SEO has become an integral part of online marketing. If you want your business to be seen online, the general consensus is that SEO is absolutely essential.
Committing to a high quality SEO campaign can take up a lot of time and make demands on a startup’s budget that not everyone can meet. But seeking cheaper alternatives could mean you soon find yourself facing a Google penalty (the worst of which is your website being complete removed from their index), which can put your entire online presence in jeopardy.
The good news is that SEO need not always be a lengthy commitment and if you have some in-house capacity, it is possible to take on a large portion of the work yourself.
This in-depth guide explains what you can expect from a SEO campaign, and will help you determine if you can do some of the work yourself or whether you’ll be better off outsourcing everything from the start.
What is SEO?
SEO is a catch-all term used to describe the intentional steps required to fully optimise your website for search, hence the acronym: search engine optimisation. The main objective of SEO is to improve a site’s visibility (or ranking) in relevant, high volume search queries.
To do this, you need to know how people are searching for the products or services you offer and then provide the search engine with convincing evidence that your site has the most relevant solution to the search queries of your potential customers or clients.
Depending on the search engine, how you go about this may vary. In the UK, the vast majority of online searches are conducted through Google and most SEO is tailored specifically for it. The margin your business will get from other search engines usually means it’s not financially viable to optimise for anything other than “the big G”.
What is a good website?
So what, in Google’s view, is a “good” site?
As anyone in SEO will tell you, there is no simple answer. They will usually also be quick to add that it gets very, very complicated. But the good news is that on the simplest level, the indicators for a high ranking site are quite intuitive.
A good site does two things exceptionally:
- It is useful, and
- It is reputable.
To meet these criteria a vast number of smaller conditions need to be met. These can, very broadly, be broken down as follows:
A site that is useful, typically:
- Loads fast, is logically ordered and easy to navigate
- Uses the same language (or keyword vocabulary) as its intended audience
- Has clearly designated focal areas, with each page dedicated to a particular topic
- Regularly adds information that is unique, relevant and valuable.
To be considered reputable, a site must:
- Be linked to by other authoritative sites
- Avoid gaining any of these inbound links through manipulative means like link directories.
What you really get when you pay for SEO
A comprehensive SEO campaign attempts to achieve all of the above. This usually begins with a set of inward-looking tactics called onsite optimisation that will get your website in the best possible health.
Your SEO consultant or manager will start by working out a keyword strategy for your website. Using various tools, including Google’s Adwords Keyword Planner, they will piece together a picture of how potential customers or clients are using Google to look for the products or services you offer.
When a website is not clear about its area of expertise it is near impossible for Google to confidently match that site with a search query and the site misses out on valuable face time with its market. Your website quite literally needs to speak the language of your intended audience.
With this in mind, and following an audit that will highlight any technical issues, your SEO company will usually suggest structural changes that will create clear focal points for the services or products you’re offering.
The key information on your site will then be adapted to your keyword strategy, ensuring the content on your site now corresponds directly to your market’s search queries.
This normally involves updating metadata, implementing schema and may also entail some copywriting. These are just the broad strokes and depending on the service you choose, the extent and quality of the onsite optimisation can vary considerably.
Good SEO earns links
Once your website is optimised, your SEO campaign will begin to take on a more outward-looking approach. This second phase normally takes a two-pronged attack: First, working from a content strategy, your SEO company will ensure new content is regularly being added to your site, usually via a news or blog section.
The format of this content can vary, from written articles to infographics, video tutorials or more in-depth guides. Regularly adding new content signals that your site is an active, relevant resource and helps it become a growing repository that will accumulate authority over time.
If the information on your site is unique and offers value to its readers (be that for entertainment or information), it will usually attract mentions or links from other sites and on social media platforms. These referral links hold significant value for SEO because Google considers them a direct indicator of your site’s usefulness and relevance.
Whilst a good content strategy should already be earning you referrals, a SEO campaign will explore the use of more assertive tactics to accelerate this process. Also known as “link building”, this is the second prong.
Not all SEO is equal
Link building has a chequered legacy. Google’s highly successful formula for deciding the relevance of a site has always relied heavily on weighing the references (or links) pointing to that site.
Unfortunately, this approach has lent itself to exploitation – most famously during Google’s formative years.
In a Google-controlled world, links are powerful online currency. And SEO practitioners looking to cash in the loopholes went about setting up sites specifically for the purpose of punting links for a fee.
These disingenuous referrals give receiving sites a false authority – something Google has now cracked down on with a range of algorithm updates that have left websites on the receiving end of these manipulated links with a much lower ranking.
The wrath of Google can be devastating, with a decline in rankings usually leading to a severe drop in visitors and thus conversions. Most of the sites that have experienced a Google penalty or felt the backlash of an algorithm update had no idea their SEO practitioners were acting in contravention to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
Alarmingly, Google’s growing capacity to weed out disingenuous links has not persuaded all SEO practitioners to clean up their acts. Many still look for loopholes and rely on links from sites that are not created with the user in mind.
