A million-dollar question for the 2020 – Can you do successful SEO with no budget?
Bootstrapped startups spend every penny wisely and when it comes to marketing, they need the smartest way to reach the maximum audience.
How do they do that?
You see… that’s my story. I started my business, and thereafter a blog, with little to no investments.
In fact, to save money I learned SEO on my own. As a result, the cost of doing SEO to get organic traffic to my blog has been zilch. I mean – it’s technically zilch, for I don’t consider the opportunity cost of doing all the work myself :).
As an entrepreneur, learning digital marketing and getting my website to rank without investing any money is one of the achievements I am really proud of.
Not getting into all the technicalities of SEO and the SEO metrics you will have to learn during your journey to the top of search results, let me cut to the chase and take you through the process.
And the process itself is rather simple – when you spend time working on SEO every week (smartly), the results eventually come; and that is the idea behind zero budget SEO.
In the rest of this article, I will introduce you to SEO techniques and how you can make use of tools that are either free or freemium to help you achieve your organic goals.
Plan of action
Most successful stories start with a plan, and this is not an exception. Regardless of your available budget and other resources, there are some unskippable steps and actions we all need to take to rank our sites.
These are the 3 main steps:
- Keyword research
- On-page SEO
- Off-page SEO
Actions that compliment the above steps:
- Competitor research
- Content writing and designing
When I started working on my blog, the idea was to rank high for optimal keywords. Optimal keyword in the world of SEO refers to keywords that get you relevant traffic and isn’t too competitive.
To undertake the arduous task of achieving zero budget SEO, I found a bunch of tools to help me reach my goals.
Which tools did I use?
There were quite a few (some of them I use to this day), and they are the ones that form the backbone of doing a zero budget SEO.
Google Keyword Planner
The oldest and the first tool to learn keyword research is Google Keyword Planner – a free SEO tool that anyone can use to search for keywords or phrases related to their products or business and find out information about those keywords.
Google Keyword Planner has two main options:
- Discover new keywords
- Get search volume and forecasts
Discover new keywords
Let’s imagine you are a company selling pillows.
Think about what an average customer who might be interested in buying pillows types into Google. One of those phrases could be “buy pillow.” If you type that in Google keyword planner, you get 436 keyword ideas related to buy pillows.
The tool gives you average monthly searches and how popular a keyword is in the market. The number of advertisers bidding for each keyword increases the cost per click (PPC), which can be a good indication of popularity.
You can download the whole list in an Excel (.csv) file with a click of a button. That helps you to consolidate all keywords in one place which you can then filter out and leave on the ones that look the most promising.
Get search volume and forecasts
Get search volume and forecasts feature allows you to see a wide range estimate, not especially useful unless you do some tricks to get more detailed breakdown (for more info refer to this guide from Ahrefs).
The feature has its utility when we intend to get into paid ads.
Another hidden gem, Google Trends, helps you find what is trending in your niche. You can explore the past and current trends in your industry on Google to search for keywords.
For this example, we’ll use the buy pillow keyword again.
As you can see, there is an interest in buying pillows throughout the year, and it’s especially relevant around the time of Black Friday, where it reaches the maximum.
The most significant advantage Google trends has over its contemporaries is that it gives you the time of year when searches pick up for any keyword.
The above feature gives you a clear cut timeline to rank around the time of year when you can drive maximum traffic. This is especially important if you plan to do any paid promotions.
In the above example (the second part of the results), we can see the searches from the top countries and some related queries that are rising in search volume.
The best way to use Google trends is to use them with a list of keywords that you made earlier using the Google Keyword Planner tool.
This way, you can see how a keyword is performing throughout the year. If you see a continuous slow decline in the keyword search volume you probably shouldn’t be targeting that keyword. With limited resources, it is better to focus on evergreen content.
That being said, free tools Google provides do not hold all of the answers. So, when I needed advanced information like keyword difficulty, I used the free version of SEMrush.
SEMrush is a powerful SEO tool that can help with most of your SEO-related activities.
However, SEMrush is a paid tool available on the freemium model, which limits your usage of the tool.
Since we are aiming for a zero budget SEO – our target is to extract maximum from the limited functionality available in the free version.
I, as a bootstrapped entrepreneur, use SEMrush to spy on the competition and see what keywords they’ve targeted and how SEO robust their website is.
I am going back to the example I gave above. One of the highest-ranked websites for the keyword “buy pillow” was Tuck.
After searching for “tuck.com” on SEMrush, you’ll see a detailed view of their organic traffic, paid traffic, backlinks, advertising, and traffic trends.
If you scroll down, you’ll see some critical SEO information concerning their top organic keywords, leading competitors, and the competitive positioning map.
