What is SEO: A Guide For Overwhelmed Business Owners

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What is SEO? Well… That all depends…

We’re sure you clicked on this blog hoping for a simple answer to a simple question. Well, SEO is far from simple, but we’re going to try to make it simple today. Or, at least as simple as a Toronto SEO specialist and self-professed SEO nerd can make it.

If you’re reading this today, the odds are very good that you’re a small business owner who is dipping their toe into the SEO pool for the first time. Maybe you’re one of the countless business owners that have been forced to move their business online to survive during the pandemic.

If that’s the case, you might have run your brick-and-mortar shop for years. Up until now, you’ve had a Facebook page and a bare-bones website. You did pretty well with that for years, but then COVID closed your doors to the public, and you now have to pay attention to all this SEO malarkey for the first time ever. And you’re probably overwhelmed by not knowing where to start.

The good news is that you’re a little late to the game, but you’re not too late. 

What is SEO? The Simple(st) Answer

SEO describes a myriad of industries and efforts like blogging, link building, and optimization. That’s still too broad, so let’s boil it down. Search engine optimization is making you rank better in search engines.

And in 99% of all cases, that search engine is Google. Some may say, What about Microsoft’s Bing? Well, Bing currently has about a 2.7% market share. And if you optimize for Google, odds are good you’ll rank well for Bing and for people who haven’t changed their default browser yet. Sorry, that was a catty little SEO snob joke… Moving on

What is Google in its simplest form? The world’s biggest question-answering machine. We ask it everything. We ask Google for directions to Montreal, what the weather is going to do, where to buy a new bike, what time the Raptors play, and which restaurants in the area have Pad Thai.

So what is SEO, really? SEO is the art and the science of positioning your business as the answer to questions from within your industry. If someone is searching for a new bike, you want your shop to show up in their results. It’s actually really that simple. But things get more complicated when you realize two things:

  1. There are literally hundreds of questions (search terms) that could lead someone to your business
  2. There are literally thousands of factors that dictate who shows up in their search results

The rest of this blog will try to simplify the concept of why some pages rank high and others are ignored.

Keywords: Find The Right Questions

Picture of a man on a laptop with Surfer SEO website open.

There are people looking to find your business on Google right now. But what words are they using? It’s a far more complex question than you think. A lot of businesses out there think that they know the answer, or assume that they know the answer, but they don’t.

Let’s stick with the bike store analogy. Right now, someone that needs your products could be Googling something very broad like bike store Toronto. Or they could be asking Google something very specific like what’s the best bike for tall people.

Which one of these is better to target? Once again… that all depends.

First of all, we’ll just say that you would never, ever, simply target one keyword term on a website. Your site should focus on dozens of different keyword combinations. Each individual page should target the most relevant keyword for that product or service. These all combine to make up your overall keyword strategy. But let’s explore a few of the differences between the two keywords we mentioned earlier.

Bike store Toronto is a very broad term, and it may have a lot of competition. All of your competitors may be vying to be on the first page of Google for that keyword. Is it worth going after? Definitely! But it’s also definitely going to be one of the hardest ones to own and rank for. Impossible? Certainly not, it will just take some work, and we will explore the work that needs to be done in another section. 

Now, let’s take a look at the other keyword: what’s the best bike for tall people. This keyword obviously has more words than our previous example, and it’s also phrased like an actual question. That makes it, what we call, a longtail keyword.

This keyword also has very strong purchase intent. That means that whoever searches for this is very likely looking to buy a new bike—maybe even buy today. Longtail keywords typically have a higher purchase intent. They are often questions that the searcher needs answered before they buy. They’re 90% ready to buy and they just need clarification on something. Ranking well for these keywords puts sales directly into your funnel!

These keywords are also often less competitive. Fewer people are trying to rank for them, even though there is a decent volume of people looking for them. When you’re looking for keywords, you really want to find terms with low competition and high volume. That’s the sweet spot.

You could conceivably rank for what’s the best bike for tall people in yourarea with one really great blog/ piece of content, if you optimize it well and earn lots of backlinks. Ranking for the other search term, bike store Toronto, would likely require considerably more pieces of content and more work.

