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What is SEO and Why is It Important?

As a business owner, you have numerous options when it comes to your marketing efforts. 

There is social media, email, podcast, programmatic, PPC, etc. The list of marketing options goes on and on. The fact is, not all marketing channels are equal.

It’s my opinion (and that of many others marketers) that SEO is the best channel. But what is SEO? Let’s dive in.

What is SEO?

SEO stands for search engine optimization.

In short, it means getting your website to show up for your top products or services in search engines like Google, Bing, and DuckDuckGo.

It means optimizing your site content and performance so people can find you on search engines.

There are so many aspects to SEO that it’s almost impossible to distill into one article, so I will give you a solid overview of SEO and what it means for you as a small business owner. 

what is seo

White Hat and Black Hat SEO 

Not all SEO is created equal. Some shady and spammy tactics still work. We call this black hat SEO because while it does get results, it places you at the highest risk for penalization from search engines.

An example of this is the use of private blog networks. A private blog network is when somebody owns several websites and uses all of these sites to link to a primary site.

In most cases, there is a central site, a money site, they’re trying to promote.

The other secondary websites exist merely to increase the authority of the money site by sending backlinks.

Here’s what a PBN loos like.

private blog network (PBN)

This may not seem like a shady tactic, but it’s artificial manipulation to make the search engines believe the money site is getting many links from different sources that value the information.

In reality, they all come from one person who is purely interested in increasing the rankings of one site, typically without regard to the quality of the content or user experience.

Google wants sites that offer excellent user experiences. It’s trying to provide the best search results, so it has been increasingly going after websites offering a poor user experience and not satisfying the searchers’ intent. 

Other black hat tactics include the following:

  • Using thousands of low-quality sites to inflate backlinks artificially
  • Cloaking, which involves showing one page to search engines and another to users
  • Using sneaky redirect chains to get users from one site to another 
  • And more
black hat SEO

White hat SEO, on the other hand, is all about doing things the right way. It’s the tortoise approach, not the hare approach.

Real SEOs understand that results generally take time, but they provide the longest-lasting and highest-quality results when approached with authenticity.  

Instead of creating dozens of spammy micro sites to increase the backlinks of one other website, SEOs focus on creating high-quality content that other people actually want to link to because it provides value and insight.

How Do Search Engines Work? 

Now that we have discussed briefly what SEO is and the right and wrong ways to go about it let’s quickly talk about how search engines work before diving into the main components of SEO.

Several steps must occur before your website or content appears on the search engines. Search engines must crawl, parse, index, render, and rank your content. 

Here’s what that means.

Crawling

Search engines have bots that are called web crawlers. These are computer programs that scour the internet to find updated content. When a bot, like Googlebot, comes to your website, it crawls your site.

This isn’t like the nursery rhyme, the itsy bitsy spider crawled up the waterspout; crawling means it begins reading the back end of your website, where parsing comes into play.

Parsing

Your website has a lot of stuff going on that you don’t usually see. If you want to check out what’s happening with your website, right-click somewhere on the page and click view page source. 

click on view page source

When you do, you’ll see all of the HTML, JavaScript, cascading style sheets (CSS), and other information web crawlers have to read. It looks something like this. 

website source code

Reading all of the information in your website’s code, fetching the other necessary information, and putting it all together is called parsing. Crawling and parsing go hand in hand. 

Indexing

Once a search engine discovers your website or new content, it stores it in its archive. This is the process of indexing. It’s like Google has a giant Rolodex, and when it finds a new website or a new piece of content, it adds another flash card.

Before your site can appear on search engines, it must be inside their archives. If they don’t have it, they can show it. 

Rendering

Search engines can render (or show) your site/page once it has been crawled, parsed, and indexed. This means that searchers can find your page on search engines. 

search engine rendering

Technically, once search engines index your site, they can render it. You often won’t find it until it begins to rank for keywords unless you type in the exact URL. 

Ranking

This is my favorite part! Once search engines index your site and understand what your pages are about, they will rank your site (or new piece of content) for any appropriate keywords. 

