Matt McGee is an expert in SEO for small businesses, and runs a blog at SmallBusinessSEM.com. Here, we connect with Matt and find out more about the vibrant world of SEO for “mom-and-pops.”
Q: What advantages do small businesses have over big ones in the world of search marketing?
I think small businesses have a couple very real and very distinct advantages. The first is speed. Small businesses are able to move so much more quickly than bigger companies. A small business can analyze and act on data or new developments almost immediately, and I’d say the smaller the company is, the faster it can move like this. On the other hand, big business is a lot slower and quite often bound to internal procedures and protocols. Analysis and action is much slower because ideas and decisions may have to advance through two or three, or more, layers of committees and management. So when a new opportunity arises, I think small business is at an advantage to be an early adopter. And that’s something small businesses really need to focus on – being quick and using their small size to their benefit.
And the second advantage is somewhat similar: Small businesses can be more creative with their search and online marketing. They can try new things and take more chances without fear of negative public scrutiny, negative press, negative shareholder reaction, etc. There’s more freedom in being small, and more room for creativity.
Q: What are the greatest disadvantages you see for a small business marketing itself online?
Well, budget is an obvious one. A small bookseller just isn’t going to outspend Amazon or Barnes & Noble on broad book-related PPC keywords, and most probably don’t have the budget to put together a big organic SEO effort that would come close to what those kind of companies spend on SEO. Small businesses can’t just write a big check to solve a marketing problem.
Now, small businesses that don’t have money to spend can get around that by spending time – time learning SEO and SEM themselves, time on the web interacting with customers and prospects, and things like that. But that’s often Problem No. 2. Small businesses, generally speaking, have employees who wear many hats and work a full 40 hours per week at minimum – and usually a lot more! A big business might have the luxury of hiring 2-3 people whose sole job is to manage and promote the corporate blog, for example. I’d guess that most small businesses couldn’t do something like that.
Ultimately, there are more disadvantages we could talk about here, but I really think it all boils down eventually to a time vs. money problem.
Q: Can you give us an example of a small business that “got it right” in SEM and one that got it wrong?
In the interest of fairness, I’ll pass on mentioning any companies I’ve worked with over the years. So, I suppose one obvious success story would be MyWeddingFavors.com. The site itself is really a great lesson in SEO-friendly design – great choice and use of keywords, correct use of page titles and meta description tags, solid content, and a ton of inbound links. If any readers are not familiar with the story, just do a search for the full domain and after the site itself, you should find several articles and stories that talk about how the site grew into the success story it is today.
As far as getting it wrong, rather than call companies out by name, let me say this: It’s been my experience that the companies whose online marketing efforts fail are often the ones who don’t try. And the reasons they don’t try usually boil down to one of these two things: either they assume they’ll never be able to compete, or they don’t understand that search marketing, and online marketing in general, is hard work. For a lot of small businesses, just getting a web site launched is hard enough. But that’s when the hard work really begins. “If you build it, they will come” doesn’t work with web sites and search marketing! So the challenge for SEO or SEM consultants is to first convince small business owners of the need to market what the business owner thinks is a marketing tool, and then to convince the small business owner that being small is not a guarantee of marketing failure.
Q: What is the biggest misconception you’ve seen regarding SEO and SEM for the small business?
I’m not sure it’s a misconception, but I think there’s a general lack of understanding about how search engines work. If I had a dime for every time a small business owner has asked me, “How do I get my web site to be number one for such-and-such,” I’d be retired on a beach somewhere right now.
To the average user, Google is so good at what it does, that it looks easy – and I suppose that’s how it should look, right? But what happens is that Joe Business Owner gets this idea that, as soon as he puts up a web page about green widgets, Google (or Yahoo or MSN) will automatically pick it up and it’ll magically appear in the top 10 – because it all looks so easy.
I’ve actually had conversations with clients about some of the science behind search engine algorithms in an attempt to explain why it doesn’t work that way. In one case, I went as far as sending a client links to read the Hilltop and PageRank documents! I’m sure the client’s eyes glazed over in the first five minutes, but it definitely helped erase that misconception about how search engines work and how easy it should be to get to the first page of results.
