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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.

Building Traction with Search and Social Media Visibility

 

Over the last few months I’ve seen an interesting cross section of startups to large brands and marketers to developers that are all running businesses. There has been one thing that ties all of these people together, and that is gaining traction and visibility to your website or business online.

If you are a large brand, you already have that visibility, but it is hard to continue to be nimble and build quickly, therefore, you are typically left behind. While startups run into a different kind of problem, they are able to create cool cutting edge products, but, does anyone see these products? Many times, they are not visible and have no traction. I’ve talked to a number of developers, product guys, and “startup dudes” that all run into that problem. The reason being:

People don’t realize that just building a great product is not going to bring you buzz, traffic, or growth, it doesn’t work without visibility.

So, what do you do to solve this problem? There are a few things that you can do if you are a startup or your just a humble guy trying to make a living off a website that you own.

Search Visibility

SEO seemed like such a 4 letter word a few years ago. And, lately I’ve had interesting conversations around getting traffic in general, where I’ve been the SEO Evangelist, talking about how targeted and the high ROI of Search Traffic. It’s been exciting talking people and businesses that understand or are beginning to understand the importance for Search Visibility.

Creating Search Visibility is created by building Search Friendly websites that are authoritative to a given Search Engine.

How do I know what people are looking for?

A lot of people jump into SEO and try to build sites and throw popular phrases into h1’s, titles, etc. It’s important to understand the industry you are in and do the research that is required to know what it is people are searching for, this is called keyword research. For example, the knowing that people search for “cars” rather than “automobile.” (yes, I know that’s a crude example, but, you get the point!). SEOBook has a Free Keyword Research Tool to do this for you.

What is a Search Friendly Website?

A search friendly website is a website that is built so that a Search Engine will index and crawl their content, while adding importance, relevance, and authority to that sites content. Many times organizations will make mistakes by building a flash site or an Ajax site that is entirely unable to be indexed or crawled by a “search engine spider.” There are tips and tricks on on how to build Ajax SEO Friendly websites out there.

Creating authority is the key to visibility!

At the end of the day, no matter how much you’ve researched the keywords and how great you’ve built out your site so it is search friendly, you need external links. Without links to your site from external resources, you will not rank nor get search traffic, bottom line. Getting links isn’t an easy job either, it is the crux of the SEO problem. (i.e. It’s why we get paid the big bucks!)

Building links is an interesting mix of many different cross-functional skills. Whether it is the sales pitch to websites asking for links, the biz dev angle of partnering with other sites or buying links (while, I would NEVER condone that, wink wink!), or the art of building buzz around your content, product, or service through the Social Web.

Social Media Visibility

Ah, Social Media, the buzzword amongst all buzzwords across the web now at days, it’s amazing how much it is talked about. Amazingly enough, Social Media has become a part of the general web presence and we are moving away from it being a piece of the business, so to speak, but rather, the a fully conversational and connected Social Web.

Okay okay, I’ll get to the point: Getting visibility via the Social Web is done by being conversational, engaging, and invoking emotions.

Social Media news sites like Digg

Creating content that creates a conversation around a particular topic, whether it is hilarious, sad, resourceful, etc. Creating content like this is all about invoking the emotions. You want to create content that a user is going to want to Digg. You want to have a page that is going to make someone stop while “stumbling” through your site. But, it doesn’t stop there is still another really important factor of gaining visibility:

If influencers within the Social Media space do not know about your content, then guess what, it is not going to be made visible. People and the masses follow the influencers (and I’m not just talking about twitter) by watching them and seeing what they are talking about, they create the “water cooler conversations.” It is similar to Search in that you need to build a site that the search engines can not only see, but is authoritative.

Create conversations and engagement about your brand

Remember those conversations that I talked about, well, pay attention, because the conversations are happening all across the Social Web. But, you can do things to create those conversations and create engagement that is tied to your brand or your site.

Be insightful, engaging, and provocative when creating a conversation

Don’t be a feed, creating a twitter account and throwing your RSS feed is not participating in the Social Web, it’s a feed and nothing else. You want to create a conversation, think of ways that you can create conversations about your brand. If you are a sports site, talk about upcoming events, like the NBA Draft. If you are a political opinions site, then you might want to ask questions on the Social Web about legislation and elections.

When you create conversations and people are engaging with you and your brand, then you are essentially creating visibility.

The Visibility of Trends

Since moving more into the Publishing and Media side of the business from E-Commerce and Product Centric websites, I’ve learned a ton around insights around trends. Understanding trends gives you insight into the topics that are “buzzing” around a certain category or vertical. You can use a tool like Google Insights to give you that knowledge.

So, you’re sitting there going, “great, who cares what is buzzing!?”…fine
, you probably aren’t. That said, this is extremely important to understand, because, creating content around these trends can create the Search and Social Media Visibility needed to grow your business.

Don’t be good, be GREAT!

Remember, your product or content will not survive on it’s sheer awesomeness (even though I’m sure it is!). Make sure that you are considering the visibility of your product and content: ONLY THEN, can your Product and Content be truly considered GREAT!

Startup Mistakes: Just launched my site, now I need SEO

I have been in SEO and Internet Marketing for some time now and I can’t tell you how many sites I have worked with or seen that have come to me after launch and said “I need SEO now!” Heck, I was even victim to that when I was tasked with my first major web project. I worked on getting a site built, did all the research, but didn’t think about SEO or Internet Marketing until after the fact, and it really was much more painful that way.

The pain of launching a site and then worrying about Internet Marketing efforts is because of the affect on time, money, resources. Also, you take away from great opportunities that are out there for startups in the form of buzz. Building marketing strategies into your product is ever more critical in today’s internet marketplace. (I’ll stick to SEO on this post to keep a unified theme, but minor semantic tweeks would really speak to entire Internet Marketing strategies.) That said, understanding the mistakes that people like myself have made in regards to SEO will help you to learn and build strategies for obtaining search traffic when launching a new site.

Time is money: You’ve just built your site, you’ve launched, and now you want to start thinking about SEO. The problem is, all that up front work like site architecture is going to have to be re-done, which puts you behind and could effect your bottom line. Time truly is money and in this case, it is a direct correlation.

Engineering efforts and resources: Just as we mentioned in the last example, there are occasions where sites launch and the entire site now need to be re-architected to accomodate SEO. This basically means that you are stopping all your new product development and possibly monetization efforts in order to build in elemetns that should have been done from the get go.

The pre-launch and launch buzz!: YOU JUST LAUNCHED your site and generated buzz (crosses fingers, hopefully!) to your startup through mentions in sites like Mashable, Techcrunch, etc. Also, news in the form of publicity and press releases are also an opportunity at gaining momentum on your SEO efforts. If you had your hands on keyword research, created a theme around your site, and had a strategy for external links from all these “news” outlets, you could have turned leveraged some “Buzz Marketing” and turned it into SEO (more specifically Link) Juice.

When launching a site it is so easy to get caught up and not think through all the opportunity available to you with SEO. Don’t let that happen to your site and think through how you can build SEO and Internet Marketing into your site launch. Save yourself time, money, and effort and use the new product buzz to your advantage by helping you acquire traffic through SEO.