A single page can rank for hundreds of keywords, depending on the complexity and density of the page. A page with 5,000 words on it will likely rank for more keywords than a page with 500 words.

For example, this post from SEMrush ranks for over 900 keywords. 

organic keywords

When I say rank, I don’t necessarily mean in the top 10. Most SEO tools will track up to the 10th page on Google, up to position 100.

This information is helpful because I can use the keyword data to know whether a page is on the right track for its targeted keyword.

For SEOs, there’s only one position we care about, number one. Until we are there for all our keywords, we’ve got work to do. 

And even when we are there, we put the biggest target on our back we can, so now we have to play king of the hill and maintain our ranking by being proactive with SEO efforts.

Key Elements of SEO 

There are essentially five main buckets of SEO: keyword research, content, on-page SEO, off-page SEO, and technical SEO. There’s also local SEO, which has its idiosyncrasies. 

Let’s look at each of these briefly (because we could discuss each at length). 

Keyword Research 

Before you can build a house, you must lay the foundation. Without a foundation, the house is going to crumble. It’s the same thing with an SEO campaign.

Everything starts with keywords, but your target audience, relevance, and natural language must influence these keywords.

importance of keyword research for SEO

When I start every single campaign, I begin by creating a keyword database. 

This keyword database is a list of all the existing keywords you have on your site, and it also includes dozens or sometimes hundreds of “untapped” keywords that your competitors are ranking for that you are not.

Then, I match each of your URLs to a single keyword. This is because each page should have one focus and one intent. 

keyword database

Your customers and clients want you to be specific, so they will thank you, and Google will reward you, for being focused on one product, service, or topic per page.

Some exceptions exist, like product category pages for e-commerce sites.

Still, for the most part, each page should have one focus keyword only, and I, as your SEO, need to know why I’m optimizing the page more so I can ensure your page is as relevant as possible and meets the intent of the person searching for that product or service or piece of information.

When I choose a keyword for a specific page, I’m looking at search volume, I’m looking at the difficulty of the keyword, and I’m looking at the CPC (cost per click) to see how popular it is with paid search.

But more importantly than any of these, I’m looking to see if it is relevant, natural, and has the correct intent.

Your keyword choice need to make sense, otherwise it will seem off to those who visit your site…like a zebra in an aquarium.

zebra inside an aquarium

All this analysis (and more) goes into my determination when selecting the keyword.

Once the keywords are selected and agreed upon, we move into the other aspects, which include creating content and optimizing the page.

Content

The content of your site is critical. It must make sense and align with your business offerings, products, or services. That’s why a thorough content strategy is critical.

It also needs to make sense for users to land on your website for the first time.

For example, if you are a dentist in the Kansas City area, your website should be about dentistry. 

You should include the types of dentist work you perform, which cities you service, who you are, and lots of other information about dentistry and the procedures you offer.

If I land on a dentist’s website, filled with vague content about smiles and white teeth, I may be confused about what exactly the website offers. 

And if this is the case, I will likely leave and go to another website that meets my expectations, a local dentist that can fix my teeth.

shoes on a grocery shelf is like bad content on a wensite

Content goes beyond meeting the intent of those searching for your website (we call this searcher intent) and beyond the user experience.

Content is what builds your authority and creates trust with your prospective clients.

When you invest in blog content, you’re building trust. Why is this? Well, how exactly do I know you know how to do your job? 

Reviews help, testimonials help, professional licenses help, and indeed, all of these factors work together. 

But suppose you have 5, 10, or 15+ articles on your website about all the different types of procedures you do and great local content.

In that case, it shows that you understand your industry and care enough about your audience to give them a lot of helpful information.

Content builds trust. Content builds authority. Content demonstrates your expertise and experience; you need all of these to be a profitable business.

Additionally, Google and other search engines will reward you when you demonstrate topical relevance or topical authority. What is topical relevance? It means you have shown a lot of authority on a given topic.

Google rewarding your website

Going back to this local dentist in Kansas City, if the dentist’s website has a bunch of articles about local BBQ, where to find great Chinese food, and the best ice cream, as well as a couple of general dentistry articles, search engines are not going to understand what the website is about.

