A while back, I took on an SEO project. Let’s call the person in charge Fred. He unknowingly taught me one of the most important business lessons ever.
Fred had a physical store and I’d built an extremely simple e-commerce shop for them. What can’t I do right? (Relax, apparently.) Fred wanted to invest in the website with the hope of increasing online sales.
If you don’t know, SEO stands for search engine optimization. If you’re unsure what that means, it’s making search engines like Google fall in love with a website.
Let’s start with the obvious question. “Who cares how Google feels? Also, Google can’t feel. What is this machine-loving, AI-is-the-future propaganda on The Inner Dolphin?”
A business owner should care about how Google perceives them because that’s closely related to how their clients, especially first-time clients, will think of the business.
If you’re into internet culture commentary, here’s an essay on the meme of “being perceived,” which I just learned stems from a 2013 New York Times essay.
If Google loves your website, potential clients will quickly discover your products. Hell, you’ll be the first thing they see if Google shows you love.
Let’s carry on. There are numerous things you can do to make Google fall for your website. Most of them are simple alas technical and time-consuming.
Just like I’d give an SEO specialist a dirty look if I heard them downplaying the importance of great writing and strategy, I won’t downplay SEO’s importance by saying “For good SEO, just do X and you’ll be fine.”
But if I had to give one piece of advice, it’d be this. Invest in impressive content *AND* proper distribution.
A lot of people fail at the second part. They share their work once and think “My job here is done. If a client or a reader wants to find me, they will. Buh-bye!”
But a great creative marketing strategy isn’t just made of awesome fucking content. It’s also made of content distribution, the act of promoting content to online audiences in multiple media formats through various channels, aka putting your work and yourself out there. Repeatedly. No matter how scary or cringe it feels.
Invest in impressive content *AND* proper distribution. Create content that’s valuable, honest, fun. Then, distribute relentlessly. Do your best to make sure it reaches the people who’d find it interesting and valuable. Don’t worry much about others. Repeat.
But that’s not why we’re here. We’re here about the time Fred roasted me.
I did a bunch of SEO work for my client Fred and their store:
- Created and updated their Google My Business listing.
- Optimized their page titles, alt & meta descriptions.
- Simplified product categories that people were actually searching for.
- Wrote a helpful contact page and a few articles referring to their main brand messaging pillars.
- Got clear on their target audience specifically for online searches (there was an overlap, but they mostly weren’t the same clients that would visit the physical location).
If you’re wondering what content themes and pillars mean, here’s a great example by Column Five Media.
A story about enjoying where you’re at, wherever you’re at
The work was mostly technical since we worked in bursts and this burst was heavy on the technical, low on the creative. It’s alright, I know this deep in my heart:
“A young Austrian bodybuilder arrives in America and starts looking for work.
He can find only menial labor that pays almost nothing. Cleaning up construction debris. Lifting crates onto trucks.
He does this work with a grim face and without complaint. His employer, a small, apprehensive man, sometimes apologizes when he asks the bodybuilder to do particularly unglamorous tasks.
When he’s asked to haul thirty splintery wooden crates up to the second floor:
“It is fine. I get to strengthen my biceps, and enjoy how strong they already are.”
When he’s asked to gather all the scrap iron from a factory floor and put it into a bin:
“It is good. I get to strengthen my back, and enjoy how strong it already is.”
After a year or so, he’s able to find a better paying job as a security at a roughhouse bar. This comes with new challenges, however. He has to deal directly with people, often drunk and belligerent ones. The owner gives him one piece of advice: “Stay mean. Don’t give an inch or they take a mile.”
Despite the bodybuilder’s imposing physical presence, or perhaps because of it, conflicts in the bar rarely become physical. He is able to defuse altercations with words alone, almost every time. Sometimes he even gets the involved parties to shake hands, or at least nod in truce. The owner is surprised at this.
“You’re too nice to be a bouncer,” the owner tells him. “You shouldn’t have to deal with these sorts of people.”
“It is all right. I am doing what I came here to do. Every time I have to talk to someone, I get to practice my English, and enjoy how strong it already is. Every time someone is aggressive, I get to practice my patience. Every time someone is upset, I get to practice my kindness. It is all strength training to me.”When All Moments Have Equal Value, David Cain
All moments have equal value and all tasks, no matter how technical or boring, are amazing in preparing us for what’s next.
The question we forget to ask clients
We started seeing results pretty soon, which is a bit uncommon for SEO, but quite common for niche targets in small cities like this one. If you’re opening a bagel store in New York, you’d be lucky to show up on the first page, let alone as the first result. Then again, Google Maps might treat you favorably and show your store to people close by. Read ’till the end for tips. Also, send me a bagel.
Wrongly, caught in the heat of the moment of seeing results, I forgot the most important part of any work: why should the other person care?
Now you may be thinking- clients don’t care about seeing results?!
Let’s say Fred has a backpack store in Victoria, British Columbia.
Excited, I said to Fred, “we’re showing up first on Google for kids backpacks Victoria.”
In a bit, he got back to me. “Hmm, here, I Googled it and we’re not the first or the second. We’re way down.”
Panicking, I said that wasn’t possible. Unlike with writing, which is wildly subjective, analytics don’t lie and don’t leave room for interpretation.
Showing me his phone, he said: “Look. When I search backpacks for kids in Victoria, we don’t show up.”
Relieved, I said: “Aha, yes. You didn’t type kids backpacks Victoria. It’s different.”
Fred looked at me like I’d lost my marbles.
