There is little doubt small business SEO best has changed dramatically in recent years and the rate of change is accelerating.

What is SEO? How can it help small business and is it worth the effort?

In basic terms, the world wide web (www) is simply links between documents (pages). It is a huge, and ever expanding network.

Search engines are tools that help users find what they need among the mass of information (pages) within the network. The internet is the technology (networking) structure. A browser (Chrome, Firefox etc) is a software program that allows a user to access the world wide web.

A business may build a website (a collection of pages) delivering information on their business, what they offer and why a prospect should buy from them rather than the competition.

Hopefully, a prospect searching for goods or services will use a browser on their phone, tablet or computer to seek out that information. If the prospect finds a page from the small business website, it is relevant to their search intent and satisfies their needs they could make an enquiry.

Simple in theory, but a lot more difficult in practice. It is estimated there are hundreds of million active websites on the www. The trick is to try and deliver a relevant webpage from a small business website in the first few pages (ideally page 1) of the search results pages.

That may seem to be impossible but the mass of websites cover an enormous variety of subjects. The location of the prospect searching the web is also relevant. That said, for many products and services the competition for that coveted first page slot can still be intense.

How Are Website Pages Ranked?

There is a mass of information on search engine optimisation (SEO) available online but much of it is contradictory (or plain wrong). It is important to understand the basics of how browsers, the internet and the world wide web work. A (relatively) basic primer can be found here

Many try to brush over what is known as technical SEO and claim it is not something those building small websites need to understand. That is wrong, it is not necessary to have an in depth knowledge but it is important to at least know the basics.

Given a search phrase the search engine companies (Google, Bing, Yahoo) prime mission is to deliver the most relevant results. Returning search results which do not match the search phrase or are of poor quality is against their interests.

When a user types in a phrase a search engine must select the pages that match the users intent and rank them accordingly. It is important to note it is the page that ranks, not a website.

Google uses several algorithms to determine the most relevant results. It is estimated over 200 interrelated factors influence page ranking. How Google (or any other search engine) determines which page is relevant to a search phrase is unknown.

Ignore The Latest SEO Hype

It is clear the tools used by the search engine companies are constantly evolving. There is always hype about the latest innovation or patent.

My advice, just log it away for future reference as much of it is many months, even years away from being implemented. Try to concentrate on the basics.

Many commentaries online suggest factor X is more important than Y which is in turn more important than Z. Almost all of them are complete guesswork.

Occasionally, a report on an experiment may be published that shows all an SEO person needs to concentrate on is X to see results (yeah right). In any valid scientific experiment, one factor is changed while keeping everything else constant. With the www and over 200 factors in play that is impossible.

What Do We Know?

We know a search engine compares words on a page with the words in the search phrase. We know that many pages will have those words and the search engine algorithm must use a range of ranking factors to decide which page to rank.

Two words are relevant here; they are RELEVANCE and INTENT. How relevant is the page to the query and does it match the users intent. A search phrase including the word ‘Jaguar’ could be a search for a car or a big cat.

We know META Data on a page is relevant. That includes items such as the page title, the description and the URL. We know a whole stack of technical issues are important.

We know that inbound links to pages are a factor. We don’t know which links count or if they are weighted in some way. If links are weighted we don’t know how that weighting works. All we can do is make an educated guess based on experience.

Regardless of the above, it appears some pages will always tend to outrank the rest. That is one reason why it is so important to not rely on analysis tools too heavily (if at all) but to take a long hard look at search engine result pages (SERPS).  For any given search phrase and think through why page X ranks higher than page Y.

All any small business SEO specialist can do is find quality sources of information and combine it with their own experience of what works to decide on the best way forward.

SEO is complex and time consuming. For a small business with a local customer base, the task can be made easier by concentrating on the subset of factors related to local SEO.

Is SEO Worth The Effort?

Is the effort involved in search engine optimisation worth it is a difficult question to answer. To a large extent, it depends on the business, its objectives and the strength of the online competition.

SEO is certainly not a quick fix. It will take months (sometimes many months) to see a return on the effort employed but as Stephan Spencer is fond of saying ‘it is the gift that keeps giving.’ Once results do come through, they do not need to be paid for and, with a little care and maintenance they just keep coming.

SEO is like trying to roll a huge boulder. It may be necessary to dig around the base to start with. It can take a significant amount of pushing and shoving to get some initial movement but once the boulder starts moving there is much less effort involved in keeping it going.