Riley Hope podcast interview – How SMBs can use SEO to recover from COVID

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How can small, and medium sized businesses start to recover from the effects of COVID? That’s exactly what my brilliant guest on this episode – Riley Hope – will share the answers to.

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(Full transcript at bottom of page.)

Riley Hope is an organic digital marketer with over five years of experience, with a majority of experience specialising in SEO for small-medium enterprises. She also has an academic background and has written multiple papers on SEO and the SME sector. .

In this episode, we discuss:

  • How SMBs have been affected by COVID.
  • Some of the key mistakes she’s seen SMBs make during the pandemic.
  • How she thinks SMBs should plan if the COVID situation worsens.
  • How can SMB’s start to recover from an SEO POV.

…and much more!

Useful Links:

Episode sponsored by Absolute Digital, check them out here: https://absolute.digital/

Podcast Anchor Page: https://anchor.fm/azeemdigitalasks

My Twitter page: https://twitter.com/AzeemDigital

My website: https://iamazeemdigital.com/

Sign up to “The Marginalised Marketer” newsletter: https://iamazeemdigital.com/the-marginalised-marketer-newsletter/

Riley Twitter: https://twitter.com/reillyhope13

Episode Transcript

Azeem Ahmad:
Hello, and welcome back to the Azeem Digital Asks all-round digital marketing podcast. What a great episode and a great guest I have got for you today. We’re talking all about using SEO as part of a COVID recovery for SMBs with the awesome Riley Hope.

Azeem Ahmad:
Before we begin, a quick word from the sponsor. This episode is sponsored by Absolute Digital Media, a leading UK-based digital marketing agency specialising in search, pay-per-click and digital PR. With seven award wins under their belt already this year, they understand what it takes to make a business stand out from its competitors and generate greater visibility in return. Check them out. I will drop a link to them in the show notes.

Azeem Ahmad:
But now, onto the show. Riley, welcome to the show.

Riley Hope:
Awesome. Thank you so much.

Azeem Ahmad:
How is it going?

Riley Hope:
It’s going good. I’m in New York so it’s very foggy and cold out. I don’t know how it is in the UK.

Azeem Ahmad:
Pretty much the same, but all year round mostly.. Would you like to tell the listeners a little bit about yourself, who you are and give yourself a great intro?

Riley Hope:
Yeah, sure. My name is Riley, or rileyhope on social media. I am an organic digital marketing specialist and I mostly work in SEO for small businesses as well as third sector organizations. I’m in the works of developing a social enterprise model that utilizes SEO as a social mission, and focuses on COVID revitalization as well as accessibility. The model utilizes a unique pricing formula that helps make it more financially accessible to small businesses.

Riley Hope:
Aside from that, I actually just finished grad school literally yesterday. I submitted my dissertation last night. Where I explored a lot about COVID-19 revitalization through SEO and organic marketing. I also work as an SEO director at a boutique

agency, and I’m also currently rebuilding my Animal Crossing village on my Switch.

Azeem Ahmad:
Wow, what an introduction. That right there is exactly why I’m excited to have you on the show and talk about this topic.

Azeem Ahmad:
First thing’s first though, a massive congratulations on finishing grad school. You must be relieved.

Riley Hope:
Yeah, to say the least. I didn’t know what to do with myself last night, so I got Chipotle and watched Dragonball.

Azeem Ahmad:
All good. Right, into the meat and bones of the show. We’re talking about SEO as part of a COVID recovery for SMBs. I am very much team SMB, if you see or hear things that I post on Twitter especially when new updates come out because they’re often forgotten about. So less of me, more of you.

Azeem Ahmad:
Riley, in your experience, how would you say that SMBs have been affected by COVID?

Riley Hope:
The Washington Post, Matt Stoller, who is the director of the American Economic Liberties Project, called an “extinction level event for small businesses.” The devastation has taken a global toll. I’m sure that you’ve seen businesses closing down where you are, and I’ve seen them close down near me and all across the country.

Riley Hope:
Small businesses actually take up a majority of our economy. Yet during the pandemic, we saw mass closures with the lockdown restrictions. A study from Yelp came out that estimated that 60% of businesses reported that they were closed or now permanently closed. And then, the Atlantic Council went on to actually state, especially in developing markets, small businesses contribute nearly half of the GDP and generate nearly 70% of jobs. The recovery of SMBs is crucial to the global economy.

