When starting or building a business, making your website findable is hard! Search engine optimization is a critical part of this. SEO is often shrouded in mystery but, it isn’t as complicated as you might think.
In this article we’ll take a look at what SEO is, why you need it, and how it will pay off for your business in the long run. We’ll also talk about how you can learn to use SEO yourself to save a lot of money.
What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?
The intent of search engines is to provide links to the most relevant webpages for a user’s search query. Search engines achieve this by trying to calculate and rank quality and relevance. SEO is about taking as many of these ranking factors as possible and building them into your content. Thinking about it as more of a game is a fun way to approach it!
In the early to mid 2000s, SEO worked different from how it works today. Nowadays, good SEO is much closer to what creates good user experience.
What is the difference between SEO and Digital marketing?
SEO is one strategy within the digital marketing realm. It is what we call unpaid, owned, or earned marketing. It’s considered an inbound marketing strategy. This means you create valuable content and experiences and let users come to you.
It’s “unpaid” in the sense you are not buying the traffic like you would be with something like Google Ads. This doesn’t mean it won’t cost you money to produce the content. For example, product reviews might cost you due to buying the products to review.
It’s owned and earned in terms of investing in the content infrastructure of your website. After all, what is a website worth if it doesn’t have much content on it? Over time, you might end up investing thousands of dollars in the content of your website. This content is an asset that accumulates value to your business.
Why is SEO important?
Findability is one of the most difficult parts about having a website. The more optimized your website is, the easier it will be to find. The more traffic you get, the more revenue you will generate. Let’s take a look at several ways SEO will help your website.
It improves keyword rankings
A well-optimized website will rank for more keywords and have better rankings. Ranking for more keywords expands your visibility with users. When users see your brand in more of their searches, it builds authority.
It increases web traffic
As you gain more keyword rankings, you’re gaining more traffic. Each keyword reaching page 1-2 of search results is a few more visits per month. A more optimized website means each page will rank for more keywords. More keywords means each page will get more traffic.
It grows revenue and profit
More website traffic doesn’t always create more ad clicks or product sales. You can get traffic from anywhere but, not all traffic is good traffic. Good SEO ensures the right users find your products and services.
Is SEO important for every kind of business?
In our opinion, YES, SEO is important for nearly every business. Think of SEO as somewhat synonymous with good user experience (UX). The more organized your website is, the more useful and enjoyable it is.
What SEO can do for your business
SEO might sound good as far as specific metrics it can improve. However, what are the larger and more long term implications for your business?
Keyword rankings build brand trust with your customers
Like we said before, your brand showing up for more keyword rankings improves brand trust. For some industries and niches, consider the length of the sales cycle you might have. It might be normal for users in your niche to research products and services for a long time before buying.
In cases like that, you want users to keep seeing your brand throughout that research cycle. That way you’re top-of-mind when they finally decide to buy. You can only achieve this by:
- Having more pages of content on your site
- Covering more topics your users are searching for
SEO can increase visibility with new customers
You might already have a good customer base and be looking to find new customers. In cases like this, it’s important to expand the content on your site. You want to create more content around topics your users are looking for.
Think about topics dealing with needs, wants, pain points, and product or service options. The idea is, the customer should find as many of the solutions they need available on your website. This builds trust and loyalty.
Good SEO creates a better user experience
No one has time for poorly organized content that’s overly verbose, and that doesn’t use words users expect. By implementing SEO thoughtfully, you are giving users great value from your content.
Some may enjoy reading your content in depth. Others may want to briefly scan a page and pick out only the sections they care to read about. This is painful to do when you have a poorly organize wall-of-text!
SEO is less expensive in the long run
Once you’ve built a piece of content, it takes much less effort to maintain it over time. You might occasionally make updates as times change and new data, products, or services come around.
Once you’ve completed an initial content investment, the traffic and revenue will be ongoing. Contrast this with SEM like Google Ads, for example. Once you stop a campaign, the traffic and revenue disappears.
With organic traffic, rarely will you ever experience that sort of immediately negative effect. You may see organic performance decline over time if you let content go untouched for a long time, like years. You’ll generally have ranking indicators to help identify this early, however.
How does SEO work?
