small business seo

Will SEO work for you?

This cold open was originally featured in the January 20, 2021 newsletter found here:

Will SEO Work For You?

Last week, one of our readers, Mark, wrote in saying that he was pessimistic about SEO, particularly for smaller businesses. I thought this was a discussion point worth exploring; like every channel, strategy, and tactic, there will be businesses it’s right for, and businesses it’s wrong for.

What sort of businesses might those be? It depends largely on two things: how niche or broad your business is, and what resources you have to allocate towards SEO.

Let’s establish some definitions. In SEO, a niche is something where search volume exists, but competition is relatively low. Niches are things like highly localized searches – “coffee shop in Wilmington, Delaware” – or searches for a very specific product or service. These probably number in the hundreds per month, but competition isn’t too fierce.

A broad category is highly commoditized and incredibly competitive – a search like “movie tickets” or “fast food” or “marketing consultant” is crazy competitive and vague. Lots of search volume – in the millions per month – but also so much competition that you’ve got a decent hill to climb.

That means you’ve got to put resources towards SEO, and broadly speaking, you’re talking about people, budget, and time. It takes time for SEO to work. It takes people delivering high-quality content to make SEO work. And it takes a budget, either in soft dollars (employees) or hard dollars (agencies and contractors) to make SEO work.

So who is SEO right for?

The SEO Matrix

If you’re a niche business, and you have rich resources to throw at SEO, you can dominate your category. You can own a substantial share of the search for your industry and topics, capturing most of the volume and business.

If you’re a niche business, and you have scarce resources to throw at SEO, it’s a viable strategy but you won’t be dominant. You’ll rank for some of the volume in your category, but leave some on the table.

If you’re a broad business, and you have rich resources to throw at SEO, it’s also a viable strategy but you’ll need to devote just as many resources to it as you would any other paid channel. Your results will be commensurate to the resources you put towards it. One of the critical mistakes companies make in SEO is under-investing commensurate to the return SEO gives – if 24% of your conversions come from SEO, then 24% of your budget and people should be allocated towards it (often it’s much less).

If you’re a broad business, and you have scarce resources to throw at SEO, then you’ve got an almost impossible task in front of you. You probably won’t outrank competitors. Your choices are to either find more resources to throw at it or more strategically, get focused on the products and services you offer until you find and become a niche business.

As long as you’re clear about what kind of business you are and what kinds of resources you have to throw at SEO, most of the time, you can make it work. For those cases where you’re a commodity business without resources to devote to it, finding your niche and differentiation will solve some of those SEO problems as well.

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