What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a digital marketing strategy centered around the various parameters used by search engines to rank web content organically in their search results pages. Organic search traffic is unpaid traffic, or in layman’s terms, how people find your website when they type specific search terms in a search engine like Google or Bing.
Say, for example, that you’re a local business, like a mobile accessories shop based in Louisville, Kentucky. When someone in Louisville searches for wireless bluetooth ear buds, your small business website shows up as a top result in this “organic search.”
As a small business owner, you can – and should – optimize your website content according to these technical signals to rank higher for particular search queries related to your business which will increase the amount of organic traffic that comes to your website, as well as the quality of it. This increase in both volume and quality of traffic means there’s a higher probability of landing potential customers, new clients, and/or sales.
The importance of small business SEO
At the end of the day, SEO involves optimizing your website’s design and content so that it’s appealing to search engines like Google and Bing.
But why is this so important?
As a small business, you want your website to appear on the first page of the search results. This page has a default setting to show ‘10 organic search results’, in addition to:
- Ads at the very top and very bottom of the page.
- The pack of three local business listings, which is a map with the tip 3 business listings for a specific search query directly underneath it.
- Featured snippets, which are the questions and answers that pop up below ads and above the organic search results. It’s important to note that featured snippets may or may not show up in the search results. It all depends on the search term being used.
Your goal should be to land in the top 10 search results, and to rank as high as you possibly can in them.
It’s a proven fact that search engine users tend to click on the top ten results listed in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). Rarely do they scroll past this, unless they are looking for something very specific. So breaking into this top 10 club is critical, since it’ll ultimately drive traffic to your website. This is precisely why have a solid SEO strategy in place is a must.
Ranking well with search engines also gives you a competitive advantage over rival businesses in the same niche. So, say that you are an online retailer who sells electronics and accessories. If one of the primary products you’re trying to sell is wireless earphones, outranking your competitors (which means that your website shows up higher in the organic search results) will result in a higher percentage of traffic coming to your website, as opposed to theirs.
What’s more, people trust Google search to find the best quality sites for their keyword searches. If your website makes the cut, people will more easily trust your business.
How does Google find – and read – your website?
Search engines scan, or “crawl” websites to find relevant information sought by end users and then provide it to them within seconds.
Google has a web crawler known as the Googlebot, which is a piece of code that performs the specific function of crawling the web by following outbound links from one website to another website.
For every link that leads to a webpage, file, or app, the crawler scans all the information available, sorts and stores it in what’s called the Google Index, and attaches specific qualifier tags to each piece of information like:
- Text content, image files, video files, and PDF documents
- HTML tags like <h1>, <h2> headers, which signify that a phrase is a subheading of a paragraph
- Anchor text, which is enclosed within <a href> tags, and tells the bot that a particular keyword or keyword phrase links to another page
Since bots are incapable of understanding images, videos, and general multimedia content, ‘alt text’ is used to help it understand what the file contains. This is textual content that describes media files to the bot in simple, plain text tags.
So, for example, an image file of sea green wireless earbuds should have an alt tag of sea green wireless earbuds. This then tells the bot specifically what the image is a picture of.
The easiest way to get crawled and indexed is by letting the Googlebot know about your webpages. This can be done quickly and easily by submitting your website’s sitemap directly to Google’s Webmaster Console. A sitemap is a directory of all your website’s pages that need to be indexed. You can also use the URL Inspection Tool to submit individual web pages for indexing.
Other ways of getting search engine bots to crawl your website is by link building, which essentially means having links pointing to your website from other established websites. These inbound links – or backlinks as they are more popularly known – can have a considerable impact on how favorably search engines view your website.
How does Google’s search algorithm work?
Although Google regularly shares tidbits of information on its ranking algorithm and factors that affect it, it’s difficult to map out the actual nitty-gritty of search algorithms and their ranking systems in their entirety since they are constantly changing and evolving. For the sake of brevity, let’s focus on what happens once the Googlebot learns about your website and pays it a visit.
Once Googlebot has crawled a webpage, the information gathered is organized by type of content (text, audio files, images, videos, etc). It’s also tagged with:
- Geolocation – This refers to the geographic location from where your website originates.
- IP address – Each website has a unique IP address assigned to it that contains information about its country mapping, servers, and network cluster. Think of it like it’s a barcode on the products you buy.
- Content quality – This is a quality grade assigned to your website based on the readability of your website content, its uniqueness, trustworthiness, and overall value. A website with higher content quality will rank better than one with lower content quality, even if the one with lower quality content has more products to offer.