Where Do I Find These Questions/ Keywords?

You find your keywords by conducting keyword research, which is where the real nerd-work of SEO lies. We love doing it, but it’s certainly not for everyone.

The most popular keyword research tools on the marketplace today are:

  • Google Keyword Planner
  • ahrefs
  • SEMrush
  • Moz Keyword Explorer

Which one is the best? Say it with me now… that all depends.

It depends on who you ask and what you’re trying to do. In the world of SEO, the best SEO keyword research tool topic is debated more vehemently than Jordan vs. Lebron. Personally, I like ahrefs for a number of tech-specific stuff. If you’re getting into this world for the first time, you would do just fine with the good old-fashioned Google Keywords Planner.

It’s not really so much about the keyword tool you use. It’s about looking at the research with the right kind of eyes. An experienced SEO professional should be able to look at keyword research in any tool and find the opportunities that other people can’t see.

And at the same time, using something expensive like Moz isn’t going to get you much further ahead than the freebie, if you don’t know what to look for.

If you’re doing any sort of keyword research, you’re probably well ahead of most of the other small businesses out there. In fact, not too long ago, it was reported that 70% of small businesses don’t have an SEO plan of any sort. But that was reported in 2020, just before the COVID-19 crisis forced countless small business owners to close their doors and move online. It would be really interesting to see what that number is today, one year later.

Optimization: Be the Searcher’s Answer

Now that you’ve found the questions your customers are asking, and the keywords you need to use, we will now try to get you to rank on Google by optimizing your keywords.

Broadly speaking, your optimization efforts can be broken down into two categories:

  • On-page optimization
  • Off-page optimization

 Here’s a crash course on both.

On-Page Optimization: Part 1 – The Front-End

On-page SEO optimization is essentially all of the good work you do on your own site. A lot of it comes down to how you use and optimize your keywords in your content.

Your content is pretty much any text on your website. As mighty as Google is, it is still just a text-based algorithm that makes money answering people’s questions. It needs to crawl your text to find your keywords to learn what you’re all about, and why they should recommend you to searchers.

If you’re new to this, you’re possibly thinking, “Ok the goal is to get 100 keywords onto my page, right?” Not quite. As someone who has worked in SEO for 15 years, I can tell you that this used to be the goal of SEO, circa 2005-ish. It was called keyword stuffing.

People would simply stuff as many keywords as they could into a page, whether it made any grammatical sense or not. Most pages were unreadable.

Some people would try hiding their keywords on the page in white font so the users wouldn’t see them, and some would hide keywords behind images. It was truly awful. Most pages looked like hell and read like pure nonsense. Google thankfully put a stop to that by saying that keyword stuffing would hurt your rankings.

So much of SEO is working within the parameters set by the rule-makers, and that’s Google. If you think you’re going to outsmart Google, you’re wrong. There are no SEO hacks. SEO is unhackable.

Today Google wants you to include your keywords in your content, but they want you to do it as naturally as possible. For years, they have been preaching different versions of write for human beings, not Google’s robots. That’s great advice.

These days, the top-ranking blog posts are 3,000 to 4,000 words of well-structured and well-marked-up content.

On-Page Optimization: Part 2 – The Back-End

Image of a screen with WordPress open on the 'Add New' post page

Image By pixelcreatures from Pixabay

At the same time, you also need to optimize the back-end of each page. That means before you publish each page, you need to include (without stuffing) the keywords in your:

  • Page titles
  • Meta descriptions
  • Image attributes

Google also looks at those things when determining what each given page is all about, so they are incredibly important.

Notice how we said before you publish each page? That’s because you need to optimize every single page on your site. It’s very important to know that Google doesn’t rank websites, they rank web pages.

If you publish a new blog, it needs to be optimized. If you create a new product page, it needs to be optimized. The only time you would not optimize a page, is if you didn’t want it to rank.

Is all of that a lot of work? Yes. This is why that 70% of small business owners probably don’t do it. But the ones that do it, or hire a local SEO expert to do it really well, are rewarded.

Off-Page Optimization

In very simple terms, off-page SEO optimization refers to links on other websites that point at you, and the act of trying to earn organic links from high-quality websites.

