This blog post will provide all the information you need to be successful at SEO for your small business if you have limited time and money. Think of it as the Pareto principle of SEO courses – I’ve written about the 20% that will bring 80% of results. Eight weeks ago, I fired my SEO company and decided to become my own SEO expert. I’ve already achieved better results. More SEO for small business blogs to come.
Google was founded in 1998. That same year Page and Brin, the two Google founders, performed the first ever web search.
Today, 23 years later, Google receives 5.6 billion searches every day.
That’s a consistent daily growth rate of 667,064% in search volume. Daily.
Understandably, that’s hard to keep up with. They did their best. But, it allowed people, namely SEO companies, to take advantage by understanding why certain pages rank high in Google search and repeating that process many times over for all their clients.
In the early 2000’s, SEO companies would guarantee first page search results for their clients. This was common practice. And the majority of clients would achieve this result if they could pay enough money.
While this practice was legal, it was shady and unethical and birthed the modern SEO industry.
The website who could spend the most on SEO services would rank the highest. The problem with this strategy, that Google eventually identified, was that it delivered a poor user experience.
Often the highest ranked pages were just trying to make a quick buck by selling a bogus product or covering their site in affiliate links.
The expert or hobbyist with a website whose main goal was to spread knowledge was pushed down so far in the rankings they receive very little organic traffic.
Around 2010, Google wanted to fix this. They started making massive changes to their search algorithm invalidating most of the lazy and shady tactics used by most SEO companies.
This was a win for the consumer and a big loss for the SEO business.
Has SEO changed since the beginning? Neither SEO nor SEO companies have changed since 1998. The goal is still to provide the user the best experience possible. The only difference is the lazy strategies used by SEO companies are no longer effective.
Have the SEO companies changed? A few. The good ones. Today SEO is more of a creative profession. Unfortunately, the vast majority of bad SEO companies are not creative.
These bad SEO companies are still selling the same strategies only now they’re telling the small business owner that it’s a long-term game and they need 6 months to show results. This is a lie. Here’s a post I wrote on Medium. Less than one week after publishing it ranked #2.
Below, I talk more about how and why SEO companies should be able to know whether or not they can get a page ranking on the first page of Google’s organic search results page.
The average business owner pays for SEO for less than 6-months. Today, bad SEO companies have to constantly acquire new leads. This is why you get numerous spam emails asking if you need SEO services. Very high turnover is the result of poor service.
The industry was birthed from shady beginnings and very little has changed.
One of the most painful parts working with SEO companies is their ability to make something basic sound complex.
Let’s go straight to the source, Google’s Official Guidelines, to understand how simple SEO really is:
That’s it. These SEO guidelines make a point to say “don’t feel obligated to purchase a search engine optimization service.” In fact, I think it’s telling that in the Google articles titled Do you need an SEO?, two-thirds of the content is dedicated to helping you navigate away from bad seo practices and companies.
Over the past 8 weeks, I’ve turned myself into an SEO pro and I’m going to further expand the above list to include common SEO terminology.
Everything you are about to read applies to mobile, desktop, laptop, tablet, and any other device where you content can be consumed.
SEO can be broken down into two broad, but all-encompassing categories:
On-Page SEO is anything that you can do on your own website and its individual webpages. This can further be broken down into technical and non-technical SEO.
Technical on-page SEO consists of:
Unless you’re a programmer, you will want to hire an expert for this. What’s better is if you keep this in mind from the very beginning. It’s the main reason why you don’t want to hire the budget website designer.
After the website design, if you’re a small business, probably you will use a few developers to maintain your website. They all will edit your website. I wish I was more vigilant in knowing what and why they were doing things to my website. This helps communication between developers who come and go. And, more importantly, developers are not familiar with SEO. They might choose to install a free plugin which slows down your site. One might not be a big deal, but years of this will hurt your search engine optimization.
Non-technical on-page SEO consists of:
Off-Page SEO consists of only one thing: backlinks. However, this is the hardest and most important aspect of SEO in my opinion.
You earn one backlink every time another website decides to add a link on their website that goes to your website.
