Dan Olson is the CEO of DIYSEO, a provider of SEO software for small businesses. Dan leads the strategic direction and manages all day-to-day activities at DIYSEO. He is a former vice president at Performics, the largest search marketing company in the United States that was acquired by DoubleClick, Google and eventually Publicis Groupe.
How should small business owners think about and evaluate SEO?
I think three things are important here:
- Approach it like marketing. SEO isn’t some tech-voodoo, it’s another way of getting customers to your site.
- Compare it to other things you do to market your business – sometimes that’s similar stuff like PPC, but it’s also print ads, billboards, etc.
- Focus on the actual return on investment.
I think a lot of small businesses get overwhelmed by the idea of SEO as being really complicated and shrouded in mystery. It’s just a way of getting people to come to your website: look at it that way, and then try to find out whether you’re doing that in a cost-effective way.
How much time does an SMB marketer need to spend to get real value from SEO?
Our philosophy on this is a little different in that I think you can get real value from SEO in a very small amount of time – as little as a couple hours a month. The thing to remember here is that the goal should just be to get more out of SEO than you put in, and to try to grow your business. For a lot of small businesses, a relatively small bump in targeted traffic can mean a very real impact. A few hours a month seems insufficient to a lot of savvy SEOs who spend all day optimizing sites in competitive niches, but a few hours a month for a local cupcake shop can mean tangible things over time – like a few more orders, a little more profit, a single extra employee and a very real bump in revenue and profit.
What's an example of an area within small business SEO where small businesses can get distracted? What are some SEO tactics that take up a lot of time but really don't move the needle?
I think sometimes more sophisticated SEO concepts like Page Rank sculpting, information architecture, or even advanced link building techniques are things that trip up small business owners. For some sites these things are really vital to optimizing for search, but we see a lot of people with a few pages of content who really just want to rank for some terms that are really specific to their business and aren’t terribly competitive, and they're asking questions about these types of things, where if they just got the basics right around keyword research, simple on-page optimizations, and some basic link building they’d start ranking for their initial list of terms in no time.
Link building is an important part of ranking a website, and it's also labor intensive and requires a lot of technical know-how. How does a small business with limited time and resources to spend on SEO do a good job building links?
I actually think the key here is that they do a good job targeting keywords. What I mean by this is that if a small business really takes the time to think through what sorts of specific terms are relevant to their business, they often find that they’re actually targeting relatively uncompetitive keywords. SEO doesn’t have to be about hiring a team of search specialists to target high-volume terms – a lot of small businesses could really benefit from identifying 10-50 specific terms, and then doing some really basic link building to help them rank for those. Again this is a good example of SEO having positive ROI, even if the returns aren’t on a massively large scale.
Small businesses have limited time and resources, but really understand their business – what aspect of SEO lends itself most to domain expertise?
I’d say content creation and “relationship-based” link building. The best content is usually by subject matter experts, and the most authentic relationships that lead to links are by actual industry vets, so areas where a busy small businesses can really shine are things like:
- Authoritative guides and reference content. You might not have time to blog every day, but over a few months you can likely write a really great, really thorough guide for your industry.
- Taking advantage of things like industry associations, working with people in your niche when there are opportunities to get a link, commenting on industry blogs and building a relationship with thought leaders (so that you can ask them to link to your authoritative guide when the time comes).
Small businesses like the word “free” (who doesn’t?) – what are your favorite free (or practically free) tools for SEO and search marketing?
I think a lot of the “freemium” tools are nice because for some small businesses they can get enough value right out of the free version, and typically you can find some really low-cost solutions even if you decide to go for the full featured version. Some great examples here are:
- WordStream’s Keyword Research Suite  [Editor's note: Stop, we're blushing]
- SEO Moz’s Open Site Explorer 
- The SEO Spider Tool 
These three are a good example of tools that have free versions that may be all a small local site needs, and I’d classify all of these as being pretty affordable for anyone who needs something a little more powerful, as well.
