10 Reasons SEO Is Harder for Small Businesses



SEO is harder for small businesses

“Why is SEO harder for small businesses?” This question has popped up a couple of times in our organic keyword referrers. We’ve been saying for months that SEO is getting harder, and that it’s especially difficult for SMBs to excel at. But why? Why is SEO easier for the big dogs? Make no mistake, it is – even if it’s getting harder for them too.  

Here are 10 reasons why smaller businesses struggle to succeed at SEO.

1. You have less money.

This is the #1 reason SEO – and everything else! – is harder for small businesses. It’s an old saw but it’s true: You have to spend money to make money. The reason companies spend money on marketing and advertising is because they deliver ROI, but sometimes there’s a tipping point. For example we’ve seen small businesses that didn’t see ROI from PPC until they raised their daily spend, counter-intuitively. SEO is the same way. If you can devote more money to your search engine optimization efforts, you’ll see better returns. Bigger companies have bigger budgets they can allocate towards hiring more employees, bringing in top-notch consultants, investing in “big content” and great web design, and so on. 

2. You have less time.

OK, I lied: This is tied for #1. Time is money, and if you have less money you also have less time. Fewer heads on the marketing team means that everyone is juggling multiple tasks and nobody can focus 100% of their time on SEO. Some businesses are so small they have just one or two people doing EVERYTHING, making SEO exponentially harder. Real SEO takes a lot of time. Creating worthwhile content, optimizing your web pages, promoting your assets and securing links, running A/B tests – none of this is easy. Small businesses end up doing a rush job or neglecting it altogether, resulting in underoptimized sites with poor rankings.

3. Something else always comes first.

When you’re short on resources, SEO-related tasks always seem to get pushed to the bottom of the list. Blogging and other forms of content creation are a prime example – everyone’s got the best of intentions, promises are made (“I’ll get you that blog post by the end of the week!”) but nothing ever really gets written and published. The fact is, if you wait to do SEO until everything else is done, you’ll never do any SEO.  That’s why big companies hire a dedicated SEO – no excuses.

4. It’s harder to keep up with changes.

Again, this is essentially a resource problem. An SEO specialist who lives and breathes search has time (and incentive) to follow industry publications and keep up with the rapidly changing search landscape. They’ll know if Google has released a big algorithm change or other significant update that could affect your rankings and strategy. They’ll hear about new techniques and be better able to judge what’s worth trying and what isn’t. SMB marketers are often too busy trying to keep up with their own industry vertical to spend any time following the twists and turns of SEO. Here at WordStream, we have an advantage because search marketing is what we do – we have to keep up with search. But what if you sell shoes or medical equipment? Your morning reading is going to look very different.

5. Google favors brands.

In SEO we love to whine that Google favors brands, but the truth is, everyone favors brands. All other things being equal, Google ranks big brands higher in the search results because they have user behavior data indicating that people click more often on recognizable brand websites. So if you want to compete on a keyword that bigger brands are also going after, you’ll have to work that much harder to prove your small business marketing blog content is relevant and worth the user’s time. For a lot of branded keywords, you’ll never be able to beat the bigger companies.

6. Bigger businesses have been at it longer.

Big businesses weren’t born that way – they started small and grew. So big companies have generally been around longer. If you’ve been operating as a small business, doing well but staying small, for many years, that’s great – you’ll have an advantage. But lots of small businesses haven’t been around that long, and it’s tougher for them to rank because their younger websites haven’t accrued authority and a great link profile yet. This is why it’s harder for new websites to rank on competitive keywords. Aside from the fact that Google likes older domains, big brands have simply been doing SEO longer, so they’ve more things and they know what works and what doesn’t. They can repeat past successes and repurpose their content assets, rather than starting from scratch all the time.

7. Your website is smaller.

If you’re a small business, chances are your site isn’t just newer, it’s smaller too. You have less content and fewer pages overall, which amounts to fewer keywords you can possibly target and fewer opportunities to rank. Really big websites get more traffic in part because the sea of search queries they have the potential to rank for is so much bigger. And big brands have bigger websites because (you guessed it) they have more resources to funnel toward creating content, and because they offer more products and services. Think of Amazon and all the individual pages they have for each and every product they offer!

