SEO For Small Businesses & New Startups: How To Do It Yourself
We regularly get asked the question: how can I improve the SEO performance of my website?
The question is often followed with the caveat - but I don't have any budget.
Which is a perfectly understandable and a situation that many organisations find themselves in. Startups are often self-funded, and SMEs may not necessarily have the marketing budget to employ an agency or employee full time.
So for those of you with the inclination, patience and perseverance (sprinkled with a healthy dose of nerdy intrigue) here's a step by step guide on some of the key SEO considerations for a startup or SME, and some practical tips on how you can do it yourself.
The importance of keywords
The topic of keywords has been hotly debated over the last 12 months. Historically the SEO emphasis has been on "exact match" search terms. Put simply, if you wanted to rank well for "big red shoes", you would create a page on your website that discussed the various benefits of wearing "big red shoes". Easy.
Now, the search engines have become more sophisticated, understanding the semantic relevance and the relationship between keywords. Meaning that they're attempting to understand the "intent" behind a users search query.
Under this premise overarching "topics" are increasingly important when compared with the old days of "exact match" keywords.
Consider both topical themes and keywords throughout your websites content. For example if you created an amazing piece of content that discusses "what not to say on Twitter", the search engines would probably understand that you're interested in information about Donald Trump.
Therefore websites (and individual page content) can rank well for a search query, even if that query doesn't appear on your website.
Now, simply focusing on quality content that delivers what your audience wants is just as important.
BUT, that doesn't mean that you should completely ignore the inclusion of exact match keywords.
The reason for this is that Google isn't perfect, and while they do their very best to understand a users intent, the complex relationship between the words of the English language can often befuddle even the very best algorithms.
So the best compromise at this stage is to consider both overarching topic ideas, organising your website structure accordingly, while also considering exact match keywords that can be applied to certain elements of a web page.
The important SEO elements to consider optimising on a page will include (and we'll come on to these in a bit):
Alt-titles on images
Key takeaway: Consider "topics" when designing your website and its overarching content structure, while considering "keywords" when optimising specific elements of a web page.
The next challenge is how to identify which keywords to use when updating the various elements highlighted above.
Understanding the various search volumes for relevant terms will help you determine the best opportunities and where to focus your efforts. The following process will help you examine hundreds (often thousands) of keywords around a particular topic, and once complete you'll be able to download this important data into a nerdy spreadsheet. Colour coding columns are optional.
1. Sign in to Google Adwords. https://www.google.co.uk/adwords/.
If you don’t have an account you can set one up for free, but if you already have a Google Account (for Google Analytics, Google My Business, Google+ etc..), then it’s suggested you use the same login details to ensure everything is in one place. It also enables easier linking between Analytics and Adwords.
2. Select “tools” at the top and then “keyword planner”.
3. Select “Search for new keywords using phrase, website or category”.
4. Enter the keyword(s) you would like to examine.
If entering more than one separate with a comma. What you’re doing is asking Google to examine the search volumes for the keyword you entered, but it will also create a list of similar and popular search terms.
If you enter “big red shoes”, the list produced will inform you what people are typically entering into the search engines around this particular topic. It will also include the average monthly search volume for each keyword.
It's important to make sure you select the country you're interested in. You don't want the monthly search volumes across the world, if your target market is just the UK.
5. Download the results into a spreadsheet
6. Review and refine your keyword list It's likely that you'll now have a list of maybe 1,000 keywords on a spreadsheet. The only data you really need at this stage are the keywords, and they're corresponding search volumes.
There may be a few irrelevant terms in there, so you'll have to go through and tidy up the selection to ensure that everything that remains is relevant to your business.
7. Reviewing the SEO competition of keywords
The data that will be missing at this stage from your spreadsheet is how competitive each keyword is in organic search. It's important to note that if you want to do this properly, it would be worthwhile investing in a keyword research tool like SEMRush that you can use to determine this level of competition.
But, if you don't have the budget for that, you can make some assumptions based on a few factors:
Single keywords (e.g. shoes) will be virtually impossible to rank highly for (far too competitive).
Keywords with a higher search volume are likely to be more competitive.
For a new website, or if you're an SME without much SEO activity to date, going after a particular niche would be advisable.
In the example above, and if we organise the keywords by volume, we could (and we have to stress that this is a fairly crude technique for conducting keyword research) make some assumptions that:
Red: Keywords are competitive
Yellow: Medium competition
Green: Niche search terms that are likely to be lower in competition, and may be worth considering as part of your content strategy. They're also be easier to rank highly for.
Blue: Maybe a nice topic idea for a blog post
By repeating this process for all products and services that you offer, you can start to build a strategic approach for:
What type of content you need on your website
How you apply the various keywords to each individual page on your site
Which keywords to use when updating your meta-data and headings etc
Key takeaway: If you have a new website or you're new to SEO, go for very specific/niche search terms that will have less competition, and create compelling content around those particular topics.
Assessing keyword competition
Once you've whittled down your keyword selection to some interesting keyword that you want to explore further, it's a good idea to test your competition, and how difficult it may be to rank for these terms.
As mentioned there are a number of tools that can be used to speed up this process, however most are “paid” options that require a subscription license.