Conversely, suppose everything you talk about is dentistry or dentistry-related.

In that case, the search engines, not to mention your prospective customers, will understand that you are a dentist. Building topical relevance helps you rank for your core offerings and products.

If you sell hiking boots, everything on your blog should be about hiking shoes, how to use them, what not to use them for, the best hiking trails to go on, and so forth.

It should all be about hiking boots. This will make sense to your prospective customers, and it will make sense to the search engines when they’re trying to decide which websites to show when somebody searches for hiking boots.

For all of these reasons and more, is why content is so important for SEO.

On-Page SEO

Once you finish writing your content, it must go on your website. How you structure the contents and the page is what on-page SEO is all about.

It begins with a solid understanding of your target customer and their needs mixed with keyword research.

Every page on your website, even your homepage, should evolve around a keyword. This is where keyword research comes into play.

You always want to start with relevance. Relevance is better than a lot of search volume.

keyword relevance is better than volume

Using the local dentist as an example again, if you do not offer root canals, you do not want to have a page on your website about root canals in Kansas City.

Even though it has 500 search volume a month, it is not relevant to your practice, ergo, you should not be writing about it.

But if you offer root canals, it would make logical sense to evolve a page on your site around root canals in Kansas City.

You can use a research tool like Semrush or Google Keyword Planner to identify keywords relevant to your business and have search volume.

Go to Semrush and use the Keyword Magic Tool. Type in a few keywords that you think are appropriate and see what comes up.

semrush magic tool

If you want a free tool, create a free Google Ads account. Head to the tools section, then to the Keyword Planner, then Discover new keywords.

Google keyword planner

Once you have the keyword that you will create content around, you need to place the keyword strategically so that it tells your users and the search engines what the page is about.

Back in the day of SEO, it was all about keyword density. It was believed that you needed to use your keyword a specific number of times in your web copy for the search engines to pick it up and show it on the results page.

This quickly led to keyword stuffing, where SEOs would write a page of content using their keyword 100,000 times.

Keyword stuffing lowered the quality of the content, but it did help the page appear in search engines for a time.

keyword stuffing picture

Now, that doesn’t work, and you can actually get penalized if you’re keyword stuffing because it lowers the quality of your work.

Your customers care about quality, and so do search engines.

But, strategic placement of your keywords is necessary. So, if you indeed offer root canal services in Kansas City, that should appear in the following places.

-Meta description
-Title tag (now called title links)
-URL
-H1 (main heading on a page)
-First 50-100 words
-At least one H2 (secondary heading, which can also be a variation)
-The last 100 words of the page/article
-The alt text of your first or most important image

Here’s what most of that looks like for this page you’re reading right now:

seo title tag & meta description
seo h1, h2, and url

Off-page SEO

Off-page SEO most frequently means link building. Link building is important because it builds the authority of a website.

Think of links like votes in an election. If two or more people are running for office, like for mayor, the one that receives the most votes wins.

Links operate in the same manner. If two or more websites are targeting the same keyword, the site with the most links or “votes” will generally win, e.g., get the #1 position in Google.

Now, this isn’t always the case, but for the sake of brevity, it comes down to this: more links = more likely to rank for your desired keyword.

It’s not just about quantity, though; it’s also about quality.

Going back to the election example, if someone endorses you in a mayoral campaign, that may or may not help- depending on who endorses you.

An endorsement from someone who has a higher position in the community or someone who holds another elected position will likely be worth more than a random person coming out of the woodwork.

image of guy in the woods

In other words, an endorsement from a well-known figure would help your chances of winning.

Conversely, an endorsement from someone in your immediate family or an unknown vagabond probably would not work very well.

People are sensitive to bias from your family, and therefore, it likely will not help your case. Likewise, an endorsement from a person that nobody knows will not take you very far, either.

It’s similar to links. If you were a national brand, getting mentioned in an article from Forbes, the Washington Post, or another major news organization is great!

Likewise, a link from the top publication or site in your industry is going to be equally beneficial.

But, a link from another site that you created (the bias factor) or a link from a small unrelated site (the unknown factor) is likely not going to help.

