O/SEO/O™ E6: Opinions about SMB SEO

Published on: 
March 15, 2022
Updated on: 
September 13, 2022
Tory Gray
Tory Gray
Sam Torres
Sam Torres
Begüm Kaya
Begüm Kaya

Here we are with another episode of Opinionated SEO Opinions™ brought to you by The Gray Dot Company.

In this episode we'll cover: 

Table of Contents:

Video Transcript

Begüm Kaya  0:07  
Hi, everyone. Welcome to this episode of Opinionated SEO Opinions™ where we are going to talk about some questions that we received previously about SEO for small businesses. I am Begüm Kaya here with your hosts, Tory Gray and Sam Torres from The Gray Dot Company. Hello, ladies.

Sam Torres  0:23  
Hello. Before we get started, we wanted to say thank you to our sponsor Ahrefs. They've been sponsoring our series, which is fantastic. Also, if you're not familiar, they are a great platform. Definitely a must have in our SEO toolset. And they've also developed a free tool for site auditing so give that a checkout at Alright, let's get started.

Question #1

How can a small eCommerce compete (especially for category and product pages) against BIG retailers?

Begüm Kaya  0:52  
Yeah, let's get started. Our first question is coming from Faisal Ahmed, SEO specialist at SQUATWOLF.  And he is asking, "What are your recommendations for getting high rankings for eCommerce category and product pages? Specifically when you're battling the big guys with retail and online offerings, and you only have online offerings."

Tory Gray  1:12  
So eCommerce SEO for small businesses when you're going against the big players? Great question. Like all things SEO, our first answer is always going to be: understand your competitive landscape. You have to understand what they're doing well and what they're slacking at because - whatever they're doing a relatively crappy job at - that's probably where you want to focus. So that's the generic answer.

The more particular answers are: narrowing in on your keyword research, I'd say, and focusing on making sure you really understand user intent, and that you're really going after the right keywords. And if you're really truly going after the same keyword as a major player in the space, as a small business, maybe consider going after a different keyword, frankly, unless you think it's like "right on" and you're doing something unique and better, and different and that will help you "stand out."

So definitely not a "don't do it", but - be thoughtful about doing it. There are, generally speaking, other keyword variations that are less competitive, and might mean you're not going head-to-head and you can establish your place in the world and establish credibility with Google and still in the context [of your subject matter] and then you can - you can always switch keyword targets over time, that will be less competitive. What else we got ladies?

Sam Torres  2:42  
I would say to tack on to that, like, also look for - if you're going up against really well-known brands where, you know - we've definitely run into issues where a brand name or the product name has higher search volume than the actual like, "what is the product?"

And so in those circumstances, it can often be a little bit of like a, it can be an interesting thing to research as far as - are people searching that brand or that product name alternatives or competition, right? So really looking at - is there a comparator content that you could be creating and capturing people who are already maybe either unhappy with that brand or unhappy with that product? That way you can really capture those users.  

Other things would just be, you know, making sure that your technical [SEO] is sound.  Usually the big box retailers, they may have a larger catalog, or they may just have more more technical issues that are rampant. So really figuring out like - are there areas there where you can differentiate yourself? Is it going to be in the user experience and page load? Can you add more helpful structured data to make sure that search engines are really understanding the content that's on your site, even outside of what's going to result in rich results or SERP features?

Really looking at being able to improve the amount of context and understanding that you're giving to search engines. So really, just the technical pieces there and - especially for technical and content - looking at your information architecture.  Are your products and categories structured in a way that makes sense? Does it align with that keyword research that you've done? Or are there unique ways to position it based on, you know, think about how is the product used? What are the different use cases?

Just kind of continue building from there - because that is often some of the things that the big box retailers miss on because they're spending, you know, $10 million in branding and advertising they, they don't feel the need to do those things. So that's definitely where you can differentiate yourself.

Tory Gray  4:57  
Yep, totally agree. They have have to worry about scale and what things are scalable. And as a small business, you don't really need to stress about that. So instead focus on getting things perfect that they don't have the time or the resources to get perfect and that will certainly help you stand out. I would also really think through other funnel opportunities and other related keywords where you can create strategic content that speaks to, say, the pain point of a particular product that then links to the product from the right anchor text, and help sell that product and create additional funnels that create opportunities.

