site is going to help you convert sales on a poorly designed site.
Site Usability: User experience is even more important than design, but the two should go hand in hand. Don’t hire someone with no web experience, like a print designer, to get a really pretty website; chances are the site architecture and usability of the design are going to be poor. Spend some time with a professional web developer who has experience with usability. Placement of elements in a web design really do matter, and the navigation of your site is very important if you want your visitors to effectively find and meet your end goals.
Site Hosting: Prices for hosting have come down considerably over the past few years, and you can easily find hosting for $5/month. But all prices being equal, you want to choose a host who will not only keep your website up and running, but also provide you with immediate support whenever something goes wrong. If I’m not hosting the websites myself, I’ll send clients to HostGator, where hosting plans start at only $5/month, but their support is awesome.
Unique/Compelling Content: Syndicated news feeds, content stolen from other websites, and just plain poorly written copy are three of the biggest problems I find on existing small business websites. Don’t get me wrong; sometimes a syndicated news feed has its place on a site, but don’t depend on it for the bulk of your content. Duplicated news feeds, along with content stolen from your competitors, is useless in the eyes of the search engines because it’s duplicate content which can be found elsewhere. Poorly written copy can be just as bad. Although you can pepper it with a few keywords and it may indeed help you rank, it’s not going to help you convert sales. Again, seek assistance in writing professional sales copy.
Social Networking is NOT for everyone: Social Networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter are often compared with parties, because people like to interact, converse and make friends with others in a social setting. And what is sadder than a party where no one shows up? If you want to create a Facebook page to support your business, you better be committed to continually updating it, seeking out new friends and connections, and growing a network – in other words, use it the way you’re supposed to. If your customers click the link to your MySpace page and see you only have 4 friends and haven’t updated it in 4 months, they may equate your lack of social networking effort to a lack of customer service.
Keyword Research: Don’t just guess which keywords you think people are going to enter into Google to find your site. Take the time to do some research, find out which keywords have the highest volume and the least competition, and also take a look at what your competitors are using. If you’re just starting to build a brand or market a site, look into long tail keyword options and local search results. These are going to be easier to obtain than one-word keywords with search results with so much competitive volume you’re trying to outrank 32 million other pages.
On-Page SEO Factors: There have been volumes written on this (some of it by me), so I won’t go into detail here. At a minimum, make sure your site is making effective use of unique content for Title tags, Meta Description tags, and using and limiting the use of H1 header tags to one per page (and don’t make it a link). You can also read more about SEO semantic coding and markup, internal link structure, useful meta tags, and improving search results.
SEO URLs: Internal page organization is also very important to a site’s searchability. I see a lot of clients coming to me with page URLs that look like “/default112.htm” when they should look like “/2-slot-countertop-chrome-toaster”. Having a descriptive URL still assists search engines in determining what is on a page. Remember, search engines want to return the most relevant results to users searching for your products. You can and should help them by using not only descriptive titles and keywords on your pages, but right in the URL of the page. You can read how to create search engine friendly URLs with ASP.NET and IIS if you’re hosted on a Windows server.
301 Redirects: If you’re going to take my advice and create a new URL structure for your site (and you should), take the time to redirect the old URLs to the new ones. Using a 301 redirect means telling search engines that this page “/default112.htm” has moved to this new location: “/2-slot-countertop-chrome-toaster”. Whenever you move a page on your site you should put a 301 redirect in place; this will channel all the link authority pointing to the old page to the new one, and that page will also keeps its position in the search indexes such as Google and Yahoo.
Link Building: Finally, once you’ve got everything else taken care of, you can start building links to your site. As this is probably the most important part of any SEO campaign, the topic is so broad it’s out of scope for this discussion. But let me just say that Google (and others) want a site to gain link popularity naturally. Don’t go around submitting your link to spammy directories or buy links for $100/month. Search engines don’t like artificial linkbuilding practices such as directory links, spam links, and paid links. The best way to start linkbuilding is to create unique and compelling content which other sites want to link to. Instead of spending the time, effort and money on artificial links, put that into your own site content or SEO budget and watch others link to you willingly and naturally.
Now that you’ve got the facts, you can spend countless hours in the weeks and months ahead doing this all yourself, or you can just simply [shameless plug] hire a Web Design and SEO firm to do it all for you [/shameless plug].