Small Business SEO Checklist:
1. Commit yourself to the process. SEO isn’t a one-time event. Search engine algorithms change regularly, so the tactics that worked last year may not work this year. SEO requires a long-term outlook and commitment.
2. Be patient. SEO isn’t about instant gratification. Results often take months to see, and this is especially true the smaller you are, and the newer you are to doing business online.
3. Ask a lot of questions when hiring an SEO company. It’s your job to know what kind of tactics the company uses. Ask for specifics. Ask if there are any risks involved. Then get online yourself and do your own research—about the company, about the tactics they discussed, and so forth.
4. Become a student of SEO. If you’re taking the do-it-yourself route, you’ll have to become a student of SEO and learn as much as you can.
5. Have web analytics in place at the start. You should have clearly defined goals for your SEO efforts, and you’ll need web analytics software in place so you can track what’s working and what’s not.
6. Build a great web site. I’m sure you want to show up on the first page of results. Ask yourself, "Is my site really one of the 10 best sites in the world on this topic?" Be honest. If it’s not, make it better.
7. Include a site map page. Spiders can’t index pages that can’t be crawled. A site map will help spiders find all the important pages on your site, and help the spider understand your site’s hierarchy. This is especially helpful if your site has a hard-to-crawl navigation menu. If your site is large, make several site map pages. Keep each one to less than 100 links.
8. Make SEO-friendly URLs. Use keywords in your URLs and file names, such as yourdomain.com/red-widgets.html. Don’t overdo it, though. A file with 3+ hyphens tends to look spammy and users may be hesitant to click on it. Related bonus tip: Use hyphens in URLs and file names, not underscores. Hyphens are treated as a "space," while underscores are not.
9. Do keyword research at the start of the project. If you’re on a tight budget, use the free versions of Keyword Discovery or WordTracker, both of which also have more powerful paid versions. Ignore the numbers these tools show; what’s important is the relative volume of one keyword to another. Another good free tool is Google’s AdWords Keyword Tool, which doesn’t show exact numbers.
10. Open up a PPC account. Whether it’s Google’s AdWords or Yahoo’s Search Marketing or something else, this is a great way to get actual search volume for your keywords. Yes, it costs money, but if you have the budget it’s worth the investment. It’s also the solution if you didn’t like the "Be patient" suggestion above and are looking for instant visibility.
11. Use a unique and relevant title and meta description on every page. The page title is the single most important on-page SEO factor. It’s rare to rank highly for a primary term (2-3 words) without that term being part of the page title. The meta description tag won’t help you rank, but it will often appear as the text snippet below your listing, so it should include the relevant keyword(s) and be written so as to encourage searchers to click on your listing. Related bonus tip: You can ignore the Keywords meta altogether if you’d like; it’s close to inconsequential. If you use it, put misspellings in there, and any related keywords that don’t appear on the page.
12. Write for users first. Google, Yahoo, etc., have pretty powerful bots crawling the web, but to my knowledge these bots have never bought anything online, signed up for a newsletter, or picked up the phone to call about your services. Humans do those things, so write your page copy with humans in mind. Yes, you need keywords in the text, but don’t stuff each page like a Thanksgiving turkey. Keep it readable.
13. Create great, unique content. This is important for everyone, but it’s a particular challenge for online retailers. If you’re selling the same widget that 50 other retailers are selling, and everyone is using the boilerplate descriptions from the manufacturer, this is a great opportunity. Write your own product descriptions, using the keyword research you did earlier (see #9 above) to target actual words searchers use, and make product pages that blow the competition away. Plus, retailer or not, great content is a great way to get inbound links.
14. Use your keywords as anchor text when linking internally. Anchor text helps tells spiders what the linked-to page is about. Links that say "click here" do nothing for your search engine visibility.
15. Build links intelligently. Submit your site to quality, trusted directories such as Yahoo, DMOZ, Business.com, Aviva, and Best of the web. Seek links from authority sites in your industry. If local search matters to you (more on that coming up), seek links from trusted sites in your geographic area—the Chamber of Commerce, etc. Analyze the inbound links to your competitors to find links you can acquire, too.
16. Use press releases wisely. Developing a relationship with media covering your industry or your local region can be a great source of exposure, including getting links from trusted media web sites. Distributing releases online can be an effective link building tactic, and opens the door for exposure in news search sites. Related bonus tip: Only issue a release when you have something newsworthy to report. Don’t waste journalists’ time.
17. Start a blog and participate with other related blogs. Search engines, Google especially, love blogs for the fresh content and highly-structured data. Beyond that, there’s no better way to join the conversations that are already taking place about your industry and/or company. Reading and commenting on other blogs can also increase your exposure and help you acquire new links. Related bonus tip: Put your blog at yourdomain.com/blog so your main domain gets the benefit of any links to your blog posts. If that’s not possible, use blog.yourdomain.com.
18. Use social media marketing wisely. If your small business has a visual element, join the appropriate communities on Flickr and post high-quality photos there. If you’re a service-oriented business, use Yahoo Answers to position yourself as an expert in your industry. With any social media site you use, the first rule is don’t spam! Be an active, contributing member of the site. The idea is to interact with potential customers, not annoy them.
