SEO is not the whole enchilada, it’s just one aspect of your overall inbound marketing strategy. I see a number of our small business clients struggling with the same issues, so here are some basic tips on where to start – let’s consider this your inbound marketing primer. This is some of the same data we go through at a first sit-down with our clients, to give them a big picture before we dive into their site and the specific search engine optimization techniques that might be useful for them. We’re keeping it simple here, so everybody can understand! Here are ten inbound marketing tips starting off with the most basic, most relevant information for your inbound marketing right now (who am I kidding, these may change in a year, but you have to start somewhere).
Inbound Tip #1: Google is the only search engine that really matters.
Why? Data shows that Google search gets more than two-thirds of US search traffic. And Google also pretty much owns mobile search currently, with up to 94% of US mobile users using Google to search with their mobile phones as well. To get the most bang for your buck, you should focus your efforts on looking good to the Googlebot.
For example, ensure that you have both robots.txt and sitemap.xml files that correctly describe your Web site’s structure, these are the files that help the search engines easily spider your Web site. You can verify that these are present and correctly formatted using a free Google Webmaster Tools account.
Inbound Tip #2: SEO is not just about getting on the first page of Google anymore.
Only a few years ago, the way to gauge if your Web site SEO was done well was to see if your Web pages were showing up for certain keywords on the first page of search results (SERPs, meaning” Search Engine Result Pages“). You’d say “see, I showed up on the first page of Google for Vitamix blenders!” And that did mean real traffic to your Web site, as long as your targeted keyword phrases had a lot of local monthly searches.
However, nowadays there is not just one Google SERP for a keyword, there are many: Google formats SERPs differently depending on how it understands the intent of your search. This is because now Google’s algorithms also include the Knowledge Graph (read more about what the Knowledge Graph is and how you can optimize content for the Knowledge Graph), which is no longer just a map of connected Web sites, but also a map of connected terms and concepts. Google now makes decisions about whether your page is relevant to a search for a certain term by checking to see if the page includes other terms that it believes are conceptually related. This is good and bad: good because it offers another way for you to rank (and another bit of motivation to create good content) and bad because the answers Google is providing in some cases can blow content marketing efforts right out of the water.
Nevertheless, your SEO strategy should still include a foundation of some preliminary SEO keyword research to tell you what relevant terms are already being searched for in your area and niche. This SEOmoz post is a good intro to doing basic keyword research, including some back-of-the-envelope calculation of keyword volume.
Inbound Tip#3: Your Web page meta description is that page’s free ad on the Web.
Many small business owners do not realize the importance of their page’s meta description, until we draw out an example SERP on a whiteboard for them and show them how the search engines use this tag: it’s what makes the difference between someone clicking on your page in search results, or going elsewhere. If it’s not written in a legal, enticing way, you’re losing customers! This Feb 2012 Essential Guide to Meta Descriptions has great tips and examples. The WordPress SEO plugin (which I heartily recommend!) gives you a preview of your “rich snippet“, the search engine listing for your page, which includes the meta description, page title and page URL.
Inbound Tip #4: Great testimonials bring customers.
Who do you know? Who says you’re great? We still see many small business Web sites that mimic print brochures: hey, this is [company name], in [city, state]. We make great [widgets]/we’ll do a great job of [x] for you, call us at [phone number]. Of course it’s essential to have this information, but your copy telling customers how great you are is not nearly as convincing as people who’ve used your services and products talking about how great your product or service is – this is called “social proof“. How to use social proof to differentiate your business?
- First, your Web site should have prominently-displayed customer testimonials right on the front page (this Mar 2012 post shows good and bad examples of home pages doing this).
- Second, your business should also have great reviews (especially if yours is a service business!) where people post reviews – Google, Yelp, Yahoo, etc., (this June 2012 post lists six of the best local business review sites your business should consider). If there are negative reviews, do take it personally – use the opportunity to make a personal response that shows you care about your customer, and offer to make it right. Differentiating yourself with excellent customer service is one of the only ways to stand out in a commodified business marketplace.
- Third, it means your business must have a presence in at least some forms of social media. Which brings us to…
Inbound Tip #5: You have to show up to succeed.
I’m right there with you, I don’t want to tweet about what kind of latte I’m having right now, but your business needs to appear on at least some of the major social media sites (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, etc.). Not only because your business brand needs to be visible to your customer demographic, so your brand is top of mind, but also because social media presence is an increasingly important factor in Google’s search ranking algorithms (here’s SEOmoz talking about social media signals in Nov 2012).
