When Should Startups Start Building An SEO Strategy?

I was approached by a startup founder the other day about when to approach SEO? To say I get this question or the question of how to get started often, would be an understatement. I’ve been doing this since 2002, dating myself quite a bit, which is a really really long time. I’ve seen all the iterations from spam to “white hat” to the usability side of it, and I always come back to the same things: build a great product, have great site architecture, and create amazing content…and you’ll easily win!

Okay, I know, that’s easier said than done. Because, of that, not a lot of startup founders have the experience I’ve had when it comes to launching into building an SEO Strategy or Program, no matter the stage.

Also, I have found many of these startups have investors OR advisors telling them they need to start doing SEO right away. (And, while it does Visible Factors an injustice to say that is incorrect advice, we’re not in the business of billing, just to bill.) It’s important to think through the phase the business is in relative to the approach of SEO the company should be taking.

Sometimes just an SEO Audit is a great start

One of the things I always tell people is to get started building SEO into your product from the day you get started. When founding Eventup, it was pretty easy for me to start building in the best practices, infrastructure, and requirements to start owning certain phrases quickly, because of my knowledge and experience. But, if you or your team is not well versed, it’s best to bring someone on with this expertise to build this out for you.

An SEO Audit can be pricey, but, you know what is even pricier? Getting an audit six months later and having to re-architect your site architecture, URL architecture, and page content all over again. You’ll be paying for the audit, plus all the development costs to re-engineer a large part of the site. Plus, add in the time and effort to pert resources from product development to this.

I always recommend at least starting here so you can get the basics implemented and lay the groundwork for future endeavors around SEO.

SEO just might need to wait

Great, so now I am contradicting myself, but, I promise it makes sense. If you’re an e-commerce marketplace or content/media company, it makes total sense to get moving right away because SEO can be a big part of your growth. But, other examples like lets say a B2B company targeting restaurants, yoga studios, etc. should wait on SEO because you’re even sure if there truly is search intent out there and if people will convert based on that intent. Many SMBs are bombarded with people trying to advertise to them and other searches like “how do I get customers” are so generic you might not even generate a conversion.

Where should I start before SEO? 

Usually my recommendation here is, start testing some SEM to understand if people are actually converting. Don’t worry about the conversion rates, don’t worry about optimization of keywords. But, answer three simple questions:

  1. Can I drive people to our website and have them convert into customers or leads?

  2. Is there enough search intent and volume of phrases people are searching for to benefit the endeavor?

  3. Can we afford to invest in this for 6-12 months before seeing a considerable return?

Answering the question about conversion is especially important because it would be a calculated mistake to start driving all this traffic to the site, have a terrible bounce rate and hurt your overall SEO relevance. (Bounce rate is a ranking factor). On top of that, if the traffic now doesn’t convert, and, you haven’t solved for that, you’re going to lose  an opportunity to convert what could be a lifelong customer and your brand will take a hit. People might be averse to clicking on search results if the experience is so bad they remember it and don’t ever want to come back. Maybe less dramatic, every time they enter through search, they might bounce, which negatively impacts your SEO long term. Once the site is optimized for conversions, driving organic search traffic will be able to drive a great return and brings down eCPA.

When it comes down to search intent and search volume, this is mostly focused on primary converting terms. Things like “comfortable women’s sweaters” or “engagement rings” or even “small business website builder.” Which leads me to the last question around can you afford to invest time and energy into an SEO Program knowing filling the top of the funnel with traffic will lead to conversions and revenue.

If you have solved for the above and you know people coming to the site will convert into customers, it’s now time to think about the investment of resources. There are many paths you can veer down in order to build more traffic to fill the top of the funnel and this is where SEO can get fun due to the somewhat “free” nature of the traffic. Building content relevant to the customer profile you have can be a great way to get people familiar with the brand at any point in the customer experience.

Creating a blog with content that answers specific things your customer might be searching for and/or content they might be interested in reading about are great ways to generate traffic even higher up in the journey. Organic search allows you to keep getting the brand in front of the customers, driving impressions and one undervalued thing is the building of customer lists and audience retargeting, thus leading to lower CPA from paid channels, more customers, as well as the benefits from the organic traffic.

Create things like resource centers, help centers, content directories, among many other examples in order to create evergreen organic search traffic that people will always be searching for to answer simple questions they might have. Creating a blog with tips, tricks, DIY ideas, etc. could spark someones interest in something they’ve been looking for. And, those ideas could lead to vitality effects of people sharing that content. Being a resource is a great way to drive brand awareness, conversions, and customer loyalty without even attempting to sell your product or service, and doing this from organic search with no customer acquisition cost associated will help even more.

Just remember to ask yourself if you are truly ready to get started with SEO. It’s not a simple process, it requires a lot of time and energy and dedication by your product, marketing, and technology teams to be done right. You’re going to need to be okay with investing 6-12 months of time without seeing a return because you’re at the mercy of Google’s search engine. SEO is not like CPC traffic that you are paying for clicks via keywords or demographic targeting. SEO is holistic, requiring you to get the right phrases on the pages, with the right architecture allowing search engines to crawl and index your content, and generating authority through links. If you think of it this way, holistically, and have some patience to understand it will take time, you will almost positively see the fruits of your labor with all that juicy sweet organic search traffic that you won’t have to pay for.