Riley Hope:
And then, Oxfam, with this has also stated that half a billion people are expected to be pushed into poverty as a result of the pandemic. Yet at the same time, 32 of the world’s largest companies saw their profits jump over $100 billion. The Washington Post went on to also report that 100,000 small businesses in America closed permanently across the USA in the first two months. And during those same months, five of the biggest American companies turned over large revenue and 50 of those companies saw their revenue grow by over 2%.

Riley Hope:
This is the steepest business loss in the history of the USA and we’ve seen this, of course, across the world as well. But in particular to the USA, active American business owners dropped by 22%, which has summed out to a decline of 3.3 million between February and April 2020. This also carries over, so we see the pandemic also disproportionately affected immigrant and minority owned businesses, with African-American owned businesses experiencing the largest loss in the US with a devastating 41% elimination of active businesses.

Azeem Ahmad:
That is incredible. Thank you so much for sharing that. I think many people like myself had an awareness of some level of the impact on SMBs. But, those numbers are sobering, to say the least. Thank you very much for firstly putting in the work and sharing that with everybody.

Azeem Ahmad:
I’d love to dig a little bit deeper into, of the SMBs that survived is probably the wrong word, but the ones who are going through the pandemic now, what would you say are some of the key mistakes that you’ve seen SMBs make during the pandemic?

Riley Hope:
I’ve seen a variety, but I think the key mistake that sums everything up is not enough positive attention is being paid to these digital platforms. I think it can be daunting to a lot of people. They don’t want to mess up their site, they don’t want to mess up how their Instagram feed looks, how their Twitter looks, their Google My Business, or really any platform. There’s so much information on all of these things, especially when it comes to SEO. Or, some of it’s wrong, some of it’s right, some of it’s half right but only if it applies to that industry or what you’re trying to do.

Riley Hope:
I think that anxiousness of, “Oh, if I mess my site up, I don’t know how to get it back,” or, “I don’t know what to post on Instagram, or Facebook or My Business.” And, while there are guidelines and, in SEO’s case, best practice guidelines, I think that there is, for a lot of us in the industry, that it’s fun. There is a learning curve with everything. When you’re adding content with a new WordPress builder or a different site builder, it takes a bit of time to get used to it.

Riley Hope:
I was helping someone set up a new site as part of my research and they were having an issue that happened with a plugin I have never used before. I was like, “I have no idea.” So we just hopped on a Google Meet and screen shared. Yeah, we had to restore the site a few times but we figured it out. I think there needs to be more open dialogue about that, just trying things out. And, about the infobesity of organic digital marketing, especially in SEO.

Riley Hope:
And then, as long as small businesses are staying ethical and not essentially trying to deceive, whether it be the search algorithm or their consumers, I think treating online tools as learning tools is important. Especially as we have these constant updates rolling out, we saw Core Web Vitals come out in the past year, plenty of Google My Business updates and then so many other things.

Riley Hope:
And also, I think just sticking to what is true for that small business. Everyone has a reason why they started their business, aside from making money to some extent. Whether it’s, “Oh, I like to thrive on my days off so I’m going to open up a shop on Instagram and a website,” to even the local restaurant in your town, conveying that kind of reasoning online, in your site, in your social media, whatever else you use, can help people connect and relate to that business.

Azeem Ahmad:
I could not agree with you more. That is gold. I’m sitting here listening to you live now thinking, “This is incredible.”

Riley Hope:
Thank you.

Azeem Ahmad:
I feel guilty that this is free. This is really, really insightful. Thank you so much.

Azeem Ahmad:
So the situation as it stands, we’re not out of the pandemic.

Riley Hope:
Right.

Azeem Ahmad:
Certainly over here in the UK, it looks like things are starting to worsen up as winter season approaches, cases are certainly rising. I’m sure it’s the same over there, certainly from the news that I am seeing.

Azeem Ahmad:
From an SMB point of view, how do you think that SMBs should plan if the COVID situation worsens?

Riley Hope:
I would say plan to be mostly digital. Whatever happened back in 2020, in those first couple months, that March, April, May time where things started to shut down, we saw internet usage rates spike. That spike has essentially maintained.

Riley Hope:
Outline what you’re trying to do, whether that’s trying to get new customers, increase your site presence or just to post on your Google My Business more. We’re seeing businesses become more and more increasingly digital, whether that’s picking up groceries curbside, which I will now never go back into a grocery store unless I absolutely have to. Buying more stuff online rather than going into a shop, learning online or anything in between, it’s important that small businesses are ready to serve people online.

