We’ve read the blogs, we’ve heard the talks, we’ve seen the case studies.
Big brands are winning at SEO.
- A team of experts working on fine-tuning their tech.
- A world-class agency planning their next digital PR campaign.
- A fund for stationery that rivals your entire year’s marketing budget.
It can feel demoralizing as a marketer with a small SEO budget to hear those stories. Their success can feel completely out of reach.
That doesn’t have to be the case.
If you are working with a small SEO budget for your brand or your agency’s client you can still have success.
The key to building a winning SEO strategy when you are low on funds is learning to prioritize.
Read on to learn the top 12 ways you can prioritize, structure, and run SEO campaigns that will bring exceptional ROI from your small budget.
1. Identify How Your Budget Limits You
This is a crucial first step. A small budget often means you are having to compromise in some areas. Regardless of whether you are working in-house, in an agency or as a freelancer, small budgets often mean:
Lack of Time
If your client has a small marketing budget then you are likely to be very limited in how much time you can dedicate to their SEO each month.
Similarly, if you work in-house for a brand with a small budget then your time is probably shared amongst other channels, too.
A small budget often means you are not given enough time to do all of the work you want to.
If you are working with a small SEO budget you might not have access to all the fancy tools you think you need. Extensive keyword trackers, backlink identifiers and log-file analyzers can be quite expensive.
If you are working for an agency you may have access to these, but in-house marketers on a small budget are unlikely to.
If you have a limited SEO budget as a brand marketer, chances are you don’t have an array of SEO experts at your fingertips.
Even as an agency marketer working with clients who don’t have much budget means your SEO team is probably not highly specialized. This can leave serious gaps in your knowledge that could be hampering your SEO efforts.
Money for Assets
A lack of money often means that you don’t have the budget for work outside of your skill-set. If you want to plan an outreach campaign, for example, you may feel blocked by the cost of asset creation.
For instance, you might have felt a designer, media producer and content manager would be crucial to get your idea off the ground.
Identifying what your SEO budget is, and is not, translating to in terms of your resources and knowledge gives you a good idea of what you should be prioritizing. It also helps you to stop wandering down paths that aren’t going to yield results.
2. Fill Those Gaps
If you know your budget means you cannot afford the best tools you may need to look at cheap or free alternatives.
There are ways to track rank, identify backlinks, and analyze log files without spending a fortune.
The options are usually just a little less shiny and require a bit more manual labor to get the same level of intel.
If it is time that you are short on then you may need to have a conversation with your team or your client about getting more.
I’ve heard of agencies who will sell SEO packages in at 3 or 4 hours a month. This is, in my opinion, hard to work with.
You may need to speak to your client about the limitations such a small commitment to SEO gives and perhaps show the possible increase were they to invest more.
Some in-house bosses are also unaware of how much time SEO analysis and implementation takes to carry out well.
If there is really no option to increase the time you have allocated to spend on SEO then you will need to be laser-focused on the work you do. See point 5 for more advice on that.
If it is a knowledge gap that you feel is holding you back then you need to know what your weaker areas are.
It may be that you are an excellent copywriter and feel that digital PR is your jam, but the technical side of SEO is still a bit baffling to you. This can be your opportunity to develop your skills.
3. Assess Your Strengths
You might feel like you are at a disadvantage due to your lack of budget, but what are you already doing well? It could be you have access to a great development team, or you are a digital PR at heart.
Make sure you keep an element of the work that comes easily to you in your plan. That way you will know that you are guaranteed some success for your efforts.
Your brand might be well known already in your industry or local area. You can capitalize on this fame to build backlinks or gain reviews.
Use your and the brand’s strengths to your advantage in your strategy.
Start analyzing what you have available to you. Audit the knowledge, skills, and resources you can access. This will help you to identify what to prioritize.
For instance, if you are limited on resources but have a good relationship with local business, reach out to them. There may be some deals that you can make to use to your advantage.
Perhaps you can partner with local sports teams or schools that will enable you to give back to your community as well as earn links from them.
Another local company or agency may swap their designer’s skills for your SEO advice. It is worth exploring the support you can get outside of your own team.
4. Set Expectations
The key to a really successful strategy when working with small budgets is setting expectations.
