Search engines are powerful tools for bringing customers to your business. The challenge that many entrepreneurs face, however, is that they’re not well-versed in how to communicate with the robots that control the algorithm behind Google and Bing.
Your business might be the absolute best at what it does. But you need to follow a set of concrete steps to share your story and reach your target audiences as a result. Fellow entrepreneurs and search engine experts share their best tips:
Know the difference between search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine Optimization (SEO)
Jeffrey Bumbales, marketing associate at small business loans company Credibly, explains that it’s important for entrepreneurs to understand the subtle differences between the two. Here’s how he describes the difference:
- SEO is the practice of testing and improving digital content to organically make your website more visible in search engine results pages (SERPs)
- SEM includes the umbrella of paid marketing campaigns — marketers within companies can bid to rank for keywords that their target audiences are searching for. Marketers pay for these advertising placements on a pay-per-click (PPC) basis
This subtle distinction will help marketers and business owners best identify where to focus and dedicate their time.
“The biggest pitfall that small business owners experience is a misunderstanding of what SEO and SEM is,” says Bumbales. “This results in an inability to identify where the right customers are and how to best relate to them.”
If your business is competing with bigger companies — and bigger marketing budgets — SEM may be out of your company’s reach. Or, at the very least, you’ll need to prioritize how you allocate investments towards paid and organic campaigns.
Regardless of where you invest your marketing time — with SEO or SEM — here are the steps that you’ll need to take to get seen by search engines.
Focus on local SEO
Small businesses in Africa, especially, should focus on local SEO. Gregory Golinski, SEO executive for YourParkingSpace.co.uk shares the following tips for capturing local audiences across Africa:
- Set up your Google My Business profile, and register your company on local, high-authority business directories. “It’s good SEO practice to make sure that your company name, address, url, phone number etc. are consistent everywhere on the web. Many businesses lose SEO juice because they register their businesses under slightly different names, or inconsistent phone numbers.”
- Choose domain URL extensions that reflect your target market. “If your focus is the Kenyan market, you should choose an .co.ke extension, as people tend to trust websites using their country’s extension vs. websites that use a more generic audience like .com or .net.”
- Create social media profiles for your business from the start. “Search engines monitor brands’ social media activity carefully. If they see that your Facebook page is active, with customers interacting with your company, they’ll help you rank higher.”
“The main pitfall is to create a website that doesn’t feel local,” says Golinski. “If you’re creating a website for Kenyan customers, everything must be written in the language majority understand. Localize your website.
Be wary of taking wrong turns in a digital maze
Google uses hundreds of variables to determine how web pages rank against one another for both paid campaigns and search engine result page listings.
“The two most important as they pertain to small businesses are content and backlinks,” says Caleb Ulku, search engine specialist and principal at Ulku Logistics, Inc. “Put a lot of content on your website, especially the homepage. A lot of small businesses will put up a simple homepage with no content.”
Ulku elaborates that small businesses should target 2,000 words on their homepages and make it a goal to add content daily.
“Make the content about the service you offer, the city you offer it in, and the customers you offer it to,” says Ulku.
What you’ll notice about these two steps is that they’re simple: you’re creating information that will be helpful for the people who want to find you. Precision will be essential — and ranking on that front page will be a priority.
“There are no secrets in SEO, and SEO isn’t an art,” says Ulku. “SEO is about giving Google’s algorithm the signals it needs to rank your website higher. SEO is a zero-sum game, meaning there are exactly 10 website on the first page of results and almost 95 percent of clicks go to that first page. If you aren’t doing enough SEO to get onto the first page, then you’re just wasting your time and money.”
Make your content do the heavy lifting for you — and don’t cut corners
Write content for humans, but keep in mind that it’s a robot reading your webpage.
“The content should be properly structured such that Google’s search crawler categorizes it correctly,” says Timothy Platt, VP of IT Business Services at an IT managed service provider.
“These techniques fall into a bucket known as ‘on-page SEO’–the things you can do in your page content to rank better. This involves knowledge of HTML markup code.”
Platt encourages business owners to take the following steps:
- Know your code. Be sure to use a descriptive <title> tag, a well formatted <meta> description tag, and include at least one <h1> header tag. Use human-friendly search keywords. It’s the words and short (or long) phrases that people would use to search for your website. If you don’t include your keywords in those structures, there’s a very good chance Google will miss the point of your page, or rank you on page 100 of the results, where nobody is ever going to find it.
- Build a network. Off-page-SEO is the other important factor in ranking well in search engines. Backlinks are signals to search engines that your website is valuable. When someone links their website to your website, that’s their vote of confidence that your web page has something important to say. A web page with 10 incoming links is going to rank better than a page with two incoming links, in most cases. Links from industry leading web sites, the local chamber of commerce, and citations in online articles, are all examples of high quality backlinks.
Focus on creating content that your customers care about, but be sure to craft it in a way that a machine can easily digest.
Turn your website into a knowledge hub
Many website owners, entrepreneurs, and marketers aren’t sure where to get started with SEO and SEM. The key is not to invest in one or the other but to think of both as complements to a holistic marketing strategy.
“In terms of marketing strategies, SEO is a long term game while SEM tends to provide immediate results and traffic,” says Matt Bentley, CEO of SEO intelligence tool CanIRank.
“SEM requires ongoing investment. The moment you stop paying for Adwords, the traffic and leads stop. Although SEO requires a lot of effort over the long run, it provides ongoing traffic and enhanced brand awareness. Even if you don’t invest in your SEO marketing for a time, the traffic continues for years. In real estate terms, SEM would be renting an apartment while SEO would equate to owning a property.”
Long-term, think of your website as a knowledge hub. All content should interconnect and support readers’ needs. A strong internal linking strategy will tell search engines that you’re an authority in your industry.
Be a scientist
Luke Fitzgerald, Head of SEO at Irish agency Wolfgang Digital, encourage marketers to be aware that algorithms are ever-changing.
“SEO is organic,” says Fitzgerald. “You can’t pay to directly influence your ranking. On the other hand, SEM helps you pay for advertising within Google Search Results. Both are important, with the key difference that SEO is a longer-term strategy requiring patience and in-depth understanding of the various algorithmic, competitive, and technical factors that can influence your site’s organic performance. SEM brings an immediate reward.”
Dig into your data. Don’t cut corners. Focus on sustainable growth.
Most importantly though: Think like your customer
It’s very easy to fill up your website with the language you use between you and your peers everyday, but don’t forget that’s not normally how your customer speaks. As Guido Tijmensen of the Dutch SEO agency Digital Agency says, “A common mistake is that people use their website as their business card, including jargon.”
“The customer has to pick you instead of others, so it helps to put yourself in their shoes,” he says. If that’s hard to imagine, the internet provides tools to help businesses out. Answer the Public is multi-lingual site where you can type in a search term that relates to your business, and get back the questions people search for.
“By picking and answering these questions, small and medium businesses can provide answers that large corporations don’t even think of,” Tijmensen says.