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Should Your Startup Do SEO Now? The “It Depends” Startup SEO Question List

Published on: 
May 11, 2022
Updated on: 
May 12, 2022
by
Tory Gray
Tory Gray

The conversation around SEO for startups tends toward one extreme or the other; while some preach SEO as absolutely essential for early-stage startups, others dismiss it as a waste of time.  

The truth is, SEO is neither an obvious yay nor nay decision. It… depends.

There's a lot to consider when weighing the right kind of SEO (SEO strategy? Tech SEO? SEO-driven content marketing? Link building? It’s a LOT!), at the right time, and at the budget – and neither missing the opportunities NOR wasting valuable resources by going too big too early.

It's a matter of determining "what" it depends on, and that’s what brings us here today. There are specific questions that founders/startup teams need to answer to determine the right answer to fit their unique needs. 

The “SEO for Startups: Should We Do It Now?” Checklist: 

This outline is a simple view of questions and considerations about search engine optimization efforts to help get your team thinking. For more context, see each point discussed in greater detail below.

  1. Is your digital TAM mature enough to be a viable Search opportunity today?
    • Identify opportunities
    • Quantify the size of this market opportunity. Is it big enough to be a worthwhile target right now?
      • No: Focus on industry building: problem and/or solution awareness (and also brand awareness!) SEO can be reconsidered later as needed, once the market is there.
      • Yes: Proceed to step 2.
  2. How much of this market can you "own"?
    Vet your digital (and IRL) competition to see how crowded it is.
    • Competitor Identification
    • Competitor research
      • What tactics do they engage in?
      • How much of the customer funnel are they targeting?
      • How effective/successful are their efforts?
    • Answer: Is the marketplace too competitive, or are the gaps wide enough to make it an interesting target for you?
      • No, it's too saturated: You should consider starting with other channels.
      • Yes, let's do this: Proceed to step 3.
  3. What team capabilities (or budget) can you use to get it done?
    1. No, we don’t have the existing capabilities, or budget to get help: Consider focusing on marketing channels that are already "in your wheelhouse."
    2. Yes, we have capabilities OR we can afford to source them (internally or externally): Proceed to step 4.
  4. What’s your required timeline for getting results?
    1. Today. Now. Yesterday, ideally: SEO may not be for you! Like saving for retirement, it’s an investment. A worthy one, but results will take time. Consider paid search, or perhaps paid social advertising!
    2. We’re okay waiting: Proceed to step 5.
    3. We can afford to invest in marketing channels with both short and long turnaround times: Proceed to step 5.
  5. What other marketing opportunities could you engage in, and how does SEO compare?
    1. It’s an opportunity, but not a big enough one vs. other channels: Totally fair! It’s okay to return to it later, if/when it becomes the "next big" opportunity for your growth.*
    2. It’s the biggest opportunity for our brand right now: strongly consider doing SEO!
  6. Are there (or will there be) SEO problems to resolve?
    1. No, things are fine: Carry on!
    2. Yes, we are seeing organic traffic drops: well that's never fun! Probably time to get some SEO help.
    3. Yes, we have organic traffic currently are are about to engage in big site modifications: Now's a great time to talk about SEO!

*Caveat: SEO isn't all or nothing! It may make sense to engage in parts of it along your path to growth - bringing in the right elements, at the right price, at the right time. We'll cover that in Part 2: Coming soon!

Step 1. Is your digital TAM mature enough to be a viable Search opportunity today?

The first step in the process is figuring out the total addressable market (TAM) for your business – as it relates to search. 

Digital TAM simply means the sum total of “everything people search for online as it relates to your business” – your brand, your industry, and what your product/service/solution is called, as well as any “problems” your solution seeks to reduce or resolve. 

It’s the online version of your business TAM; what are potential customers searching for today, that you could potentially capitalize on via search services?

Depending on who you are talking to, this might also be called a “Keyword Universe”, or more simply, “Keyword Research.”

