February 14, 2021

Affordable SEO for Small Businesses: Top Tools & Tricks

Managing an SEO campaign of a small business requires a strategic choice between cost, time, and quality. You can have 2, but at the expense of the 3rd.

Setting Our Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Objective

Resource Tradeoff Model

The first step is to set our search engine optimization objective. Objectives tend to cluster around increasing visibility, increasing traffic, increasing average position, and so on. 

Beyond the focus it provides, some objectives require SEO strategies that are more costly than others to achieve. For example, increasing visibility requires more first positions than increasing average position. Increasing traffic can be augmented with ads. 

This is why it is important to ensure that your SEO objectives align with your business objective otherwise, instead of being affordable, it can be quite costly in time and labor.

Searching Like Our Customers

Search Like Our Customers

After we have set our objective, the next most important thing is to try to put ourselves within the mind of our customers. It is important to understand what questions that might have and how they might phrase them.

How to Pose the Right Questions

The three phases of the basic search for information. The typical searcher goes through three stages when looking for an answer

Awareness & Discovery

At the beginning of search for information, the user is in the process of learning about the subject in general. For example, if I were purchasing a vehicle, at this stage, I would likely seek to gain a general understanding of all options available: sedan, SUV, truck, etc. 

At this stage of search, the user asks the broadest questions. For example, I might ask: what are the top selling vehicles in 2021, or something similar. The answers tend to be general and broad. There are lots of searchers, but they are not very invested.


In this phase the user or searcher starts to narrow down their choices. In this phase they are seeking more detailed information regarding a subset of the original group. In the car example, I may have settled on a sedan, but now, I’m looking at feature trade-offs like electrical or gas for instance.

In this phase the searcher has narrowed his or her field down to a few options and are looking for help in making a fair comparison among them. These answers tend to be specific and more detailed. Now, we have fewer searchers, but they are much more engaged.


We now come to the final step. The user or searcher has narrowed their choice down to two or three options. The questions become very detailed and specific, and as a result, the answers are longer and more involved. Finally, we have few searchers with very high engagement.

Search Funnel

How to Find the Right Keywords & Phrases

Now, that we know the three stages, it is clearer how we should frame our questions. In SEO jargon, these three groups are called, the fat head, the chunky middle, and the long tail.

Fat Heads

The fat heads have tremendous volume, and they are extremely hard to rank highly for them. We don’t ignore them because we need to introduce ourselves so users know we exist. They need to know about us, or we will not make the cut to the chunky middle.

Chunky Middle

The chunky middle is less competitive, and as a result, it is less difficult to rank. Even if we can rank well here today, it is important that we are active in this phase. This is when the user is making his or her decisions on what makes it to the final round. If they are ignorant of us or our benefits, it is very unlikely that we will sway them in the last step.

Long Tail

These are usually the easiest to rank since they have the lowest volume and least competition. It is easy to make the mistake in thinking that you should only focus on long tail keywords or phrases. After all, this is the step where the final decision is made. However, I challenge you to consider if you would be swayed at the last minute by solution from a company unknown to you. 

Keyword and Keyphrase Trail-mix.

The metaphor of trail mix is a good one. While the bulk of the mix is assorted grains (long tail keywords), there tends to be a fair amount of nuts & fruit (chunky middle) with a few nice pieces of chocolate mixed in (fat heads). Every time you put your hand in, you are likely to get mostly grain as maybe a fruit or not, but every now and again, you get a piece of chocolate.

Tips & Tools to Use to Make Your Mix

Google Keyword Planner is a good place to start. You need to create an account on Google Adwords. Once complete, select Keyword planner, and you will land on this page. Choose the “discover new keywords” option.

Google Keyword Planner Step 1

Once you do, then you will have the choice to choose a website URL or a keyword. If you have a site or know your competitors site, the website route is the simplest to start. Once you decide, click “Get Results”.

Google Keyword Planner Step 2

You will be taken to a page like this. From here, you would select your mix. 

Google Keyword Planner Step 3

Ideally finding as many low competition, high volume opportunities. But, remember, you will likely need a few fat heads to ensure your visibility at the start of the search.

Basics on How Search Engines Work

Since you or your team is going to spend a significant amount of time optimizing for them, you should have a basic understanding of how they work.

At the most basic level, search engine optimization (SEO) is how we help the bot link the right keywords with the right pages.

Bots are simply programs that crawl the web. They perform three basic tasks:.

  1. Classify the content using natural language processing and keyword usage. 
  2. Uses its algorithm to create a score based on ranking factors.
  3. Indexes the page under a given keyword in order of its ranking.

Google’s algorithm works for one simple reason - users value the results. They value these results because they can find relevant information quickly and easily. 

This should be our goal as well. This is why white hat SEO works best in the long run.  We want our users to have a positive user experience (UX). Traffic that bounces has limited value.

