In part one of Should Your Startup Do SEO Now? we outlined a series of questions to help founders and teams determine whether or not SEO is the right investment for their business at its current stage. Quick Recap: despite SEO chatter coming from both ends of the spectrum, there’s no definitive, universal answer for all startups. To bring clarity to the main question, part one offers a simple, step-by-step guide that steers the complex decision-making process of whether search engine optimization efforts make sense now, or whether it should be set aside.
Here, in part two, we go one step further in navigating the multifaceted SEO process. For the teams who've decided that SEO is the right move right now, the next stages involve determining:
Of course, every startup will have its own set of answers and subsequent strategies. But the insights below should help your team prioritize how to get the "SEO ball" rolling. We've include a few choice perspectives from the Women in Tech SEO community, and others we admire in the SEO community as a whole - all about SEO for startups.
It's one thing to conclude that yes, SEO is the right move right now.
But it's another thing to know how to get started!
In addition to research and planning, startup teams need to figure out what SEO components to prioritize first, and how much time/effort/budget to plan for. They also need to sequence the right initiatives at the right time, and that's not always easy to know!
Depending on the nature of your startup, the industry it's in, and how far along your website is – certain types of SEO will make better sense than others. To simplify the process of how to get started, below we break down the most common startup scenarios and which forms of SEO will provide the greatest opportunity.
Absolutely everyone should have basic data tracking set up, at minimum.
In addition to where startups stand on their strategic timeline, certain specialized forms of SEO may be more pertinent than others, thereby requiring a focused set of priorities.
Startups are a unique operation compared to mature brands. They don’t always need to go all-in and from every angle. In many cases, they can be selective with their investment and focus on specific aspects of SEO now while waiting for a better time to pursue others.
Below are a series of SEO projects that could help startup teams bring clarity, data – and results! – to what might be termed a “lean SEO” approach.
Revisiting the digital total addressable market, or Digital TAM, and any preliminary search market research from step one/part one is a great starting place to find opportunities, identify potential customers by search query intent, and know where to begin with your SERP visibility efforts.
When TAM is vast with relevant search interests, substantial demand/popularity, and ample data, there’s usually a lot to work with. The challenge is knowing how to use this information in a meaningful way.
Here's what Crystal Carter, Head of SEO Communications at Wix, has to say about this:
"During the run up to launching a startup, the market insights that you can get from SEO research are invaluable. This can help shape your marketing plan by helping you decide which markets to target, partners to connect with, channels for publicity, social and more.
SEO benchmarking can also help you to set realistic expectations with regard to expected growth as you go into the pitches and talks with investors.
And in both cases, the SEO is helping the Startup to understand where they need to get to digitally - in order for them to reach their goals. An eCommerce app might want to make lots of money selling clothes. And an SEO would be able to look at the search data to understand what type of traffic would be required to do that and make recommendations for how that could be achieved."
We recommend revisiting this topic early and often - at minimum, every 2 years or when big changes occur in your industry.
That’s where additional keyword research and selection come into play.....
Search market sizing can be a huge launching pad for evaluating SEO possibilities. But oftentimes, additional target keyword research and data distillation is required to translate findings into actionable ideas. Pinpointing high-opportunity keyword targets requires a precise approach uncovering specific themes and data that can be applied strategically, whether that entails finding topics of inspiration for new content or optimizing a site’s architecture as a whole.
Don’t forget to consider the full user acquisition funnel when doing this work: from brand awareness efforts to key landing pages aimed at growing conversions, ensure your search marketing strategy covers all of it.
Clearscope co-founder Bernard Huang recommends this as a critical step for businesses of all sizes:
"Keyword research is the most important and most misunderstood part of SEO. You will want to find your "Goldilocks" keywords—keywords that get enough search volume, target relevant topics that will actually produce leads & business, and aren't too competitive.
I generally recommend starting with the longtail keywords (<100 monthly searches). These keywords will be less competitive and often more transactionally relevant to your business. Once you start winning some rankings there, it's a lot easier to rank for head keywords (>1,000 monthly searches)."
Again, we recommend revisiting this topic early and often - in small, everyday sorts of projects.
