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02.22 by Cameron Martel

Small Business SEO Isn’t About Rankings Anymore

When I first got into SEO, it was some black magic that most people not only didn’t understand, but didn’t see the value in. Most small business owners had large Yellow Pages budgets, and for many, a website – nevermind SEO – wasn’t on the radar.

Of course, things have changed, and small business has adopted digital as the ad platform of choice.

Still, the understanding of SEO – or lack of it – didn’t change. What really changed is the column on the ledger where budgets go; Yellow Pages lost out to PPC, website development, and SEO. But with respect to SEO itself, most people don’t “get it”.

I get that.

Good news: SEO isn’t a black magic anymore. In fact, proper SEO is a transparent process that works in harmony with your larger business goals.

SEO in 2018 is very different than SEO in 2014 (itself an evolution of how SEO was done compared to years before it), and so on.

One big change? Rankings.

Or, specifically, how they don’t matter much anymore to your local small business.

Okay, I Lied: Rankings Totally Matter


If you’re a niche content website owner, rankings likely matter very much to you. If you’re a small business owner competing in local search, rankings have been becoming less and less important as a metric.

Why? Because…

  • Google is now placing ads in the local results.
  • Google is hyper-localizing results for many types of searches, especially on mobile. Open your phone, type in “coffee shop”, and see what I mean.
  • Rankings are highly customized to users. Location, search history, device, and other elements help dictate the results displayed when a search is done.
  • Google is continuously looking for ways to improve search results and decrease the level of effort required from the searcher to get the information they’re looking for. Featured snippets are a great example of this type of thinking in action.

The most important reason that local search rankings don’t matter anymore, though, is that most “money keywords” to a small business owner are now hyper-localized. 

Localized Keywords Depend Heavily On Where the Searcher Is

A recent post on Moz about proximity and its importance as a ranking signal presents some good information.

For most businesses, the key take aways are:

  • Local intent keywords – like “Calgary lawyers” – tend to display clustered results near the searcher’s location
  • Websites that have almost no proper SEO can appear in the local pack (again, depending on searcher proximity)
  • Local search results – the map 3-pack Google displays – are going to get even more competitive
  • Proximity is now the main local ranking signal: I can conduct a search in one part of the city, and you can perform the same search in another part of the city, and we will get different results
Assuming this trend continues, local search will drive fewer leads and less traffic moving forward.

So, what does this practically mean with respect to SEO for small businesses? It means on-site SEO and long-tail keywords take a larger focus.

Localized Keywords Depend Heavily On Where the Searcher Is

The basic on-site fundamentals – page titles/metas, use of h-tags, etc. – have always been important. With ongoing changes to how Google displays local results, they become even more important.

But on-site goes beyond the basics. In 2017 and moving forward, a major part of your on-site strategy will be on amping up the user experience and encouraging content consumption from your visitors.

In my experience, a small business can do this affordably by:

  • Building out a great website. This means a website that loads quickly, is effective at conveying its message, and is accessible to all users on a range of devices.
  • Track user engagement on the website using heatmap and interaction software (I’m keen on HotJar).
  • Have the website regularly audited for maintenance and housekeeping items. Look for things like broken links, broken CSS, outdated plugins, etc.
  • Creating an experience that is user-centric. This means intelligently planning out content flow, call to action elements, and other key areas of the website.
  • Present users with quality content that is well-researched, cited where appropriate, and relevant to their interests (and regularly add new content that meets this caliber).
Whether you are working with an agency (like us) or working on your own, keeping your on-site experience to standard is an increasingly important part of SEO.

Proper On-Site Optimization Facilitates Long-Tail Keyword Rankings

As good as Google is becoming at cataloging and sorting the web, it still has a long way to go in naturally understanding which content deserves to go where.

One of the ways that we can assist Google is by creating content that has semantic relevancy.

Semantic relevancy is about being relevant for a separate, but related keyword. We create a page about pink shoes, and through semantic relevancy we can also obtain rankings for “pink toe shoes”, “pink high-top shoes”, and so on…

…but only if we do a good job helping Google determine that relevancy exists.

Effectively using h-tags, lists, and other methods to structurally and logically format content helps with semantic rankings. This is on-site SEO 101.

