Search engine optimization has been a hot topic for content marketers in recent years. Google, the undeniable leader of Web indexing, is constantly changing its algorithms for what content rises to the top of search results, and attempts to cheat the system render your webpage all but invisible. These fluctuating best practices have made SEO a considerable challenge for businesses of all sizes.

Small businesses are in an especially difficult position when it comes to SEO due to their typically limited resources. However, there are a few basic tried-and-true methods that can help you adapt to the ever-shifting landscape. Here are five steps you can follow to create an effective SEO strategy.

Take advantage of analytics tools

If you want to make the search engines happy, a good first step is using the free tools they provide for website administrators. Eric Covino, president and founder of digital marketing agency Creative Signals, advised signing up for Google Analytics and Google and Bing's webmaster tools to help you understand the ins and outs of your site traffic. [MORE: How to Use Google Analytics]

"These products can help you will help you understand how your traffic is getting to you and what it is doing once it arrives," Covino said. "The insights given to you by Google Analytics help you create a great user experience, which can lead to more and more people talking about your site, sharing your content, and linking to you — all of which help with your search engine rankings. Webmaster tools give you insight into how a search engine interacts with your site. This will help you identify and fix key technical issues, which also helps your SEO."

Optimize based on results

Once you have your SEO analytics tools set up, it's important to use the data you gather from them to guide you in your strategies.

"Your ultimate goal is to grow your business through organic search," said Nathan Joynt, marketing SEO manager of e-commerce software solution Volusion. "Focus on your growth metrics and follow the trail upstream to understand what content is ranking well and performing well based on [your analytics data]. This is the content that resonates with your target audience. They like it; Google likes it; you should create more. Content that is not performing well can often be bolstered by further optimization efforts."

Build relationships, not links

Not too long ago, SEO was all about link-building — getting links to your content placed on as many webpages as possible. Inevitably, these efforts can sometimes seem forced and spamlike, which ultimately produces the opposite of the intended outcome. While strategic linking can still help your search ranking, a better strategy is building genuine relationships with key influencers in your industry.

"Good, honest, relevant recommendations of products, services and information to your potential customers from influencers in your marketplace are better than any link you might acquire," Covino said. "Treat it like a typical networking scenario. Rather than emailing hundreds of strangers per day and asking them to link to your website, find key influencers in your market and talk about how you can help each other."

Continue to read and learn about SEO changes

The best SEO strategy is to make sure you're up to date on the latest changes and basing your efforts on that, Joynt said. Follow resources like Google's blogs and Inbound.org, set up news alerts, and even consider bringing in an SEO professional if your budget allows for it.

"Your goal should be the same as the search engines: Provide the best content and the best user experience possible to increase traffic, shares, engagements and conversions," Joynt told Business News Daily. "The deeper your knowledge about the SEO business, the better you can maximize all your optimization efforts."

Don't try to game Google

Increasing your search engine ranking takes a considerable amount of time and effort, but whatever you do, don't try to cheat the system. Sneaky SEO tactics will catch up with you eventually, and your temporary rankings boost will quickly drop when, not if, you get caught. Like a bad credit score, a low search ranking will follow you around for quite some time, and you'll have to work twice as hard to regain credibility in Google's eyes.

"The quality and user experience of Google's search engine is something the company takes very seriously," Covino said. "Taking shortcuts will only hurt you. Stick to high-quality, ethical marketing practices online and you will be more likely to succeed in the long run."

Originally published on Business News Daily.