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Small Business SEO Guide: Boost Your Rankings, Traffic, and Sales

By | February 3, 2022

When 74% of shoppers who search online before going into a store say they research things like the closest store near them, opening times, and more, no business is too small to need an online presence.

But in 2022, most businesses already understand that value, and as a result, the competition is immense. Hundreds of both small local businesses and large national ones fight over who will show up at the top when a consumer searches for terms like “pizza delivery.”

If you want a piece of the pie, you’ll need to master the art of small business SEO.

In this article, we’ll explain how local search makes small business SEO different (and gives you a fighting chance against multi-million-dollar companies). We’ll also share actionable tactics to help you rank your website and business listings.

What is small business SEO?

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the art and science of getting your website to rank high in search engine results (primarily Google’s) for relevant keywords.

Small business SEO is a sub-category focused on strategies and tactics that small businesses can afford to implement to compete — rather than multi-million dollar backlink and content marketing campaigns.

For example, a small business could focus all of its energy on a smaller niche in its industry, establishing its website as a reliable authority on that topic, to start ranking certain pages in Google search results.

Or, if you’re struggling with a lack of backlinks, you can arrange a local event to get featured by local media sites, sponsor a few stories, or join a local business directory.

Later in the article, we’ll dive deeper into exactly how you can implement strategies like these to help build your organic traffic as a small business.

But first, we need to address the elephant in the room — for brick-and-mortar small businesses, regular SEO might not be the most important investment.

Local search and its role in small business SEO

“Local search” is a term that refers to searches with local intent, AKA a user looking for something in an area near them. For searches like that, Google tends to show Google Maps results rather than web pages.

Graphic comparing regular and local SEO

Google understands the search intent of search terms like “bakery near me” and “restaurant” and gives priority to businesses that are actually close to the consumer.

Local search results on Google

What’s more, searches for local experts and technicians like “electrician,” “carpenter,” and “plumber” now often show G Maps results at the top, even without “near me” in the search phrase.

If you have a local brick-and-mortar business, you have a unique opportunity when it comes to SEO.

If your most important search terms tend to show local search results, then your priority should be to optimize your Google my business profile, not your website, first.

  • To show up in Maps results, you need a Google My Business profile.
  • Factors like how complete the information is (opening times, menu, etc.), number of reviews, and your average review score affect where you appear in the ratings.
  • Even website-based results for terms with some local intent prioritize local businesses to an extent.

We’ll cover exactly how you can master your local SEO in this article. But don’t worry, if you don’t have a retail location or you’re already ranking for local results, we’ll cover real strategies for ranking your website as an SMB as well.

How do I start small business SEO?

To start doing small business SEO and improving your rankings, you need to either optimize your website or, if you’re a brick-and-mortar business, your Google My Business listing.

  • Optimizing a website means doing keyword research, crafting quality content, building relevant backlinks, etc.
  • Optimizing your GMB profile means categorizing your business correctly, adding professional photos, encouraging reviews, being a responsive owner, etc.

We realize that not all small businesses have brick-and-mortar locations. So we’ve divided our SMB SEO strategy into three parts — one for local search on GMB, one for local search on your website, and one for your website in general.

How to optimize your GMB for local search

First, let’s cover how you can optimize your GMB listing and website for local search. If you don’t have one yet, the first thing you need to do is create a listing and claim your business.

Google my business profile creation

Even if you didn’t create a profile, there’s a chance one of your customers already registered you on Google Maps.

In that case, your business might show up as an existing business when you type in your business name.

Select the business, and continue with the signup process to claim that listing and get control over it.

Now, let’s walk through how to optimize your listing.

1. Choose appropriate primary and secondary categories

Optimizing your Google My Business profile starts with categorizing your business correctly. Your categories are one of the main things that control which keywords your business will show up for.

Don’t forget to pick a secondary category or two that accurately reflect the services you offer.

For example, if you own a restaurant that focuses on Thai cuisine, “Thai restaurant” would be a logical sub-category if your top-level category is “restaurant.”

You can add additional categories by going to the “Info” tab and clicking the pencil next to your primary category (in this case, “Restaurant”) right under the business name.

Editing categories in Google My Business

You could also add categories like “food delivery” if you offer delivery services.

2. Fill out relevant category-specific information

For businesses in many categories, Google will ask you to fill out category-specific information. For example, for restaurants, you should select the “dining modes” that you offer, and if you offer delivery, specify the hours and the delivery radius.

Dining modes in Google My Business

This type of special info can help you rank for relevant search terms like “Thai takeout” or “Thai delivery,” not just the top-level search term “Thai restaurant.”

3. Upload professional photos

Next, you don’t want to just rely on the pictures that your customers take. Sure, making Instagrammable food or products will help your profile look better, but you should also upload professional pictures to set the mood for your business.

While Google has transitioned to showing fewer pictures on business profiles on desktop, on mobile, it’s still the first thing that grabs a potential customer’s attention.

