A complete guide to Startup SEO
Here's everything a startup founder should know about SEO
Your product is live, and the dust has settled. You can finally relax. And yet, there’s that nagging feeling that the real struggle is only about to begin…
Well, that’s because it is… You have quite a task ahead of you now, in fact.
Coincidentally, that’s when most founders start thinking about SEO.
Even though SEO isn’t the quickest way to revenue, it remains the most powerful channel for building sustainable growth for startups.
Consider these stats:
But SEO is also one of the most difficult and trickiest channels to implement. Not only does it take time to build a strong organic growth engine. SEO also requires skill and knowledge across several fields to ensure that your content ends up ranking well, positions your startup for the best possible search queries, and attracts clicks and signups.
The good news is that you’ll learn about all that below.
What we’ll cover in this guide to startup SEO:
Let’s dispel some myths about startup SEO, and learn why it is important for startups to start building organic growth engines as quickly as possible.
Understand the process of achieving good rankings. Learn what happens from the moment you publish a new page to the point where it ranks and drives organic traffic to your site.
Learn what are the most common roadblocks for startups to build organic search visibility and growth.
Discover the four core elements of the typical SEO strategy for a startup.
Understand what metrics reveal your progress, and which KPIs only provide vanity data.
See what tools you’ll need to build search visibility for your startup.
It’s a lot to cover so, let’s get right to it.
The most immediate answer that comes to mind is yes, obviously.
Everyone’s doing SEO, after all.
Every time you search for information relating to your niche, you stumble across a competitor or two, too.
Not to mention that every founder, startup marketer, or a growth hacker you’ve met told you that SEO is the way to go.
And they’re right. But there is more to answering this question.
You see, startup SEO is different. It plays a different role in early-startup’s growth, too, at least at first. And there are different consequences of making the decision to invest in SEO when you’re a brand new startup.
Let’s go through all that in turn.
It’s, probably, quite easy to understand this term - startup SEO - intuitively.
It’s doing SEO for a startup, right?
So, following that understanding, we can define startup SEO to be all about getting a brand new startup to rank well in the search engines for relevant phrases, and connect it with the target audience.
Spot on again.
But there’s another aspect to this, too.
Startup SEO is also all about making your startup website to be perceived as the most relevant, authoritative, and high-quality resource within your topic or niche.
This is one of the things that makes startup SEO different. When you’re working with an established brand, you’re dealing with a site that’s already recognized and viewed as an authority in its niche. This makes the whole process of ranking content faster, as you don’t have to convince anyone of your authority.
The situation is different with a startup site, an asset that not many people have heard of yet. An entity without any significant body of content, and no perceived authority.
So, often, your first task in startup SEO is not to achieve rankings but to convince both Google and users about your authority.
Consider what Google itself says about the purpose of its search engine:
Search engines exist to help people find what they are looking for. To do that, search engines must provide a diverse set of helpful, high-quality search results presented in the most helpful order.
Note the sentence beginning with “To do that, search engines must…” It explains why it’s so important to first build authority before you even get to focusing on rankings.
Circling back to startup SEO - Optimizing a startup’s site is not just about targeting more keywords or improving rankings. It’s also all about building reputation and authority that will directly lead to said rankings.
Short answer - Yes, absolutely.
But once again, there is way more to it...
I’ve already shared some data about the power of SEO with you. You know that if we skip direct traffic, SEO is the no.1 traffic source for startups.
You also know that brands focus on SEO exactly for that reason - Because it delivers such incredible results.
So, let’s talk about the benefits SEO delivers to startups like yours.
A research by Google revealed an interesting aspect of search behavior. According to the search engine, about 71% of people turning to its product, start their search with a generic query.
What it means is that the majority of users begin their buying journey by looking for answers, not brands. As the search engine puts it in their report: “they're looking for a product first, not for you.”
In this sense, you can think of content as a bridge between your brand and customers as they go about their search for information.
As people go about searching for what your startup does, they discover your content in the SERP, land on your site, and get introduced to your brand.
Granted, not all of those visits will result in a signup. Such a visitor to customer conversion will depend on several factors such as the intent behind the query, the user acquisition strategy you’ve used, and so on.
But on the whole, such content will allow you to be part of the conversation. And if you do your job well and rank well for those queries, be the main part of said conversation.
