Beginner’s SEO guide: Search engine optimization for small business websites

Show up in search results

It’s no mystery that search engine optimization, or SEO, matters. Websites are meant to be discovered by search engines and SEO makes that possible. As a business owner it’s important to know not only what SEO is, but also what it can do for your company. And if you’re completely unfamiliar with the subject, don’t be shy about cracking open a beginner’s SEO guide — like this one.

Search engine optimization entails an ever-changing list of steps and processes that can drastically improve the success of your website by increasing its visibility in search engine results — earning you more organic website traffic. Talk about a mouthful!

The information in this beginner’s SEO guide will help lead you through understanding the basics of SEO and how to incorporate methods to improve the visibility of your site in search engine results. While search engine optimization can be a complex process, we’re going to boil it down to five key steps.

Beginner’s SEO guide: 5 steps to optimize your small business website

  1. Understand the basics of search engine optimization.

  2. Do your homework.

  3. Create valuable content.

  4. Make friends.

  5. Measure success.

Ready to get started? Let’s go!

SEO Guide Billboard

1. Understand the basics of search engine optimization

SEO wiz Rand Fishkin defines search engine optimization as “the practice of increasing the quantity and quality of the traffic that you earn through the organic results in search engines.”

How search engines work

Search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo! are the librarians of the internet. They use robots, also called spiders or crawlers, to collect information about every page, image, line of text (you get our point) on the web, and then sort it to display relevant search results for search queries.

All of this is made possible with super complex algorithms that are used to analyze the quality and relevance of a website’s content. Each search engine has its own unique algorithm, and in turn, they display results differently.

On top of keeping up with the differences between each search engine, we must also keep up with their ever-changing algorithms. Luckily, these algorithms have four consistent steps and processes that deliver results to match your search: crawling, indexing, ranking and delivering.

They find. The internet is made up of trillions of pages that are all connected to one another with links. These links are how search engines “crawl” the web, using virtual spiders (or bots). As these spiders follow the links on pages to other pages, they store information as they go. And they don’t miss a beat! From search terms to images and videos, these bots survey, collect and take note of any information they can get their spindly little hands on.

They organize. After crawling your site and collecting every bit of information possible, search engines index and organize their findings in databases (think of these as massive file folders). All of these databases make up what’s called The Index.

Indexing makes it possible for search engines to retrieve and deliver search results in a matter of milliseconds.

 

Without it, responding to a search would requiring digging through billions of sites to find what you need. Totally impossible.

They rank. Ranking is likely a key topic of interest in this and any SEO guide. All search engines deliver results based on relevancy and popularity, but how they determine what’s relevant is what differentiates them from each other. All search engines crawl and index the web, but each have their own algorithms (complex systematic equations) for ordering the information.

They answer. In milliseconds, search engines assess a number of elements — images, keywords, content, metadata, links, etc. — before delivering results. Ever wonder how a small handful of lucky websites make it to the first page of Google’s search results? It’s because they were deemed the best resources for your search query — using an unimaginably complex version of the system described above.

SEO Guide SERP
Anatomy of a Google Search Engine Results Page

SEO glossary

SEO Guide GlossarySearch query — A question or search term you enter into a search engine.

Metadata — Data found in the source code of a page (Title Tag, Meta Description Tag, etc.) that tells search engines what your website is about.

Backlinks — Incoming links from other websites that point to your websites.

Keywords — A word, or group of words, used on a website that correspond with the words a user enters into a search engine.

Sitemap — A file on your website that tells spiders where to find your web pages so they are crawled and displayed properly in search results. There are two formats, HTML and XML versions.

SERP — Search Engine Results Page.

Additional resources

Now that you have a basic understanding of what SEO is and how it works, let’s move onto the next step to optimizing your small business website.

2. Do your homework

You’re reading this beginner’s SEO guide for a reason. You want your business to show up on Google when people search for something, but what? The next step to SEO success is to decide which keywords are the best fit for what you do and if anybody out there is using them now.

The goal of SEO is not just getting visitors to your site, but getting the right type of visitors to your site.

Search engines remarkably scour the internet to find keywords and clues to match search results, but if your website isn’t giving them the right clues, your SEO efforts will take a dive. Ultimately understanding your audience, competition and keyword options will play a major role in your website’s SEO potential.

