Welcome to the SEO guide for entrepreneurs and business owners! If you are here is probably because you have heard about SEO and you would like to know more about it. If so, you are in the right place! I wrote this guide with the aim of helping you understand what SEO is and how it can help your business increase online sales and generate more revenue from the online channel.
This is an introductory guide, so I won’t go into much into detail on every aspect of SEO; the goal is rather to give you an overall understanding of the discipline and the knowledge required to make an informed decision about investing in SEO for your company.
With that said, let’s jump straight to SEO!
The term SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. If you have heard of it before but don’t really know what this is all about, a barebone definition of SEO might be the following:
SEO is a discipline that includes a set of activities aimed at improving the organic presence of a website on Search Engines to increase targeted traffic to that website.
What this means for a business owner is that SEO can help your site be more visible on places like Google or Bing (two of the most well-known search engines), where customers or potential customers are actively looking for the products or services that you offer.
This definition may not be 100% clear to you at this stage, but bear with me and everything will eventually fall into place as we proceed with the guide. We will be constantly making reference to this initial definition and add all of the important details you need to know.
As it has to do with optimising for search engines, SEO is part of the marketing area identified as search marketing. Before moving forward with SEO, it’s important that you understand what is search marketing and what exactly sits within it.
Search marketing is a branch of online marketing that is involved with promoting a brand on search engines’ result pages either via paid or organic strategies.
But why is search marketing so important for a business and why should you as an entrepreneur be concerned about search marketing at all? One common mistake that small business owners unwillingly tend to make is to think that having a working website is the only requisite in order to be found online, while on the contrary that is the bare minimum.
Think of your website like a regular physical shop, a place where people can find and purchase goods. Now, in order to reach that shop, people will need at the very least a road that will allow them to go from their house to the shop. That road, when translated on the Internet, could be the search engine. People are using search engines like Google to find and reach online places where they can purchase a product or service.
Without a good presence on search engines, it’s very unlikely that people will find your website when looking for a product or service. It would be like having your physical shop in the middle of a desert, with no roads leading to it whatsoever. How many customers do you think that shop would have?
You might argue, “but my website does appear if I type the address on the search bar!”. That is a legit point indeed, but think about it for a moment. Your website is appearing when you type its address, what does that mean? It means that just people who know that address, or at least your business’ name, will be able to find your site. Do you see where we’re heading here? The real goal is not only to be found with your business name or website address, but also when people are searching for a product or service without a specific brand in mind. This is the real power of search marketing: making sure your website is always findable online, also from people that do not know about you. Not all kinds of people without distinction though, but people that are interested in your products or services.
This is exactly what we meant by “targeted traffic” in our initial definition of SEO: SEO is a discipline that includes a set of activities aimed at improving the organic presence of a website on Search Engines to increase targeted traffic to that website. So, what all of this means is that search marketing, if done well, is able to bring you potential new customers interested in what you sell or have to offer.
Now, search marketing of course is a wide concept, but we can break it down in two main areas: search engine optimisation (SEO) and search engine advertising (SEA). To properly understand what is the difference between the two, you need to know the difference between organic and paid search results.
As anticipated, one of the goals of SEO is to improve the organic visibility of a website. But what does this exactly mean?
When it comes to search marketing, we usually divide search results into paid and organic results. Each time you perform a search on Google, you are presented with a search result page (also called a SERP), in which you usually see a list of results from different websites plus some extra information in the forms of infoboxes. Let’s look at an example to make it crystal clear:
If you look closely at this SERP, you will notice that there are 2 different kinds of results. One set of results is labeled as “Ad”, while the other set does not have any label attached to it. Results (which are also called SERP Snippets) with the ad label are of course paid results, while all of the others without label are called organic results.
Paid results are actively purchased by companies through a system called Google Ads (previously known as Google AdWords), which works like an auction system in which advertisers can bid to show their ads on the SERPs. The branch of search marketing specialized in paid results is the before-mentioned SEA - Search engine advertising.
On the other hand, organic results are the ones SEO focuses on. Do you remember once again our initial definition of SEO?
SEO is a discipline that includes a set of activities aimed at improving the organic presence of a website on Search Engines to increase targeted traffic to that website.
