A small business can succeed with SEO on a small budget. It’s a matter of setting the right priorities — that is, priorities that can be handled within your budget and can move the dial.
The tactics for executing an SEO campaign are going to be somewhat different for every company. However, the strategic process for arriving at those tactics is basically the same no matter what type of business you are in. So, let’s concentrate on understanding the SEO strategy. It’s a simple, three-part process.
What Is the Purpose of SEO?
Believe it or not, many companies get tripped up right out of the gate by failing to ask this seemingly obvious question or by answering it incorrectly.
The purpose of SEO is to drive qualified organic traffic (mainly from Google) to your website where visitors will convert by making an inquiry or placing an online order.
Traffic without conversions does you no good, because sales leads and/or online orders are the ROI of SEO. But also, conversions without a critical mass of traffic don’t do much good either, because in all probability the cost of running the campaign will exceed the revenue it generates.
With this in mind, we can move to the first step of a small-budget SEO strategy — a website audit.
1) Website Audit
Google’s search algorithm ranks content (that is, individual pages of your website) based on a whole bunch of ever-changing, differently weighted ranking factors. But generally, for a web page to rank highly for relevant search terms (keywords), your content must have site-wide authority and page-specific authority. Building both types of authority is the central concern of all SEO campaigns.
Why do site and page authority matter? Let’s suppose you have a product/service you really want to focus on for SEO, because it’s profitable or unique or whatever. If you have the greatest page in the world from an SEO perspective but your website looks confusing or shady to Google crawlers, that page is unlikely to get ranked very well. Conversely, if your website impresses the heck out of Google crawlers, but the page for your target product/service is SEO-deficient — or nonexistent, as is often the case — then that target page will not rank well.
A website audit looks at all the technical aspects of your website to identify issues that make it difficult or impossible for Google to interpret (and therefore index and/or rank) your content. Many kinds of issues can crop up, from slow page-loading speed to duplicate content to mishandled redirects. An audit may also include a competitive analysis to show you how well your target keywords are performing.
An audit is the first step you should take because if your website has issues that cripple it right out of the gate, every penny you spend on an SEO campaign will be wasted. Once problems have been identified through an audit, you can prioritize them, fixing the ones that must be fixed and putting off the repair of others that have little impact.
Warning: Some technical issues are easy and inexpensive to fix. But you may uncover an issue with an expensive fix, such as fundamentally flawed site navigation. Nevertheless, regardless of cost, your SEO spend will achieve little unless your website is in Google’s good graces. Also worth mentioning: SEO issues are generally important beyond SEO. For instance, if your site navigation is hard for Google to understand, it will be hard for human visitors to understand, making conversions from any source highly unlikely.
Online audit tools
Many online audit tools are free or involve a minimal charge. Some of these tools are very good; our agency offers one. However, an online tool should never be your only auditing resource. No matter which online tool you use, the data is very unlikely to be complete, and the methodology and assumptions behind the evaluation may not be totally applicable to your business. Supplement a free audit with a detailed analysis from a qualified SEO specialist.
While you’re at it, run another type of audit, the Google Mobile-Friendly Test, on your site. Mobile friendliness is not only crucial for conversions no matter where your site visitors come from, but it is also a ranking factor of large and growing importance. If you have a responsive website (and let’s hope you do), the fixes are often simple and inexpensive.
2) Reduce SEO Campaign Scope
With your SEO foundation strengthened by repairing problems that arose from the audit, your next step is to focus on setting up a campaign you can afford.
Going back to what I said earlier about target product/service pages, you need to zero-in on only those pages where achieving high rankings is possible, and where it pays to achieve high rankings.
For small-budget campaigns, optimizing 50 or 100 product/service pages is a blunder — too many keywords to optimize, too much content to write or optimize, and too many backlinks to create. At most, a small-budget campaign should concentrate on the home page and perhaps 1-10 product/service pages.