- Readability score – This is the quality score, which ranges from 0 to 100, assigned to the text on your web pages. The higher the number, the easier the text is to read and understand. A score of 60 or higher is considered “good.”
- Date and time stamps – This helps search engines gauge the freshness of your content.
- Number of inbound links – This refers to the number of incoming links or backlinks from other websites, as well as their quality scores. A few backlinks from websites with high-quality scores will help your SEO much more than a lot of backlinks from websites with low-quality scores.
- Anchor text – This refers to text and/or phrases that are hyperlinked to other pages on your website, as well as those that link to external websites.
All of these tags help the Google Algorithm determine the most useful and relevant websites for every search query. So, when someone searches for a word or specific phrase, Google’s algorithm filters websites through this index of 200+ technical signals and ranking factors, and then lists out relevant web content in the search results. These websites are further ranked in descending order of their relevance to the keyword queried.
OF NOTE: these operations happen on the Google backend and do not require any additional work on your part.
The algorithm is also trained to pick up the context of the search. So, for example, apple the fruit vs. Apple the brand.
To demonstrate how Google’s search algorithm works, let’s use a keyword phrase like cheap earbuds with mic. Once this query has been entered into Google, the algorithm:
- Uses language semantics to tag it as a commercial query – What this means is that machine learning helps the algorithm understand the intention behind the search. Is someone looking for more information on a specific topic, searching for the latest news on that topic, or interested in buying this product? In this case, the algorithm can understand that the user is in the market to buy affordable earbuds with a microphone. Had the query been something like wireless earbud Bluetooth specs, the algorithm would have understood that the user is searching for data on Bluetooth specifications or possibly even the compatibility of wireless earphones.
- Sorts through millions of web pages that contain these keywords and filters out spam pages, informational pages on how earbuds work, and other pages that aren’t on-topic.
- Clusters useful and relevant pages together that are selling this product.
- Ranks them in order of relevance, geographic relevance to the user, and quality of content, which is based on how useful, authoritative, and trustworthy it is. Factors that affect rank include quality backlinks, the anchor text being used to link to other pages on the site, and the age of the domain.
- Provides a list of web pages in the search results.
How Google sees your content
The Googlebot isn’t human. It’s a robot programmed to read textual data, hence the emphasis on HTML tags and descriptive modifiers to help it differentiate between regular text, headings, anchor text, paragraphs, and media file descriptions.
Since the bot is incapable of understanding the contents of a media file, the metadata, together with the ‘alt text,’ provides it with the necessary information about the file size, file type, and content.
HTML tags act as text modifiers. Basically, they describe the function and importance of keywords on a page. So for example, the <a href> tag around the keywords buy cheap earbuds tells the bot that this textual phrase also serves the function of anchor text that’s linked to a URL. It isn’t just plain text within a paragraph.
What is domain authority (DA)?
Domain Authority is a quality score assigned to websites that range from 1 to 100. The closer you get to 100, the better your website is deemed quality wise amongst similar websites. Although it isn’t one of the signals used by Google or other search engines to rank their search results, it is a tool for measuring the performance of your domain over time, as well as how authoritative it is.
Domain Authority was developed by one of the biggest names in SEO, Moz. Moz uses DA as a way to judge a website’s quality in search rankings based on factors like the total number of links, and the number of root domains linking to a site. You can check your website’s DA score by installing the Moz SEO Toolbar or using their Link Explorer tool.
A quick word on backlinks
Links pointing to your website from related web pages can provide an incredible boost to your SEO. Just keep in mind that more backlinks don’t necessarily equate to better SEO rankings. The quality scores of the websites that are linking to yours matter a lot, and your goal should be getting backlinks from established and popular sites since they will be much more targeted and valuable. They are also more likely to deliver high-quality traffic to your website, versus junk visitors who are going to immediately bounce off of your website (aka leave) the second that they get there.
One simple way to start generating relevant backlinks is to allow people to freely use your images under the Creative Commons license, with the caveat that they must provide the source link. This allows other websites, bloggers, and businesses to use your images as long as they credit your website as the source of the image, which is a passive way to generate backlinks quickly.
SEO TIP: never engage in blackhat SEO techniques like link-buying. This could earn you a permanent ban from Google’s search results pages.
A quick word about Google My Business (GMB)
Google My Business is a free service offered by Google that allows businesses to set up custom profiles online following a simple step-by-step process. Creating a business profile page using GMB is easy, and you can publish your business listing online within 10 minutes. GMB listings work in conjunction with Google maps so you can mark your business’ physical address on the map. Plus, you can list out your business hours, holidays, services offered, show customer reviews, and even post regular updates.