Some recent news claims links are no longer in Google’s top three ranking factors. This may or may not be true, given that Google sometimes has a dubious history with its information; let’s assume this is true.

Even if the links are no longer one of the top factors in Google’s algorithm, they will still be important. 

links are important

Once again, if we have two sites going for the same keyword that have the same level of on-page optimization, the same level of engagement, the same level of clicks, and relatively everything else about the sites is the same, the one factor that is hardest to manipulate positively is the number of quality backlinks to the site.

They’re still gonna be a critical aspect. No, how else does off-page SEO look like?

Page 22 of Google’s evaluator guidelines says, “An important part of PQ [page quality] rating is understanding the reputation of the website.”

Your online reputation matters whether you are a business, a contractor, or an individual blogger.

So, how do you get good PR? It all comes back to content.

If the content on your site or off of your site (like a book) is good enough to get the attention of people in your industry, not only will you get positive recognition in the online world, which is a good signal for Google, but it may land you a link back to the site as well.

All of this is interconnected. You can’t get links at scale without good PR. Good PR frequently comes with links, often sending their audience to your site.

That brings me to the next point I’ll make about off-page SEO. Links are also great, not just because they bestow online trust but because they send traffic.

I’m willing to bet that many of you reading this clicked on one of the links in this article. That’s referral traffic for the site you landed on, and that’s another benefit to getting a link on another site; you get referral traffic.

There’s a LOT more to say about off-page, but this at least gives you the gist.

Technical SEO

Now it’s time to get technical, but not too much. Technical SEO is anything behind the scenes. It includes HTML, JavaScript, cascading style sheets (CSS), page loading speed, external links, internal links, and more.

There are several reasons why technical SEO is essential. 

1. Page loading speed. Page speed is critical in this day and age. If your site takes over three seconds to load, you’ve already lost over 50% of your customers. In fact, one study shows that your bounce rate increases by 20% for every second of a delay.

This is particularly important for e-commerce sites whose primary objective is to sell products, but it’s also vital for lead generation sites.

If I am looking for a plumber, lawyer, or some other service, and the website I click on first takes 10 seconds to load, I will leave and go to another website that doesn’t take that long. Do not underestimate the importance of a fast website.

2. Increase conversion. Similar to the first point, if your technical SEO is all in line, you should have an increase in conversions. If the site is fast and there are no broken links or error pages, it will provide a seamless, helpful, and positive user experience.

This can translate into increased conversions because you are making it as easy as possible for somebody to shop with you or contact you.

3. It builds trust. If somebody comes to your website and every other link or button they click shows a 404 error message, their confidence in you will plummet.

Why? It’s simple.

If you can’t take the time to ensure that your website is working correctly, how can you be trusted to fix their broken waterline or get them out of a little legal trouble (going with the plumber or lawyer, as mentioned previously)?

Remember that adage don’t judge a book by its cover?

Newsflash: everybody judges a book by its cover; in this case, the book cover is your website.

If technical errors riddle your website, you will lose the trust of your customers, and they will shop with somebody else.

This does not mean you need a $50,000 website created by a professional web design company, although that certainly helps.

All you need is a fast, functional website that meets user expectations and gets the job done, whether helping them purchase a product or contacting you for a consultation.

4. It helps your online visibility. One time, when I was conducting a quick SEO audit of a website, I realized that half of the pages were not indexed because they had a noindex tag.

In common English, it means that half of the web pages for this website were not in Google’s Rolodex. They were not there because the website was telling Google not to put it in its Rolodex; that is the noindex tag. If the webpage is not in Google’s index, it cannot be rendered or shown to searchers.

Ensuring that your technical SEO is in place means that all of the pages you want to be indexed are, and the pages you don’t want to be indexed, such as your admin, login page, or checkout page, are not.

Local SEO

When it comes to local SEO, content, on-page, off-page, and technical SEO all work together, but there is an additional factor to consider: your Google Business Profile.

When you search for local queries, such as pizza near me, dentist near me, Italian food in Kansas City, etc., it populates what we in the SEO world call the local pack on the map pack.

