As paid ads get more expensive and social media algorithms feel harder than ever to crack, winning at search engine optimization, or SEO, seems like the cheapest and most effective marketing strategy for many scrappy small businesses.
“When you start ranking well in the search engine results page, you’re not paying for the traffic that comes to you,” said Neal Taparia, who’s relied heavily on SEO to grow his seven-figure gaming company, Unwind Media. “You obviously have to put in the legwork and investment to get those quality search rankings, but once you’re there, you’re rewarded with really high-intent, high-quality traffic with a low acquisition cost.”
Taparia started his company in 2020 and said that organic search now accounts for 53% of his site’s traffic.
The legwork doesn’t have to be that hard, either. Small business owners and SEO experts shared with Insider the strategies that have helped them improve their site rankings over time and build a meaningful flow of organic traffic from search.
Taparia said that Google’s goal is to rank the best sites at the top, which means the baseline of any good SEO strategy is making sure you have a good website.
Erin Fabio, the founder and CEO of the digital marketing agency Grit Studio, told Insider that too many small business owners interpret this as simply having a beautiful website design and skip out on important technical optimizations, like including meta descriptions and title tags on content pages, creating a good URL structure, and ensuring fast site speeds. “Optimizing technically is the first step that often is a relatively low lift,” she said.
Another way to signal to search engines that you have a good website is to lower your bounce rate or the number of people who leave your site after only viewing one page. Taparia said to think about this from a product standpoint: Is your website easy to navigate? Are there eye-catching images that keep people scrolling? Are there elements that drive people to engage further with the website, like links to other content?
Targeting certain search terms, or keywords, throughout your website, and through other means like blogging, is a crucial pillar of a successful SEO strategy. But Fabio said too many business owners aim for the wrong keywords. “Small businesses should work to rank for specific keywords rather than generic terms. If you’re working to rank for ‘moisturizer,’ you have a lot more competition than if you work to rank for ‘clean lavender moisturizer,'” Fabio said.
In SEO speak, these are often called long-tail keywords. Marianna Sachse, the founder of the children’s clothing brand Jackalo, told Insider that she uses Neil Patel’s Answer The Public tool, which is free for three searches per day, to help discover more specific keywords to seed her content strategy. “I’ll search for things like ‘children’s clothes,’ and it gives me a whole list of similar things people are searching for, which gives me a long list of blog post ideas,” she said, adding that she’s seen a 45% to 50% increase in landing page traffic from her top blog posts in the past year thanks to using this approach, along with other SEO best practices like consistently updating her content.
Fabio said that blogging weekly about your target keywords is a great way to boost your website’s SEO. But it’s important to make sure your content doesn’t mimic other content ranking for those same keywords — otherwise, you’ll have a hard time beating them out in search results.
Taparia recommended doing some competitive analysis using the current top-ranking articles. “Look at all the top search results to understand what content they have and why Google is surfacing them. Then ask yourself: How do I create content that’s even better than this? What is missing that a user wants from this content?” he said. For example, that might mean creating content that’s more heavily researched, that’s organized in a more user-friendly way, or that serves a need or answers a question other content doesn’t.
As you’re writing, you want to avoid the common mistake of keyword stuffing. “The key to good content is to make it sound natural. Mentioning the keyword 30 times in an article could actually be a negative signal to Google,” Taparia said. While there’s no magic keyword number, some experts recommend aiming to use the keyword every 200 words. Sachse said she approaches this by working her keywords into the subheads and alt text for images as well as in the text.
Another helpful tactic in improving your business’ search engine traffic is getting links to your site from other quality sites, which improves your domain authority. The worst way you can approach this — and the strategy so many small business owners use — is to send blanket emails to publications asking them to add a link to your website in one of their articles. For one, people are likely to ignore you. But the quality of the site that’s linking you also matters a lot.
Taparia approaches Unwind Media’s linking strategy similarly to how other businesses approach PR: By looking for opportunities to provide real value to other sites. “A big thing we did in the beginning was leverage the platform Help a Reporter Out and look for opportunities to share our expertise,” Taparia said. “Oftentimes when they cite you, they include a link to your site, which is a powerful link — especially if it’s from a well-known publication — because Google trusts that publication.”
Taparia also started conducting original research and publishing the results on his company’s blog before sharing it with journalists. “For instance, for one of our sites, we looked at which words Americans most struggle to spell by state, created an infographic, and shared this research with journalists. We were able to get a lot of people to cite our website and drive traffic to that blog post,” he said, adding that this helped improve organic traffic for this specific topic from around 620 daily visits on average in July to around 4,800 daily visits on average in December, or a 765% improvement.
Once you set up all these strategies, “the key is patience,” Taparia said.
“SEO grows over time,” Fabio added, “so by 12 months, you should see much stronger results than at six months.”