Having a GMB listing offers many advantages:
- GMB listings are given more weight in search results for local queries.
- Your business will also pop up on maps as ‘Businesses nearby’, when people are exploring local maps.
- User reviews carry a lot of weight in search ranking order. The more user reviews you have, the higher the probability of your business appearing as the topmost business listing for local searches.
- It’s a free and easy way of meeting SEO goals for localization.
The complete onsite SEO checklist for small businesses
For commercial websites that are solely focused on selling their products and services, onsite SEO is a must. In fact, small businesses with restricted budgets can compete with large-scale enterprises if their SEO is on point.
Here’s how to optimize your product pages for better visibility using Bluetooth earbuds with a mic as an example.
OF NOTE: SEO is the same for all websites, so the same SEO strategy outlined below applies to service-based businesses and bloggers as well. The only variables that will be different are your target audience and the trends in your specific niche.
1. SEO-friendly URLs
Instead of having a product page URL that looks like this:
Use a descriptive URL that will immediately tell search engines, as well as people browsing online, about the contents of the page.
So, in our earbud example, this would be a descriptive option to use:
bluetooth earbuds with mic is an actual search query, and your page will have a good chance of being picked up as a relevant result due to a higher match percentage with the queried keywords.
2. Descriptive title tags
If the product you are selling is a Bluetooth earbud, don’t use a title tag that says Find the best most useful earbuds as the page title. Algorithms have evolved to ignore the fluffy language, and are laser-focused on the query.
Begin with the name of the product for best results. Even better, use H1 tags around the title tags to emphasize the importance of the product name, and then add more relevant details at the tail end.
Here’s an example of a good title tag for our earbuds example:
<title>Wireless Bluetooth Earbuds With Mic – Buy Red Earphones on Discount</title>
The inclusion of keywords like buy, discount, and color will help you also rank for long-tail keyword phrases, which are three and four keyword phrases that are extremely targeted in terms of what is being searched for. In our example, long-tail keyword phrases indicate that someone is looking for something very specific, like buy red wireless earphones.
SEO TIP: limiting your titles to 60 characters ensures they will display correctly on SERPs.
3. Use of images and other types of media
Most people find visual content more appealing. A clear image showing a product, interactive videos, interesting memes and downloadable audio files all serve the purpose of grabbing eyeballs and keeping them glued to the screen. It’s a proven fact that you’ll keep people on your website longer if you include engaging multimedia content on your product pages.
While relevant images, videos, memes, and other multimedia keeps will keep people engaged, you’ll need to help search bots understand this visual content by:
- Properly tagging these images and videos – Tag files with proper identifier tags for different files like <img> for images, <video> for video files, and <embed> for embedded media content.
- Describing their contents in ‘alt text’ tags – Including red wireless earbuds in the alt text will help the bot identify and label the contents of the image. When someone searches for red earbuds, the bot will know that your image shows such a product and subsequently display it in the search results.
- Including as much information in the metadata as possible – Use metadata to describe the file title, the topic of the file, licensing terms, duration of a video file, author information, file type, size, and date of creation.
4. Optimized header tags
All text is not created equal. While including keywords in product descriptions is important, having them in your header tags carries more weight with search engines. If a certain word appears in a heading or a subheading, the bot concludes that the page is about that very same keyword, and as such, more relevant to search queries for it.
Here are a few good rules to follow:
- Product titles should appear in at least one subheading like <H2> tags. Here’s an example:
<h2>Red Wireless Bluetooth Earbuds</h2>
Googlebot interprets this text as the key topic and the central theme of the page due to these header tags.
- Create unique headings for all your product pages. A product page for green earbuds should have a unique heading with the keyword green mentioned in the header tags, while a red earbuds product page should mention red in the header tags.
In addition to making it easy for the bot to identify the topic of the page, breaking down your content into easily navigable headings and subheadings makes it easy for people to scroll down to the content they are looking for.
5. Keywords and keywords density
Google’s Keyword Planner Tool, which is available in the Google Ads Suite, is a very helpful tool that can assist in helping you pick the best and most competitive keywords and phrases. Another option is the Keyword Finder and Keyword Tool.
Having the same keywords on your page as the queried keywords is a big plus. So, for example, when someone searches for wireless earbuds with mic and you have this exact phrase on your product description page, it’s what’s called an exact match. Exact matches greatly improve your webpage’s chances of being included in the top ten search results.
Something else that you’ll want to focus on is keyword density, which is the number of times a keyword or phrase shows up on a specific page in comparison to the total number of words on that same page. Expressed as a percentage, it demonstrates how important that keyword phrase is on a specific page.
