Top 5 SEO Strategies for Small Businesses in 2020

By Kelsey McKeon / 1 April 2020

As marketers struggle to adjust to COVID-19 by reducing outreach and cutting costs, now is the perfect time for small businesses to start performing search engine optimization (SEO). Here are the top 5 SEO strategies for small businesses in 2020, according to a survey of more than 500 small businesses in the U.S.

How many search engine results do you usually look at before clicking on one? If you’re like 75% of people, you don’t scroll past the first page of Google.

This underscores why large and small companies alike fight for positions on the first page of a Google search result. The higher a page ranks, the more likely it is to be seen by the right audience.

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a common marketing strategy that promotes a business’s rank in search engine results. Without SEO, it can be difficult for small businesses to rank on that coveted first page.

Small businesses, however, are not taking full advantage of the ease and cost-effectiveness of SEO.

We surveyed 501 small businesses in the United States and found just 30% have an SEO strategy in place to improve their website’s organic ranking. 

For small businesses looking to reduce spending during the COVID-19 pandemic, SEO is an easy-to-implement and affordable strategy that garners returns over the long-term.

We provide 5 SEO strategies that small businesses can implement today to improve their online visibility and traffic at little cost.

New Data on Why Small Businesses Need SEO

  • Most small businesses (70%) do not have an SEO strategy, despite SEO being a cost-effective way to improve brand awareness.
  • Small businesses don’t need to be experts to start an SEO strategy. Two-thirds of businesses that invest in SEO (62%) rely on in-house employees to manage it.
  • SEO is easy to learn and implement. More than half of small businesses that invest in SEO (53%) did so in the last three years.
  • Most small businesses that invest in SEO (56%) are confident in their strategies.

5 SEO Strategies Small Businesses Should Use

  1. Keyword research and targeting
  2. Local search engine optimization
  3. Mobile optimization
  4. Content creation
  5. Link building

Why Invest in an SEO Strategy?

Small businesses were reluctant to pursue search engine optimization even before the coronavirus pandemic. 

We found that only 30% of small businesses use SEO to promote their company, despite the long-term benefits of organic search engine rankings.

70% of small businesses do not have an SEO strategy

Some small businesses might avoid SEO because they don’t often see immediate results.

“SEO is a long-term initiative that can take months to bear fruit,” said Matt Satell, SEO manager at venture capital firm Mechanism. “Companies often decide to prioritize other quick-win acquisition channels.”

Despite any preconceived notions about optimizing for search, most small businesses that invest time and resources in SEO (56%) are confident in their strategies.

Small businesses should invest in SEO for 3 reasons:

  1. Organic search rankings establish trust and credibility
  2. SEO is cheaper than paid advertising
  3. Search engine optimization is easy to learn

Organic Search Builds Trust and Credibility

According to SparkToro, organic search results get about 20 times more traffic than PPC ads. Top rankings in organic search results indicate Google values a business or website enough to rank it as the most useful for a specific query.

High rankings imply authority. Searchers know when companies have paid to appear in certain results pages so trust organic rankings more. 

SEO Is Cheaper Than Paid Advertising

With capabilities such as audience targeting, paid advertising on search engines and social media might seem like a marketer’s dream.

Investing time in acquiring organic search engine rankings, however, might have a better ROI than paid advertising during times of economic downturn.

Almost two-thirds of businesses that invest in SEO (62%) rely on in-house employees to manage their SEO strategy, and 77% of those in-house employees manage SEO alongside other responsibilities.

Most small businesses are not hiring experts to manage their SEO, which shows they can still implement effective strategies by training in-house teammates.

SEO Is Easy to Learn

You don’t have to be a marketing expert or website developer to learn SEO. Some of the most effective SEO strategies are easy to learn and implement.

Most small businesses (53%) only began investing in SEO in the last 3 years.

SEO is an important long-term investment for small businesses. Here are 4 strategies small businesses can implement right now to improve their SEO over time.

Strategy 1: Research and Target Keywords

Keyword research helps businesses understand what searchers are looking for and optimize their websites to appear in the best search results for their market.

Most small businesses that invest in SEO (70%) use keyword research and targeting.

70% of small businesses that use SEO perform keyword research and targeting

According to SEO company Moz, keyword research is the process of researching and identifying words and phrases that consumers use to search for a specific result.

Identifying keywords and working them into your website copy is an easy way to help your website rank in Google. 

If you’re new to keyword research, start by typing topics related to your business into Google. A natural skincare company, for example, might use keywords such as “skincare routine,” “self-care,” “face,” “sensitive skin,” or other related terms.

