SEO For Startups: How To Win Against Giant Competitors
22 June 2023 by Gaetano DiNardi
SEO strategy should be a priority focus for startups in 2023. In this guide, you will learn how to build an SEO road map for your startup, and how to integrate SEO with your sales and product strategy. This is a no fluff zone! Below, there are 10 actionable steps to follow for SEO success within your startup.
Debunking Common SEO Excuses You’ll Hear From Startup Founders
Read any article lending SEO advice to startup founders and you’ll likely encounter three major sources of friction.
SEO is too expensive – I don’t have enough money to hire someone or buy tools.
SEO is too competitive – The “big” competitors are already dominating the market.
SEO takes too long to get results – SEO isn’t worth it because I need leads, FAST.
SEO talent is too difficult to recruit – I will debunk this for you below.
Excuse #1: SEO is too expensive
According to HubSpot’s research (see chart below) –SEO is the lowest risk, highest ROI B2B marketing channel. If you invest time and sweat equity into SEO, you will see incremental gains with big payoffs. You don’t need expensive consultants, agencies, or software tools to get results. In fact, be wary of SEO companies who talk a big game. Whenever an SEO agency or consultant sounds too good to be true, it’s because they usually are! All you need at this stage is focus, measurement, execution and patience.
Excuse #2: SEO is too competitive
This is actually true, it’s very competitive. But so is everything else! Growing SEO / organic presence is the top digital marketing priority for companies across 5 major world regions. The longer you wait to get started, the further ahead your competition will rise.
Remember, you’re a startup with limited budget. Do you want to pay to acquire leads via channels like PPC and increase your CAC, or do you want free leads that won’t disappear as soon as you stop spending money?
Sure, you can pay for leads and get them faster, but paid channels are very costly for startups, especially if you make mistakes. With SEO, you can afford to make some early mistakes and all it will cost you is time. That said,Forbes estimates it will take an average of 4 to 6 months before you start seeing SEO results.
Excuse #4: It’s too hard to hire SEO talent.
I get it – SEO agencies have a pretty bad reputation and can be difficult to trust. Hiring for startups can also be a pain, since most early stage companies don’t have the expertise or in-house capabilities to hire top marketing talent.
But the reality is that it can easily be done if you dedicate time and focus. All you have to do is get active on LinkedIn and look for profiles that align with your business needs.
Another option is to outsource your hiring needs to a recruiting firm – this can save a lot of time and headache.
It’s a cost-effective option since they only get paid after they land a confirmed hire for your company – they will take a cut of the salary which honestly is very fair, considering how much time and hassle they are saving you.
BONUS: LEARN HOW I GREW SALES HACKER OVER 400% AND USED SEO TO GET ACQUIRED!
You know where you stand with regard to classic startup metrics. Think: CAC, LTV, ARPU, Churn Rate, Burn Rate, etc.
You’ve established a baseline against your core marketing metrics like traffic, landing page conversion rates, leads by source, MQL to SQL conversion rate, etc.
10 Steps for SEO Success Within Your Startup
Set and define your goals and desired outcomes.
Develop a measurement strategy: determine what, how, and why to measure.
Crawl your website and review technical SEO.
Audit your website UX, taxonomy & navigation and mobile friendliness.
Review opportunities for on-page optimization.
Evaluate branded search opportunities and reputation protection.
Perform non-branded keyword research to find long tail opportunities.
Prioritize content marketing opportunities.
Link building and influencer amplification.
Stay updated on SEO news, trends, and Google updates.
Step 1: Set and Define Your Goals and Desired Outcomes
This all depends on what type of business you have and how your business makes money.
Here’s a breakdown of business types and their revenue frameworks:
Big Publishers – All they care about is traffic and personalization because they make money from ads.
Channel Partners and Resellers – These businesses don’t have tangible products, but they have audiences. They help market other products and services from partner brands. Therefore these businesses care a lot about email list growth, top of the funnel awareness, high volume of return visitor traffic, improving brand authority and P.R.
E-Commerce – They obviously care about transactional sales directly from the website, and having a flawless technical SEO setup. An SEO goal for an e-Commerce brand might be to increase rankings for purchase intent keywords, and decrease product page bounce rates from traffic that comes in from organic search.
Local Businesses – Think restaurants, brick and mortar locations, etc. SEO goals for these businesses would likely revolve around optimizing for “near me” searches as well as voice and mobile search. A huge percentage of retail consumers search for product information from their mobile devices WHILE they’re shopping.
SaaS – SEO for SaaS startups is a huge topic, and we know why – because it works. While I ran SEO at Pipedrive, we ranked for a super high volume keyword in 3 months. It wasn’t even a product related keyword, but it drove a ton of signups. Why? Because we put out an incredibly helpful and useful resource that solved a problem for one of our key customer segments.
Step 3: Crawl Your Website and Review Technical SEO
This is an enormous step that encompasses a lot of information, so I’ll try to limit it to what you really need to know.
Crawl Your Website – Use a tool likeScreaming Frog to crawl your website. There’s a freemium version that allows up to 500 free URLs. Startups usually have small websites, so this shouldn’t be a problem.
Dissecting the Crawl Report – Spreadsheets packed with columns, rows and data you don’t understand can be overwhelming. Here’s a guide from SEER Interactive that explains how to do it.