8. You have fewer tools and less powerful software.

Your itsy-bitsy marketing budget rears its ugly head again. Enterprises can afford to invest in great software. The in-house SEO at a big company has tools at his disposal that automate away some of the time-consuming tasks involved with search marketing. They can afford to buy up for better analytics, better keyword research, better reporting tools, better conversion optimization tools, etc., etc. Small companies are often stuck with free, which makes it harder to gain a competitive advantage. More manual work also takes more time.

9. You have less clout to leverage for link building and media coverage.

Big sites and brands with great reputations tend to get links without even trying. It also helps to have some weight behind your name when you actively reach out for links. If you’re trying to get media coverage in a big publication, it helps enormously if they’ve already heard of you. Barring that, it’s great to be able to say that your business has been mentioned in other notable venues – it’s like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. But smaller businesses are less likely to have brand recognition on their side.

10. You don’t have a relationship with Google.

Bigger companies tend to have a personal relationship with Google. They may have a dedicated rep. If something goes south (“Holy crap, our rankings fell off a cliff overnight!!”) they can call their contact at Google for help. Small businesses will have a lot more trouble figuring out what to do. It’s a dirty little not-so-secret secret, perhaps – like the fact that it’s much easier to get into an Ivy League school if your family name is on one of the buildings – but big brands spend a lot of money on Google advertising (like $50 million a year). And that means they’ve got connections inside, and Google is invested in keeping them happy.

Is SEO Still Worth the Trouble? In a Word, Yes

Now listen: We’re not saying you should give up on SEO. In fact, you have to do at least the bare minimum SEO if you want to have a reasonably viable presence online. Basically, if you have a website, you want to accomplish three things:

  1. Help potential customers find your site via search.
  2. Make sure your site is easy to navigate once they’ve found it.
  3. Make sure it’s obvious what they should do next, whether that’s calling in or adding something to a shopping cart – and convince them to do it.

These tasks, especially the second two, involve the principles of web design, usability, and conversion rate optimization as much as they do SEO. But to accomplish #1, you’re going to have to think about search engine optimization. Of course, you should have other sources of traffic for your site – PPC/remarketing, social media, email marketing, word of mouth – but if you neglect SEO, you’re leaving a great potential source of brand-new leads untapped.

The trick for small businesses is figuring out what you can accomplish given your limited resources. Also, remember that there may be ways that being small actually helps you! For example, small business are often more agile, and more willing to experiment. So stick with it, cover your basics first, make sure your managers know SEO is important, and investigate new opportunities as you can find the time.

Do you work at a small business? How do you deal with the challenges of SEO? If you don't, why as your small business turned to advertising?

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Larry Kim
Oct 15, 2012

Overall i think this is an awesome write-up. Very comprehensive! Just a few comments here:Some of the arguments (1) Less Money, (2) Less Time, and (3) Something Else Comes up First, and (8) You have less tools and software (etc.) i would argue aren't exclusive to SEO as a channel - That I think you could say the same thing about just about other marketing channels for the average small business. Though, I agree with you that they are definately true of SEO. The workflow of SEO - content creation, content marketing & promotion, social media, link building, etc is certainly more time consuming.(4) keeping up with changes - now I think this is very true for SEO and the strongest of the 10 reasons given. That SEO is a fast changing venue and it's a full time job to keep up with algo updates and new things like author tags, etc. And that it's not the case for other marketing channels like say, email marketing, or even PPC (which changes of course, but not nearly as much as SEO)(5) Google likes brands - this is a problematic trend for SEO, and the second strongest reason of the top 10 in my opinion.  the decrease in domain diversity in SERPS - that many or all of the listings in a SERP are from brands, puts smaller sites at a huge disadvantage here. smaller businesses are being shut-out of the SERPS!overall I would say that the small businesses that are most struggling are those who previously relied on getting lots of traffic (nationally or internationally) as google now favors brands and local results. I am told that Local search is still OK.i wrote an article on this topic a few months ago at seomoz: Does SEO even work for small businesses

Elisa Gabbert
Oct 15, 2012

I didn't mean to imply that any of these reasons applied exclusively to SEO. Having less time and money across the board makes almost everything harder, though it can help in some ways too, for example by making you hungrier and more creative in your problem-solving.

