Small Business SEO 101: Understanding SEO

By Dan DelMain

Search-Engine-Optimization

Welcome to SEO 101. We’ll define SEO and give you a quick intro to SEO concepts. In a few short minutes, you’ll be on your way to understanding SEO and how it can help you get more leads or sales.

What is SEO?

To define SEO, it’s basically making your website, blog post, or other URL appear higher in search engine results. In simple terms: getting to the top spot in Google (without paying for an ad). If someone says “That’s great for SEO,” they mean it can help push your website or blog post up higher in search results.

Unfortunately, there isn’t one magic bullet to help you get on the first page of Google. If someone says that, they’re lying. But later down in this post we’ll get into different factors that can help improve your SEO. Everything from the quality of your content (short and spammy or lengthy and helpful?) and who links to your site (no one or The New York Times?) affects how high up your site is in search results.

Google’s the most popular search engine, but Bing and Yahoo are also top search engines. Remember Ask Jeeves or AltaVista back in the day? Yep, those were search engines too. There are actually hundreds of them. Here’s the breakdown among the most popular ones:

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Why Is SEO Important for Small Businesses?

Two words: free advertising.

People used to learn about companies from a billboard, flyer, or phonebook. Today, your potential customers are online, so you have to be, too. The good news is that it’s pretty easy, and sometimes it’s even cheaper than traditional marketing. Search engine marketing, for instance, is free! (Other than the ads you see at the top and right of some Google searches, the other results didn’t pay to get there. They just had good content.)

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Besides being cost-effective, SEO matters because even though people can type in www.yourwebsite.com, they usually use a search engine. But the internet is a crowded, competitive place. Making your site as search engine-friendly as possible will help your company rise to the top and be found. For example, let’s say you own a dentist office. If someone with a toothache types “Portland dentist” into Google, she might see Yelp reviews of local dentists, a dentist directory, and even some of your competitors. Improving your SEO will help her find you. Which means more phone calls, emails, and ultimately more business!

SEO 101: How Do Search Engines Work?

When you type something into Google, Google sees it as a question. If you type “Halloween candy,” Google might think you’re wondering, “Where can I buy Halloween candy?” or “What is the best Halloween candy?” So Google gives you results that it thinks are the most relevant and important answers to that question: a link to buy Halloween candy on Amazon or a CBS news article about America’s 10 favorite treats.

SEO Concepts: Crawling & Indexing

But how does Google know what’s relevant and important? This part is kind of Matrix-y. Google and other search engines crawl every page of every website, new and old, noticing text, photos, videos, PDFs...everything. It can take a couple weeks for Google to discover new sites and pages (aka “index” them -- more on this later). If you’ve ever created a new website or blog post, only to Google it immediately and not find it, you’ve seen this happen.

While crawling the internet, search engines also track where sites link to. That helps them determine what’s important. So even if your blog post is better than Wikipedia’s page on the same topic, the Wikipedia post probably has more people linking to it.

SEO Concepts: Different Search Engine Algorithms

Google acts slightly different from Yahoo and Bing (Yahoo uses Bing’s technology). If you search for the same thing in both, you might get different results because they each prioritize different things. Bing, for instance, values high-quality images. Google rewards websites that were created a long time ago and those with many sites linking to them. Bing is slower to find new content, whereas Google indexes new posts quickly.

They each have their own unique search algorithm, which is constantly changing. (If you’ve heard of Google Panda or Penguin, those are algorithms.) Google and Bing each want to give you the very best results for whatever you’re searching for so you keep using their site. Keep reading to learn what else search engines look for.

How Do Search Engines Decide Where to Rank Websites?

Google crawls sites regularly to decide which ones to show in search results. Here are the factors that influence how high up your link is:

  • What’s on your web page

    • Length and quality of text

    • Presence of keywords in text and places like headers, URL, and photo file names

  • How many sites link to you and how important and trusted they are

  • How old your site is (older is better)

  • How many people liked and shared your page on social media

  • How easily the search engine robots can access, understand, and index your content

  • How fast your page loads (as close to one second as possible)

  • How trustworthy your site is as a whole

That’s the simplified version. Google actually looks at more than 100 factors, but those above are the ones to focus on. Climbing one or two spots can make a big difference! The higher you are on the first page, the more clicks you get:

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Why Are Search Results Different for Different People?

You might be wondering why you get different search results on different computers. Maybe you Google your target keyword (again, let’s say “Portland dentist”) at home, and your website is the first result in Google. Yeah! But then you try at the library and your site is #5. What gives?

This is because Google, Yahoo, and Bing incorporate your past online activity in their decision of what to show you. Google keeps track of what you search for and which result you click on to deliver better results. For instance, if you’ve gone to your homepage a lot, the search engines will think, “This person likes this site and finds it helpful. I’m going to put it higher in search results.” If you search for lots of recipes, the next time you Google “cherry vanilla,” Google might give you recipes for cherry vanilla scones or muffins, rather than links to scented candles.

To cancel out this effect, clear your cache, cookies, and history (that link will tell you how). Then you can get a more objective view of how high up your site is in search results.

How To Show Up Higher in Google

That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? How do you get to #1 in Google? Like I said before, it’s not one simple thing but a combination of a bunch of factors. The first step is writing good, solid information that answers a popular question.

Here are some specific things you can do to improve your SEO:

  • Keyword research: Do people search more for “roof maintenance” or “roof repair”? (The latter, it turns out!) Find out and write website text based on what people are looking for.

  • On-page SEO: This is a fancy way of saying “Do certain things to your site so Google likes it.” Update your blog regularly. Keep your URLs fairly short. Make sure titles, headings, and image alt text include your target keywords.

  • Content marketing: This just means writing text on your site or in a blog post that convinces people they need your product. Good copy can go hand-in-hand with online advertising and social media.

  • Content promotion and link building: Reach out to other people -- ideally with websites that get a lot of traffic -- and get them to link to your page.

  • Social media marketing: Promote your page on Facebook, Google+, and other social networks. You might even pay for ads.

  • Analytics: See how people interact with your site and specific pages. Where do they come from? How long do they stay on certain pages? Do they immediately hit the “back” button? Then use that info to tweak your site.

 

Whew. I threw a lot of SEO basics at you, but hopefully now you’re well on your way to understanding SEO concepts. Ready to see how your site measures up against the essential website SEO checklist? Let’s find out what you’re doing wrong and how to fix it. Want to show up in Google search results that include your city name? Learn about local SEO here.

 

If you still have questions, ask ’em below and I promise to reply!

 

Further Reading: Moz’s guide to SEO & SEO Advice and Tips


Dan DelMain has a history of helping businesses realize their potential through online marketing. Before developing DelMain Analytics, Dan DelMain managed the marketing department for an e-commerce company. He left that company to form DelMain Analytics in 2009, where he could share his digital marketing talents with multiple businesses. A graduate of University of San Francisco with a degree in International Business, Dan enjoys being active indoors and outdoors, traveling abroad and playing bagpipes.

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