What to look for in a high level SEO audit:
Duplicate Content – This is a huge problem for eCommerce sites in particular, but it can plague any site. Duplicate content comes in many forms, shapes and sizes. For a full breakdown, this duplicate content guide from Yoastexplains it all.
Meta Robots – You don’t want to accidentally noindex key pages or nofollow any precious backlinks. This happens sometimes when developers shift things from staging to production. Rand Fishkin explains everything you need to know about Meta Robots in this episode of Whiteboard Friday on Moz.
Robots.txt – Developers might temporarily block search engines from crawling certain sections of their site, and forget to change it back. That’s why you must audit your robots.txt file to ensure that your site is being crawled. The command you need to look for in your robots.txt file is “disallow” to make sure nothing is being blocked that should be crawled.This guide on Moz explains everything you need to know about robots.txt.
Broken Media Assets – Things like expired SoundCloud links and broken video files can shatter the user experience. You’ll want to clean those up FAST. Check out this resource from SEMrush that dives intocommon on-site SEO mistakes.
404 Pages – Broken pages will destroy your site’s rankings in search engines, along with the user experience and visitor engagement. Conventional wisdom recommends fixing 404 errors with 301 redirects.
Broken Backlinks – Broken backlinks are a prime source of leaking link equity. You can find these with Screaming Frog, Ahrefs or Moz.
Pages With Long Load Times – Site speed is a ranking factor and impacts the UX. You can use Google’s page speed insights API to get this information at the URL level. Here’s a resource fromConversionXL that outlines common low hanging fruit opportunities.
Step 4: Audit Website UX, Taxonomy & Navigation, and Mobile Friendliness
Yes. Website experience matters a lot for SEO. If visitors are having a hard time navigating your pages, struggling to view your content on mobile, getting nailed with unsightly ads / pop-ups, and not clicking through deep into the site’s architecture – you’re not gonna rank. Plain and simple.
Here are some steps you can take:
Track engagement with heatmap technology – The amount of things you can track and measure with heat maps today as a marketer are quite incredible. You can see where visitors are dropping off, where they click, where they move, how they interact with a page, the whole 9 yards. Hotjar is my preferred tool, and they have a freemium version which is perfect for startups with low budgets.
Uncover drop offs in your conversion funnels – This is perfect if you’re an e-Commerce site or a SaaS brand with complex funnels. Find out exactly where users are dropping off and why. You can use Google Analytics’ funnel feature for this too.
Taxonomy and Navigation – Your site should be clearly organized so that users and search engines can quickly get to where they need to go without getting frustrated. Is your navigation super clean and linear? Is your internal linking structure symmetrical?
If not, you should fix this immediately, because you’ll have a hard time ranking if users and search engines don’t like the way your site information is organized. Consider these resources for more info:
Mobile friendliness – Use Google’s mobile friendly testing tool to uncover pages that are not mobile friendly. To do this at scale, use the API withURL Profiler to review thousands of URLs at once. You can also check Search Console for additional insights.
Step 5: Review Opportunities For On-Page Optimization
On-page optimization is all about aligning your content to the right keywords within context of user intent based on where they might be in the buyer’s journey.
This guide toon-page SEO from Brian Dean is the most comprehensive resource available on the entire subject. If you’re totally clueless, you should start there.
If you want my personal on-page SEO checklist that I personally use to optimize all my content, here you go, totally free.
For example, if I search my company’s brand name in Google, I’m pleased with the results. Our sitelinks are intact, our metadata looks good, and there are no threats / negative brand results showing anywhere in Google.
Then, at the bottom of the search page, we can also see that people search for our founder, Max, who is a prominent figure in Sales.
But for the most part, people are searching for our conferences, which we are ranking for.
Hilariously, people are also interested in Max’s net worth.
Step 7: Perform Non-branded Keyword Research To Find Long Tail Opportunities
A great hack is to try template keywords. They are typically great for growing your email subscriber list and easier to rank for than big commercial terms. For example, Gong compiled a list of the best sales templates of all time and they actually capture some solid long-tail organic traffic to that landing page.
First thing you wanna do here is start breaking out your keyword research by topical buckets. Don’t think in terms of specific keywords yet, just start thinking about the broad segments of head terms to start with
Usually this is reflected in awebsite’s taxonomy and or navigation. A little trick I like to do here is steal topical buckets from a competitor’s site.
So for example if my startup were a career building / matchmaking site, I could start by looking at an established site like The Muse for inspiration.
You can see by their nav that they’ve clearly segmented their topical buckets out, so that would be a great place to start.
In summary, these are the steps you can take to prioritize your content marketing and keyword opportunities.
Get data from multiple keyword sources like Auto-Suggest, Related Searches, Moz, Ahrefs, and SEMrush.
Figure out searcher intent behind the keywords – you should prioritizebottom of funnel keywords because they are likely to move the needle in terms of revenue and sales, but don’t pick the most difficult, high volume ones! Start small and targeted, then work your way up the funnel.
Collect keyword metrics like search volume, CTR potential, difficulty score and prioritize them based on your business goals.
Step 9: Build Backlinks and Get Influencer Amplification
Gaetano is a digital marketing leader with a proven track record of success working with startups, e-commerce, enterprise and Fortune 500 brands. His background as a musician combined with sharp business acumen creates a unique hybrid of creative and analytical skills. Gaetano is a force to be reckoned with in the world of digital marketing. To get in touch, follow him on Twitter: @gaetano_nyc