Search marketing has grown in popularity as online search continues to evolve from a novelty to a standard feature in our everyday lives. Almost every business in the country, big or small and regardless of industry, has some kind of web presence, and everybody is competing for only a handful of positions at the top of search-engine results pages (SERPs).
Since larger companies — mega-corporations such as Walmart or Home Depot — already have millions of inbound links, decades of content, and a recurring base of online visitors, it’s no wonder why they generally appear in the top ranking positions when people search for commercial products. Regardless of what industry you’re in, you’ll always have at least one competitor who has been around longer and has tried harder than you have (allocated more budget and resources) to building their visibility on the web and in search engines.
So how can you, a small business with limited experience and resources, compete with that level of online domination?
Thankfully, search-engine optimization (SEO) is no longer about sheer volume. It’s not about who’s been on the web the longest, who has the most inbound links, or even who has the biggest library of great content. It’s about which page or website is the most relevant for the searcher. Knowing that, there are several strategies you can implement that can give you the edge over the bigger, badder competition.
1. Specialize in a niche.
One of the best things you can do as a small business is give yourself a niche focus. Instinctively, you might think that the better option for search visibility is to cover as many areas of expertise as possible. For example, if you work in heating, cooling, plumbing, roofing, construction and a dozen other home improvement topics, you’ll be able to appear in search engines for queries related to any of those keywords.
However, if you’re trying to take down your biggest competitors, it’s better to take more of a niche focus. Having several areas of specialization gives you relevance for a wide range of keywords, but your relevance for each of them is somewhat low. If you pour all your effort into one or a small handful of keywords, you’ll be able to achieve a much higher visibility.
For example, if you specialize in indoor plumbing, you might miss out on limited visibility for all those other home improvement keywords, but you’ll be the best in indoor plumbing.
2. Engage in a long-tail keyword strategy.
Long-tail keyword strategies try to accomplish a similar goal. In niche specialization, you sacrifice minimal relevance in a large volume of topics for maximum relevance in a much smaller volume of topics. With long-tail keywords, you’ll be sacrificing minimal ranking potential with highly popular keywords for maximum ranking potential with less popular keywords.
Long-tail keywords are extended phrases Google looks for, such as “tips for installing a toilet in an upstairs bathroom” instead of the much shorter, more popular “toilet installation.” Ranking highly for long-tail keywords is much easier than ranking high for shorter keywords, so even though they bring in less traffic, they’re still more valuable for small businesses to go after.
Fortunately, optimizing for long-tail keywords is easy. You can research ideal long-tail keywords to go after using Webmaster Tools, or you can just publish lots of great content — long-tail keyword phrases tend to appear naturally in the course of your writing. For further information on identifying and using long-tail keywords, see “The Rise of the Long-Tail Keyword for SEO” and “How to Find Long-Tail Keywords Once You’ve Identified Your Primary Keywords.”
3. Leverage locality for optimization.
Another way to beat the competition is by targeting a much more local audience. Local search is becoming more relevant and more important, so in today’s context, being the best barber shop in Houston is far better than being an OK barber shop on a national scale.
Even if your business does operate on a national (or international) level, you can still capture a niche market share and edge out your competition in at least one key area by optimizing for a specific local area. In this section, I’ll introduce a handful of specific strategies you can use to build your reputation and relevance in your given city.
Event attendance and community building. Get your name out there by getting involved in the community. Attend major events whenever you can, such as fairs, festivals or community gatherings. This will give you two opportunities: First, you’ll immediately generate more business simply by being at the event and offering discounts or promotions to event attendees. Second, and more importantly for SEO, you’ll have the opportunity to brag about your attendance online.
Post excellent content on your website, using local-specific keywords, about your company’s attendance, and syndicate a press release about the opportunity for some high-authority and local-specific inbound links. This is one of the easiest ways to generate publicity and build some local-optimized content simultaneously.
Local reviews, on directory and aggregation sites such as Yelp or TripAdvisor, have become essential for local SEO. With Google’s Pigeon algorithm update earlier this year, Yelp and similar sites received a huge boost in priority. Now, sites with large volumes of positive reviews rank higher than similar sites with few or negative reviews. In fact, Yelp’s importance has increased so much that, in some cases, Yelp profiles are actually ranking higher than the official pages of the companies they represent.
What this means for small businesses is a new, key opportunity to jump in the rankings without worrying about producing content or building links. Instead, you can focus on cultivating strong, positive reviews from your customers. While Yelp explicitly forbids compensating your reviewers, or asking customers directly for reviews in any way, you can still encourage more reviews with Yelp stickers and occasional call-outs with a link on your social-media profiles.
Hyper-local content. Local search is getting more local, and taking advantage of that incoming trend could be the opportunity you need to crush a larger competitor — especially if that competitor operates in the same city as you.
Google is getting better at identifying and categorizing neighborhoods within a broader city, so you can take local search a step further by using neighborhood-specific keywords instead of just city and state names. Your potential success is determined by how Google views your neighborhood boundaries, so do some research before you begin.
4. Personalize your social engagement.
Aside from local search optimization, you can also increase your chances of overcoming steep competition by stepping up the “personal” factor in your brand strategy. Large businesses tend to lose a portion of their personalities once they hit a certain point in their growth, but being small and nimble gives you the advantage of giving each follower a more personal, humanized experience.
Nurture your following on social media, and you’ll attract more posts and followers, and the bigger and more active your social-media presence is, the higher you’ll rank in Google.
5. Become a recognized, authoritative content publisher.
Building brand awareness, loyalty, trust and credibility requires frequent and quality content publication. Most companies utilize an on-site blog to publish content, while others produce and distribute ebooks, webinars, podcasts, videos and other forms of content through various other channels.
The keys to building your brand through a content strategy are quality and consistency. Maximize the reach of each piece of content you publish to maximize your return on investment, and be consistent with your publication schedule so you start to become recognized as a dependable authority.
There’s no shortcut to rise to the top of the search engine rankings, especially when there’s a massive competitor lingering on the scene. But with a strategy that leverages your geographic location and your agility, you can selectively overcome your competitors in specific key areas.
Give yourself the best odds by narrowing your topic and keyword focus and increasing your location-specific relevance. You might not rank for as many keywords as the bigger players, but you will be able to surpass them in relevance for your chosen focal points.