First it was keyword stuffing. Then link building. Then cloaking and alt tags and text links in footers. And now videos and infographics...

It's no wonder that most small-business owners are skeptical of the latest and greatest SEO and SEM strategies.

Here's another in my series in which I pick a topic and connect with someone a lot smarter than me. (There's a list of previous installments at the end of the article.)

This time, I talked about search engine optimization and marketing with Wil Reynolds, founder of SEER Interactive, an SEO, SEM, and analytics consulting firm.

The topic: What Reynolds calls real company sh*t.

Let's start at the beginning. What does real company sh*t mean?
Here's what happens with SEO and SEM. Most firms think about what SEO does instead of thinking about what the small-business owner needs and what marketing can do to meet those needs.

Potential customers are out there searching. I need to be found by those customers.

But more important, I have to determine how to best connect with my target audience. I can either play games with links and keywords and fancy "strategies" or I can think like an effective marketer: I can engage, I can stand for something, I can share my expertise and my data. In other words, I can do real company sh*t.

But all that takes time. It's tempting to go for the "we can get you on Page One in a matter of days" pitch when I'm desperate for sales.
I prefer to think of it this way: The real goal is to achieve the searcher's mission.

But most people only focus on how they rank. That's how 90% of the SEO world thinks. Most SEO firms say, "Hey, we'll get you the eyeballs, but it's your job to convert them."

From the time I started my company, we tracked leads all the way to conversions. Smart companies realize they don't pay their bills with rankings. You can't pay the rent by ranking No. 3 for the keyword lighting.

You aren't doing your job unless the traffic you generate, either for your clients or for yourself, leads to a purchase.

That's not what a business that worked hard to hit the first page of Google wants to hear.
Look, many people took major shortcuts. Say I sell furniture. My SEO firm may have hired someone to write a lot of low-quality content so my business could "rank" well for living room furniture.

That ranking then drove people to a crappy website. When you look at the page, there's only one photo, and it's not even of a living room. If I'm looking for a living room, I might have landed there, but if the content doesn't connect, who will actually use it, much less share it?

No one. It's useless.

But a ranking is easy to understand, which makes it a popular measurement tool.
And maybe that's why for the past 10 to 15 years, SEO firms have gotten away with delivering high rankings instead of results. With recent Google updates, some firms are going out of business because their "performance" was built on a house of cards.

I look at them and think, How long did you think you would be smarter than the hundreds of Ph.D.'s Google can throw at this? Why would you base your livelihood on the premise that you would be able to outsmart the very smartest people in the industry?

OK. So where do I start?
First, don't try to change customer behavior.

When I was 22, I sat across from the VP of marketing for Mercedes. Tons of people were searching for used luxury convertibles. He said, "I'm not going to use that term on my site. I'm going to use the term pre-owned, and I'll spend millions to change that behavior."

And Mercedes did. Nobody searched for pre-owned back then. Now they do.

Most small businesses don't have the budget or the patience to change search behavior. Start by finding out what people are searching for, and write content and develop assets for those terms.

That means spending quality time with the keyword tool.
There's a much easier way.

Just stop hitting Enter when you search on Google and let autocomplete show you what people search for. That lets you think in terms of how customers seek answers to their problems--not how you want to present what you do.

For example, type hardwood flooring and don't hit Enter. You'll find that people search for types, installation, cost, prices, options, nailer, tools--that's a quick guide to developing the content people want.

You'll be surprised by what you learn. Say I type our brand name; I see people are looking for job postings, for reviews. So why wouldn't I put those out there?

Go where cows are already grazing. Why create content people don't want to read or consume?

I tried that with a couple of keywords, and sometimes the results look odd.
The autocomplete results should appear in the order of search volume. But there are caveats. If I type running shoes, the fourth result is running shoes Philadelphia.

I know there aren't more people searching in Philadelphia than in, say, New York. Google throws in local results from time to time, so use some common sense.

Also, your previous searches can sometimes show up at the top, so be careful that what appears is not just what you've typed before.

And here's a little trick: Usually Google only shows four results, but it will show up to 10 if you turn off Google Instant in your Preferences.

That's pretty slick. But I can still run out of ideas pretty quickly.
Try adding how do I or how to to your search terms. Maybe it's how do I fix or repair or delete or add or purchase--play with practical terms that let you get into the mind of the searcher. The key isn't to decide what content you want to create; the key is to figure out what your audience wants and create content to meet its needs.

Take what you do. Type how do ghostwriters in Google and don't hit Enter. A number of results concern the cost of ghostwriters, how ghostwriters get paid, etc. If you want to meet the needs of a large number of potential customers, you should provide content that addresses those issues.

OK. So I know what customers are looking for. Now I have to create the actual content. For most small businesses, that's easier said than done.
Find people who are experts--and who really care.

Some of those people hang out on message boards. (If you don't know about the message boards in your industry, try searching powered by and top posters and your keywords.)

Or check out social media sites. Maybe someone on Flickr posted a number of related photos. Contact them and say, "I saw your awesome photos. Would you be interested in creating content for us?" You'll be surprised by how many incredible people will jump at the chance to share their knowledge.

They already love to talk about your industry. Let them help you truly connect with your audience.

How do I know what type of content to create?
Again, it's common sense. If I want to learn how to tie a tie, I'd rather watch a video. I don't want to read 15 paragraphs of instructions. But if I'm searching for B2B software, then video is definitely not the right tool.

To find out what works for what you want to accomplish, see what Google says. If two of the top seven results are videos for how to tie a tie, then video might be the place to be. See what's already working.

The key is never to get pigeonholed. Don't automatically think, We need more infographics or We need more tweets or We need more videos.

Think about the best medium to solve the searcher's mission. In this case, their needs matter--not yours.

Check out other articles in this series: