SEO Guide (and Checklist) for SMB Service Businesses
By now, you’ve probably read plenty of articles on SEO. Most do a good job of covering why it is important to use SEO to boost search visibility and how to incorporate good SEO into your website.
So, we’ve decided to focus on what a small to medium-sized service business needs to know about SEO, and how to get started.
As a bonus, we’re including a downloadable SEO checklist that we use to help clients improve their search visibility.
Let’s get started!
What is SEO?
Search engine optimization (SEO) is a well-defined set of best practices for boosting traffic that you actually want to your website through search (see explanation below on ‘traffic that you actually want’).
SEO is art and science. It’s an art because doing it well requires a good understanding of your target users, i.e., your ideal client, which will then inform the creative development of great content and user experience. SEO is also a science because it is implemented through software development and continuous experimentation to get it right. That’s the ‘O’ in SEO: optimization.
What SEO is not is a smoke and mirrors method to outwit a search engine algorithm so you can boost ranking quickly. SEO takes time and experimentation to get it right. It’s more of a process and journey than a one-time project.
SEO is firmly grounded in well-proven techniques and a lot of good old fashioned common sense. When done well, it is an investment in your business and will pay dividends for a long time.
A Few SEO Fundamentals
Before we go further in explaining SEO, we’ll need to introduce a few concepts that are central to how SEO works.
A website is considered authoritative by search engines because it (as an extension of the company & brand it represents) is trusted by its users, the industry it operates in, other websites and search engines. And perhaps most importantly, if it is linked to from other sites with high authority — and high quality and ranking in a similar industry – this is considered a vote of confidence by the search engines and is a big part of high search ranking. The more high-authority inbound links you have, and the higher quality content you produce, the more likely your own site will become an authority too.
Keywords and Intent
In the past, SEO was focused just on ‘keywords’, or the specific words and phrases people type into search engines. Now, with all the algorithm changes in recent years, search engines are more focused on intent and meaning so that results match what people are actually looking for. After all, when people use a search engine, they usually have an ‘intent’ to discover or do something.
The good news is that search engines are now better designed to serve up results that help people with the information they are actually looking for in that moment. With good a good ‘Customer IQ’ you can take advantage of this semantic approach to search marketing and build a competitive advantage.
Understanding your buyers’ intent gives you a super-power over your competitors to build a sales funnel that produces results, which in this case means being in search results in the right moments.
To do this well, here’s a quick primer on the three types of search intent.
- Know (informational queries). These people are looking for information or answers to questions. They are looking to learn and discover more about how to achieve their goals and solve their problems.
- Do (transactional queries). These people are researching a solution, product or service. They’ve moved beyond just learning, and now are ready to take action, i.e., to try or buy something.
- Go (navigational queries). These are people who already know your business and are searching for you by name so they can go directly to your website.
Search engines reward sites that serve information that best match the intent of users. It would be impossible for your business to provide all of the information that most people want to know to meet their goals.
So, getting really focused about who you are and who you want to market to is important, since providing the right information at the time in the buying journey is what converts people into new clients.
The best way to do this is to really understand your target clients, so that you can better predict what specific content they will respond to.
Do you know:
- ‘who’ your target client is,
- ‘what’ their core problems to solve are,
- ‘why’, ‘how’ and ‘when’ they go about discovering solutions to those problems (their journey)
- ‘what’ they expect to see along this journey?
Most businesses don’t possess a sufficient understanding of their target customers for product-market fit and effective marketing. Companies who do embrace a more customer-centric approach have a significant competitive advantage that is hard to replicate. Remember – your competitors can never know as much about our customers as you do.
Talk with customers to understand how they define value and perceive your brand. This can be very informal conversations, or more structured interview method and observational in approach. The key is to explore their needs and sources of satisfaction and frustration, their main drivers of choice and decision in your services space, and the compromises they make in using your services.
In addition to ‘boosting your customer IQ’ you also want to follow good web design and user experience practices to make you content easy to find and use once those prospective clients find you in a search query.
