Recently, The Manifest conducted a survey of 500 small businesses to find out how they manage SEO. The results were surprising. Despite the fact that SEO can bring more than 20x the traffic as PPC, only 36% of businesses have an SEO strategy.
Nearly two thirds of small businesses out there are just hoping for the best when it comes to online searches. That presents a couple of opportunities—one, because so many companies don’t seem to think about SEO, that means that there are probably some easy wins out there. Two, if your company is not doing SEO, then maybe there’s an easy win for you too.
It’s important to recognize that SEO is a long-term strategy. Many optimizations can be performed quickly, but improving the user experience through valuable content takes time and effort. Especially if you’re new to the game, or you find yourself behind a strong competitor. Google’s job is to answer the searcher’s question, you as the SEO are just trying to make it clear to the search engine that your site is the best answer. Easiest way to do that? Provide good answers. Quality, timely, relevant, interesting content will win every time.
It’s important to recognize that SEO Is a long term strategy.
Great content needs to be the cornerstone of your SEO strategy. SEO without content is not going to provide the sort of return that a business is hoping for. Some good examples of content include blog posts, infographics, videos, podcasts, how-to guides, and so on. If your site has lots of text, but it’s not useful to anyone, it will not help your SEO at all.
Of the companies that have an SEO strategy, more than 80% of them report they are confident in that strategy. The most common activity businesses report to strengthen their SEO is Social Media Marketing, despite the fact that social media has shown to have no direct impact on search rankings. It can help companies build their brand, and even drive leads and sales, but it is not really an SEO strategy.
All too often, we see an SEO strategy that is nothing more than “I want to rank for these 10 terms.” Part of that is the industry’s fault—many SEO’s sell a monthly plan that focuses on a specific list of terms, and companies may take that as the norm. A good marketing strategy needs to include a target market, clear goals, budget, and metrics.
For many companies, at first this seems obvious. “I’m an HVAC company, I sell to homeowners.” Homeowners is pretty big and wildly diverse category, your strategy needs more refinement. Geography, income, education level and so on will all affect what someone searches for online, (what is called Searcher Intent) so you need to consider these types of factors.
- Different target markets use different search terms, use that to inform your SEO strategy
Remember, goals should always follow SMART. Beyond simply “first page SERP for these terms”, we should really focus on how that affects our company. Branding is valuable, but increasing leads is most likely the goal you should be focused on. “Increase organic leads by 25%” or something similar could get you started.
Marketing budgets are a sensitive issue. How much should a company spend on marketing? The Small Business Administration recommends that companies spend 7-8% of their gross revenue for marketing. That number should make up the entire marketing budget for the firm, with some percentage of that devoted to digital. We typically recommend about half for digital, including SEO. If our HVAC company is bringing in $2 million per year, they should earmark about $160,000 per year for marketing, and $60-$80,000 for digital, which is around $5-$6k per month. Sometimes, companies are reluctant to invest because they are not sure they will see a return. That brings us to our next point, metrics.
With SEO, there are so many things to measure that it’s easy to get focused on the wrong things—the reason for SEO is to increase sales, so our metrics should be revenue driven. That’s a lot simpler to measure if your company sells online. If you don’t sell online, you will need to find a way to track when a lead from your site converts into a customer offline.
SEO Best Practices in 2019
As we meet with business owners, many seem comfortable talking about SEO, and confident they know what they are doing. It quickly becomes clear, however, that many don’t understand as much as they think they do. SEO is not complicated, there is a proven formula that works. You need great content, an intuitive user experience, some backlinks, and a site that is technically sound. Content and User Experience are two of the most important factors. Do searchers find what they are looking for on your site? Do they find your site useful, as demonstrated by how long they stay on a page? A major mistake when doing SEO is to write for Google, instead of writing for your audience.
Technical factors are a separate issue. I’m no longer surprised when I find a company “doing their on SEO”, and when we do a technical analysis of their site, it fails on some of the most basic measures. Some of the technical factors of SEO include:
- Mobile Friendly: Google announced years ago that this would become a ranking factor, but more importantly, half of internet traffic is mobile. It makes no sense at all to alienate half of your audience.
- Load Speed: If you haven’t yet checked your site speed, go to https://developers.google.com/speed/pagespeed/insights/ and put in your address. Google provides recommendations for how to improve your speed from there. Another great resource is https://gtmetrix.com/ , they also provide an in-depth look at your load speed.