In the eyes of search engines, each backlink is like a pair of eyes staring at your website. The more eyes you have staring at your website, the more relevant you are.
In the eyes of search engines, each backlink is a pair of eyes staring at your website. The more eyes you have, the more relevant you are. Click To Tweet
Let’s say it’s the 1990’s and you are an excellent, but unknown, singer trying to make it big. Will Smith is also a great singer, but not as good as you. Nevertheless, Will Smith’s chances of making it big are much more probable than yours because he has more eyeballs on him. This gives his more attention, more relevance, more credibility.
Backlinks equal eyeballs equals success. They’re the life force of SEO and a successful website. I hope I’ve already demonstrated the importance of backlinks with the above example, but this is so important I’m going to drill it in.
Backlinks create a circle of life. They tell search engines that not only visitors, but also other websites values your content so much, they want to share it with their own users. The backlink itself helps you rank higher in search which brings you more visitors. Also, the additional visitors that come directly from that backlink also helps you rank higher in search which in turn increases the number of visitors to your website and so on. The better your content the more efficient this process.
In summary, good SEO is about delivering the best user experience. Whether we’re talking about how fast a page loads or the quality of your content, never lose sight of this principle. Otherwise it will waste you a lot of time and money.
This is easier said than done. Keep reading to allow me to fill in the gaps in your knowledge.
“Third times a charm!” You’ve heard it. It seems to be more true than false. I reminded myself of this the last time I hired an SEO company. Long story short, it’s false for SEO companies.
I just fired my third SEO company in a span of four years. I knew something was up with their business model. But the idea is too powerful to ignore! That’s especially true for me.
In my own business, I help Airbnb hosts make more money. Airbnb, like Google, is a search engine. To earn more money, ultimately, you have to rank high in search.
The question comes down to how you go about doing this.
I heeded the advice of countless entrepreneurs before me who always seemed to work too hard by trying to do everything themselves, even when they’re not the expert. I ran my business different. Almost from day one, I preferred to hire the experts.
This strategy has worked wonders for everything besides SEO. I’ve grown my business from $0 to $150,000 annually in under four years.
Since firing the last SEO company a few weeks ago, I took it upon myself to learn all about SEO. I dove in with the 80/20 mindset. As a small business owner with limited resources I felt the best thing I could do was to find the most important aspects to SEO and focus on those which should get me about 80% of the results.
A quick side note as to why this strategy is especially effective for small business owners: Because I don’t have millions of visitors to my website, that 20% I’m missing out on wouldn’t translate into much increased sales. There’s not enough upside. Whereas, if you’re a giant corporation, then spending money to get as much of that 20% efficiency might make sense because even a 0.5% increase in traffic may translate into millions of extra dollars of revenue.
Without getting too much into details, I hope this section will help you in dealing with SEO companies as I know many of you will still hire them.
Ok. Let’s relive my traumatic SEO past…
My first bad SEO experience was in 2016. I paid $3,000 for 6-months of SEO. Needless to say, I did not renew my contract. However, the worst thing this SEO did for me was show me a chart that seemed to suggest everyone who ranked high had loads of content.
His suggestion to me as a new website: push out as much content as you can. He didn’t emphasis quality at all, only quantity. This stuck with me and I did for years.
However, by following this piece of fault advice, I disobeyed my golden rule: a positive user experience. I was littering my website with content that I knew not to be my best. Well, today I’ve archived all those pages, including many I paid for.
I hired someone to transcribe all my YouTube videos and create a unique blog post for each one. Turns out, it’s actually BAD to have a bunch of content on your website that isn’t particularly useful.
That aside, if someone finds my website through this lower quality content, what do you think will happen? They will leave which indicates to google that my site is low quality.
If that wasn’t bad enough, I was giving existing visitors too many browsing options, half of which were low-quality content pages. This probably translated into many visitors leaving my page earlier than if they had found consistently high-quality information.
All in, I paid $3,000 and more to future writers plus my own time for negative ROI based on faulty SEO advice.
