A primer on SEO and how you can use it to boost your visibility and sales.
Here’s a quick exercise for you:
- Think about whatever it is you do professionally. Ex. ‘social media manager.’
- Add your city to that phrase. Ex. ‘social media manager Johannesburg.’
- Type that into Google.
Does your name come up in the search engine results pages (SERP)? If so, you’re doing great! Feel free to skip this post and go watch some Netflix.
If not, you’ve just witnessed a good reason why you should invest in SEO.
SEO is considered one of the most important aspects of marketing. Despite this, many freelancers and small businesses don’t invest enough in their online presence.
Being understandably strapped for time, money, and resources, solopreneurs and small business owners simply choose one aspect of digital marketing (say, social media) and completely ignore the rest (like local SEO). This is a grave mistake.
If you’re trying to get new customers and grow your business without spending too much money, you can’t afford to ignore SEO. This blog post will explain what SEO is and how you can boost your online visibility through various SEO tips.
Let’s get started.
A brief introduction to search engine optimization (SEO)
Billions of people use the Internet to search for stuff every day. No matter what you’re looking for, chances are you’ll start your journey on a search engine like Google.
Search engine optimization (or SEO for short) is about optimizing your content and website to help you rank higher in those search results so that customers can find you.
SEO is an ongoing process of learning what your customers are searching for and delivering it to them. Every time you publish a new web page or blog post on your website, you need to ensure it is optimized for search.
Benefits of SEO for freelancers and small businesses
There are many benefits to implementing an effective SEO strategy for your business. Some of the biggest benefits include:
- Brand awareness and online visibility: SEO helps you build brand awareness and improve your online visibility. By getting your website to rank high on search engines like Google (and working on your link building strategy), you’re more likely to get organic traffic.
- Improved lead generation: A highly ranked website gets lots of traffic and conversions. This is because you can generate leads and drive potential customers towards your online shop, booking page, or YouTube channel. With enough effort, SEO can become one of the most effective ways of generating leads for your business.
- Cost savings on paid marketing: Although SEO won’t completely replace your need for paid marketing, it can help you save a significant amount of money on it. When done right, SEO provides the same benefits as paid marketing at a fraction of the cost.
Better rankings mean a better chance of gaining new customers and even stealing customers from your competitors. Solopreneurs and small business owners who invest in SEO basics gain an advantage over those who don’t.
Quick SEO wins: How to get found online
Before even diving deep into SEO, there are a few steps you can take to improve your visibility on the web:
- Fill out your business info on Google My Business. This lets you set your business location, trading hours, website URL, as well as add photos related to your products and services. Include lots of photos of the inside and outside of your premises so visitors know exactly how to find you and what to expect when they arrive.
- Get on social media. This is non-negotiable. Your customers are spending more and more time on social media, and if you’re not there when they’re searching for information on your products or services (or if you have no up-to-date content), you might lose out on valuable business. There’s no need to be on all 1,770 platforms, either – just pick two big ones and establish your presence on them. Check out my piece on social media content strategy if you’re stuck on what type of content to create.
Completing those two simple tasks will already put you far ahead of your competitors. Let’s now dive into SEO strategy and how you can improve your visibility online.
How to get started with your SEO strategy
There are 3 key steps to getting started with SEO:
- Identify the keyword phrase(s) you want to rank for
- Create good content around those keywords and apply on-page SEO tips
- Optimize your website for better rankings through technical SEO tips
Let’s look at each step in turn.
#1 Identify the keyword phrase(s) you want to rank for
The first step is to do some keyword research – identifying the keyphrases that are relevant to your business and the products and services you offer. You ideally want to rank for phrases with low keyword difficulty, i.e., little competition. There are many tools available that can help you carry out keyword research, such as:
- The Ubersuggest keyword suggestion tool (https://ubersuggest.io)
- The Alexa keyword research tool (https://try.alexa.com/keyword-research)
- The SEMrush keyword research tool (https://www.semrush.com)
- The YouTube keyword search tool (https://keywordtool.io/youtube)
There are others, of course, so feel free to Google ‘SEO tool’ and play around with a few. If you’re not sure what keyphrases to focus on, take a look at your website analytics. That will tell you what keyword phrase(s) people are searching for when they land on your website and will give you a clearer idea of what to focus on. You can also hire an SEO expert to carry out an SEO audit on your website (more on hiring an SEO expert later).
For example, if you run a bakery in Windhoek, you might want to rank for the following keywords:
- bakery shop
- cakes windhoek
- windhoek bakery
- how to bake bread
- buy cakes windhoek
- buy bread windhoek
- best bread windhoek
- best bakery windhoek
And so on. If someone is searching for any keyphrases along those lines, they either want to learn something or buy something. Your job is to capture that intent and turn it into a potential sale through content marketing and savvy SEO practices.
For example, in addition to writing blog posts on cake recipes, you can also shoot and publish videos on how to make a cake and link back to your website, online shop, or Instagram account in the video’s description.