As you can see, tuck.com (yellow circle on the picture) has the highest amount of organic keywords and the highest amount of organic search traffic.
You can interpret the chart on the bottom right (in layman language) as – the bigger the circle, the better they are in terms of search rankings.
You can use this tool to track the position of your website compared to other sites and see in one place how many different keywords you rank for.
Though the above tools helped to an extent, they limited my research because keyword research is a side functionality for them. For example, Google’s Adwords has a keyword planner as a tool to facilitate PPC research.
I overcame the handicap of using tools that are not pure SEO tools by using Ubersuggest, and it remains to date – my best go-to tool for zero budget SEO.
Ubersuggest (since being bought by famous digital marketing expert Neil Patel) has upgraded itself and is one of the best free SEO tools out there.
Anyways, when I started – it was just a free keyword research tool gaining popularity in the SEO industry. I used it to validate my keyword research. The tool gave you a monthly search volume, and most importantly, SEO difficulty on a scale of 1-100. The higher the number, the harder it is to rank the keyword organically.
One quality I find unique about Ubbersuggest is its “content ideas” feature.
Websites that might not be on the first page of Google for that particular keyword, but their content has been shared a lot throughout social media.
As you can see, the first result has a guide that was shared 129 000 times on Facebook. Of course, that has to do with their massive following on their Facebook page, but reading the content will give you an idea of what people like to share.
Canva is a free graphic design tool. It’s a drag and drop tool that you can use to create designs. Most of the templates are free. But how does this have to do with SEO?
Your content has to be appealing, and having great photos on your website will do that. For me, stock images didn’t work as well as original images that you can create in Canva through simple editing.
I have personally used Canva to design beautiful infographics, presentations, and other forms of visuals to get backlinks from other websites.
The great thing about Canva is that you can use it for everything. If you need a Facebook post, you don’t need to think about the size of the post. You can search Canva for Facebook posts and can design posts that fit the FB post specifications.
It’s the same for Instagram posts or stories, or even other things like business cards, brochures, flyers, and cards.
On top of everything, some people also use it to design short infographics and featured images for their blog posts.
The best tools to spy on your competition while searching on google is, in my opinion, SEOquake. SEOquake is a free SEO tool, which is a Chrome extension. It’s also available for Mozilla Firefox and Opera.
With a click of a button, you will see an SEO overview of the current page, SERP strengths, and weaknesses, keyword difficulty, internal and external links, and backlinks. You can add different parameters that suit your needs in the options menu.
Under every Google result, you will see all the SEO information you need to know to understand your competition.
Going back to the example I gave above, Tuck’s article on pillows has a proper URL, a canonical tag, the title is just a little bit longer than it should be, but that might be a change that Google has done recently.
They know about these things.
Also, it’s an indicator for you that things don’t have to be perfect. If something is optimal between 10 and 70 characters, and you have 71, you can still be on the first page of Google.
SEO tips you can follow with no budget
If you practice the things I’m about to share with you, it will go a long way in improving your search engine rankings, and it will all be for free. Just stick to them and invest at least two days every week for content creation and SEO optimizations.
- Good artists copy; great artists steal
- create original images from templates using Canva
- use free stock images from Pexels
- prioritize ranking the keywords that others are paying for
- write good content that actually helps solve a certain problem and is not a rehash of things people already covered in the past
- use Grammarly to check your content for nasty errors, be it in your ultimate guides or posts on social media
- use Ubersuggest to research what people like to share on social media (and/or for keyword research)
On-page optimization tips
- longer content is better, just ask Neil Patel
- use subheadings and lists so people can digest your content bite by bite
- use internal and outbound links in the posts you publish on your blog
- write a relevant meta title and meta description that includes the keyword
- use keywords in slugs
- name all your images the proper way, so the crawlers know what they’re about
- avoid keywords with a really low search volume and those with high difficulty
- don’t be lazy, update your blog frequently
- build websites that are fast and mobile-optimized (use mobile-friendly test from Google and PageSpeed Insights to test for both)
- check your site for broken links every now and then
As you can see, SEO can be done on a budget if you are willing to invest enough time to learn it and do what is needed. That being said, in competitive niches there might be too much work for a single person.
If you do not have time or knowledge to do all of this by yourself, consider outsourcing part of the work to a trusted digital agency. They will have access to all of the paid tools that can give you insight free tools often can’t.
Get your data straight before you invest valuable hours in SEO. As Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote in the famed Sherlock Holmes: “To theorize without data is a capital mistake.” Way to go!
Jasmeet is a founder of Lessons at Startup, a blog where he shares his entrepreneurial journey. He specializes in digital marketing and content writing. When he is not working (which is most of the time), he is either browsing google news or watching Netflix. At times, you can find him answering questions on Quora while enjoying the 7- Eleven one dollar coffee.