The SEO should have known better. The high-ranking websites didn’t rank high because of the quantity of content. Instead, the highest ranked websites happened to have a lot of quality content, probably because they were around for long time and true experts.
All SEO companies will offer you a free or cheap website SEO audit. Beware. This is a fully automated and mostly standard product that will be confusing for anyone not familiar with SEO.
There’s a lot of technical SEO in these reports. While the information can be valuable, you must know what to do with it. Some will even say they provide you actionable steps to complete the recommendation. Simply say no thank you to this SEO service.
It’s comical they all badmouth their competition by telling you what their competition will likely tell you. I know, confusing. It seems they do this to make you think they’ve got your back and to legitimize themselves when they can’t guarantee anything.
The comical part is that they all tell you the same things. They’ll say something to the effect of “the other SEO companies will promise you first page rank and that’s how you know they’re illegitimate”. Later I’ll explain why good SEO companies can and should guarantee first page ranking.
These are sales folks. Keep that in mind first and foremost. They are trying to sell you.
As part of this sales process they will tell you how long they’ve been in the industry. You can ignore this part. In fact, it might even give them less credibility. If you take my word for it that SEO companies are lazy, that means they’re not staying up to date on the numerous Google algorithmic changes. An SEO who’s been in the industry for 12 years is probably doing outdated techniques.
Amount of time in the SEO industry does not indicate quality. Just as you would not buy a book on diet advice from 10 years ago, stick to a newer SEO company.
You will be hard pressed to find an SEO company providing project based worked. They’re obsessed with recurring revenue. The last bad SEO company I fired, I asked them if they did speed optimization.
They said that they did not. However, they could provide me mobile only SEO for a monthly fee of $150. I asked, why would this be a recurring payment. The answer “It is a SaaS product thus a monthly service that includes hosting, updates, etc.” Thanks for the solid answer, dude.
I declined. Instead, I hired someone from Upwork, a specialist in speed optimization for $500.
The best experience I can attribute to my SEO tribulations was when I hired my SEO friend to write up some content for me. For $50 per page, he produced 8 pages of relevant SEO’d content. Three of those pages actually bring in a good amount of traffic.
That’s a win and based on my later SEO experience, a huge, gigantic win. However, the content was over-SEO’d and led to a bad user experience. Visitor would leave right away, ultimately hurting my website.
Additionally, Google’s smart. They figured out the low quality pages and sunk them in the search results. Unfortunately, high-value keywords were targeted and now I’m having trouble salvaging these pages.
Unfortunately, I judged this experience as such a win that I tested my luck once again. I hired Content Refined in September 2019 to “optimize” five of my existing articles on this website.
The deal was simple. They’d optimize the content of five existing articles with the result of increased traffic within four to six weeks. I submitted four blogs.
When I received the optimizations in October, I was not blown away with the added content.
Nevertheless, I decided to sacrifice the user experience (ie adding useless junk into my article) for more traffic. I was suspicious so I only updated two of the blogs. The results below speak for themselves:
If you are a small business owner, defined as earning less than $200K per year, I do not recommend you hire an SEO company.
I believe the only good SEO companies are expensive. These unicorn SEO companies cost upwards of $5,000 per month. That’s $60k per year. That means you need to earn at least that much more per year to make the investment worth it.
Take a look at Niel Patel’s SEO company intake form. I would regard him as probably one of the good SEO companies and if his intake form doesn’t prove my point, I don’t know what else does. It’s typical for SEO companies to ask your annual revenue and his lowest option is up to $3 million. Do you think they’re really lumping in a company that makes $100,000 with a company that makes $1 million? No. It’s as direct as he can communicate that his SEO services are not right for small businesses.
Why do they cost so much? I don’t know that. If you do, please tell me in the comments. I do know their hourly rate is going to be $100-$200.
Let’s take my company as a test case. Let’s assume my revenue last year was $100,000. I had 565 purchases on 13,000 unique visits. That’s a conversion of about 0.4% and an average sale price of $177. If I’m paying $3,00 per month for SEO services, that’s $36,000 per year.
SEO should be considered an investment so I’d want to have a good return for my money. Let’s say 20% return on $36,000 or $43,200 increased revenue the next year.
