Free Study: Small Businesses Often Mess Up with SEO

Most small businesses don’t have a good handle on search engine optimization (SEO), missing opportunity after opportunity to connect with prospective customers who could help them be more profitable.

They aren’t fully grasping just how many factors must come together to ensure high rankings on major search engines – variables like page titles, keyword-rich page headers, inbound links from other web sites and more.

As a result, our free study of 200 diverse small businesses, “Small Businesses Just Don’t Get SEO,” found that 62% of their web sites don’t rank on the first page of Google for even one keyword phrase. More than half (51%) don’t use page titles with keywords (they merely list “welcome” or “home” or usually only a company name). We selected the ReferenceUSA database to randomly select small businesses for the study (we are not affiliated with any of the companies we identified).

The wide range of small businesses we studied offer such products and services as:

  • Pizza
  • Legal counsel
  • Catering
  • Local package deliveries
  • Hair care
  • Engineering consulting
  • Toys for children
  • Real estate agents
  • Plumbers
  • Gymnastics training
  • Beer kegs
  • Commercial signs
  • Psychologists
  • and many more

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Over the years, we’ve met with thousands of the nation’s 27 million small businesses at our office, their locations, local events, and while speaking at national conferences. Some of them clearly value SEO. They simply don’t know how to pull it off. Many of them recognize that keywords are critical, but they’re often at a loss when asked to describe a suitable keyword phrase in light of their web site strengths and weaknesses. They aren’t sure how to correlate content with web site navigation and other critical steps.

Sometimes small business executives take an earnest interest – starting with competitors and then closely examining their own plans. They want to learn how SEO works and what it may entail for them initially and over the long haul. It’s no wonder that they want to tap into how people search. In the U.S. alone, there are about 18 billion searches conducted at home and work, according to the comScore qSearch analysis in January 2012. Google web sites represented 66.2% of the searches – dominating other industry players.

Past and current national studies show that small businesses believe SEO can help them with their bottom lines. They view it as a worthwhile investment that can help with leads and sales.

In 2011, MerchantCircle conducted a study among 2,500 small businesses and asked them, “If you had to put all your marketing time and budget into only one channel, what would it be?” Search engine optimization came on top at 32.9% compared to:

  • Traditional Media – 19.7%
  • None of the Above – 17.9%
  • Social Media – 16.0%
  • Paid Search Advertising – 9.8%
  • Mobile Marketing & Advertising – 3.7%


MarketingSherpa provided more insights in its newly released “2012 Search Marketing Benchmark Report SEO Edition.” Based on a survey of over 1,500 B2B and B2C marketers,  MarketingSherpa found that they care deeply about SEO. For example, 72% said increasing web site traffic through SEO is a key objective over the next 12 months (53% admitted it’s been a challenge over the past 12 months). Along the same lines, 62% said generating leads through SEO is a high priority for the next 12 months (48% indicated that’s been a big challenge the previous 12 months).

Unfortunately, their enthusiasm and high hopes for SEO don’t show up in the practical details of search engine optimization in most cases, according to our study.

Although many web sites use text headers above the core content, the headers typically are identical to the page titles – both dominated generic navigational references or an extremely broad keyword phrase that clearly isn’t tied to an overall web site strategy. Or, if the page title is distinct from the page header, the page title is often limited to the company name or a broad keyword with little opportunity to help the web site gain traction among search engine rankings.

Except for very few situations, small businesses don’t take the time to include relevant keywords in the main text or link those keywords to related pages on their web sites. They also focus only on their actual city where they’re based, which can hold them back with local optimization. In other words, small business executives could work harder to mention surrounding communities and even major cities (they could target long tail keywords and potentially establish decent rankings and attract some visitors).

But small businesses are sitting on several huge assets that they can leverage:

  • Domain names
  • Web site age
  • Inbound links
  • Content

Domain Names:
For example, 71% wisely incorporated keywords when selecting domain names (rankings are still affected by domain names with keywords).

Web Site Age:
They also have aging web sites (nearly 60% appear to be at least 5 years old based on the when the web site and domain were first used). Search engines clearly reward sites that have established a presence on the Internet.

Inbound Links:
Small businesses have managed to secure some inbound links from other web sites (links can influence rankings). In fact, 70% have more than 100 links from other web sites. The number may be dwarfed by web sites that boast thousands of inbound links, but it’s encouraging that small businesses have made some inroads with link building. They can always get more and take a closer look at the anchor text to see whether those links can include relevant keywords.