But what do I do with a business Facebook page, you say, especially if you don’t want to spend money on Facebook ads or promoted posts? At it’s most basic, post consistently on Facebook (daily, if you can manage it, or even just weekly) with a post that will interest your customers: two or three meaningful sentences about your services, a recent customer story, what wasn’t working and how you fixed it, what they said about your great product, and an enticing picture or video to go with it. That’s it! You don’t need to have an expensive consulting firm do a Facebook campaign for you, or buy software to run Facebook contests for you. Just start with a basic presence, and see what engages your customers, and what feels right to you – what stories they respond to, and how you can start a conversation with them.
Inbound Tip #6: Own your content.
Both users and search engines are looking for useful, original content, not just recycled copy. A prospective client who runs a spa approached me about SEO work, and I noticed they had used stock copy about their products on their Web pages describing their products and services, straight from the manufacturer’s site. This doesn’t please either customers or search engines, and you may lose rankings if Google detects duplicate content like this!
When you’re creating content, think of how you can create useful information that people will want to share with others, and not necessarily information that is just about your product. For example, if you run a composites company, create a page detailing how composites are shaping the future of the automotive industry, with good pictures and detailed examples. And don’t forget that, if you create good content, you also need to promote it so people will find it! Social media is very useful for amplifying your content outreach efforts.
Inbound Tip #7: Keyword-stuffing stopped working a long time ago.
I can’t believe this still surfaces, but it does: people used to use the meta keywords tag and stuff it with whatever keyword they wanted to target. Google has been wise to this for a long time now, so the meta keywords tag is pretty much useless. If anything, we tend to use this tag as a note for the keyword phrases we’re targeting in the page elements:
- page name (for example toasters.html)
- page title tag
- page meta description
- page H1 and H2 headings
- page body cop
- italicized and bolded text
- alt tag text for images
These are all the places where you need to be using your targeted keyword phrases, not the meta keywords tag. If your Web pages still use keyword stuffing using the meta keywords tag or spammy repetition of keywords on your pages, Google will penalize you in search results. And when you’re writing your Web page copy, don’t obsess about keyword density calculations, just write natural copy that flows, the rest will take care of itself.
Inbound Tip #8: Don’t forget the essentials.
Currently, many small and medium-size Web sites use WordPress. With WordPress, the built-in SEO features are not as good as they could be yet – we like the Genesis framework for WordPress and its built-in SEO features, and the WordPress SEO plug-in is another good choice. Whatever tool you use, start paying attention to on-page optimization for your WordPress blog posts – as well as writing engaging, valuable content, ensure that each new blog post has:
- a search engine-friendly meta description
- a unique page title
- keyword-optimized page elements (like those mentioned in tip #7).
- ensure your blog post title permalink is in a search-engine-friendly format (no odd number/letter URL combinations)
- use alt tags for any post images, including targeted keyword phrases when you’re describing the images.
Inbound Tip #9: Test, test and test again.
It’s hard to say what tactics will work for you until you try them. Whether you’re looking at your Web page copy and headlines, your Calls-to-Action (CTAs), the specifics of your offer, or even positioning of elements on your Web pages, you should test your assumptions. Try basic split-testing for your sales pages using tools like:
- Google Content Experiments
- Visual Website Optimizer
If you are active on social media, schedule a few hours each month to review and analyze your analytics data (for example, with Facebook, your admin panel shows you likes, reach and discussion activity for your Facebook page (and Facebook Insights if you’re running Facebook ads); for YouTube, video analytics data is available showing many details about where and how your videos are being viewed, by location and type of device).
Inbound Tip #10: Start simple.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of work (and social media venues) involved in comprehensive on- and off-page search optimization. Try not to stress about it too much, thinking that you have to get every page optimized and be present on every social media outlet – good SEO takes time: time for you to learn about all the different tactics and which particular ones work for your product/business, and which tools you have the time to work into your routine.
For good SEO to be a part of your inbound marketing strategy that is both helpful and sustainable, you’ll need to work out ways to do the things you find most effective frequently, so don’t fall into the trap of trying to do a blitz of a few months and then wind up burned out. The key is to start with some efforts, not expecting to get instant results, but to gather data on what works, then chip out the time to do those things over and over. That’s how you can succeed with inbound marketing for your business in the long term.