To get this return of my investment, I’d need 244 additional purchases, or 43% growth. With the same website conversion rate, that equals more than 20,000 visits. I’d need 55% more website visits to make this investment worth it.
The numbers don’t make sense for small business SEO.
Any SEO company you hire that will cost you $1,000 per month is not going to do anything that you couldn’t do with a half day of research.
These companies have a standard SEO process they do for all their clients.
The best-case scenario here is they save you some time without causing any harm to your website.
More likely, they will use methods which hurts your website in the long-run or gives you bad advice which costs you money, time, and lost rankings.
Large businesses with large budgets have the most potential to benefit from hiring a professional SEO organization.
The reasons are:
Ask the potential SEO company how long their average client stays with them and the range of prices per contract. Any SEO that is doing contacts below $1,000 per month is mainly interested in profit for the SEO. Likely they have a process that all clients enter and there’s no creativity.
SEO is an investment. A good investment earns a return of 10%. If you’re a small business making $100,000, that’s a return of only $10,000. Even if you’re spending $1,00 per month or $12,000 per year, this is a losing proposition.
However, if you’re making $1,000,000 per year, that 10% return equals an extra $100,000. Even with a budget of $3,000 per month, or $36,000 per year, you’re still earning a great return.
The larger your budget, the more creative the process can be. Gone are the days where there’s a repeatable process that can be applied to all websites.
The bad SEO companies still believe in this mantra. The good SEO companies will come up with unique and creative campaigns both onsite and offsite to bring your more traffic.
If you’re seriously considering hiring an SEO company, please watch this video from Google.
Pop quiz! If you don’t hire an SEO, what should you do?
Come on. You already know the answer.
Increase the user experience. That’s it.
This section is important. I’m breaking it down into four parts:
Let’s get back to that foundational question: how do we increase the user experience?
It starts from day one. From the day you start building your website, you’re making decisions that will affect the user experience.
You need a clean, simple website design that’s easy to navigate and lightning fast. Don’t get fancy here. But do hire a quality website developer.
If you opt to hire the budget developer, you’ll get a budget website. You may not be able to tell on the front end (ie how it looks to the end user), but I guarantee the coding went into that website is subpar. This will slow down and break your website more often in the future ultimately costing you more time and money.
If you are past this stage, check your website speed according to Google. If you receive low scores, you will want to hire a speed optimization expert before you do anything else. Having a fast load time will magnify everything else you do.
A speed optimization will cost about $500.
You should also connect to Google Analytics and Google Search Console. These are two invaluable free tools that will help you SEO your own website.
Google Analytics tells you what visitors do on your website.
Google Search Console tells you how visitors found your website.
If you’re goal is traffic, there are actually many ways to accomplish this like via paid advertisements, social media campaigns, etc. But for this section, I’m assuming you want organic traffic.
The best way to do this is via a blog. You must write great content. And you must ensure that content is optimized for search engines.
Writing great content does not mean you have to be a great writer.
To write great content, you need to communicate what exactly you’re writing about and why the reader should stick around. You do that largely by making it easily digestible with headers and sections.
You will optimize your content for search with two tools:
First is a keyword research tool. Each of your webpages is designed to rank for a single keyword or key phrase. You can actually shoot in the dark here and write great content targeting whatever keyword you’re writing about and do just fine.
This is what I did for the first two years of my business and flew to 20,000+ unique visit per month. However, it’s not hard to spend 5 minutes per page in identifying a similar keyword than you would have otherwise selected that might be 2x the traffic.
I will discuss a tool below that has keyword research built-in.
Yoast is a free plugin, but I suggest you pay for the premium version as it confers a lot of extra benefits at only $79 per year.
Yoast is excellent and doesn’t need further explaining except to say that it will help you make your content both easily digestible to the viewer and to the search engines. But you first need to choose your preferred keyword.
As previously discussed this is both the most important and hardest part of SEO. I’ve broken it down into three options:
HARO stands for Help A Reporter Out. They have a data base of reporters who need information from specialists. You’ll receive up to three emails per day with the topics and some details. For anything where you’re a good match, you can respond to the inquiry. If the reporter decides to use your information, they will provide a link.
