Search Engine Optimization (“SEO” to its friends) has been around almost as long as Search Engines, and Search Engines have been around almost as long as there has been information to search for online. The World Wide Web as we know it is a quarter century old and the Internet itself is almost old enough to join the AARP. So why is SEO still seen as a cross between witchcraft and a pyramid scheme? And where is an entrepreneur to go for good information on implementing SEO for small business websites?

An Introduction to SEO for Small Business Websites

Back when SEO for small business websites was first being developed as a practice, the Internet was served by dozens of search engines, each one using different technical strategies for providing the best results to their users. This made it hard to find a single strategy to optimize a website for all search engines, but on the upside these early search engines didn’t use very sophisticated algorithms and were pretty easy to game. Today there are still multiple search engines out there but Google has become so dominant that when we talk about “SEO” most of the time we’re really saying “Google Optimization”.

Google wants to be Your Friend

Google hardly makes any money on search itself. Where it does make money is offering services like hyper-targeted advertising and detailed analytics data to companies (who are its real “customers”) based on the things it learns from what people search for. But those services depend on a constant torrent of search data from searching users, which won’t last unless the Searching Public keeps coming back. Google knows this and for several years now it has been offering its Suppliers (people who run websites) with free resources to help them create High-Quality Product (their website content).

How does Google define High-Quality Product? At the highest level, it looks for three things: Content, Design, and Speed. In this article we’ll cover the ways that Google evaluates Content. Part 2 looks at Design, and Part 3 wraps it all up with Speed.

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What Google Looks For in Your Website’s Content

Content is what people usually think of when they think of Search Engine Optimization—keywords, meta tags, links, all that. Those are all tools that are used to achieve Google’s standards for high-quality, high-ranking content. When it ranks content Google looks for the following things:

Originality

Google doesn’t want its search results page to show its users a list of ten pages all showing the same content, so it tries to only index content once. This means that if your site has pages with content that is either a duplicate of pages on your own site or a duplicate of pages on another site, Google needs to know which one is the “original” or it won’t rank any of them highly.

This can be a challenge if you run an e-commerce site with multiple links to the same items, or if you syndicate your articles on external sites like Medium. Fortunately there’s a special tag you can add to the code of your page called the “canonical” tag that tells Google that this page is the original.

Most Content Management Systems (CMS) like WordPress, Shopify, or Squarespace make adding canonical tags to your site easy and automatic, though it’s still a good idea to dive into the advanced settings to make sure that the canonical tags are being put on the right pages and not just added everywhere.

If you cross-post to Medium from a WordPress site, make sure to use the Medium plugin, which inserts a canonical tag in the Medium post pointing back to the original article on your own website.

Authority

Google’s algorithms are frighteningly capable, but they still aren’t the same as having real humans rate the quality of content. The core of Google’s original PageRank algorithm was recognizing that links could be used to evaluate the quality of a page: more links correlated strongly with better content.

It’s not quite that straight forward any more, but the core concept remains the same: get real people sharing and adding links back to your site (a.k.a. “backlinks”), and Google will see that as a signal that you are publishing good stuff. Not all backlinks are created equal—getting added to a site that’s just a list of links with no additional content isn’t going to do much good and might even hurt if Google has decided that the list you’re on is part of a “link farm” (a page that exists for no other reason than to juice up backlink numbers for other pages).

But links from other highly rated pages, using anchor text (the words you click on) that are keyword-dense, are an important part of SEO for small business websites. Linking to your site with text that says “go here for the best small business website in the world” will help increase your ranking for the search term “the best small business website in the world”.

Linking to your site just by using your business name will only help your ranking for your own name, which you hopefully don’t need to improve. That’s why so many bloggers see guest posting as an important part of their online marketing—they can act as a celebrity endorsement and help you grow your own audience with high-quality backlinks to your site.

Relevance

Here’s where the keywords, meta tags, image alt tags, page titles, and descriptions come in to the picture. Google needs to know what you’re talking about, and while their systems are smart enough to figure this out by analyzing your pages text directly they appreciate it if you give them some shortcuts in the form of structured data formatted in specific ways.

This is the oldest and most mature part of content indexing and the best practices are well known to CMS providers, so unless you’re hand-coding your site you don’t need to worry (too) much about anything besides writing well-structured, easy to understand content (it is believed that Google does care about grammar and spelling, by the way).

But as with canonical tags, you should trust your automated tools, but verify that they’re generating optimized tags. Page titles longer than roughly 70 characters, and meta descriptions longer than 156 characters, will get cut off with “…” on Google’s results pages, so you should edit yours like tweets and stay within those limits.

Plugins like Yoast SEO for WordPress are indispensable for making sure your site’s meta content is structured to Google’s liking.

Content SEO Resources for Small Business Websites

Whew! If you’re still with me, you’re probably wondering where to begin with your own site. Step zero is to install Google Analytics if you don’t have it already. With its reports you’ll be able to see where you are now, and measure the results of any optimizations you make going forward.

Once you’ve got that done, here’s a short list of free resources for analyzing your Content and improving your site’s Search Engine Optimization:

  • Screaming Frog’s SEO Spider – Weird name, great tool. The SEO Spider scans your website’s pages for errors, keywords, meta tags, and more. You can scan up to 500 unique pages for free, which should be enough for most small businesses.
  • MOZ Open Site Explorer – The Open Site Explorer helps you research how other sites are linking to your own small business website. It will help identify opportunities for building backlinks, and give you a heads up if it finds links to your site using less-than-flattering anchor text.
  • Google Search Console – The Google Search Console shows you your website through Google’s eyes and gives you suggestions for making it easier for the Google crawler to index. This is as close as you can get to actually seeing the GoogleBot at work, and you should essentially do everything it says—Google will love you for it.

In Part 2 of the SEO for Small Business Websites series we continue by discussing the ways that your site’s design affects your ranking in Google.

Continue to SEO for Small Business Part 2: Design for Better SEO »