10 Practical Small Business SEO and SEM Marketing Tips Ross | September 22nd, 2009

crowdSPRING is a small company (our team is 10 people). For a small company, efforts spent on one marketing initiative typically take away from other marketing initiatives. Entrepreneurs and small businesses often ask us about how we market – and especially about SEO (search engine optimization) and SEM (paid search). Here are our top ten suggestions, based on our own experience, for supercharging your SEO and SEM efforts:

1. Set Specific Goals. It’s important to establish specific goals for your SEO and SEM efforts. While ultimately, you are probably looking to make money, you’ll want to establish specific interim goals so that you can properly measure whether your efforts are worth the investment of time and money.

Why This Is Important: If you don’t establish specific goals, you will not be able to evaluate the opportunity costs of your SEO and SEM efforts. For example, you might see more conversions (i.e. more traffic to your site), but you will have difficulty assessing whether you could have increased the traffic even more through other marketing efforts. You’ll also have difficulty scaling your efforts.

Tips: Think about what needs to happen for your business to succeed. For example, if your revenue model is driven by advertising on your site, one interim goal could be to drive a certain amount of traffic to your site. If your revenue model is the sale of a service or product, your goal could be to get your cost per conversion  below a certain amount after 90 days (i.e. make sure that you’re paying less for paid search than your profit on a transaction from a customer who visits your site via paid search and buys a product or service).

image credit: HackingNetflix

2. Define Conversions. A conversion is an action that a user performs on your website. For example, if you care most about registrations of new users, a user who registers on your site from an SEM or SEO lead will count as a conversion. If you care most about traffic to your site, then any user that comes to your site from an SEM or SEO link will count as a conversion.

Why This Is Important: Conversion is important because you will want to know the cost to obtain each new conversion on your site. You’ll also typically want to keep the conversion cost below your profit from each transaction (unless the value of the customer to you over a period of time, is sufficiently high that you’re willing to pay MORE for the conversion cost than your profit for the initial transaction).

Tips: Do your best to keep conversions tied to the same outcome for the various SEO and SEM campaigns you’ll undertake. It’s OK to have multiple desired outcomes – but it’s confusing if you keep changing between them. We made the mistake early on of  regularly changing our definition of “conversion” and this created two problems. First, it created useless data because we could not compare conversion rates later in the campaigns to the earlier data. Second, it made conversion a moving target and made it difficult to evaluate our success. Once we settled on a defined conversion, it was much easier to make decisions and look at comparative metrics.

image credit: hetemeel

3. Leverage Online Tools. There are many excellent online tools that will help you with SEO and SEM campaigns. Not all are useful. Some won’t give you meaningful answers. Others will be very difficult to use. Read some reviews about the various tools and try them out before committing to use them.

Why This Is Important: SEO and SEM are complex areas and you’ll quickly find yourself lost unless you learn how to leverage the excellent tools others have built to help you.

Tips: One of the most important tools for any effective SEO and SEM strategy is website analytics. There are many paid options for website analytics. Some are outstanding, while others – not so much. We like and use Google Analytics. It’s free, powerful, and easy to use. Without a comprehensive website analytics product, you’ll be blind to how your SEO and SEM campaigns are performing, and you’ll be unable to tweak them to improve conversions.

Once you’ve taken care of analytics, you’ll want to identify some tools that will help you with keywords (for both SEO and SEM). I use (and like) the SEO for Firefox extension to help with keyword strategy. You’ll also want to spend some time with this powerful online tool from Google that allows you to view statistics based on actual Google search queries. The Google tool will look at your existing site and prepare a keyword report based on the content on your site – a very helpful feature.

When putting together your SEM campaigns, you’ll be presented with many different options – take the time to study and learn the differences between those options. For example, you’ll have to decide (for SEM via Google) whether you want a Broad Match, Phrase Match, Exact Match or Negative Keyword. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Broad matches would cause your ads to appear more often (thus potentially maxing out your SEM spend earlier in the month). Exact match would cause your ads to appear less often, potentially stretching your budget, but you might find your conversion rates are lower. Every company is different and there is no clear rule for which type of matching option will work for you. Use the other tools you’ve identified to test a variety of strategies and see which works best for your business.

