business owner typing on laptop computer

What is SEO, and how can I improve my website’s search ranking?


“Build it, and they will come.” This famous movie quote has become a huge cliche in internet content writing, mostly repeated to point out how it’s actually not true. Unless you’re literally the only person on the internet writing about a subject that people are searching for, you’re going to have to compete to get search traffic. That means you’ve got to have a strategy to get on the search engine results pages when people search for your product or service.

Search engine optimization, abbreviated SEO, is an umbrella term for improving a site’s ranking in the search engine results pages– in other words, trying to get to the top of search results.

There are two aspects of SEO that concern site owners. The first is known as technical SEO, or on-page SEO. Basically, this means building your site and its content in such a way that Google can easily understand what it’s about and know what traffic to send your way. It also encompasses technical aspects like how fast your website loads and whether visitors using mobile or adaptive devices can use your website.

As a web developer, making sure your new website checks all the above boxes is a high priority for me!

But there’s another aspect of SEO that it’s necessary for you as a site owner to give priority to if you want to have a successful website. We can call this external SEO, or off-page SEO. This refers to all the steps you can take outside of your website (or even without your own website) to rank better in search engine results.

The four aspects of SEO below are an introduction to the basics of off-page SEO, and none of them require any knowledge of code or websites. They are all aimed at owners of businesses rather than web professionals.

Local citations

Local citations are instances of your name, address, and phone number on the web. A citation isn’t the same as a link to your website. If you’re a local business serving your own geographic area, getting local citations is the most important step towards generating leads.

Whether you’re starting from scratch or you’ve been in business a while, the first thing to do is give your site a visibility checkup.

Check how visible online you are right now, and get a list of directories to which you can submit your site, with this free tool from moz.com.

When you search for a local business, you may notice that there are a lot of results near the top that aren’t actually websites, or that aren’t the actual company’s website, like Google My Business (when a business listing appears on a Google Map) and Yelp results.

These links, even though they’re not your website, count toward your “popularity”– as long as your name, address, and phone number match! So if you have multiple phone numbers, or variations on your company name (with and without LLC, for example) pick one to use online and stick to it everywhere.

Where to get local citations: Google My Business, Yelp, Apple Maps, industry-specific directories, local chamber of commerce

Link building

Links to your website, also called backlinks, are the foundation of Google’s method for ranking websites, and the process of getting these is called link building.

Back when the internet was young, Google figured that if many websites are linking to your website, it must be a good website to link to.

But then the internet got bigger and people started gaming the system by spamming links to their websites from other people’s websites, like forums and blog comments. So now there is a complicated system which weights links differently based on perceived relevance and authority (sometimes called “the algorithm”). This system is pretty smart, and it gets better all the time. As a result, artificially produced, low quality, spammy links don’t improve your ranking (at least not for long), and could even hurt your ranking.

But good, old-fashioned natural links from places that are relevant to you will send Google good vibes about your website’s importance, authority, and trustworthiness.

Sources for great backlinks to your local business include:

  • Sponsoring a local sports team (ask them to link to your website)
  • Local awards or recognition
  • Newspaper articles (if the online article links to your site)
  • Chamber of commerce
  • Offer to write a testimonial for a vendor or non-competing business customer of yours, which they can post on their website with a link back to you

Video marketing

After Google, what’s the second-largest search engine? It’s not Bing… it’s Youtube. So take advantage of video marketing. If you sell products, make a walk-through video, a video on how to use or maintain your products, or an “unboxing” video showing how the product will arrive when it’s ordered. For services, ideas include an interview-style video for your about page (great for customer trust), an explainer video for a particular service, or a video testimonial.

Speaking of testimonials…

Reviews & testimonials

Customer reviews will also signal to Google that you are popular. So be sure to ask customers for reviews. If you sell physical products, include a printed request for reviews and an easy-to-type link and/or QR code. If you provide a service, send an email asking them to review when you’ve completed or reached a milestone in your service. Ask them to explain 1) what the problem was when they came to you, 2) what the solution to their problem was, and 3) how they felt after. If they can mention your service keywords right in the review, that’s a home run!

Where to get reviews: Google My Business, Yelp, Angie’s List, Facebook