Search Engine Optimization Techniques

An SEO Guide for Small Businesses

Effective SEO Advice and Tips from Rank Fishkin

We had an opportunity to interview Rand Fishkin to ask him some questions about search engine optimization.

Rand Fishkin is the CEO and Co-Founder of the web's most popular SEO software provider: SEOmoz.

He co-authored The Art of SEO from O'Reilly Media, and has been written about in The Seattle Times, Newsweek, and PC World among other publications. Rand has also keynoted conferences on search around the world.

In this interview, you'll learn:

  • SEO Basics
  • Keyword Research Tools & Advice
  • How to Optimize Page Titles & Description Tags
  • How to Develop Useful Content
  • Link Building Strategies

Read the full interview with Rand . . .

Search Engine Optimization Basics

"SEO is the active practice of optimizing a web site by improving internal and external aspects in order to increase the traffic the site receives from search engines." - SEOmoz SEO Guide

Rand, your SEO guide explains the various strategies used to help a website rank better. Can you summarize the most common optimization tactics used by top SEO firms today?

Rand: The raw list of tactics is likely miles long and contains hundreds of thousands of unique ideas. However, I can classify most techniques into one of just a few buckets:

  • Keyword research - determining which keywords and phrases are most worthwhile to target by examining the quantity of search volume, the difficulty required to rank and the likely conversion rate of visitors with those keywords. Using metrics for each of these, SEOs can help build a plan for specific targeting of terms worth earning rankings.
  • Keyword targeting and on-page optimization - improving the quality and value of content targeting specific keyphrases, including optimizing the user experience, design, load speed, keyword use, meta data (titles + descriptions), etc.
  • Site accessibility improvements - ensuring that the site's information architecture and crawl-ability are optimal for both search engines and users (on a wide variety of devices).
  • Link building - discovering likely sources for external links and pursuing tactics to acquire them.
  • Social media marketing - growing the brand's influence in social communities (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and the many niche communities) in order to improve social signals (Likes, +1s, Tweets, etc) and build a wider net for drawing in links, traffic and positive brand awareness/associations.
  • Vertical/universal search - creating and optimizing content for vertical search opportunities like local/maps, video, images, shopping, etc. This also includes new markup options like rel=author, schema.org, rich snippets and other annotations visible in the results.
  • Content marketing and scaling - Growing the depth, breadth, quality and focus of your site's content in order to attract searchers, influencers and sharers so you reach a broader audience, bring in more traffic and generate greater quantities of leads.
  • Analytics - designing and implementing systems to measure key indicators of performance and track where/when opportunities exist or mistakes have been made.

These don't represent every component of SEO, but most tactics will likely fit in one or more of these buckets.

Learn more about SEO . . .

Keyword Research Tools & Advice

"Keyword research draws a distinct parallel to traditional market research. Just as successful ad campaigns contain content that appeals to their target demographic, successful websites implement keywords that have the highest relevance and conversion rates." - SEOmoz Keyword Research Guide

Why is keyword research important?

Rand: If your pages target keywords no one's searching for, it won't matter if you rank #1 or #100, the engines won't send you any traffic! Choosing the right keywords to target is like selecting the right location for your store - deserted industrial parks aren't great places for ice cream franchises :-)

In your guide, you recommend a variety of free keyword research tools. Many small business owners don't have a lot of time, so what is the one tool you recommend they use?

Rand: Start with Google's AdWords Tool - it does 95 percent of what you'll ever need for keyword research.

When does a business owner know when he/she has done enough keyword research? Or is keyword research never done?

Rand: Until human beings stop changing how they search, keyword research really will never be done. However, building a target list and re-visiting/expanding every three to six months depending on your industry's pace of change and the degree to which you're focusing on SEO is a fine way to go.

Learn more about keyword research . . .

How to Optimize Page Titles & Meta Description Tags

"A title tag is the main text that describes an online document. It is the single most important on-page SEO element (behind overall content) . . . " - SEOmoz Title Tag

What are some best practices for writing page titles?

Rand: Excellent question! I've got a great article on title tag development for you.

Some title tag best practices from the article include:

  • Keep title tags under 70 characters
  • Put important keywords close to the front of the title tag
  • Incorporate your business brand name

There seems to be a debate about the value of the description meta tag for SEO. Google might use them as snippets, but sometimes will algorithmically choose its own snippet based on the search query. How important do you think the meta description tag is in SEO?