4. Always A/B Test (especially for SEM). Every business is different. Generally, what works for one business (from an SEO or SEM perspective), may not work for another business. That’s why it’s always important to constantly test different variations of pages (or selected content on the pages (called multivariate testing).

Why This Is Important: Unless you constantly test, you won’t be able to optimize your site to maximize your SEO and SEM efforts. By constantly forcing your best performing pages to beat “challengers” (other pages you’ve created to see if they might perform better), you’ll continue to make sure that your landing pages are converting well.

Tips: Most SEM products, such as Google’s AdWords program, are set up to allow you to create champion/challenger situations that test different versions of ads. If you are not testing at least two ad copies, you need to write additional ads. You can let the AdWords system control the frequency with which a specific ad will be shown based on its success in converting users (or you can rotate the ads evenly). You can define success in different ways. For example, if you consider it sufficient that a user comes to your landing page, you can define success based on click-through rate (CTR). [Example: If one out of 100 users clicks your ad copy, the CTR of that ad is 1%]. If you optimize based on CTR, AdWords will optimize to make sure that the ad copy which has the highest CTR rate is shown the most times. Replace ads that are not effective with other variations and continue to create challenges to your successful ad copy. We’ve found that it’s important to continue to experiment – at all times.

Products like Google’s Website Optimizer will easily let you set up A/B tests (and multivariate tests) to test different versions of pages and selected content.

image credit: mil8

 

5. Pay Attention To Landing Pages. User experience is important – probably as important as the content. Unfortunately, you’ll rarely hear it mentioned in the context of SEM.

Why This Is Important: After a user clicks your ad in a search engine or on your search result in a search on Google, Bing, or another search engine, the landing page is the first thing they’ll see on your site. So spend some time thinking about where to send your users when they click your SEM ad copy (or when developing your SEO-focused pages). In some cases, it’s perfectly appropriate to send them to your home page. In other cases, you’ll want to create special landing pages that are closely tailored to your ad copy or to your SEM campaign(s). For example, although our homepage ranks pretty well for many searches, we’ve created custom landing pages for hundreds of different terms, including logo design, web design, stationery design and many more.

Tips: Most people tend to ignore SEM landing pages, thinking that once the user is on your site, they’ll find their way around. That’s a dangerous assumption. And it’s wrong. Similarly, many people don’t pay attention to bounce rates. Bounce rates measure how many visits went only to that landing page and nowhere else on your site. Bounce rates are not a complete measure, but do help you assess whether certain pages are better than other pages in drawing traffic further into your site.

6. Get Granular. You’ll want to spend some time researching the keywords that will drive SEO or SEM traffic to your site. This can take time. Look at your competitors and find the keywords they are using to market their products or services. Look at the meta keywords in their HTML code – these will give you lots of insight into the keywords your competitors consider important. Use tools to create permutations of words, to find singulars, plurals, synonyms, etc. of your intended keywords.

Consider other resources that let you focus your efforts with some precision. For example, most small businesses are not aware that you can target very inexpensive advertising to hyper-local recipients on Facebook (see number 2 in that link). For example, a bakery can target recipients in their zip code.

Why This Is Important: The more granular your campaign, the better you’ll be able to understand what’s working for you and what’s not working. This will allow you to minimize your costs and to maximize the return on your efforts.

Tips: Keep an open mind about keywords. If you are bidding on a term such as “mortgage”, you’ll find that plenty of others may out-bid you. So you need to get creative. Are there other ways to refer to the same terms that are not quite as popular, but perhaps more affordable for you? Don’t get overly fixated on any single word. SEM campaigns can include huge lists of keywords. Our own SEM campaign has included thousands of keywords. A company like Ebay is easily tracking millions of keywords in their SEM campaigns.

image credit: mag3737

7. End Poorly Performing Campaigns And Try Something Else. Early in our SEM campaign, we were worried about making changes. We kept waiting for more and more data so that we could properly asses whether our campaigns were effective. This was a mistake. In not making early decisions to terminate poorly performing keywords, we wasted money.

