You’re running a small business. You’d dearly love to have high visibility on Google for organic search engine traffic and leads—but you’re being overwhelmed by big competitors with deep pockets and an army of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) specialists at their disposal.

Cheer up! You can still win at SEO, but you have to be smart—very smart—about how you deploy your resources.

The important thing to remember is: What most small businesses do with SEO is exactly what they shouldn’t do.

One way they go wrong is to do a little bit of everything; a little on-site optimization, a few off-site articles, an occasional new website page. The problem is they never put enough into any one area of SEO to move the dial.

The other way they go wrong is putting all their SEO eggs in one basket, such as writing off-site content. The problem is they neglect other key SEO activities, and in doing so, cancel out any gains these activities may be generating.

Avoid these traps, and instead, follow this recipe for small-business SEO success.

Keyword research

Every SEO campaign begins with keyword research. Big companies can pick thousands of search terms and successfully optimize for all of them; you can’t.

So, be selective: Optimize for a small set of keywords that you could compete on and have a high probability of conversion.

When doing keyword research, consider these factors:

1. Look for “long tail” terms

Do you have a niche product or service? Can you identify search terms that are less popular but are likely to attract search engine users that really need what you sell? These are the terms to build your SEO program around.

So for instance, if you’re small, the term “credit card processing” will be impossible to compete on, but the term “mobile credit cards for home candle makers” could give you excellent visibility.

2. User intent

There’s a big difference between “credit card processing” and “credit card processing solutions for shoe stores.” A person using the former term could be looking for a service provider or doing research for a term paper. A person using the latter phrase is likely to be in the market. Terms with high-conversion potential are vastly more cost effective.

3. Geography

If you are a local business, you’ve got a better chance of standing out for “credit card processing Arlington Heights” than “credit card processing Chicago.” Just make sure your more narrowly defined geography has a decent amount of search volume.

On-site optimization

Your website must communicate properly with Google; otherwise, Google won’t understand what you are trying to say and as a result, how to rank it. There are three bases to cover:

1. Make sure your website is error free

This is simple, because Google Webmaster Tools runs a report that tells you exactly what needs to be fixed on your site. Have an SEO-trained web developer address issues once or twice a year.

2. Add or reorganize content strategically

Every primary product or service keyword phrase should have its own page on your website. If you’re optimizing for 20 really important phrases, it may take you a few months to add or rework all 20 pages.

Go at a manageable pace; slow and steady is okay, because Google prefers ongoing optimization to one-and-done SEO projects, which Google potentially sees as a “black hat” SEO tactic or a company not really committed to SEO.

3. Reclaim backlinks

High-quality backlinks are extremely important. If your website has been around for a while, it probably has acquired backlinks from unsavory websites, or backlinks that have the wrong anchor text based on today’s best practices.

An SEO specialist can help you fix these backlink problems and give your SEO visibility a big boost. The work can be very time-consuming, however, so again, do the work at a pace you can handle.

Off-site optimization

Creating off-site content—an extremely important technique for creating natural links and establishing authority with Google—is where small companies can beat the daylights out of big SEO competitors.

Google has become good at identifying and rewarding authoritative and useful content. Small-business owners and leaders are authoritative and know exactly what kind of information is useful to their customers and prospect.

If they leverage their years of expertise by writing (or actively editing) off-site content, the best websites and blogs in their niche will be eager to publish it. When small businesses are published on industry-leading blogs, the content produces backlinks and social media shares (which lead to additional, natural backlinks)—which is tremendously important for SEO.

In addition, this high-quality off-site content helps a small business expand brand awareness and establish its credentials as an expert. In the eyes of prospects, this content, over time, makes a small company look as appealing as a big one—or more so!

The advantage small businesses have with off-site content is that they are ready, willing, and able to produce it. Large companies obviously have a lot of expertise, but their executives and subject matter experts usually don’t get involved in SEO campaigns. As a result, their off-site content is relegated to lower level employees or outside writers who receive few inputs and little guidance. The content they produce is not always up to the standards that an entrepreneur can achieve.

Bottom line: Pick your spots and you can compete in SEO. Start small, with a handful of search terms. When you see results in terms of traffic and leads, you can always expand your budget and add more.

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Our favorite SEO resources

If you’re just now diving into the world of SEO marketing, it’s probably a good idea to brush up on the basics. Here are some of our favorite guides to SEO, to help get you started.

Browse through these to get a sense of how to best implement the above SEO tactics into your business (and if you’re still not quite sure what SEO really means but at this point you’re too afraid to ask, don’t worry—they cover that too).

  1. The Beginner’s Guide to SEO: This guide by Moz may be the best and most thorough SEO guide out there. It’s a great starting point and goes over the basics in manageable chunks, gradually going into more detail.
  1. HubSpot’s Free eBook: Learning SEO from the Experts: With contributions from some of the top thought leaders in the SEO space, this downloadable guide is another great starting point.
  1. Whiteboard Fridays with Rand Fishkin Also via Moz, these weekly videos are a great way to get into the details of a particular topic. It won’t give you a large overview (the assumption being that you know the basics by now), but once you have the basics it’s a great way to expand on your knowledge.
  1. The Advanced Guide to SEO: This guide is a direct follow-up to our first mention, and builds off the information you learned in the Moz Beginners Guide to SEO. Neil Patel of Quicksprout takes you through some of the more advanced aspects of SEO; it’s a hefty guide, but well-laid out and very informative.
  1. Search Engine Land: With an article on nearly every SEO topic under the sun, you could spend a few solid weeks perusing Search Engine Land’s info and still find yourself learning something new.
  1. Search Engine Watch: They’ve got tons of great articles on SEO, and an entire section on SEO for video—an excellent resource if you’re hoping to optimize your video content.
  1. Google Webmaster Central Blog: This blog is straight from Google (the primary search engine you’re optimizing your content for), so it’s a must check-out. The content is more advanced and there is no central “guide” format, so save this one for later, after you’ve mastered the basics.
  1. The Ultimate SEO Checklist: 25 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Your Next Post: While this article by Neil Patel is specific only to SEO for articles, it’s a great basic overview of how to best optimize your articles, and draw the most traffic to your blog or website. If you’re trying to optimize your web content, this is a must-read.

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