Search engine optimization (SEO) can be intimidating—I get it. I work with clients all the time who are overwhelmed with all there is to learn. They understand it’s an important part of their marketing strategy but don’t know where to begin implementing it.
A basic understanding of SEO is vital to you as a business owner, whether you plan to handle building and maintaining your website yourself, want to build a marketing team to do it, or are simply planning on hiring the job out. Knowing how it works will help you get the most out of your money and avoid wasting time on strategies that don’t work.
Here are some basics that everyone should know about what SEO is and how it works—a simple primer to get you started, even if you don’t know anything about the topic. I promise it’s not as difficult as it looks.
Search engine optimization encompasses small adjustments you can make to your website and your online presence to improve your ranking on search results pages. When someone searches a topic or a question, they tend to click on one of the first few links on the results page. If your website shows up at the top of the results page for relevant search queries, that means more people will click on it—bringing you more potential customers.
I often say that SEO is like maintaining your lawn—it requires ongoing work. Yes, there’s initial work to be done to plant all the seeds, but then you still need to water it and trim it regularly. Just like you can’t expect to mow the lawn once or put a single weed killer treatment on it and never touch it again, you can’t expect a one-time solution to do the job.
One misconception I often hear is that hiring a web developer to audit your website will take care of your SEO needs. But because it is an ongoing effort, a single-time solution won’t cut it. Besides, most web developers don’t have much knowledge of SEO. And even if they do, anyone advertising a one-time fee or a single solution to revolutionize your SEO should make you wary. While they may improve your website’s ranking or traffic to some extent, in general, these strategies don’t work and are often trying to take advantage of those who don’t understand how it works.
SEO is more than just web development. It requires monitoring and frequent adjustments to your website, creating content, and marketing strategy. It may cost you time to put in the effort yourself, or it may mean hiring another team member.
SEO relies on content. Think of it this way: content is the food that Google eats. Google sends out feelers searching for content across the web and uses its algorithm to determine what will show up in search results for particular keywords. Publishing regular content improves your ranking, while failing to publish fresh content can make your ranking drop. That means that writing, optimizing, and publishing content must be part of your strategy. Google makes a profit by placing ads on search results, and it wants new content where it can place ads. In fact, part of its algorithm boosts news and current events to the top for this very reason. Regularly publishing content will also help build your website for the long run and help your search rankings grow over time.
Understanding how content interacts with the algorithm will help you better strategize and keep you from wasting money on one-time solutions and other products or services that don’t work. But it’s also important to understand how some people cheat the system so you don’t fall for tricks. I’ve heard an uncountable number of offers that claim to give you amazing results and even present all the statistics to back them up. And the tricky thing is that those statistics may very well be true—but if they’re not bringing in new revenue to your business, they’re not worth your money. If you don’t understand the technical terminology, someone can spin any metric to look like great news. They may tell you you’re doing great—and on paper it looks like you are—but if you’re not seeing business growth, it’s not truly working.
Similarly, there are plenty of SEO strategies that may give you a temporary boost in results but ultimately will not work out in your favor. We call these strategies “black hat” strategies. Generally they rely on the changing nature of Google’s algorithm, basically cheating the system with shortcuts and tricks that boost your website’s search rankings, usually for a short period of time. But because the algorithm is constantly changing, Google is always weeding out these loopholes. When they do find someone exploiting the system, Google will penalize that website and remove it from their listings completely. That’s the last thing you want to happen.
It’s critical to build a solid foundation based on “white hat” strategies—the opposite of black hat strategies—which align with Google’s terms and conditions. It’s just one more reason to be wary of anyone who promises quick, explosive results. SEO takes time, and there are no genuine shortcuts. Like maintaining your lawn, you have to work at it regularly, and your consistency will pay off in the long run.
As you develop your strategies, keep these basics in mind. I advise most people to begin by looking at their top competitor’s websites, and then reverse-engineer what they’re doing well. Start with the websites that are ranking in the top three spots for your search term, which might be whatever your business is in your area. Do this before you even begin to think about website design—it will give you an idea of who you’re competing with and what’s working for others. It will also help you determine how much you’ll need to spend for SEO. If you’re trying to rank for a more competitive search term, you’ll likely need to spend considerably more than a less competitive one. Remember you must account for search engine optimization as an ongoing expense, not a one-time investment.
The strategy you develop now, in the early stages of SEO planning, is the foundation for the future of your website and your business. SEO is not something you can start and stop as you feel like it. Its value compounds, kind of like a retirement account—the more money or effort you put in every month, the more it will compound to create greater value in the long run. So don’t wait to begin. Start by analyzing your competitors’ websites and creating your SEO strategy today.