Website Best Practices, Part I: Search Engine Optimization
What a small business owner needs to know about search engine optimization

by Reed Richardson

For small business owners looking to make their company's website work more effectively and bring in more customers, the journey will inevitably lead to the term "search engine optimization," or SEO, for short. SEO, strictly defined, is the technical fine-tuning of one's website so that it ranks higher in online searches, which can provide a potentially lucrative benefit to most small businesses since roughly four out of five online transactions begin with someone typing terms into a search engine.

But few of these searchers ever click past the first or second results page, so businesses that ignore SEO do so at their own peril. Then again, bringing in an expensive tech consultant still won't magically guarantee landing on that first results page, since even the savviest SEO experts are essentially making educated guesses as to how the complex algorithms at Google, Yahoo, Bing, and other online search engines work.

So, what's a budding entrepreneur whose company is low on capital to do? Pocket the cash you were going to use to hire that IT expert and instead take a few, fairly simple steps in the following three categories to put your website on the right track toward SEO success.

1. Content is king
Perhaps the foremost thing small business owners should keep in mind when search-engine optimizing their own website is to apply the same general principle used in the rest of their business: give the customer something of value worth looking for. On a website, this valuable content is typically words and pictures. (Fancy applications, like pop-up Flash video introductions, should be avoided because search engines don't index them very well.) As a result, one of the most basic and effective SEO techniques simply involves putting interesting, informative content on your website (articles, recommendations, company history, product explanations, blog posts, etc.). In addition, you should be populating that interesting content with between a half-dozen to two dozen carefully chosen keywords. These keywords are just that, key words or phrases that potential customers would likely type into an online search engine when looking for your company's products or services.
Some of these keywords may be obvious, but small business owners are often surprised by what exactly leads people to their website. So, to get a better idea of the real navigation habits of your website visitors, it's worth investigating which keywords best match your company in the online world. Google, which still dominates the marketplace thanks to the fact that it's used in two-thirds of all online searches, has two free applications that can help in this. The first, its AdWords keywords tool (, is geared more toward prospective online advertisers but it can still offer some valuable insight, while the second is a more straightforward search-based keyword tool (

There are also external companies like Wordtracker and Keyword Discovery that, for a small fee starting at around $60 to $70 a month, will help you hone in on the most effective SEO keywords for your business and let you do the rest. (Both Wordtracker and Keyword Discovery currently offer free trials as well.) After you've chosen what look like a handful of on-target keywords, conduct a trial run with them embedded into your website's content, checking the results over time with a rank-tracker tool. (SEOmoz offers a free service that lets you track up to five rankings a day here: You will probably find that you still need to tweak your keywords a bit to optimize your results.

If a few keywords on a webpage can be an effective page-rank booster, even more keywords should vault your website to the top of the heap, right? Wrong. Search engines like Google, wary that egregious keyword-stuffing will skew their results, actually punish those websites that engage in this kind of online babbling by lowering their rankings or banning them from the results altogether. Plus, if a business starts contorting its website to simply appease a search engine rather than to woo potential customers, chances are it'll be doing more harm than good in the long run anyway.

As a helpful guide, some SEO experts advise a ratio of one keyword or phrase per paragraph, which works out to roughly three to five percent of all text. Still, striking just the right keyword balance-enough to boost your page ranking but not so much as to make your text unreadable or anger the search engine gods-is a bit of an art, so trial and error is to be expected. (For a good primer on keyword integration into a small business website's text, go here:


2. Links are lifelines
Though keywords and content play an important role in SEO, a recent survey by the online research firm found that attributes associated with external links comprised the top three and four out of the top five ranking factors in determining overall page ranking. (See the survey results here: In essence, Google and other search engines interpret lots of external links pointing to your website as kind of an online proxy for your business's legitimacy and reputation, so small business owners cannot overlook link-building when optimizing their website. And to hit a real SEO home run regarding backlinks to your website, you should use, and encourage others to use, your chosen keywords as the clickable "anchor text" for the link. (For instance, Google would get way more bang for their SEO buck with a link to their website that reads: "To find something on the Internet, try Google's online search engine," instead of: For the best in online searching, check out Google's website here.)

