The Ongoing Challenge of Encouraging Small Business Owners to Embrace SEO

As the pre-retirement business owner unlocks the gate of her five-star ranch resort, she wonders how something so magnificent as her 600 acres of pristine rolling hills and top-notch facilities can be anything but full to the brim of guests all year round. She gets a decent number of visitors, but not enough as her ranch deserves. The closest town’s community bulletin board has been proudly showing her poster since the day her ranch opened for business: a perfectly sensible, perfectly legible print ad with just enough flash and information to attract passing tourists to her ranch—or what her poster calls, “the real Alberta experience.”

Her website, she believes, serves her well. Although it hasn’t been updated in several months, she sees nothing wrong with it. The ranch resort hasn’t changed since the site went live. What’s there to update?

Despite not understanding what, she knows that there’s something more she can do to attract business. And if she really thinks about it, she admits, maybe quietly to herself, maybe even reluctantly, that her solution lies somewhere within the vast and limitless space of the internet. And she’s not alone. Like many business owners like her, she has not embraced digital marketing beyond her self-made website.

What’s more, the term “search engine optimization” goes straight over her head. Three simple words that when strung together turn from plain English to the elusive “tech-speak” that immediately provokes eye rolls, trepidation, maybe even intimidation. The intimidation is not from SEO itself but the beholder’s realization that they are so far removed from what needs to be accomplished in order for business to survive in an evolving consumer economy. If the internet is a marketplace, their business stalls are set up in the way, way back where there is no signage to point customers their way.

The Problem With SEO

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Source: Blue Corona

It’s hard to imagine that in a world of Alexa and self-driving cars there are still people who don’t have access to digital marketing and SEO practices. This is in no way an insult to those people. But it does represent a marginalized category of business owners who either lack the knowledge, the means, or the willingness to take SEO as seriously as they do their accounting. This inaccessibility doesn’t discriminate against age, race, gender, salary, or occupation. We can assume that it’s more likely that businesses have greater access to digital marketing companies in urban environments (the search term “digital marketing agencies in Toronto” produces at least 20 full pages of companies in the GTA). This is also true for every other web-based company. After all, you’ve got to go where the people are, and in our example, the rancher likely doesn’t have close access to an SEO company simply because of her remote location.

But should that matter? Doesn’t the web have that science-fiction-like ability to draw us right into its dimension where limitless knowledge is attainable in bite-size listicle formats? Without even trying, the rancher could easily request a quote for digital marketing services from ten SEO companies in Calgary in less than the time it takes for her to print a poster.

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Source: Clutch

According to a 2016 study by Clutch, 46% of small businesses don’t even have a website. In a city like Toronto, where everyone takes their online presence very seriously—the idea of a business surviving, let alone thriving, without a website is unfathomable. Clutch found that business owners gave two main reasons for not setting up a company website:

·      A website isn’t relevant or necessary for their business

·      Websites cost too much money

Granted, there are businesses that really don’t need websites to make money, right? I imagine there are consultants out there who, after retiring from their decades-long careers, have all the business connections they need right on their contact lists. It’s hard to argue with business owners who are satisfied with their earnings and who also don’t happen to have a website. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

But let’s just say there are small businesses out in the wild who don’t realize jus  how much further SEO can take their brand? Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that at least a fraction of those businesses who say they don’t need a website actually do. As Amanda Soderlund of Clutch says, “In some way or another, a website is relevant to all types of businesses in every industry. What varies by industry or business type is the website design itself, including the type of website and its features.”

So, that begs the ultimate question: How do digital marketers make businesses care about SEO?

The Cost of Quality SEO

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Source: Website Magazine

As for websites costing too much money, well, that’s neither here nor there. You may not be able to afford a high-performance site, but at least you can afford to hire someone to whip together a page for you. It sounds snobby, but it only highlights a capitalist truism: you get what you pay for. And if you can’t afford to pay for an optimized website, is building your own worth the effort?

Understanding search engine optimization is one thing, but knowing how to implement it and maintain it requires a little knowledge in a wealth of different digital disciplines: content writing, web design, Google Analytics, dev, code, social media marketing, SEM, WordPress, trends, and all the jargon that comes along with it.

Of course, it’s impossible to expect one single person who is not in the field of digital marketing to master everything there is to know about SEO. Can someone who spends every day working on their company find the time to learn enough of the SEO basics to get their website somewhere on the map? Sure. It happens all the time, I imagine. You could even argue that entrepreneurs have a duty to at least try.

There are boundless resources out there to help someone learn SEO all on their own if they can’t afford to hire someone else to do it. But then there are the other people who are either unable or unwilling to get a decent grasp of the basics. Does that 46% really not need a website or are they simply reluctant to admit that they do? And when I say “other people” I mean those business people for whom the commercial side of their jobs happened almost as a second thought: painters, artisans, writers, ma-and-pa shops, country inns, tree surgeons, large-animal vets, remote getaway hotels, mechanics.

A Matter of Language

Why would anyone not what to do anything to help promote their business? The educational resources are obviously available and there are alternatives to spending an arm and a leg on digital marketing firm. So what is it? Why are some businesses so reluctant to dive into the deep end of SEO?

The answer could potentially lie in language. “Search engine optimization,” along with every other digital term, sounds simple on the surface, but it’s just vague enough to completely befuddle someone who isn’t always exposed to web jargon. And that’s something we should sit with for a minute. If someone has a hard time wrapping their head around SEO, they probably will have an equally tough go at understanding (or remembering) all the new phrases in the digital lexicon: meta tag, alt attribute, long-tail keyword. And if a novice is brave enough to search “how do I improve my website,” they’ll likely be bombarded by this same verbiage that we, try as we might, can’t seem to simplify in terms that business owners really appreciate. (At least the word “blog” has become more of a household name.) Is there any wonder that half the enterprises in 2016 avoided the internet entirely?

A New Niche

Business owners may feel alienated. And no matter how beneficial SEO is to growing a business, who wants to take part in something that makes them feel that way? After all, clearly we’re missing out on half of the companies out there, which ain’t small potatoes. Digital marketers help small businesses all the time, so why have we been thus far unable to reach the other half? Is the problem with them or is it with us? Should we do more to help them climb on to the bandwagon or should they do more to catch up? How do digital marketers make businesses understand the importance of SEO enough that they would gladly pay their doubloons for such an essential service? These hundreds of questions may not have concrete answers just yet, but they should still be asked.

I’m starting to sense that there’s a profitable niche for enterprises like the rancher in the beginning of this article. There is a sizeable piece of the pie that no one has yet to taste or acknowledge. Digital marketers should do more to bridge these gaps. If SEO was more accessible to all business owners and not a private clique for urban companies big or small, we may just have the beginning of a solution to reach the other half of the marketplace.

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