The process of search engine optimization (SEO) isn't terribly complicated. On the other hand, there aren't a lot of shortcuts to making your Web site rank high in search results on the popular search portals such as Google and Yahoo!.

This process takes time. You'll have to invest some hours in tasks that build your search rankings, and it will take several months to a year or more for them to fully pay off. We tell our clients, "Don't even think about search rankings for the first three to six months your site is live."

The good news is that some of the steps to better SEO can be delegated to an employee or even an intern. Some, however, will have best results when done by the business owner.

Search engines aren't very smart. Essentially, they are text-reading robots. Splashy images are invisible to them. If that's all that's on your site, it's like your site doesn't exist to search engines! To improve your search results, you'll need to make two basic moves: increase the content that engines can read, and increase your site's links from other sites, ideally heavily trafficked ones.

Here are some concrete steps to improving your rankings:

  • Hire a SEO expert (don't rely on a Web designer). Even if it's just paying $100 for an hour or two, hire an expert to evaluate your existing site. The consultant can give you a sense of how well your site does in key-word searches now, and suggest the most efficient steps for improving its search rankings. But make sure you hire a SEO expert, not a Web designer to do this job. I've had many small business customers come to us at with beautiful, expensive Web sites they've had a designer build using Flash, or using Frames. These sites look great, but search engines can't read content from these technologies, so customers won't be able to find these sites using search engines. A SEO expert will be able to tell you what needs to change on your site to make it rank higher in search engines.
  • Start a blog. Blogs are a fairly simple way to regularly add content to your site, which is what you want. Search engines assign higher rankings to sites that are updated frequently. The best blogs are written in a personal tone and are focused on a niche - don't blog about what your dog did this morning. If your company sells paint, that's what you want to talk about. It takes time, but even blogging once or twice a week will make a huge difference in SEO.
  • Use social media. Social-media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are highly ranked, and links from there back to your site will help your rankings and increase traffic to your site. Pick a platform, build a profile, and then update your status regularly to draw visitors. Once you're established, comment or answer questions for others, and sign with your Web site URL. That'll create valuable backlinks to your site.
  • Do key word research. To optimize your site, you'll need to discover what key phrases your customers search on most. Don't try to optimize on a single word - you'll never get near the top, as there's too much competition. Refine your niche: Search on gourmet chocolate instead of chocolate, for instance. Use free key-word checking tools such as WordTracker to see which phrases are getting the most searches in your industry. Then as you optimize your site, use free tools such as SEOBook to track your progress.
  • Add key words to your site content. Once you know which key words customers are using to search for your company, you can examine your site and look for places to add these words. Your best piece of Internet real estate is your home page title. On many small-business Web sites I've looked at, the headline just says "Home." That tells search engines nothing! Try to get your key words into your headline
  • Use local search features. A great one is Google Maps, where you can place your business on a map of your town. Increasingly, on Google searches that include a city, this local map is the first result. Get a Google account and then get on the map, and you're at the top of page one for your key word searches.
  • Use free directories. Search on your "keywords + directories" in a search portal. This will bring up results for directories of companies in your sector. Some of them will cost money to list in, but some will be free. Take the time to fill out a listing for your business in the free ones. Directories tend to be highly trafficked, so the link from the directory site to yours will boost your own site traffic and rankings.

These are all relatively easy tactics that all small businesses can engage in to increase their rankings on search engines, and subsequently increase traffic (and hopefully purchases) to their site.