Larry Kim
Oct 15, 2012

right. Necessity is the mother of invention!

Feb 04, 2014

Interesting points. We specialise in small business so they can over come these obstacles and grow.

Nov 15, 2013

Good post with all solid, user-useful information... I'm suprised it didn't rank better for the focus keyword "seo for small business."

Sep 17, 2013

Small businesses do need more attention in terms of SEO and branding.. nice points included here..

Josh Spaulding
Jun 24, 2013

Hi, I work with Jonathan Leger, and we’re reaching out to see if you guys could benefit from a private link network (we build and promote the sites for you, but you own them) for your own SEO efforts:  You could use them to build links to your client sites and the links would be high quality.  If so, we could build a network of X number of sites for you on various c-class IPs, and we would even promote them for you.Any interest?Thanks,Josh

Karen Porter
Apr 17, 2013

Generally speaking, if an SEO firm has to resort to mass emailing to drum up business, they are not an SEO frim worth doing business with. SEO can be very effective, but only if done by and individual or firm that knows what they are doing and does its work smartly, openly, and with integrity.

Candeotech California
Mar 25, 2013

Excellent stats and very encouraging. I am new to blogging and I appreciate the point about consistency. Thanks so much. 

SEO Guru
Feb 16, 2013

Elisa,I totally agree with everything in your post. I think the big mistake that many small business people make is trying to effectively run their business AND do something like SEO. Take a plumber for example, they can't be an expert at plumbing, marketing, running their business, AND SEO. There just isn't enough hours in the day.I also think that one of the main takeaways from your post is that Google absolutely and definitely favors brands, without a doubt. If a small biz isn't out there actively branding themselves in the marketplace (or having someone do it for them), they are going to get left behind.  

Feb 10, 2013

Hi, I was simply checking out this blog and I really admire the premise of the article and this is really informative. I will for sure refer my friends the same. Thanks

Arthur Sparks
Jan 28, 2013

In the online world where competition is cutthroat and every website wants to be the top of mind of their target market, what you can do is hire professional search engine optimization services to really ensure that your content is just as it should be. Experts in search engine optimization will know exactly how to write your content or format it in a way that still contains what your users need but at the same time optimizing it for search engines. The placement and frequency of keywords are very important, and SEO experts know certain strategies to optimize it. They also know some link building techniques that will enhance your SEO campaigns as well. With SEO experts by your side, it will be easier for you to succeed in the online business landscape.

Jan 26, 2013

Good article. Thanks!I would argue a bit on the part about having relationships with Google. I work for a large company who spends millions and millions with Google on advertising. They come in and bring food, take meetings at a moment's notice, etc. ... IF you're in the paid search team. As the manager of the SEO team I'm lucky if they return my call. They certainly don't help from an SEO standpoint and will flat out tell you they can't. Even if you ask them things that you would think would be simple such as "did you guys make an algo change?" they'll either say no or they don't know or they can't tell you. Then two days later they'll post something about a recent algo change in their blog.Yes, it's nice that I know the names of many people at Google, and on occasion I can get half answers to things if I go through my contacts in the paid search team, but believe me they aren't helping us. And in many cases, such as with Google+ Local, their stuff is geared towards the small mom-and-pops rather than the big brands.

Alisa (Think Big Online Marketing)
Jan 09, 2013

Very aptly put! Thanks for sharing. You must have put quite a research on this article.

Seo Seattle
Dec 18, 2012

The success of a page should be measured by one criteria: Does the visitor do what you want them to do.

Blanca Mathews
Nov 30, 2012

SEO is definitely a challenge for a small business. Depending on each unique situation, some small businesses may have no money but they might have a LOT of time on their hands. That was my situation and I focused on compelling content that required a lot of effort to post, but is still generating tons of traffic today. I really think it is all about great content creation, sprinkled with a moderately decent SEO strategy to get ranked for some long-tailed keywords and less competitive keywords. The thing is, if your content is great, people will come back, link to it, tell others about it, and want to become a part of your community. So although SEO is still very very important, it really comes down to a great site that answers people's quesions and is easy to navigate.

