Small Business in a Changing Search Environment
For most small businesses and entrepreneurs, navigating the world of search engine optimization (SEO) can be a daunting prospect. In the Digital Age, most successful organizations are aware of the need to have a robust and well-managed online presence; however, unless your business is somehow engaged in this space, you might not feel like you have either the familiarity to be effective or the financial bandwidth to hire someone who is.
In the world of Google, this has become increasingly difficult for many businesses as Google has aggressively updated its search algorithms via a zoo of updates such as Penguin, Hummingbird, Pigeon and Panda.
We talked to a number of small and entrepreneurial businesses to get some insights into how they are managing their online presence in the wake of these updates.
Many companies have reacted to Google’s algorithm changes by moving into alternative forms of online marketing, such as social media, and distributing their own digital content. Edward Yang, managing partner of Firecracker PR, experienced the need to diversify firsthand. “My PR agency used to rank in the top 5 for Google when searching for tech PR or technology public relations,” he says. “But, after one of [Google’s] major updates a couple years back, it took a hit and sunk in the rankings. Needless to say, it put a big dent in our lead generation. This drove home the need to diversify away from Google, or indeed any one source for leads. If you over-rely on one source like I did, you end up scrambling when something unforeseen happens.”
Other businesses we talked to echo this sentiment. “We used to generate a lot more contacts organically through our website,” says Adam Kruse, a realtor and owner of Hermann London Group. “As that turned down, we were able to turn up efforts like Facebook advertising, monthly e-Newsletters, and generally getting better at turning more of the leads we did get into business.” Kruse says his company has transitioned from a strategy in which they were receiving a large volume of leads and cherry-picking the best into a strategy of receiving relatively few leads and nurturing each one.
For small businesses, Google’s changing algorithms aren’t all bad, says Jason Parks, owner of The Media Captain, a digital marketing agency located in Columbus, Ohio. “Small businesses are actually in great shape to succeed in the changing search environment,” Parks says. “Google is now looking for high-quality links pointing back to your website, and a small business is in position to compete with the big boys with the algorithm changes over the past couple of years. If a small business owner and their staff reach out to sites that are located within the same community or same industry and contribute content onto their site, they will not only be viewed as an industry expert, they will get valuable links pointing back to their own site.” Parks says that by using a localized SEO strategy, his company is competing with some of the top digital marketing agencies in the Columbus area.
Joseph Rogers, owner and operator of Quest Floor Care, LLC, has similarly had success thinking locally. “I’m the smallest of small businesses,” he says. “Ranking in Google Search has been at the forefront of my mind … and for three of the municipalities in my area, I’m ranked 1st, 2nd, or 3rd for a variety of keywords. I don’t necessarily rank for organic, national keywords, however, and have found Google Local to be particularly helpful to me as a local service business, simply BECAUSE the rule for ranking in the Local 7 pack are different than for organic national keywords. Think Carpet Cleaning (Municipality) vs. Carpet Cleaning,” Rogers says.
Legitimate, Quality Content
While the content strategists above have discussed new strategies that reduce their use of Google or attempt to take advantage of alternative avenues, Sandip Sekhon, founder and CEO of GoGetFunding, believes there’s still room for small and entrepreneurial businesses to succeed in Google’s changing environment. “We’ve thrived in search despite multiple Google updates by, as cheesy as it sounds, focusing on providing a great user experience,” says Sekhon. “The people that got burnt during the Google updates were really those with shallow content sites or unnatural links. Google is getting better and better at detecting when someone is trying to game their search results. We never built any natural links, and even when someone did link to us with ‘keyword rich’ anchor text, we’d ask them to change it to our website name to help ensure we aren’t seen as trying to inflate our ranking for keywords,” Sekhon says.
Along those same lines, Mike Mishkin, founder of Love Where You Live Realty, emphasizes the need to focus your content. “There’s plenty of search traffic to go around,” he says. “We have a small NYC real estate brokerage, and we use an SEO/marketing agency with really successful results. We’ve found that there’s plenty of search traffic to go around as long as you’re specific with your message. Big websites might cast a wide net, but specificity and precision go a long way, and strong intent can still convince Google that you should be #1 for a particular keyword,” says Mishkin.
Katie Bisson, the marketing and public relations for Technology Seed, a managed IT service provider in New Hampshire, says that although Technology Seed is a small business, she finds a digital presence to be crucial for marketing IT services. She follows the following three strategies to remain visible in an increasingly challenging online environment.
Additional Best Practices
The following are some additional insights from small businesses and others who have learned how to navigate the ever-changing world of SEO:
We rely on Google to provide almost all of our business (about 80% organic, 20% paid search), and we’ve been able to literally double our business for 2014 over 2013. From the beginning we’ve focused our SEO strategy on high-quality, thorough, original content and relevant, manual (i.e. not automated) link-building. We’ve also learned a few tricks along the way, like allowing users to comment on our web pages—this provides a constant stream of fresh, long-tail content to help drive more search traffic. This led to a tremendous search traffic boost when Google released their Hummingbird algorithm update, and we’ve continued to grow from there.