SEO Guide Typewriter

Identify your audience

Words are everything, and using the right ones is key to attracting the right audience. Put yourself in the place of the people searching online for your type of products or services. What words or phrases will they type into their favorite search engine to find what they’re looking for? These keywords provide valuable insight about how your audience thinks and searches; your challenge is to figure out what terms they use.

To choose the best options that will attract your ideal audience, ask yourself these questions as you edit or create your keyword list:

  • What words would your audience use to describe your products and services?
  • How relevant are these keywords in their day-to-day lives?
  • What pain-points will your products or services solve?
  • What keywords would your customers use to describe what sets you apart from your competition?
  • What are some trendy terms or verbiage your audience is using to describe what you sell or offer?

Write down a list of keywords and topics that you think are most important to reaching your ideal audience and generating valuable leads.

Survey the competition

Here’s a gem you won’t find in every beginner’s SEO guide: A local business competitor might not be your only online business rival — welcome to a bigger game of tug-of-war. As you work to improve your SEO, it’s your ongoing job to stay ahead of the competition and detect emerging rivals as they climb the ranks.

Find out which sites are currently ranking. Seeing which sites are currently ranking in the top results for a given keyword or keyword combination will help you understand and determine the online competition. And as you continually keep tabs on keyword search results, you’ll see some new sites sneak their way up.

Pro tip: Don’t just assume that the top three results on the first page are your competition — really, all of the sites or documents that made it to the first two pages of results are competitors.

Scope out the competition’s keywords. Here’s one thing you can thank your competition for: doing a lot of the keyword research for you! Sites like SpyFu and SEM Rush are great resources that show you which keywords your competitors are using for organic and paid search, and how many visits they get per keyword. What valuable insight! Of course, the keywords that work wonders for your competitors might not do the same for you, but this option will help you narrow down some successful contenders.

If a beginner’s SEO guide had to be written in just a few words: It’s all about working smarter, not harder.

Another, techy way, to see what keywords your competitors are using is by analyzing their website’s source code. Not every site will have metadata in its source code, but it never hurts to check. Don’t worry, the process is easier than you think! Here’s what you need to do:

  • Look for the meta name=”keywords tag located near the top of the source code (it should be right below and near the <title> tag).
  • Once you find it, you’ll see a list of the keywords that business is using.

The goal isn’t to copy your competitors — you want to stand out as a unique brand. But your competitor’s keywords will help you strategize ways to dominate the keyword market for your industry.

How to spy on competitor keywords

  1. SEO Guide SpyGo to a competitor’s website.
  2. Right-click on a page (start with the home page).
  3. Click View Source. A window will open displaying the page’s code.

Define your business’s goals

As you gather intel on your website’s audience, the competition and commonly used keywords, it’s up to you to make informed decisions to determine which SEO strategies make sense for your business.

Staying relevant is crucial to ensuring your website visitors are happy with what they find on your site — but don’t let staying relevant keep you from taking keyword risks and trying something the competition isn’t doing.

Consider creating lists specific to your business goals and dividing your keywords among them. Do your keywords touch on all of your goals? Are some missing? Ask yourself these types of questions as you analyze your keywords to make sure you aren’t leaving any keywords on the table.

Take into consideration what you specialize in or are known for to find unique, realistic and successful keywords for your site.

Study your keyword options

Once you create a solid list of keywords that your target customers use to search for and find you online, it’s time to consider the value associated with those keywords.

If you choose popular keywords that everyone’s chasing, you won’t stand a strong chance of ranking.

 

And you don’t want to use keywords that nobody is searching for, for obvious reasons. So how do you find keywords that are being searched for but don’t have too much competition? You choose longer, more specific keywords, also known as long-tail keywords.

An example of a long-tail keyword is “womens red dress size small” as compared to the short-tail version, “dress.” Though these long-tail keywords get significantly less traffic than short-tail keywords, more than 75 percent of online searches are for long-tail keywords.

People who search for products and services with long-tail keywords are further in the buying cycle than those who use short-tail keywords.

But how do you find these long-tail keywords? You can use the Google Adwords Keyword Planner to help generate some keywords combinations and then see the average searches and competition level for each of those options. Another great tool is KW FInder, which will help you find long-tail keywords with low competition.