With this in mind, always strive to design your brand and content to have these characteristics:
- User-friendly. Content is relatable to your target audience and organized in such a way that it’s easy to find. And it is accessible for seeing and hearing-impaired users.
- Unique. Content offers a fresh, useful perspective speaking on your behalf of your brand.
- Authoritative and trustworthy. Content stand on its own as a reliable resource for information on a particular topic and establishes your brand as credible and trustworthy.
Read more: How to Meet the Demands of Today’s B2B Customer.
On-site, Off-site and Technical SEO
SEO is generally broken down into three categories: on-site SEO, off-site SEO and technical SEO. Here are brief explanations of each.
On-site (also known as on-page SEO) are the practices that you’ll perform to improve your website experience. This generally includes optimizing your website’s organization of information, tuning content, and enhancing the HTML source code behind your pages.
In short, good on-site SEO helps search engines understand what users will see, and the value they will get, when they visit your website.
Off-site SEO refers to efforts made with other sites to help draw more desirable traffic to your site, such as backlinking, business listings, social promotion, influencer mentions, trade organization, PR, and more.
In short, you want to get other businesses and individuals – especially those that are highly ranked – to link back to your site. This is viewed by search engines as an endorsement and is factored into your ranking.
The third category of methods are the technical aspects of implementing SEO, including modifying the HTML code, setting up your Google My Business and configuring the Google Search Console. We’ve included these steps in the checklist below.
What Does This Mean for My Business?
Let’s go back and explain ‘traffic that you actually want’. SEO should be one of the many tools that you use to achieve your business objectives. If you’re a service business, you probably have a particular kind of client in mind that you want to attract and keep. SEO is a powerful method of achieving this objective.
Here are the top reasons why B2B service business owners should invest in SEO to achieve their business objectives:
Reason #1: Your website has a job to do, and it depends on SEO.
Your website is no longer just a brochure or billboard. It is the front door to your business and your sales team.
To do this job well, your website has to be designed to:
- Generate high intent traffic.
- Establish you as the best choice.
- Engage visitors.
- And nurture buyers along their journey.
Read more: Is Your Website Doing Its Job?
Reason #2: Your customers are online, searching for a solution like yours, right now.
Most of your target clients are using search to research problems and discover solutions. Here are a few statistics:
- 93% of B2B decision makers start their buying process with an online search (HubSpot).
- B2B researchers do 12 searches on average prior to engaging on a specific brand’s site (Google).
Reason #3. Your competitors are already investing in SEO.
Most businesses today have recognized that online search works to attract customers, and they are voting with their dollars. In 2021, search was the leading segment of digital ad spend at $98.6 billion, up 39% from 2020, accounting for over one-third of all ad dollars invested in media.
Here is a list of specific SEO practices we encourage you to follow for best results. We recommend going through this list with your team as you get started. As stated above, SEO is an ongoing effort, not a one and done project. So, the checklist will serve as a way to keep tuning and optimizing over time.
Topic and Keyword Research
Keyword research is an essential method for boosting your SEO, and it can also be useful in strategic customer research.
- Search your keywords in Google (see below for suggestions on how to do this).
- Use a keyword research tool to gather insights on how customers search online and get ideas for offers and content (some of these are also handy for doing competitive research).
- Select target keywords with sufficient volume and low competition.
- Target one keyword or keyword theme per page.
Here are a few keyword research / SEO tools we recommend using to do your topic and keyword research.
Yes, we recommend starting with doing some searching of your own. You can learn a lot from doing your own online search, since most of your customers will use it on their journey to finding you.
To do this, search as your customers would – for the most helpful information to discover a solution to their needs. Note, they probably aren’t searching for ‘your brand’ by name. Rather, they are seeking to learn and understand their problems and find solutions using certain keywords that you’ll want to uncover.
