Here is why SEO is not for Small Business Owners

Before I start, I want to clear up one thing. This post is not an attack on SEO (heck SEO is my middle name). This post is not meant to discourage SEO. This post is a “reality check” for small business owners from business perspective. 


SEO is no longer just adding keywords in the title tag and getting links from cheap directories. Yes we all know that but many business owners don’t. Today SEO is:

  1. Micro data and schema
  2. Authorship
  3. Twitter Cards
  4. Open Graph protocol
  5. Social Media (Facebook, twitter, linkedin, youtube)
  6. Content development and marketing
  7. Local Search
  8. Co-Citations and co-occurrence
  9. Microsoft Excel
  10. SEO Tools
  11. Analytics (from data collection to interpretation and reporting)
  12. REGEX
  13. Data Scraping
  14. Fixing/avoiding Google penalties.
  15. Reading blog posts 24/7 to keep up to date with the ever changing Search Engine Landscape.
  16. And the list is virtually endless to be honest

Best of luck if you, as entrepreneur, can do all of this and can still find time to run your business. SEO has become more complex than ever.  Therefore it is no longer a question of whether or not you can do it yourself. You need outside help. Period.

The question that you should be asking is whether you can really “afford” SEO with a small budget. The answer is “No”.  A lot of businesses don’t really understand the value of getting rankings esp. in the competitive market. They dream of outranking websites which have been spending tens of thousands of pounds in content development and marketing for years.

You need to understand that it takes real money to displace real money. So if a business has been spending say £70k a year on SEO for the last 3 years, then it has already spent £210K in content development and marketing. And if your idea of replacing this £210k worth of rankings is a £10k yearly budget then you need to wake up.  

As a small business owner your first priority is to “survive” in your trade. Make enough money to pay your bills and keep trading next month. That means you need a strong hold on your cash flow. You need to focus on immediate gains and aim to get immediate return on your investment. You need to make sure that you squeeze out every possible conversions from each website visitor/visit.  

This is possible only when you focus on optimizing your website for conversions and keep a close eye on every dollar spent.  SEO can’t do that for you, not at your start up stage. SEO is a long term commitment. You may need to wait for several months or even a whole year before you can see considerable positive ROI.

Consider running PPC campaigns instead. You will either win fast or fail fast. In either case you will know where you stand in your market and what you need to do to improve your business bottomline.

If you can make money from PPC, you sure can make money from SEO in the long run. Consider PPC as a litmus test. You need to pass this test in order to be qualified for running SEO.  If you fail then you need to test your landing pages, your offers and may be even your products. Once you have built a solid revenue stream then consider SEO to reduce your cost per acquisition and increase profit.

Now it is your turn.  Do you think SEO can be done cheaply and small business owners are better off building their business through SEO? Please share your thoughts. 


  1. says

    I agree with you but let me play ‘Devils Advocate’…

    if you sell a product and you manage to find your audience, I don’t mean an audience such as just an age-range but you’ve zeroed in on your community. Then the community itself will be your marketers, they will write posts, provide back-links, share on social networks and generally by passing the list you provided list.

    Example and it’s just an example, off the top off my head.

    You make a product, you love it and your happy with it. You try and try to get someone famous, not famous as in internationally but someone who is recognisable in your homeland to use your product. One day this person that you’ve wanted to endorse your product finally uses it and because of who they are in the media(locally) they get photographed, which then gets featured in a magazine. This magazine gets distributed, now the potential of success has just gotten bigger. Readers of that magazine then tweet or email them asking what product is she or he wearing, ‘they love it’ they tweet….and you can guess where it goes from there….

    From the above example, you can see someone who’s passionate about their product achieving this and not necessarily someone who knows SEO that well too.

    This type of marketing by passes alot of what you provided off your list and through networking this can be achieved.

    Remember, I’m just playing Devils Advocate..


  2. says

    Hi Darren,

    It is completely possible to achieve success in business without doing any SEO and people have been doing this for centuries. But in this post i am talking about small online businesses who think SEO is some sort of cheaper alternative to PPC which can fix all their business problems. In fact SEO is more costly and risky than PPC in the short term esp. for small business owners. To win in SEO, a business owner must able to afford short term losses (like no immediate ROI) for long term gains. Many business owners don’t realize this and play the SEO game in the start up phase. After few months they are out of money and then they can neither afford to run SEO or PPC.

