The Startup's Handbook to Perfecting the SEO Strategy Online promotion and search engine optimization are some of the biggest challenges for new companies
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Today, nearly every business lives and dies by brand visibility. With over 4 billion people on the planet now being on the internet, a huge part of that visibility is online – on social media, digital publications and email inboxes. However, organic search is the biggest driver of website traffic, with 35% of all visits coming from Google and other search engines (as per a Shareaholic report).
Google is a clear market leader in the search engine segment, with over 90% of global market share. And they have repeatedly indicated that the algorithm prioritizes established brands over unknown ones, by means of various factors that place more importance on entities, mentions and branded searches.
In such a scenario, online promotion and search engine optimization are some of the biggest challenges for new companies without a significant brand presence. There's no need to lose heart, though, if you're a fledgling or bootstrapped startup. Here are a few tips to help you plan and implement a long-term SEO strategy.
Approach SEO as a strategy, not a tactic
Many business owners and founders still make the mistake of assuming SEO to be an offshoot of web development. Understand that SEO is an inseparable and ongoing part of marketing. It is much more than adding titles and meta descriptions to your web pages or getting a "writer" to post articles to your blog twice a week.
If you think you can get a monthly SEO package and get to the top of Google in a few weeks, you're in for a nasty shock. Rand Fishkin, author of the books The Art Of SEO and Lost And Founder, went as far as to recommend VCs and angel investors to grill founders about their SEO strategy before deciding to fund them. It is common knowledge that startups like Yelp and Airbnb made concrete plans to drive traffic through search and executed them well on their way up the ladder.
Know what your audience wants
Before you build your website, you need to identify and understand your target audience. Well, to be honest, you need to do that before you even perfect your product or service, let alone your website. This is because 71% of consumers discover new products and services through a search engine, and search influences 75% of all purchases, as per a Forrester study.
Traffic from search engines – or any online source, for that matter – give us deep insights into where exactly your visitors stand along the customer journey. To understand your visitors' objectives, whether it is research, comparison or purchase, you need to differentiate between branded and non-branded searches, as well as informational, navigational or transactional intent.
This is where keyword research comes in. Proper keyword research will help you create content that your audience is more likely to consume and find new opportunities to appear in Google search results. In an SEO-specific context, customer intent translates to terms and metrics like
head terms (general, one or two word queries) and long-tail keywords (questions and longer phrases that indicate specific intent)
monthly search volume
click volume (the amount of clicks each search generates)
keyword difficulty (how difficult it is to rank the keyword)
Make Google love your website
Even though Google's algorithm is prone to "trust" established brands, given their wider presence, "Googlebot" lives up to its nature by giving every site equal opportunity (or disdain) when it comes to crawling and indexing web pages. Since startups don't usually have the budget for a full-blown SEO team, they tend to mess up here and there when it comes to on-site optimization.
Start with a very good information and navigation structure. Your site should be organized in such a manner that visitors (and bots) can find anything they're looking for in three clicks or less, as a rule of thumb.
Make sure your URLs are organized in a clear hierarchy, as short as possible, and relevant to the pages they lead to. They should be in all lowercase, use nothing other than hyphens for separators, and not contain any special characters. Take care that the platform you use to build your site doesn't auto-generate and store pages with query parameters.
There are many more technical factors that you need to keep updated to make sure Google is crawling and indexing your site at optimum level. Over time, all sites tend to get unwieldy due to changes in code and content, so always be tracking and adjusting accordingly.
Look beyond links
Google started out with links as its primary metric of measuring the authority of a website. For many years, links used to be the core signal that influenced website rankings. That is not the case anymore. Keeping up with the changing nature of the internet, Google is moving away from links and incorporating a whole lot of "real-world" signals like high quality content, mentions, engagement and brand searches into their search algorithm.
This was clearly indicated by Gary Illyes of Google in his keynote address at Brighton SEO 2017, where he declared, "If you publish high-quality content that is highly cited on the internet – and I'm not talking about just links, but also mentions on social networks and people talking about your branding, crap like that – then you are doing great."
Therefore, it is essential you don't base your SEO strategy only on acquiring links. Instead, focus on creating wider conversations around your brand. Get people to follow and engage with you on major social media platforms. Encourage them to leave reviews and ratings for your products on Google, Facebook and other niche-focused sites. Bring on board micro-influencers (the startup's answer to brand ambassadors) to help you increase brand awareness on various social channels.
Over to you
SEO is like a treadmill that never stops. That is a reality all startups and small businesses will have to contend with. You will need to relentlessly create content, watch your competition like a hawk, mix and remix your overall digital marketing strategy, and keep chasing Google's algorithm to stay afloat. Automation and tools are making it easier to get the basics right, but they also serve to intensify the competition. Ultimately, it's up to you to make wise decisions (in line with your business goals) at the right time, and keep the flywheel spinning.