The keyword “skincare routine,” shows featured products and long-form content that helps potential customers learn how to use specific skincare products and tools.

search engine results page for "skincare routine" keyword

Searching for keywords helps you see what terms your competitors are ranking for. This will help you narrow down your keyword search. 

For example, the SERP for the keyword “skincare routine” shows products from makeup brand e.l.f. and an article from skincare retailer Dermstore’s blog.

Use free tools such as Google Ads to learn which keywords have a high volume of searches and low to medium levels of competition.

When you’ve decided on terms to target, start by incorporating those keywords into these key places on your website:

  • Title tags such as headers tell search engines what your website is about.
  • URLs show search engines on how to navigate your website.
  • Image alt text shows search engines that your images contain.
  • Meta descriptions tell searchers what your content is about in the SERP.

This is an easy way to improve your SEO for free with little time and effort. 

Patrick Ambron, the co-founder and CEO of reputation management firm BrandYourself.com, advises small businesses just getting started with SEO to also remember to try to rank for their name.

“Make sure you own the first page of Google for your name,” Ambron said. “In uncertain times, people do their due diligence. You want to make sure that when people search for your brand name, they find your website, social media profiles, and positive reviews.”

Little Barn Apothecary, a boutique skincare company in Atlanta, owns the search result for its name.

little barn apothecary SERP

People who search “Little Barn Apothecary” on Google find the company website at the top of the search results, along with its social media pages. This makes the company reliable and trustworthy.

Implementing basic keyword research for relevant search terms, including your company’s name, establishes a foundation for a long-term SEO strategy.

Strategy 2: Optimize Your Website for Local Search Results

Google search engine results change based on location. This makes local search engine results pages even more important for small businesses such as cafés, restaurants, photographers, and local artisans.

More than half of small businesses that use SEO (53%) use local search optimization to target results pages by location.

53% of small businesses that perform SEO optimize their website for local search results

Google provides clear guidelines for ranking in local search results. Small businesses can improve their local rankings with Google My Business, Google’s business listing service.

Google My Business profiles appear next to search results for specific keywords. 

Here’s the search engine results page (SERP) for “Little Barn Apothecary,” where you can see its Google My Business page.

Google My Business profile Little Barn Apothecary

Google My Business profiles show the company’s location, address, phone number, website, and reviews in one convenient location within the SERP.

Google provides specific guidelines on how to use Google My Business to improve local search rankings, including:

  • Making sure your business’s data is complete
  • Verifying your location
  • Managing and responding to Google reviews

Google determines local ranking by a company’s relevance, distance, and prominence. Google evaluates a business’s “prominence” through more traditional SEO factors such as links

Small businesses can validate their relevance and distance to a location by keeping a Google My Business profile up-to-date.

Ranking in local search results will help small businesses reach people closest to them.

Strategy 3: Make Your Website Mobile-Friendly

Searchers, and Google, value well-built websites that provide accurate information quickly. Small businesses should invest in high-quality websites that are fast and mobile-responsive.

Google began mobile-first indexing in July 2019. This means Google’s search engine “crawlers,” or bots used to review website code to determine SEO value, now review pages as they appear on mobile devices first.

It’s no surprise, then, that most small businesses that use SEO (51%) invest in mobile-friendly websites.

51% of small businesses that perform SEO invest in mobile-friendly websites

Mobile searches account for more than half of Google search traffic. When small businesses have mobile-friendly websites, they provide a better user experience for most people browsing mobile devices.

Fortunately for small businesses, Google makes it easy to test if a website is optimized for mobile with its Mobile-Friendly Test.

Google Mobile-Friendly Test The Manifest is Mobile Friendly

Google lists the test results next to an image of how a website appears on mobile. The Manifest is mobile-friendly and “easy to use on a mobile device,” according to this test.
 
Small businesses should also invest in website builders to develop their websites instead of trying to build a website from scratch.
 
Website builders such as Squarespace and Wix are affordable tools that help businesses create high-quality websites with easy-to-use software. 
 
Bill Joseph owns Frontier Blades, a small e-commerce company that does not run traditional paid advertisements on Google. Instead, he relies on optimizing his website for search.
 
“Using a website builder has two advantages. It improves page speeds and addresses technical SEO issues,” Joseph said. “For e-commerce businesses, Shopify is the recommended website builder. It’s easy to set up and allows users to customize for SEO by editing individual meta titles and meta descriptions for each product.”
 
Metafields are pieces of information that help businesses add custom fields to specific elements in Shopify such as products and orders.