If you research SEO, you’ll often find the subject shrouded in mystery. At a high level, it’s actually much easier than it seems. Let’s take a look at the four main components of SEO.
1. Search robots crawl your website.
If you want your website to show up on search engines, their robots need to crawl your website. This is a process where their robots visit the pages of your website. These crawls can take time, especially for a new website. Sometimes there are technical SEO issues which can prevent crawling of certain pages.
There are tools like Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools, which help monitor these crawls and identify problems. Keep in mind, when you update content, search robots have to re-crawl it and discover your changes. This has to occur before changes or updates improve your website’s rankings.
2. Search engines index your webpages.
Once search engines discover your webpages, they need to decide which pages to include in their search index. They won’t always include every page. In some cases, they won’t include low quality or duplicate pages.
For example, a 404 error page. Also, for many content management systems, search results pages within your own website might not be included. That’s actually a good thing, as you don’t want search robots wasting their time on low value pages.
3. Search engines rank your webpages for keywords.
After search robots have crawled and indexed your site, the search engines have to figure out how to rank your webpages. They also have to figure out which keywords to rank you for. This also takes time. In some cases, you might see new rankings or ranking changes within days or weeks. In other cases, you might not see significant ranking changes for months.
The thing to understand with keyword rankings is, some search engines intentionally randomize the time it takes for you to see your true ranking improvements. Because of this, don’t expect quick ranking results, and don’t get discouraged. Keep doing the right thing with confidence. Continue improving the quality of pages and performance will come.
4. Users click on your site from search results (organic traffic).
As your webpages get crawled, indexed, and ranked, eventually users will start clicking on those search results. This usually starts happening once those rankings reach page 1-2 (#1-20) of the search results. One thing to keep in mind is the potential for low-hanging fruit to optimize. For example, when first beginning to optimize your site, it’s usually a good place to start with analyzing your current performance.
One example is to use tools like Google Analytics, Google Search Console, and SEMRush. With these tools you can identify what pages are indexed and what you already rank for.
You might discover opportunities, like pages with keyword rankings on page ~3-4. In some cases, with updates, typo fixes, internal linking improvements, and a few other optimizations, you might be able to improve those ranks to page 1-2 without starting from scratch.
What SEO efforts does a business need?
Now that you’ve seen the four core principles of how SEO works, let’s talk about the four core areas of SEO implementation. SEO can include a great many subjects however, it can usually be boiled down to these four key areas:
- Content strategy
- Site structure
- Technical SEO
- Off-site SEO
It’s critical to understand at least a little bit about each of these key areas of SEO. This will help you most effectively allocate your time and resources to either implement SEO internally or hire a consultant or agency.
Learn more about how to determine what SEO efforts your business needs.
Should you hire an SEO consultant or agency?
Your time is money. However, good SEO is expensive. Bad SEO is cheap. The market is full of inexpensive SEO providers, and most are questionable. Most of our team’s experience having worked both the marketing agency side, freelancing, as well as in-house SEOs. For small businesses, we always recommend educating yourself on SEO at a minimum.
Even if you decided it makes sense to outsource your SEO, this knowledge will help you find a good provider that won’t waste your time or money. Good SEO equates to playing the long game. In our experience, the best SEO is when someone directly involved with your business learns basic SEO principles and best practices and is able to simply incorporate those within their normal marketing efforts.
Outsourcing SEO can be expensive
Most marketing agencies will tend to start SEO contracts around $1-5K per month. For small businesses, especially in this economy, that’s a tough pill to swallow. This is compounded by the fact that you likely will not see results from SEO that drive revenue for at least 4-6 months.
There are of course LOTS of SEO providers and individual freelancers that might charge you as little as $100-500 per month. The quality of such services is usually questionable at best. With SEO, once you gain just a bit of knowledge on how it works, there are parts of the process you can outsource for considerably cheaper. This is worth considering. For example, you or your team might decide to plan a content strategy and then outsource some of that content, saving you significant time.
Results usually take a long time
As we mentioned before, SEO is a long game. These days, ranking changes can happen much more quickly. You might see initial results on an active website within a few days or 1-2 weeks. These will not be the full results, but rather an early indicator. It may still take months for those results to reach their full potential.
