SEO remains to this day a four-letter word for a lot of startup founders.
It hits the trifecta of everything a founder is likely hoping to avoid in the early stages of starting a business:
- It’s time-consuming to do it right.
- It can take a long time to start working at scale.
- And while the basic principles are simple (technical implementation, content strategy, link building, easy!), it’s far more nuanced than spending budget on something like Facebook ads and calling it a day.
- (Bonus editor’s note) It’s also really hard to know whose advice to trust in an industry with a *ahem* reputation.
Seen below: Six months of hard work taking way too long to pay off.
But still, the potential of reaching audiences that are searching for the exact keywords and phrases that represent the products and services a business offers is irresistible.
So, with that in mind, when is the best time for a startup to be thinking about SEO?
The frustratingly simple answer is: As soon as you plan on launching a website that tells the world you exist.
Simply put, it’s far better and in the long term less painful to set up your search engine optimization strategy correctly when you’re launching than it is to get a year or two down the road and have to correct a bunch of avoidable mistakes.
Great, so then what are those mistakes?
First, let’s talk about technical implementation
It has never been easier to get a website up and running. Pick a CMS, write a few blurbs of copy about what it is your company does, tweak the design a bit, add a picture of your beautiful team to the About Us page, and voila, you’re open for business!
But wait, do you have crawlable site architecture? Are all of your TITLE and H1 tags optimized? Should you put your blog on a subdomain or in a subfolder? Should you even blog? Have you successfully set up HTTPS? How about if you launch a site in React and Google et al struggle to index your content because even in 2020 search engine crawlers struggle with .js? Did you remember to remove “noindex”? Have you checked Google Search Console to make sure their crawler is indexing the site correctly? How SHOULD Google even index your site? Are all those warnings you’re getting in your inbox things you need to pay attention to? Is Google Analytics actually capturing traffic data or is the number of visits to your site each day really zero? Can you change URLs now that you want to edit the slug? Should you just delete pages on your website you don’t want anymore or redirect them somewhere? Where should you redirect it? The list goes on…
The good news: most of the above can be solved fairly quickly, ESPECIALLY when you’re thinking about it early on. Reviewing a trusted technical SEO checklist will have almost any technically-minded person able to fix glaring issues in a matter of hours or, at worst, days. Here are some of our favorites:
- Moz: How to Find and Fix 14 Technical SEO Problems That Can Be Damaging Your Site Now
- Ahrefs: A 16-Step SEO Audit Process
Second, let’s talk about content strategy
Let it be known, this is not (yet) a suggestion to start blogging five days a week, spending hours trying to reach 1,500 words per post. But what is important is to make sure the pages you do have are given the opportunity to shine with optimized content.
Here are some key things to focus on when thinking about search engine optimized landing pages as a part of your early content strategy:
Don’t try and kill two birds with one stone: It’s rare these days to see a broad-focused landing page rank competitively. Let’s say for an example you launch with a homepage targeting a bunch of different keywords. It’s unlikely, especially as a startup, that you are going to compete with broad target keyword focuses on one single page. If you want to rank for five unique keywords or phrases, it’s probably best to create landing pages and content for those five different keywords.
This isn’t to say it’s appropriate to target synonyms with different landing pages, but rather thinking about distinct use cases and how you might build a landing page for that type of customer. This will give you the opportunity to use relevant keywords to target their searches.
Go after the competitive keywords, but don’t ignore the less competitive ones: Another thing startups do a lot at first is they’ll launch with a homepage that targets the most competitive keyword in their space, because that’s where the search volume is. This is a great goal, and it never hurts to perhaps set the homepage up to compete for something like that in the long run. But there is merit in targeting the “long tail” search terms, things that the big brands might not be targeting, in order to get organic traffic flowing to the site earlier.
Imagine for a second you want to rank for “CRM software.” That’s going to be so much more competitive than instead building three or four separate landing pages targeting distinct, variable versions of that head term. What about instead, you thought about longer tail terms like “CRM software for small businesses,” or “CRM software for insurance agents,” etc.
Google keywords and phrases you want to rank for and review what’s ranking: One of the best ways to get a sense for what types of content works for search engine optimization is to simply search the phrases and keywords you think your brand should be ranking for and poke around on the sites that show up in those first five spots. It’s an easy way to get a sense of the type of effort you’ll have to put into your own content.
If you’re thinking, “Wow, that sounds like a lot of work.” You’re right, it is. But also keep in mind, with where we are in the content marketing game in 2020, if you’re not willing to put in the legwork, we can promise you one of your competitors is.
Third, it’s still all about links
Link building is probably the darkest of the dark arts when it comes to SEO. There have been rumors circulating for years that Google would love to kill off links as a ranking factor because of how messy it can be. That being said, links from other websites pointing at your website are a powerful signal, acting as a vote in favor of your site as an authoritative source.
As a new startup, this part of the equation can be tricky. There is no faster way to get a site in trouble than with bad links, and it’s still rare to see a site perform well without any good links. But knowing the difference can be confusing for most people who aren’t focused on SEO on a daily basis.
So where should you start? When we work with startups, we have seen the most success in the following areas as the cleanest and easiest links to get you started:
- Launching / seed-round fundraising news coverage is easy pickings for high quality link building. If you haven’t announced your fundraising yet, try and connect with relevant journalists and tech blogs. If they choose to write about your raise, try and ask that a link to your homepage be included in the article. This is a great way to get high authority sites linking to your business early on.
- Getting links from sites of non-competitive businesses. Think about the events you sponsor or the partnerships you create in the early days of your business. If there is a natural way to get links from these types of relationships, we recommend you do it. This will set you up with a link portfolio consisting of a bunch of highly relevant industry links, which search engine crawlers love.
- Social profiles and third-party platforms. I can hear a handful of the experienced SEOs reading this article thinking, “Actually, Rob, links on most social platforms are nofollow and thus worthless.” This is a bad mindset when it comes to links, and suggest all clients claim all possible social profiles and link back to their main site from them (Twitter, YouTube, Medium, etc.). I guarantee these links help build the overall authority of your site as they help the appearance of your company as a real, living, breathing business.
I’m not going to reinvent the wheel here, because Moz has already written the best guide to link building that avoids making me feel like I have to wash my hands after reading it. This is 100% required reading for anyone looking to dive a bit deeper into building their site’s authority. Again, if you’re looking at it thinking, “that’s way too long,” I promise at least one of your competitors has read it.
The key takeaways here: There is a lot of benefit in thinking about and executing on the above SEO strategies early. It takes time for SEO to start working, but once it does it’s a powerful and reliable marketing channel.