Startup SEO Strategy
This guide is meant for founders, marketers, or business owners that want to define an SEO strategy that they can execute themselves or outsource to an agency.
There are many great SEO guides online, but most of them focus on e-commerce or marketing a “wedding photographer in Toronto”. Startup websites typically only focus on signups and sales leads (user or customer acquisition). That’s what this guide will focus on too.
When not to use SEO
Before we begin, it’s good to know when SEO is not going to help you:
• You’re looking for some fully automated way to get signups or sales. The day that search engines can be cheated or gamed is over. If you want SEO to work you will need to produce high-quality and useful content, which is a lot of work.
• You need results fast. Building SEO out relies on building authority and that takes from months to years, in which you’ll have to continue to invest and carefully monitor your results. If you need results fast, you might be better off with paid acquisition.
Why is SEO important?
A great site converts visitors into sales, signups, bookings, followers, or meetings. The best way to increase your results is to increase the number of visitors coming to your site (also called acquisition). Visitors may find your site via links on other sites or by directly typing in your URL. But on most sites, 30-70% of the visitors come via search.
There are two types of search traffic: branded and non-branded. This simply means if they search for your company name or not. People typing in “framer” already know about you and just want to get to your site – you can only really increase this by building your brand. But if they type “how to make a custom site” they are looking for something you can provide. If you show up on the search results, you can attract a lot of volume, resulting in a lot of conversions.
What to measure and expect?
When looking at acquisition, you try to put everyone who visits your site into a bucket of how they found you. We call these channels and while you’d think you can track everything perfectly digitally, you’d be surprised to learn that it’s actually really course. The main reason is that privacy and security in browsers have improved, and they give you much less information about how people found your site.
If you have a website but no SEO strategy yet, and fire up Google Analytics (Acquisition → All Traffic → Channels), you’ll likely see a channel division somewhat like this:
Your SEO results will end up in “Organic Search (non branded)” so that’s what we’re optimizing for. It’s obviously really hard to predict what to expect but this should help give an idea:
• If you are a Series A - B startup with a small marketing team that spends a good 20% of their time on SEO, writing nice articles, and running a decent blog you should be able to get your non branded as high as your branded search. The result should be 1.5 - 2x more visitors to your site structurally. This requires great SEO execution (which most startups honestly don’t have).
• If you are 1-800-FLOWERS with a large dedicated SEO team you should be able to get your non branded >10x branded – resulting in 10x the visitors. But in this case SEO (and paid) are basically your entire business.
How does SEO work?
SEO is all about searches. But when you think about winning in search it’s actually all about ranking. Ranking simply determines the order of the results for a given term. If you’re on the first page you’ll get a ton of clicks. If you’re result 10,756 not so much. So the optimization part of SEO is about understanding how ranking works and how you influence it.
There was a time when there were many search engines (remember AltaVista or Excite?). But they’re basically all gone. That’s because two smart guys invented one single trick to make the ranking of their search results simply 100x better. They called it PageRank and built a $1T company out of it.
A better ranking would put better results higher. But how do you determine what a “better” page is? The trick they came up with is to count the links to that page from other pages. If many pages link to the same page, then that linked page must be a pretty useful page. Plus you can’t really cheat because you can’t create your own links on other people's pages. This is still how it works today. The single most important ranking factor is backlinks.
Every page belongs to a domain, so you can group the pages and backlinks to figure out how important a domain generally is. They call this score the domain authority. At this time the domain authority of apple.com is 90+ whereas my personal site has 40. This is used to make a backlink from Apple more important than a backlink from koenbok.com.
A page also needs to have words to search on. But to make things a bit more efficient the words that don’t mean anything get discarded, like “the”, “is”, “to”, etc. After that you’re left with the words that best describe the content on a page, much like the subject in a sentence.
Keywords typically come in phrases that can make a search more specific, like “minivan camping California”. You typically look at them in a hierarchy, so in this case the “root” or “parent” keywords are “minivan camping” because they define the broader category.
So how does Google keep track of all the links and keywords? They built an army of robots (also spiders or crawlers) that maintain a huge database (also the “index”). They come by whenever they like and scan your page for links, keywords and other details and insert those in the database. They discover new sites simply through links, but they can also get a little help from site owners that publish a list of all pages on a site (called a Sitemap).
So when you search, you search the database (index). It matches all the pages it can find for your keyword, composes a score for each result and lists them. Again, the most important factor for that score is backlinks but there are another bunch of variables that are also looked at to determine the quality of your page. Let’s start with the penalties:
• If you are trying to game the search engine by using a keyword too often you get a penalty.
• If your page is exactly the same as many others it gets a penalty.
• If your page loads very slow for any reason it gets a penalty.
• If your page isn’t optimized for mobile it gets a penalty.
But apart from the penalties, the most important one is how long people stay on your page because that will tell Google how interesting your page really is. Google has two ways of finding that out:
• If people click your page in the results but then often immediately return to the results and click another page they haven’t stayed for long.