"Links are like doors," explained Thomas Petty, CEO of the Bay Area Search Engine Academy, in a recent article on SEO link building. "The more you have, the more likely someone is likely to walk through them." (To read the whole article, go here:

And while building a bunch of these doors through random, guerilla-style posts elsewhere on the Internet may seem like an easy and harmless way to handle this, it isn't actually going to do much for your page ranking, because search engines also evaluate the quality of the source doing the linking.

Instead, a good place to start link-building involves enrolling your business in each of the major search engine's local business directories-Google Places, Bing Local, Yahoo Local-as well as other popular online business listings like SuperPages, YellowBook, Citysearch, and Yelp. By joining these free directories, you'll get greater exposure to customers in your geographical area plus more links from sources with sterling reputations, all without shelling out a dime. And don't forget to include more niche professional associations on this list; whether they be an industry-specific trade organization or a collegiate alumni group, if they can provide a solid spot for a link, take advantage. But to make the most of these steps, make sure your website is already geographically keyword-rich, which means having your business's physical address listed somewhere on every page of your website.

After you've accomplished that, it's time to activate a more long-term, link-building strategy, one that seeks out and places links at locations online where your potential customers might already be gathering. For example, posting worthwhile comments-be sure to include your company's web address, of course-on industry or business-related blogs can be a great way to get well-trafficked links. Or, joining in the comments related to a pertinent news story on your local newspaper or TV station's website can likewise lend your business and its website better search engine ranking. And social networking sites offer a plethora of linking opportunities for small business owners. But beware, just throwing a shameless marketing pitch, apropos of nothing, onto a blog, Facebook page, or news story's comments section will quickly earn your business a reputation as little more than a spammer and your page rankings could suffer accordingly.

3. Coding pays off
This last SEO area to focus on-coding-involves the more technical aspects of your website and is the area least noticed by potential customers, but ignoring it would still be a mistake. That's because implementing a few, fairly easy infrastructure tactics can return some noticeable dividends in terms of page ranking. For example, the fourth-highest page-ranking factor found in the recent SEOmoz survey was the simple act of including keywords in the title tag of every webpage. (To see an example of a simple, yet well-executed title tag, click on the survey again here and look to the very top of your browser's view frame. There, you'll see "Search Engine Ranking Factors ı SEOmoz," a title tag that includes a highly searchable phrase and the business's name.) By ensuring every page on your website has keywords inserted into the HTML title tags and that each one also has a distinct, page-specific title tag, you'll be making significant SEO progress.

Another relatively painless SEO must-do besides embedding keywords into your title tags involves enrolling your website in Google Analytics ( This free program lets you track where your business's online visitors come from and how they move in and around your website once they get there. Armed with this information, you can then begin to tweak your site to better attract potential customers via searches as well as enhance your website's "stickiness," or how well you keep visitors engaged on your site before leaving. What's more, just as you want your website's language and images to be engaging and easily navigable to these potential customers, so too should you verify that your website's technical language is fully understood by the search engines. To stay on top of this, it's recommended you periodically check for HTML coding hiccups and errors by plugging your web address into a free online verification tool like the one from W3C here:

Finally, savvy small business owners must scour their websites for any other content that isn't easily interpreted by a search engine-like images and videos-and then tag or convert that information into text so that it contributes to your SEO efforts. Any photos on your website, for instance, should be tagged with HTML "alt text" that will give a search engine an idea of what's there. (For tips on how to write SEO-friendly alt text, check out: Likewise, a video tutorial embedded on your website that explains how one of your products work should be accompanied by either a text transcription or an instruction manual so those details can help your page ranking.

Undertaking a SEO campaign can seem daunting to a small business owner, particularly one who doesn't claim much technical aptitude. But by following a few simple rules and taking a handful of relatively easy steps, an entrepreneur can go a long way toward boosting their website's page ranking with a short amount of time and money.

This article is the first in a series to focus on website best practices for small businesses. Be sure to check in soon for Part II, on how to use Social Networking to enhance your business's online profile.

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