Search Engine Optimization For Startups
SEO is short for Search Engine Optimization, sometimes referred to as organic search. This is where we look to increase the amount of traffic we get to our web site, and specifically look to get the type of traffic we want. There are a lot of sites out there - and even more people looking at sites. Having a site that gets people who want to buy our product is a huge part of the success many a startup sees at the top of their marketing funnel. In this article, we’ll look at getting higher natural search results but not jump into paying for ads or other forms of display advertising.
There are a lot of books, guides, pages, and courses out there to help guide us to having a page that jumps up in rankings. The tactics change quickly, but the strategies remain pretty constant after 20+ years of emerging technology. The most important strategy: Content. Bill Gates said it best in the title of his 1996 Essay “Content is King” and then a couple of Stanford students Sergei Brin and Larry Page added high quality links back to a site as a part of the strategy a little later when they created Backrub, named after those links. They would rename that graduate student project to Google (which they ironically thought through in a building named after Gates).
Content and Links
So content and links. Search engines index these and then use machine learning (original using an Eigen matrix) to match search queries with content that matches what people search for, ranking the information using complex algorithms that are mostly focused on the content of sites and the links that point to and from the site. The more links and the more content specific to the search terms we want to be found for, the higher our listing. Simple.
Well, simple until you get into the mechanics. Then it’s ever-changing and anyone that thinks they truly know what to do in order to maintain high listing is just kidding themselves. Although, if we stay true to the strategies, we have a good shot at maintaining high rankings when each round of changes happen. Given that search engines like Google and Microsoft’s Bing have constantly evolving algorithms making the site easy to crawl and user friendly is really where the rubber meets the road.
Define The Audience
We can use terms like “cohort” or “persona” but we want to be clear about who our target customer is. When we said “type” of traffic earlier in this article what we meant are people in the target audience. If we’re selling a piece of software for a given industry, this would be the people who would actually buy or influence the decision to turn them into a customer.
We can be as specific as we want when defining an audience. Some things to think about are the type of company, the job title, and how the audience uses the web to find content. From there, we can establish some goals for how we want that audience to interact with our sales and marketing efforts, defining a customer journey through the lens of the site.
Define The Goal
SEO is constantly changing and requires work to maintain rankings. So why do it? That’s going to be different for every organization. And the more we can define that, the more we can tailor the flow of the site to achieve those goals. “We want more customers” isn’t really specific enough here. Instead, let’s get a little more depth and be deliberate about the journey the person searching for content should take on becoming a customer.
Here are a few common goals:
Sales: Capture a lead for sales using a contact form for nurturing or a demo
Downloads: Download a piece of software (e.g. direct to an App page on Apple or Google) or download gated content (e.g. a white paper)
Direct Purchase: Buy a piece of software or service
Email signup: Capture a lead for nurturing (e.g. to sign up for a newsletter)
Phone calls: Have a potential customer call to make an order or get more information
Local: Get people to visit our location
Once we understand what we want from the site, we can start mapping the journey from content people search for through to beginning the journey to become a customer.
If knowing your audience’s intent is one side of the SEO coin, delivering it in a way search engine crawlers can find and understand is the other. In this guide, expect to learn how to do both.
The Call to Action
Once a person finds our site, we want them to follow a journey. That journey might be going from reading a blog post to viewing our pricing page and then to signing up for a demo. Or the journey might have a number of other steps. We’ve gotten them to our site amidst the billions of other pieces of content out there and now we want to help them on their path to becoming a sales lead, downloading an app, or signing up for a trial.
Each piece of content then needs a call to action to the next leg of the journey. At the end of each blog post, we can add a simple paragraph pointing visitors to the next piece of content to read or directing them to click a button like “Request a Free Quote.” The form or page is then the next leg of the journey. All the crawling, ranking, and indexing isn’t going to do us much good if we don’t tell the visitor what we want them to do next.