    • says

      I understand where Himanshu is coming from. SEO is only part of any company’s marketing tools, and SEO is an important one. I have spoke to some people who have their websites for about a decade and aren’t tech savvy so they think that SEO is the title, keywords, and description. Of course as we all know, it totally isn’t the case these days so people do need to be educated how they can get the best bang for their buck.

  3. says

    I get your point, but one needs to put the value of “SEO” in perspective. You say:

    “You need to understand that it takes real money to displace real money. So if a business has been spending say £70k a year on SEO for the last 3 years, then it has already spent £210K in content development and marketing.”

    If you’re spending money wisely in support of content development (just to take that), then you’re going to be getting a much bigger bang for your buck than SEO. That is, providing your customers and prospective customers with relevant and helpful information about your product and services, and so acquiring new customers, better retaining old customers and building brand awareness. If your content fails to deliver this than it was never quality content to begin with, but something dumped on a site in order to boost rankings and – just because its poor quality content – will do a mediocre job in attaining that goal.

    Not to mention the fact that £70k/year is an absurd amount for a “small business” to spend on SEO. Many enterprise businesses don’t spend a fraction of this on SEO.

    • says

      Hi Aaron,

      That £70k/year can also include the annual salary of SEO professional(s). At the end of the day it is also a SEO cost to the company.

      I am not sure why you looking at content development and marketing as a separate activity. Contents is the heart and soul of any successful SEO campaign. Sometimes contents just don’t align well with the business goals. So even when they are quality contents they don’t really drive conversions.

      • says

        Thanks for your reply Himanshu.

        I don’t know why you thought I was speaking of content development and marketing as separate activities (indeed, that’s why we have the term “content marketing”) but I wasn’t. In any case, in my opinion content that doesn’t “align well with the business goals” isn’t worthy content. It’s like selling products that don’t make a company money.

        Yes, £70k is the annual salary of a very well paid SEO professional (it works out to $107,000 US). And for a huge number of small businesses that’s a ridiculous amount of money to spend on SEO. A restaurant, for example, would receive enormous value spending a couple of grand for an SEO audit (if they acted on it), even if the report was literally this short: “don’t put your website all in Flash, list your business hours and embed a Google map of your location.”

  4. says

    Excellent points, Himanshu. SEO takes both time and money, and most small business owners don’t have the time, at the very least. They’re too busy running their business that they can’t possibly keep up with the constantly-evolving world of SEO or actually doing it. It’s definitely a catch-22 when a small business knows that it needs to pay for SEO services but has a limited budget. But in the end, it’s best to hire it out to the experts who know what they’re doing and can do it much more efficiently and effectively. –David

  5. says

    Thanks so much for reaffirming what we have decided to do. We’re in the process of creating our landing page and will go live with it, along with our PPC campaign in about a month. Wish us luck!

  6. says

    I agree with some of your points and disagree with others.
    SEO is useless without Social Media to back it up and make it important to a regional marketplace. PPC is more expensive than SMM.
    If you have great SEO that increase your chances of occurring first on Google search, but you offer services in a 2 hour radius from your office, and you get calls from across the country it doesn’t increase the bottom line. There are many business models and each one can use SEO or PPC; however, the expense is determined by the competition on the keywords. That can be circumvented by excellent SMM

    • says

      Hi Kristine! SEO can be more expensive than PPC in the short term as you may not see any considerable positive ROI for months but you still need to pay each month.

  7. says

    Long tail through blogging, backed up by extensive category pages with appropriate titles and metas, is the name of the game for small business. It CAN be quite inexpensive if the business owner or staff can write regularly.

  8. says

    For me, SEO is still a good tool for any business to gain more customers and patients through online marketing and advertising. But because of certain issues(expensive), smaller business must not only rely on SEO. With the current trends in online media nowadays, small business owners can take advantage of other methods of marketing and promoting their businesses online through social networking sites.

    • says

      Thank you for the blog post response Paul. If a small business doesn’t have lot of competition then they don’t need SEO as there is simply not enough demand for their products/service. You sure can bring them on 1st page of Google but will that have any huge business bottomlining impact. I doubt it. At best they may recover their small SEO cost. So in this context SEO seems cost effective.