When your content begins to rank in the SERP across the entire buyer’s journey, you become recognized as the go-to resource and product within the niche.
I’m sure you’ve experienced it yourself. You search for information relating to something you care deeply about, and are immediately drawn to the domains you’re familiar with, right?
But how could it be any other way, actually? So much choice, and so much poor or even incorrect information on the Web has made us naturally skeptical. That’s why we instinctively choose sources we’re familiar with and hold in higher regard.
SEO helps you become such a resource for your audience.
And by far and away, this is its major benefit.
We’ve already discussed how organic search drives the most traffic, aside from direct, and I shared some data on it. But as the aforementioned study also discovered, of the two, it’s SEO that drives the most conversions.
In the study, we read:
Direct traffic might look like it could be a big, important user acquisition channel, but don’t be misled. In reality, there’s a relatively small number of new visitors who learn about a SaaS business (e.g., via an ad or word-of-mouth) and then type the business’s URL into a browser.
This leaves SEO as the primary driver of quality traffic.
At its core, SEO is actually quite simple.
I don’t mean that it’s easy to do, of course. However, the principles of achieving good rankings are pretty straightforward.
(This is great news because, let’s face it, once you’ve grasped the concept of SEO, once you know exactly why you need to do certain things and what outcomes they’re supposed to deliver, then you’ll only have to learn the actual technique and put those principles in action.)
So, let’s go through that, then.
Google ranks pages (and by pages, I mean any content assets, from blog posts and landing pages to any other types of content) based on about 200 ranking factors, give or take.
Some of these factors relate to your domain, the website, or its technical setup. Others focus on content, its quality, relevance, the information you’ve included, and so on.
But according to Google itself, there are three key factors that affect how your site ranks:
Personally, I prefer to think of those factors as categories, as at least the first two encompass many factors within them.
Meeting Google’s requirements for strong, rank-worthy content, for example, requires ensuring that your site has strong topical authority, the content matches the search intent, is of great quality, answers the user’s questions fully, provides value, and more.
At the same time, when working on content, you need to ensure that you communicate the topic of the page clearly so that RankBrain “gets it.” Because once it does, your chances of ranking for relevant searches only increase.
Links, as a category, will include both internal links and backlinks pointing to your domain, and more.
But overall, we can say that, to achieve good rankings, you need:
Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
And yet, startup after startup constantly struggle with achieving good rankings and organic growth.
I mentioned this before but it’s worth repeating - Startup SEO is so much different to working on an established site.
An established site has at least some authority already. Most likely, the company behind it has published a body of content, too. Not to mention that the company is, probably, already recognized in its market.
As a result:
The situation is quite different for your startup…
For you, the playing field is far from even.
For one, you’re facing strong competition, with at least several strong domains dominating the SERP.
Most of these companies have established SEO programs, and have been building their organic growth for quite some time.
These companies might also be enjoying a strong brand recognition. Or at least, customers are more likely to know who they are than you.
You, on the other hand, have none of that.
Not yet, at least.
Established companies not only have been doing SEO for some time, they already have resources (in terms of a budget or internal teams) to propel their SEO programs further.
You, on the other hand, might have to do it with a limited budget, and without a dedicated team.
(It’s not a bad thing, by the way. But it is certainly an obstacle to doing SEO at the same level as your competitors have done it. However, it doesn’t mean that you can’t outdo them. In fact, in this guide, you’re learning exactly how to do it.)
(And this is, probably, the biggest obstacle startups face with SEO.)
You can overcome challenges with the competition or limited resources. Naturally, building your growth without a large budget or a dedicated team will take longer.
But it’s doable, nonetheless.
However, when your stack - particularly the website - isn’t optimized for the battle for rankings and clicks, then no matter how much effort you put into the program, and how many other resources you throw at SEO, it just won’t work.
I see it all the time. Startups build their sites the way they build software - using code and technology optimized for engineers, not marketers.
In principle, there is nothing wrong with such an approach. These websites work and look amazing. They’re also lightning-fast.
But from the SEO perspective:
All in all, from the SEO perspective, optimizing such a website is like trying to win a car race without one wheel. You can go forward, well, sort of, but you’ll always lag behind everyone else. What’s more, in a situation like this, there really is no hack that could help you rank higher and no strategic thinking that would get you ahead.