Ideal keyword density ranges from 1.6% to 2.4%, depending on the number of words on the page. If you only have a 200-word product description, your targeted keyword shouldn’t appear more than 3 times throughout the text on the page, inclusive of headings. For content exceeding 700 words, increase the keyword density to 2.4%, but nothing more.
Free services like Small SEO Tools And the Yoast SEO plugin in WordPress are both great options for helping to keep your keyword density in check.
Algorithms are smart and are now trained to detect keyword spamming, which is essentially cramming a bunch of keywords on a page to try and improve search rankings. This is not behavior you should engage in. While you may initially see a bump in your website’s rankings, your site can – and most certainly will – eventually be marked down for poor quality, and your rankings will plummet.
SEO TIP: you can improve your keyword score by using it within the first 50 words of your product description. The closer it is to the beginning, the better your relevance score.
So, in our example, a good product description would look something like this:
These affordable red wireless Bluetooth earbuds use the latest noise-canceling technology patented in 2019. They are designed with comfort in mind and have a battery life of 8 hours of continuous use before needing a charge. They are compatible with both iPhones and Android smartphones and are quick and easy to sync.
Notice how the keywords wireless Bluetooth earbuds are placed near the beginning of that product description?
6. Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI) keywords
Using synonyms and popular misspellings of keywords is a savvy way of covering all your bases in terms of targeting specific keywords and phrases.
So in our example, synonyms would include keywords like earphones and headphones, which should be used in the product description to trigger the product page when someone searches for any of these variations of the actual base keyword, which in our case, is wireless earbuds. It would also include using common misspellings like heazdphones, headphknes, and eqrphones.
7. Meta descriptions
The text that shows up right below your page title in the search results is what’s known as a meta description. This description tells the bots which part of the product description to display in the search results. Keep in mind that there’s a 155 character (not word) limitation, so this text needs to be clear and concise, and compel someone to want to visit your website.
In our example, here’s how we would tell the bot what to display below the website title in the search results:
<meta name=”description” content=”Buy red wireless Bluetooth earbuds with the latest noise cancellation technology.”>
8. Intuitive design
Keep your website design simple, interactive, and optimize your layout for different devices. Consistent appearance across different devices, coupled with ease of navigation, drives up user engagement (how much people interact with your website) and quality score (how important search engines view your website). Fancy page elements that look good but confuse people aren’t SEO friendly and should be avoided.
Your design elements should also include helpful metadata whenever applicable so that your website is as bot friendly as possible. Flash applications, media files, and other non-textual content should have clear alt text descriptions and proper internal linking structure.
9. A good linking strategy
As previously discussed, backlinks are important. Equally important are on-page links. Use relevant anchor text to link to other pages on your website wherever applicable. At the end of the day, your goal – outside of generating sales – should be to keep people on your website for as long as possible since the longer they are there, the more likely they are to take a specific action, whether it’s:
- Purchasing a product or service
- Requesting more information
- Joining your newsletter
- Following you on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn, which will up-the-ante on your social media marketing efforts
Plus, by hyperlinking to other pages on your website, you’ll continue to build trust and establish your authority.
10. Site speed and page load times
Flash-based content that takes longer to load, as well as scripts and apps that make people wait for more than 4 seconds, are all SEO buzz-kills, especially after Google’s algorithm update in July of 2018, which emphasizes site speed and page load times.
Unfortunately, the pain of slow load times doesn’t stop with SEO:
- 40% of consumers will leave a website that takes longer than 3 seconds to load
- This number jumps to 53% on mobile
- For every second there’s a delay, conversions are reduced by roughly 7%
The quicker your pages load, the higher the probability of longer user engagement. So keep your code simple and precise, check your website load speeds regularly and identify page elements that are causing lags by using free online tools like PageSpeed Insights. Remove unnecessary baggage that slows down your website.
11. Social media sharing
Use social media to your advantage by incorporating plugins that allow people to easily share your web pages and product content across different social media forums. This acts as a built-in SEO feature that’ll improve both brand and product awareness.
Go forth with confidence
Search engines are intermediary tools that help potential customers find your business online. SEO is the first step in making your presence known via the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).
By following all of the tips we’ve outlined above, you will see an increase in traffic to your website because your business is easier to find. And the on-page SEO tips we’ve shared will improve end-user experience once people are actually on your website so that they stay there once they get there.
At the end of the day, good search ranking boosts your business’ performance, widens your customer base, drives up revenue and helps you scale up your operations.