In highly competitive niches, from launch of a new piece of content, it might take you 4-6 months to see your full ranking potential. In some cases this can be as long as 12 months, even if you achieve 80% of the results within the first 1-2 months.
Bottom line, it takes a long time. Bills and expenses add up. You’ll need to decided if you can afford to outsource SEO for $1-5K+ per month for 6-12 months for the mere possibility of getting organic sales of your products, services, or ad clicks. That’s a painful proposition.
This is why we try to push for small businesses to do their SEO in-house, or outsource only small parts of the process where it makes sense for your budget. The end result will be less money spent but, the outcome will be stable traffic that becomes less costly or nearly free to maintain over time.
Bad SEO can have negative consequences
With SEO, there are risky techniques that can have substantial consequences to your organic performance. Some are even unethical techniques attempting to manipulate rankings artificially. As search technology evolves, these manipulations are less reliable and more easily discovered. We generally advise against any of that.
With many cheap SEO services, the quality of work you’re getting tends to be sub-par. For example, outsourcing link building. If paying some freelancer $300 per month for link building, you are likely getting spam links in return. These are probably things like blog comment spam on other sites. Not only is this potentially painting your brand in a negative light with these other sites, but also in the eyes of search engines.
Considering the effect SEO can visibly have on your brand integrity, the question you want to ask yourself is, “Who do I trust to implement my SEO with the most integrity?”
No one knows your business like you do
When dealing with an agency to outsource your SEO, you have to get them up to speed. This means familiarizing them with you brand, history, products, services, even things like business goals and customer segments. This takes time.
In some cases, your industry or niche might also have specific terminology that’s critical for using and expected from a professional organization. Some SEOs might miss some of these terms, and the content they create for you might not sound as professional as your customers demand.
Even if you decide outsourcing makes the most sense for your situation, we strongly recommend being intimately involved with the content planning and writing process. This will help ensure you’re helping your agency put your best foot forward.
Can you do SEO yourself?
Yes you can! Our team feels this is the best case scenario for most small businesses. Once you learn some SEO best practices and a few tactics, it’s easy to start building these concepts into your normal marketing efforts. As the economy gets tougher, the more SEO you can implement yourself, the more money you will save and the stronger your business will become in the long run.
What expenses are involved if I do SEO myself?
You can start 100% for free. We’ll share free resources that will help you get started quickly. There are also many free tools you can use, which we’ll walk you through, including:
- Google Analytics
- Google Search Console
- Google Lighthouse
- Bing Webmaster Tools
As you grow over time, you’ll want to find tools that are cost-effective, help you save time, and help you grow faster. Some of these tools can be found as cheap as $20-100 per month.
If it makes sense to outsource some content for your business, it’s not uncommon to find a going rate of $8-15 per 100 words from many content vendors. This means a 1,000 word article might cost you $80-150, and many of those vendors might be able to deliver it within 3-5 days. Not bad! Especially if writing is a painful process for you, that might be a great ROI for the amount of time it saves you!
How can I start optimizing my business website?
First, we recommend starting with some sort of audit. You can do this yourself with some of the Google and Bing tools mentioned above. In future articles we’ll lay out a specific process for how to do a website SEO audit. Generally, you’d want to be looking for answers to these questions?
- How much traffic am I already getting, and from what traffic channels?
- What do my user engagement metrics look like?
- What keyword rankings do I have, and which am I getting traffic for?
- What does my Googlebot crawl rate look like?
- How many of my webpages are indexed by Google or Bing?
Hopefully that starts to paint a picture of what an SEO audit looks like. You want to find out what your current performance looks like, major deficiencies, as well as any low-hanging fruit to take care of first.
Can a business stop doing SEO once it’s successful?
This is how most businesses FAIL with SEO. It’s an ongoing process that should never end.
One example involves “content freshness”. In short, if a piece of content never gets updated, it’s common for it’s ranking performance to decline over time. This makes sense when you think about it. Others are competing with you for those same rankings. If they’re updating their content more frequently and the quality and usefulness of their content keeps improving, naturally your stale content won’t be as good.
We think the best approach to SEO is to treat it like a game. Every ranking factor (of which there are thousands by anyone’s best guess in the industry) is effectively a point in the game. You’re trying to maximize your points. The idea is, keep fixing typos, keep updating old content that is no longer valid, keep fixing broken links.
