Small Business SEO: Bridging the SMB/Vendor Gap


I’ve been on both sides of the small business SEO coin.

I’ve been an SEO. Having done the intensive SEO work I know the value of good SEO and why it comes at such a premium. SEO is labor-intensive and ever-evolving, but extremely effective when executed well.

I’ve been the lone marketing manager in a small business, wearing fourteen different hats and trying to figure out how I am supposed to fit SEO into the schedule… and the budget. And I’ll be totally honest:  Working for a small business, even though I knew how important SEO was and even though I wanted to do it all myself… I honestly just didn’t have the time.

But I didn’t want SEO to fall by the wayside. So I sought outside help.

I reached out to some local SEO companies in the hopes of finding someone who could help me prioritize our SEO efforts at a price that I could actually present to my boss. Here’s what I discovered. It’s not pretty.

  • Many SEO companies don’t really understand what a “reasonable budget” is for a small business.
  • Many SEO companies offer off-the-shelf “packaged” solutions for small businesses, in an attempt to streamline their services and make attractive presentations. Unfortunately, there are pitfalls to this approach.
  • Many SEO companies fail to prove the value of SEO during the sales pitch process . My feeling is that many SEO firms are used to dealing with IT or website development teams for larger companies (who already have at least a working knowledge of what SEO is), and when faced with a small business owner who doesn’t have the time to learn much about SEO, they forget to actually outline why SEO is important or what it entails for their site and business. When small businesses are doing everything they can to cut costs in a down economy- you MUST to be able to explain what it is you do and how it is going to translate into money for your clients.

From a small business stand point, the truth is that many of them know that SEO is something they should be doing (because that’s what they have heard), but they don’t understand it, and they don’t have the time or manpower to be able to do it themselves… so they are coming to you. It’s your job to lay it out for them and help them see the benefits of an SEO investment. So how can we do that? How do we bridge the gap and bring SEO and SMB budgets together?

3 Ways SEO Companies Can Improve their Small Business SEO

  1. Understand your clients’ unique budgetary needs:  Maybe a small business can only afford $300 a month. Or maybe it’s a one-time payment of $3,000. Each company is different. A small budget doesn’t mean you can’t do good work for them… it just means that you are going to have to prioritize and pinpoint your efforts to achieve very specific goals. And when a small business owner says that their budget is $3000… please don’t send them a proposal for services costing twice that amount. That happened to me on more than one occasion, and I was not appreciative.
  2. Respect their business by customizing your approach: No small business is alike. Each one is going to have its own customer niche, its own unique set of challenges, and its own unique brand. However, I interviewed some SEO service providers who didn’t seem to understand this. For example, after one young man pitched his company’s new SEO service to me, I asked him how it would work for us. He proceeded to tell me about how successful it was for a local pizza shop. Except, I was in real estate… and there is a huge difference between selling a house, and selling a pizza. That meeting didn’t end well. I needed to hear how SEO was going to help my business, not someone else’s.
  3. Set realistic expectations with your small business clients: There are a lot of bad SEOs out there that make big and empty promises to unsuspecting small business owners. And this , in turn, creates one of two scenarios:
    1. It gives those business owner the illusion that SEO is a magic bullet, and results are almost instantaneous OR
    2. The business owner gets burned and becomes convinced that all SEO is a scam

I’ve seen both, and both offer their own challenges. However, each situation can be somewhat healed through transparency and honest communication. Tell your prospective client exactly what you would like to do for their business, why you want to do it, what it’s going to cost, and what the realistic payoff will be. Keep it short, simple, and specific to them.

And of course, for small business owners who may be looking to hire an SEO.

3 Ways Small Businesses Can Make Their SEO Efforts More Effective

  1. Become SEO educated: The more you know, the easier it will be to spot scams and shady SEO tactics and protect yourself and your company from making a costly mistake. Having that knowledge base and shared language, you’ll also be able to better understand what is happening on your Web site and to ask better question. The more you know, the more you’ll come to appreciate the value of good, high quality SEO services and choose the firm that will be the best fit for your business.
  2. Focus your efforts on things that matter: If you are running a location-driven business like a store or restaurant, your SEO efforts should be focused on the things that will have the biggest impact on a local scale. Therefore, your first SEO priorities should be:
    • Having a clean, simple, easy-to-navigate website
    • Creating a social media presence in your local community
    • Setting up and optimizing local listings for your business in all the places where your customers may try to find you
    • Creating fresh, relevant, hyper-local content that people in your community are likely to share with one another
    • Focusing on a few, targeted keywords that you can realistically rank for and which will drive relevant traffic to your site
  3. Understand that SEO is an investment in your company: Search engine optimization should be considered a vital component of your online marketing strategy. SEO can improve your business’ visibility, help protect your brand’s reputation, and increase revenue. But, it’s not a magic bullet, and it is not going to come cheap. Don’t quit doing the other marketing activities that work for you (whether it is newspaper ads or mailers), but make it a priority to set aside some of your marketing budget for SEO, and stick with it long term so you can see all the good things that it can do for your business.

