Search engine optimization (SEO) is especially important for every business, but for small businesses it can be a nightmare to keep up with the regular changes to algorithms governing SEO best practices. But no matter how you feel about the ever-changing rules and algorithms of search engines, one thing is certain: If you're serious about your website, SEO should be at the top of your priority list.
"SEO remains a big mystery for many businesses," said Eric Mason, owner of WigDawg Marketing and Communications. "This is only exacerbated by the perception that SEO is a fast-moving target, changing all the time and in unpredictable ways. However, there are core SEO fundamentals that all business owners should consider and invest in that will, over time, yield results while providing a solid base from which to grow."
Kevin Nichols, co-author of "UX for Dummies" (Wiley, 2014), agreed that the erratic, unpredictable nature of SEO changes are partly a misconception. The rules don't change drastically as much as they evolve, he said, and optimizing your website to be easily found and achieve higher search rankings depends more on the quality of your website than adhering to a set of specific guidelines.
Companies and websites that engaged in sneaky "black hat" SEO prior to Google's 2012 Penguin update and the more recent Panda update learned this lesson the hard way when their search rankings plummeted following the updates. Ronn Torossian, CEO and founder of 5WPR and author of "For Immediate Release" (BenBella Books, 2011), noted that the "fast, cheap and great" tactics that once worked, such as keyword stuffing and link farming, will hurt you in today's world of SEO. [Want to improve your search ranking? Make sure you're taking advantage of Google My Business.]
"These adjectives were aligned with SEO pre-2012, but the game has completely changed," Torossian told Business News Daily. "Search engines are in the business of ensuring that the most authoritative, informative, engaged and optimized content the Web has to offer is showcased on the first page of the search engine results. Aligning your business with SEO requires a more sophisticated strategy that has to constantly evolve to meet the changing nature of the search engine algorithm."
Across the board, SEO experts agree that the number one factor that affects your website's rankings is content.
"Having relevant and fresh content on your website will always keep you ahead of the curve," said Max Friedman, founder of Hatchery, an online marketplace and subscription service. "The best way to do this is by setting up a simple blog that you can commit to posting to at least once every couple of weeks. Doing this lets search engines know that not only is your site active, but that you're sharing relevant and useful information with your visitors."
It's important that you're actually setting aside time to regularly update your blog, Friedman said. The more frequently you publish high-quality content, the stronger your search engine ranking will become over time. David Brown, chairman, CEO and president of website builder Web.com, also said that old or improperly tagged content won't do you any favors.
"If your website's content is dated, your pictures are not properly labeled, or if you don't link to relevant sites, there's a good chance your site will be neglected by the search engines," Brown said. "It's [also] important to include the keywords that your customers use to describe the business, rather than having a website that is full of industry jargon."
Finally, a strong social media strategy will always help you drive traffic back to your website, ensuring a further boost to your SEO performance.
"Every [social media] engagement boosts your SEO," Mason said. "Add your site's link to your Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and everywhere else you have an online presence. After you complete this, share [links from] your site on these networks. Since search crawlers get to sites via links, you increase your chance to get discovered faster [by users] while sending social signals to search engines."
"Produce high-level content, backed with facts that your audience engages with and shares with their community," Torossian added. "An organic white-hat link-building strategy, coupled with a high-level social media strategy that's tied into pushing traffic to your site, will ensure a consistent "up and to the right" view of your website's traffic and rankings."
Local search is exactly what it sounds like: people searching for businesses within their immediate location. Research from ReviewTrackers shows that more than one third of all searches (35 percent) are locally geared.
For small businesses, this is especially important, because it means people nearby are interested in potentially making a purchase. And the odds are high that a local searcher will be following through. According to the research, 14 percent of local searchers visit a business immediately. Moreover, 53 percent visit a business related to their search within the next 48 hours.
Crafting a strong SEO strategy that takes local search into account has the potential to make an immediate impact on a small business's bottom line. Due to the urgency of these types of searches, Google prioritizes those businesses with accurate listings, hours and contact information.
"Local searchers aren’t looking for general information. They’re looking for two kids of actionable information," the researchers wrote. "Listing information [like] store hours, phone numbers, busy times, menus, etc. and reputation information – star rating, service, whether a place is one of the 'best' in the area."
By ensuring that this information is on point, businesses can capture a larger share of local searchers, which yield immediate results and offer the opportunity for more converted sales.
Additional reporting by Adam C. Uzialko. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.