hands on keyboard with image of a search bar
Mastering SEO might take some time and effort, but boosting your search ranking means more views to your website and more potential customers. — Getty Images/Urupong

SEO: it’s one of those acronyms that you may have heard, but aren’t totally sure what it is or how it pertains to your business. Perhaps you have a basic idea of what SEO is, but are too busy to learn the intricacies of working with Google’s algorithms.

Most small business owners ignore SEO in favor of prioritizing other marketing tools. Merchants who do master the fundamentals of SEO, however, see benefits in growing their customer base and becoming more visible online. Read on for the basics of what SEO is and how to create your own SEO strategy.

What is SEO?

SEO stands for search engine optimization. This is the process of making your website “rank,” or appear higher in search results, for specific keywords in order to bring more traffic to your website.

A keyword is a word or short phrase that a search engine uses to figure out what your website is all about. “When you perform a search, Google looks for pages that contain keywords relevant to your search. This doesn’t always mean it’ll return results that contain the exact phrase you search for — Google is smart enough to return results that match the intent of your search, if relevant,” explains one SEO marketing expert.

SEO is a different beast from SEM, or search engine marketing. SEO is a must-have for businesses of all sizes: it’s free, and can drive more customers to your website or physical location. While SEM requires buying certain keywords, SEO is all about being thoughtful about the content you offer on the internet. Social media, listing your location on Google Maps, and linking to your site on forums like Quora and Reddit all help your SEO ranking.

[Read more: Understanding PPC Advertising and What It Can Do for Your Business]

In order to master SEO, it’s important to understand the basics of how search engines work.

How do search engines work?

Most good SEO strategies focus on Google. However, some of these tips might be slightly different if you’re working with Bing or an overseas platform like Baidu.

There are three primary functions that a search engine is built to carry out:

  • Crawling, which means searching the internet and reading the codes and content of each webpage (URL).
  • Indexing, where the search engine organizes content found during the crawling process. When a page has been indexed, it can be displayed in response to a search query.
  • Ranking, which is delivering the best possible result to answer a search query in the order of most relevant to least relevant.

There are more than 200 factors that Google’s algorithms use in the crawl phase to index and rank a webpage. Broadly speaking, the algorithms look for relevance, quality of content, and the “usability” of a webpage, i.e., how fast a page loads. It’s these three factors that you must master in order to begin optimizing for SEO results.

Creating great content that Google search will rank highly is all about knowing your customer.

Content, keywords and relevance for SEO

One way to boost your website ranking is by focusing on the relevance and content factors that Google’s algorithms search for in the indexing and ranking phases.

[Read: 5 Best Ways to Grow Your Business with Content Marketing]

This area is where small business owners can really shine. Creating great content that Google search will rank highly is all about knowing your customer. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are your customers looking for when they come into your store?
  • What problem does your product or service solve for a consumer?
  • What questions do your community members ask you all the time?

Answers to these questions can be used to create content on your webpage. Try setting up a blog, including an FAQ page or offering an e-book through a link on your website. Keep your website updated regularly with news about sales, new products, opening hours and more.

The use of certain keywords in the content you create factors into your search ranking. Think about the kind of language your customers use when searching for your business. For example, a customer might search for “how to grow tomatoes” instead of “gardening store with tomato seeds.” A gardening store that offers a blog post on how to grow tomatoes, with tips and links back to the store’s location, hours or e-commerce page will rank highly. That customer is also likely going to spend time reading and exploring that webpage, thereby causing the search engine algorithm to improve its ranking. Use keywords that you think your customers will search for throughout your website to encourage the search engine to index and rank your page correctly.

The mechanics of SEO

Hiring a professional or agency to handle the more technical aspects of SEO — such as the coding that goes into optimizing your webpage — might offer insight and ease when first starting out. Things like header tags, backlinks, optimizing page speed and making your page mobile-friendly can be accomplished with enough research and time, but are likely best left to the experts.

Most SEO agencies or experts charge a monthly retainer fee. It varies how much an SEO partnership will run you, but it shouldn’t be higher than $5,000 per month. Check out this guide to SEO pricing from the experts at Ahrefs for more information.

Small business SEO wins

Not sure where to get started? Here are some SEO wins that nearly every small business can achieve.

Keep an eye on your website traffic to see how SEO can improve your ranking and help your small business grow. Over time, with a little patience, you should see some significant results.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

CO—is committed to helping you start, run and grow your small business. Learn more about the benefits of small business membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, here.

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