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Understanding SEO for Small and Local Businesses

by Virginia Nussey, May 17, 2010

With 40 percent of search engine queries containing some local intent, small businesses would do well to position themselves for search engine success. At the same time, those managing a small business often don't have the time or resources needed to manage an SEO initiative. In these situations, it may make sense to hand a website over to a qualified and reputable SEO professional to optimize a site for local and organic search.

When a small business owner trusts a professional to make necessary changes, he may or may not want to understand why each effort is being made and why it will improve their site. For those who do want an understanding of basic SEO methodology for small business sites, an outline of best practices can provide a useful background.

Initial Research

One of the first steps of an SEO campaign is gaining an understanding - an understanding of the site offerings, a site's targeted communities, and a site's competitors.

Research is the key to that understanding. Basic research must be performed on two fronts: research of the target audience and what keywords they use to search for a site's products, services or offerings, and research of competitors vying for the same target audience with their own products and services.

Keyword Research

Search results are fueled by keywords, and an SEO or webmaster should know what keywords are the best match for bringing together a website and its targeted persona community. Keyword research is an ongoing, multi-step process. It begins with keyword discovery, which includes brainstorming and the use of keyword research tools. This growing list of potential keywords is then evaluated in terms of site relevance, search activity, competitiveness, conversion potential and return on investment. The evaluation of keywords helps an SEO distill the list of keywords into a workable group that can be targeted for on-site optimization and implemented on a site.

Competitive Research

By positioning a site higher in search engine results than previously ranked, a site is essentially seeking to displace its competitors from high ranking positions. SEO and competitive positioning are tightly aligned, and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of competitors is an essential early step in the SEO process. The process of identifying online competitors and analyzing their strategy and on-site implementation will help an SEO formulate his or her own strategy for a site. Examining a competitor's site source code can uncover important keywords, compelling content, and Meta data best practices within an industry.

SEO Strategy

With a thorough understanding of the competitive search landscape and the keywords that will draw targeted, conversion-likely traffic, an SEO will begin to build a holistic SEO strategy. Within the local search vertical, there are many ranking factors to consider. An annual survey by local search specialist David Mihm takes an inventory of important local search ranking factors. From a local phone number and address to customer reviews on-site and on third-party sites to factors far beyond there is much to be considered when optimizing a small business website for local search. Three major local SEO factors are considered below.

On-Page Optimization and Content

A small business's website must resonate with the targeted community and be seen as relevant by search engines. When it comes to search engine rankings, on-page and off-page factors are considered by search engines as signals for keyword relevance and content quality. Controllable on-page factors primarily include Meta data and tags and website content. For Meta data best practices, view the Back to Basics article in this month's SEO Newsletter.

Read by both humans and search engine bots, content makes up the bulk of a website. Through the content, a business can use voice, tone and keywords to relate the value of its offerings to readers. Web content should reflect the brand and resonate with the target audience. A Content Discovery Questionnaire (PDF) is a resource that can be used to develop content that communicates the unique value of the brand and its products and services to the appropriate community personas.

Local Business Listings

A website must speak for a business, yet local business listings can be a potential customer's first interaction with the brand. Local business listings and local search engine listings can be optimized for ideal perception by a searcher. The business name must be consistent across all listings and sites. The business should be properly categorized. And photos entice human visitors and increase the odds of interaction. Google, Bing, Yahoo! and other local listings services gather data from across the Web that may be included in displayed listing information. For a list of the most important data providers, refer to the free local search resource

Inbound Links and Citations

A businesses ranking in local search results is largely determined by the quality of links to and citations about a business. Links to a business's website signal relevance through anchor text and content surrounding the link, as well as link value based on the linking page's PageRank. Link building is a challenging and time consuming process that requires a multi-faceted approach and significant time and resources. Citations are mentions of a business's name and address across the Web, and are factored into local search rankings as a reflection of relevance and authority. Some places to get citations include local and industry blogs and directories, like a Chamber of Commerce business directory or a community-related blog.


Web analytics provides the traffic tracking and data needed to measure the success of online marketing efforts and fine-tune efforts going forward. Google Analytics is the most basic analytics platform that is free for webmasters and websites to implement. Though, while it might be the bare minimum analytics solution a site can implement, Google Analytics is a powerful tool that allows for conversion and goal tracking, and reveals the way that visitors are interacting with a website. Review the Google Analytics Cheat Sheet (PDF) for basic implementation guidelines and best practices.

Small Business Services

A small business website should be optimized for the high volume of local-intent-based search taking place every day. Every SEO strategy must be specialized to meet the needs of a specific site and its target community within a competitive environment. Add these many factors to a constantly changing algorithm and ranking factors, and it's clear that there are significant technical and strategic requirements needed to position a site well for local search. If a small business owner is interested in outsourcing his or her SEO needs to a qualified agency, please consider the SEO small business service offering offered by Bruce Clay, Inc.

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