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SEO on a shoestring


Many small businesses do not rank high enough in the search engine results pages (SERPs) to be found. Yet, more than 70 percent of internet users start off with a search engine before they buy a product or service. To put this in perspective, there are 157 million active internet users in the U.S., and 127 million of them are active search engine users, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. Can you really afford not to be exposed to such a massive audience?

The fact is that you can't afford to miss all the potential opportunities. While many small businesses don't have a huge marketing budget, that's no reason for a lack of search engine visibility. Search engine optimization (SEO) is one of the top-performing tactics in online marketing and outperforms traditional media like TV, radio and print. You can save money by doing the work yourself, but it's also wise to hire consultants for some vital tasks like SEO copywriting, analytics and conducting the SEO review.

This article will show you how, on a small budget, you can use SEO to drive more business to your site from people who never even heard of you before you became visible in the SERPs. We will review the SEO techniques that result in high rankings, increased conversions, and improved marketing ROI.

Your site objectives will depend on the type of site you are promoting. For instance, if you have an ecommerce site, your objective is likely to increase sales. A few examples of website goals are shown below:

  • B2C site objective: increase sales

  • Content management site objective: increase readership

  • B2B site objective: increase leads

  • Self-service site objective: increase customer satisfaction while decreasing customer support calls

  • Blog site objective: create links and interest in product, service or topic

Your SEO campaign will target your site goals by identifying and measuring your site's key performance indicators (KPIs). Your KPIs should be measured before and after your SEO campaign to determine effectiveness. Some examples of SEO KPIs might be:

  • Traffic from branded keywords vs. non-branded keywords

  • Number of unique pages crawled

  • Number of pages yielding traffic

  • Number of visitors per keyword

Knowledge of web analytics is important because it can tell you how to tweak your campaigns for better performance. Hire a consultant if you don't have analytics expertise yourself. 

Knowing your customers 
You must be in touch with the demands of the marketplace if you're going to create successful SEO copy for your website. Many site owners think they understand their customers but merely use their own preconceived notions of customer needs. To really understand your customers, you must interact with them as often as possible. Below are a few ways you can do this.

  • Gather keyword intelligence from your site logs or site search

  • Survey customers to get feedback after every sale or periodically

  • Provide customer reviews on your site or conduct an annual customer audit

  • Use blogs and social networking to interact with customers

  • Communicate with customers through newsletters based on their interests

Before starting an SEO campaign, it's important to review your site to learn how it is currently performing.

Conducting an SEO site review
The purpose of an SEO site review is to assess the current search effectiveness of your site and spell out what needs to be done to improve performance. The data is also used as a baseline to track performance over time. The site review can reveal unknown facts about your site's code and structure that might be impeding your search engine rankings.

It is wise to hire an external consultant to conduct your site review because this person comes with a different perspective and can open your eyes to things you wouldn't think of yourself. If you hire an experienced SEO consultant to identify and prioritize the changes necessary to improve your site's performance, you'll have a blueprint for success.

Another option is the Website Health Check Tool offered by Aaron Wall, which provides some of the information you need to improve your site. It can tell you if Google is indexing your site and how quickly it is indexing your new pages. It can flag duplicate content pages and point out canonical URL issues, etc.

After the site review, it's time to implement changes and build web pages.

Hopefully, your site was designed for SEO and you followed the webmaster guidelines from Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft Live Search.

The best way to attract search traffic is to create large quantities of keyword-focused, customer-centric web pages about your product, service or niche. Keep in mind that long tail keywords add up and will always create more traffic than your highly competitive keywords, especially for newer domains. Logical, keyword-focused site architecture with good navigation is important as well.

Title tag: Keep your title short (65 characters or less), forming a sentence beginning with your primary keyword(s). The title is the first thing users see in the SERPs, so use enticing, descriptive copy. Create unique title tags for every page.

Meta description: Create your description tag to grab the click. Use keywords as soon as possible and keep it short (150 characters or less) since snippets are usually truncated in different lengths by search engines.