When you post to certain websites like Quora and Reddit, your website will be credited with a backlink. This technique comes with a high risk of being flagged for spam. To avoid this, be active on these forums and provide high-value comments.
Anyone who reposts or shares your content on social media counts as a backlink. To maximize this, you want to create sharable content and make it easy to share. You can install a plugin that will do this for you. You can also use my Text To Tweet plugin.
The tool below helps in identifying where you might be able to acquire backlinks.If you own a small business making less than $200k annually, you should not use SEO. Here's why.. Click To Tweet
One of the realizations I made during my research is that all the SEO companies use the same SEO tools. Remember that SEO audit they offer? It comes directly from these SEO tools, only with their brand name on it.
At about $100 per month, I decided to give them a try.
A good SEO software tool will have the following functionality, in order by importance:
I’m currently using three SEO tools:
The keyword tracker is most important as this is where your traffic comes from. If you have a drop in traffic, instead of being in the dark, you can measure it and even catch it early to fix it.
I suggest you go through this process in setting up your SEO software tool:
Can you guess when I started doing my own SEO?
Here’s what I did. First, I paid for speed optimization. I decided that a quick website was probably the single best thing I could do for immediate results. If you hire a speed optimizer, ask them if they use plugins. They shoud not. It should be adjustments to the code.
You want to use various free servies to check your website speed. Here are some options:
Archive crappy content! Crappy content gives the user a bad experience. Would you rather have a lot of people finding your worst blog post (ie first and last page they ever visit on your website) or a few people finding your best content?
Personally, I measured all webpages over the past 12 months and anything with less than 2 views per day, I unpublished. This reduced my content by 40%.
Setup a CDN like Cloudflare. This helps your site speed by using a server closest to whever the visitor is physically at.
Go through the backend of your website. Remove and plugins that you’re not using. Remove any duplicates. Turn off any functionality that you’re not using. Combine ones with similar functionality.
Go through your entire website as a visitor would searching for usability issues. Anything that makes it less enjoyable to use. Does your chat box cover important text? Do you have too many popups? Does the text run off the page? Mobile is super important. Check your mobile site with Google.
Redo any pages that seem to be getting less clicks in search (your SEO software tool can tell you this) and any pages you think you can improve.
I find myself here after four years of bad experiences with SEO companies. I think my situation is not unlike many other small business owners.
SEO is not hard. It’s really easy and that’s by design. Google doesn’t want to make it hard. They want to make it so easy that even grandma could put up a webpage that attracts organic traffic.
Almost everyday Google introduces changes to their search algorithm, but the foundation remains unchanged: a pleasant user experience.
It’s my great hope that you’ve found this article very useful and will help me get the word out with a share or comment.
I run a tech-focused local service business in Toronto, Canada and I’ve been on the fence back and forth whether to do my own SEO. Our company does almost 1 million year and we pay an SEO company a hefty sum. I think they do OK work but communication and strategy from them is lacklustre The links they build are mediocre at best.
Even though I’m above your 200k threshold is this something I should tackle myself and try to do on my own? I guess I could learn it and then outsource it … because I wouldn’t want to do it on my own forever.
Is my only other option to go a really expensive SEO to get stellar results?
Congrats on that revenue number!
Good SEO is creative SEO and that requires highly paid individuals. For a company your size, probably a minimum of $3-5k. Most SEO companies put you in their system and that’s that. They probably spend 10 hours a month on your website. Links are useless unless they’re relevant. Google is HELLA smart nowadays. Everything in this article I stand by 100%. If I were you either do it yourself or you’re gonna have to pay someone $3-$5k per month probably to start getting some really creative ideas. But SEO in terms of getting links from random websites, useless.
I actually enjoy my own SEO nowadays. It’s kinda fun. And not hard at all (at least the basic stuff). If the usability and speed of your website is good, then focus on links. You know your industry best and probably have better connections to get links than most SEO compnaies.
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