Pro tip: Peruse the related searches at the bottom of your Google results page for other popular long-tail search queries.

SEO Guide Piggybank

Quick checklist: Do your homework

With each item below, refine your keyword list by adding, removing, and changing your keyword options:

  • Identify your audience.
  • Discover who’s ranking with top results for your industry.
  • Write down the search terms (keywords) that are working for your online competition.
  • Define your business goals and list your keywords under them. Missing any?
  • Come up with two to three long-tail keyword options for each of your short-tail keywords.
  • Look up the estimated visibility and competition associated with your keywords.
  • Finalize your list of keywords and start placing them throughout your site.

Time to do your homework: 5 hours or less

Additional resources

Use these tools and tips to step up your keyword research and find the best options for your business:

Great! Let’s move onto the really fun stuff now …

3. Create valuable content

Search engines are constantly changing to keep up with the fast-paced, intelligent world we live in. They’ve become more human than ever before — making valuable, relevant and unique content the No. 1 SEO influencer.

Today there is no such thing as SEO without content.

 

So what is content, you ask? Images, videos and text — any bit of information that’s compelling to your web visitors and meets the expectations of search engines. But not just any content will do; you need quality content that answers questions and solves the needs of your visitors.

SEO Guide Content
Stat source: MarketingProfs

Having done your keyword research, you’ll want to incorporate those words that people are searching for throughout your content to “answer” their questions. This is where being human comes in handy — you’ll want to write like you’re writing to a live person, not a search engine. More and more, search engines are recognizing how humans talk, and look for naturally-written, quality content.

“Content that is truly exceptional, unique, and useful can earn tremendous awareness through social media, and that social amplification often leads to great links, which leads to great rankings.” ~ Rand Fishkin, CEO/Co-founder, Moz

Search engines want the most relevant and natural result to be at the top of their pages, so when crafting your website content ask yourself:

  • Is it unique (not copied from another source)?
  • Is it remarkable?
  • Is it worth sharing?
  • Does it supply a demand?
  • Does it help people?
  • Does it change the way people will live their day?
  • Why would someone link to this or write about that?
  • Would someone bookmark this or share it with a friend?

SEO guide bonus: Content creation worksheet

Here’s a nifty worksheet to walk you through creating search-friendly content for your small business website:

How do you incorporate keywords into your web page content?

SEO Guide TargetNo SEO guide would be complete unless we talked about how to work the keyword you’ve identified into the copy on your website. If you want your website to be found, it’s important to place the keywords people will use to search for your site in your site’s content — especially in the titles, headers, subheads and body text. But keep in mind, the number of times you use your keywords isn’t directly correlated with search engine results. There’s no magical number of words you should include (though most SEO gurus still recommend a healthy word count of 300 to 1,000 per page). The word count and use of your keywords will depend on your audience!

Does your keyword-sprinkled content answer all of their questions? Does it explain every topic thoroughly and adequately? Is your content informative and valuable?

What matters is that you use your keywords naturally throughout your content. If you find the keywords you use are awkward, perhaps you’re using the wrong keywords?

Creating SEO-friendly web pages

“Search engines can’t read pages like humans can, so we incorporate structure and clues as to what our content means. This helps provide the relevance element of search engine optimization that matches queries to useful results.” ~ Cyrus Shepard, Moz

First impressions matter, which is why you must design how your web page displays in search engine results to attract the right audience. Tags and page elements will help tell search engines and your visitors what that page’s content is all about and what they can expect to see and/or read. Though easily overlooked, this is how people determine which search result websites they’re clicking on.

Here are a few web page elements to fine-tune as you optimize your website for search results and user experience:

Title Tags. A page’s Title Tag is the clickable text that displays in search engine results pages and in the browser title bar. Though short and sweet, this page element gives a glimpse of what people can expect to read and/or see when they click on the page. They dared me to say it — it’s one of the most important factors in on-page SEO and capturing your visitors’ attention!

Meta Description Tags. A page’s Meta Description Tag is displayed right below the Title Tag and gives a more detailed explanation of what the page content is about. Though Google limits this section to a 300-character limit, the text should attract people to visit your site.

Header Tags. Header Tags give your web page structure and help search engines better determine what your page content is about. They are ranked by hierarchy with H1 being the most important:

Heading 1 <H1>: Page title (Each web page should only have one of these)
Heading 2 <H2>: Subtitles
Heading 3 – 6 <H3 – H6>: Subsections

Make sense?

