SEO. You’ve heard the acronym and you know that a lot of small businesses are seeing great growth from investing in it. But you don’t know how to do it, or what it can mean for your company.
SEO is an ongoing full-company initiative. It involves a very real investment.
But, you’re a small business or a startup. You have very limited resources, a short financial runway, and you’re trying to get something new off the ground. So what does SEO mean for you?
In the next 10 minutes you spend reading this article, my goal is to help you understand what SEO can mean for a small business like yours. We’ll cover:
At the end of this, my goal is that when you are ready to turn on the growth afterburners you are positioned to hockey stick from SEO growth.
As a small business, your initial investment in SEO will likely not be huge because you’re still figuring out your business model and who your company is going to serve. I have seen so many small businesses start off as a consumer play only to realize that B2B should be their focus, and vice versa.
That said, you can absolutely set the technical best practices in place from the beginning so that as your company grows, you don’t have to go back and spend a lot of time on SEO hygiene.
A page’s URL is one of its strongest signals to the search engines to tell them what that page is about. As such, you need to make sure that all of your URLs:
Use the page’s main keywords or term (such as site.com/pineapple-apple-pen)
Use hyphens between words (such as site.com/pineapple-apple-pen not site.com/pineappleapplepen or site.com/pineapple_apple_pen)
Are consistent in their use of HTTPS/www or non-www and trailing slashes or not trailing slashes. Do not mix these, and all of the non-used combinations should be 301 redirected into the chosen combination to consolidate link equity and the search engine’s crawl of your site.
HTTPS is becoming standard across the internet. Search engines are pushing it hard. Google even started showing Not Secure on pages with forms that are not on HTTPS in Chrome 56. If your site takes personal information in forms or payments, or has a logged-in area at all, your URLs need to be on HTTPS.
If you want your page to rank for its targeted term, such as “pineapple apple pen,” you need to have that term on your page in the title, the onpage H1 title, and a few times within the content of the page.
Now, I am not talking about the “SEO content” you will sometimes see other people talking about. Instead, I am talking about having genuinely useful content (think product descriptions on e-commerce category pages) that also help the search engines figure out thematically what your page is about.
On the editorial content side, you can be creating content to rank for terms you have found through keyword research that could also drive new customers to your business. In this case, long form in-depth content wins especially when you can then use that content as a jumping off point for guest posting and other marketing activities you do.
Every site needs two things:
Each is necessary in their own ways.
XML sitemaps are files written in Extensible Markup Language that are created specifically for search engines to ingest and use to find all of the pages on your website. These are submitted through Search Console for Google and Webmaster Tools for Bing.
Rules for XML sitemaps include:
Note that XML sitemaps are purely used by search engines for discovery of URLs, thus they should automatically update whenever new pages are published. Simply having your URL listed in your XML sitemaps will not be enough to cause that URL to rank for its targeted terms.
HTML sitemaps are essentially pages created to bring all of your important pages closer to your homepage so that they can be discovered more easily and ranked better.
Because your homepage is likely the strongest page on your website because it earns the most links from other domains naturally (especially as a startup investing in PR), it therefore has the most power to help other pages on your site rank. Pages on your website have the best chance of ranking if they are less than 4 clicks away from your homepage.
Here are all of Credo’s HTML sitemaps:
Did you know that one in four people clicks away from a website if it takes longer than four seconds to load? That statistic is from 2012 when we were even more patient than we are now.
And did you know that a slower page load time can negatively impact bounce rate, conversions, cart size, and page views by 8.3%, -3.5%, -2.1%, and -9.4% respectively?
Your site needs to load quickly. Leveraging opportunities like CDNs, server-side caching, prerender, and asynchronous loading (and caching) of all of your external scripts can all speed up your site to provide a better experience to the user.
From a strict SEO perspective, a faster site means the search engines will spend less time downloading each page (and a properly implemented 304 Not Modified can help even more) and therefore will be able to crawl more pages within the budget your site has been allotted (which depends on the quantity and quality of external links into your site).
Finally, there are some basic elements you need to include on all of your pages to properly optimize them for optimal rankings.
Every page should include:
For more info, check out our guide to On-Page SEO.
I’ve many times come into both small businesses and very large and established websites and found that they do not have processes for handling very common SEO issues. At the end of the day, SEO is all about processes and you can save yourself considerable time and heartache in the future by getting these right.
