It's no secret that small businesses are volatile. Though the belief that "90 percent of businesses fail in the first two years" is a bit of an exaggeration, it's grounded in reality. More than half of small businesses end up failing after only a few years. As if the general trend weren't stressful enough for small business owners, the economy is on a gradual decline, startup funding is pooling toward only the most promising ideas, and the median number of days it takes to sell a business is also declining--it's a hard time to be a business owner. 

Why Small Businesses Fail

Most small businesses fail for several common reasons: a lack of experience, a lack of customer interest, excessive competition, poor financial planning, or an unproductive or nonexistent marketing strategy. There's no surefire way to tackle all these potential disruptors at once, but there is a strategy capable of helping small businesses survive those all-too-important first few years--SEO. 

Search engine optimization (SEO) can remedy some of the most common problems affecting small businesses with the following advantages: 

1. Site traffic. The most obvious benefit is direct site traffic. Ranking higher means more people will visit your site, which means more brand exposure, and more opportunities for conversions. Eventually, that translates to higher revenue and more customer support, reducing your financial volatility. 

2. Foot traffic. Search engines aren't just a source for web traffic now that users can search on the go with mobile devices. An estimated 86 percent of all local searches are now online, giving users insight into nearby businesses. Local business results also come with "Phone" and "Directions" buttons, giving users the immediate tools they need to get in touch with you or visit you in person. Local SEO uses a separate algorithm from national search results, but the basic strategies are similar. 

3. Brand recognition. Acquiring links on outside sources and building a social media following increases brand recognition across the board. This leads to more traffic and more trusting, loyal customers. 

4. Marketing enhancement. SEO can serve as a complementary strategy for almost any other marketing effort. Content marketing, social media marketing, email marketing, and online advertising can all feed into and/or gain from your SEO strategy, making the sum of your marketing efforts more valuable overall. 

5. Budget reduction. SEO is a highly affordable strategy for small businesses, especially those who operate in a tightly focused niche. It requires no initial injection of capital, and doesn't have any ongoing costs other than the man-hours you put into it. If you invest properly, SEO can yield a higher return on investment (ROI) than almost any other marketing strategy--meaning you'll save money and increase exposure simultaneously. 

How to Get Started

Interested in getting started? Here are some of the most important fundamentals: 

1. Clean up your on-site SEO. Everything starts with your website. Make sure your site functions on all devices and browsers (especially mobile devices), check URLs, make sure your navigation is clear, intelligible, and intuitive, include descriptive meta titles and descriptions, and beef up all your standard pages with descriptive, concise content. These tips only scratch the surface of onsite SEO, but they should point you in the right direction. 

2. Blog regularly. In today's world, SEO and content marketing are almost synonymous. You can't have an SEO strategy without ongoing content, and if you have a content marketing strategy, you'll gain SEO benefits, whether you intended to or not. Content gives you more real estate on the web (meaning more indexed pages), more contextually relevant content for Google to crawl, and a bigger audience to grow your online empire. 

3. Post content with inbound links on external sources. Inbound links pass "authority" to your site, and are necessary if you want to rank. There are a few ways to do this, but the most effective (and least risky) is to post them using guest posts and relevant content on external blogs--the more authoritative they are, the better. The bottom line here is to make sure your links are relevant and valuable to a target audience. 

4. Engage in social media marketing. Social media doesn't affect your rankings directly, but it can indirectly influence your authority. Social media leads to more shares, more links, and more visibility for your brand, all of which can support your content and rankings. 

5. Restore and maintain your local citations. The more places your business is listed online, the better--but make sure the information is accurate everywhere. 

6. Cultivate positive reviews. Check out your local reviews. Try to make up for the negative ones, and thank positive reviewers for their time. Encourage more reviews; the more positive reviews you have, the higher you'll rank in local searches. 

The downside to SEO is the amount of time it takes to lead a viable strategy. It's almost impossible for an amateur to learn everything there is to know about SEO in the span of a few weeks, and even a seasoned SEO pro would have trouble trying to do everything by him/herself. While SEO is an almost universally cost-efficient and valuable strategy, it does take significant time and effort. Dedicate that effort, and you'll have a near-perfect asset to fight back against the threat of business closure. 

January 13, 2016

Jayson DeMers is the founder & CEO of AudienceBloom, a Seattle-based content marketing & social media agency. You can contact him on LinkedIn, Google+, or Twitter.

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Search Engine Guide > Jayson DeMers > 5 Ways SEO Can Save Small Businesses (and How to Get Started)