There are tons of tiny robots out there called crawlers. These crawlers don’t really care about our call to actions, audiences, or goals. Instead, they read the content on our site and put the content into a database, indexing the content by parsing out headers, page titles, text, tags, URLs, links (incoming and outgoing), a site map if we have one, and anything else the crawler can get access to. Without doing any work other than making sure the site is available to crawlers, we’ll naturally start showing up on searches, although probably pretty low in the order of results displayed in the beginning.
The more links that point into our site and the better our site is, the higher our rankings in those search orders will be. Keep in mind that the reason we all love the big search engines is that when we search for content, we get good results. We want that from our site. That’s why we use headers and tags (which we used to call keywords) to help further define what our site is about.
We don’t want to exclude searches. But it’s better to have 10 people come to our site and click a button to buy a product than to have 100 people visit our site and only have 1 buy the product. The way we do that is to make content relevant to people who we want visiting our site and make it clear what we want them to do. We provide that clarity by writing relevant content and then optimizing that content using headers, tags, categories, etc. And by having sites in the same field or topic link back to us.
One way that search engines display what crawlers find is SERPs, or Search Engine Results Pages. These are more dynamic forms of search results that show answer boxes. We’ve all seen these when we search for sportsball scores, weather, definitions, etc. These are places where a search engine can parse content from the web in a way that the content can be displayed without someone needing to click on our site.
The reason these are important is that sites like Wikipedia, our favorite sports franchise, or IMDb will always appear in a answer box before our natural, organic content so it’s best not to worry about competing with that traffic. Instead, we focus on appearing in the top page or three for given search results we can compete with.
Research the Competition
Most of us are not going to be entering into an entirely new market. There will either be incumbents in a market or there will be other organizations adjacent to us in a market. We can use their hard work to catch up to them and hopefully get a little insight into what’s working in the market and what isn’t.
Our competitors and competitors for clicks who might be friends or partners in adjacent markets have sites. There are a number of tools out there we can use to find all the backlinks to their sites, search terms people click on to find them, pull a list of blog titles, and see what headers or text in hero images on sites are working. These can help us jumpstart our efforts. Yes, we feel we are different and special, and can add that messaging in our site - but just because we think we’re better doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pick up where they left off.
Find an SEO Consultant
Now that we can make some informed and deliberate decisions, it’s time to outsource SEO. Unless we have someone on the team that’s an SEO guru, we shouldn’t think we can do this on our own. A day or a week of time from an expert is far better than spending weeks or months trying to do this stuff ourselves (going up in rankings takes time).
The best SEO experts will come from referrals. If we have friends that have had good luck with search engines then we should ask them who helped them. We can also often find who helped adjacent companies or ones in other industries we’ve seen successful. Marketing teams are often happy to share who they worked with. And keeping those people in our rolodex may help us with hiring our own marketing experts in the future.
There are a lot of charlatans in the SEO world. Finding someone we can trust who can communicate easily and has a transparent pricing model is important. Always talk to at least 3 to 5 consultants and make sure they can show haw they’ve successfully worked with companies to achieve the desired outcomes.
Look for specific recommendations like improving page loading times, adding headers, editing headers to match search terms, putting an SSL certificate on the site, building a mobile interface, improving URL structures, adding images, etc. If there are questions about what something means or the value, simply ask. Don’t be afraid to look like a novice. If we don’t, we won’t learn.
This is important. Once they tell us what to do, completing their tasks is one of our highest priorities as a company. Building a sales and marketing funnel that works is often even more important than new features, because the revenue generated is the air our companies breathe.
Content is King
While the consultant is helping us, now it’s time to build that content. I like to start with a grab-bag of titles that match search terms with areas in the customer journey. Make content for users to read, not for search engines to crawl. We don’t want to just stuff keywords into articles. Instead, we want people to put links to our content in theirs. We want them to post what we write to social media. We want them to want to come back for more.