Riley Hope:
Have that Facebook app on your phone, Instagram, granted they’re not down. Have a way that’s easy for you to manage your sites. Use an affordable CRM system, whether that’s using Wix’s site and their tools that they have managed into it, MailChimp has some great solutions that I’ve seen that are affordable. There are form plugins that track data and keep data per GDPR and whatever privacy laws where you are. Use what’s easy and effective to manage your current leads and to get those new customers coming in.

Riley Hope:
Not everyone excels at everything, especially not the first few times. Don’t be afraid to mess up and try new things. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. Join some Facebook groups, that’s how I got into SEO. Join some online communities. The digital community on Twitter, of course, is abundant. Plant a cell online and if your business has to pause, like a lot of cosmetology based businesses, a lot of restaurants had to close down due to lockdown measures and it seems like there is no light at the end of that tunnel, there will be. We’ve gotten this far, don’t stop, keep posting, keep editing, keep working towards your digital goals.

Riley Hope:
Nothing in the organic digital marketing sense is every immediate. It may take some time to see those results but keep at it and surround yourself and your business with supportive people.

Azeem Ahmad:
Amazing, I couldn’t agree with you more. Consistency is key. I’m a big, big advocate of that so it pleases me to hear another person say that, too. So massive thank you from that.

Azeem Ahmad:
Let’s talk about SEO specifically then, and then afterwards I’m definitely going to pick your brains about this whole outage. But first of all, SEO specifically, as you mentioned, it’s not a quick win. Certainly, if you do it the right way. How can SMBs start to recover, from an SEO point of view?

Riley Hope:
The path to recovery, especially for SEO, it’s muddy. It’s not going to be the same for everyone. But, utilizing a lot of free or discounted tools, a lot of small businesses that I spoke with in my research, they either weren’t aware that they could use some tools, or they didn’t want to try to learn them because they thought they were too complex. I think, going back to what I said about getting in those communities, but also for small businesses in particular, affordability is a key factor. Saving that 10 bucks a week, at least for me, means that I can go to McDonald’s and get an iced coffee for that week. That stuff is important. So using Google Search Console, Google Tag Manager, Google Analytics, those are powerful and free tools.

Riley Hope:
Something that I noticed in my research is that people underestimated the power that Google My Business can have. So even if you don’t have a physical address, you can use a service area listing and people can find you that way or click through to your site. And then, also enabling messaging in Google My Business as well.

Riley Hope:
If you have or are starting out with a site, let’s say that you didn’t have a site before and you want to start out with WordPress, Astra has a lot of great and free starter templates that you can import, and they’re easy switch out with a variety of different types of builders. Gutenberg I think is one, I don’t know if I’m saying that right. Wix is also affordable and they have themes. WordPress isn’t great for everyone, I know that’s a lot of feedback that I got, too.

Riley Hope:
Screaming Frog is free for small sites, so that’s under 500 URLs, I think. It helps you see a lot of data very quickly, and you can export that to Google Sheets and color code it, do whatever you need to do to look at it. Sitevalve is a great tool and it isn’t free, but it’s very affordable. Utilizing Google Trends is free. I personally like to use the AdWords keyword planner as well. The SEM director at my agency got me onto that so I like to use that for keyword research.

Riley Hope:
There are definitely other great tools out there, that are affordable or that have a free trial, but those are ones that I’ve personally used and can recommend. And then, you can use that data from these tools to build a better site and an optimized site. SEO isn’t just saying, “Okay, Google likes this so that’s all I have to do,” and I think that’s where a lot of small businesses get lost. It’s thinking about the people coming to your site, and you being able to manage the site and those inquiries coming in. You want to think about your customer base, like who your customer base is and how that site looks to them. Is there content on the pages that’s going to fulfill what they’re looking for or what you’re trying to bring forth?

Riley Hope:
Going back to the grocery store example, if you’re running your own corner store and anything akin, and someone is searching for “grocery curbside pickup near me,” do you have content on your site that is geared towards that? Can that customer find how to place an order, pay for that order and when to pick it up efficiently? Do you have staff on hand who know how to look for those incoming orders and get them ready at the pickup time? If you make that search to sales purchase easy for your customer, then they’ll probably come back.