Why This Is Important: It is important that you look at all relevant data, and it’s true that more data is often better. But that’s not always true. Early in our campaigns, we waited too long to make changes and regretted waiting when we saw that our changed ad copy, or changed landing pages, worked better than the copy/landing pages we used prior to the changes. And in other cases, for certain campaigns, we found that changes didn’t improve things at all – leading us to terminate certain SEM campaigns earlier and saving money in the process.

Tips: Consider that some keywords will be very expensive for paid advertising (SEM). Although you might not bid on those keywords, think about your strategy to try to focus some organic search traffic to your site (SEO). What content can you create that would result in organic search traffic? Keep in mind, however, that there’s competition for SEO too – not just for SEM. If you were a user of your service or buyer of your product, how would you find your company? What searches would you do? Look to see what results are coming up in those searches and study what others are doing for SEM and SEO. Create a list of the things they’re doing and test them (but don’t get stuck on any particular strategy – what works for them may not work for you).

image credit: zoomar

8. Leverage Professionals. I’ve spent nearly 12 months focusing on SEO and SEM efforts. This is a complex area and while certain things might seem easy – effective SEO and SEM is anything but easy. It requires time and a great deal of effort. And the effort, especially for SEO, is ongoing. Don’t be afraid to leverage professionals who specialize in this area.

Why This Is Important: You can quickly get swallowed up by all of the things you’d need to do to execute an effective SEO and/or SEM strategy. This could be a full time job. For several people. Make sure – when you are spending your own time on these efforts, that there’s value to you doing it. And if there is – go for it.

Tips: Most people will need some guidance about basic strategy – and nothing more. Others will need guidance plus execution. Everyone is different. When you engage SEO and/or SEM experts, talk to them about the types of services they provide and the cost for those services. Consider what your needs are and consider starting lighter (fewer professional services) and building from there.

image credit: Peter Fuchs

9. Ignore The Noise. In the past year, I’ve read a LOT about SEO and SEM. Some of it is quite helpful. Much of it is useless – and even more importantly – some of it is wrong.

Why This Is Important: Some SEO and/or SEM companies are outstanding. Others are average. Yet others will HURT your business. For example, there’s a lot of noise about various strategies that are not only wrong – but can cost you dearly in terms of SEO. These include hidden content, stuffing meta keywords with too many word, doorway/gateway pages designed for search engines, not people, and link farming (using networks of link “farms” to generate cross links among many sites).

Tips: Ignore Black Hat SEO techniques (like the ones I listed above). Ignore anyone who claims they can guarantee you a top result in organic search. There are no guarantees. Question anyone who says they can execute an SEO campaign in a few weeks. Especially for highly competitive keywords, effective campaigns take 3-6 months (or more).

image by: Cayusa

10. Stay True To Your Business. Write for your audience, not for search engines.

Why This Is Important: Many businesses forget that they have customers or users and are developing content for their community. SEM and SEO is important – but not at the expense of gutting your site in order to drive traffic – unless that’s ALL you’re trying to do. Over time, real and meaningful content will bring the right kind of traffic to your site. Don’s sacrifice early short-term gains for long-term success.

Tips: Do optimize what you write for SEO and SEM, but don’t get fixated about SEO and SEM. Create good content, and SEO will, over time, take care of itself. Do think about landing pages for SEM campaigns, and think about the user experience. Although search engines will be crawling your pages, your users ultimately help you to make money – and you have to make sure that they find your site easy to use.

image credit: matt [sucka MC]

I’d love to hear from you. There are MANY oustanding SEM and SEO techniques. What suggestions can you add to this list? Can you share a story from your experience?

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