A good way to begin uncovering keywords is to search for your service offering or category. Use question style searches such as “what is [your product/service category]” or “how to [the solution you provide]” to model a prospect in their discovery phase.
Then, use a search like “how to choose [your product/service category]”, or “guide to [your product/service category]” to model a prospect in the consideration phase.
Also in Google Search…
Google’s Autocomplete feature
Google’s Autocomplete is a feature that autocompletes a partially typed search query. However, you can use it to find different ways people may ask a question about your offering. Just type in a word or phrase related to your business or service to see what Google inserts after it. Try typing it in the form of a question that matches the stage of a customer’s journey and level of awareness. For instance, a small business owner learning about ‘CRM’ might search for ‘what is CRM’. Another small business owner who now wants to find a CRM solution might search for ‘best CRM for small business.’
Google’s People Also Ask feature can also reveal keyword insights. Just do a search for your target keywords or questions a target customer would ask. Look for the ‘People Also Ask’ section in the results for clues into different questions and ways in which they are asked.
Other Keyword Research Tools
Ahrefs Webmaster Tools
You can use Ahrefs to check your current SEO ranking, i.e., the keywords you currently rank for in Google, along with their estimated search volumes, Keyword Difficulty scores, traffic potential, and other useful SEO metrics.
For more advanced search keyword analysis, try Ubersuggest. Just type in your website domain name, or a keyword to get started. Ubersuggest offers a basic free version and a paid version with more features.
Having an intuitively organized site content architecture, along with easy-to-use navigation elements is good for both search engines and your clients.
Follow these practices for good content organization:
- Navigation: use a simple page navigation structure with as few main sections as possible.
- # of pages: design for fewer long form pages vs. many shorter pages.
Use headings with keywords to section main ideas on pages. This also makes your content more scannable.
- Internal linking: use plenty of internal (deep) linking – linking your text, images and other elements to other pages on your site, especially your strategically important pages, such landing pages and services pages. This makes it easy for bots and users to follow your content and improves ranking for the linked keywords.
- Crawl depth: keep the number of clicks it takes to get to important pages from the homepage to no more than 3. This is important for user experience and search engine crawling.
- Orphan pages: minimize the use of pages that aren’t linked from any part of the site.
- Redirects: minimize the use of 301 redirects, especially redirect chains (URL 1 > URL 2 > Target URL) which makes it harder for search bots to crawl the site.
The following are good overall web design practices. However, when done well, these will also contribute to an improvement in your search engine ranking, as well as user experience.
- Trustworthy: accurate and presents a unique point of view. It delivers on the promise of your value proposition. It includes social proof (case studies, testimonials, reviews, client lists).
- Relevance and usefulness: stay focused on what is most important for your target client to know in order to be successful. Use semantically related phrases and subtopics and provide answers that your clients are likely to be asking in their search (use the “People Also Ask” feature in Google to get ideas). Provide examples to clarify ideas.
- Scannable storylines: break up long pages with logical, compelling headers, and visual elements. Ensure that the information flows naturally from one idea to the next, like a storyline. Use short paragraphs (no more than 4-5 lines), strategic use of bold, colors, bullets, lists, tabs or other elements to increase scannability.
- Actionable (calls-to-action): highly visible and intuitive path for your target client to take the next step (depending on where they are in their buying journey), such as to watch a video, download premium content, or to contact you. Use action verbs in call-to-actions.
- Content mix: use a mix of promotional content (about your business and you, i.e., mission and service descriptions) and editorial content (about helping your target clients be successful i.e., blog and thought leadership).
- Adequate length: this is subjective and depends on the type of page. In general, search engines are rewarding longer content. However, don’t try to add length just by adding low-quality filler content: all of the above practices should still be followed. For editorial content aim for at least 1,500 words for any article. Also write longer-form guides, between 2,000 and 3,500 words.
- Readable and enjoyable: long length doesn’t mean sacrificing readability. You can achieve long-form content while still practicing brevity. Cut-out filler words. Use every-day words vs. technical lingo.