When high-quality websites are linking to you, this signals to Google that your content is high quality. And, as a result, you’re worthy of a high ranking.

This is absolutely massive in SEO. How important is it? Ten years ago, it would be safe to say that your links made up about 30% of your overall SEO value. But today, it has been estimated that your links could be worth over 50% or more.

Think of it this way: Your website is a car and you want it to go places. Your on-page SEO is the work that you do on the engine to make sure it’s running smoothly. But your off-page SEO is the gas you put into the car to make it really go.

You can have a Porsche 911, but it’s just going to sit in your driveway without gas. And you can have an amazing website, but it’s not going to rank without quality links.

Buying Links in 2005

15 years ago, linkbuilding was all about volume. We called it an SEO arms race. It was all about who could buy and stockpile the most links. Today, things require far more finesse. It’s about the quality of links that you earn, not the quantity of links that you buy.

Image of a screen with different websites open

You will still get emails and offers from people who claim that they can buy you 1,000 links for $5.00. Don’t waste your time, that will do literally nothing for you. A number of past Google updates like the Penguin update have targeted the somewhat-spammy and volume-based link building tactics of the past.

Back in 2016, people were afraid of The Penguin Penalty and that the Penguin update was going to punish them for bad links. That’s a bit of a myth. There’s no penalty per se unless you have a staggering number of bad links (like, in the thousands). Google will not penalize you for bad links, they will just simply ignore them. So the money you spent is wasted. It’s a zero sum game.

Earning Links in 2021

Earning quality links takes work. You need to do manual outreach, which is the act of reaching out to bloggers and site owners to pitch them your content.

In recent years, this has been dubbed Digital PR, because it has a lot in common with old-school public relations. You need to find people who would be legitimately interested in your content, and sell them on it. And if you’re trying to pitch them irrelevant content, the outcome can be worse than hearing a simple No. You could sour a potentially valuable relationship with this person, and you will never be able to pitch them again because they’ll ignore your emails.

Here are a few of the most popular ways you can earn links that actually help your SEO.

Guest Blogging:

Guest blogs were declared dead a few years ago. But that obituary was for guest blogging as it existed in 2014, which consisted of just putting up any blog on any site.

Today, guest blogging has evolved to digital PR, and relevant high-quality sites hold a lot of SEO value.

Media Mentions:

This does not have to be links from the Globe and Mail or the Atlantic, but it helps. Local media outlets and trade publications can be big wins for your SEO.

Review Sites:

Customer review sites like Yelp or Tripadvisor do more than showcase your offering and your happy customers. They can also really boost your SEO.

As you can see, there is a lot of work involved in earning links. Most business owners don’t have the time or the resources to do it effectively. They’re too busy to approach a bunch of websites about a great blog idea, or even write the blog for that matter.

That’s why most companies hire an SEO services company to do the work for them. The best part is that a good SEO company should have a link building department with solid existing relationships with several sites and bloggers. Pitching your content and earning links becomes much easier.

Does SEO Make More Sense Now?

Are you a little bit more clear than when you started? If someone asked you “what is SEO,” do you think you could answer them? We hope so.

If you have read this far, you are probably no longer overwhelmed because you don’t know where to start. You’re now probably overwhelmed by how much work needs to be done. SEO is a lot of work and the work is never really done. You don’t achieve SEO success, you maintain it.

But it’s important to know that the payoff is more than there. Boosting your rankings increases your organic traffic and opens up a whole new sales channel. Ranking for the right keywords can basically be a lead generation machine that makes money for you while you sleep.

The key is to always do things the right way. You have to play by Google’s rules, which is why it’s important to work with a company that lives and dies by these rules.

If you’re ready to find the keywords that can unlock new sales for you, click the Connect With Paul button at the top of the page, or call 647-448-4449.

About the Author

Paul Teitelman - SEO Consultant

Paul is a well-respected Canadian SEO consultant and link-building expert with over 15 years of experience helping hundreds of companies rank for competitive keywords on Google. He is a Toronto-based SEO consultant who is passionate about search engine optimization and link building. Over the years, he has made a reputation for himself as a leader in the industry by consistently delivering phenomenal results to his growing client base.