The local pack is a selection of three businesses next to a small Google map that Google places predominantly on the search results page, generally at the top or very close to the top.

local map pack

Google highlights three businesses, sometimes more, and their respective position in Google Maps. Each one of these connects to a Google business profile. 

In many ways, your Google Business Profile (GBP), formally known as Google My Business, is as essential as your website. Nearly half of all searches in Google are for local queries.

So, if somebody is searching in Google for your service, and you do not have a Google business profile, you will miss out on many potential customers.

The local algorithm is becoming more predominant because local searches are increasing yearly. 

Even when you don’t use a geographic modifier, such as “near me, “in Kansas City,” or another phrase that specifies a location, Google will serve localized results based on your last known IP address if it believes the intent of your keyword is for a local solution.

For example, if you Google the phrase “hotels, “you will probably see some national results like hotels.com or booking.com, but you will also see hotels near your location.

You can see in the screenshot below that when I search “hotels,” it shows well-known hotels near my area. 

google screenshot of hotels search term

The local algorithm is different than the national algorithm. Google’s localized search results are based on three primary factors: relevance, prominence, and proximity.

Proximity: Proximity is a huge factor because Google wants to show results closest to your location. A perfect example is coffee shops; they are everywhere. If you search for that, Google will show you nearby coffee shops.

Looking at the images below, you can see how drastically different the search results can’t be just due to your proximity.

In the first screenshot, I stood between 9th and 10th St. on Baltimore in downtown Kansas City. I was standing right outside Mildred’s coffee shop, which is why it showed up number one on my results page. Notice that the number two result is Banksia, and the third is Spokes Coffee.

coffee near me screenshot example 1

Then, I walked two blocks and searched again for “coffee shops near me,” and I got completely different results. Two city blocks, and I got utterly different businesses.

coffee near me screenshot example 2

This is one of the extreme cases because industries like coffee shops and restaurants are everywhere in city centers, so traveling even two blocks can completely change the results. Meanwhile, if you are in a suburban or rural area, there may only be one coffee shop within 10 miles of you.

So, as a local business, you need to give just as much attention to your GBP as you do to your website. Here are the other considerations when creating Google Business Profiles. 

Relevance: Then there is relevance. If you were looking for a coffee shop near you, Google will not show you mechanics or chiropractors. Why not?

They are not relevant to your search query. Choosing your primary category for your GBP is critical. Whatever your main category is, this is what you have the highest possibility of ranking for.

It can get a little tricky when Google’s categories do not fit your business perfectly, or if you have a business with multiple offerings, such as a restaurant and café.

There’s no good advice for the situation; you just need to choose the primary category that most closely matches your business.

Prominence: The last major factor is the prominence of the business. If there are two coffee shops in an area competing with each other, the coffee shop that has more prominence will get the number one position.

There are several ways to increase prominence, but the most significant factor for your GBP when it comes to prominence is the number of reviews and your average star rating.

reviews increase prominence

Reviews have a significant impact on the local search algorithm, so you must develop a review process so that you consistently get quality reviews.

Most SEO experts agree that consistently getting good reviews over time is a lot better than getting a ton of reviews right away and then nothing for a long time.

Consistently getting reviews demonstrates that you not only provide consistently excellent service but that you’re still in business. If your last review is from two years ago, people will wonder if you’re still open.

Getting a one- or two-star review here and there is okay because most people do not expect businesses to be perfect. And actually, a rating between a 4.2 and a 4.8 is what you want to aim for.

The other important factor concerning reviews is your response. You need to respond to every review, even the bad ones.

It shows your prospective customers that you care about your reputation, and you care about your customers’ satisfaction.

So go out there, get more reviews, and respond to every single one!

Why Does SEO Matter for Small Businesses?

It may be evident by now, but there are several reasons why SEO matters for small businesses. Here are the top five reasons why you need SEO.

1. SEO Offers the Highest CTR of Any Marketing Channel.

CTR stands for click-through rate. It is the ratio of how often somebody sees your link (call impressions) and clicks on it.