Shopify metafield configuration

Shopify lets you edit metafields and include keywords you want to rank for. Google and other search engines examine website elements such as metafields. Using keywords there will help improve your SEO.
 
Website builders such as Shopify and Wordpress also have dedicated resource guides on optimizing websites for SEO.
 
Structuring a website for SEO might seem challenging for small businesses with little in-house development experience. Seek out expertise when working in the backend of your website to make sure it functions properly for users and Google.

Strategy 4: Create High-Quality Content

Content extends beyond text on a company’s “About Us” and home pages. Small businesses should create high-quality, useful content for their users to improve their SEO.

Almost half of small businesses that have an SEO strategy (45%) create high-quality content to support that strategy.

45% of small businesses support their SEO efforts with high-quality content

“High-quality” and “useful” content depends on a company’s industry and audience. Small businesses aren’t limited to long-form written content.

When brainstorming ideas for content, check the SERPs for the keywords you are targeting. The types of content that appear in the results pages indicate what types of content your audience is searching for.

A skincare company such as Little Barn Apothecary, for example, might want to include content about how to use serum products in a regular skincare routine.

how to use serum search engine results page

The SERP tells us that “skincare serum” yields listicles and how-to guides for people interested in investing in a serum.

The “People also ask” SERP feature is also a useful tool for generating content ideas. Find related topics by clicking through each suggested question.

Small businesses looking for content topics should leverage their company blogs to answer audience questions and provide solutions to common pain points.

“Rather than posting generic company updates, businesses should ask their customers ‘what are your biggest needs or challenges?’ and then create content to address those,” Satell said. “While it may seem counterintuitive to help solve a potential customer's problem before they hire you, they'll think of you as an authority and look to you first when a major issue arises.”

Creating content to solve client problems helps you build authority among your audience and Google. 

“Content doesn't have to be Pulitzer Prize-winning material,” said Zack West, project manager at small business digital marketing agency Novomotus. “Having a few pages with content strongly optimized for SEO is a good place to start,” ”After that, anyone on staff with some idea of the nature of the business can create supporting content such as blog posts.” 

Small businesses don’t have to hire professional writers to create content. Teammates across the business can contribute expertise to a company blog and support SEO efforts.

Strategy 5: Build a Backlink Profile

Earning links back to a website is a core tenet of effective SEO. Successful link-building strategies require a significant investment in time and personnel effort, however.

Only 24% of small businesses invest time in building high-quality backlinks to their website.

24% of small businesses performing SEO have a link building strategy

Search engines consider links back to a website an endorsement of that website’s content. The more links you have, the more “votes” search engines can use to evaluate your website.

Earning links, however, can be challenging for businesses whose resources are already spread thin in the current environment. Some common link-building practices include:

  • Guest blogging or guest posting
  • Broken link building from businesses that link to competitors
  • Answering questions on Help a Reporter
  • Conducting outreach to journalists to earn coverage

These practices require several hours of content creation and outreach. Here are a few helpful resources about establishing and maintaining an effective link-building strategy:

Use these resources to prepare your link building strategy to improve your SEO.

Small Businesses Should Invest in SEO Long-Term Results

Small businesses need free and affordable options for increasing their online visibility. Search engine optimization (SEO) is a long-term strategy that helps businesses drive traffic to their websites.

Small businesses can start investing time in SEO by researching keywords relevant to their offerings. They can then use those keywords in the relevant website content.

Small businesses should also make sure they’re reaching local searchers by optimizing their Google My Business page. This is a fast, easy way to rank in local search engine results pages.

Optimizing websites for mobile will help improve a small business’ SEO. High-quality content will help small businesses establish credibility with Google and their audience.

It’s an uncertain time for small businesses. SEO is a long-term and affordable marketing strategy that will benefit businesses for a long time.

About the Survey

The Manifest surveyed 500 small business owners and managers at companies in the U.S. with fewer than 500 employees. We define small businesses as having limited revenue and between 1 and 500 employees, which corresponds to the Small Business Administration's definition of small business.

Seven percent (7%) of respondents’ businesses have 1 employee; 75% have 2 to 10 employees; 14% have 11 to 50 employees; 2% have 51 to 250 employees; 1% have 251 to 500 employees.

Sixty-one percent (61%) of survey respondents are female; 39% are male.

Four percent (4%) of respondents are Generation Z (born after 1996); 20% are millennials (1981-1996); 33% are Generation X (1965-1980); and 44% are baby boomers or older (before 1965).

Respondents are from the South (36%), West (23%), Midwest (22%), and Northeast (15%).
 

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