Optimizing images

SEO Guide Optimize ImagesGreat images complement great website copy, and since millions of people search for images online, they play an important role in your on-page SEO. Similar to Title Tags, using customized image tags will help describe the subject of an image. Each page element — Title Tags, URLs, Header Tags, Image ALT Tags — should naturally (and logically) reference your page subject and/or keywords when possible.

To optimize images:

  1. Align the page’s target keyword to the image file name. For example, if the page targets the keywords “beaded turquoise necklace,” the primary image’s file name should be “beaded-turquoise-necklace.jpg.” Always use lowercase and separate each word with a hyphen.
  2. Use and optimize the Image ALT Text attribution, again using the page’s target keyword. For our example, the Image ALT Text should be “Beaded Turquoise Necklace.” Uppercase, no hyphens.
  3. Make sure the page text corresponds to the image file name and Image ALT Text. Search engines look at the text content around the image to help understand its subject matter. They can safely assume the image actually is a picture of a beaded turquoise necklace if they spy the keywords “beaded turquoise necklace” in the content on the page.

Pro tip: Making your image file size smaller so it loads faster can also help your search rankings.

Can a blog help your SEO?

In an SEO-driven online world where content is king, blogs have never been more helpful or important. Blogging is one of the most cost-effective and valuable ways to boost search rankings. While interacting with your customers can be a great way to build a following that keeps coming back for more, a blog can also help you position yourself as a subject matter expert. Besides allowing you to add fresh, relevant content to a site that might otherwise remain static, a blog has a lot of other benefits worth mentioning:

  • It can help you attract inbound links and social shares.
  • It can help you leverage your keywords.
  • It can position your site as a resource.
  • It can provide highly shareable content for social media sites.
  • It can help you capture feedback about your products and services.
  • It’s a great way to network and build relationships with industry influencers.

How cool is that?

Mobile & SEO

At a time when mobile phones are the primary devices used to search the web and more than 90 percent of local searches are performed on mobile phones, you can’t afford to overlook mobile optimization.

Would you be surprised to learn that search engines rank websites differently for mobile than they do for desktop? They take into account the page load times (if your site doesn’t load quickly on mobile, then forget it!), responsive design and scannability. If your text isn’t readable without zooming in, then your rankings will fall

It’s all about user experience — and if your mobile website is falling short, so will your rankings.

Now let’s focus this SEO guide on optimizing your mobile site:

Design your site for fat fingers. People get frustrated when they click on something but get taken somewhere else. Space design elements out, making them easy to click.

Create a responsive design. Use Google’s Mobile Friendly Test tool to see if your mobile website’s design is falling short.

Focus on page speed. Your website should load in a matter of seconds. If it doesn’t, consider hiring a professional to help you optimize images, leverage browser caching, and reduce coding errors.

SEO Guide Mobile

Get your geek on (metadata and sitemaps)

Helping search engines know what your site’s about at a quick glance is where a sitemap and metadata play a crucial role.

A sitemap is a file that tells search engines about the organization of your website content — it gives them hints to more intelligently crawl your site.

Similarly, metadata summarizes and describes your website content, making it easier for search engines to recognize important elements within your content.

Quick checklist: Create valuable content

Let’s run through the tasks needed to create valuable (and SEO-friendly) content for your website:

  • Start writing your page content with emphasis on unique and valuable content.
  • Create Title Tags, Meta Description Tags and Header Tags for each of your web pages.
  • Read your content to make sure your keywords are used naturally throughout.
  • Optimize your images.
  • Create a blog (optional) and consistently post to it.
  • Optimize your website for mobile (required).

Time to create valuable content: Ongoing

Additional resources

Get your knowledge on with these additional resources:

Now let’s get social.

4. Make friends

SEO Guide Social
Stat source: Pew Research

Let’s pivot this SEO guide to social media for a sec. You’ll find that getting a website found online extends beyond your on-page SEO efforts — and social media plays a huge role. With billions of searches performed on social media platforms each year, it’s just as important to focus on your social presence.

