SEO for Early-Stage Startups: A 6-Step Guide

Ryan Bednar

Ryan Bednar

12 / 10 / 2021

SEO for Early-Stage Startups: A 6-Step Guide

Ryan Bednar

12 / 10 / 2021

If you’re running a startup, then you probably know the statistics.

Every day, roughly 137,000 startups are launched—and roughly 120,000 businesses are terminated. Many don’t fail for lack of trying, but because capital has dried up or their marketing initiatives have gone awry.

Fortunately, there is one method of marketing that’s both cost-efficient and proven to work. While SEO’s impact varies from business to business, it’s often a safe investment for cash-strapped founders. It is affordable, easy to start, and continues to bear fruit many years to come.

If you’re curious to know how it all works, you’ve come to the right place. This guide will take you through the basics of SEO and how a startup like yours can get started.

What is SEO and why does it matter to your startup?

SEO (short for Search Engine Optimization) is the practice of getting your site ranking at the top of search results online. Say, for instance, that you own a pet supplies store. You’ll likely want your store to be listed if someone googles “pet stores in [your city]” or “where to buy dog toys online.”

screenshot showing first page of google SERP

When done right, SEO can make sure that your site appears within the first page of search results, where nearly 71% of all clicks take place. The ultimate goal is to drive more qualified traffic to your site that could eventually convert into a sale.

SEO is foundational to the performance of your site and expands far beyond your homepage or product pages. To maximize your reach, you’ll likely need to maintain a blog, social media accounts, and other properties that support regular content creation.

Unfortunately for some, SEO can’t be “growth-hacked.” SEO is a long-term commitment that has compounding benefits, which include:

  • Greater brand visibility and discoverability online
  • Greater brand authority from high-ranking, highly referenced bodies of work
  • A marketing tactic that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to maintain (learn more about the true cost of SEO)
  • An easier time building trust with leads, who may first turn to your content for advice before trusting you with their money
  • Flexibility in targeting leads at various stages of the conversion funnel

How, then, do you get started? Here are six essential steps to take.

Step 1: Define Your SEO Goals 

As with any marketing initiative, the more specific you can get with your goals, the better. “More traffic”—or even “first-page ranking”—aren’t specific enough goals to be actionable. In fact, both of these are common vanity metrics that don’t always yield the results many expect.

For example, you might get thousands of visitors to a blog that ranks for a high-volume term. But lo and behold, none actually converts into a buyer because none come with the intention of buying. They’re just there to perform research on a trending topic or to receive free advice (which isn’t always a bad thing). 

Therefore, how you define your content goals (and subsequently your SEO goals) matter. At this stage, you’ll want to consider a few key factors.

Buyer persona

Who are you writing for? What type of consumer are you looking to engage with your content? Whether you’re targeting existing customers or targeting new leads, you’ll want to develop detailed personas that help you anticipate their questions, interests, and the types of content they want to consume.

You’ll likely target multiple personas with your SEO strategy. The typical B2B funnel, after all, involves six to 10 decision-makers. So, you’ll want to have a clear idea of what each decision-maker is looking to find. Creating buyer persons will save you a heckuva lot of time later down the road when you’re brainstorming topics and digging up keywords.

Baseline and KPIs

Evaluate the organic performance of your site as it stands today. What searches do you currently show up for? Are most searches to your site unbranded or branded? How many people are able to find your site?

Using this data, you can start to identify primary metrics to target and track in order to better understand the ROI of your SEO efforts. There are various KPIs you can monitor, depending on your unique goals. Common metrics include keyword rankings, impressions, and clicks.

Content objectives 

Given the factors stated above, what type of content should you create? If you’re looking to engage and delight current customers, then you may want to focus on building out a help center that includes articles and videos. If you’re looking to engage new hires, then you may want to launch blogs showcasing company culture and values. Alternatively, if you’re looking to generate new leads, then you may be creating a combination of case studies, site pages, and thought leadership blogs.

Think about both the focus and format of content that your target visitor will find engaging.

Step 2: Audit Current Site Performance 

Technical SEO is a core ingredient of any organic strategy. It involves finessing the backend of your site so that it loads quickly, works on all mobile devices, and delivers a great user experience overall.

Search engines like Google evaluate your site for performance because they know that their reputation is on the line whenever they refer a user to a new page. Therefore, you’ll want to take the time to ensure that everything’s working as expected from a technical perspective before moving forward with your content strategy.

While a full SEO site audit can be very extensive, here are a few good places to start.

Mobile responsiveness 

Google has come forward and said that mobile-friendliness is a key ranking factor. As more and more consumers are turning to their mobile devices to research brands and make purchases, it’s critical that your site is easy to use on small screens. Users shouldn’t have to squint to view text or images. Nor should they have to swipe or tap elements multiple times to find what they’re looking for. Google offers a mobile-friendly test tool to get you started, or you can consult a trained UI/UX designer.