The mistake I made was forgetting the long-term purpose of what we’re doing. My mistake was speaking in my terms, not Fred’s.
See, excuse my capitalist tone, but at work, almost everything has a purpose. In business, most things are a means to an end.
I’m guilty of this as a writer. My graphic designer friends are guilty of this when they think a design that’s nice to look at is all it takes. Website designers who think that building a beautiful website is what they’re being paid for are guilty of it. Social media managers who focus too much on the feed aesthetics and the number of likes miss the point.
We make life harder for ourselves when we make life harder for our clients by speaking to them in a language they don’t understand or care about. We make everything harder when we focus on the deliverables, not the long-term strategy.
Peep Laja on copywriting
Peep Laja is someone who I really respect professionally. The founder of CXL, Speero, and Wynter is my definition of a builder and an entrepreneur. He advocates for content done right and for non-toxic workplaces.
Peep is also someone I often find myself disagreeing with.
The instance below is just one of the numerous times I shook my head left to right reading his opinions. But hey, it comes with the territory when you’re opinionated. I wouldn’t have it any other way and I’m sure Peep doesn’t care much about it either.
His newest venture, Wynter, recently turned one and Peep shared his retrospective lessons. Here’s #3:
“The people we sell to don’t care about “copy.”Our extensive research in the matter is clear: marketing leadership doesn’t care about copy. It’s considered a thing anyone can do, and often gets delegated to the most junior people, or outsourced to freelancers.
But what the marketing leadership cares *very much* about is positioning and messaging. No junior person or freelancer has a say in that.”
I got defensive. I don’t consider myself a copywriter—a copywriter is someone whose writing’s main purpose is to convince or sell, a content writer [those words are like food chef lmao] is someone whose main goal is to educate or inform—but like, hellooo Peep, show some respect where respect is due.
Leadership doesn’t care about copy? Isn’t the way we talk and write about a company part of their messaging?
No freelancer has a say in a brand’s positioning and messaging? I’ve heard of many household brands that hired freelancers to come up with their brand identity and brand messaging.
Anyone can do it? What?!
But once I blew off some steam (mind you, this all happened in 30 seconds in front of my computer), I could see clearly what he meant.
If I’m being honest, I could easily bring to mind all the times I hadn’t thought strategically and focused on the what, not the why of my work. I remember numerous times in my career where, just like with Fred, I’d focused on things that didn’t matter to leadership.
Looking for another term we were now ranking for, Fred asked me: “Look at this. This random online store with no credibility and their product’s image shows up first. We’re second. We have a similar product. How can we fix this?”
Again, and writing this I get frustrated at myself, I spoke in technicalities. I started explaining the factors that determined where the store’s products showed up.
He continued: “Their product is first. Ours is second. In this case, what do we do? It’s simple.”
I explained for a bit the factors that had a say in that: It depended on the domain’s authority. It depended on how credible we were in Google’s eyes (how many people shared or linked to our website). We’d just started working on SEO. This page may have been working on it for years, optimizing as they went, thus being ranked more favorably in search engines. Their website may have been up for years and that product clicked hundreds of times, implying it was relevant to people searching for that term, meaning Google would recommend it to others who’d type that search term.
Fred shook his head. “No. We need a better picture than theirs. Someone types and sees the first two results. They’re going to click on the one that looks better. It’s simple.”
We both have images of the product. The photo of our backpack should be better and more enticing to click at than theirs.
I felt a bit angry at myself. Duh. How could I’ve missed that? Well, I could, because I was thinking in technical terms. If I’d have brought to mind my behavior when I search for things on Google, it would’ve been obvious.
Provide a better option. Simple.
Since then, I’ve really started focusing more on the business impact and aspect of my work. I’ve become slightly obsessed with business case studies, with what makes a business successful and what makes it flop. The more I put myself in the shoes of leaders, the more I realize how hard it is to be one.
I’m not saying writers and designers can’t focus solely on the artistic aspect of their work. It’s the creator economy, baby! Platforms like TikTok are directly paying creators for the views they get. If people love your art, there’s never been a better time to be paid for it than now.
However, if we’d like to differentiate ourselves and become extremely valuable as professionals, we need to think strategically, not just about our own path, but about our clients/bosses and their businesses.
Do you want to be a solution-oriented problem solver or do you want to complete tasks?
There’s no wrong or right answer. Personally, I want to go deeper.
So thank you, Fred. Thank you, Peep. Thank you to everyone who’s unknowingly pushed me out of my comfort zone for my own sake.
That being said, here are three simple and quick things you can do to improve your local business SEO:
- Create a Google My Business listing
- Add your location everywhere in your meta descriptions and titles. Here’s a helpful framework for page titles [product name] in [location] – [product category] – [your store’s name] (read this). Please add meta descriptions: “The meta description is a snippet of up to about 155 characters – a tag in HTML – which summarizes a page’s content. Search engines show it in search results mostly when the searched-for phrase is within the description. So optimizing it is crucial for on-page SEO.”
- Use clear words to tell people what you sell. Mention your products throughout the homepage. Explain what they are or what they do. Remember: “A confused mind always says no.” Plus, if you’re being vague, search engines can’t realize what you sell and can’t recommend you to people.
- Other helpful resources: How to Do Local Keyword Research in 2021 / Local Business SEO – Top 7 ways for physical businesses to promote online / go through all the posts on Studio Cotton SEO tips category
If you can afford it, consult with a professional. Then, and this is the most important part, let them do their job. Steve Jobs said: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”