And that’s why professional images are so important. Just look at how five-star London restaurant Helen Darozze uses carefully-selected photos to represent the experience of the restaurant.

Helen Darozze's Google Maps listing on mobile

Don’t try to misrepresent your business to be something that it isn’t with your photos. For example, don’t pretend that your restaurant is fancy if it isn’t. This will set the wrong expectations for customers and can often lead to negative reviews.

Instead, put your best foot forward as what you are. Show the real atmosphere of your business, but with well-lit, professionally-taken photos.

4. Include your USP in your description

A “unique selling proposition” is a short statement that sums up what sets you apart from your competition — why someone should choose your business specifically.

For example, the restaurant Helen Darozze includes the following USP in its description and “from the business” section: “Famous chef’s haute cuisine in an elegant hotel dining room with wood panels and colorful fabrics.”

Your difference could be your price point, location, fast delivery, or anything else. If you’re struggling to come up with a USP, ask some of your regular customers why they keep coming back for more.

5. Create menus or add product catalogs

If you have a restaurant, you can create an interactive menu by adding and naming pictures of dishes, rather than just uploading a boring picture of a menu.

Photos of dishes in GMB

And the cool thing about Google Maps for retail stores is that you can actually show up for Google searches for specific products like “Nike Air Force 1.”

To do this, you need to set up a Google Merchant Center account, create a live product catalog, and link it to your GMB account.

6. Set up messaging

Messaging allows users to message you directly through Google Maps on mobile with any questions — like how to locate your business or whether you’re still open.

This offers a quick and free way to get in touch with you and can help you convince any potential customers who are still on the fence.

7. Encourage reviews

No matter how good your images, categories, and descriptions are, if your average rating is 1.7/5, local search probably won’t deliver many new customers.

In a 2021 survey, 85% of consumers said they had read an online review in the past month. I mean, think about it, when was the last time you went to a new restaurant or hotel without checking its online reputation?

Encouraging customers to leave reviews is a crucial part of local SEO. You can:

  • Set up automated reminder campaigns to ask customers for reviews.
  • Hang a “please leave a review if you enjoyed the food/service” sign on the door.
  • Work actively to go above and beyond and leave an impression on your customers.

Google specifically prohibits “bribing” customers for reviews, but many businesses resort to this tactic regardless, offering gift cards or specials in return for a review. If it gets out, this could lead to positive reviews getting removed, or even fines or other legal repercussions (since it’s technically illegal).

8. Keep up-to-date

The final tip for your GMB profile is to keep it up-to-date always. If you change your opening hours, you should ensure your profile reflects that.

You don’t want to give potential customers the wrong idea.

Optimizing your website for local search

Now that you understand how to optimize your GMB profile, let’s talk about how you can optimize your website for local search.

1. Include an address widget on all pages (For NAP)

The most important thing for terms with local intent like “business + your city” is that Google understands that your business is local.Name, address, and phone (NAP) are crucial ranking factors for local SEO. A local landline number and address prove to Google that your business is located in a specific area.

So include a widget with your address — and preferably a Google Maps embed — on all relevant pages.

Here’s an example from the California-based gym chain Fit Athletic.

Address widget on Fit Athetlic's website

If you have multiple locations, you should create individual pages for each location, complete with address widgets, phone numbers, and employee profiles.

If this all sounds a bit overwhelming, you can take a look at some of our Local SEO packages.

2. Link to your website site from your GMB listing

This is the easiest optimization step ever, but a surprising amount of businesses forget to link to their website from their business profile.

Just add the correct URL to your GMB profile, and you’ll help drive the point home to Google that your website is indeed associated with a local business.

3. Work to get featured on local news sites and business directories

Backlinks — links to your website from third-party websites — is the most fundamental building block of any SEO campaign.

Backlinks show Google that other people trust the quality of your content; that you’re worth featuring in the SERPs.

Building backlinks that matter for local SEO means getting established in your local internet bubble.

For example, you can arrange a local event that you know will get picked up by the local news. Or you could join a local business club to get featured in their directory with a link.

4. Target relevant local keywords like “business + location”

If you want more customers coming in the door, you need to target the right search terms with your pages, headlines, and content.

For example, instead of going after “gym,” Fit Athletic targets “best gym in San Diego” with its homepage.

If you want to improve your local SEO, these are the kinds of search terms you want to target.

Pro-tip — you can explore the types of keywords people in your local area search for by restricting location to your city or state when doing keyword research.

Google Keyword Planner local keywords

But enough about local SEO. Let’s talk about how you can outmaneuver the national and international competition as an SMB.

How to optimize your small business website for general SEO

Now, we’ll explore how you can master the art of general SEO and start ranking for search terms unrelated to a specific location.

1. Set up Google Search Console and fix any glaring technical SEO issues

Google Search Console is Google’s official tool for helping webmasters improve their SEO. In it, you can track all traffic generated from organic search and identify technical SEO issues with free tools.

Google Search Console dashboard

For example, you can see which pages Google has indexed in the “Coverage” section and identify any potential issues.