A narrow scope maximizes results. For instance, creating 10 backlinks to 1 very important page is much more cost-effective and productive than 1 backlink to 10 pages of varying importance. Concentrate your efforts and your money on the fewest possible activities — that is, the activities you absolutely need.
In addition to limiting the scope of pages, also limit the basket of keywords you’re optimizing with respect to those pages. You can waste thousands of dollars going after a super-popular search term for which you’ll never get top rankings, because it’s highly competitive and being pursued by big competitors with big SEO budgets. Much more cost-effective and successful keyword tactics include focusing on longtail terms (those with less search volume but high conversion potential) and geo-targeted keywords (to cut down on the intensity of competition).
(I’ll touch on a few other tactical tips for low-budget campaigns at the end.)
Each target page (home page plus “x” number of product/service pages) should have a primary keyword and a handful of secondary keywords, all being as relevant as possible to the content of that page.
And, very important, keep the scope of the content on those pages focused like a laser on those keywords. For instance, the site page associated with target product “y” should be 100% dedicated to product “y,” not dedicated to products “a” through “z.” Why? Because the more relevant to the keyword your content is, the more likely Google is to show that page to search engine users using that search term.
3) Eliminate Unnecessary Work
A few years back, everybody in the SEO world was spending an inordinate amount of time disavowing bad links because Google had come out with some updates that penalized shady linkbuilding practices that had mushroomed out of control. Disavowing links is a process of identifying unsavory links back to your site and letting Google know you don’t endorse them or want them. This is technical, time-consuming work.
It may have been worthwhile then, but now, Google has improved its technology to identify and ignore these bad links without any intervention from you. And yet, many companies continue to spend an inordinate amount of money chasing down these links, either because nobody realizes it’s no longer necessary, or because the company had a bad experience (such as getting a warning or penalty from Google) and is now operating out of fear. (Sometimes links should be disavowed, but those situations are few and far between.)
This example illustrates why systematically reviewing all the SEO activity underway in your campaign is necessary. Google changes the rules. Best practices evolve. If you’re using tactics that made perfect sense in, say 2015, you’re way overdue for an audit of your campaign tactics — it should be done at least annually.
So, with audits, we’ve come full circle for low-budget SEO strategy. If you monitor everything carefully and continually, you’ll make the most of your SEO investment, stretching every dollar to the maximum.
Low-budget SEO Tactics
Some or all of these may be useful once you’ve got your strategy in place.
- Offsite content for link building. Writing offsite content is an excellent way to build links. As an expert in your field, you have great information to share. But if you do the writing to reduce cost, have someone edit it before submission. A professional editor is ideal, but a college student majoring in English or somebody on staff who has good writing skills is far better than nothing. Concise, error-free content attracts conversions, whereas the opposite drives prospects away.
- Title tags. Title tags are an extremely important piece of metadata Google uses to rank websites. Title tags describe the content of a web page, appear in web browser tabs and are seen by Google crawlers. At the very least, your home page and target pages should have title tags consisting of 50-60 characters, with the page’s primary keywords at the beginning. Ideally, all pages of the website should have optimized title tags. It’s easy enough to do — but a lot of small companies overlook it.
- Local SEO. You can often optimize for local searches with very simple and inexpensive tweaks such as adding your company name, full address and phone number to every page of your website. Local businesses should also complete a full profile on Google My Business.
- Refresh Content. Google likes content updates (they tell Google you’re paying attention and your content is thus reliable). Review your existing site content to clean up clarity and grammatical issues, add new information, delete outdated information, and add new imagery and photos. Your SEO investment to do these things is minimal and serves double-duty by making your site that much more interesting and useful to human visitors.
Brad Shorr is Director of Content Strategy at Straight North, a Chicago-based Internet marketing company that specializes in SEO. With decades of marketing, sales and management experience, Shorr has written for leading online publications including Forbes and Entrepreneur and the American Marketing Association.