Riley Hope:
For me, I don’t have a lot of grocers in my town but the one that I do use regularly, I can see all their specials through their Facebook. And then, I go to their site or their Google My Business listing, message them through there and then say, “I need a special, whatever, whatever.” And then, I get a reply within an hour with my total, pay online and then I go pick up my order when they said it would be ready. That process is important. Even if you get more customers on social media, having that flow into a website is important. You can track that data better and see how many people are coming to your site from where. You can also show for more queries and more searches with the content on your site.

Riley Hope:
You can also make an order and inquiry process, and use a CRM integration to track and retain your customers. A CRM, I should have said this before, it’s a customer management system. There’s a lot of different ones within WordPress. There’s MailChimp, that’s the most common one I see. I work in auto so I know a lot of the auto based ones. But, there’s a lot of good ones out there that can cater towards different types of businesses and industries. I think that’s an important part of business, especially when small businesses need to recover and get new customers while keeping those current customers.

Azeem Ahmad:
Amazing. Once again, that answer right there is literally an audio strategy for any small or medium business to start to recover from COVID, the impacts of COVID, on a digital point of view. Amazing. Thank you so much.

Azeem Ahmad:
Right before I let you go though, I am going to put you on the spot now because you mentioned earlier about the outage earlier this month, of most of social media. I don’t know whether you saw or whether you didn’t saw so apologies if I’m repeating myself, but a lot of the discussion once everything came back online that I saw certainly was, “Well, this is a classic example of why you should never stick to one channel. You should be on every channel, all the time.” Personally, I completely disagree with that.

Riley Hope:
Yeah.

Azeem Ahmad:
Feel free to hold your own opinion on that, absolutely. But, I personally disagree. So from a small business point of view, thinking of Facebook for example, if that business is active and successful on Facebook, it should stick with that until they grow to the point of diversification.

Azeem Ahmad:
But, since you mentioned it, I’d love to get your thoughts. How do you think these outages impacted small businesses? And, where do you stand on the debate of you should be active everywhere, or you should just do one channel, get it right and then grow?

Riley Hope:
I think on a global point, those outages were devastating, especially in non-Western countries that use What’s App. I’m in a lot of wholesale groups and when What’s App went out, you would have thought the world ended because nobody had a way to communicate with anyone. And especially, as an international student as well, from an academic side those outages were devastating. I couldn’t talk to anyone.

Riley Hope:
And then, I agree with you on not everyone has the capacity to do eight million things at a time. It’s great if you do. But, not every small business owner or micro enterprise owner can manage a site, an Etsy or whatever type of eCommerce platform that they use, a Facebook, an Instagram, a Twitter, a this and a that. And now, TikTok is coming in. I think a lot of people forget that businesses are run by people. If you’re doing well on Instagram, then keep doing well on Instagram. Am I going to recommend that you have a site? Yeah. But, I’m also going to recommend that you put content on it that can be updated once a year, or every 12 months, whatever.

Riley Hope:
I just said every 12 months and once a year. I do this all the time, where I just mix up numbers because I was never taught math right. America.

Riley Hope:
If something is working for you, then do that. And also, sites are expensive. That’s something that SEO is like, “Oh, you can put WordPress on for free.” Yeah, if you want to pay $100 a year for hosting. Somebody was recommending me a paid builder and I was like, “I can’t justify somebody who makes $30,000 a year spend that much of their income on a site builder when there are free ones out there.”

Azeem Ahmad:
Amazing. Literally, the audience can’t see but I’m just nodding going, “This is gold.”

Azeem Ahmad:
Speaking of the audience, if they are listening to this and wondering how they could find out more about you, connect with you on social media, where can they find you, Riley?

Riley Hope:
I’m actually redoing my site, but it will be back up November 1st. That’s rileyhope.com, R-I-L-E-Y hope.com. And then, on Twitter my name is spelled wrong but it’s R-E-I-L-L-Y hope13, and I am on Twitter all the time.

Azeem Ahmad:
Amazing. Yeah, fantastic. From me to you, this is sadly the end of the episode. But, what an episode it has been. I’m really looking forward to editing this back, and just piling through the show notes and making a ton of my own notes. All that’s left for me to say, Riley, is thank you so much for being a guest. Thank you so much for being an incredible guest, I should say, sharing so much knowledge. I have found this valuable, I am positive the listeners will find it valuable, too. So a huge, huge thank you for being awesome.

Riley Hope:
Awesome. Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed this.