Knowing your digital TAM allows you to quantify the total opportunity of search marketing – paid or organic – as it exists today. It’s also the starting point for estimating how much traffic your search marketing efforts could drive, which can help you forecast the estimated ROI of your efforts.

Defining your TAM and the ROI of search efforts is doable via a dedicated search market research process. This exercise can be done via the following two-step workflow.

A. Identify your opportunities - in both:

I. “Problem” Keywords – Does your target market know they have a problem yet? 

Your ideal customers aren’t going to search for a solution if they don’t know they have a problem. 

If your target customers aren’t problem-aware (as in “no, they don’t know they have a problem”), here’s what you should do first:

Focus on branding, advertising, or industry-building. 

For example, before people adopted the use iPods over 20 years ago, they didn’t think CD players were “terrible” and started asking for digital MP3 players. No one was searching for an iPod… because they didn’t know anything about it, or the problem it solved.

Apple used advertising to show people they could carry 1,000 songs in their pockets. This made them aware and they started looking for iPods and other products like them for the first time.

If they are problem-aware (as in “yes they know they have a problem”), then searches for that issue are potentially a good place to start your SEO efforts.

II. “Solution” Keywords – Do people already have a “name” for the problem’s solution? 

A solution is whatever solves a problem — or presents an opportunity — as it relates to what you sell.

For instance, if people are dealing with jumbled workflow processes, do they know that a “workflow management {platform/tool/solution/service - whatever you sell}” is what they need?

If companies are not able to manage existing customers, are they aware that customer relationship management (CRM) software can help them? 

If your audience is aware of the solution, it may be a viable targeting opportunity for search. 

Suppose your target audience is not yet aware of a specific solution. In that case, you should focus on ranking for “top-of-funnel” keywords about the problem (assuming the answer to question #1 was a yes), so you can lead them to the solution, OR, if they are unaware of the problem and solution name, again – the focus should be on industry awareness.

If they are aware of the problem and some solutions - but, perhaps not YOUR solution (or your product - e.g. “product aware”), you may still be able to target the existing solutions, and point to your new solution as a viable alternative. 

B. Quantify the size of the market opportunity. Is it big enough to be a worthwhile target right now?

The next step is quantifying your TAM. Much like any other keyword research project where you sum up net searches across all keywords, calculating your TAM enables you better understand the market size in a quantifiable, data-driven way. It can also help you define ROI by helping you estimate how much organic traffic your efforts could realistically drive.

Based on whether the market is more problem-aware or solution-aware – and overall how much popularity and search demand there is – you can confidently gauge whether it's a sizable enough market for SEO to be a worthwhile pursuit. 

I. No: Focus on industry building

Invest in problem and/or solution awareness as well as brand awareness. SEO can always be reconsidered later as needed, once the market is there. 

II. Yes: Proceed to step 2. 

Step 2. How much of this market can you “own”?

Once you’ve taken an honest assessment of your TAM and have determined its size significant enough to make SEO viable,  the next step is to evaluate the competitive landscape. 

In this phase, the objective is to vet your digital (and IRL) competition to see how crowded it is. This involves identifying your competitors, analyzing what they’re doing, and ultimately, deciding whether the marketplace is competitively viable for your startup.  

A. Identifying your competitors

Some startup teams will already know their immediate competitors. But in some cases, real-life competition doesn’t always reflect the rivals you’re up against in the digital/search landscape. 

Using the groundwork you’ve done in measuring your TAM, look at some of your primary keywords of interest and see who’s owning the top rankings for those queries. Leveraging tools like Semrush and Ahrefs can help streamline this process. 

Screenshot of the Ahrefs Traffic Share by pages report, comparing traffic share across top pages ranking for terms related to autonomous driving
Ahrefs’ “Traffic share by pages” via Keyword Explorer (“Autonomous Vehicle Software”)

Use a combination of IRL and search-based processes to identify the top competitors in your space (again - BOTH the IRL and digital ones.) Once you’ve narrowed it down to five or so brands, the next step is to dig into what strategies they’re utilizing to achieve SEO results.

