The mention of “SEO” is enough to make some small business owners cringe. They’ve been sold the snake oil and been taken to the cleaners by people charging them from a few hundred bucks a month to thousands of dollars. I always recommend that people dabble in doing some SEO themselves to get educated before they try hiring someone out. This helps you ask better questions and could potentially stop you from making a very bad mistake. With that in mind, here’s a quick primer on some SEO basics you can do on your own and some free tools that will help you get started.
There are two main components to SEO, on-site and off site. On-site is easy as you have control over it. You’ll want to make sure each of your key pages (i.e. home page, main category pages and product/service pages) are targeting 2-3 main key phrases unique to that page. Then you’ll want to make sure you’re using these keywords on your pages in the following areas.
1. The page title. Try to keep this under 70 characters for all of your additions to be seen by Google.
2. Body copy. Two or three instances of your keyword or key phrase will reinforce that it’s what your page is about.
3. Meta description. This doesn’t affect the search engines, but it usually shows up in the two lines of the Google search result, so adding your keywords in under 160 words while making a pitch as to why a user should click on your link here can help improve your traffic.
4. Alt tags. If you have pictures on your pages of your target keywords, make sure your alt tags reflect this to further reinforce to search crawlers that your page is full of content relating to your keywords. DO NOT add keywords to images that don’t match your images.
The tool that can help you here is Screaming Frog’s SEO Spider. The free version will crawl 500 pages of your site and return a tidy Excel sheet of all of your URLs and their meta information, as well as handy info on alt tags, broken links and header data. This will help you quickly identify what pages need the most TLC as you go through and audit your pages using the info above.
For more in depth information on this topic, try these posts:
Off Site SEO – Link Building
This is the hardest part about SEO and the toughest to understand for most people. Good links to your site will make you rank higher. If you think about how many times you search and see Wikipedia show up, it’s because people constantly reference Wikipedia by linking to pages on the Wikipedia website. To Google, this means the content is relevant and authoritative. So to boost your own rankings you’ll want to get some links.
But where do you even start? That’s a question with a lot of answers, but for beginners the easiest thing to do is to see where your competitors are getting their links. If a site links to them, they should link to you, too, right?
If you want to check out a competitor’s links, one of the best free tools is Bing Webmaster Tools. You’ll need to first get your site verified (you can learn how to do this here) and then you’ll have a chance to get to the goodies in your dashboard. Just click into Diagnostics & Tools > Link Explorer and you’ll be able to get information from Bing’s database on links to any domain or page you’d like (with a limit of 1,000 links).
The interface above shows the results for one of my businesses, Swimtown Pool Supplies. Here
are what the other filters will allow you to do:
1. Filter by site – this allows you to limit the results to one specific site. So, for example, if one of your competitors has 200 links from competitorbuddy.com you could limit your search to see all of the links just from that site.
2. Anchor text – this allows you to filter the results by what the actual text of the links say. For example, if I wanted to rank highly for “table tennis” I’d want a lot of my links to my site to actually read as “table tennis” and then link to my page optimized for that term. If your competitor is ranking highly for a specific term, put it in here and see where they’re getting links with the right anchor text.
3. Additional query - this just lets you do a good ol’ fashioned Bing search within the sites linking to the competitor you’re looking at. So if your competitor sells indoor and outdoor products but you only sell indoor products, you may want to use some terms here to limit your results to pages that relate to your indoor products.
4. Scope - this lets you view links to individual pages (dictated by the main search window, here reading swimtownpools.com) or the entire site if you choose domain. If you want to see why a certain page is doing well, select “URL” – if you want the whole site choose “Domain.”
5. Source – this is pretty straightforward, the internal links are links within the site (so if your competitor’s about us page links to their contact us page they’ll show up here) while external only shows links from other sites and both, of course, returns both. For your purposes, external is likely the most valuable.
Armed with some of this data you can see where your competitors are getting links from and what kind of links. Are they writing guest blogs for industry websites? Are they sponsoring events to get links from those sites? Are they making sure all of their suppliers link to them? If the answers to any of these questions are yes, you can at least get started trying to mimic the strategies that are letting your competitors beat you. Once you get started you can keep tabs on your organic search traffic in Google Analytics and see if you’re moving in the right direction. Chances are, you will be if you stick with it.
While the tools are free, you will have to invest some time to use them. Whether you choose to continue doing SEO on your own or through an agency, you’ll at least have the ability to speak intelligently and ask some better questions if you tackle these tasks.
Adam Henige is an entrepreneur and managing partner at Netvantage Marketing, a Michigan SEO company with offices in East Lansing and Grand Rapids.