Sign on barn "Giants Beware"

If you have a small business – particularly a local brick and mortar business – you may have found yourself wondering how you can ever hope to compete with the ‘big guys’.  Large, national or even multi-national organizations can afford to invest millions of dollars into their website, and may have hundreds of staff members to do their bidding.

So how can you, as a small company with only a few staff (or less), ever hope to compete?

When you think about it, the odds are clearly stacked in the favour of the site that already receives a lot of traffic. Established sites that have already built up an large readership and social media following are at a clear advantage; they have the ability to easily drive traffic to their site through their email list, RSS subscribers and fans and followers. Because more people are seeing their content, they receive more links to their site, meaning increased search engine rankings.

Meanwhile, think about a small ‘mom and pop’ site: Perhaps new to the net, it’s a long, slow struggle to build a following and a readership. Few people see the content that gets posted, meaning few inbound links. Add to this a small budget and limited resources to commit to online marketing, and where does this leave you?

Doesn’t this doom newer, smaller websites to almost certain failure?

In a recent Google Webmaster video, Matt Cutts tackles this question and more. The reader question that inspired this video is as follows:

How can smaller sites with superior content ever rank over sites with superior traffic? It’s a vicious circle: A regional or national brick-and-mortar brand has higher traffic, leads to a higher rank, which leads to higher traffic, ad infinitum.”

Click play on the video below to see what Cutts has to say.

Let’s take a closer look at his answer, and talk about exactly how you – as a small business owner – can actually have a chance of competing with the big guys.

The Premise: Larger Sites Rank Better

Cutts starts the video by challenging the very premise of the question: namely, that large sites always have the upper hand when it comes to rankings.

He argues that this assumption simply isn’t true, as smaller sites have the ability to be more agile and more responsive; this means they’re often able to implement new ideas faster than the larger, “lumbering” sites.

So, while a larger site may have the distinct advantage of having a higher traffic, a built-in audience and a team of dedicated employees, their response to algorithm changes or other industry changes tends to be far slower.

He goes on to give historical examples of small sites that have taken on an industry giant: for instance Facebook taking on the then-industry leader MySpace (hard to believe now, isn’t it?)

He says, “All these small sites have often become very big…because they do a better job of focusing on the user experience, they return something that adds more value.

So, how does he posit that small sites should go about doing this? Fortunately, throughout this video, he gives indications of ways small sites can increase their rankings and traffic. While he doesn’t flesh out any of these ideas, he does allude to a number of key ideas that small sites should focus on.

 A Framework for Growth

While the contents of this video aren’t exactly earth-shattering, they do provide a good reminder for how small businesses can compete online. Let’s take a look at some of the ideas he touches on, and how you can implement them in your own business.

1. Have superior content.

The original question that sparked Cutts’ response assumes that the smaller website’s content is superior. So, what does this mean exactly? What areas should website owners focus on to ensure their content is ‘superior’?

In a Webmaster article on creating quality content, Google gives us an overview of what they’re looking for:

  • Produce content primarily for readers, not for the search engines
  • Don’t deceive your readers (or the search engines)
  • Make your website stand out by creating content that’s unique, engaging and different from everything else out there

These are very basic guidelines, but they give site owners a good foundation for approaching any SEO or content marketing strategy.

2. Focus on a smaller area or niche (at first).

As Cutts reminds us, most large sites started off small. The trick, he says, is to start off dominating a smaller niche, and then work your way up to a larger, more competitive niche.

For instance, let’s say your goal is to rank highly in the food niche, or even the gourmet food niche. You’re unlikely to be able to compete with international or even national brands dominating this niche – at least at the outset.

Rather than trying to be the ‘big fish in a big pond’, start off as the ‘big fish in the small pond’. This will mean concentrating on a smaller, less-competitive niche; perhaps gluten-free gourmet food or gourmet food on a budget. Do some research to find out which niches are underserved, and then attempt to provide the best, most in-depth content on this topic.

Cutts mentions focusing on making sure your content is:

  • Of superior quality to that of your competitors
  • More insightful
  • Looks deeper at the issues

This doesn’t mean you need to stay small. What it means is that as you start to see your rankings rise and your credibility increase, you have a better shot at going up against the ‘big guys’; because you are a big guy!

3. Recognize that it’s going to take time.

Cutts talks about how small sites become big sites over time; this means that except in very rare cases, your journey from relative-anonymity to search engine domination may be a long one.

Two comments in particular stand out to me in this regard:

Whatever area you’re in, if you’re doing it better than the other incumbents, then over time you can expect to perform better and better and better.”

“It’s going to be hard at first.”

Site owners would do well to remind themselves that SEO is and always has been a long-term endeavour, not a quick fix.

Unlike in the pre-Panda era, getting a page to rank isn’t simply about using all the right keywords in the right way. Getting your site to rank highly is going to mean establishing yourself as a trusted subject matter authority, and this is going to take time.

For more info on Panda and how you can get your content to rank highly in 2014, see my post Softer Panda Update Coming: Good News for Small Businesses.


When it comes down to it, your main goal should continue to be providing the best possible content that serves the needs of your niche, industry and audience.

As you create content and build your online presence, ask yourself questions like:

  • What can I offer that’s different than everyone else?
  • What topics can I cover that aren’t being adequately addressed elsewhere?
  • What problems are my customers struggling with, and how can I help solve them?
  • What unique insights do I have that can make my content unique?

When you stop thinking of SEO and rankings as less of a competition, and more as a yardstick for measuring who has the best content, you start to get better at focussing on what really matters: your customers.


Do you ever feel overwhelmed by competing with the ‘big guys’? What can you do differently right now to shift your focus back to your customers or clients?


Image courtesy of Woepies under CC 2.0

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