#2 Create good content around those keywords and apply on-page SEO tips
Once you’ve identified the relevant keywords for your business and products, the next step is to create content around them that is optimized for search engines. When creating your content, keep the following SEO basics in mind:
- Create relevant and useful content: Don’t just create content for the sake of it. Your goal is to scratch an itch – to provide genuinely useful information for your target audience. A blog post on “How To Bake A Cake” is good content for a bakery. A blog post on the “History Of Cakes in 16th Century Vienna,” maybe not so much – unless you were marketing to cake historians.
- Aim for quality rather than quantity: It’s tempting to pad your content with filler material, but people eventually gravitate to sites with better, more concise content – and those sites end up getting all the SEO juice. A 500-word blog post that answers a visitor’s search query immediately is preferable to a rambling 3,000-word piece. Search engine results prioritize quality over quantity.
- Make sure your content is unique: Your content shouldn’t be found anywhere else on the Internet. This will help you avoid legal issues, satisfy the quality metric from the previous point, and gain an SEO boost for originality. This is not to say you can’t write about an existing topic – just put a fresh spin on it to avoid creating copy-cat content.
- Add images and videos: Adding images and videos to your content is an effective way to engage your readers. This means people spend more time on your content, which sends a signal to search engines that your website or blog is worth ranking.
- Use headings, lists, and subheadings appropriately: Headings, lists, and subheadings are a great way to break up your content so that it’s easier to read (or skim). They can also help search engines understand what the important points are. Notice how I’ve divided this post into separate sections using relevant headings.
- Write for humans, not search engines: Many people swing to the other extreme and write content that’s solely optimized for Google’s algorithm – which is a mistake. Your content needs to be readable and engaging to your human visitors.
- Include a meta description, meta tag, alt text, and title tag(s) where necessary: A meta description is what search engines show under your link in the SERP. Meta tags are little content descriptors that tell search engines what a web page is all about. (For example, one meta tag for this page would be ‘seo.’) A title tag labels your page for both human readers and search engines (the title of this blog post is right at the top). Alt text describes images to people with visual disabilities who might be using a screen reader.
- Regularly refresh and repurpose old content: Doing this will drive consistent traffic to your site and help you stay relevant among search engines for many years afterward. For example, if you wrote about “Why Freelancers and Small Businesses Should Invest in SEO in 2021,” you can come back the next year to add new sections, update any old stats, and change ‘2021’ in the title to ‘2022.’
- Get other people to link to your content: Getting reputable sites to link to your content (also known as ‘link building’) is a great way to increase your visibility and search ranking. The more prominent the sites linking to you are (called a ‘backlink’), the higher your content ranks. This means that a backlink from The New York Times is preferable to a backlink from some abandoned blog with only ten viewers a month.
#3 Optimize your website for better rankings through technical SEO tips
The tips in the previous section mostly apply to what’s called on-page SEO efforts – optimizing the content itself. The following tips relate to off-page SEO efforts – everything to do with your website and media assets. Let’s look at a few ways to improve your website for better search rankings:
- Optimize your images: Larger images mean that your content takes longer to load, which affects your search rankings. Compress your images to just a few kilobytes each (100-200 KB or less) and make sure to add relevant alt text for each image.
- Create clean URLs: It’s always a good idea to use shorter, cleaner URLs. A good URL example is mohammedshehu.com/seo-guide. A not-so-good URL example is everything I’ve been using before I wrote this guide and followed my own advice.
- Use keywords in your URLs: Use relevant keywords in your URL, like mohammedshehu.com/seo-guide for an SEO guide.
- Use anchor text: Anchor text is what you use to link out to another page within your content. For example, ‘Mohammed Shehu‘ is the anchor text in this sentence.
- Use long-tail keywords in your content: Long-tail keywords help you rank highly for specific search phrases (and might have a lower keyword difficulty score). A short-tail keyword would be something like ‘hire copywriter.’ A long-tail keyword would be ‘hire Johannesburg B2B SaaS copywriter.’ The more specific the keyword phrases in your content, the more likely you are to be found by people searching for that exact product or service.
- Make sure your website is mobile-friendly: If users can’t access your website properly on mobile, it’s going to hurt your site’s SEO. According to Google, a mobile-friendly site is one that displays text you can read without zooming, sizes content to the screen so users don’t have to scroll horizontally, and places links far enough apart that you can tap the correct one easily. Site loading speed is another factor search engines evaluate when determining your site’s SEO ranking. You can test if your website is mobile-friendly by using Google’s own tool here.
- Set up redirects where appropriate: Setting up redirects for your URLs helps to avoid confusion and ensures you’re not losing organic traffic from old links. For example, if you had a blog post with the URL yourwebsite.com/2021 and you changed it to yourwebsite.com/2022, you can set up a 301 redirect so that anyone who clicks on the old link is automatically redirected to the new one. You can also set up redirects to capture user intent from related searches. For example, if you click on mohammedshehu.com/cv or mohammedshehu.com/resume, both will take you to the same page.
- Use HTTPS: It’s 202X, and if your website isn’t using HTTPS, you should get on board. You can easily get an SSL certificate from your domain or hosting provider for a few dollars a year – and not only does this boost your search rankings, but it also inspires trust and confidence in your customers that you’re a reputable business to transact with.
