SEO For Startups: How To Win Against Giant Competitors15 November 2022 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.
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.
Pro Tip: Try a keyword research tool like TopicRanker to quickly find dozens of easy to rank keywords without the manual hassle.
Excuse #3: SEO takes too long to get results
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.
BONUS: LEARN HOW I GREW SALES HACKER OVER 400% AND USED SEO TO GET ACQUIRED!
Most people know that I was the marketing mastermind behind Sales Hacker’s explosive growth, leading to an acquisition by Outreach.io in less than 24 months.
Check out my podcast interview on B2B growth that explains how I did it.
SEO Prerequisite Checklist For Your Startup
Okay now that we’ve got that out of the way, it’s time to make sure your startup has accomplished some basic building block essentials before you start unleashing your SEO wrath on the world.
- You’ve identified which stage your company is at within the startup lifecycle framework.
- You’ve identified your ideal customer profile and you understand your customer pains.
- You’ve validated that you’ve grown past the product / market fit stage.
- You’ve used the bullseye framework for identifying the best traction channels.
- Your startup is ready to begin testing channel / product fit, and SEO will be a priority.
- Your startup has an internal champion who will commit and take ownership of SEO.
- You’ve established a growth experimentation process to help track your experiments.
- 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.
Some more examples of broad SEO goals might be:
- Increasing your startup’s topical authority in a given content subject.
- Increasing awareness in a specific industry who might want your product.
- Increasing more qualified traffic to your product pages.
- Improving engagement: think average time on page, scroll depth, etc.
Some examples of specific SEO goals might be:
- Double the number of new visitors to the site in Q1.
- Increase blog traffic by 50% in 2020.
- Increase email subscriptions from organic traffic by 10%.
- Generate leads to your site from a specific industry – real estate, construction, etc.
- Increase # of transactions on an eCommerce landing page from X to Y.
Step 2: Develop a Measurement Strategy – Determine What, How, and Why to Measure
There are some foundational actions you want to take here:
- Set up Google Analytics.
- Set up Google Search Console.
- Set up Goal Conversion Tracking in Analytics.
- Integrate marketing automation and CRM with your lead capture sources.
- Map out all your metrics and align them back to their data sources.
- Consider automating some of your reporting via dashboard solutions.
Here are some excellent resources that provide in-depth coverage of this subject:
- AARRR Pirate Metrics for SaaS
- Tracking SEO in Google Analytics
- KPIs For Measuring SEO Success
- Marketing Metrics That Boards, C-Suite, and Investors Care About
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 like Screaming 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 Yoast explains 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.
- Improper Redirects & Redirect Chains – This can ruin hard won link equity and destroy the user experience. Learn more about redirects for SEO from Cyrus Sheppard.
- 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 into common 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.
- URL Structure – Keep URLs clean, short, consistent and keyword relevant. Rand Fishkin outlines URL structure best practices on 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 from ConversionXL 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 with URL 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 to on-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.
- Identify Your Target Keyword
- Analyze The SERPs – Can You Even Rank For This?
- Title Tag – Front load Your Target Keyword
- Title Tag – Less Than 60 Characters
- Title Tag – Can You Add Buzzwords For CTR?
- Meta Description – Contains Target Keyword
- Meta Description – Compelling CTA That Encourages High CTR
- H1 Tag – Keyword Optimized
- H2 Tag – Secondary Keywords
- Body Copy – Contains Target Keyword in First 200 Words
- Body Copy – Has Natural Keyword Density
- Body Copy – Contains LSI Keywords (Latent Semantic Indexing)
- Content Length – Does This Comprehensively Answer The Searcher’s Query?
- Content Structure – Is This Content Easily Readable and Scannable?
- Content Assets – Can You Add Videos, Images, Screenshots, Slideshares, etc?