Though the relationship between social media and search ranking is not crystal clear (Google tends to keep its algorithm specifics hush-hush), we do know that social media can help:

  • Promote your website.
  • Legitimize your brand.
  • Build customer relationships.
  • Expand your reach.

You’ll even notice that every once in awhile social media profiles or pages and review site listings pull up in top search results, though this is more often for local search results.

If all of your SEO efforts are spent on your website, you’re missing some valuable opportunities.

 

These days, strong online marketing efforts require investments in link building, social media signals, and local listing sites.

Legitimate link building

SEO Guide Link BuildingThere’s no denying that a website’s popularity correlates with how high it ranks in search engine results, and in a way, backlinks are like popularity votes. The more inbound links you have leading to your website from outside websites, the more traction you’ll gain from search engines.

But be warned: Faked and manipulated website content (even backlinks) can actually harm a website’s SEO. For this reason, creating newsworthy content that inspires viral sharing and natural linking is the best way to ensure valuable SEO-rich backlinks. Paying people to link to your site won’t pay off in the long run, and could seriously damage your search rankings.

Pro tip: To see how many linkbacks your website and a competitor’s website have, use Moz’s Open Site Explorer tool.

Get social to boost your SEO

SEO Guide Social MobileThere’s no point in getting dressed up if you aren’t going out, so why create content and not show it off? Enter social media — your exceptional content’s new best friend. Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram continually prove to play a major role in doing business online. And with social signals — like follows, shares, likes and retweets — influencing the reachability of your content, your business’s social media presence is something to take seriously.

Consider offering some of the social sharing options listed below to further promote your website’s content online:

  • Add a Click to Tweet button to pull quotes and other “tweetables” on a web page.
  • Add a Pin It plugin to your site, making it easy for people to add your photos to their Pinterest boards.
  • Add Facebook “Like” and “Share” buttons.
  • Showcase your social feeds on your home page.
  • Add follow buttons to your site, making it easy for visitors to become social followers

Editor’s note: GoDaddy’s GoCentral Website Builder includes social links that make it easy for website visitors to like, share or follow your business on their favorite social platforms.

Take advantage of local SEO

If your business is local, your SEO potential just got a bit sweeter thanks to local review sites. You might notice that when you search for a local business (like “dog groomer in Phoenix”), the top few results are Google My Business and Yelp listings.

With local review and business directory sites becoming another way to rank higher in search engine results, you’ll want to claim your online business listing and make sure the information — such as hours of operation, contact information, website, menus, etc. — is accurate and makes you stand out from the crowd. Check out GoDaddy’s Local Business Listings solution to manage all your online listings from one convenient dashboard. It’s awesome.

Again, your carefully curated content and beautiful images will make a significant impact on your website traffic. If people visit your profile and like what they see, chances are they’ll drop by your website, or better yet your store!

Quick checklist: Make friends

Here’s a quick recap of the steps to take to drive traffic to your small business website (and grow your business) using social media:

  • Create business social media accounts (if you haven’t already).
  • Network with industry leaders and influencers to generate inbound links (like via guest blog posts).
  • Incorporate social media sharing options on your site.
  • Get on local review sites.
  • Stay social.

Time to make friends: A few hours to set up social profiles, then ongoing

Additional resources

Take getting social for your business to a new level with help from these additional resources:

With these first four steps behind you, you’re well on your way to boosting your small business website’s organic search rankings. But don’t stop there!

5. Measure success

Search engine optimization isn’t a one-and-done type deal. It requires constant updating, tweaking, experimenting and testing. With SEO being one of the highest returning investments you’ll make for your website, you’ll want to constantly measure its success to maintain powerful results.

While every business is unique and has different ways of measuring success, organic search results and organic search conversions should be on your radar when tracking your SEO efforts. These numbers will give you insight as to what’s working and what’s not. Luckily, one of the most popular tools for measuring SEO is completely free and has a slew of advanced tracking options: Google Analytics.

Use Google Analytics (or your tool of choice) to:

  • Track organic search traffic.
  • Measure the quality of your organic SEO by tracking conversions.
  • Identify factors that aren’t working in your favor (low-performing keywords, slow loading pages, etc.).

In the end, search engine optimization success is measured by how many people are referred to your site organically through search engines. If your business sells products or offers services, one of the simplest ways to track your SEO success is by tracking organic search conversions and then turning that number into a dollar amount.