Even worse – the bargain prices at which these dodgy SEO campaigns are offered usually attract precisely those start-ups and smaller businesses that can’t afford the losses that go hand-in-hand with ranking penalties.
SEO is an unregulated industry, leaving little recourse to action should it all go pear-shaped. Here the price tag can be helpful, but it may not be what the cash-conscious want to hear. As a rule, you get what you pay for, with larger campaigns delivering better results and virtually no backlash.
Depending on the scope of work and competition in the industry, prices for a decent campaign can vary between £500 and £5000. And you’ll have to be patient too. A typical SEO campaign can last anywhere from 6 to 24 months.
This may make good SEO seem prohibitively expensive for many smaller businesses, but the good news is that if you don’t have the budget for a full SEO campaign, you can take some of it on yourself.
What not all SEO practitioners want you to know
SEO is essentially an exercise in online marketing with a lot of technical stuff thrown in. It is the reason many larger companies keep their SEO teams in-house where they work closely with the marketing and PR departments, sharing resources and dovetailing efforts. It is also why SEO is increasingly viewed as a desired competency in a media professional’s skillset rather than a job on its own.
It follows that a good marketing strategy should already go a long way to getting your site more traction online. It is not something every SEO company will be wanting to shout from the rooftops.
With a bit of insight and a tactical approach, even a single media executive should be able to make a significant impact towards improving your online presence. But they’re unlikely to be able to do it all.
When you hire a SEO company you benefit from a broad range of experience and a wide network of online contacts. Going to the pros will help you avoid the kind of rookie mistakes that might cost you dearly if you attempt a DIY approach entirely.
If you are thinking of hiring an SEO company make sure you read this guide first;
So what should you pay for?
Here again, you’ll have options. A good SEO training course should give you the basic insight and skills you’ll need to run your own campaign. These courses will usually vary in the depth and breadth they cover so you will want to do some homework first.
What you want is a course that will cover onsite optimisation in some depth. Ask whether they show you how to conduct keyword research, how to optimise meta data, tweak site structure and identify quality sites to network with.
A good course will also have some time allocated to one-on-one sessions focussed entirely on your site. Or, if it’s bespoke advice you prefer, you might want to consider bringing in a SEO consultant to talk to you and your team exclusively.
A SEO course or consultation is a good starting point but you will still have to work with a developer to implement some of the initial onsite changes.
You should also supplement the course with further reading of your own. Google’s Webmaster Tools is a great place to start and reputable online platforms like Moz.com have a wealth of further reading that will help bring you up to speed.
Consider an SEO audit
For a less hands-on (and less risky) alternative, discuss the possibility of a site audit and subsequent onsite optimisation with an SEO company.
Not everyone will be flexible, but most good companies will tailor something to your needs. This will usually include all of the “inward-looking” SEO work described above to give you a site that is in great condition to start vying for Google’s attention. You can then take over the campaign, creating your own content and implementing a link earning strategy with your own in-house resources.
Some companies offer a ‘kick-starter’ package that will include onsite optimisation and a month or two of content creation and link earning, often combined with some training for your media team.
Be aware that SEO is not a one-off activity but rather an ongoing task. You’ll need to be able to dedicate a considerable amount of time to content creation and link earning and will have to refresh your site on a regular basis to ensure you’re keeping up with Google.
If you don’t have the time to dedicate at least five and up to ten days a month to your SEO, you may need to re-evaluate your approach.
Insist on a solution that fits your needs
Real SEO is a responsive and flexible activity. Be wary of any company that sells a set package and refuses to tailor it to your needs, or makes it seem like you can’t pitch in and do some of the work yourself.
Approach your SEO like the collaborative marketing activity it is. Be open about your limitations and offer to share the marketing resources you do have at your disposal. Any decent SEO practitioner will be happy to do what they can to get you on your way.
About the author
This guide was written for ByteStart by Melissa Byleveld, Head of Content at Go Up – a London-based digital marketing agency who help businesses “go up” in search results.
More help on being successful online
For more help on making your small business successful online, try these other ByteStart guides;
Selling & Promoting Online
- 7 Mistakes you could be making with your website
- Promoting your business online – A Digital marketing guide for small business owners
- How email can deepen customer relationships and transform online conversions
- A Practical guide to Content Marketing for small business owners and start-ups
- A Survival guide to mobile commerce
Successful Social Media
- 10 Top tips for small businesses starting out with social media
- 5 steps to building an online fan base for your business
- Tweets that get you followed and your business noticed – How to build a loyal following, 140 characters at a time
- How to use Facebook to grow your small business
- Marketing your small business through YouTube – The 4 essential steps to success
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- A Guide to ‘Alternative Finance’ – the new funding options for startups and small businesses
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