Page speed 

A slow site tends to lead to high bounce rates. One study showed that half of visitors tend to jump ship if a site takes three seconds or longer to load, and 70% of consumers waver in their buying decisions because of loading times. For this reason, Google tends to suppress slow sites. Needless to say that whether accessed via desktop or mobile, your site should load beautifully and quickly.

Crawlability 

Check that your site isn’t littered with broken redirects, returning 404 errors, or inadvertently blocking crawlers from accessing your pages. It’s possible to have pages that aren’t linked anywhere on your main site, too, making it difficult for crawlers to find them.

On a related note, you’ll want to avoid creating subdomains for your blog, help center, or other properties that you’ll be updating consistently with new content. Many startups make this mistake, only to realize that Google views their subdomain as separate from their main site, and therefore isn’t attributing any SEO gains to their main site.

Content management system (CMS) 

This is not a factor that Google cares about, however, it’s important to note that you’ll likely want to host your site on a standard CMS (Think: WordPress or Webflow) to avoid bottlenecks in development. Your content team should be able to create, edit, and publish content without having to bug developers—and if you need a developer’s help, it shouldn’t be difficult to find someone who is familiar with your CMS.

Step 3: Research Keyword Opportunities 

Keywords are the actual terms and phrases that you want your site to rank for. They are a core component of any SEO strategy but are often misunderstood. One big misconception: you want to target the keywords with the largest monthly search volume.

In most cases, this is not a winning strategy. Your startup will benefit more from targeting long-tail keywords (keywords that are more specific and have lower search volumes) that attract users with the right intent. Using SEO tools like ContentEdge and Semrush, you can research intent and other important characteristics of a keyword.

Search intent

Monthly search volumes can be misleading without context—it’s easy to get excited about keywords that attract tens of thousands of searches a month. But when you’re researching keywords, you’ll want to dig deeper and discover who is performing those searches.

Use Google or your keyword tool and check out which pages currently rank for those keywords. Do the pages actually address what you expected them to? Are they written for people in your target audience?

Most blogs tend to target top-of-the-funnel phrases (like “how to train a puppy”) which don’t necessarily attract people with an intent to buy, but do attract people who have a need for your product or service. Meanwhile, homepages and other site pages tend to target purchase-based phrases (“top pet stores in San Francisco”).

Keyword difficulty

If you’ve ever ran a Google ad campaign, then you’re familiar with looking up the average cost-per-click (CPC) of a term to gauge competition. Similarly, when you’re about to go head to head with other sites for organic rankings, you’ll want to understand organic keyword difficulty, which is a metric provided in tools like ContentEdge.

Along the same lines, you may be interested in looking up the Domain Authority (DA) of sites that rank for your keyword. If the first page is dominated by sites with high DA, or DA that is much higher than yours, then you may have trouble climbing your way up SERPs.

Competitor research 

Aside from looking up their DA, you can investigate other details about your competitors’ keyword strategies and organic performance. With ContentEdge, for example, you can see other keywords that your competitors rank for and how much traffic they receive from their organic efforts. You can also see the number of backlinks they have, and who they often compete with organically. Is there any strategy that you could borrow?

screenshot of contentedge's competitor analytics

Step 4: Build a Content Calendar

This is when everything comes together. At this stage you’ll want to create a content calendar that holds your team accountable to a regular (and realistic) publishing schedule. Your calendar should also enable you to work more efficiently by pre-defining topics for your team to write about for the next few weeks or months.

Furthermore, at this stage, you should take the time to develop processes for your team to follow to ensure that each piece of content has the best chance of ranking.

On-page SEO 

On-page SEO involves everything from the keywords you use, to the title tags that you write for each page. It’s helpful to create a checklist of on-page tasks to complete before hitting “publish” on any page.  Your checklist should include thing like:

  • Include your keyword (or a close variation) in your title and at least one header
  • Create a custom title tag
  • Create a custom meta description
  • Compress images and check your image name, plus alt tag
  • Include internal links to related blogs using strong anchor text
  • And more

Content relevancy 

As you develop content, you should always make sure that content is written in a natural, authoritative way. To that end, you’ll want to use terminology that your target reader is familiar with. Avoid simply mimicking the examples, data, structure, and text that other high-ranking pages use.

Google will want to see that you provide unique insights, which indicate that your content is relevant to the keyword at hand.

Internal brainstorming sesh 

While the steps before this should’ve helped you to brainstorm new topics to write about, it’s always a good idea to huddle up with your sales team, CX, and other departments that regularly engage with your core customer. By putting your heads together, you can more easily create a list of ideas based on what customers (or prospects) actually care about.

Step 5: Promote your content 

SEO isn’t a simple waiting game. Just because you publish a new, spectacular piece of content doesn’t mean people will come. To give your content a nudge in the right direction, you’ll want to proactively drive traffic to your page.

