I recently had a conversation with an pre-launch startup where they discussed how SEO was going to be really important for them. They went on to describe a fairly common type of site that has some original content, but not much. They are in a space where there is lots of search traffic, but they didn't have anything particularly interesting to say about how they were going to get ranked.
This isn't the first time I've had this same conversation. And to me, there seems to be a lot of confusion by founders of startups around search engine optimization (SEO) and how it works for a startup.
I won't say that I'm truly an expert on SEO. And I believe that there's a lot of randomness in results. Still having worked with a lot of different startups and especially a lot on SEO and especially long tail seo, I'm going to say that I have a pretty good handle on what works and what doesn't. And generally, founders overestimate the possibilities associated with SEO.
On Page SEO
Most founders talk about what I call On Page SEO. That's structuring your pages and your site to optimize it for search. And let's face facts, we normally are talking Google search. If you don't know the basics here, go look at Google's Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide (PDF). It tells you all the basics and the importance of things like:
- Anchor Tags
- Site Navigation
- Content Quality
Once you've skimmed this, you'll have a pretty good idea of all the things that you should do to get your pages in good shape.
They only very briefly mention how you can effectively promote your site. Which is also really important: off page SEO.
However, if all you do is follow the on page SEO advice, it is unlikely that you will get much traffic via search.
Off Page SEO
The other aspect of SEO is at its most basic, how many pages with decent Google Page Rank point to you using anchor text that helps you with optimization. There's a lot more to it, but since startups generally start with zero links to them, they are way behind. You can build Google Juice over time by getting good in bound links. You can promote your site all over the place.
By the way – getting links in social media – mentions on twitter, links on Facebook. They bring traffic, but have little SEO value.
But it's still a hard road to climb. Let's consider the numbers…
In the same conversation about SEO for startups, the founder either tells me:
- There's a ton of search in my space
- I'm not sure how much search there is in my space
But most often I find that they really haven't done enough analysis. And this is not all that hard to do. You go use Google's Adwords Keyword Tool and you plug in your keyword and see the results. For example, let's say I'm looking at SEO in farming. I might get back:
So, great news. There's a lot of search for "farms" and "farming". But that's only a small part of the picture. What we need to do is assess our ability to capture any of that traffic. So I go to Google and do a search for each of these phrases. And I do a general assessment of whether I can get into the top ten. For farming, unless we do something really amazing with off-page SEO. And you probably aren't. In fact, I can't quite even imagine what you will do to rank well on these broad terms.
Oh, by the way, the numbers I'm showing you above are actually a bit misleading because I'm using "Broad" matching. If you want the real numbers, you should go to Exact to see exact numbers put in for different terms.
So, the actual monthly numbers for farming is only 74,000 per month. And most often specific terms drop off very fast.
Another aspect to this is that click-through rates are actually pretty low for even the top ten results. Here's a ballpark derived from various research studies on the click through rate for positions 1-10 in Google.
So, if you miraculously get the number 2 position on Google for the term farming, you will get 7,400 clicks per month. Ouch! That's pretty low. Of course, it will be a lot more than that because if you were able to do it for that term, then you'll get a lot of long tail searches. Still the numbers turn pretty small fast.
And, you aren't going to rank for farming or farms. Instead, you may rank for a much more specific set of terms. So, what you are normally looking at is ranking for something like farm/farming issues. Looking at the numbers for those (using Broad Match) we see:
And you can see that there might be a few thousand related searches a month. And if you work really hard at SEO over this subset of farming, you might find yourself getting 10% of that (being very optimistic). So, you are talking about 10-50 visitors per day.
It would have been cheaper to buy those clicks.
Value of SEO for Startups
I'm being intentionally pretty harsh about the founders who predict better results with SEO than is deserved. I do believe that there's value in SEO for Startups.
Let's assume that you know and are willing to follow the basics:
- Do a good job on on-page SEO.
- Take time to build up a presence and accumulate Google Juice.
- Blog to build credibility and create original content. Not to mention learn a lot.
- Look to long tail SEO opportunities, especially early.
- Work with bloggers in your space in a smart way.
Then, the beauty of SEO is as a long-term strategy for building inexpensive traffic. If you happen to be working in space where there's lots of search, especially lots of long tail search and even better if the SEO competition for that traffic is low, then you've got a chance to build traffic.