So let's talk about sheets for example, if you have sheets that have a particular feature, like say, they are really breathable, so you won't sweat at night, or they are hypoallergenic and so people won't break out as much. You can create other content that speaks to those unique value propositions about your individual product, and then funnel that up to your page so that have - you can focus on the you know, the sheets themselves on the product page, but you have other doorways into that page that help promote it. So you have an indirect path [or secondary landing page] that will also help that product page rank better.  And an eCommerce giant is not going to have time to create all of that level of content for a single product, or two, or what may have you and - so again, that's another tactic for what can you do well that *doesn't* scale.

Sam Torres  6:38  
No. And that strategic content also can then be used for any kind of like, natural link acquisition.  I mean, think about all the listicles and types of articles that would be like that "the best 10 sheets for people who suffer from acne", right.  That kind of content really attracts, um, links like that - naturally. So I'm not really a huge fan of spammy link outreach. So I'm not saying do that. I'm saying if you create good content, people will generally automatically link to it.  You do have to work on a good distribution strategy, but that's, that's also another conversation for probably another day. And one we had recently, so... yeah.

Begüm Kaya  7:23  
And I was going to say, definitely take care of like, take advantage of the local sphere if you can differentiate yourself from others and like, if you can be present in those communities.  For example, if you're, let's say, a vegan candle maker, and then just be present in your communities and get feedback from people online, if possible, and that would make a difference. Definitely. It is definitely not applicable to all industries. But it's something to keep in mind, I would say.

Tory Gray  7:56  
Yep. Love that.  Really keep an eye on your persona too and speak to your audience well.  Enterprise sites probably have to talk to a lot of different audiences and so things get a little bit more generic. So I think that there's an opportunity to differentiate to be - to have a different voice, to really speak to a specific user with a specific need, and get niche and narrowed. So find those non scalable, very highly-targeted opportunities. Find as many as you can, and build those out.

Question #2

Does my website need an XML sitemap even if it's small?

Begüm Kaya  8:33  
Perfect. And our second question is from Keeley Stitt at Inclusivv. Keeley is asking, "Does my website need a sitemap even if it's small?"

Sam Torres  8:44  
Great question. Does it need it? Ehh? Does really any site need an XML sitemap? The answer to that is yes - some of them do. Um, so I like to think of the XML sitemap is really kind of the the blueprint or the map that we provide search engines so that they access all the content that we want them to. If your internal linking strategy is sound, and you're not leaving pages orphaned, then I would say that the use case or the argument for creating an XML sitemap gets greatly reduced.

Meanwhile, if you are kind of siloing content, and it's hard to get around the site, then I would say an XML sitemap is probably required. They [XML sitemaps] are also generally low effort to create and even automate, even within custom systems, it is generally not that big of a dev task. Of course, I might get developers throwing things at me now. But overall, we find it's usually not that stressful. It gets unwieldy when you do have a large site and then suddenly there's all these directives that we want you to look in this folder, but not these pages and not here, not there.

So that's definitely where it starts to get to be kind of that gargantuan like, "ah, this is a huge task, it's going to take me three weeks of sprints in order to do this". So, yeah, I would say for a small site, usually the effort is pretty low that it's kind of like a why wouldn't you? Because it's just a way to make crawling more efficient for search engines.

But I would also to caveat that I would argue that an HTML sitemap is actually more important than an XML sitemap, even for a small site. And that's because an HTML sitemap actually serves both audiences, both audiences being crawlers and users. And then, you know, because other than SEOs I don't know who's accessing an XML sitemap, right?

As far as people go, and HTML Sitemaps I think even well, dang, it was a Matt Cutts video, so that should tell you how old it is. But he was even recommending that if you only had to have one, you should have an HTML sitemap. So I'm honestly not 100% sure if that information is still valid, but I like the use case. And when you think about the fact that it's really - "who are we ultimately trying to serve?", and that's our users. HTML sitemaps are going to be more useful for them, or usable at all. And at the end of the day, that's really what Google's trying to do as well, is serve users. And I've been talking about this for a long time. So Tory, Begüm, any thoughts?

Tory Gray  11:41  
I do have thoughts. So I mean, on a very high level, I would say, do we need to do anything? And the answer is no. Like, you don't have to do anything in this world, right? Like, we have options, we have choice. You don't have to do SEO. You don't have to grow your website, you don't have to grow your business. The answer is always fundamentally, no, you don't have to do anything you don't want to do.