These options are easier and more efficient (a good example would be SEMRush or Majestic SEO), but if budget is a consideration then the process can still be achieved, although there is slightly more manual work to be done.
Free competitive analysis option:
Install the MOZ extension on Chrome or Firefox. https://moz.com/tools/seo-toolbar
This will install the Moz button (top right on the image below) that when selected will give you some of the key competitive metrics of the various websites in the search results.
Beneath each search result you will find a grey bar that highlights the terms PA and DA.
PA: Page Authority relates to the overall authority of the website “page” that appears in the search results. The higher the number, the greater the authority of that page.
DA: Domain Authority works in a similar way, but refers to the overall authority of the website.
Both metrics are important when determining your websites ranking position, and by comparing the performance of your website, with that of the websites appearing on the 1st page of Google, you can start to understand the competitive metrics of each keyword.
For example if all websites on the 1st page have a Domain Authority of 70 or more, and your website has a Domain Authority of 10, you can make the assumption that competition will be tough.
However in the example above, we can see the competition for "professional clown shoes" is relatively low, with DA's ranging from 24 to 29. If your website is either close to those figures, or above, you can consider this a potential keyword target.
Domain and page authority explained
Both Domain and Page Authority are determined by:
The age of a website
The number, and more importantly the quality of links pointing to that page or website.
While there's no official definition, as a general guide, Domain Authority for a website will be as follows:
1 – 10: A new website or a website that has very few links pointing to it.
10 – 20: A website that's probably quite new, maybe with a few directory links pointing to it.
20 – 30: A website that's relatively ok, potentially with some dedicated SEO (or time) behind it.
30 – 40: A good quality site and likely to be the threshold for many small or medium sized businesses. Active SEO work is likely to have been undertaken
40 – 50: A well respected blog or website. Medium/large sized business.
50 – 90: The domain of large businesses, very well respected sites and high quality blogs.
90+: National newspapers, social media sites and some of the best sites in the world.
Key takeaway: Building your websites Domain Authority can take time, so be patient and set yourself realistic expectations.
Updating your meta-data and headings
As a brief bit of interesting yet pointless history, meta-data was traditionally used by libraries when they converted their catalog data, to digital databases. In the 2000s, as digital formats became the norm, the term metadata was used to describe the storage and classification of digital data.
The overarching term "meta-data" applies to both "meta-titles" and "meta-descriptions", both an important element of SEO.
The <title> tag is still widely accepted to be one of the most important on-page optimisation factors.
The search engines place great emphasis on the title tag for assessing the relevance of the content on the page. Put simply a meta-title that includes “Big Red Clown Shoes”, is more likely to rank well for that particular term.
For many new websites, or relatively small sites, this is still an area that's often neglected, but so easy to fix!
As a general rule however, there is greater weighting given to key phrases at the left of the title tag.
By using the data and information you gathered during your keyword research, you can update the meta-titles for every single page with the keywords that provide the best opportunity for ranking improvements.
Key takeaway: If you only do 1 thing to your website, it would be to check and update every single meta-title, for every single page throughout your website. Keep the character limit under 55.
Meta Descriptions, although no longer a primary ranking factor, are still an important consideration because they can help persuade an individual to click on your search results, driving clicks and additional traffic to your content....and yes we clicked on the result below!
Key takeaway: Give people a reason or a compelling proposition to click on your search result. Using words like "discover, find out, understand, how to" can often help. Keep the character limit under 160.
Headings & Subheadings
In very simple terms, each heading on a page is typically classified as an H1, H2, H3 etc. The most important heading is the H1, and should include relevant keywords that you would like to rank for.
The importance of the various headings decreases as you move down the page. Key takeaway: While it's important to consider the inclusion of keywords and the search engines when writing your headings, don't forget the user. All headings should be compelling and grammatically correct.
The importance of links
Now that you've done completed your keyword research, and applied those keywords to some of the more important elements of a website, you can turn your attention to building links.
Most people in the world of SEO believe that links are one of the most important factors for determining the rankings of a website. Yes the world of SEO is changing, and writing quality content is fundamental to the success of any SEO campaign, but links are still important!
The simple premise is that getting another website to link to you is one of the hardest “signals” to manipulate.
Essentially each link is an endorsement of the quality of your site, but every link will have a varying degree of effectiveness on your rankings that are dependant on:
The trustworthiness of the linking domain.
The popularity of the linking page.
The relevancy of the content between the source page and the target page.
The anchor text used in the link.
The amount of links to the page.
The amount of domains that link to the target page.
The amount of variations that are used as anchor text to links to the target page.
The ownership relationship between the source and target domains.
How to build links
There are many techniques for building links, and while they vary in difficulty, SEOs tend to agree that link building is one of the hardest parts of their jobs. Some of the common techniques include:
Directory links (low in value but beneficial for improving local rankings in the Google map)
Writing great content
It's best practice to use a variety of link building techniques, but be careful! Building poor quality links can do more harm than good. If a website looks poorly designed and contains awful content, chances are you don't want a link from them.