Header: Include primary keywords and spark interest. Keep it short and relevant. Use only one H1 tag per page.

Body text: Build pages that have a purpose for your visitors and are focused on two to three primary keywords. Include your primary keyword at the beginning and at end of the page. Support your primary keywords with related keywords to establish context on your pages and facilitate spidering. Close with a call to action. Write in conversational style; focus on customer needs while being mindful of search spiders. Write concisely as web users tend to scan. Let your headers organize the copy with the use of bullets and bold text for emphasis. Leave plenty of white space. Use anchor text for internal and external linking and vary your anchor text by using related keywords. If possible, hire a professional SEO copywriter.

Internal links: Link relevant pages to each other internally throughout site content. Ensure keyword-focused anchor text is relevant to the destination page. Use navigation text links rather than images or Javascript. Use breadcrumb links, subject/topic group links and sitemap links.

External links: Get listed in DMOZ and quality directories in your niche. When looking for one-way links, search your primary keywords to identify competitors, then find out who is linking to them. Create a list and be prepared to offer something of value in return for a static link with relevant anchor text. Start a business blog and post valuable information on other blogs relevant to your business. Write hot content in your area of expertise and submit to relevant publications or post on your blog. Hire a linking consultant to fast start your linking strategy.

Images: Use images to lend credibility to your content and create interest. Keep image size to a minimum for fast display. Use relevant alt text.

Sitemap: Create a sitemap of all the pages in your site to reveal link structure. This helps search spiders find all relevant pages of your site available for crawling.

Site validation: Ensure your pages are indexable and links can be followed with the free W3C Markup Validation Service.

SEO tasks are time consuming, so you need tools to save time and simplify your tasks. Some tools are free and others cost money. Below are selective lists of tools for analytics, keyword research, competitive research, link analysis and search engine rank checking.

Analytics tools: Used to optimize site content and design, maximizing performance. For more information on web analytics, see Avinash Kaushik's blog, Occam's Razor

Keyword research tools: Used to discover keywords to target and tells you how competitive they are. Keyword research can be difficult and time consuming. If you can't do this yourself, SEO Research Labs will provide a keyword research and analysis package for $99.95.

Competitive research tools: Used to determine how much traffic your competitors get and which search terms send them the most traffic.

  • Alexa: Gives you traffic trends for competing websites 

  • Compete.com: Track and compare competitors with free site metrics for the top 1,000,000 web domains

  • Google Search Insights: Compare search volume patterns across specific regions, categories, and time frames

  • Xinu: Free competitive analysis tool that provides PageRank, backlinks, site age, social bookmarking and link data

Link analysis tools: Used to analyze your link profile compared to your competitors, identify and fix broken links and find new linking sources to give your site the authority needed for top rankings. 

Tip: Download Firefox for SEO plug-ins that streamline many SEO tasks. The Online Marketing Blog has a list of Firefox SEO plug-ins and descriptions.

Search engine ranking checkers: Used to track your site rankings in the SERPs for important keywords, tracking that information against competing sites (or your own earlier rankings) to gauge SEO effectiveness. Note: search rankings are not the only measure of success.

Local search queries are increasing at an accelerating rate. Your site can gain additional traffic and conversions by getting listed in Google Local, Yahoo Local, Citysearch and appropriate industry-specific directories.

Google Local: Get listed in Google Maps via Google's Local Business Center, where you can create a free listing with a Google account. First, check to see if you are listed, and if so, ensure your listing is accurate. If not, list your company name, address, phone/FAX, toll-free number, contact personnel, email address, website address and hours of operation. Follow Google's Business Listing Quality Guidelines and use Google's Reinclusion Request form if your listing gets pulled.

Yahoo Local: Get a free local listing in Yahoo Local Basic, which consists of a profile listing with your address, phone/FAX number, website and email addresses, business category, hours of operation, accepted payment methods and a description of your products and services. Add or update information any time. Adding your address and phone information in a footer on all your pages can get your inner pages listed.