Are you an SEO specialist that specializes or caters to small businesses? What would you add? I’d love to hear your point of view…

Your Comments

  • Hadi

    This is such a great post.
    I tussle with the problem of small business SEO every day of every week.
    The businesses in my area of the UK are so tiny and so clueless when it comes to marketing online, that it is barely tenable to offer a profitable service to them.
    And yet…
    I feel a weird sense of duty to help these guys.
    Many of them are utterly incapable of blogging for example – both from a technical point of view and because they don’t have the necessary education to write compelling copy.
    I feel so proud when they get excited about new enquiries which are the direct result of work I’ve done on their sites.
    Everything you say in this post rings so true for me and I will be redoubling my efforts to get across your 3 action points to my clients.
    Thank you.

    • Emily Cote


      Thanks so much for your comment! I agree, budget presents the biggest challenge in small business SEO, but I am optimistic that SEO companies (who want to work with small businesses) and small business owners can meet somewhere in the middle and do good work together. :) Thanks again!

  • Kevin


    This is a great post and it reflects many of the reasons why we started our company, TrustWorkz, Inc. We are not strictly SEO, but it is a major part of what we believe to be an affordable package for small businesses. There are way too many snake oil salesmen out there who try to sell small business the world. The majority of our clients have been burned before, and it is constantly on our minds to never become like the rest. When you realize that your efforts for a small business mean them keeping their doors open another 5 years to feed their families, no business is treated the same. Each deserves the attention of an individual at an affordable price to help them be found on the internet. I really enjoyed your post. I believe that it reflects what we believe so strongly as well.

  • Braden

    Agreed on all this. It’s infuriating to hear what kind of crap is being sold to clients under the label SEO. So many of my clients come through the door skeptical because they’ve been sold a crappy ‘packaged approach’ in the past, and got nothing for it.

  • Jim Ryan

    Well, you certainly addressed the point and I would maintain it to be the single most important factor of all, defining “reasonable expectations” of performace. What are the reasonable expectations your client should receive for their investment and over what time frame (understanding, no one bats 1.000)? Further, reasonable expectations should, at the very least, be outlined in the proposal followed by timely updates containing a measurable and “agreed upon” performance matrix.

  • Steve Martin

    Excellent, relevant article. Small business owners like myself simply don’t have enough time in the day to do everything that has to get done, including learning something as complex and ever-changing as SEO. It isn’t that a lot of owners don’t understand the importance of it, but a lot of tech lingo to them is a foreign language, and there are more pressing matters to attend to if it isn’t quick and simple to learn. We need more education and awareness of the online world-at-large like this.

  • AJ Kohn

    This is something I’ve given a fair amount of thought to over the last few years.

    Unfortunately, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t apply my services to SMB clients. The level of paranoia (from being burned before), the expectations of success (usually too high) and lack of resources (both monetary and technical) simply didn’t match the amount of time and effort I’d expend.

    The main reason I see is the gap in knowledge is so vast that the SMB business owner believes SEO to be either mysterious, a silver bullet or snake oil but, at the same time, doesn’t believe it to be time intensive or ‘that’ difficult. It’s sort of like they view it as changing the oil in your car, if they had the time and inclination they’d do it themselves but instead they want someone else to do it, but it better be cheap.

    Of course, this isn’t every SMB, but there are enough out there that simply screening the good from the bad and finding the right SMB clients is too time intensive.

  • Vinny La Barbera

    Great article Emily. Your comments represent the very real conversations that agencies, like ours, have with small business owners on a daily basis.

    We actually work with a lot of real estate agents and brokers, who are a good representation of many small business owners, and have had to find solutions that work for both our customers and our business.

    Explaining and selling packaged solutions has always been less of a challenge. I don’t see this approach ever being abandoned as it just resonates better with many consumers.

    However, when it comes down to what turns out to be the most beneficial for both the client and our business at the same time, the approach of a monthly consulting strategy tends to work out the best. When we get the opportunity to tailor a custom approach with set expectations of time, services and estimated results, both sides seem most satisfied.

    It is very tempting to create low cost, low value products for SMBs but after being in this industry for this long and seeing so many people get burned it is just not worth it. SEOs already have an uphill battle when presenting services as is. Contributing to the over-saturated pool of these worthless services is just not something we want to have anything to do with.

    I personally think that agencies need to do a better job of researching a SMB before presenting to them and then tailoring their recommendations based on that research. On the other side, I think there is some responsibility on the SMB owner to do their due diligence as well.

    @AJKohn makes an important point in his comment above where he basically found that his services were not a match for some clients. There is nothing wrong with walking away from a project….especially if it is not mutually beneficial. Turning down clients is very difficult, but sometimes it is in the best interest of the agency and the SMB owner.

    Thanks again for keeping this conversation going…