For startup teams in the planning phases of developing a new site (or redesigning/overhauling an existing site), leveraging SEO data can be particularly useful for informing information architecture decisions.
Juliana Turnbull, the freelance consultant known as “SEO Jo Blogs” and organizer of Search LDN and Turn Digi, underscores the importance of baking SEO into a brand's marketing during the early stages.
“Once the company is built and all the red tape comes in, it is so much harder to make changes to the website. SEO should not be added after hoping to resolve all the issues. It's like baking a cake: integrate it from the beginning. If you forget the sugar and then cover the cake in frosting after, it will still taste bad. You might just not realise it immediately as you cut that first slice.”
Blueprinting a sitemap architecture now, under the guidance of SEO, is best addressed in the very beginning stages versus put off for the future. Not only is it a lot of work to re-do a site’s navigation and content structure later on (especially if it’s a large website), but it can be advantageous in having important pages crawled and indexed sooner than later. Think of it as getting the SEO timetable started more immediately, thereby helping grow page authority over time.
SEO specialist and Women in Tech SEO member Danielle Schill underscores the importance of establishing a solid SEO foundation from the very beginning.
“In fast-growing startups, things move so quickly that it can be hard to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. After a while, you will find that you need to make significant adjustments to continue to grow organically if you haven't had a solid SEO foundation from the start. It's hard work to make these changes to the site architecture and technical aspects of a website after it has been cemented in the platforms, processes, and mindsets.”
Another box that can be beneficial to check early on is technical SEO. Priority for this depends largely on: website size, industry, and the website’s tech stack.
Tech SEO is generally crucial for large (or soon-to-be large) sites, as well as eCommerce stores (due to categories, facets, and filter navigation structures). Laying the technical foundation upfront can help prevent major problems when these matters go mishandled, such as duplicate content, wasted crawl budget, and diluted link equity.
With small content sites or service-driven sites, technical concerns are most often less problematic – though exceptions exist, mostly due to indexation and duplicate content issues. In these cases, a “mini tech SEO audit” and light implementation work is often enough.
But as your business and website grow (to having upwards of 5-10k+ pages), tech SEO becomes increasingly important as search engine accessibility starts to become a bigger challenge.
Driving this point home is Roxanna Stingu, Head of SEO at Alamy and recognized speaker at conferences like BrightonSEO, WTSFest, and DMLA.
“I find that technical SEO is needed as early on as possible, ideally before the website is built. Getting a website out there that is technically sound means you can focus on other things while traffic is ramping up. I’m including accessibility in here as well.”
For startups entering the early stages of SEO, this doesn't have to be an extensive audit. The priority here is ensuring there are no obvious bottlenecks slowing a site's roll, like robots.txt blocks and incorrect canonicals. In short, let's double-check that you aren't doing anything (or neglecting anything) potentially tragic.
Don’t forget to come back to tech SEO, as needed, as your site gets bigger & more complex, and when there are new opportunities for growth you want to explore - fun things like schema and user-generated content!
Lastly, consider bringing tech SEO into the mix for any significant traffic drops, indexation issues, pre-migrations, redesigns, etc. Whether proactive or reactive, these matters can have major SEO implications that can make or break a startup’s growth trajectory in search.
A brand’s content strategy can have many layers and forms, from topic selection to templatization. Most startups will benefit from some sort of high-quality content strategy to connect with their target audiences. SEO can be a key driver in leading that movement.
Airbnb is a prime example that went from startup to globally-recognized brand - largely supported by SEO. As part of its strategy, Airbnb crafted templatized city pages across 125k destinations, effectively servicing the many searchers seeking lodging in those areas. This templatized tactic gave Airbnb a significant competitive advantage that minimized COVID-induced friction and enabled the brand to thrive long term. (See more about this example of templatized strategic content and how to build an SEO moat.)
Like Airbnb during its initial stages of content strategy, look back to your TAM and keyword research. If there’s substantial search data supporting a wide range of topics or verticals, an SEO-focused content strategy is more than likely a no-brainer. This may include searches around your brand, too. But even in situations when keyword data and search volume is limited, there still may be opportunities worth exploring.
“Even if there is no search volume around your brand and products, you can leverage your competitors’ data in your content strategy.