If you’re using Google Analytics, use these steps to see your Organic Search results: Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels > Organic Search

Analytics glossary

Bounce Rate — The percentage of visitors who leave your website without visiting other pages (leave after visiting just one page).

Conversions — The number of website visitors who become customers.

Impressions — Page views.

Referrals — Where people are coming from to get to your site (including other websites, search engines and social media sites).

Direct Traffic — Visits to your site where the user types your URL directly into their browser bar.

Funnels — A series of steps (links, pages, buttons, etc) that a visitor makes to reach an end goal.

New Visitors — Online visitors who have reached your site for the first time.

Entry Page — The first page a visitor arrives at on a website from another site or referral source.

Exit Page — The last page a visitor is on before leaving a website.

SEO Guide Measure

How do you measure your website’s success?

It’s all about website analytics — a powerful tool that gives you a full-picture analysis of how your website is doing online, and insight into areas that can use improvement. Tools like Google Analytics give you a full-picture view of your site’s success with detailed statistics about a website’s traffic, visitors, conversions and sales.

Though you can simply just add a tracking code to your web pages for website analytics tools to start measuring your web stats, Google Analytics (and products similar to it) have website plugins and add-ons that tremendously expand the reporting capabilities.

Another benefit of website analytics tools is their tracking of off-site analytics — a measurement of your website’s potential — letting you see how your website compares to the competition.

What do you need to measure?

The whole point of SEO is having a website that works for you, but you’ll never know how it’s performing without the help of web analytics. If not, you’ll have no solid results and will essentially be running your website blind. Though a single metric can’t measure the results of your work, there are a few measurements that will give you insight to what’s working, not working, or what you could do better.

SEO Guide Drucker
Photo: Jeff McNeill

Here are a few metrics you should regularly keep tabs on:

Your visitors. With website analytics, you can hone in on your audience, identifying things like their interests, demographics, language, locations and behaviors. You can track in which geographical locations your visitors live (down to a specific city) to help you focus your advertising efforts and keywords to a specific location. Understanding these elements can help you revamp website content for improved SEO.

Search engine and website referrals. Knowing how your visitors are finding you is important to determining if your SEO (and other marketing efforts) are working. If will also help you hone your focus and attention on the referrals that are giving your website healthy traffic.

Pages and Paths. Understanding your website’s user experience is how you’ll create an even better one! Analyze the effectiveness of each page and track how people interact with, navigate and explore your site to gain tremendous insight that you can use to make improvements.

Your goals. Tracking all of these stats are for nothing if you don’t have realistic goals in place. Set new goals as you hit certain milestones so that your journey through creating a search engine optimized site is fun, exciting and fruitful.

Once you’ve gathered valuable information and insights about your website, web visitors and referring sites, it’s up to you to take action and modify your methods. Iterate on existing methods and try, test and modify new methods to make the most of your online goals.

Pro tip: To take your SEO to the next level, don’t just measure your Google results. Loads of visitors use Bing and Yahoo! to do their searching, so make sure you keep those search engines in mind.

Quick checklist: Measure success

To measure the success of your SEO efforts:

  • Create an account with Google Analytics (or your analytics tool of choice).
  • Set up your analytics account with your website.
  • Write out a list of online goals you have (and ways you can track them using analytics).
  • Create a list of the measurements you’ll take.
  • Create a weekly and monthly analytics calendar to stay on top of your tracking and measuring.

Time to measure results: Less than 1 hour to set up analytics, then ongoing

Additional resources

That’s a wrap

You’re probably finishing this beginner’s SEO guide and wondering when you can expect to see results. That all depends on the time (and money) you put into optimizing your website for top search engine rankings. We didn’t get into paid search — which can turbocharge traffic to your website — but it’s worth exploring that option once you’re comfortable with these basics.

When you get the steps and processes mentioned above implemented on your site (that’s the easy part), be sure to take the time to track and measure your results so you can continue to improve your site’s organic search rankings.

The hardest part for most people part is the wait — to get a real reading on what’s working and what’s not, it’s important to track, measure and compare a few month’s worth of results. Plus, you’ll need numbers. If your website isn’t getting enough traffic, having enough hard data to analyze will be tough.

Just keep working at it and you WILL see results. Need some help? Give the SEO pros at GoDaddy a call!