For a small site, yes, it's less necessary to Sam's point. But I would also say, if we're talking about a site that's so small, that you don't really truly need an XML sitemap, if you're talking two to three pages. Frankly, your chances of succeeding at SEO are pretty minimal anyways, so what's the point of making an XML sitemap? Like until your site is big enough to necessitate one, you're probably not going to succeed at SEO. So that depends on how you define a small site. A two page website does not need an XML sitemap, like sure - make one if you feel like it... but what's the point?

If you're talking 50 to 500 pages, still, you know, a relatively small website, I would probably bother to have one at that point. Yeah. In terms of HTML sitemaps, I love them. And the bigger the website is, the more I want it. So that's a bit of a difference from how Sam is approaching that. I love a good HTML sitemap. But it does typically take a little bit more engineering effort so it's one that I don't necessarily fight the battle with engineering - if it's a 50 page website, when you get to 10,000 pages, I'm going to argue a lot more that an HTML Sitemap is critical for really making sure Google has an additional solid way to crawl and find all of the content on your site. So enterprise sites need HTML sitemaps.

Sam Torres  13:43  
I would also argue if you're talking about a 50, to even 150 pages, I agree I wouldn't fight engineering on that one, I, I would just make a page and type it out. I mean, it's not the most fun thing to do in the world, because it's definitely tedious. But at that point, it's kind of worth it. And I do like it to your point, like it's another way for search engines to see the links and crawl your pages. It's also another area to show the content structure and hierarchy. Um, so I think that's one of the things that makes it really powerful. There is some hierarchical, like, characteristics or like attributes that you can have in your XML sitemap. But that really only talks about like - content depth, it doesn't really show what belongs to each other in the same way that an HTML sitemap would.

Tory Gray  14:37  
Yep. So yeah, my final thought would be, you can generate an XML sitemap with a list of URLs.  Like literally just Google "make sitemap from the list of URLs" and there's going to be tools that will just generate it for you and you can then save it as a .xml and upload it to your site like it can really be that easy.

Sam Torres  14:58  
Screaming Frog can do it, too.

Tory Gray  15:00  
Screaming Frog can do it for you, it will generate that lovely file. And if you're not - if you're a small site, you're probably not adding pages every dang day, so like a quarterly or a monthly job to update that and to upload that is probably not a substantial undertaking. And it's probably worth the less than 10 minutes that that will fundamentally take to fulfill.

Sam Torres  15:21  
Plus most of the major CMSs and certainly the ones that I see most often used by small businesses do include functionality. So like WordPress, you have Yoast, you also have plugins that only do XML sitemaps, I think there's one by, something that I used to really like back in the day, back when I was still on my WordPress train.

Um, Shopify includes them, Webflow includes them, but Tory and I could probably go on a whole long diatribe about how those are not ideal [sorry Webflow!] But um, like, all of those have, I'm pretty sure Wix has it too, with everything they've done as far as turning around as an SEO-friendly platform in the last few years. So a lot of these things should be relatively easy to produce. It's really just when you start getting into like, if you're doing something Jamstack, or or next-level or cutting-edge, you might have to generate or engineer something custom.

Tory Gray  16:25  
Well, that's a case where you definitely need to do it! If you're an SPA, and if you're worried about people crawling and finding all of your web pages, then yeah, you need an XML sitemap today. Yeah. And you need to work on some rendering options to make sure that Google can crawl all of your pages and find them.

Sam Torres  16:40  
Which we do see that fairly often with tech startups are using those those types of website tools, stack [modern technologies!] right? And those are really the kinds of issues that they're running into, that we're seeing.

Tory Gray  16:56  
Yep. And to broaden the conversation around like, "what other SEO tools do people need at early stages"? So I mean, the other big one is what a robots.txt file and yes - you need one. Pretty much any site size? I mean, my broad answer of "No, you don't have to do anything you don't want to do, if you don't care about SEO don't do it," still applies. But if you don't have an XML, I'm sorry, if you don't have a robots.txt file, it is a 404 by definition to Google, so you should have that, and you should have something there.

Sam Torres  17:30  
That's bad.

Tory Gray  17:30  
So that is more critical than an XML or an HTML sitemap. There's no other - are there any other critical just - early on - things to check off the box [for]?

Sam Torres  17:44  
Um, well, I would say like - making sure especially if you are doing an SPA or Jamstack, I'm making sure that your server can properly serve 301, 302, 404 or 500 errors, like making sure that those are actually coming through correctly as server codes and not JavaScript redirects or things like that. Um....

Tory Gray  18:10  
And that they're functional URLs that are unique and different and that search engines can render.