That’s it! When you are doing SEO for your site, you are focusing on those results which are not an ad that appear on the search engine result pages.
This is a question that many have raised, and also a popular belief of many outside of the SEO industry. Since we are not actually bidding through Google Ads to be present in the SERPs, then SEO has to be a free activity to carry on.
This is a wrong assumption which is not only not true, but also the cause of many bad consequences. You are not bidding on Google Ads when you do SEO, that’s true, but to optimise a site for organic success is a full-time job that requires a lot of effort and an adequate budget in order to reach the desired goals. You certainly need to pay someone who actually knows how to optimise your site, but you also need a budget for a wide set of activities that fall somehow into SEO, like content creation, external promotion and many others.
As a business owner, do not make the mistake of thinking that SEO should be for free or almost for free, as this can cause big damages to your business. If you hire SEOs or agencies on a very low budget, that may mean that the quality of the work being done on your site may not be enough to reach success, or even worse, may be damaging your website on the long run as such contractors might utilise dodgy SEO techniques that go against the search engine’s guidelines and may severely harm your business. We will discuss how to hire an SEO in-depth in one of the following chapters of this guide.
Now that you know what is search marketing, and the difference between SEA and SEO, you are fully prepared to move to the next step and deep-dive into what SEO is really about. Up until now we’ve only been using a generic definition of SEO. But how does that translate in the real world? What sort of actions are to be made on a website to make it more visible organically on the SERPs?
To keep it high level, the job of an SEO is to make sure that a website is crawlable, indexable and is able to rank for a set of keywords that is related to your business. Let’s try to break these concepts down and analyse them one by one.
The web is made of hundreds of billions of web pages, and search engines constantly visit or “crawl” them with a special software called web crawler to find any new or updated pages and pass data about them back to their servers. The first thing an SEO needs to make sure is that web crawlers are actually able to access the site and find its relevant pages. If your site is not crawlable you have no chances of succeeding in SEO, simply because the search engine will never know that your site exists.
After the web crawler has crawled the site, its pages together with relevant information about them are added in the search engine’s index. Think of the index like a sort of library where all the websites are organized and stored as books. When a page is indexed it is categorised and added to the entries of all of the words that are on the page so it can be easily retrieved when needed. It comes without saying that an SEO’s job is to make sure that the search engine is indexing all of the relevant pages of a site and no indexing issues are occurring during the process.
Finally, an SEO needs to be able to optimise the site and make it rank for a set of keywords that are relevant to the business of that site. This is ultimately what will bring new, targeted traffic to the website and make a business gain new clients and/or increase revenues.
In order to make a site rank, SEOs will generally perform a wide set of activities which can be clustered in 3 main areas:
Think of this cluster as an overall health check up of your site and later improvements to make it better. These often include optimising the website’s tags and content to make sure it’s adequately targeting the right keywords, fix any technical issue that may be impacting negatively your site’s performance, optimise your website structure, ensure the pages load fast, and all other sort of activities with has to do with changes on your site to improve organic performance.
When major issues are fixed on your site and existing pages are properly assessed and optimised, it’s a good idea to explore what new content opportunities can be found out there. More often than not, you’ll find your site is able to rank for some keywords, but it may rank for a lot of new ones if it had relevant resources around them.
Conducting a keyword GAP analysis is crucial to understand where such opportunities are and how to pursue them with your site. It comes without saying that more opportunities equals more potential organic traffic and conversions to your site.
This set of activities, as the naming may suggest, makes reference to all those SEO-related tasks that take place from outside of your website. In fact, an important part of SEO has to do with an external factor, namely links from other sites pointing to your site.
Basically, if another website is linking to your site, this is a signal that the search engine takes into account (with hundreds of other signals) when determining ranking. You can think of an external link (also called backlink) as a vote. If your website receives many votes, then it may mean it is an authoritative source on its field right? That is not always true though, as there can be good votes and bad votes. A link from an authoritative source to your site is generally a good vote, but think about links from spammy sites or very low quality sites… those for certain are not good votes but rather bad ones. What search engines do here is try to weigh the links your site is receiving in order to understand if your site may or may not be an authoritative source on its field, something worth showing its users.