I mentioned XML and HTML sitemaps above, but one process that some companies do not set up is automatically updating these based off pages either being published or being removed from the site.
Your sitemaps and internal linking need to be completely clean, only linking to pages that return a 200 status code.
If a page returns anything other than a 200 status code, such as a 301 redirect or a 404 not found, it should be removed from XML and HTML sitemaps and the new destination added in (if a 301/302 redirect situation).
I would not recommend building your sitemaps so that they need to be manually updated. Too many mistakes can occur, people will forget, and your SEO will suffer.
If you are trying to rank your site for a specific term, best practice says that you should only have one page that is trying to rank for that term.
And this is absolutely correct, but when the rubber hits the road and you’re building out a site that has filtering and parameters, it is very easy to accidentally create numerous pages that compete with each other.
As I mentioned above, every page on your website should have a rel-canonical tag.
In the case of parameters, you should use the rel-canonical tag to canonical parameters such as sizes or prices back to the base page.
For example, if someone can filter down from a shoe model page to a size 11, that size 11 URL should canonical back to the base shoe model page.
If a page on your website could a) earn links from other sites and b) expire at some point never to return, you need to build in logic for where to redirect those pages so that you save that link equity.
For example, if a shoe model is discontinued and you no longer sell it, you should redirect it to the brand page automatically via a 301 redirect.
There is debate in the SEO world about whether you should use a 301 or 302 redirect. A 301 means “permanently redirected” whereas a 302 redirect means “this page may return.” Use the correct one for your situation, but also know that a 301 will drop the old URL out of the search engine’s index whereas a 302 will not. 301s are also proven to pass link equity through them to the new destination page, whereas it is still open to debate if a 302 redirect will do this as well.
If you’re operating in a niche but are carving out a new solution to an old problem in that space, people may not know that they even need what you are trying to sell them. On the other hand, maybe you’re playing in a crowded space with established competitors who have been operating and thus gaining market share and links on the SEO side for years, thus they are going to be very challenging to unseat.
So how do you compete? How do you either help potential customers understand that you are the solution to their problems or start taking away market share from your entrenched customers?
The great thing about long-form, useful content is that it can rank fairly easily. Did you know that 80% of queries are informational, starting with something like “How do I…” or “What is…”?
These are people looking for answers to their questions that hint at a deeper need, such as your CRM for blue widgets. Instead of searching “blue widget CRM,” your potential customers are probably searching for things like “how do I organize my contacts for my blue widget company?”
The magic of these queries for startups cannot be understated, though building out the content does involve a real focus and investment to do it right. By writing and ranking for these terms that you find via tools like Moz Keyword Explorer or various others (LongTail Pro comes to mind), you can:
These sort of informational queries also present you a fantastic opportunity to earn featured snippets at the top of search results. When done right, you can essentially grab the top position (below any ads of course) even if you don’t yet rank #1 organically! These featured snippets receive an outsized number of clicks, so pursue these at all costs!
One of the great things about startups and small businesses is that you’re constantly trying and doing new things. You have a great story to tell and you’re trying to create change within an industry, which people are always interested in.
Press opportunities, from company launch to new products to major milestones, can be great opportunities for SEO as well. If you work with a PR consultant or agency through your investors (or friends), you need to make sure that they also understand the opportunity you have to earn extremely hard to get links from incredibly strong domains. These are the links that really help you rank, because they are also links that can drive you targeted referral traffic. These are the links that search engines want to reward.
Over the last few years I’ve earned links from some of the most authoritative websites online and in my niche from telling my story, providing value to them in the form of content, and constantly seeking to add value to their audience while also driving them new traffic by doing my own promotion of the published content.
You can see the same success over time.
Finally, a bit of SEO knowledge can go a long way. If you start with the Startups.co SEO for Beginners guide, check out the On-Page SEO checklist, and/or go through DistilledU, you will be ahead of most of your competitors.
By learning how to properly optimize a page, how to do some content marketing and promote it, and how to build your website with search in mind you will set yourself and your small business up for long term success.
Hi my name is John Doherty and I'm a longtime SEO and digital marketer who is now building Credo to help businesses like yours hire the right agency or consultant for your needs, from SEO to Facebook Ads and content marketing. I've helped companies of all sizes, from small seed stage tech startups up to some of the largest websites in the world, drive very real business growth through SEO and inbound marketing. I live in Denver with my wife Courtney and our very large black labrador Butterbean. And my favorite Youtube video is Pineapple Apple Pen.