Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?

(Picture from Pixabay)

Chances are most people know about social media, like Facebook and Twitter. Even if you don't use them, you've probably heard about them and have some idea as to what they are all about. But most people probably have never heard of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). It's not something that the average person needs to know about, but as small business owners and managers, it is something YOU NEED to know about.

Search Engine Optimization is exactly what it sounds like: a combination of strategy, techniques, and tools to get your business' online information to appear high in search results on search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc. The goal is straightforward, the execution however, is more complicated. This blog entry will give a brief intro to SEO, specifically how it relates to our clients, small businesses.

Website Design

I once thought that after you design and publish your website online, you are done, but that is only the very first step. Just because your site is online does not mean that Google knows about it. Google does not control the entire Internet, its computers read and record sites on the Internet so that you can search them, so you need to submit your site to the major search engines to make sure it will even appear in search results.

Actually, I misspoke earlier when I said that publishing your site is the first step of SEO. SEO begins with how you design and build your site. Your site needs to be designed in a very clear, logical way to make it easy for search engines to read or "index" your site's pages. Also, your site's content plays a huge role in SEO, both what is seen by users and what is not. How you use relevant keywords about your business in the text, titles, image labels, link labels, programming code, etc. all affects your SEO. You have to be deliberate about these steps, web design services and software will not do this automatically for you.


Links to your site from other websites plays a huge part in SEO because it is an indicator to search engines of the quality and usefulness of your site and information. However, not just any links will do.

The old practice was for companies to spend a lot of time and money getting their site linked on whatever sites they could, including sites that are just collections of links, either for money or an exchange of links. However, the effectiveness of this method has decreased rapidly because of Google's recent search algorithm updates, Panda and Penguin. Google's search results are designed around giving users the highest quality results, so that they remain the most used search engine. These updates to Google's ranking formula greatly devalue low quality sites that attempt to use unethical SEO tactics to trick search engines, while providing no quality content to users. We will discuss good SEO practices in a later section.

Directories & Reviews

Perhaps the most useful SEO tool for small businesses are online directories. This is because they are mostly reputable sites where you can have your business information listed. Read our previous entry: for more information about directories, including the most widely used sites. Since directories are location-based, your listings will also affect your placement in search engine map results and thus your ranking in general search engine results as well. It is important to frequently check and update your information because directories add businesses to their listings from a variety of info sources, so your business may be listed without your knowledge. Also, if your listed information is not consistent and correct (for example, because of an old business name, address, or phone number) it may lead to confusion for users and diminish your SEO strength.

Directories usually allow for reviews and ratings from users, and these too greatly affect your SEO. Having a lot of reviews is a good signal that your business is being frequently used and provides value to users. However, the most trusted sites, and therefore the ones with the biggest SEO impact, all have filters and checks in place to make sure that reviews are coming from real customers to prevent business from artificially inflating their own ratings. There are strategies you can use though to ask your customers for reviews or make it easier for them to review your business.

Bad Practice

We've discussed some examples of bad practices, like getting links on poor-quality sites. Basically, bad SEO is any tactic designed to improve your search results without adding any value to users. Search engines are competing with each other to provide the most useful results, so they will devalue any tactics that allow poor-quality sites to rise in their rankings.

Best Practice

The best practice for SEO is pretty simple, and also is the key to any successful business, provide good products for your customers. Any time and money spent doing SEO for the sole purpose of increasing your ranking, without providing anything useful to consumers, is a waste. You are not building your brand and reputation with your audience, and your efforts will probably be devalued by the search engines anyhow.

By "good products," I don't just mean the goods or services your business provides to customers. I am also including your website, social media (which also factors into SEO), marketing materials, customer service and engagement, etc. Most businesses have a great base product/service, but you can differentiate yourself by supporting your product/service with these tools and strategies. But, SEO is not just any one or two things, great SEO is a holistic approach that goes hand in hand with building your business and your brand. They feed off one another, you use a variety of advertising methods to bring in more customers, which will get you more website visitors, social media followers, online reviews, links to your site, etc., which will increase your Internet presence and help bring in more customers.

If you are just starting out, be aware that SEO is a process and will take some time because you are competing against other companies that already have established online presences. But with a good plan and execution, you can catch up to them, and now is the best time to start because they will continue to grow.