Grabbing customers’ attention is always challenging, particularly for small businesses with limited marketing and advertising budgets. Smart search engine optimization can level the playing field by allowing smaller shops to march up the search stacks on Google and Yahoo!. SEO consultant Rebecca Lieb–former editor-in-chief of the ClickZ Network, an interactive-marketing publication and author of The Truth About Search Engine Optimization–talked with bMighty about how small companies can take control of their search results.

bMighty: What opportunities are small and midsize businesses missing with search?

Lieb: Many of them simply aren’t paying any kind of attention to SEO, and they are doing themselves a disservice. Search really levels the playing field.

I was having lunch with some friends, and they were talking about a doctor they knew who was very specialized, and he has a Web page. They were saying, Why would he possibly have a Web site? The implication is, Why would he advertise to the world? The answer is, he’s not advertising to the world, he’s “narrowcasting.” The Internet has billions of channels, and users can fine-tune those channels to what they need. It’s the marketing holy grail. It’s getting the right product to the right consumer. For this doctor, it’s ideal.

It’s also how I found an acupuncturist. He has a specific practice in a specific area. If he didn’t have a Web page, I never would have found him. He also had the right keywords in his page, and I was looking for the right combination of keywords and key phrases. Content matters.

Search engines read text on a Web page, and searchers type in text. It’s all about the text. One mistake that small and midsize businesses make is to put their logo on the Web site as an image. Search engines only know the name of the image file; they can only read text. Small and midsize businesses should make sure to include the name of their business and the address if they’re serving a local audience.

How important is search engine optimization to small and midsize businesses?

Search is the second most common activity on the Internet after e-mail; 99.5% of Web users are searching. People are searching for things and will find your competitor. If I’m searching for pizza and your pizza parlor isn’t there, I’ll order from the other guy. Would you have a business without a sign out front? An unlisted number? A secret address?

But even without a Web site, your business can be found on the Internet. On the online Yellow Pages you can have a clear description of your business. You can have a map to your business. You can submit your business to relevant listing services. There are city guides and various directories–even without a Web site, you can make sure your business is included in all these vertical directories. Not having a Web site does not preclude an Internet presence. There are all kinds of ways of doing business on the Web without a domain name site–think of eBay.

But getting listed in the directories is contingent on search optimization because they all contain links and you want to maximize the search engine’s ability to find your business. Search engines follow those links, and you want your business to be listed and linked from as many of those links to increase the odds of the search engines finding you.

How should small and midsize businesses get started with SEO?

One of the first steps is keyword research. What words are people going to use to find your business? Any basic analytics package, like Google’s free Web analytics, has that information. If you have a Web-based business based on traffic, you can pay for a more expensive Web analytics tool, but anyone can benefit from Google’s analytics tool. Analytics over time is the most valuable, so you can see history and usage patterns. You can also use paid search ad tools. You can open accounts on Yahoo! or Google for free and use their free keyword research tools–it’s part of those products.

The more specific the term, the closer the searcher is to making a decision or a purchase. People are in research mode or in buying mode, and you want to optimize your site for terms those searchers use. Also, make sure it’s the terms people use and not the terms the industry use. I went searching for handles for my cabinet, and I couldn’t find anything because the industry calls them pulls. A bank might use the term “lender,” but people are looking to borrow. Think from a searcher’s perspective and what the words are that they would use.

Where can entrepreneurs educate themselves about searching?

Search Engine Watch, ClickZ and Search Engine Land all contain massive and massive amounts of free information on searching.

What about hiring a SEO consultant?

It’s a tricky question: in-house SEO vs. outsourced SEO? You can hire a professional to develop an overall strategy and build a search map and then do it yourself. It depends upon your budget, your needs and on what proportion of your business comes in through your Web site. How important is your Web site to your business? How important do you want it to be?

How can you track the results of SEO efforts?

SEO is not an immediate fix. It’s an ongoing process. I think of it as public relations. It’s trying to influence. Just like a press release sent to the media, you can’t guarantee what will happen. But you can continually refine your message and continually add fresh, new content to your site. This is why blogging has become so popular. It gives you an opportunity to continually update your site. You can also add new products, services, product descriptions, executive bios–it’s endless!

Look at how consumer patterns are changing. SEO should ideally start before you build a Web site so meta-tags and keywords are all search engine friendly. But you need to keep at it. Don’t forget, search engine algorithms are always changing, so you need to stay on top of it.

What about optimizing Web sites for video search?

Search engines are moving to universal search rather than just linking to news stories. It’s images and video also, so you’ll need a larger collection of digital assets. You need to properly name these files so they’re searchable. I’m seeing a lot of small and midsize businesses posting how-to videos. They are showing up in organic searches and in YouTube searches and in a How-To search.

If a business also sends out a press release, it could help build link equity. So search is an integral part of online and offline marketing initiatives. Just make sure the words you use in print are also on the Web, so there is a consistent message. It’s a great way to level the playing field. That’s the way a local pizza parlor can compete with Domino’s. I search for a local pizza parlor, and if I localize my search, the small local pizza parlor can show up before Domino’s.

Does mobile search change any of these rules?

There are a few game changers. A mobile Web site used to be at .Mobi, but with the iPhone things changed. Web sites can show up on mobile phones even if they’re not optimized for mobile. This is very important to local, small stores because that’s what people are searching for in a mobile environment. A small and midsize business operating in a local environment should be thinking about mobile search–a restaurant, a drugstore–making sure they’re in local guides and listings so they show up in a local search. A popular iPhone application is Urban Spoon, which shows local restaurants.

How does search level the playing field?

Local search really levels the playing field. A local hardware store on the Web and optimized for search has as much chance of being found as Home Depot. A small or midsize business just needs to make sure they have a Web presence and that they’re in local directories.