You’re missing a wheel and that’s that.
The above is why I start every client engagement with a website and setup review.
This ensures that when we launch the program, the website is fully geared up to compete for traffic and clicks.
Lead SEO - Pancake
A typical startup SEO strategy has four core elements. As with everything, there is a lot to each of those, but in general, to build your organic growth, you need to focus on:
Let’s go through each of those elements in turn, then.
Every SEO strategy starts with a site audit, and that’s for a good reason.
As an SEO, I must understand what I’m working with, and what potential obstacles I might encounter when building the client’s search visibility. And, as we’ve just talked about, there can be plenty of such obstacles on startup websites.
Starting with the biggest - Many startup websites lack a content management system that would allow someone like me to easily update, edit, and add content to the site.
Alternatively, even if there is a CMS, it’s some cumbersome system developed primarily for engineers, not marketers. Sure, it’s incredibly satisfying for an engineer to implement. There’s plenty of code to play with, edit, tweak, and so on.
But also, enormously frustrating for an SEO to use.
Another common challenge is lack of existing content assets - pages, landing pages, etc. - to help support the SEO program.
Often, startup websites consist only of the homepage, a single page outlining product features, the pricing page, and the signup screen.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a perfectly fine site structure. It’s sufficient for an early-startup's sales process.
But it can restrict your SEO program, too.
For one, you lack many pages that you could link to from blog content to convert visitors.
Such a small structure also misses the opportunity to convince search engines about the site’s authority and topical relevance.
Because, with just 2-3 pages, your website looks … small. Again, there is nothing wrong with such a limited setup. Then again, it, most likely, does not instill the same confidence as a bigger website.
Compare those two navigation menus:
Now consider which one looks more trustworthy, and communicates that the product is fully developed, functioning, and serious?
Simple, the second one, right?
But why is website setup so important?
You’re entering a crowded market with a new domain and a new brand. You’re going against established companies with strong brand recognition and topical authority. Your competitors have bigger budgets, dedicated teams, and so on.
Trying to do that with insufficient setup is, well, crazy.
You need to level the playing field as much as you can, and having the ability to quickly implement SEO strategies is one of the key factors here.
The research stage is all about understanding your market and target users, and identifying ways to connect with them in organic search results.
In practical terms, it means learning more about three aspects of your startup’s growth:
Most startups are confident with the third part. But they completely miss on the first two.
So, let’s start with those.
I bet the word “true” looks a bit confusing here, doesn’t it? Because what does it mean to figure out a true search visibility?
Well, it means discovering:
Often, all these are different from what your company considers competition, the audience, or customer pain points. Most of the time, to connect with the best customers, you need to uncover their characteristics as searchers, not as customers.
This is quite a tricky concept to grasp, I admit. But basically, to fully understand your true search visibility, you need to learn to think like your potential customers do when they a.) face problems your product aims to solve, and b.) set off on a search journey to overcome them.
Here are just a few practical ways to do it.
Google your product category, for example. Or look up the key feature that attracts the most customers. Then, see who’s ranking in SERP for those keywords. Look for common domains. Even a simple research like this will help you understand what other companies try to build search visibility in your space.
EXAMPLE - Let’s say that I’m running a proposal app for agencies. I could look up terms like “proposal software for agencies,” “agency proposal software,””marketing agency proposal software,” etc. and see what domains pop up the most often.
Do the same for informational keywords and compare domains with category keywords. This will give you an even better idea about whom you’re going to be battling with for rankings and clicks.
Alternatively, (although full disclaimer - this isn’t the most reliable method) you could use an SEO platform to evaluate your top online competitors. Most tools like SEMrush, Ahrefs, etc. allow you to access data they have on a particular domain, including true online competitors.
This is what it looks like in SEMrush:
This is a good way to see the bigger picture of your true search market. However, I’d still recommend that you research top category and informational keywords by hand to shortlist the 3-5 top domains you’re going to compete with the most.
This will help you understand what are the core interests of your target audience.
DISCLAIMER - This is not to replace proper keyword research. The goal of this quick analysis is to uncover key topics and get a better understanding of what information your potential users are looking for.
You can conduct this research in several ways.