Programmatic advertising usually has a CTR under 2% on the higher end and as low as .2% on the lower end. Social media CTR varies based on the platform, but you can expect a CTR of around 1% for your social media ads.

Pay per click, aka Google search ads, again vary based on industry, but usually anywhere between 3.8% and 10.6%. SEO has a CTR of 15% to 30%, depending on the search results and certain features.

But, if you are a local business and you are in the local pack (the small map highlighting three different businesses for a search query), and you are ranking number one organically, that means that your combined CTR could be well close to 35%+. 

2. The ROI of SEO Far Exceeds the Campaign.

With all types of ads, whether it be PPC, email, programmatic, podcast, marketing, etc., as soon as you stop paying, you stop getting leads and sales.

When I get you to the number one organic position or into the local pack, I could literally stop working, and you will remain there for potentially several months or years. That means after I am “finished” with the SEO campaign, you will still be getting leads and sales. That’s the power of SEO.

3. Most People Skip Ads.

It is true that ads are a critical factor in many marketing strategies, but the fact of the matter is most ignore them. That’s why you have a CTR of 6% for PPC campaigns or 0.2% for programmatic campaigns.

Most people see an ad and skip over it. Now, it gets a little challenging when there are upwards of four or five ads for a given search term, but the fact of the matter is that between 75% and 95% of people skip ads on Google; where do they go? They go to the organic results, a.k.a. the person with the best SEO. 

4. SEO is the Only Non-Interruptive Marketing Channel.

As mentioned before, every single marketing channel is, by default, a disruption-based approach. This means the ads attempt to disrupt or interrupt a user long enough to click on the ad and engage with the landing page.

With SEO, you are appearing for the exact product, service, or question that somebody is searching for when they are searching for it.

So, if somebody is searching for Chinese food near them, and you are in the first position in the local pack, you are in the best possible position to bring that person to your restaurant.

If somebody is searching for a local plumber, and they see you as the number one position, you have a higher probability of attracting that person to your site.

SEO is the only channel that gets you in front of the eyes of your prospective clients at the exact moment when they’re searching for your products or services.

It’s not interrupting marketing; it’s meeting searcher intent and delivering it on a silver platter.

5. SEO builds trust.

Do you know the adage people buy from those they know, like, and trust? One of the best ways to develop that trust factor (and know factor) from the beginning is by appearing at the top of the search results.

Now, not everybody trusts search engines, but most people understand that it takes hard work to show up there, so if you are there, you can develop a little bit of trust at the beginning.

If your website satisfies their intent from the first few seconds, they’re going to trust you even more because you’re offering what they’re looking for.

Obviously, a lot more goes into building trust, such as having adequate social proof, e.g., reviews, testimonials, etc., but there will be some inherent trust from the beginning if you’re ranking in Google, because Google doesn’t reward poor results and poor websites that do not satisfy the users’ expectations, or at least they actively try to avoid it.

Do all businesses need SEO?

All businesses need SEO at some point, but it may not be at the top of your priority list. Your top priority is leads and sales. That’s it. If you are a brand-new business, SEO is not gonna get you leads tomorrow, it’s not gonna get you leads next week, and it may not even get you leads next month.

The only way to know how soon SEO could potentially bring you leads is by doing a competitive analysis. You have to look at the strengths of competitors’ websites to determine how long it will take to match them and beat them.

Because SEO inherently takes time, your budget may be better spent on paid advertising, such as PPP, social media, or something else.

But wait, didn’t you just say SEO is the best channel?

Yes, I did, but even a low CTR on a paid search campaign can get you leads; this is how I got my wife leads when she first started her business because I knew SEO wouldn’t provide any leads immediately.

So, if you have budget constraints as a new business, paid advertising is the way to go right now.

If you have the budget, you should start SEO and paid marketing simultaneously.

You want to get leads now, that’s where paid advertising comes in, but you also want to begin laying the foundation for long-term success without paying for marketing; that’s why you should start SEO as soon as you practically can.

If your business has been around for a while, SEO is the best channel for you to invest in for all the above reasons. Of course, paid marketing will still get you leads, but nothing will beat your investment in SEO.

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