B. Research your competitors

One immediate SEO signal you can analyze, with the help of the tools mentioned above, is your competitors’ current domain authority – which is driven by the quality and volume of backlinks they’re receiving. It can also be loosely used as a popularity metric.

Screenshot of the Ahrefs SEO competitive data dashboard for the website intellias.com with a DR of 68 - making it an authoritative website
Example authoritative website, as determined by Ahrefs

For instance, if some of your top competitors are incredibly authoritative (as indicated by DR/Domain Rating in the figure above), they might have a substantial SEO edge from all the media attention (and backlinks) they’ve earned over time. 

If your startup is launching a brand new website, thereby starting from scratch with little-to-no backlinks/domain authority, then you might be at a disadvantage SEO-wise - or you maybe simply need to plan for the time/budget to overcome this barrier.

Other things to consider include:

I. What tactics do they engage in?

While this form of deep-dive can be labor-intensive, it's crucial to get a clear view of the tactics that are propelling your competitors forward. Here are a few questions to consider:

  • How is the information architecture (IA) organized throughout the site and what's being highlighted? 
  • Is there an active content strategy in place and what does that look like? Is it high-quality content?
  • How are they performing from a technical SEO perspective?

Between the site's IA and content strategy, you can also get a feel for a competitor's keyword scope and where it stands on the spectrums of short- vs long-tail and top- vs bottom-funnel (and everything in between.) Leading us to...

II. How much of the customer funnel are they targeting?

Another component worth researching is where competitors are investing their efforts across the customer funnel. Some brands emphasize casting a wide net across top-of-funnel awareness queries, whereas others focus on more granular, bottom-funnel conversion queries.

The general nature of funnel stage targeting may also vary depending on the industry and marketplace. But essentially, this research can offer valuable insight into the potential gaps and opportunities that may be worth leveraging (and where your competitors may be weak.) 

III. How effective/successful are their efforts?

Lastly, make an assessment of how good of a job your competitors are doing with both their marketing strategy… and their execution. 

In some instances, it may be obvious. Like, they’re crushing it and it shows. On the other hand, competitors might have good SEO intentions but their execution is sub-par (e.g. content is thin, poorly written, uninteresting, not ranking, etc.) 

Just like the second point above on funnel stage targeting, evaluating your competitors’ success and effectiveness (or lack thereof) can reveal where you can squeeze in and do better. Conversely, you might find that your competitors are doing an all-star job, and any attempt to outperform them will be a steep, uphill battle.

C. Answer: Is the marketplace too competitive, or are the gaps wide enough to make it an interesting target for you?

Once you’ve done your competitive homework, you’ll have a much better idea of what you’re up against.  This is a pivotal turning point in deciding whether or not SEO makes sense for your startup, at least in the near term. 

Based on your research, you should be able to answer the question: Is the marketplace too competitive, or are the gaps wide enough to make it an interesting target for you?

I. No, too saturated: You should consider starting with other channels. 

If you find that the competitive environment is dense with dominant players who are owning the SERPs, then it might be a good indication that SEO is not the best idea for your startup. Instead, investing in other market channels may be a better alternative.

(Just keep in mind that SEO is an investment channel, so much like your retirement account - you can’t wait around forever. So if it’s “eventually” important to you, come back to it later!)

II. Yes, let’s do this: Proceed to step 3. 

Step 3. What team capabilities (or budget) can you leverage to get it done?

Now that you’ve determined a competitively-penetrable TAM and see SEO as a potential green light for your startup, it’s time to figure out how your team is going to make it happen.

This step is relatively straightforward. In short, you’ll want to address the question: do we have the internal capabilities - and/or the budget - to achieve desired SEO results?

