The acronym SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation, and—besides your specific area of expertise—it is possibly the most important concept for today’s small business owner to understand. “Search Engine Optimisation or SEO is the act of getting website pages to rank high in search engine result pages (SERPs) for targeted keywords,” defines Aaron Agius of Louder Online in Sydney. Whether your clients find your business on the internet depends on how well you have managed your SEO—or whether you have managed it at all.
If your business is online—and in this day and age it should be—it’s time to get familiar with the way search engines work. When we talk about search engines we’re really just talking about Google. While there are other internet search providers—such as Bing and Yahoo—they are still marginal compared to Google. What follows, then, is a short introduction to the internet as Google sees it, and as it wants you to see it.
According to Aaron, SEO can be divided into two broad categories, On-Page SEO and Off-Page SEO. Simply put, On-Page SEO is everything you do on your website. Off-Page SEO refers to any activity that links back to your website from others sites on the internet. To be successful in the internet search game, you must address both aspects of SEO. Fortunately, it isn’t too hard for an average small business owner to do. All you really need is to know the rules of the game, draw up a plan and be prepared to spend a few hours each week to optimise your website.
“The million dollar question and the one I get asked the most from clients,” confesses Aaron, “is ‘how do we get the number one ranking on Google?’ The answer to this question is the real mystery of SEO.”
Rising in search engine results—On-Page SEO
1. What are your clients searching for?
Building a website that gets steady traffic—and brings you a good return on your investment (ROI)—starts with finding out what your clients want and which search terms they use when looking online for your product or service.
2. Does your website address match their search?
Once you know what your potential clients are looking for, you would—in an ideal situation—include their main search term in the address of your website (URL). For instance, if you’re selling hand bags to the Australian market, you might name your website handbagsaustralia.com.au. This would give you a running start ahead of businesses that also sell handbags Australia-wide but that do not have the word ‘handbags’ in their website address.
Obviously, if you already have an established business and brand name—and matching URL—it might not be feasible to start all over again just so you can include your main search term in your URL. Not to worry though, because the fact that your website is already established is already working for you—and coming up with a suitable URL is only the second step in making your website a visitor magnet. However, if you are just starting, it’s definitely worth thinking about your URL at this stage, before you go any further.
3. The title of your page matters—a lot!
If you’re familiar with HTML, you will know that your website consists of two areas: the head and the body. In the head, you will put all the content that, in most cases, is not directly visible on your public website. No longer are ‘keywords’ in the head area of your HTML considered important for SEO, however there are tags that are important.
One of the most important tags is the ‘title’ tag. This is the title of your page located in the head section of your website, and it is the only tag that a visitor to your website sees without looking at your website HTML (or code). This title is visible at the top of your browser window or on your browser page tab, and it will also show as the title of your page in Google search results. The title tag has a direct effect on your search results and is something that you should consider carefully.
The optimal format for a title tag is ‘Primary Keyword, Secondary Keyword, Brand Name.’ These can be divided by commas, dashes or a pipe, or not at all, but remember that your title should be understood when people read it in search results. As to the character count, Google has reduced the number of characters visible in search results since the beginning of 2014 and the current optimal title length is 48–62 characters. Not a whole lot, but enough to describe your page content, in most cases.
4. The core of the matter—the body
On the visible side of the website, the body, there are three main things that you can do to make your site attractive to visitors and search engines alike. Number one is your content. Remember that you are writing to fellow human beings. Google shuns websites it considers written by machines. While you should feature your keyword(s) prominently in the content of your pages, don’t go overboard. Don’t be afraid to use pronouns where the text calls for them. Make it a pleasure to read your text.
Number two is the length of your content. In today’s ‘content is king’ crowded online marketplace, Google favours long content. The average word count for a page in the top 10 results of a Google search is 2,000 words. The higher the page ranks, the longer the content that is found on it. This predilection by Google is one reason blogs are so popular today.
Number three is the use of images on your site. Again, Google deems websites with on-page images more relevant than pages with no imagery. Your images don’t need to be photographs alone. They can also be infographics and illustrations, and what is essential is that you add ‘title’ tags—and ‘alt’ tags for accessibility—to your images.
5. Location, location, location
As well as the body inclusions on your website, Google does—of course—like to know exactly where your business is located. Apart from ensuring you have a Google+ Page and have listed and verified your business address on Google Maps, make sure you include a contact page with your business address and contact details—as well as an easy to complete contact form for visitors to your site. If you want to be extra thorough, also include your address information in the footer of your website on every page for Google to easily match your business to your other online presence.
6. Be active—update your site regularly
Google loves fresh content and will rank websites that have ‘living, breathing’ content over those that are stagnant or forgotten.
7. Google owns YouTube—enough said!
As difficult as it might sound to the more diffident among us, video is where it’s at. You need to get on YouTube—now! Google owns YouTube and if you have video content on YouTube, Google will really, really love you—and reward you for it by showing your video—and subsequently your website—higher in search results.
You can start with a simple 1–2 minute video introducing yourself and your business, and hire a professional videographer to help you achieve the right look and feel for your videos. Write your script before hand and practice it at home to your partner or friends, or even practice with your business mentor to ensure you get it right when filming time comes.
You also don’t need to personally appear on your videos if you find it awkward or uncomfortable. You can ease into this with other types of video, such as screencasts or image slideshows.
The linking showdown—Off-Page SEO
Off-Page SEO can be summarised with one word: links. “Search engines look for signals to help determine what content is the most relevant for search results,” says Aaron. “Just because you have the best content for a specific keyword doesn’t mean you will hold the number one ranking.”
To get to the coveted number one spot, or anywhere near the top, you need links directing online traffic back to your website. These are called ‘backlinks’. There are two methods of acquiring backlinks. One is harder than the other but both require work.
1. Killer content equals links
Creating killer content can attract heaps and heaps of clicks, and finally links to your website. The more established the websites that are linking back to your website, the better for your SEO. Backlinking farms, which were very popular even five years ago, are no longer viable or effective—plus Google has banned backlinking farms and harshly penalises this type of online activity. So, be careful not to opt in to anything you do not understand and ask your web developer before answering any emails that look like they are offering you backlinks to your site.
2. Get social like never before
The second way to increase links back to your website is by being active on social media, and making yourself known there. The more tweets from Twitter that link back to your website, the higher you rank. The more shares your website link gets on Facebook, the better Google feels about it. Facebook likes are nice—for building online credibility and popularity—but shares are what count for SEO. Get active on the social media platforms that are relevant for your business and think clearly about what you want to achieve by being on them. Considered activity, posting and content on your social media will do much better to be shared and reach potential customers, than haphazard, irrelevant or ‘spam’ posting.
Times have changed in the SEO world from the early wild days—and some would say for the better. Gimmicks don’t work anymore. Whereas it used to be popular to use backlinking farms to direct traffic back to your website and enjoy a higher ranking, this—and other tricks—are useless nowadays. “What does work when it comes to SEO is identifying the keywords your target customer is searching for, creating the best content you can for those keywords and then marketing that content to build natural signals like links and social media sharing,” summarises Aaron.
Whichever way you look at it, search engine optimisation requires steady, long-term effort. You can either put in the hours yourself or hire an SEO expert to do this for you. Whichever way you choose to go, remember that your website content, and your social media activity alike, should be relevant to what your customers want and what they search for online. At the end of the day, ranking first on Google will get you found, but you still have to engage and convert visitors into paying clients once they reach your website.