Citysearch: This online city guide provides local information on restaurants, entertainment, retail, travel, and professional services in major cities in the U.S., including contact information, maps, driving directions, editorial and user reviews. You can get a free listing on Citysearch, but the "List Your Business" link only provides paid listings. To get a free listing, go to the "Enter Missing Listing Information" page and enter all the business information requested on the form. Note: this same form is used to make changes to existing listings. Search for your business first, check your profile page for accuracy and then either make changes or start from scratch when you fill out the form.

Niche search engines: It's important to get a free listing in all the directories relevant to your business. Some directories are free and others are worth the listing fee. Look for appropriate directories for your business in DMOZ and the Yahoo Directory by typing "directories" into the search box or by using your industry's keyword (e.g., "pharmaceutical directories."). Google also has an industry-specific directory, and you can find a list of industry-specific directories at NYPL.org. Once you've gathered a list of directories for submission, read each submission guide carefully and provide requested information accurately. Directories are a good source of traffic and help increase link popularity.

It has become important to create content in all relevant media since Google and other search engines started listing multimedia content in web search results. Know what type of content your customers prefer and then create content in relevant media. In addition to fundamental SEO techniques, multimedia content should be tagged and cataloged correctly. Below are some examples of content you can create.

Images: Use images on your site for illustrating your products and services. Optimize your images with descriptive, keyword-rich file names and ALT tags. Use accurate descriptions of image files.

Videos: Create videos using descriptive file names that are keyword-rich. Also use keywords in your title tag, description tag and video site map. Create a web page to launch your video, optimizing the content for SEO and using anchor text wherever possible. Submit to Google Video, Blinkx and YouTube.

News releases: Submit your press releases for display as "news," but make sure your story is truly newsworthy. It could be information about new products or upcoming events your site is involved with.

Blogs: Smart companies communicate with their customers and stakeholders via blogs. Tag it (digg, del.icio.us, reddit, stumbleupon, etc.), submit to Google Blog search and expand your visibility in the SERPs.

You will need a depth of knowledge to do SEO on a shoestring. Below are some resources for learning the basics, keeping abreast of the constant changes in search and finding answers to your questions. The resources below are not exhaustive but include many top assets.

Any way you look at it, saving money is a good idea, especially in today's economic environment. A comprehensive SEO strategy requires an investment of time, personnel and money; however, it is possible to work smarter when you are a small business trying to do search engine optimization on a shoestring. Use the information in this article to sharpen your competitive edginess, and don't forget, SEO is an ongoing process, not a one-time event.

Claudia Bruemmer is a freelance writer-editor and internet marketing consultant.

Claudia Bruemmer was the first managing editor of ClickZ (1998-2001) and has also managed content for Search Engine Watch. Claudia is one of the authors of SEMPO's Insider Course in Search Engine Marketing. She currently freelances as a...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Mary Jo Finn

2008, October 01

This was a great article. The timing was great for my business. I have tried SEO on my own, I wish I had this information sooner.
Thank you!

Commenter: Jay Baer

2008, September 29

What an excellent resource. Extremely well done.

Commenter: Gordon Phillips

2008, September 26

Wow. This is by far the most comprehensive and useful article that I've read on this subject. Thank you for sharing a great depth of resources. I'm signed up for SEO boot camp at the SMX east expo and I already feel better prepared.

Commenter: Claudia Bruemmer

2008, September 24

Many thanks, am truly humbled with such comments from an SEO/IT Director.

Commenter: Christopher Regan

2008, September 24

A wonderful article so very concisely written. I sense that Ms. Bruemmer has short-changed herself with the piece's title of "SEO on a shoestring" -- the article is tremendously sweeping in its precise snapshot of SEO's current state/requirements. Yet, if her recommendations are followed by web property managers, the shoestring budget will actually have grown well beyond the title's suggested budget if her guidance is followed.