Engage a variety of distribution channels to get your content in front of a wider audience. Experiment with different formats, preview text, and/or promo images to pique interest. This will not only help to boost the virality of your content, but will also help to optimize off-page SEO factors that Google cares about. 

Social media 

Leverage your networks to increase views and shares of your content. While social media (shares, likes, followers) don’t directly impact your ranking according to Google, the additional visitors to your page signal to Google that your content is useful. Studies additionally show that web crawlers may, in fact, consider links published on social media as credible backlinks. The first piece of evidence: social media profiles do rank on search engines. Secondly, social channels themselves act as search engines, allowing other publishers and readers to discover and link back to your content. 

It thus benefits you to have a strong, active social presence to increase the reach of your profile and shared content. Note: aside from standard channels like LinkedIn and Twitter, test out forums like Quora and communities like Facebook groups. 

Backlinks

Backlinks are one of the most coveted rewards of content promotion. After all, the top first-page results on Google have 3.8 times more backlinks than those below them. That said, Google’s John Mueller advises site owners to prioritize quality over quantity. Sites that link back to your content should ideally be authoritative and relevant. 

So, how do you earn backlinks without violating Google’s terms and conditions? Brand collaborations are a great way to increase promotion around your content, as are PR agencies. The latter can help you to request a backlink from higher authority publications in a non-blackhat way.

Repurposing

People consume content in a number of ways. To stretch the ROI of each piece of content, consider ways to repurpose your articles, ebooks, or other properties. For instance, an ebook could easily be broken out into multiple articles—and even serve as the foundation for a new pillar page.

You could additionally create a tweetstorm, video, or infographic from a single blog to expand your reach. Brainstorm various ways to get people and publications excited about sharing your content.

Step 6: Analyze and optimize 

Nothing stays the same for long in the world of SEO. Search engines are constantly tweaking  their algorithms, and it’s not uncommon for your keyword rankings to fluctuate from month to month (albeit, they should only fluctuate slightly). 

Time and time again, you’ll need to analyze site performance, revisit your content strategy, and keep your eyes peeled for new competitors. The harsh reality is that just because you rank on the first page today, doesn’t mean you’ll rank there tomorrow. Make it a point to test new SEO strategies and to maintain good housekeeping processes like the ones below. 

Content refresh 

At various points in recent history, Google has gone on the record to say that content freshness is a ranking signal—and yet its importance varies from query to query. For instance, for transactional queries like “best coffee maker,” the freshness of your content isn’t a main concern. But for others, like news-related queries, freshness is vital. 

In any case, it benefits you to update your content with the most recent information and/or to expand upon existing posts. Aside from impressing Google, you’ll want to make sure that your readers feel that your articles are accurate and credible. If a visitor enters your site for the first time through a blog, the last thing you want is to have them bounce because your content is outdated. 

A/B testing  

A/B testing is common practice among advertisers, who are always looking to refine their messaging and increase ROI. Your SEO strategy is no different. Set aside time to test various factors that could help boost your rankings. 

You might be surprised to find that something as “small” as changing your formula for title tags could move the needle. A/B tests are especially effective for large websites with many similar or  programmatically generated pages. They can help you to identify gaps in the user experience, and to optimize everything from clicks to conversion. 

Note that SEO A/B tests will take longer to marinate than A/B tests for ads. You should plan to run tests for at least a month (if not a few months) or until you’ve amassed a large enough sample size. 

Algorithm updates

Google releases hundreds of updates to its algorithm each year. Not all of them are announced or documented in detail—and for that reason, it’s important to keep your eyes peeled for any unusual fluctuations in your organic traffic, click-through rates (CTR), rankings, and keywords. 

In the past, the search engine has released updates that give priority to mobile-friendly sites or emphasize natural language (as examples). The end goal is respectable: to improve the user experience for searchers. However, some updates could fundamentally change how you approach SEO and/or challenge existing assumptions. Remember the days when you could rank on the first page by injecting keywords in your headers and body content? 

Follow SEO experts on Twitter, newsletters, or blogs like this to stay ahead of the curve. Get in the habit of expecting changes rather than being surprised by them. 

In summary

SEO excellence is an ongoing pursuit. And yet, with the right strategy in place, you could reap rewards for a long time. For the quickest and best results, make sure to keep your team moving along. Startups have a tendency to stall, either because they get hung up on targeting or aren’t sure how to brand themselves. 

While you’ll want to be clear about your SEO goals, rest assured that your strategy will/should evolve with your company. It will become more and more refined over time as you experiment with various tactics and get more familiar with SEO overall. 

Need an extra hand? Got big hopes, but not enough time? RankScience’s team of SEO strategists and content creators are ready to help your business out. Schedule a consultation for free.

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