Pulling all This Together into a Plan 

Website Design

You might find it odd that the website design is first on our list. It tops the list because web design is about organizing information so users can find what they seek quickly. There is also an inherent hierarchy of importance built into the navigation. This sounds very similar to what the bot is trying to do. 

For optimal results your web design should focus on the question funnel above, with your fat heads on your home page. Your chunky middle a page in, and then, your long tails not more than 3 clicks away. 

When we create a web design based on this navigation, we create a scaffolding for the bot to follow. By creating a sitemap.xml and submitting to Google Search Console, you make discovery easier.

Website Speed - How to Choose the Right Website Platform

All the steps so far, cost you very little but time. However, now we need to discuss a little about cost.  Not all websites are created equal. 

Page speed is a major ranking factor, and it depends heavily on where and how you build your site. We cover this topic in great detail in CMS & Pagespeed

We need to revisit the cost, time, quality triangle because you have a strategic choice to make. If you choose the fast and easy route and use a CMS (like Wordpress, Wix, etc.), you will likely sacrifice speed. 

To achieve the speeds to be competitive, you will either have to invest time, if you like to code, or money to hire someone else.

Building Content

Building Content

It mainly focused on prominence and relevance. Prominence is a measure of your online clout. This closely tracks your domain authority. Prominence is typically built off page through link building and other credibility signals.

Relevance is more in your control. It depends on how relevant Google thinks your answer is to question being asked.  You can help Google with smart use of title, header, and meta tags. 

Title Tag

The title tag should contain the keyword or keyphrase mapped to that page. It should be to the front of the tag, and the tag should not be longer than 55 characters.

Header Tags

Header tags help the bot classify the page. Header tags are ranked in importance from 1 through 6. The two that matter for SEO are H1 and H2. 

There should only be one H1 tag. The H1 tag should describe the content of the page. It should match the user intent, and therefore, if this is for a long-tailed keyword, it should be contained here.

There can be multiple H2 tags. H2s are used to flag important sub-topics or answers to specific questions. There are no length restrictions on H2s.

The meta tag is not important for SEO, but it is helpful in guiding the user. It should also answer user intent and expand on the title. The meta text is the 160 character field that appears under the title on the search engine results page (SERP).


Tracking Performance

Tracking performance is where cost enters the equation. Here, again, you will need to make a strategic choice on how much to invest. If your needs are simple, there are several free tools by Moz, SEMRush, ARefs and the like. They are helpful, but limited.

If you require more than just the basic, most SEO software platforms range between $100-$200/mo. We have found that they have more than paid off in return on investment, if and only if, you invest the time.

Otherwise, you are better served having an SEO agency manage it for you. 

Monitoring and Adapting

The same is true for monitoring. SEO is a consistent investment. It is not something you can do once and forget it. It requires maintenance and care in order to be effective in the long run.

The Cost of SEO vs. the Cost of Ads

If you want your brand or business to be noticed, we revisit the cost, time, quality triangle. When you consider all of the effort and time it requires, SEO is by no means free. But the manpower and hours required can pay off in one lasting rankings on important keywords.

If your objective is either visibility or traffic, an alternative to SEO is paid search (PPC). The principles that applied to SEO apply to PPC. 

The success of both is determined by the quality and relevance of the content to the searcher. PPC may get you to the top of the list, but if the result is not what the searcher wants, they will bounce. Keeping this in mind will make you more successful in both.


It is not always a forgone conclusion that SEO is cheaper than PPC when you factor in all the hidden labor costs and maintenance. It comes back to the strategic triangle. 

To look closer at the cost of SEO vs the cost of search engine marketing, this piece from Justin Herring can really help you out.  

How We Keep Our SEO Small Business Services Affordable

If you are reading this post, you know that ProStrategix offers our own forms of affordable SEO as well for small businesses. We offer a great, free eBook as a guide.

We believe that should help you get started. If you find yourself getting stuck or frustrated, there are a number of reputable firms that can help. We believe we are one of them.

If you decide to view our services, we offer tiered versions of our SEO services to make affordable options for all small business needs. The wrong partner or poor planning and execution can waste a lot of time and money.

To Conclude…

There are several affordable and free ways to take advantage of small business SEO.

  1. Set an SEO objective as it will determine the affordability of your effort.
  2. Start to think like your user. What questions they may have, and how they might ask them during the different phases.
  3. Use free tools like Google Search Console, Google Keyword Planner, for instance, to get you started.
  4. Managing SEO with just the free sites will require a lot more people hours and time than with software tools or partners. It is a tradeoff decision you will likely have to make.
  5. We believe our eBook is a great free resource to help you avoid common SEO pitfalls. If it is not enough and you need more help, please look at SEO services. They are built for the needs of small businesses and provide several affordable options.

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About the Author

Brian Cairns, CEO of Prostrategix Consulting. Over 25 years of business experience as a corporate executive, entrepreneur, and small business owner. For more information, please visit my LinkenIn profile

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