You also can’t go wrong with the free Google tools, and we offer a free SEO report card that helps small businesses get a really quick and dirty idea of what needs work in their SEO efforts. Also, our team put together a great list of 101 free SEO tips for SMBs that mentions a number of really handy free tools.
How important do you think it is for small businesses to be on top of changes in the SEO space? If I'm a local bakery that gets some nice traffic from local search, should I understand what the Panda update was?
I think this is a classic example of something you can’t reasonably expect a local bakery to know about, and I think it’s that total inability to really keep up with these types of changes that leads to opportunities in SEO consulting and SEO software. The local bakery is exactly who we were thinking about when we built DIYSEO: they don’t have time to stay up to date on the latest trends and best practices in SEO, they can’t afford an in-house SEO or even an SEO consultant, but they could really benefit from some simple, straightforward SEO advice. We’re trying to bake SEO best practices into our simple recommendations for small businesses, and then offer them an affordable way to have actionable advice that’s not outdated so they can focus on execution of some of these simple tasks and then just running their business, rather than theory.
Remember “the sandbox”? Is it still an issue for new websites? How long do you think it takes for a new site to get rankings and are there any workarounds?
There’s definitely still a bake-in period for new sites, but we’re seeing a lot of new sites achieve modest rankings pretty quickly. Again I really think the key is having realistic expectations, and targeting the right terms. If you have a little cupcake shop in Chicago, to carry the example from earlier, this means not trying to target “cupcakes” and maybe not even “Chicago cupcakes” right out of the gate. If you start out by finding a collection of three- and four-term keywords that are highly relevant to what you do, you can start to see traffic immediately (days and weeks, not months and years) and then over time you can start to target more competitive terms if you have the time and budget.
The best way to get your site ranking fast is to try to get as many authority links out of the gate as you can. A few trusted directories are still a good way to get a base of quality links, and then you can do some things like offer testimonials to vendors, try to get links from partners and friends, and do a bit of PR (even if it’s local PR) to try to build some initial quality links to “get the clock ticking” on your site.
SMO is the new SEO , as they say. Any tips for SMBs trying to engage in social media alongside SEO? What are the synergies?
I do think that social media is similar to SEO years ago in that there’s a lot of traffic available, and relatively few people who really understand how to drive it. I think the real synergies between SEO and social are with link building. Social media has a lot of the same basic principles as great link building, namely:
- Create valuable stuff and give it away
- Try to help people solve problems and share expertise
- Work hard to build relationships within your space – interact with the other people who are creating valuable stuff and helping people solve their problems
The same way you’d build a list of bloggers and do things like comment on their posts, link to them, etc. to try to build a relationship, you want to identify influential social media personalities and interact with them. One thing that can be really beneficial for SMBs is to consolidate their efforts: find top bloggers and thought leaders and interact with them everywhere they are – on social networks, on their blogs, etc. It’s a very leveraged way to interact because you’re appealing to them as a user of social media, and as a linker.
A final tip, though, is that even though you can use social media to give your link building efforts a boost, don’t forget to use social media as a way to connect with customers and prospects, as well.
Your company sells "do it yourself" SEO software for $49 a month – is that meant as a replacement for an SEO consultant?
This was something we got a lot of heat for when we launched! We’re not trying to replace great SEOs. If you’re a business that has over $5k a month to spend and wants to be driving tens or hundreds of thousands of unique visitors a month in really competitive verticals, DIYSEO isn’t claiming to be a $49 alternative to a talented SEO consultant. What we’re trying to do is offer some easy-to-use and easy-to-implement tools and advice to small businesses who can’t afford great SEO consulting and don’t have the time and resources to compete in competitive niches. We want to work with those folks to find specific keyword opportunities that can still bring some targeted traffic, and help them grow their business with search.
Our intention isn’t to try to replace what a good SEO does for $5k a month – we want to offer a valuable service for people who can only spend $49, and provide those people with way more value than they’re paying for.
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