The Internet as we know it could face some dramatic changes if FCC chairman Ajit Pai gets his way. Pai has been deliberate in his efforts to dismantle net neutrality rules previously set up to protect a free and open internet. This move could create a myriad of unintended consequences for small businesses--particularly those who generate business opportunities through their search engine visibility.

In the United States alone, Google leads the search engine market with 63 percent of all online users, opposed to the next leading engines, Microsoft sites (22.8 percent) and Yahoo (11.7 percent). But, let's say your internet service provider were to strike a deal with Yahoo.

Now, without net neutrality protections, whether you like it or not, Yahoo is your only high-functioning search engine option. This seemingly unlikely scenario could become a reality, and it would unleash layers of complexity on search engine optimization (SEO) for small businesses.

The Fast Lanes Scenario

By rolling back certain net neutrality provisions, internet service providers (ISPs) could profit by giving premium, higher speed access to websites willing to pay up. This scenario could rock search engines, as the difference between a second or two of a search's upload time could have a substantial impact on users' search engine preferences. In fact, Google found that slowing search results by just 4/10ths of a second would reduce the over three billion searches per day by eight million.

Considering the key role site speed plays in determining a site's search ranking, this pay-to-play system could also allow companies with big money the chance to outrank and outperform smaller local and national shops competing for business. For example, this scenario could put competing with Target or Walmart in local searches seemingly out of reach for smaller retailers lacking the resources to operate in the same ISP fast lane.

Now, more than ever, it's important for small businesses to fully optimize their sites for speed and overall user experience. In preparation for a fast lanes scenario, it's crucial for organizations to set up regular monitoring and reporting on their site's speed and to have an active developer on hand to optimize speed and promptly address issues that could hinder the user experience.

The Pay-for-Access Scenario

Beyond fast lanes, a hypothetical system of pay-for-access sends chills down the spines of net neutrality proponents. Cable TV subscribers are accustomed to the tier systems offered for various cable plans: basic, deluxe, exclusive, etc. Now, imagine ISPs rolling out such packages that would effectively block users from accessing certain sites, including search engines.

Let's say Google inks a deal with several ISPs to be included in the "basic" plan, and for those not paying for the "deluxe" plan, Google becomes the standard, even for subscribers who previously preferred Bing. That might be simple enough from an SEO standpoint, given that most digital marketers make Google rankings a primary focus anyway.

Here's where it gets interesting: Considering all of the local and regional ISPs throughout the country, companies would have to understand the dynamics of the ISPs in their target market to understand their target market's level of access to each search engine. If you're a small business and you've spent years building your Google SEO--but a local area ISP now has Yahoo dominating a portion of your market--your overall search visibility could significantly fall off.

As a small business owner, it's important--if not vital--to have a basic understanding of the policies guiding net neutrality and how these proposed changes may impact your online visibility and success. Optimizing your site for performance now, rather than waiting for the new rules to go into in effect, is the best way to guard your search ranking against these changes.

By educating yourself and acting on these nuances, or by seeking the help of an expert, you can protect or even enhance your search visibility as we move into a changing SEO landscape.