Although 43% of small businesses have 25 or fewer pages, 57% have more robust web sites with 26 pages or more. The small businesses have the ability to expand the text on some pages and add more pages to their web sites to support their keyword strategies. Very few of the web sites were locked into huge SEO barriers like frames or designs dominated by Flash.

The reality is that small businesses need to rank well for the right keywords if they’re going to promote their products and services through search engines.

And they have a long way to go.

The 62% that don’t rank for any keywords is actually bleaker than the statistics suggest. When we selected 5 keywords per web site, we included many with very few searches, according to Google’s keyword tool. For example, we often used keywords for products and services along with the names of small cities where the companies were based. And some of the small businesses still couldn’t rank. The 62% would have been much higher if we selected more competitive keywords that were still relevant.

Plenty of small businesses offer products and services for national and international markets. In that case, the competition for the keywords often intensifies.

Here is a cross-section of about 20 keyword phrases from the 1,000 we explored for the study:

Keyword Phrases Google Monthly Searches (Estimated)
“1031 like-kind exchanges” 91
“alaska salmon” 9900
“antique barometers” 880
“check printing software” 8100
“check software” 22200
“christmas music sheets” 880
“colleges in az” 880
“colorado mechanical engineering” 170
“dvd duplication” 33100
“georgia personal injury lawyers” 260
“miami caterers” 320
“miami catering” 1300
“peo consulting” 58
“personal injury lawyer georgia” 140
“phoenix car dealers” 260
“portland architect” 320
“precision machining” 14800
“real estate batesville” 260
“san francisco rugs” 110
“santa clarita plumber” 73
“springfield il wedding planner” 58
“williston motels” 73

The small set of keywords alone represents more than 1 million searches a year on Google.

You’ll see plenty of local keyword phrases like “Miami caterers” and “Phoenix car dealers,” but we also used non-local search terms like “Alaska salmon” and “DVD duplication.” Some marketers may suggest that the non-local phrases are too broad. We included them because they directly match what the businesses sell and how they promote their products and services (not limited to local markets). We also selected keywords based on keywords that businesses emphasized on their home page as well as page titles and meta data. For example, we sometimes included long tail variations of the broad keyword phrases.

Small businesses can still connect with prospects and new customers without even targeting keywords that appear to have minimal searches. If they can’t rank for a phrase like “Santa Clarita plumber,” they can focus on keyword phrases with no search data and still get visitors. We’re familiar with companies that frequently have web site visits for keyword phrases that appear as zero in Google’s keyword tool.

With our SEO study, we were somewhat surprised by the quality or lack of quality with website design. Too often, the architecture, images, fonts and text looked like they were developed in the hands of anyone other than a professional. As a result, the web sites were difficult to follow and many would make a horrible impression on any first time visitor.

Again, SEO shouldn’t just be about rankings on search engines. It should be an essential part of any Internet strategy. If you’re going to go to the trouble of investing in search engine optimization, you may as well take those new visitors to a web site that can meet the objectives – generate leads, sales and more.

Small businesses aren’t alone in how they deal with or neglect SEO – whether that’s their limited understanding, other corporate priorities or budget issues.

From small businesses in general to large Fortune 500 companies, studies and surveys consistently point out that businesses often ignore SEO.

  • Conductor, which released “Natural Search Trends of the Fortune 500” in 2010, found that Fortune 500 companies spent $3.4 million a day on paid search with nearly 100,000 keyword phrases – but only 2% of their web sites and keywords appeared among top 30 organic (non-paid) results on Google. In fact, only 25% of their paid search terms made it into the top 50 organic search results.
  • In 2010, “SMB Marketing Practices,” a survey of small and midsized businesses by GrowBiz Media and Zoomerang, found that 78% of SMBs don’t budget for SEO. E-mail marketing and social media were among the top budget priorities for 2011.
  • About 23% of small businesses planned to invest in SEO in 2011, according to American Express OPEN Small Business Search Marketing Survey, which was released with the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO). Given the 23%, plenty of companies weren’t investing.

Those trends contrast sharply with the reality that people use the Internet to search for information – with search engines being the leading resource in many cases.

  • In a 2011 Harris Interactive survey, 59% of U.S. adults identified search engines as the first place they go when looking for local businesses.
  • Also in 2011, 44% of Internet searchers said they initially turn to search engines when researching products, according to a survey by the e-tailing group and PowerReviews.
  • Before buying, 58% of consumers start with search engines, according to a 2011 study, “The Virtuous Circle: Understanding Search and Social Media’s Role in the Purchase Pathway,” by Group M Search and comScore, Inc.