Look at some of the ways in which users search for your competitors and their products, and build content around those search terms. The most common types of content you can build with this strategy will be testimonials, product comparisons, or after-purchase content.”
Lidia lays out several awesome insights for startup SEO, so be sure to check out her SEO Startup tips list for additional ideas.
Also helping us zoom out and see the bigger picture is SEO and data science manager Lazarina Stoy who provides two cents below.
“IMO content is super important, but not in the way that it’s typically perceived. There is so much opportunity for high intent (commercial and transactional KWs) but a lot of brands don’t capitalize on this. Also, many brands have the potential of a Zapier-inspired automated, scalable content systems model, but fail to capitalize on that, too.
Finally, when thinking about content, one of the best types of pages for SaaS brands that generate a lot of low-intent but super high-volume traffic are web tool pages - lots of brands fail to capitalize on this too. Caveat here is that if web tools are created the brand can hit a few key things with one effort, namely - organic link building to the tool page, and to the website, blog content for different use-cases, showcasing part of their product, free use + brand awareness + that sweet, sweet high volume organic traffic, such pages are also suuuuper great for CTAs and a % of that traffic will inevitably convert.”
As with any new business (or any new site for that matter), it's common to be starting from ground zero. Public relations (PR) is an important component in building brand awareness early on, as well as supporting social sharing, reputation, and of course, SEO.
Digital PR naturally amplifies SEO value, so it's important not to treat these channels as mutually exclusive. When PR and SEO are unified, a brand can earn visibility, backlinks, and traffic from various news publications, press releases, article bylines, guest posts, interviews, events, and other creative PR campaigns.
A significant form of SEO value that PR taps into resides in the links. For a startup launching a brand new site, link signals (which influence domain authority) help get the ball rolling faster. Think of it as creating more pathways for search engines and users to find your site.
“Link building is essential [early on…] If you have money, use a PR agency.”
In Lidia's post, she emphasizes PR as a way to cultivate link equity. She underscores a key point that “the number, quality, and relevance of the links a website receives is one of the many ways search engines measure how trustworthy and authoritative your site is.” For early-stage ventures starting from scratch, the site’s link portfolio may be non-existent.
Following Lidia's lead from her post, she shares a few ways startups can drive SEO value from PR campaigns:
We would also add that there’s value to be gained by participating in events, conferences, sponsorships, and other meaningful, real-world PR opportunities. Genuine connections can often translate to more authentic forms of traffic, mentions, and links – all of which can support SEO.
SEO specialist Gwen Drieduite weighs in with her perspective on whether SEO or other forms are marketing may be the best route to take.
“If it comes down to, after launch, putting your money into either SEO or another marketing services [...] If your SaaS services are really niche or new to the market with non-existent search volume, it might be better to focus first on paths that convert more easily. This might for instance be LinkedIn ad campaigns or going for the PR route. So you might set up a short branding strategy for some months, and then start your SEO service again.”
Almost every modern digital marketing strategy depends on quality data - data that informs what you should do and why, and helps you adapt along the way. We hope this goes without saying, but: make sure you set up tracking! Google Search Console and Google Analytics (or the analytics platform of your choice) are good - and free! - starting points.
Jamar Ramos, co-founder & CMO at Crunchy Links, adds:
"As a startup, sometimes the most important data you need is the data that tells you when to stop doing something.
In one case, we received a HUGE traffic boost that resulted in nothing but a bounce rate boost. No additional leads, no additional clients, and no additional inquiries about our services.
All of that data told me it was time to cut those blogs. They weren’t useful and were introducing a lot of noise into our data signal. Without properly tracking the data on these blog posts, we'd never have been able to identify the issue and solve it.
Make sure you track your data from day 1."
Define your core SEO goals, metrics & KPIs, monitor them over time, and adjust as needed to maximize your organic search engine results.
The path to startup success is clearly not linear. While search may seem like a natural medium to attract in-market customers, it’s important to remember that there are many avenues to be explored.
The SEO tips mentioned above only scratch the surface of what’s possible for startups. It’s crucial to get creative and innovative amongst your team and explore what capabilities are within your means.
If you need support and guidance along your SEO journey, please don’t hesitate to reach out to your friendly neighborhood SEO agency (us!)