Rand: If you have pages that are receiving heavy quantities of search traffic and frequently appear in the search results, I'd work on making the meta description as compelling, unique and useful as possible. I wouldn't, however, generally worry about meta descriptions on every page, particularly those that don't target specific keywords for rankings or aren't receiving much traffic (i.e. the "long tail" of content).

Learn more about optimizing pages . . .

How to Develop Useful Content

Rand, many people have heard that “content is king” in SEO, and in Google’s SEO guide, they write “creating compelling and useful content will likely influence your website more than any other factors …” This can be difficult for some small businesses that don’t feel they have anything really useful or exciting to write about. What are some creative ways you’ve seen “boring” companies develop great content for their site?

Rand: I've never seen an industry, niche or subject of human curiosity (which, after all, is what searching is all about) that didn't have an opportunity for something unique, interesting and relevant. If you're lost on where to start, try searching for forums, Q+A sites, blogs and social media hubs in your niche. There are always hundreds of questions people ask online and hundreds of topics they discuss -- those are ripe for unique, quality content development.

Aside from writing articles, what other type of content can help a small business in its SEO efforts?

Rand: I love making content about your products, your data or your industry. For example, if you operate in the world of big machinery, make a graphic showing the history of construction and what people through the ages have used as substitutes for machines of the modern day.

Create a comparison chart of types of machines and what each is capable of doing. Show an interactive world map of the world's largest construction sites, and where demand is highest. I love the creativity that inbound marketing demands - it's one of the most rewarding parts of an SEO's job.

How does your keyword research play a role in your content creation?

Rand: It should dictate where you spend your time and energy - focusing on content that helps answer questions (and queries) that real users have, rather than just showing off something interesting that doesn't receive traffic.

Learn more about developing great content . . .

Link Building Strategies

"Your site's ranking in Google search results is partly based on analysis of those sites that link to you. The quantity, quality, and relevance of links count towards your rating. The sites that link to you can provide context about the subject matter of your site, and can indicate its quality and popularity."  - Google

Accumulating quality links can really help a small business website improve its ranking. Some SEO consultants will encourage small business owners to buy links to improve their ranking. You’ve taken a stance against buying links for higher ranking due to the risks involved. Can you briefly explain some of the risks that a small business owner should be aware of?

Rand: Buying links or acquiring links through other kinds of manipulative activities (see: article marketing video) can get your site penalized, remove your site's ability to pass value through links or even get the site banned from the search engines. If you're building a long-lasting brand on the web and intend to have a site exist for several years or more, this kind of risk is intolerable, IMO, and these tactics should be avoided.

For small business owners that don't know anything about link building, what are some simple tactics they can do to help promote their sites without spamming?

Rand: There's a million tactics! Here's a few thousand link building ideas on our blog.

Can you briefly explain how your Open Site Explorer tool can help small businesses with their link building tactics?

Rand: Basically, Open Site Explorer lets you see where a site or page's links are coming from. Using this intelligence, you can reverse engineer your competitors' strategies, find link opportunities from other sources (industry hubs/niches) and grade the quality/value of a potential link. I just did this free webinar on how to use Open Site Explorer for precisely this purpose.

Learn more about link building . . .

Final Thoughts

Rand, there are shady SEO consultants promising small businesses top ranking in Google for popular keywords (or long-tail keyword phrases that have little or no monthly search volume). How can a small business owner sniff out the good from the bad?

Rand: Ask them for a few sample clients. Talk to those folks, investigate their rankings and check out some of their backlinks (Open Site Explorer can help with that). You can also read their work on the web, reference-check them with other, well-known industry leaders and even talk to people they've worked with in previous roles (connecting on LinkedIn is a great way to get these names without directly asking).

If a small business owner only has a few hours each week to devote to SEO (and doesn’t have money to hire a consultant), how should the business owner devote his/her time?

Rand: I'd start by reading our SEO guide and making sure that your site is crawlable by search engines (Google Webmaster Tools or SEOmoz PRO can help here). Install Google Analytics and spend those few hours each week building a target keyword list using the Google AdWords Tool, creating great pages of content for your users, and trying to earn a few links.

Practice, rinse and repeat, and you'll likely see a positive return.

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