19. Take advantage of local search opportunities. Online research for offline buying is a growing trend. Optimize your site to catch local traffic by showing your address and local phone number prominently. Write a detailed Directions/Location page using neighborhoods and landmarks in the page text. Submit your site to the free local listings services that the major search engines offer. Make sure your site is listed in local/social directories such as CitySearch, Yelp, Local.com, etc., and encourage customers to leave reviews of your business on these sites, too.
20. Take advantage of the tools the search engines give you. Sign up for Google’s webmaster Central and Yahoo’s Site Explorer to learn more about how the search engines see your site, including how many inbound links they’re aware of.
21. Diversify your traffic sources. Google may bring you 70% of your traffic today, but what if the next big algorithm update hits you hard? What if your Google visibility goes away tomorrow? Newsletters and other subscriber-based content can help you hold on to traffic/customers no matter what the search engines do. In fact, many of the DOs on this list—creating great content, starting a blog, using social media and local search, etc.—will help you grow an audience of loyal prospects and customers that may help you survive the whims of search engines.
1. Don’t reply to the SEO spam you get via e-mail. You don’t need to submit to 1,000 search engines or 500 directories. You can’t buy 2,000 quality links for $50. And no reputable SEO can guarantee a number one ranking on any search engine for keywords that matter. The kind of SEO company you want to hire doesn’t send out spam.
2. Don’t wait too long to implement SEO. Whether you’re launching a new Web site or upgrading your current site, SEO considerations should be part of the discussion from day one.
3. Don’t take your decision to hire an SEO company too lightly. Hiring an SEO company is not like choosing a company to service your copy machine. Online marketing can make or break your company, so choosing a vendor should involve a lot of research and questions with the companies you’re considering.
4. Don’t hire an SEO company and then divorce yourself from the process. It’s your job to know and understand as much as possible about the strategies and tactics your SEO company will be using. If your SEO company uses high-risk tactics and your site gets caught, you’ll be the one paying the price.
5. Don’t spread your content over several domains. There are times when sub-domains or an additional domain might make sense, but those occasions should be dominated by user and content considerations, not an attempt to get multiple domains/sites listed in the SERPs. Know the pros and cons of using sub-domains and additional domains.
6. Don’t waste your time submitting your URL to search engines. The crawler-based search engines will find your site more quickly as soon as you get a link from another web site already being crawled. Search engine submission died a few years ago.
7. Don’t make your web site uncrawlable. This can result from an incorrect robots.txt file, having session IDs or too many variables in your URLs, using a convoluted navigation menu that spiders can’t (or won’t) follow, or developing an all-Flash, all-graphic, or all-AJAX site.
8. Don’t target overly general keywords. A real estate agency in Wichita has no shot at ranking for the phrase "real estate;" a lawyer in Fresno has no shot at ranking for the word "lawyer." Optimize for relevant, specific keywords that will bring targeted traffic.
9. Don’t stuff keywords in your meta tags, image alt tags, etc. That is so 1996-97. Today, it’s called spam.
10. Don’t stuff keywords in your page footer with lightly-colored or hidden text. That is so 1998-99. Today, it’s also called spam.
11. Don’t have the same title element on every page. Variety is the spice of life and, combined with relevance, is a pre-requisite to avoiding duplicate content issues and Google’s supplemental index.
12. Don’t allow both www.yourdomain.com and domain.com to resolve to your home page. Those are two separate addresses to a search engine, and that means you have the same content at two addresses. On a related note, don’t link to your home page with a URL like www.yourdomain.com/index.html—that’s also a separate address from www.yourdomain.com and will also look like duplicate content.
13. Don’t ignore usability. Things like proper site structure, logical navigation, descriptive link text, etc., are good for both users and search engine spiders.
14. Don’t give up on creating great content because you think your customers don’t need or want it, or because your product or service doesn’t lend itself to great content. No matter what business you’re in, you can add great (linkable) content to your web site. A glossary is an easy way to create a page of great, keyword-rich content. Also consider a frequently asked questions page, a testimonials page, how to articles, product support manuals and so on.
15. Don’t develop an unbalanced link profile. Too many small business owners, knowing links are important, immediately begin trading links with any and every site they can find. Not a good idea. Reciprocal links aren’t bad by default, but if most of your inbound links are the result of link trades, they won’t help much. Reciprocal links should only be made with quality, relevant web sites, and should only represent a fraction of your overall link profile.
16. Don’t request the same exact anchor text on all links to your site. This is an obvious sign of unnatural link building. Your link building should look natural, and varied anchor text will help.
17. Don’t plaster your link all over blog comments, guestbooks, etc. That’s called spamming, not SEO.
18. Don’t fret over keyword density. Yes, your target keyword and closely-related terms should appear in the page title, description meta tag, and page copy. No, a calculator is not an SEO tool.
19. Don’t obsess over Google PageRank. What you see in the toolbar is several months old, and doesn’t affect rankings like it used to. PageRank is now more about crawl frequency and depth, and whether a page is stored in the main index or supplemental index.
20. Don’t check your rankings every day. They’re going to change whether you look or not. Better to spend time improving your web site rather than watching it flutter up and down the SERPs.