Nov 20, 2012

I agree it is getting tougher for small businesses to make good on SEO. But that's always been the case. Things change in a heart beat and if you can't keep up it's easy to get lost.Few SMB people have the time to even gain a firm grasp on what SEO is about.  However, I also agree that you have to at least perform the bare minimum SEO.  I also think that social media and videos provide some opportunities to level the playing field, especially if you are able to connect with customers and make your message personal and relevant.Good blogging!

Nov 13, 2012

Long tail keywords and geo-targeting are two big things small business can take advantage of though, we recommend all our clients focus on these kinds of things. Like what's the use of a small business plumber being number 1 on Google worldwide when they only cover a 20 mile radius?

Nov 13, 2012

what a authentic list of reasons.....very impressive....but now a days organizations know how to cope with these reasons to do SEO.

Oct 26, 2012

Yeah i agree. But SEO is a must have task to do for any blogger/webmaster who wanted to get high quality traffic that will convert. Thanks for this post.

Liz Hancock
Oct 22, 2012

SEO is definitely a challenge for a small business. Depending on each unique situation, some small businesses may have no money but they might have a LOT of time on their hands. That was my situation and I focused on compelling content that required a lot of effort to post, but is still generating tons of traffic today. I really think it is all about great content creation, sprinkled with a moderately decent SEO strategy to get ranked for some long-tailed keywords and less competitive keywords. The thing is, if your content is great, people will come back, link to it, tell others about it, and want to become a part of your community. So although SEO is still very very important, it really comes down to a great site that answers people's quesions and is easy to navigate.

Oct 21, 2012

In my experience as someone who once did a lot of web and social optimization, one of the biggest problems facing SMBs -- I generalize here -- is their lack of knowledge about how the Internet actually works beneath the "look and feel". SEO firms and consultants can't be expected to educate prospective customers about website code, database tables, social graphs and the like for free. Yet given the typical (small) SMB budget, winning the project can cost more than the budget yields. The comment about paying SEO on commission simply underscores the point about amateurism. Do you pay your office rental and phone bill on commission? Your server hosting? Probably not. The larger companies, for all their bureaucracy, at least generally know enough to hire and retain an SEO capability and to let them get on with the job without asking "how do tags work again?" a dozen times. My advice to SMBs is, if you don't have the Internet skills yourself (and why should you? Your expertise is in your own business after all), then find someone you're comfortable and either 1. let them get on with it without questioning them at every stage or, 2. expect to pay them for their knowledge of why things do or don't work, as well as for doing the actual work. 

Oct 21, 2012

You're absolutely right when you said: Not Enough Money as #1 reason. we spent some time and money doing SEO for our website, but that's not enough.

CMS Buffet
Oct 19, 2012

There are 2 elements that work better, for the small businesses:1. You can use variationsEvery month there are 3500 for Chevrolet car parts.Every month there are 7500 for Chevy car parts.Small businesse can use the term Chevy. chevrolet cant refer to themselves as Chevy2. You can name your products and services as you wish.You can call a Seiko Watch a birthday present idea. You dont need to refer to it as a Seiko Watch

Dat To
Oct 18, 2012

Agreed on all points Elisa and great comments starting from Larry Kim.  SEO + PPC is necessary for small businesses for online presence and potential leads. One of the challenges I see with dealing with 100's of small businesses in the last four years is that a lot of small business owners are not focused in their budgets.  What I mean is... if a marketing agency is giving you 4-20x's return on the monthly fees you pay them, then cut out yellow pages and whatever else you do and put more money into the golden goose. A second challenge, is the conversion of leads to sales- a marketing company can't help you with that.  The difference between closing 3, 5, 8 or 10% of the phone/web form leads coming in from your online marketing can have HUGE impact on your bottom line.  Business owners need to be proactive and fanatical about their staff's Customer Service skills, communication skills, upselling skills, sales and closing skills.  The business owner must become an expert in constantly improving lead conversion to sales system. At the end of the day, if your team can't convert potential leads into first time customers, then into long term/ repeat customers, then you can spend a ton on marketing and really miss the boat on true potential growth.