What an SEO needs to do is then checking the existing backlink profile of your site to see how good (or bad) your “votes” are, and if needed plan some strategy to try increase the number of external links your site is receiving.
This area is one of the most delicate ones in SEO, as a wrong strategy may cause severe consequences to your website. There are lots of providers out there that are willing to sell you cheap backlinks to your site, for example. That is probably the easiest way to have your site penalised, so watch out!
Now that you know what SEO is really about, you might be asking yourself: “Why should I invest in SEO?”, or “Should I invest in SEO rather than SEA?”.
The answer is that you probably don’t have to choose one or the other, but rather you should invest in both to diversify the marketing strategy for your business and have more channels driving targeted traffic to your website.
SEA is much quicker in generating results and is very effective short to medium-term. Once you set up your campaigns and start bidding, you are immediately there in the SERPs, with a lot of granularity when it comes to keywords you want to your ad to show up, ad features and extensions, and targeting (when to show the ad, where, to whom, ...).
On the contrary, SEO is more of a medium to long-term game. It takes time and some hard work for a website to rank and get organic traffic, especially if it’s playing in very competitive niches where other players are heavily investing in organic strategies. But it’s when your site finally starts to rank and get traffic that the true value of SEO unveils.
In the long run, the return of investment of a well-executed SEO campaign is usually higher than the one of an SEA campaign. Also, we don’t have to forget that when it comes to SEA, once you stop paying, your ads will immediately disappear from the SERPs, while organic rankings will be there even if you decide to cut on your marketing spend. Last but not least, in general the percentage of users clicking on organic results is higher than the ones clicking on ads, and these users also tend to convert better on the site afterwards.
Again, this does not mean that you should go all-in with SEO. In fact, the wisest thing to do is in many cases to balance SEO and SEA as part of an integrated strategy with the goal of making your business prosper. Having SEO as the only traffic driver is in most cases not a good idea, as organic search results may change over time due to more aggressive competition, changes in how the search engine ranks websites or other factors that may considerably reduce the amount of traffic you receive.
Hopefully at this point you have a general overview on what SEO is, how it fits within search marketing, and why you should invest in SEO for your business. What you may be missing know is some guidance on how to hire a good SEO.
First of all, there are different options on the table when it comes to hiring for SEO. You may choose to have an in-house SEO, a freelance one or you may decide to outsource to an external agency. All of the options are fine, as there are really talented professionals out there that can really have an impact on your business, no matter if they will work from within your company or as an external partner. The important point here is to actually be able as a business owner to identify the right professional or agency. In order to be able to do so, let me tell you some things to keep in mind:
Nobody - and I repeat - nobody can guarantee a specific organic position for your website. If someone guarantees you that your website will rank on position 1 for one or more keywords, that is completely untrue. Nobody in SEO knows how Google ranks pages and as a consequence nobody can ensure any ranking.
When you are looking for someone to help you with SEO, ask them to showcase some of their projects and to explain how they helped other businesses improve their organic performance. Ask if they have experience in your industry and which strategies they put in place. This will give you a sense of how the professional or agency work and you can understand if that is what may suit your needs.
Check the online site of the agency or the LinkedIn profile of the SEO professional. Try to understand how long they’ve been in the business, with whom they have worked and what were their main tasks or activities they carried out.
Be careful when they offer you standardised packages. I’ve seen many agencies offering packages like “website + SEO for 1000 Euros” or something like that. I know it may sound tempting, but doing SEO on such tiny budgets may be causing more harms than benefits to your website. A good SEO service is one that is tailored on your website needs. Every website is different and so is the market in which it competes; the SEO initiatives that can work for one case may not work at all for another and that’s why standardised packages are often not the ideal choice.
I hope with these tips you know have an idea on how to look for an SEO for your company. I strongly suggest you to also read this article from Google which also gives some advice on hiring an SEO or agency.
If you made it up until here that means you now have an overall view on SEO, and you’ve understood how it can help your business grow in the complex online world. That’s something a lot of business owners don’t have, so it’s absolutely great that you decided to go through this guide from the top to the bottom!
I would really appreciate your feedback on this piece of content and any suggestion on how to make it better. Feel free to reach out and let me know what you think!