Coverage in Google Search Console

If you want a more advanced website SEO audit, you can use our free tool to get further insights, like missing meta tags, broken links, or lacking relevant keywords in your header tags.

2. Optimize existing (and new content) for on-page SEO

Getting on-page SEO right is crucial if you want to conquer your dream keywords. On-page SEO focuses on structuring your pages in a way that Google and visitors like.

For example:

  • Include your target keyword in H2/H3 headers and your meta title and description tags.
  • Use your target keywords in the first 100 words.
  • Don’t spam the keyword, but include related terms or “semantic keywords” throughout the blog post.
  • Include images with image alt tags that include the keyword or semantic keywords.

If you use WordPress, it’s a lot easier to implement (and check that each page is optimized) with an SEO plugin like Yoast.

3. Aim for the long-tail (less competitive and often more targeted)

Long-tail keywords are very specific search phrases with multiple words that focus on a certain thing.

Long-Tail Keywords

Not all long-tail keywords will be relevant to your business, but the right ones highlight strong commercial intent from the get-go.

As business owners, it’s easy to get seduced by the large volume of general keywords, but they rarely lead to sales.

Specific long-tail keywords often indicate that users are almost ready to make a purchase. Key examples are search terms that get more specific about the type of product the user is looking for — like “best budget + product” or even specific product names.

Use a keyword planning tool to explore different long-tail phrases related to your main keywords.

Keyword planner results for laptop

4. Focus on one topic and build your Topical Authority over time

When you come up with a blog post idea, do you try to stick to a specific topic, or do you just randomly write about every aspect of your business?

One approach is way more practical for building authority and ranking in the short term.

Topical Authority is a Google ranking factor where Google tries to evaluate how much you know about a specific topic.

For example, if you sell tractor attachments, you should focus on related topics like maintenance, how to install them, etc., not write about farmers’ markets or how to take care of cows.

Even if you focus on a super-narrow topic, with good keyword research, you’ll never run out of blog post ideas.

5. Follow a simple internal linking strategy like content pillars

Just writing a blog post every now and then isn’t enough to start ranking in Google. You need a strategy for creating content that helps build up each other.

One popular approach is called “content pillars.”

  • Basically, it’s when you create a page targeting a mission-critical keyword, for example, “best budget gaming laptop.”
  • You then create blog posts and other pages directly related to this page, for example, individual laptop reviews.
  • Finally, you link to the main page or “content pillar” from the blog posts and other related content.

You can check what your internal linking structure looks like with Google Search Console.

6. Feature credentialed experts to appeal to E-A-T

In a 2018 update, Google introduced a new (and very impactful) ranking factor — E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness).

Basically, it considers three things:

  • The expertise of the writer or video creator.
  • The authoritativeness of the website, content, and writer.
  • The trustworthiness of the website, content, and writer.

Google measures authority and trustworthiness in terms of backlinks and online reputation. Backlinks from relevant industry publications matter a lot more here than random blog network links.

Google also considers the writer’s credentials of the content — for example, MDs are preferred for medical topics.

A shortcut to taking advantage of this is to hire a credentialed expert who already writes for other websites to create content for your blog.

7. Use social media to build relationships with creators in your niche

You need backlinks to build trust and authority, as well as to climb the rankings. But it’s not an easy task. One effective long-term strategy is to build relationships with other creators and brands in your niche through social media.

You can use a tool like BuzzSumo to explore potential candidates.

BuzzSumo

Once you identify relevant influencers, start interacting with them on Twitter — and don’t be afraid to give them a shoutout.

From there, you can explore the possibility of guest posting or some other form of content collaboration.

8. Create flagship content like customer research to attract backlinks from authoritative sites

Off-page SEO is all about the backlinks. If nobody links to your domain, Google doesn’t believe that people care about your website, and it sets your domain authority as low.

To combat this, you can create flagship content like industry or customer research, infographics, or interactive tools.

This type of content is a great way to attract backlinks from authoritative sites in your industry.

Creating original research is particularly effective because writers from other sites might want to quote your statistic to back up a key point they’re making — like you might have seen throughout this piece.

In addition to outreach campaigns, you need content that’s worth linking to in the worth place.

Ready to use SEO to scale your business?

When done right, SEO can help you dramatically scale the number of incoming customers. Even for local search terms, becoming a top result can mean hundreds of extra customers per month.

But with Google’s complex (and constantly changing) algorithm and millions of competitors, it’s not an easy task.

You need to optimize all your pages, posts, and other content, fix technical issues, and attract high-quality backlinks. If you feel like you could use some help, schedule a call with our SEO experts today.


Director of Brand Strategy

Rachel is The HOTH’s Director of Brand Strategy. In 2016, she launched The HOTH’s content department, including HOTH Blogger. Rachel speaks at 1-2 industry conferences per month while overseeing The HOTH’s organic content and brand strategy. To book some time to chat about content creation, SEO, and SEM, click here.

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