In a survey of small businesses last November by MerchantCircle, the 2,555 respondents overwhelmingly chose search engine marketing as the one channel they would use if they were to put all of their marketing dollars in to one basket. Search engine marketing was selected by 32.9% of the small business owners. Other choices were traditional (19.7%), social media (16%), paid search (9.8%), mobile (3.7%) and none of these (17.9%). The results are surprising, because search engine marketing (SEM) is not something small business owners take to like ducks to water.
SEM involves making websites more visible to search engines, and it’s not your typical marketing guy or chick who loves doing that—it’s become a multi-million dollar industry. SEM’s close cousin, search engine optimization (SEO), is also quite technical. It involves writing and re-writing your website’s content to improve its standing in Google and Bing searches, which use algorithms for ranking search results. Search Engine Watch says that one reason small businesses distrust SEO is that the rules keep changing.
Internet marketing gurus say that it’s worth spending time and money to make yourself familiar with the basics of SEO. Even though you’ll likely want to hire an SEO professional to give you some guidance, here are a few tips:
- SEO starts with your website. The underlying technical code of your website is critical to getting “found” in searches. The website needs to be thought through before launch to really maximize its SEO potential. If you already have a website call in an SEO specialist and have them evaluate your entire site to ensure your site is redirecting properly and you have a sitemap.xml file.
- Your website needs high-quality content. That means content that will show up in response to specific keyword and phrase searches, and content that matters to your intended audience. Many small business owners have little interest in writing a blog, or time for that matter. Instead have a Q&A corner on your site. This is an easy way to reuse answers you’ve sent to customers who have emailed questions about your products or services. Ed Shea of LeadsLander.com creates “lander pages” using just that sort of content. You may think of it as an old email, but it qualifies as high-quality content once you put it on your website. “Suppose a customer emailed asking how to use your company’s cleaning product to remove coffee stains from a rug,” he explains on his website. “Your reply probably contains the keywords ‘coffee stain’ and ‘rug’ more often than any page in your main web site. Thus the Lander Web Page will rank higher than your main web site for ‘coffee stain rug’ and similar searches.”
- Photos give you another SEO opportunity. If you have an e-commerce site, don’t miss the opportunity to optimize the product photos by writing captions. Even if your website’s purpose is primarily as a billboard for your company, add a few photos with captions to improve the site’s search engine results.
- Set up Google Places. This does for local search what a Yellow Pages ad used to do. You get a free listing simply by claiming your business on Google Places. But to maximize its SEO effectiveness, you need to do more than just claim it. OMA Marketing has a good post on this topic. Among other advice, the post says to use smart keywords but don’t overdo it, and to get customer reviews to “give your business credibility.”
Even if you don’t actually meet with customers face-to-face, or want them to come to your place of business, it is still is SEO wise to have a Google Places listing, but you must hide your address, according to the Google Places Quality Guidelines. “You must select the ‘Do not show my business address on my Maps listing’ option within your dashboard.”
- Use “long tail” keywords. Most computer searches start with one or two words. Then, if the results do not satisfy the searcher, he or she will add more words (“low cost” or “how to” or “luxury”), creating a long tail keyword. You will attract higher-quality traffic with these more specific keywords (“housewarming gifts young mother” or “Cape Cod restaurant raw bar”). Look at your Analytics page to see what phrases people are using. When you make up or identify good phrases for long tail keywords, create additional website pages, such as a blog post, a Q&A reply, or a page of product specs that use these keywords. For more on this topic, an article by Patrick Hare goes into detail.
- Use free tools. Wordtracker and Google Adwords Keyword Tool are two tools to use in order to start researching how many people search for a given phrase. For your long tail keywords you are looking for lesser-used phrases because of the high level of competition for common-used phrases.
All of your main competitors are using SEM and SEO as part of their overall marketing strategy. If you continue to operate your business the way you did five years ago, you are not getting the most out of the worldwide or hyper local internet marketplace.
Further Reading: Long Tail Terms in SEO and PPC
 Merchant Confidence Index