Also, add new content to an old post or webpage from time to time, provided it’s actually useful content that adds value. Times change, technology changes, new solutions come along. Keep your users up to date with these things and they will keep finding value in your content.
Do I need to worry about SEO algorithm changes?
There is NOTHING you can do about this, so why worry? People in the SEO industry will speculate about these changes and expend enormous amounts of time and effort trying to fight them. Here’s the thing they usually miss, however. You’re competing against companies (let’s be honest it’s Google and Bing) that employ tens of THOUSANDS of engineers dedicated to improving their search engine. No single person can compete with that, so stop trying.
Think about how you would build the world’s best search engine. You want your users to find the best, most relevant, and most useful webpages that fulfill their needs. So how do you determine what’s “the best” and what is most relevant? How do you determine what fulfills users’ needs? How do you figure out what signals suggest a user is happy?
The point we’re getting at is, there are simple principles at play here that are all you need to worry about. This includes things like:
- Continually improving the quality of your content
- Keeping content up to date
- Eliminating technical issues on your website
- Improving user experience and speed
The algorithms will fall where they will with each new change. You should just focus on trying to build the best product and keep improving your marketing and user experience in the best quality manner that you can. Those tens of thousands of search engineers will figure out the rest for you.
What is the best way to learn how SEO works?
We feel the best way to learn SEO is to learn about a few best practices quickly, and then start implementing them while learning more along the way. Don’t waste a lot of time in taking lengthy courses without actually experimenting with the techniques.
For example, one good first step might be connecting Google Search Console (GSC) to your site so that you can start to see data from it. You might start with watching a 15-30 minute video on YouTube giving you an overview of how to use GSC. Then spend a few minutes getting it connected to your site.
If your site is already getting traffic and isn’t brand new, it might take a few days to get some data within GSC. Once you do, you can keep reading or watching more tutorials on the platform while also experimenting with it in real time. This follows with the effective teaching principle of:
- Tell me
- Show me
- Let me try
Just keep this in mind when you’re learning. You want to get to the “let me try” phase within minutes or an hour or two. Much longer than that and you might lose a lot of what you learned.
What will it cost me to learn SEO?
You can learn SEO entirely for free. There are also paid courses out there from numerous providers, and anywhere from affordable monthly subscriptions to thousands of dollars for bootcamps.
The difficulty comes from the sheer number of educational sources and trying to find quality providers that won’t waste your time. We’ll be putting together resource lists to help you cut through this noise and finding cost-effective SEO training solutions that fit your needs.
How long will it take me to learn SEO?
Like we said before, our team firmly believes in the 3 learning principles we previously mentioned. We feel that you can begin experimenting with SEO on the same day you start learning it. After a few weeks, you’ll start to feel competent and a bit more confident in your abilities to handle SEO on your own. After a few months of hands-on implementation, you should feel quite confident.
For the in-depth technical side of SEO, some of this can get into web development territory and can take a long time to master. Regardless, there’s sort of a Pareto Principle at play with SEO. What you learn and actively implement within the first few months might only be “20%” of some of the SEO tactics out there but, it’s also doing 80% of the work for you.
How frequently will I need to update my SEO skills?
Going back to our principle of trying to keep SEO simple, we think it’s a good idea if you continue learning about SEO at least once per quarter. Don’t take this to mean chasing algorithm exploits. Rather, continuing to learn about new ways of creating a better user experience with your website. Also new ways of improving website performance, reducing steps in your ecommerce checkout process, etc.
Aside from some of these technology improvements, some of the more traditional efforts like content strategy and content writing won’t actually change much. Some of these basic efforts follow fairly basic principles. This is why we like to say learn what “the right thing” is early on, and just keep doing the right thing and it will pay off.
That was a lot! Let’s recap what we’ve discussed. We talked about what SEO is, why it’s important, and what it can do for your business. We also took a high-level look at how SEO works and what types of SEO efforts you might need. Lastly, we talked about how to decide if outsourcing SEO makes sense for your business, and if not, how you can learn to do it yourself.
We hope this was a helpful overview to help you feel more comfortable about understanding what the right next steps in SEO are for your business. Keep an eye out for our free resources to help you dive into learning more about some of these specific SEO subjects.