      But Whether or not small local businesses don’t have a lot of competitors is debatable. By and large small business owners work in a very competitive space and often compete with big brand retailers. Your blog post mainly address the small ‘local’ businesses. While i am talking about ‘small businesses’ in general. A business doesn’t need to be ‘local’ in order to be considered small esp. in this internet age where you can sell your products nationwide or all over the world.

      The kind of small business i come across are the one who want to compete with the big guys in a very competitive market on a shoe string budget without really understanding the value of their desired rankings.

  9. says

    Hello All. I’m sorry but I can’t agree with the idea being floated that small businesses can’t compete with the big boys when it comes to SEO. Such a broad brush statement completely ignores all the things that Google and search engines are striving to achieve for their customers … those searching.

    An example of where small can easily win over large … ‘Local’ please don’t tell me that because Nando’s or McDonalds is huge … the small independent restaurants and food outlets in the local neighborhood can’t appear high in the search engines … they can and they do, if they have focused on all the standard SEO principles in the first place.

    And this leads me to my second knock out to your broad brush stroke statement … ‘Unique Selling Point’, ‘Variety’, ‘quality’, ‘Specific’ all these factors can be used to make your website much more competitive and able to appear at the top of the serps because the searcher doesn’t look for ‘Restaurant’ or ‘Clothe Shop’ they look for ‘Italian Restaurant in Islington’ or ‘Vintage clothes shop in Cardiff’ … and this is what small businesses should and must do … define their unique selling points that differentiate them from others.

    • says

      Hi Brian!

      You also seem to be under the impression that all small businesses are ‘local’. As i mentioned in the comment above, a small business doesn’t need to be local in order to be considered ‘small’. Lot of small businesses compete on the national and international level and they do compete with big brands. The crux of this post is not whether a small business can beat the big competition, it is whether it can ‘afford’ to beat it with a shoe string budget.

  10. says

    IMO advising a small business to abandon SEO efforts in favor of PPC is doing them a disservice. I don’t believe it’s accurate to state that you can (or should) use PPC as a litmus test. There are similarities, but they should be treated differently.

    This article does a good job of explaining the differences between the two:

    To do PPC well is very complex and really requires that you understand marketing. It’s also not a guarantee of traffic – there are many components that are similar between PPC and SEO – e.g. page quality, relevant landing pages, and overall quality.

    Also, if a business has such a small budget – how can they possibly generate enough traffic through PPC to have a statistically sound sampling to apply to SEO?

    I agree that PPC can be a way for businesses who are just getting started to gain some visibility, but – there is no guarantee that just because the are willing to pay for a click, that their ad will be displayed. There are many factors that go into the equation that determines whether or not an ad will be displayed.

    I believe that promoting and distributing content on social networks is a better way for a new/small business to drive traffic as they are working on an SEO and/or PPC strategy.

    I would suggest that small businesses think about reallocating dollars they are spending on traditional marketing methods toward a complete online strategy which in all likelihood would include SEO, PPC, and Social media.

    • says

      PPC is a guaranteed way to fail fast if the product has no market value or the website is not optimized for conversions. That’s why it is a good litmus test. For start ups, failing fast and accepting reality is very important because they don’t have enough money to fail slowly and miserably or to afford the experience of shortcomings of their products/websites through SEO. As i mentioned above “Many business owners don’t realize this and play the SEO game in the start up phase. After few months they are out of money and then they can neither afford to run SEO nor PPC.”

  11. says

    I had a discussion with a small business owner the other day about ppc and this article explains using it for testing much better than I did. I will definitely be passing this on. Thanks!

  12. says

    Good post Himanshu. I agree, when it comes to SEO, it’s a considerable struggle for small businesses. I often run into Small business owners who are looking for an extensive SEO campaign, but they can only afford to squeeze $400 USD a month out of their overall budget and it’s pretty tough to make an impact using SEO with a budget that small. Many of them don’t have a marketing budget at all. In a lot of cases I find myself directing them toward other marketing options like optimizing their pages for conversion, as you mentioned.

    Just getting them to understand what is involved in managing an SEO campaign can be difficult, but if they can’t see the complexity, they won’t understand why the cost is so high. This is good information and I’ll be forwarding the link to others who may find it helpful.

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