Create & Promote Content Designed to Meet User Intent & Provide Value

This piece is particularly important and will become even more so as Google better understands the types of websites its users find valuable.

User intent – what someone is looking for when they perform a search – isn’t new. In fact, I wrote an article about user intent in 2012.

Google wants to show results to its users that do a good job addressing that user’s intent. By doing so, the user is likely to continue to use Google search (and perhaps other services, such has investing in an Android phone or using Google G-Suite for business apps).

Knowing this, your content needs to be high-grade in order to rank. What does this mean for a plumber or electrician?

  • Convey key value propositions on your service pages. If you offer a 5 year repair guarantee, call that out prominently. Take it a step further and explain the specifics and implications of the guarantee.
  • Create content that addresses the user’s specific need. If they found your page by searching for “overhead door repair”, convey a few common repair examples and provide an overview of how you fix them.
  • Make it easy for the user to move to the next-step, and actively encourage them to do so. A gentle-nudge can improve conversions.
  • Highlight important points with media (images or video) where appropriate.
Create content that users find genuinely engaging and helpful. Not only is it easier to generate links and reputation for content of this type, but users are more likely to share and come back- signals that influence ranking.

Leverage Long-Tail Keywords

If local search is going to be more competitive, you have a few options: ramp up your SEO efforts to compete, or direct your energies to less competitive areas.

Longtail keywords – something like “best shop to replace brake pads in Calgary” as opposed to “auto mechanic Calgary” – are much easier to rank for. Assuming you do your keyword research and identify long-tail’s that receive traffic, you can also increase your organic traffic from Google.

This is a long-term strategy, where the focus is less on “where do I rank in Google” and more on “how much organic traffic did I capture from Google?”

Long-tail keywords are much less visible. Frankly, it’s nearly impossible to think of every combination of words someone might use to ask the question “best place in SE Calgary for dinner”. What matters is that you can capture that traffic – from that keyword directly and keywords like it – through a combination of creating good content and ensuring said content is properly optimized for semantic relevancy.

Organic Traffic, Even if It Isn’t From Your Target Demographic, Is Valuable. More of It is a Good Thing.

Organic traffic – traffic that comes from a search engine – has a lot of value. I try to build as much of it for my client sites as possible (and for my own sites as well, of course).

Even without front-page rankings for money keywords, leveraging long-tail keywords to build qualified traffic brings several benefits:

  • More exposure. The more organic traffic you receive to your site, the more eyes that see your branding and value proposition. Sure, someone reading a blog post on “why road salt kills lawns” may not turn into a customer directly, but it helps. How? By…
  • Promoting visibility, which in turn promotes further visibility. If you’re a plumber in Toronto, someone from Vancouver reading your article about how to replace leaky seals on a faucet may seemingly have little value. However, if that same person shares your article on a homeowners forum, you’ve gained a valuable backlink and more exposure… meaning this process is more likely to happen again. This is the type of SEO Google wantsto see.
  • More data to improve your site with. The more traffic your website receives, the larger the pool of data you have to make decisions with respect to layout and content optimization.

As Rankings Become Less Predictable, Maintaining a Great Website & Optimization Strategy Becomes Even More Important

Google changes. In SEO, this reality is foundational: it drives SEO forward, as Google’s continuous refinements and updates force SEO’s and business owners alike to update their web presence and marketing efforts.

From Google’s perspective, moving to a more customized search has two big benefits: users enjoy a better experience, and Google drives more advertising. After all, if it’s more difficult to earn organic ranking for many keywords, more businesses will pay to advertise there instead.

This process is happening whether we like it or not- it’s on us to adapt.

Your website, SEO, and PPC efforts need to be integrated, as all disciplines benefit from each other directly and indirectly. The foundation to all of this – all of your digital marketing efforts – is your website; it also happens to be the variable you have the most control over.

So, while local SEO is indeed becoming more competitive, at the very least, we have more influence over key parts – the website being the most significant – of what it takes to rank.

As we near the end of Q1 2018, the future of SEO is becoming quite clear: speak to the user better than the competition, and promote the great quality content you’ve created to do so.

In SEO Strategy, Small Business

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