- Get on social media: Social media platforms naturally rank high in search engine results. If your business is on one of those platforms, your business name and profile page(s) might show up when potential customers search for you, leading to more organic traffic.
- Get to know Google Search Console: If you’re serious about SEO, you should get to know Google Search Console. It can tell you a lot about how people are finding you online, how much organic traffic you’re getting, and also alert you to any website issues that might be affecting your search engine ranking. You can install the free Google Search Console plugin on your WordPress website.
- Compress your server files: This can improve your website’s load time and search engine ranking. If you use WordPress, there are several free plugins that can do this in a few clicks for you – just search the WordPress plugin directory for a good one.
- Remove thin or duplicate content: If there’s a lot of thin or duplicate content on your website, it’s going to hurt your rankings. You can fix this by only using one unique piece of content per topic.
- Use canonical tags: Canonical tags are a way of telling search engines which version of a page is the original one, especially if you’re reposting content from elsewhere to your website. It elegantly solves the issue of duplicate content.
- Remove old pages: Review your website periodically and remove pages that aren’t relevant anymore or redirect them to their more updated versions. This helps you clean up your site and avoid ranking problems.
- Make sure your robots.txt file is set up properly: Your site’s robots.txt file tells search engines how they should crawl your website and needs to be set up the right way. If you’re using a hosting platform like Bluehost, IONOS, or GoDaddy, you might not need to worry about this.
Monitor and check all aspects of your site like site speed, broken links, redirects, etc. regularly, as these components are just as important as the content itself.
How do I get started with WordPress SEO?
Thanks to its legacy as a pillar of the web, WordPress SEO has gotten easier to manage over the years. If you use WordPress, you can download several tools (such as the Yoast SEO plugin) to help you optimize your content and website.
The Yoast SEO plugin performs a mini SEO audit on each piece of content and gives you ways to help it rank better. While it won’t replace a full SEO team, it can get you started on your way to better search rankings and increased organic traffic.
Should you hire an SEO specialist? Advantages and disadvantages
Looking at the above tips, you might feel overwhelmed at having to do all of that by yourself – on top of all the other business-critical tasks you have to accomplish. This is where hiring an SEO specialist comes in.
An SEO professional can take the work off your hands and implement an ongoing, long-term SEO strategy that helps you rank as high as possible for your desired keywords. Below are some pros and cons to keep in mind when hiring an SEO expert:
Pros of hiring an SEO specialist
- Focus: Outsourcing your SEO efforts can help you focus on other critical aspects of your business, allowing you to get more done. A specialist can implement all of the tips in this article and save you a lot of work.
- Knowledge: Google’s algorithm changes from time to time, which means that SEO activities that work today might not work tomorrow. An SEO professional stays up-to-date with all the latest changes to Google’s algorithm and can advise you on the best SEO practices at that point in time.
- Tools: SEO specialists have access to tools and databases that you might not have, and can often help you rank better than you would on your own.
- Training: An SEO specialist knows what they’re doing right from the jump, so you don’t have to train them for months to understand how SEO works.
- Strategy and execution: An SEO expert can help you perform an SEO audit and map out your content marketing strategy to bring in more search traffic – two activities you might not have the time for or expertise in.
Cons of hiring an SEO specialist
- Cost: Hiring an SEO professional is not cheap, and it’s not a once-off payment, either. Successful SEO requires ongoing work to help you rank well for specific keywords, so ensure you have an adequate budget to pay for it.
- Trust: You have to make sure you hire someone who’s trustworthy and doesn’t engage in blackhat tactics. Otherwise, they could potentially harm your website’s ranking over time. Ask them about their SEO methods, request previous work they’ve done, and seek out referrals and testimonials before picking the right person.
- Time: SEO specialists need time to implement their strategies (think 6-12 months before you start seeing real results). This means you’ll need to be patient and wait (which isn’t always easy if your business needs immediate results).
- Alignment: An SEO specialist might not understand your business as well as you do, so you’ll need to work closely with them to ensure your SEO goals and their activities are aligned.
Takeaway: If you have the funds but not the time to invest in extensive SEO efforts, hire a reliable and trustworthy SEO specialist to take the work off your hands.
Get started with SEO
Successful SEO gets your business noticed, drives more search traffic to your website, and increases your conversions. It’s one crucial element of your marketing mix that you shouldn’t ignore.
I’ve listed several ways of ranking high on search engine results in this piece – all whitehat methods – but there are consequences to using shady tools or spammy tactics to get ahead (i.e. blackhat methods).
Search engines are quite strict about SEO and are quick to penalize any website they think is gaming the system. For example, they can penalize you by dropping your rankings significantly (have you ever reached page 56 of Google results?)
As long as you color within the lines, you’ll enjoy lots of SEO juice for years to come. Good luck on your SEO journey, and may the search be with you! 🖖🏽
Till next week,
In my last post, I wrote about apartment hunting and what it taught me about job hunting. Read it:
Need to talk about your brand, career, or project? Get in touch.
Mohammed Shehu, Ph.D. writes on marketing, content, and tech for fast-growing B2B clients. You can find him online @shehuphd everywhere.