We know what our competitors are writing about and what’s driving visitors to their site. Now we want to provide better content! We want to be succinct and use accessible language (e.g. by reducing acronyms and complex sentence structures). We want our content to match the intent of the person search and to find ways to align that intent with good succinct answers that brand us as experts while also making a pitch to buy from us or use our services.
Think of intent as informational (looking for information on a topic), navigational (looking for more content or where to have a need met), or transactional (looking to make a purchase or obtain a good). Matching each piece of content with fulfilling one of those intents keeps visitors on our site. For example, if someone is looking for vendors in an adjacent market, we can supply them with a fairly vendor-agnostic list of great vendors. This gets them further on their journey to make a purchase while branding us as an expert in our market. But if the intent is to make a transaction (but what we’re selling) then we want to reduce the friction to do that as much as possible with a landing page to buy or get a quote straight off a page that’s been optimized to provide information about our products.
Aligning content with the intent of the person searching means understanding the journey to buy what we’re selling. And the ability to leverage SEO to capture the eyeballs of people looking for information about the types of things we’re doing is the first step - but the rankings will shoot up if they actually find what they need on our site. Anyone who captures eyeballs with clickbait without fulfilling that social contract will suffer in the long run. Always be able to answer how any content published is valuable to visitors.
Now that we have a list of articles to write, let’s block off a couple of hours a week for someone on the team to produce that content. It’s usually best to spread this across people on the team so no one gets burned out on producing content. We also want to release content on a schedule (like every Tuesday at 10am) that matches when our cohort will have time to browse the web or look for what we have to offer. We can put this into a calendar, known as a content calendar, when there’s seasonally applicable content, when content can align to events we’re participating in, and when content helps promote releases or changes to our products.
Avoid copying content from other sources, hidden text, hidden links, and cloaking (or showing crawlers something different than what is rendered on a page). Those will always come back to bite us. Instead, do the work and focus on what makes the product valuable and learn to be engaging to customers. Content generation is a muscle. The earlier in the lifecycle of our company we start training that muscle the better.
For more tips on content creation, see this post from earlier in the year: https://www.bootstrappers.mn/post/content-creation-for-early-stage-startups.
Now that we have a content generation on autopilot, it’s time to start getting people to link back to our content. There are a lot of ways to do that. In general, avoid any trickeration or link farms/schemes. Instead, make titles that are simple and relevant to a person looking for the topic. It’s also important that we make sure to stay within the guidelines of Google and Bing:
We have the list of links from our competitors and adjacent partners. We can step through that and contact each, asking them to add us to a list or write up our product. In exchange, we can offer an extended trial or free product. We should also look for net-new sources. Especially those with high page ranks.
Here, consider starting with a focus on getting social media mentions. That’s a good sign that we’re on the right track with our marketing efforts and search engines will pick these up (although a mention on a post is better). Social mentions are also validating that the product itself has legs and influencers in micro-markets are important to win over to our cause.
Notice that we put getting links last. This is because first we want to be deliberate about the content we create, how we position our product on pages, and do research about how others go about the same. We want to define the customer journey and be clear and honest about our intent. We want to guide people through the top of our funnel with concise calls to action. And we want to have an engaging presence that appeals to the types of buyers we’re looking for. Once we have all of that locked down, the links will often just need a little nudge in the right direction.
The Long Tail
SEO is one of the best marketing tools we have at our disposal. It continues to provide a return on investment long after its done. And the work we do in SEO helps us refine the search terms we may choose to buy when we get into paid search and display advertising. But organic search is more authentic, more credible, and people click on the organic results at a much higher rate than paid results. And paid search trickles off when you stop paying whereas the good content produced for organic search should be much more timeless.
SEO has other uses as well. We can use the search terms that work to close actual paying customers into the words sellers use in our pitches and they help define our product roadmap when in the hands of a savvy product team. But to get there, we need to see who is following along the journey we defined and tweak our own understanding. This means analytics. Each search engine has a great analytical engine. After all, the more they help us, the more likely we are to spend money with them.
We love to geek out on this kind of stuff, so if your startup is looking for