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Peter Hughes, Senior Manager of Search Marketing for Constant Contact

If you’re like most small business owners, figuring out how to make search engine optimization (SEO) work for your business can seem like a daunting task.

Just the term “search engine optimization” can be enough to make your head spin.

But what if SEO didn’t have to be so complicated? What if there was a way to simplify SEO and still have the same opportunities to attract new customers?

That’s the challenge I presented to Peter Hughes, senior manager of search marketing for Constant Contact, when we sat down to discuss SEO.

He didn’t disappoint.

From debunking common SEO myths to outlining the essential best practices for getting started, Peter offered a number of valuable insights that you can use to tackle SEO for your small business.

Here are my 9 questions with SEO expert, Peter Hughes:

1. What is SEO?

Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is the name for the process of tweaking or optimizing your website and its content in an effort to positively affect the visibility of your site in the organic (non-paid) search listings and improve your ranking for searches.

2. Why does SEO matter for small business?

Done well, it can represent an ongoing and at-times abundant source of free traffic to your website. Unlike Paid Search (otherwise known as PPC), clicks to your site from the organic or natural listings incur no cost per click.

3. What are some of the key factors that impact a business’s SEO?

The need to produce fresh, relevant content that aligns with what your audience is searching for.

Consider a blog as being a principal source of delivering fresh content to answer the questions that your customers are asking. Don’t get hung up on the specific keywords – write naturally, even conversationally. Search engines have moved beyond just matching a keyword from the search.

Of course, if you know that customers routinely ask a specific question, don’t be afraid to use those keywords, but don’t write the content around the keyword.

4. Are there any misconceptions about SEO that you think business owners should be aware of?

Yes, that it’s simply too complicated. It doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t be. Too often, business owners fear it, deeming that the “science of SEO” is too much of a full-time job in and of itself. Sure, a part of ongoing SEO is about the code of your website to ensure that it’s easily indexed by search engines, and therefore either requires knowledge of code, which is less likely, or requires some assistance. But at its core, good SEO consists more functionally of delivering relevant and meaningful content to an audience that is searching for a product or a service that you deliver.

5. Are there any common SEO mistakes businesses should be aware of?

Yes. Getting hung up on writing content that includes specific keywords with the express purpose of “ranking for that keyword”. It’s not a system that you can game as easily as just stuffing your website or blog post full of your target keywords.

Also, another mistake or perhaps missed opportunity is not sticking to a calendar of content; ranking for search terms can only happen with a consistent effort to update your blog with continued meaningful content. Don’t write a post and then go back a year later to write another one. Develop a content calendar and stick to it as much as possible.

I’ve also seen newcomers to SEO often get a little too fixated on trying to rank for what are called head terms. These terms, often single keywords, are extremely broad, too broad for most businesses and therefore don’t have the direct business value. If you own an Italian restaurant, for example, trying to rank for the head term “restaurant” and optimizing your site around that would be next to impossible and arguably bring in traffic that isn’t even close to qualified. I call these the Wikipedia terms, as typically these head terms are more likely to be entries on Wikipedia than they are a truly relevant keyword to your business.

Focus a little more on the long-tail or niche keywords that are more directly relevant to your business, such as “Italian Restaurant in Waltham, MA”. After all, that’s what people who are looking for Italian restaurants in Waltham would be searching. Seems simpler when you look at it like that, right?

6. For a business that’s just starting to think about SEO, do you have any first steps that you think a business owner should take?

Start your blog today or, if you already have one, develop a robust calendar of content to stick to over the course of the next few months. Aim to post once a week with content that you know your customers are interested in. Solicit the opinions of your customers to form the backbone of the calendar.

7. What would you say to a business owner who feels that SEO is too complicated for them to worry about it?

Firstly, I get it. It does appear overly complicated with implications about coding, title tags, headers etc. Granted, that part of “technical SEO” is important and something to revisit but not as important as the content you create.

With your blog, your “SEO strategy” is an extension of your domain expertise, as you have the chance to produce and write content that impacts your customers. Once you get in the groove, learn about “technical SEO” in bite-sized chunks using some of the resources across the web including Search Engine Land and Moz to name a couple.

8. Are there any SEO best practices you would recommend to a business owner who’s launching or redesigning their website?

Make sure your blog is hosted on your domain (i.e. that it is blog.yoursite.com rather than yourblog.wordpress.com for example). This is crucial to ensuring that you get the full SEO value.

In addition, make sure your website isn’t simply a set of images. Images can’t be indexed in quite the way text is by search engines, so if you just include images on your site, you’ll have a harder time ranking. Images are a really good accompaniment on your site but make sure that you use text to fully explain your product offerings, too.

If you offer local services, don’t be afraid to optimize your site around those local keywords (for example, “Waltham, MA Plumber”). There’s likely to be less competition on those keywords, thereby making it perhaps easier to rank for keywords that are directly relevant to your business. Think of SEO as trying to answer the question your customers or prospective customers are asking.

9. Has SEO changed at all in recent years? If so, what are these changes and how do they impact small businesses?

Absolutely. As search engine algorithms have evolved with our searches, SEO has become far less about keywords and backlinks and far more about matching searches to content that is meaningful. In fact, over-optimization is generally considered a mark against your site now. Equally, try to encourage sharing of your content in social media channels – the validation from this acts as an increasing signal to search engines that your content is relevant and authoritative.

Ready to get started?

We’ve compiled some of our top SEO-related assets to help get the ball rolling:

Have additional questions for Peter? Post them in the comments below.

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