Your boss or your client may have lofty visions of what they expect SEO to achieve for them. They might be completely unrealistic.
Get an idea for the baseline of organic traffic currently going to your site.
From there you can use a predictive model to estimate organic traffic growth.
You may get pressure to drive rankings up or double organic traffic but you need to be clear about what is achievable.
It is also worth discussing the sorts of activity you will be able to carry out within your budget.
Elaborate outreach campaigns and redesigning the structure of the website might be completely unfeasible now.
That doesn’t mean you can’t begin building a case for that work in the future.
5. Start Small
An important factor in developing a well-performing organic strategy on a budget is knowing where you can focus your efforts to achieve the most growth.
You may need to look at what your focus product, service, or content is. Prioritize the pages or goals that are most important.
You are going to be able to achieve more for those one of two pages than if you are trying to spread your limited budget across your whole site.
If you will benefit from traffic searching with local intent then optimize your Google My Business listing. It may only require some small changes.
Your effort and resources may be better spent trying to rank for local terms where competition is more limited.
6. Fix Your Problems First
Your hard work can be for nothing if your website is fundamentally flawed.
You don’t have the money to waste optimizing your website whilst it is suffering from technical debt, or has an abundance of backlinks with anchor text for services you no longer provide.
A comprehensive audit, although time-consuming, can reveal issues that you never knew you had. It may seem like an indulgent use of budget but it will put you in a much stronger position to form a winning strategy.
Look into the state of your website.
A few points you need to cover include:
- Has it migrated recently? Was that carried out effectively or might it still be suffering the effects?
- What does your backlink profile, including anchor text look like?
- Which pages have already been optimized on the site and are they growing in visibility?
- What does the technical set-up of the site look like? Can it be crawled easily, with the signals as to which pages should be indexed consistently?
Once you have an idea of which areas of your site might be holding you back you can see a focus for the first stages of your strategy.
It’s important to note that the reason these issues have not been fixed before could be due to the limits of the budget.
Perhaps there isn’t enough money available to bring back the developer who built the site to fix the issues it’s suffering from or the migration went south because of the lack of knowledge in the company.
This can complicate matters but doesn’t mean your strategy is doomed. You may need to focus even more on compensating for the site’s shortcomings while trying to fix what you can.
For instance, I’ve worked on sites before that had terrible copy but the client was adamant it could not be changed because they did not want to pay for someone to re-write what had only just been written by their in-house copywriter.
Not being able to better theme a page’s copy to the search terms I know their clients are searching with isn’t great for ranking the page or converting traffic that lands on it.
In that instance, I had to focus even more on increasing the other signals that suggest the page’s relevancy for those terms, like page titles, internal linking, and anchor text.
7. Prioritize Results
It may be that you are not going to make much progress optimizing for your head terms in a crowded market.
It can be tempting in this situation to look at how to drive traffic the fastest, such as going for a long-tail keyword strategy. However, this might not be the best use of your budget if it doesn’t bring about conversions.
This comes back to point four, setting expectations correctly.
If you have agreed that conversions is one of your key metrics for showing success then a long-tail keyword strategy in isolation may not be your best course of action.
However, if the goal is to increase visibility or organic traffic only then it may be more suitable.
Your strategy needs to focus on what will meet the goals of the campaign. Look for opportunities that will bring about the best ROI.
8. Think Outside the Box
With a limited budget in a crowded industry, you will need to get imaginative with how you spend your resources.
Google’s standard organic results might not be your best starting point.
This sounds very counter-intuitive.
Depending on your SEO goals though you could be better off looking at another way to increase organic traffic to your site.
If your product is very visual, then consider focusing on ranking your images for image searches and carousels. This could land converting traffic to your site easier than if you are trying to rank for head terms associated with your product.
Consider Other Search Engines
Perhaps Google isn’t the search engine you should focus on immediately.
Depending on the industry you may find you have a high percentage of organic visitors from other search engines.
StatCounter shows Bing’s share of the U.S. search engine market to be 6.33% in October 2019. I recently accidentally conducted a Yahoo search when using a very old laptop that had the default search engine changed.
There are still people not using Google.