A. No, we don’t have existing capabilities or budget to support our SEO.

If it’s clear that your current resources don’t align with what’s required to be competitive, then SEO is not likely a feasible opportunity. There may be some technical SEO elements that can be efficiently covered early on a budget. But if resources are limited, consider focusing on marketing channels that are already “in your wheelhouse.”

B. Yes, we do have existing capabilities OR we can afford to source them (internally or externally)

If your startup is either equipped internally with SEO talent or is financially healthy enough to source the help via an external SEO consultant or agency, then proceed to step 4 below.

Step 4. What is your required timeline for getting results?

Unlike other digital marketing channels, one truth about SEO is that results take time. Depending on the competitive nature of the SEO space, it’s not uncommon for it to take several months (or more!) to achieve meaningful outcomes.  

No doubt, the survival and success of startups hinges on growth. But at what rate is required for your startup?   

A. Today. Now. Yesterday, ideally. 

If short-term ROI is required by your startup, then SEO may not be for you. Like saving for retirement, it’s an investment. A worthy one, but results will take time. 

Instead, consider paid search advertising and testing the conversion potential of various keywords and search markets. Or, perhaps experiment with paid social advertising and build awareness around your brand on social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.

B. We’re okay waiting for results. 

If your business is not beholden to a constrained timeline and/or investor pressure to achieve quick gains, then continue to step 5.

C. We can afford to invest in marketing channels via BOTH short- and long-run turnaround times.

Flexible startups that have both the time and resources to explore a diverse marketing mix (and are okay with extended SEO turnaround times) can also proceed to step 5.

Step 5. What other marketing opportunities could you engage in, and how does SEO compare?

For many early-stage startups, SEO is not the only avenue up for consideration. Oftentimes it’s one of multiple marketing channels that work together in attaining a greater outcome. 

Before we can make a confident decision on the types of SEO to begin with and what those strategies look like, we need to weigh the real value that SEO can provide against other marketing opportunities.  

A. SEO is an opportunity, but not big enough vs other channels.

Totally fair! Between the resources and timeline involved, SEO may not be the biggest opportunity for your startup compared to, say, paid search or social media. 

That doesn’t mean you have to write it off completely. Now just might not be the best time to go all in. It’s okay to return to it later, if/when it becomes the “next big” opportunity for your growth.

B. SEO IS the biggest opportunity for our brand right now.

The TAM is sizable. The competition is thin. You have the resources, budget, and time to make it all happen. The stars have aligned. 

Well then. You should probably do SEO. 

Step 6. Are there (or will there be) SEO problems to resolve?

Before we finish, we should quickly address organic traffic issues. Some startups accidentally - or incidentally - drive valuable SEO traffic without concerted SEO efforts - typically though doing a great job on branding and/or content marketing.

In this case, sometimes... things go wrong. Or, you don't want things to go wrong, but you are about to engage in large site changes - typically a redesign or migration - and you want to avoid issues.

A. No, things are fine.

Carry on! Nothing to see here :)

B. Yes, we're seeing organic traffic drops!

Well, that's never fun!

First things first: dig into your data to understand why that's happening, then develop & implement a plan to revolve the organic traffic issues. It's SEO time!

C. Yes, we have organic traffic currently and are about to engage in big site modifications:

Redesigns and migrations are always risky times for SEO - assuming you have existing traffic you care about retaining! In these cases, you'll want to: 

1) Understand the relative risk of the work you are doing,

2) Develop your SEO migration plan, and

3) Consider getting SEO help to ensure the process runs smoothly. (Inhouse SEOs, external consultants and agencies can typically all help.)

What's Next? 

Next, you need to figure out elements of SEO to layer in - and when! - whether you are "going big" or just "checking a few boxes".

Coming soon: Should Your Startup Do SEO Now? What, When, and How to Get Started (Part II of this series)

If you need guidance, give us a call. 😉

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