Derek Shropshire
Oct 18, 2012

In my opinion, number 9 should be higher on the list. Links are the one facet of SEO that will make up for almost all others, and a small business is never going to be able to get the same amount and quality of links that a big business will.

Linda Dollar
Sep 25, 2014

I read your article, it's quite interesting. There are lots of points which are good. We have seen that now days SEO is much harder for everyone. Google has launched many updates who affected many business owners. We should do work according to Google guidelines.

May 12, 2014

May be yes! I have seen that for most of the people SEO sounds like a challenge! This is the reason why people prefer to outsource the task of social outreach and SEO link building. I don't mind outsourcing it to a service but being completely clueless about SEO is rather stupid. It isn't a part of rocket science and is relatively easy to understand. I think everybody should have the ability to deal with SEO and with time you will definitely learn the art. Anyhow, Thanks for sharing wisdom, great post :)

Elisa Gabbert
Oct 18, 2012

That's true. If you're an e-commerce company then the design of your landing pages can have a big impact. But if you work through a salesforce a lot depends on them. And of course you'll get nowhere if your product is crap. :)

Elisa Gabbert
Oct 18, 2012

They're not necessarily listed in order of importance -- more like most obvious to least obvious.

Elisa Gabbert
Nov 13, 2012


Elisa Gabbert
Jan 28, 2013

Thanks for weighing in here with your perspective. And sorry they aren't being much help when it comes to SEO!

Brendan Cournoyer
Oct 15, 2012

Nice one Elisa - I'd say another challenge is related to in-house talent. While growing companies are now making more content hires at the expansion stage, smaller businesses are less likely to make that type of investment just yet. Having a dedicated content person with SEO savvy  -- like say, former editorial/online publishing professionals?? ;)  -- can do wonders for a company's content/SEO strategy, but that's probably still a bit of a luxury that smaller businesses might not have the resources to invest in.

Elisa Gabbert
Oct 15, 2012

Great point! It can be harder to convince really great experienced people to join a small team, especially if you can't offer as many bells 'n' whistles in terms of a benefits package as a huge company.

Victor Pan
Oct 15, 2012

I've actually ran a restaurant that eventually closed down... but here's a few more now that I've switched tracks...11. You Don't Even Have A Legit WebsiteNot going to lie, we ran our web presence on a two blogs. We blogged about work, our new menu creations, and recorded videos of happy hour events (wrong content to promote!) - when in fact we should've had a working website with the menu, information on how to get to the restaurant, and other common things people search for to make it easier for them to want to come. At the time, we were unwilling to invest in web development of any sort - simply because we were unprofitable to start off and were looking for immediate ROI.12. Your Website Doesn't Update As FrequentlyQueries deserve freshness, and so should the web pages your potential customers could be landing on. If you ranked for "Boston breakfast" on page one back in 2000 when SEO was easy, chances are you'll be beat by another small business on that local term simply because visitors are bouncing on a website that looks like it is no longer being maintained.Side note: Small businesses have a tough time thinking of creating/updating content for their customers, and have limited resources to promote the RIGHT CONTENT in a way that will show up on search engine results pages (time, money, and expertise!). After all, most websites are easy outsourced to a designer, or your friend's son in college who's a web wizz (while resourceful, it also means your website is rarely updated). 

Elisa Gabbert
Oct 15, 2012

Great additions! It's also key, if you have a blog, to host it on your own domain. Some small businesses have a website but then run their blog on a free blogspot or wordpress domain .. definitely not as professional looking and not good for SEO, since links to your blog won't benefit your main website.

Oct 15, 2012

Honestly, I can't agree with much of this article.In my opinion and it is just that, every one is doing it backwards.First and foremost a small business should be actively building positive reviews online.Not on Google as a matter of fact. They should be working towards getting good reviewson the major business directory sites that allow reviews, and on their own site.These are a "type" of social signal search engines are looking for which has great seo benefits.Secondly the small business needs to work towards creating a culture for their business so theycan build an audience. This brings followers and fans who share the business with others andthis again is a major seo benefit.No one needs to work on making back links when you have great reviews and an audience. 

Elisa Gabbert
Oct 15, 2012

I'm not sure what you disagreed with, your comment doesn't really address the content of the article, but ... thanks I guess!