This might be a focus point for you.
For instance, Bing Places is often forgotten by companies that are focusing on Google only.
It may be that you can rank your site’s local businesses’ Places easier in Bing than in Google due to lower competition. It may be enough to move the needle of converting organic traffic to your site.
Similarly, if you have a lot of video content, then optimizing them for YouTube’s organic algorithm may allow you to drive more awareness of your brand. Again, it all comes down to what the goals of your campaign are.
9. Ignore Best Practice
Something that is often a time-sink is trying to conform to “best practice”.
The results of audits by less experienced SEO professionals may highlight issues like the XML sitemap not being referenced in the robots.txt or page titles exceeding 60 characters.
If you are in a position where you need to be very careful with where you focus your efforts then trying to tick all the “best practice” boxes is likely to be a waste of time.
Often, these items will do little for your SEO other than make you feel like your above criticism from outside agencies trying to poach your job.
At worst, they can be detrimental to your work by stealing your attention away from results generating activity.
Everything you include in your strategy needs to have a clear objective that goes towards achieving your desired ROI.
Will adding a reference to the XML sitemap in your robots.txt cause an external development agency to charge for an hour’s work?
Is that worth coming out of your budget if you could add the XML sitemap’s location to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools?
Why are you going back through all the meta descriptions on your site to ensure they are less than a certain number of characters when Google may well change them in the SERPs anyway?
It can feel risky leaving your work open to criticism from less-informed parties.
Your strategy is not about ticking boxes. It’s about driving results.
All of your activity needs to reflect that.
10. Learn from Your Competitors
A good way of saving some time and resources is to look at what your competitors are already doing. Find out where they are getting their backlinks from.
See if any of those sites are worth approaching for your own links. Understand how their copy is out-ranking yours and use that knowledge to improve your own.
See who has the featured snippet you are coveting and improve your copy so it is structured similarly. Ensure it better answers the searchers’ question.
It has to be stressed though, just because another site is doing something does not mean your site should be doing it, too. The search algorithms are complicated.
There can be many reasons why a poorly optimized page might be ranking above yours. Don’t just blindly copy what you see others doing. Ensure your changes fit in with what you know about the algorithms.
It is also crucial that you don’t look too far out of your website’s industry for inspiration. These are not your competitors. They are not the websites that yours will be competing with in the SERPs.
Therefore the reasons they are ranking number 1 for a term that is not relevant to your site does not mean your site will start ranking better for the terms that should be driving traffic to your site.
11. Use Your Colleagues
Another factor in developing a winning SEO strategy on a small budget is borrowing resources from other places.
This can be achieved in several ways:
- Educate your colleagues so they work in an SEO-first way. If your development team fully understands the implications of their coding changes they can work alongside you on technical SEO. Talk to your PPC team about their audience targeting for brand terms searches so they don’t cannibalize organic traffic.
- Use their data. Other internal teams and external agencies working on your brand will have their own wealth of data that could be useful in informing your strategy. Make sure you are liaising with paid media team to find out what search terms are converting for them.
- Ask for their assistance. If time and skills are limited in your SEO team then you may also need to get creative with asking for help from other members of your team. Can a designer help with your outreach assets, or a developer help you identify the cause of your spider trap? You may have the right resources at your disposal already, just not within your direct team.
12. Improve Existing Content Before Writing New
A final suggestion for making the most of your limited budget when creating a winning SEO strategy is to improve content you already have.
What can you optimize that is already on your site?
Think about videos, images and audio files.
Look into the schema markup available for your content. This can help its presentation in the SERPs which may gain you more visibility without having to spend money on new content.
Look at the copy on your site that is ranking on pages two or three. See if there are tweaks that can be made to get it ranking on the first page.
You must make sure the assets you already have are working hard for you.
It can be a struggle to drive well-converting organic traffic to a site when your budget is small. It isn’t impossible though.
Some of the most exciting SEO happens when you need to be creative with your time and resources.
Search Engine Journal
Helen is the Managing Director at Arrows Up. She is an SEO consultant and trainer with a passion for equipping teams and individuals in SEO strategy and tactics. Helen is often seen on stage at conferences delivering talks about digital marketing.