- Canonical Tag – Specified to The Correct URL
- URL Structure – Contains Target Keyword
- URL Structure – Has Clear Taxonomic Organization
- URL Structure – Does Not Contain Stop Words (This is okay in certain cases)
- URL Structure – Does Not Contain Underscores
- URL Structure – Less Than 100 Characters
- Internal Linking – Contains 1-2 Deep Links to Relevant Content
- Internal Linking – Has Keyword Relevant Anchor Text
- Internal Linking – Is Implemented in Naturally
- Outbound Linking – Contains 1-2 Links to Authoritative & Relevant Sites
- Image Optimization – File Names Contain Target Keyword
- Image Optimization – Alt Tags Contain Target Keyword
- Image Optimization – Appropriate Image Dimensions Specified
- Social Media Metadata – Facebook OG Tags Optimized
- Social Media Metadata – Twitter Cards Optimized
Step 6: Evaluate Branded Search Opportunities and Reputation Protection
The first thing you should do is type your brand’s name into Google and inspect what type of results you’re seeing.
You want to check for the following:
- Bad press and negative brand reviews.
- Ensure your site metadata accurately reflects your brand story and clearly explains your products.
- Review and implement schema markup opportunities for your brand.
- Make sure your sitelinks and social media accounts are properly set up and aligned.
- Go the bottom of the search results page and check “searches related to” to see what searchers care about when looking for your brand.
- Use auto-suggest to see what long tail brand queries are populating.
- Play defense and check for “alternatives to” and “versus” queries – see this article from SEMrush for a deep dive.
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
I would recommend this 30 minute keyword research hack if you’re looking for some quick wins.
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 a website’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.
Then, you want to start figuring out how to build topical authority while focusing on keywords that are low difficulty and winnable, but still relevant to your business.
A very quick and dirty way to do this FAST is to build persona specific long tail content by using Google’s auto-suggest.
Sticking to the career site example, using the modifier “for” I can quickly find lots of long tail targeting opportunities.
If you’re really tight on budget, use a free app like keywordtool.io to scrape the keywords, then dump those keywords into Google keyword explorer to get the search volumes.
If you’ve got a few hundred bucks a month to spare, I would highly recommend investing into a tool like Moz Keyword Explorer or Ahrefs Keyword Explorer to automate this!
Step 8: Prioritize Content Opportunities
Once you’ve got a bunch of long tail opportunities identified and maybe even threw in some brainstormed content ideas, it’s time to prioritize them.
Personally, I prioritize keywords by high volume, low difficulty, strong CTR opportunity and high importance / relevance.
This whiteboard Friday video from Moz is the single best resource I’ve seen on how to prioritize content and keywords fast and efficiently.
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 prioritize bottom 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
In a nutshell, here’s what you need to do.
- NEVER pay for backlinks.
- Start by monitoring for unlinked brand mentions.
- Search your brand name, domain name, and founder’s/execs names for unlinked mentions.
- Find relevant directories and round up articles like “best sales tools” and make sure your site is mentioned and linked there.
- Find out where and how your competitors are getting links, then get links from those sites.
- Do interviews and get influencers involved in your site’s content.
- Don’t waste time with going for high volume backlink acquisition. Go quality instead.
This Whiteboard Friday from Moz is another excellent example of how to build links in a very targeted and cost effective manner.
Step 10: Stay Updated on SEO News, Trends, Google Updates and More
Here are sites I would recommend following and subscribing to:
- Google’s Revamped SEO Guide
- Experts on the Wire SEO Podcast
- Follow John Mueller on Twitter
- Follow Rand Fishkin on Twitter
- Search Engine Land
- Search Engine Journal
- Neil Patel
- Single Grain
- Search Metrics
Conclusion: SEO Tips For Your Startup’s Organic Growth
SEO is hard, but it’s even harder if you’re a startup without money and you’re not taking a targeted approach to your search marketing strategy.
My final takeaways for any startup attempting to tackle SEO:
- Focus on small, manageable wins.
- DO NOT pay for cheap services.
- Don’t think you can dance with Goliath right away. Big competitor sites are more powerful than you, and you will not beat them until you build up your own authority.
- Make sure Technical SEO is intact before you start going crazy on content marketing initiatives.
- Build content that your audience actually cares about, not just a bunch of stuff that will make your products look good.
- Tie everything back to measurement, analytics and conversions. Avoid vanity metrics like “raw traffic” and social media shares.
- Communicate reporting in ways that C-Level Executives will care about and understand.
Also published on Medium.
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