- Site structure and Navigation: Remember that search engines are computers, and they do best when the program is clear. Natural language processing has helped a lot, but Google is still just a software program. For SEO, your site should be laid out in such a way as to make it clear what is most important, and how to move around the site.
Small Businesses often benefit most from Local SEO Optimization, because the biggest ranking factor is location. Local Search Optimization is focused on showing up in the 3 Pack, or map results. About half of the clicks from the SERP go to the 3 pack, so it’s worth investing some effort to get there. This graphic from Moz is a good illustration.
In order to optimize for local SEO, businesses need to make it clear to search engines what their location is. Directories are built specifically for this purpose—they help customers find businesses. Search engines use those same directories to verify the location of businesses. The industry name for directory entries is “citations”. The most important entry here is your Google My Business page. Claiming it is free, and it’s one of the biggest moves you can make to optimize your local SEO. Google uses your GMB profile to physically verify your address, once they’ve done that, then your business is officially on the map.
The survey found that 54% of the companies who are actively conducting SEO rely on an in-house staff for some or all of the work. In house staff can easily perform many of the functions of an SEO, but there is a pretty big tradeoff there. The biggest is that in-house help is often not as proficient as an agency at some of the technical aspects of SEO, particularly the off-site optimizations. Hiring a marketing agency means you get a team of professionals who are fully immersed in digital marketing, usually at a far lower cost than taking on an employee.
So, where does in house help shine? Content creation! No one knows your business better than you and your team do. Content marketing strategies require lots of content, and this is where employees are best used. When an agency creates content, they typically need to use several interviews with the company personnel, conduct hours of online research, and go through several rewrites until the client is happy with the result. In house staff has a depth of knowledge that allows them to skip most of the research. They also have a good gauge of what questions customers ask, and they can really tailor content towards that goal.
What about Social Media? Though maybe not technically SEO, social media is another area where an in-house staff can succeed, often times, however, they do not understand some of the basic principles of social media marketing. Responding to questions, keeping the account current, and getting to know the audience are areas where an in-house staff can be invaluable.
- In-House staff can be invaluable in creating content and interacting on Social Media
Often times, when companies are doing their own SEO, they tag a team member with additional duties, like writing the blog or managing social media. This was like a shipping manager at a company we worked with—he was capable and qualified, just far too busy shipping products to really manage the social media for the company. Business owners who plan to write their own blogs often fall into the same trap. College education aside, most find they do not have the time it takes to really produce quality content. As we say in the industry, the road to page 5 SERPs is paved with good intentions.
Digital Marketing Agencies use SEO Best Practices
A major finding of the survey was that companies that employ a digital marketing agency use more of the SEO best practices than those companies who choose to go it alone. While each business is unique, a good strategy should always include at a minimum content marketing and on-site optimization. The companies in the survey that did their own SEO were less likely to engage in both of these tactics.
While the survey didn’t ask why companies made the decisions they did, it seems likely that on-site optimization could have been too technical for in-house teams to do effectively. Without a strong background knowledge and access to industry tools like SEMrush or AHREFs, managing on-site optimization can be a difficult task. An agency will not only use those tools, but will have a team of personnel to review and update changes, implement strategies, and follow a proven system.
- Good SEO strategy needs to include content creation as well as site optimization
So, why don’t businesses all run their own content strategies? It’s difficult to say for sure, but it seems likely that companies either don’t understand how content can help, or don’t devote the resources necessary to make it happen. We find this is one of the biggest benefits of working with digital marketing agencies in Utah, they are able to not only develop a plan, but they will execute and implement a full spectrum of tactics to build your presence online.
Companies who hire an agency are more likely to use other services to build their pipeline.
A final surprising finding from the survey is that companies that work with a digital marketing agency are much more likely to use other digital marketing tactics to generate leads. Pay Per Click advertising in particular was mentioned here. While PPC on its own will not improve your SEO, it provides a number of benefits to the SEO strategist. With a quick response, PPC allows you to test content, dial in your keywords, and fill your marketing funnel. Changes to your site can take a week or more to show up in the SERP, but PPC can show data within a few hours. That immediate response is what makes PPC such a valuable tool for SEO. Agencies understand this, and the data shows that their customers do too.
SEO is a full spectrum operation, involving content, technical details, and both on and off-site optimizations. Companies that aren’t tapping into this market will increasingly find themselves losing out to those who are.