Search engine optimization (SEO) probably seems like a super technical trade to those with little experience building a website. Over the past decade, small business owners have learned that having a website is vital to getting new customers.
With the massive amount of new small business sites, search engine results pages are overcrowded. When a potential customer searches for your brand name, a product or service you offer, and location keywords (such as “pizza in Philadelphia”) you might wonder why your website doesn’t show up.
In a nutshell, SEO is making sure your website shows up for the right reasons—a housekeeping endeavor that’s very simple to learn.
- People will find your website in 3 possible ways: directly (manually entering the address), by referral (another website links to your website) or organically (by searching for words related to your business, i.e. keywords).
- Search engines send out digital “spiders” to crawl websites and determine what each page is about. It’s kind of like an ongoing audition.
- A fundamental part of SEO is simply asking yourself, “What do my customers search for? What do they want and what do they need help with?”
If SEO sounds like more than you signed up for, don’t panic. I’ll explain the core elements in a clear and concise manner by focusing on seven of the most common SEO mistakes and offering simple solutions.
1. Your website is not”crawlable”
Crawling is the term used to describe how search engine robots systematically read through data on the internet, such as HTML pages and links—the guts of your website.
The pages on your website need to link to each other so search engine spiders can crawl from one page to the next. Try to make every page on your site no more than three clicks away from your homepage. Pages not linked internally to other pages on your site will never be shown in a search engine.
As a small business owner, you can learn a lot by looking at other businesses in similar situations. Let’s take a look at family-owned small business, Country Lane Furniture, as an example of how to avoid these common SEO mistakes.
Here’s a visual example for effectively categorizing pages to make them crawlable:
You can see how we go from the homepage to their bedroom category and finally to their bedroom sets category. This helps search engines organize your site and return the correct pages when someone searches for a specific search term like “bedroom sets.”
2. You have not optimized pages for relevant keywords
Research the way people talk about your products. Find several main “keywords”—or short phrases—to use throughout your pages. Finding these keywords can be a long-winded task, but fortunately you can speed up the process of choosing keywords by using Google’s Keyword Planner.
The most important keywords should appear in your URL and a few times on the page. Don’t overdo it, however: Keywords should make sense and be in context.
The page above clearly tells visitors and search engine robots that this page is about custom furniture design. Every style is clearly explained and the entire design process is laid out for visitors to read through.
3. You have not used relevant anchor text for internal links
For your internal links, make your anchor text relevant to the pages they lead between. Try to use important keywords or phrases of no more than three words. Anchor text can make a big difference on your site, so use it thoughtfully.
In our first example we looked at navigation from the homepage into product pages. All of those pages are linked back to their parent with a relevant keyword.
It’s simple categorization. If you sell pizza, visitors should be able to click through to page about pepperoni pizza or hawaiian pizza. On those specific pizza pages, they should just as easily be able to click back to your main pizza page.
4. Meta descriptions and title tags are either blank or poorly written
A title tag is the page title that will appear in search results. Keep it under 60 characters and be sure to include the subject of your page and your most relevant keywords. Sometimes these will be changed by search engines to match what searchers type in.
Let’s say we run a search for “the best pizza in america”. This will naturally result in a site that publishes content, as opposed to a store, because the search term and the title are commonly used in articles.
You get to write the preview information that appears in search engine results pages as well. They are synopses for your pages, also known as “meta descriptions“. This gives you an opportunity to use a mix of slogans and keywords to grab the attention of searchers. It also helps tell search engines more about the content of your page. Keep your descriptions clear, simple and under 160 characters long.
In the example above, the meta description is pretty catchy, but it could be better. We ran a search for “best pizza in America” and this meta description includes “pizza” and “best” but not “America.” It also runs over 160 characters, so an ellipsis is displayed, cutting off part of the sentence. Fortunately, the title tag is spot on. It matches our search term exactly.
When creating pages on your website, always remember to use keywords that appeal to both search engine crawlers and humans in your title tags and meta descriptions. This will have a large impact on the amount of your organic traffic—the visitors that come to your site after entering terms into a search engine.
5. You are not using Google Analytics or Google Webmaster Tools
Google Analytics is a free way to measure the results of your website. Find out how many visitors you have and exactly what they click on and where they spent their time. You can even see where they came from, so you can change the way you target your advertising.
Analytics has many self-explanatory features, but it’s extremely robust. There are many tutorials available teaching how to customize reporting and dashboards. So if you specifically want to get emailed with reports about how many people visit your site from a mobile device, you can do that. It’s also completely free.
Google Webmaster Tools is another free service designed to help Google find and index your site. It’s a must-have for any webmaster and offers valuable insights, such as pages that return errors, the keywords people use to find your site, and manual penalties that negatively affect your search engine ranking.
6. Product pages are not descriptive enough
If you’re selling products online, remember that a picture isn’t worth a thousand words to a search engine. You need to provide text for every product you sell, including keywords. If possible, write at least 250 words for each product that you sell. If you’re having trouble getting started, think about what the product does, how it looks, who it’s for, and when people would need it.
In our example website, notice that the owner avoids using vague descriptions like “Bedroom Setting #1.” Instead, they clearly define each set with a unique name. This helps search engines return these exact products. So a search for “Mission Style Bedroom Setting” would return that product page.
Linking pages together with proper keywords may seem like a simple task, but it’s often overlooked and can poorly impact your website without substantial descriptions and research. Imagine if I walked into a physical store—such as a local pizza shop—and all the menus are located in the bathroom, which is permanently locked. This is essentially what’s happening when your website lacks a hierarchy of internal links and potential customers can’t find or navigate to a product page.
Navigation and category bars can exist on every page, which allows visitors to be fully linked to the rest of your site. Category bars are an effective way to build your hierarchy. You start at the highest category level, such as “pizza”, and then narrow in on more specific items, such as “pepperoni,” “Hawaiian,” or “meat lovers.”
After establishing this hierarchy of links, we must ensure our actual product pages are optimized with keywords. Just like with our title tags and meta descriptions, our pepperoni pizza page should have a title that includes “pepperoni pizza” and a description that explains ingredients, taste, price, and size.
You know your products or services better than anyone, which means you know the best way to describe products to interested customers. Essentially, you’re recreating your in-store experience online, but making sure to keep everything neatly categorized (internal links) and thoroughly explained (product descriptions).
7. You do not understand the importance of links, social signals, and brand mentions
When other websites link to yours, they give you some of their credibility with search engines. It’s basically a popularity contest. If a more popular or authoritative site links to you, it tells search engines that you’ve got great content as well. In turn, this helps increase your ranking in search result pages and helps search robots determine which pages carry more authority.
Social signals and brand mentions, such as tweets, Google +1s, and Facebook Likes, are known to have some additional weight in the popularity contest. Having your site or pictures of your products shared is excellent, and it also contributes to building up your online brand presence. This is where content marketing and social media marketing comes into play. These are not critical areas to focus your attention and budget on right off the bat, but after taking care of the previous SEO fundamentals, these are the areas that will help you grow online.
Grasping the fundamentals of SEO can be overwhelming for small business owners, especially those with little experience as a webmaster. Different industries will require a different approach to thinking about SEO. For example, ecommerce websites will heavily focus on product keywords and product page descriptions, while a B2B organization will invest more resources on a primary set of keywords normally including their surrounding locations. What are some areas of concern for you as a small business owner? Do you understand the role of SEO in developing a stronger web presence?