Sam Torres  18:15  
Well, yes, that too.

Tory Gray  18:16  
That's a big one. You got to turn that on, that doesn't come inherently.

Sam Torres  18:19  
Yup. Routing! We don't, yeah, hash mode is bad. We want routing!

Um, if you don't understand what that means, as an SEO, just say that verbatim to your developer and you'll be fine. Um, and if they're like, "What do you mean?", then they should just Google it.

Tory Gray  18:40  
They won't say that. They will ignore you, or they will Google it themselves.

Sam Torres  18:45  
That's also true. Um, yeah, I like to say that my "Google Foo" is strong, because I'm an SEO. But really, I think those skills developed when I was a developer. Because Stack Overflow is the jam. I trying to think of anything else - I mean, other than, like, the regular vehicles that you always need, like metadata. So page titles, directives, as far as like, noindex or index, which, you know, if you don't have any of that, then by default, it means index, as long as it's a 200 status code.

Tory Gray  19:20  
Probably default things for you as a small site, anyway.

Sam Torres  19:22  
Yeah, well, so that would probably be the things that I'm like, alright, this is this is the base that you need to start to even rank for your own name. So you know, things like that.

Begüm Kaya  19:34  
I think you really shouldn't invest more than you have to because when it comes to sitemaps, I remember Martin Spitz saying that like - it was - like Sitemaps became a thing because Google wanted people to say like, "this is important than my website, this content is important, and this should rank." But then SEOs and webmasters got into it and they started saying everything is important. So now they don't have the priority tag recognized by Google like, even though you add those priority tags, Google is not willing to recognize them and respect them. So don't do anything more than you have to. And definitely, you don't have to do anything as Tory is saying.

Sam Torres  20:17  
So I'm gonna play devil's advocate here - and say that's true for Google, but not all search engines. So I would also say, well look at your traffic, right? Where is it coming from? If you do have a decent audience coming from Bing, Yandex or Baidu - maybe you still include that? You know, Google does lead the pack, as far as like - once they implement a change, it usually follows later for everybody except Duck Duck Go, who's like, "I'm doing my own thing" (and good for them!) So I - yeah, I would just say, like, for the most part, I generally only care about Google. But that's not - that's not right, for every brand. Um, so you know, you have to take those into consideration too.

Begüm Kaya  21:07  
Wonderful point. Thank you.

Tory Gray  21:10  
We have one more question. What is it?

Question #3

Is it important to use keywords in headers?

Begüm Kaya  21:13  
Yes, it's coming from Adam Nyhan of Perkins Thompson. And he's asking, "I read that I should be doing something with article section headers to improve SEO? What exactly is the issue here? And how does this help my SEO? How do I do this?"

Tory Gray  21:30  
Great question, I'd start by saying there is no "issue". There's no problem with not including headers, especially sub headers, or not including keywords in them, it's more of an opportunity to include them to give context and information both to your readers who are scanning very quickly (often on mobile devices) trying to find exactly what they're looking for, in addition to search engines.  

I mean, the the baseline is - keywords, and those variations of those keywords, and those sort of "sub keywords" that roll up to the broader topic - using those in headers can help give both Google and your readers context about what that section is about, so that they can skip to the right place, so they know you're talking about that. That that's important and insightful. Keywords are related to one another, and if you are talking about, I don't know birds, and you're not talking about flight or something ridiculous like that. Like...

Sam Torres  22:34  
I like your terrible analogy.

Tory Gray  22:36  
Come up with an analogy someone!

Begüm Kaya  22:38  
Bedsheets & duvets maybe.

Tory Gray  22:41  
Yes, I can do duvets.  Maybe you should talk about corner ties on duvets, because I really hate it when I get a duvet cover, and it doesn't have a corner tie on it. So that's my extremely random rant for today. Um, if you have them, tell people you have them because they're useful and people need them. Otherwise, how is the blanket/the comforter supposed to stay in there? Extremely random! But talking about the corner ties is helpful in the context of knowing that it's a duvet, right, because that's an important feature that people care about. And if you don't talk about that, then maybe you're not covering your content - and your subject matter rather - as comprehensively as you should be.

Sam Torres  23:20  
Yeah. I would also say the, like, when I've trained as far as like the - with content writers and the use of headers, and "what should go where" I always like to think about, you know, why did headers really come about?