Q: What, if anything, do you think that a typical independent, mom-and-pop brick-and-mortar (say, a neighborhood manicurist) needs to understand about search marketing?
First and foremost, that SEO is not rocket science. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. There’s a difference! There’s a small set of basic rules that apply to any web page or web site, whether you’re a small business or not. Your site has to be crawlable, your content has to be good – and I’d include things like page titles, keyword use, etc., under the umbrella of “content” – and you need quality, relevant inbound links. That applies to everyone. Come to think of it, I think the phrase I heard the most from other speakers at SES Chicago went something like this: “This is really basic, but no one seems to get it right” or “This is a simple rule, but so few web sites follow it” – stuff like that. So, if you just focus, at minimum, on doing the basics better than your competition, I think you’re off to a great start.
And then, using your example, the neighborhood manicurist probably also needs to understand what local search is, what the popular local search properties are, and how to market on those. And that, again, is not rocket science. It’s more about hard work and persistence.[editor’s note: see links to major local search engines]
Q: Many small businesses can’t afford the fees for quality search marketing. What options would you recommend to them?
You either have to spend money or you have to spend time. Your web site isn’t going to succeed on its own; you have to invest something in it after launch. So if you can’t afford to hire an SEO company, you have to spend time learning to do it yourself. And luckily for the small business owner in this situation, SEO/SEM is probably number one on the list of industries where experts are willing to give away their knowledge for little or no cost!
When I speak at SES on the “Big Ideas for Small Businesses” panel, I mention that there are a lot of SEO blogs, forums, and mailing lists where the small business owner can learn how it works and get great tips and advice. I mention that attending conferences is another good place to learn – and network – inexpensively. A third thing I discuss is SEO training classes; there are some great options that range from a couple hundred dollars to less than $1,500. And last, but not least, I mention three great books: SEO Book by Aaron Wall, Small Business Guide to Search Engine Marketing by Jennifer Laycock, and … drum-roll, please … Search Engine Optimization: An Hour a Day. I think you’re familiar with that one!
I’ve read all three of those books within the last year, and learned something from each one. I really don’t think there’s a better value in terms of cost vs. benefit than these books, and any small business on a tight budget should probably begin by buying one or all three and going from there.
Q: How does the rise of social media optimization affect small businesses online?
It opens up some new opportunities and avenues for marketing, and this is one of those areas where the smart and quick small business can try out some of these new opportunities before big business muscles its way in.
But I have mixed feelings overall about social marketing. I don’t think MySpace, for example, is a legitimate opportunity at this point for the typical small business, and that includes small businesses whose target audience is the MySpace demographic. Yes, there are small business success stories on MySpace, but I think they’re the ones who started a year ago, trying it out to see what works and what doesn’t. Everyone’s trying to market on MySpace now, and I just think small businesses are smarter to try something else at this point.
I’m a big fan of Flickr, for example. Flickr is more than just a photo storage site; it’s a huge community of users built around the concept of “photo groups.” And there are groups for everything on Flickr – pet lovers, surfing enthusiasts, musicians, home aficionados, and so much more. So, let’s say I’m a small general contractor in Reno. I’d be taking photos of all the beautiful homes I build and sharing them in some of the photo groups devoted to houses and homes. More importantly, since I probably only do business in the Reno area, I’d also share those photos in a group(s) specifically for the Reno area. And then I’d be sure to join in any discussions in those groups and just make myself a visible, vocal, and active member of the community.
Some social marketing efforts require a bigger time investment than others, so I think the small business owner needs to try a few of them, and then analyze if there’s a benefit, and if the benefit is worth the time it required.
Q: Is there anything you would like to add?
I’d just encourage small business owners to make the most of their size. Nobody likes to deal with huge, faceless corporations. We all like the human touch, and that’s what small businesses do best.
Thank you very, very much for your participation!!
Thank you for the terrific questions!