- Images: Use descriptive ALT tags, and file names with no spaces (use dashes) on images and downloadable documents. Use aspect ratio” of 16:9, which is social media friendly.
- Links: Use plenty of internal links across pages, and check that all links are working correctly.
- Mobile-friendliness: Your site should be built with responsive design—meaning it will adjust to any screen size for phones, tablets as well as desktop computers. Ideally, users can do everything they need to do on your website regardless of how and where they are using it.
Meta tags are parts of the website code that help search engines crawl your site better. Follow these practices for meta tags.
- Title tags: title tags create the text you see in a browser tab, and usually form the linked text in a search engine result. Title tags are very important for SEO – they are a top (if not the #1) ranking factor. So, you want to put some thought into writing them. Each page should have a unique title with at least one of your target keywords, near the beginning of the title. Title tags should be no longer than 66 characters in length.
Page title (H1)
This is what you see on the actual page and should summarize the key idea of the page, like a headline.
- Apply the
tag to these. Include at least one target keyphrase. Page titles can be in many forms, including questions.
- Use numbers if it relates to the idea. Keep it short and interesting.
Page sub-title (H1)
This is optional to add more information in the page title.
- Use the sub-title to convey a clear, specific benefit. Sub-titles should help to grab attention.
- Create urgency or surprise if applicable. Trigger curiosity or emotion if you want the user to take action.
The meta description isn’t a ranking factor, and search engines may or may not use it to form the search result page (SERP) text below the page title link. If it is used, this is your chance to describe the main idea of the page to your liking.
- It should be a unique summary of the page, using complete sentences. Includes the keyphrase once, anywhere.
- Keep it no longer than 155 characters.
Page section headings (H2)
- Apply the
tag and use these to break up long pages with scannable sections.
- Use target keywords, if possible, in section headings.
- Use heading tags, sparingly, to emphasize important text. Use headings formed as questions, if it improves flow.
Use of Alt-image text tags helps search bots crawl your images, as well as make your site more accessible to visually impaired users. Alt text allows screen readers to describe an image out loud to enhance the user experience for these users.
- Use relevant alt-tag text to describe images.
Link / CTA text
- Link text and buttons strategically to encourage flow across important pages.
- Link text should be specific and relevant to the page linked to.
- Place the most important links higher on a page.
Strategically place your top targeted keywords in the following places.
- Page title: (see description above).
- Title tag: (see description above).
- First 100 words of the page: incorporated naturally into flow of the language: don’t force it.
- Section headings: ideally in at least two section headings on the page.
- Meta description: This is the summary of your page that appears on the SERP.
- Image alt text: (see description above).
Content Selection and Style
As mentioned above, you want to deliver as much relevant and useful content as possible, that will help your target clients be successful, in whichever stage of the buying journey they are in. And you’ll want to organize it in your site in a way which not only invites free exploration, but also motivates target clients to move through your ‘conversion path’ to an offer of your services.
You don’t have to know which stage of the buying journey they are in. However, you can build a portfolio of different content that matches their goals at each stage.
Understanding and aligning your business to your clients’ journey is important because buyers control the majority of their purchase journey leading up to becoming a client, and you only see a small part of this.
To do this, we recommend speaking with your clients and prospects about the journey they have followed to learn about their business challenges and search out the best solutions to solve them. Listen for what triggers them to seek out or switch to a new solution. Find out where they go to find information to inform decisions, what search terms they use, and what they consider as helpful, trustworthy content.
Ask and listen for the following in your client discussions:
• Their goals and pain points, related to a solution like yours
• What triggers their search for the solution and what do they search for (keywords)
• What influences their decision to choose a solution like yours
• Where do they go for information about this (online search, reviews, friends, etc.)
• What experiences are they looking for when seeking your business
• What alternatives have they tried – what did they like and dislike?
• What are their common objections to choosing a solution like yours?
• What are their key moments (‘moments of truth’)?