And the answer is actually accessibility. And when I say headers, I mean, the header tag - the heading tags within HTML. And it was all about accessibility and readability. So essentially, they're like, if you were to take your content piece, and strip it down to only the headers, would somebody be able to understand like - what you're talking about, the different points or perspectives or frames that you're adding to it. And also get kind of like the flow of what you're talking about. And ultimately, that's what we're looking for. And so, headings definitely help with your accessibility as well.

And, and I love when you start thinking about accessibility that really drives a lot of the markup that we have within websites, and thus, a lot of the SEO opportunities for improving understanding. Because it's really thinking about who's on a screen reader, and now - who's having a website read to them by their phone, or their Alexa or their Google Home, you know, what, whatever device they have.

Really just thinking about what kind of understanding can be gleaned from the use of your headings are the major points or the major spirit of your content coming across through them, which is also where sometimes content and SEO butt heads - because SEO wants things to be very literal and have those keywords in them and sometimes that just doesn't make for a very catchy headline! So I think there's just some interesting ways to balance all of those things, you know, use pre headings, and, you know, there's a lot of design implications there. Um, but, yeah, basically just thinking about headings, what information does that really convey when you're looking at *only that?*

Begüm Kaya  25:26  
What would you say about header tags that are curated for design purposes only, though?

Sam Torres  25:32  
Stop it.

Begüm Kaya  25:35  
That was the answer that I wanted to hear.

Sam Torres  25:39  
Yeah, so that's actually something, I'm excited to see that more and more CMSs and design systems are starting to really embrace this - the understanding that, you know, there might be like a module or this widget or this section of a website that it should always be styled as such. But that like sometimes my pre head and my header or my subhead, like one of those is going to be an H2 and another one should be an H4 and, or this one should be a paragraph tag.

Um, so I will say - it feels like the, the "website making technology" is starting to catch up to that and understand that design - yes, it is absolutely a way to obviously convey importance and weight, but that's only going to be for your visually-abled people.

Think about other people!

And they're not, you know, they, they absolutely deserve to be able to get the same value out of a website. So that's, I think that's where you get that markup, and those things really start enhancing and giving a better indication. Yeah, it's also just really fun, because like, that's why SEO exists for a lot of it. Or a lot of elements of SEO, I should say. So anyway, that's my soapbox.

Begüm Kaya  27:02  
Personal, wonderful opinions.

Sam Torres  27:06  
All right. Anything else to add to that one? Ladies?

Begüm Kaya  27:11  
Nothing for me.

Tory Gray  27:13  
No, I think that's right. I think think of your your headers as an outline, you should have one H1, you can have multiple H2s, you can have multiple H3s, nest them properly. Think about the data structure of your content and the information you're conveying for people on different devices or that have different abilities, that is the critical piece here. Don't have an H3 before you use the H2, right?

Like they should - you should clearly display that parent-child relationship so that everyone can access your content and understand what it's all about. So yeah, the - the point about design is great. I remember having so many battles early on, when that mattered more for SEO in terms of like, "make sure there's only one H1, there can't be two, it's the end of the world."

For SEO, it's not, but for accessibility it can still be a challenge to help people understand what the heck is the one thing this individual page is about. It's not about seven different things, because you have, you know, all your different CTAs on your blog, and your different sections, and your archives is an H1, and you know - your categories is an H1. It's not! It's not as important and maybe as a designer, you should consider that it shouldn't be as visually as important as your title on your page or what may have you.

Sam Torres  28:35  
UXers everywhere just went "Eww I don't know".

Tory Gray  28:37  
Yeah. Are your archives really as important as your title of your article? I mean...

Sam Torres  28:44  
Your CTAs are.

Tory Gray  28:48  
Yes, but there's other things happening there. And I rarely see just the CTA and the title being the H1. I almost always see like, 0 or 10 right?  

Sam Torres  28:59  
Agreed. I'm just playing devil's advocate. I still would think that the title is probably more important because it's like what actually drew people here, and then we need to coax them to our CTA, right? But I can just feel the UXers just being like, "What did she say!!?" But it's fine.

Begüm Kaya  29:18  
Amazing if it reaches, reaches out to the UX people.

Sam Torres  29:22  
I mean, Keeley is a UXer... So...

Begüm Kaya  29:24  
Yeah, that's also true. Spread the word, Keeley. Yes. All right. Wonderful.

Sam Torres  29:33  
Thank you so much, y'all for watching. And then if you have questions, feel free to submit them to:

Tory Gray  29:42  
Thank you to our sponsor, Ahrefs, and check out

Sam Torres  29:51  
Until next time!

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