Plamen @411Brand
Oct 15, 2012

I have two words for the smaller businesses - local search. Be unique, local, niche, and near your customers. And build your brand of course - it will help you in the long run.

Elisa Gabbert
Oct 15, 2012

Indeed, Google is the new Yellow Pages. Ranking for local searches is often easier because you're competing with a smaller pool.

Thomas S. Moore
Oct 15, 2012

I guess that #1 can cover so many aspects.  Usually you find that small business want the organic rankings but don't want to spend money for something 3-4 months out.  The time is big also because it takes time for them to have an understanding of how SEO works and what you can and cannot do.  By the time(if ever) they finally get it well it seems you have to update them with another change in the system.  Many people even owner of small business forget that the big brands started small but have been around for years.  You have to build your brand, make your customers feel special while solving their problems, and go local. 

Elisa Gabbert
Oct 15, 2012

Gotta spend money to make money, as they say!

Innovative Ad Solutions LLC
Oct 15, 2012

SEO is worth it for smaller businesses and they can do it themselves for free if they have the time. The problem is that many of these small business owners do not have the extra time. They are already the office manager, salesman, bookkeeper, etc. SEO takes a lot of time and online marketing for small businesses is not easy. There are people that can help you and many of them cost effectively. But beware of people that make promises or guarantees for overnight results. SEO takes time because it is organic search, not pay per click. If you are looking for overnight results, you're going to have to go with pay per click. However, you can have a lot of success with organic search results, which are free, but takes time to build links, good content, and repetetive website visits. Stay with it and SEO will pay off.

Internet Marketing
Oct 15, 2012

What a great list! This should by no means discourage small businesses from pursuing SEO, though, because it's still vitally important. Especially in the context of local searching, internet marketing is still within a small business's reach. Another problem is the lack of backlinks, which can be rectified if you invest in a good SEO team to work for you. Thanks for posting this, definitely good food for thought!

Elisa Gabbert
Oct 16, 2012

I agree with you and Bobby below that local search is very attainable for small businesses!

Oct 16, 2012

From speaking to small start ups recently I'd say number 6 is probably the biggest issue at least at the beginning. Small businesses feel overwhelmed by the multiple facets of SEO, the jargon, the array of social marketing that has to be attended to and so on. It can seem insurmountable. Back in the good old days (for me, 1997)  it was easy to get going  - all you had to do was create a website with spiderable content. Then sit back and wait. Now you have to have a website, optimize it, have a blog, optimize it not only for search engines but also for FB, Twitter, Pinterest and G+ (and others depending on your market/location), you need at least a Facebook, Twitter and G+ account and you have to update them, be active. So much to learn, where do you start???I think SEO's who work with small businesses would do well to have a general step by step plan that helps break it down for the SME, to remove some of the anxiety and reassure them that it can be done. Baby steps.

Elisa Gabbert
Oct 16, 2012

I like the baby steps strategy! It's also important to remember that as with most things, something is better than nothing with SEO. So small businesses can start by just doing whatever they can afford and make time for, and ramp up as business grows and they can bring on more employees.

Bobby Carroll
Oct 16, 2012

As a real estate marketing firm who caters much of our services to the small business sector, your post nails all the valid challenges faced by small business owners to connect with their target audience. There is one strategy that is starting to level the playing field between the big brands and small business owners and it's called Google+. If small businesses can find the time and create and launch a content marketing strategy communicating their expertise, include their Google+ authorship attribution, personal brands can make inroads into SERPs. Big brands can no longer hide behind their logos. Google+ images are popping up and attracting clicks. Couple this with a Google+ business page and connecting Local (to be seen in the "7 Pack" plus cultivating Google Reviews and Yelp Reviews) will all help propel a small business in front of a bigger audience.

Oct 17, 2012

The fact that it is hard means there is more opportunity.  Great time for small businesses to break out and succeed. 

Oct 18, 2012

overall very revealing peace of work..people should agree with the statement that if you want to make money you have to spend some...i know the importance of SEO but now a days people are somehow leaning towards black hat SEO which creates problems for the buisness..m intrested some one share credible professionals....:)


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