– Dan Rapoport, Marketing Director
The Rosenblum Law Firm, P.C.
We are fortunate in that we’ve always been a .com, so Internet and search engine marketing is integral to our success. As such, we’ve had to closely monitor changes in search engine algorithms—if we didn’t, we’d go bust. A lot of small businesses haven’t felt the need to stay on top of these developments until fairly recently. The second way we’ve survived is by investing in content. Search engines like well-written, informative content, so we worked hard to both build up our blog and foster an active network of cross-blogging partners. Google, and other search engines, want to point their users to high-quality sites that will actually satisfy whatever search query brought them to that list of results. Content is still king, and anyone dependent on search engine traffic needs to remember that.
– Deborah Sweeney, CEO
PPC advertising (such as Google AdWords or social media ads) can be a great way for small business owners to increase exposure on a budget that they can control very strictly. Obviously it depends a lot upon the specific industry, as some keywords are prohibitively expensive. But for less competitive keywords, PPC can be a great way to jump to the forefront of search ranking. I’ve used PPC advertising to grow a number of my small business clients, as well as the company I personally work for. The most important thing to keep in mind is the importance of tracking your campaigns diligently. You can use the analytics of Twitter, LinkedIn, or wherever you’re advertising as a starting point, but it’s crucial to also be using your own tracking URLs to make sure you aren’t getting a rosier picture than is reality.
– Adam Barnhart, Director of Marketing
Even as a small company, the only way to get organic web traffic is to dedicate time to creating targeted content. In our case, I have a background in SEO and use those skills as part of our content creation strategy, doing my best to keep up to date. What matters, though, is creating quality, usable, shareable content that will be valuable regardless of SEO strategy. Our most popular pages are informative blog posts that establish Camino Information Services as an expert in the IT field, and that perceived expertise is an invaluable asset for converting leads. It’s not about creating mass amounts of content; it’s about creating a good amount of strong content. If the content is valuable, the changes in algorithms are only beneficial. What has worked for us as a company is to stick to the basics, meaning:
- Have an active blog with associated social media channels,
- Make sure the blog posts are centered on a well-researched keyword, and
- Attempt to create useful content.
– Sarah McMullin, Business Development Specialist
Camino Information Services
Our mantra and recommendation to small business owners is: Track, Test, Tweak, Repeat. Through this process, you’re trying to find 2-3 marketing tactics that produce new customers profitably (i.e. the cost per sale from the marketing tactic is less than the lifetime value of a customer).
Although we recommend having a diverse marketing strategy that is not overly reliant on a single tactic, platform or website (e.g. Google.com), in some industries SEO and PPC (both Google-centric tactics) are by far the most profitable marketing channel.
At Blue Corona, our small business clients have actually done better with each Google update. Where small companies get in trouble with things like SEO is when they fall victim to spammy tactics that favor quick wins over long-term success. SEO is a marathon, not a sprint.
– Ben Landers, President
Dealing with Google algorithm changes became burdensome and truly a war of attrition. I decided to quit worrying about a site that would please Google and dedicated my resources to generating quality content covering a wide range of topics within our practice. In fact, we focus on writing for both the prospective client as well as fellow attorneys who may hire us as co-counsel for the litigation portion of a case. Over the past year, I have noted substantial gains in the calls and emails we are receiving from prospective clients and referrals from fellow attorneys has skyrocketed as we are perceived as being authoritative on the subject of personal injury law.
– Matthew Dolman
Dolman Law Group
Morgan’s & Phillip’s Speed Shop is a boutique menswear brand that focuses on retro styled automotive and motorcycle apparel. What I have done to keep our brand in the forefront is take control of content. Instead of just hosting a blog on our own site we have created other lifestyle sites that happen to host advertising for our own brands. We are sure to point out that any posts that feature our products are sponsored but it has made a big impact in our web traffic, and it allows us to have our brand’s advertisements placed with relevant stories. The key to getting traffic today is providing great, shareable, content, that is not spammy or overly promotional.
The idea of life after Google implies that there is a problem with being a small business in the face of a search giant like Google and the way they do operations. If small business play with, rather than against the Google system, they will ultimately end up doing much better. Our business started out small, very small actually, back in 2007. We were a tiny carpet cleaning operation and we have since expanded using the way Google updates its algorithms in order to prosper. In effect we have used the way that the algorithms desire authoritative content and localized results for our purposes. By creating a webpage for all the different keywords and search terms that define the nature of our business as home restoration professionals, we have cornered the search for our market. We’re even playing on the same field as our competitors who are hundreds of times bigger than us in the same game.
– Alexander Ruggie