Demand Generation Checklist
10 steps to growing your service business using a customer-centric approach to demand generation.
Technical SEO Checklist
Follow these steps to be ready to prepare your site for SEO from a technical perspective.
Google Search Console
Google Search Console is a free web service offered by Google you can use to manage (to some extent) how the search engine is handling and indexing your website. In Google Search Console, you’ll submit an XML site map, which is a file that lists your website’s important pages, making sure Google can find and crawl them. It also helps Google understand your website structure.
Once you have access to your site in Google Search Console, you should do the following:
- Sitemap: ensure you have an XML site map in the root directory and is listed in the robots.txt file.
- Submit (or resubmit) your sitemap to Google as needed.
- Check for any crawl errors, and resolve them.
- Review search queries by users that are visiting your site.
- See how your pages rank in Google.
- Troubleshoot problems with Google indexing any of your pages.
Google Analytics is another free and very popular analytics tool offered by Google that can provide answers to these and many more questions:
- How well is my website converting traffic to leads / sales?
- Where is traffic coming from?
- Which content is most popular?
- Which content format performs best in search?
- How well is my SEO working / what’s my search ranking?
- How did my paid campaigns perform?
- How much did each channel contribute to conversions?
- How many conversions came in through [ desired ] pages?
- How are conversion rates across device?
Google My Business
If your business depends on building a brand and connecting with customers in a local market, such as a specific city or even neighborhood, then you definitely want to take advantage of Google My Business.
Every time you do a search for a local business in Google, you’ll most likely see a set of results displayed in a map. You may also see a large description of a business if searching it by name (called the knowledge panel).
You can manage how your business shows up on these local search results using Google My Business. And, many of the features available will also improve your local search ranking.
To get the most out of Google My Business, we recommend doing the following.
- Claim your business on Google. Start by searching for your business by name on Google to check if a profile exists already. If it does, you can claim your business listing by clicking on “Own this business?” Sign in to your Google My Business account or create one to get started. After entering the basic business information, you’ll also want to verify your business as well with Google.
- Optimize your Google My Business listing. You’ll want to go beyond entering basic information to get the most out of your listing for local search. If you have more than one location, make a listing for each location. Add plenty of high-quality photos and your business logo. List your products and services. And use the Google My Business post feature, which adds visibility to your services.
How long does it take for your website to load? Site speed is a very important ranking factor for Google because a faster website presents a better user experience.
There are a number of reasons that your site would be slow, and these reasons tend to build up over time. So, regular performance checks are needed to keep your site loading as quickly as possible across all devices.
How fast is fast? In general, you want to shoot for page load speeds of 3 seconds or less.
Follow these practices to keep your site running fast.
- Keep image sizes as small as possible.
- Eliminate any un-needed plug-ins (if using WordPress) and HTTP element requests.
- Minimize use of complex, manual styling and CSS.
- Use browser caching.
- Minimize redirects.
- Use a reliable, fast hosting provider.
- Occasionally run a page speed test using Google’s free PageSpeed Insights tool.
Recap of the SEO Checklist for SMB Service Businesses
Remember, SEO is art and science, and takes time and patient, and some experimentation to get it right. That’s the ‘O’ in SEO: optimization. It’s not a quick fix solution.
To use a gardening analogy: you’re planting seeds for future growth. Once your fresh new content is planted, you’ll wanted to nurturing and prune it to keep it healthy.
Here’s a high-level recap of everything we covered:
- Research and search your keywords in Google and other keyword tools.
- Strategically choose and place keywords and build content around those topic areas.
- Design intuitively organized site content with easy-to-use navigation and a clear conversion path.
- Optimize use of meta tags throughout your site.
- Deliver lots of relevant and useful content that will help your target clients be successful, in whichever stage of the buying journey they are in.
- Use Google Search Console, Google Analytics and Google My Business to monitor your efforts and find opportunities to improve even more.
- Continually look for ways to boost site speed.