The key consideration for link building is:
YOU NEED SOMETHING ON YOUR WEBSITE WORTH LINKING TO
This is a key point and something that's regularly overlooked by many people.
If you're writing a guest post, you may want to reference some further research to reinforce your argument/point. If this in-depth research sits on your own website (maybe as a supporting blog post), then it provides a natural linking opportunity that provides value to the reader.
Or, if you're running a competition and the prize is an internship at your company, think about creating a competition page on your website that can be used as a natural linking reference when promoting the competition through PR etc.
Key takeaway: If you're new to link building, a good place to start will be guest posting, providing the editors of an external website with high quality content.
Guest blogging: content ideas
The first stage of getting a guest blog accepted is to come up with a selection of post ideas that you can use when pitching to bloggers and editors. A good technique is to use any keywords identified during the keyword research, and enter them into Google.
For example "how to write a great guest post”.
At the very bottom of the search results, Google will often show a selection of similar searches that are relatively popular, and can be used as inspiration to help refine your ideas.
By clicking on these results, you can essentially keep going until you find a long-tail search term that you can:
a) write about with confidence
b) is suitable for your target audience
c) would potentially appeal to editors
Key takeaway: Thoroughly research any website you're considering pitching ideas too. It's important to understand their guidelines, their tone of voice and if they've already posted an article that discusses one of you ideas. They'll likely reject any article that's previously been covered.
Finding websites to pitch your guest post ideas
Once you have a list of around 10 topic ideas, you can use Google to find suitable blogs/publications that accept guest posts. Most websites that typically accept guest posts will most likely have a page on their website titled:
“guest post submissions”
“submit your content/article”
“write for us”
By using a combination of these terms, we can quickly find websites that accept guest posts.
For example “write for us + travel blog”, gives the results below, and you can use this list to pitch your content ideas to. Key takeaway: It’s recommended that all targets, dates, contacts, email address and pitches sent are stored in an excel spreadsheet. This can help when following up and recording who/when you have pitched to previously.
Getting posts accepted
Don’t be disheartened if you don’t immediately hear back. Bloggers can sometimes reply weeks after a pitch, but a usual timeframe will be a few days.
Similarly not everyone will get back to you, and the process can seem time consuming to begin with, but if you start to build relationships with bloggers and editors, it becomes much easier to get posts accepted in the future.
Eventually you can have a network of contacts that you can regularly submit content to.
Key takeaway: Never have more than 10% of your total links coming from a single domain.
Words for titles
The title of a post is just as important as the content.
It’s the first thing a user (or editor) see’s and certain keywords can help with click through rates and the popularity of a post. Try to use words like:
Discover, Explore, Find Out and Uncover
“How to” posts and “Top 10 Tips” are also popular and regularly accepted by editors, but not always relevant for certain websites.
Good grammar and spelling is obviously important. An editor will not want to spend ages making amends; the first draft you send over should be ready for publication.
People also read content differently online, they tend to skim so keep paragraphs shorts and break large chunks of text up with interesting sub-headings.
The opening paragraph is the most important and should succinctly summaries the entire proposition of your post. The rest of the article will reinforce this main premise, and the conclusion should again summarise your key message.
Don’t be afraid to use humour, it can often help get picked up if the post is quirky and funny, but most of all the content should be interesting, helpful and above all unique. Editors don’t want a re-hashed version of a popular topic, they tend to want something new and interesting.
Including links in your article
There are a few options to include links in post. Some sites will accept them in the main body of the copy, others will have regulations where you can only submit links in an “author bio” at the end of the post.
Key takeaway: From an SEO perspective, links in the body copy are the most effective. Similar to internal links on your own site, the higher up the page the better. But if you’re linking to your site, you will need to ensure that the page you’re directing readers to is relevant and is in context with the rest of the post.
Always ask yourself "am I adding value to the reader?".
Not all links are created equal: no-follow
Unfortunately, not all links are created equal. There's an attribute that can sometimes be applied to links called the “nofollow”.
If added, you won't notice any difference if you're a user, but by looking at the code of a website (right click on the page, and select "view page source), you may notice the following attribution on a link.
<a href="http://www.example.com" rel="nofollow">Example</a>
In accordance with Google’s guidelines, any paid links (e.g. sponsorship links) should have the no-follow attribute applied to the link (this is done from the publications you’re pitching to, not yourself).
This essentially stops any link equity being passed from one site, to another. If these rules weren’t in place, then large businesses with deep marketing budgets would simply climb up the rankings by implementing a paid/sponsorship link campaign.
Some websites automatically apply this no-follow attribute to guest posts and you can check to see if this is standard practice for a website by installing this extension to Google Chrome: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/meta-seo-inspector/ibkclpciafdglkjkcibmohobjkcfkaef?hl=en
Key takeaway: A healthy link profile should contain both follow, and no-follow links. But at the time of writing, followed links are more likely to help with your SEO rankings.
We've just begun to scratch the surface on SEO, but by following these steps, you'll stand a good chance of improving the visibility of your website, and providing great quality content for both search engines and users alike. And that's really the key to everything. Always think about creating great content, and always think "am I adding value to the reader". If you stick by those principles, all you need is some hard work, patience and the occasional thesaurus.