The Small Business SEM Survival Guide

One of the best things about the rise of the Web, Google, and search marketing is the degree to which it has levelled the playing field for smaller businesses. No longer do you need a budget in the millions to reach a national or international audience. Or do you?

Na├»ve misconceptions about SEO and search marketing notwithstanding (“I’ve spent $100 with you, why aren’t I number one for ‘digital cameras’ already?!”), anyone who has taken the time to learn even a small amount about it will realize that it can be a long, tough road. Desirable keywords are often extremely competitive and expensive (in the case of paid search advertising), with the top spots dominated by a few highly entrenched players.

SMB Survival Strategies

  • Focus relentlessly on a few key areas
  • Ignore hype and distractions
  • Know who your competition are (and who they’re not)
  • Pick the fights you know you can win (save the rest until you’re bigger and stronger)
  • Integrate search marketing into the day-to-day running of your business

So is the playing field really that level after all? Can small businesses compete? Absolutely.

It’s a question of knowing the game well enough and playing intelligently enough. And this isn’t just about picking up the crumbs swept off the giants’ table, in the form of a few long tail keywords and some residual traffic.

Your best bet is nearly always to find a search marketing agency with a lot of experience working with small businesses (you can’t be an expert at everything, after all). But even if you hire an external agency, it still pays to know as much as you can about the field.

Know Your Competition

I’m sure you’ve heard this message, frequently blasted out by lazy marketers and the lazy press:

“zOMG, there are like 10million+ new pages published per day, thousands of new sites, zillions of new blogs and they’re ALL your competitors!! All your visitors are going to these sites instead of yours! How are you going to STAND OUT FROM THE CROWD!?!!1!”

This is nearly always accompanied by a picture of some little blue men with a slight bigger red man in the middle, standing out from the crowd. Or by someone shouting into a megaphone. Take your pick.

It’s all rubbish, of course. The vast majority of this “new” content is spam. Of the remainder of it, little will have anything to do with your business.

For the purposes of search marketing, your competitors are the relevant sites that show up on Google on the first page for whichever search terms you’re targeting. In social, they are the small handful of companies in your market niche that make a favorable impression on your preferred social networks.

And that’s it. If you concentrate on those few companies and ignore everything else, a huge mountain of a task suddenly seems a lot more manageable.

Analyze each of your competitors frequently — work out which tactics are working for them, which are their popular blog posts, and where they’re getting powerful links. Learn from their tactics, but don’t copy outright.

Stay Focused

Search and social marketing experts are always telling us that there are dozens of tactics to implement, hundreds of blogs to read, bucket loads of communities in which to participate, and thousands of three letter acronyms to memorize. Not to mention that it’s changing all the time. Just how do you stay on top of it all?

The simple answer is, you don’t. Pick the few areas you’re going to master, and focus on them relentlessly. You don’t buy a dozen rare orchids, knowing you only have the time and energy to look after one. You just buy the one, and you nurture it.

By the same token, it’s easy to become distracted by all the new stuff that’s coming out all the time. Some of it you might be able to work into your existing processes, but most of these distractions are just that — distractions.

Stay focused on your core strategies and tactics. Don’t chuck out that orchid on which you’ve lavished so much attention just because a slightly fancier one has just come along.

That doesn’t mean you should let your nose get so close to the grindstone that you lose touch with what’s going on in the world around you. Learning and being exposed to new ideas is always a good thing. It’s great to reassess your strategies and try new tactics, but alongside your existing focus, not as a distraction.

And if worst comes to worst and your prized orchid is keeling over whatever you seem to do, of course it’s time to move on. To mix my metaphors, it’s no good flogging a dead horse.

On the flip side, once you’ve truly mastered your chosen key areas, you can grow by expanding your focus (e.g., once you’re dominating one small group of niche keywords, try adding some new ones to the mix; just don’t add too many at once).

Pick Your Fights (and Win Them)

For most small businesses, ranking at number one for any highly competitive, generic search term is simply out of the question. Trying to go viral can be a pot-luck, expensive business (just like trying to win the lottery). Getting picked up by major blogs just isn’t going to happen (unless you’re extremely lucky — again, not the kind of business plan to take to the bank manager).

But these aren’t problems for you, it just means that you have to be careful to pick fights you know you can win.

For example:

  • Getting long tail traffic to your site is easy (and don’t let any search marketeer tell you otherwise). Just keep adding quality content to your site on a regular basis — running a blog is ideal. This takes discipline and a few hours of work per week, but you have complete control over the process and it’s a low cost investment compared to the thousands of incoming links required to target a generic term.
  • Find out who your happiest customers are, and turn them into your social media evangelists (official or otherwise). Pick a social network or a forum that already has an active community around your niche and send your new recruits out there as well as getting stuck in there yourself. Do this the right way and you can completely dominate a network for your niche, at virtually no cost. (Quick case study: show up on Twitter and ask what the best SaaS accounting package is, and the same answer will almost always come back. Try it!)
  • If you run a local business, work on your local and maps listings. It’s still the Wild West out there, plenty of land up for grabs (not for long though!).
  • Find and target a handful of niche terms that can collectively drive a reasonable amount of traffic (these are to be found somewhere in the wasteland between the long tail and the highly competitive, generic terms).

Every business and niche will have its own unique strategies and tactics that can be put to use here. Ideas in the comments please!

Make it a Part of Your Process

Just like traditional marketing, search marketing of any form isn’t a one off. It’s an ongoing process. And to work best, it has to be fully integrated into your business.

Bring it into your weekly team meetings or your daily to-do list. Make sure you take some kind of action around it every day, or at least several times a week. You’ll be surprised how these small actions add up and how quickly and easily search marketing can become a part of your regular routine.

As a small business, you also need to be on the lookout for quick, high impact wins, and this is where running your campaign in-house can really come into its own. You might not have the time or budget to build thousands of links manually, but you can e-mail all your suppliers asking them for a link (with a great testimonial from your business, of course). You can add a link request to the order confirmation e-mails generated by your e-commerce software. You can get regular guest blogging gigs within your industry.

Again, there are loads of ideas here, many of which will be unique to your business. If you have a regular team meeting, add a mini-brainstorming session as an agenda point, with the goal of generating at least one viable idea applicable to your search marketing efforts every time. If you work by yourself, set aside time for some lateral thinking every week and do the same.

If you’re employing an external agency, the same goes. Make sure you have regular contact with them (at least weekly, if possible), and make sure that they know as much about your business as they can. If they’re diligent and properly involved, they’ll spot no end of new opportunities.

Summing Up

Search is a long-term investment, there’s no doubt about it, and it can be tough, especially for small businesses. But by being canny and playing your cards right, the challenges are far from insurmountable.

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