• If you have Google Analytics installed they know how long a visitor has stayed down to the second, that’s why they’re giving it away for free.
So with all of these above, what do you focus your strategy on? That’s actually pretty easy, there are three key parts to any SEO strategy. The rest are just details.
1. Adopt a professional site builder with advanced SEO capabilities like Framer.
2. Figure out how to produce high-quality content relevant to your audience.
3. Figure out how to get backlinks from other sites to your content.
Then, make a plan and execute.
There are a few things that you should clearly define before you execute as they will set the constraints for your strategy.
Making good content is really hard. We’re not even talking about top-quality-virally-going content, but just a great article or blog post. It’s pretty typical to hire third-party bulk content creators, task an intern or even use robot helpers to write copy. And it can work well, but I’m sure you have landed on a page like that and noticed. Your visitors will notice too and attach that sentiment to your brand. That can be okay – not everyone has to be like Nike.
But you need to decide what works best for your product and stick with it.
Audience and Positioning
This is an obvious suggestion but you should validate yours through the lens of the person that has to do the keyword research and find backlinks. The clearer your audience and positioning is defined the easier it will be to filter our unrelated keywords and identify potential partners to share content with for backlinks.
Brand vs Experimentation
To discover what works you need to try a lot of things out and measure them. But the more experiments you have to do, the less time you have to focus on the quality of your experiments. It’s very important to define the minimum bar.
You can either do that with a set of examples of what (not) to do, assign someone to sign-off on experiments for quality or define the maximum impact: “we’re okay with anything as long as not more than x people see it”.
Internal vs External
It’s popular to get an external agency to help with SEO. Typically startups need to move fast and agencies have the tooling and expertise to get going right away. And while agencies can be a great choice, consider the following:
• The expertise is a bit of a red herring. SEO is not hard, everyone can learn 80% in a few hours and modern tools like Framer allow non-technical people to make all required optimizations.
• While agencies might have SEO expertise, they’ll certainly know less about your product and customers than you do. Therefore it’s by definition harder for them to produce quality content.
• Starting fast doesn’t really exist with SEO – it’s a long game that takes months or years. Operationally it can be better to align the responsibilities that way internally.
I hope you can see why I typically recommend doing SEO in-house, making it a core competency.
You can present your SEO content in many ways on your site. The normal product pages should obviously attract searches and typically more topical keywords are easy to target with a dedicated blog post or article. But you can also consider more creative formats:
• Custom landing pages that are an alternative front page for your product based on the intent of the visitor and optimized for conversion. These typically take longer to build but tools like Framer can reduce the time significantly.
• Higher value type articles like an ebook style with an optional PDF download that you can partly put behind email signup for increased conversion.
• Things that are specifically designed to target a broad volume of keywords at once like a term glossary for the business or descriptions for your template catalog that elaborately describe all the possible use cases that match your product.
Your content marketing is a combination of your product positioning, the audience you’re going after, the topics you’ll write about and the format you’ll publish it in.
On the practical side, you’ll need a content management system that designers can use to layout, format and optimize content, and publishers to directly use to write, edit and publish multiple articles. Ideally your content management system also allows for a flexible setup so it supports different collections and formats like blogs, articles, knowledge bases, team listings or even term dictionaries. Also make sure you can use the CMS fields directly for SEO (like the page title).
Framer: How to use the content management system
Framer: How to use CMS fields for SEO
To produce content you’ll need writers
• Typically startups pool employees to write about subjects that specific people are excited about and intersect with topics that touch a clusters of keywords. Make sure you have someone dedicated to play editor in chief to check for style consistency across articles.
• A bit larger startups may have dedicated content strategists who may be able great to write articles. But keep in mind that everyone gets tired writing about the same set of subjects after a while and it’s very common to see the quality drop over time. It’s typically better to pool writers.
• A pool of quality freelance writers typically works best. You can find them by going to your favorite publications, finding a relevant article and contact the author if they are freelance writers (most of them are).
Measuring and Reporting
Once you have a set of definitions and decisions on the above it’s time to make a plan. Typically 6 months ahead is a good amount of time and the key is to keep it very simple. Use it to structurally report monthly progress and suggest changes based on the results.
• Kick off your research and define the keywords you’ll be going after based on their relevance (see our SEO Best Practices article), your ability to produce content for them, and the potential backlinks you think you can get.
• Define the first few articles you’ll produce to target the keywords and how many articles you hope to create per month (including research and backlink hustling). A small team can typically do 1-2 per month.
• Create a sheet with six columns (one for each month) and list the targeted keywords by row. Use the Google Search Console to track the average search position and the actual number of clicks to your site.
Putting it all together your plan for every month should look like this:
With goals for creating articles, backlinks, and tracking for average search position and clicks to your site, you have an excellent SEO strategy in place for much increased conversion.
In the next article, we will look at how to start executing on SEO best practices.