Review your competitors’ top performing pages. This is a quick and simple way. Simply run your competitor’s domain through any SEO platform to access information about their top pages, along with performance.
As I said, it’s not a perfect report. But with it, I can quickly see estimated data on what pages drive the most traffic to my competitor’s website. I can go deeper into this, too, and evaluate what topics they cover, how often they talk about certain aspects of those topics, etc.
Compare top topics between two or more competitors. The logic behind conducting a content gap analysis on your competitors is that if two or more of them target the same topic, it must be relevant to your target audience.
Again, this report isn’t perfect. But it’s a good way to get a feel of what’s important to companies you’ll compete against.
EXAMPLE - All three domains in this report heavily target certain phrases. Based on that, I could assume that the topic is important and somewhat profitable in my space.
Evaluate top organic keywords per competitor. Focus on top-ranking keywords (positions 1-5 or 1-10). Then, filter the list by search volume to see what big topics the competitor has put time and effort into winning.
Next steps - The goal of the above research was to gain a better understanding of your overall search market. Now, with that information at hand, you are ready to conduct full-on keyword research to develop your SEO strategy.
I admit; keyword research is a vast and complex topic.
There’s enough information in it to fill several individual guides. We won’t have the space to go into too much detail of keyword research here. But I want to share some basic concepts and information about it with you, starting with the most important one - The difference between topics and keywords.
You’ve probably noticed that I’ve been using both terms - keywords and topics - in this guide. And it’s easy to think that they mean the same thing.
They don’t and understanding the difference between them is the key to conducting a successful keyword research.
Keywords are words or phrases that define or describe specific user needs.
Notice that you rarely research general information anymore. Instead, we type in very specific instructions regarding the content we’re looking for.
So, instead of “small business accounting”, you might search for things like:
In other words, we explain what information we need.
So, from an SEO perspective, keywords describe what our content should be about.
Topics define the broad category of information your audience cares about.
I like to think of topics as concepts that our audience wants to know more about. Following our examples above, “small business accounting” is a topic. So are “SEO,” “content marketing,” “startup marketing,” and so on.
These terms do not specify any particular user need. But they define clearly what those needs are relevant to.
The goal of keyword research is to build a complete list of phrases you need to target to achieve complete search visibility in your space. But to do that well, you first need to understand what concepts to target - The topics your audience cares about.
In other words, topics are the starting point of any keyword research. Only when you know what your core topics are, you can start diving deeper into them, and researching specific sub-topics and keywords within them, to build your SEO strategy.
EXAMPLE: Let’s take the topic, startup marketing. Using an SEO platform, I can quickly identify different aspects of the topic that users search for in Google (note the list of categories in the left column.) Not all of those might be relevant for my startup, of course. But the list gives me an idea of different sub-topics, and specific keywords in each sub-topic.
Startup SEO is primarily a content-led strategy.
Online stores, for example, focus on ranking category and product pages and enriching their listings with Schema.org to boost the SERP presence and attract the buyer’s attention.
Local businesses focus on local search and Maps results because that’s where potential clients look for them.
But for startups, particularly SaaS companies, it’s the content that connects them with potential users across the entire buyer’s journey.
You aim to attract visitors with three specific buyer intents, after all.
In most cases, those people do not google for a SaaS company’s address, phone number, or email, much like you would do when searching for a solicitor or a dentist.
Those people search for content.
They scout the web for blog posts that can help them understand their problem better. They search for software listicles, landing pages, or comparison pages to discover the different software options on the market. They might even google alternatives to your (or your competitor’s) product.
As a result, your content is your greatest opportunity to connect with them, and drive your growth and revenue.
That’s why, the bulk of your startup SEO strategy will go towards building the body of content.
Very much like with keyword research, writing SEO-driven content is a topic of its own, worth at least several guides. However, there is one aspect of it that’s beyond critical to know. I’d even risk stating that it’s the only factor you absolutely must know. The rest is just gravy.
That factor is search intent.
The term - search intent - refers to the reason why someone’s turning to Google with a specific question or keyword. It defines why a person types their search query, and in turn, helps us predict what sort of information they expect to find (or at least, what objective we could help them complete.)
This last element - the objective we could help the person to complete - is by far the most important aspect of the definition.
You see - Google wants to rank only the most helpful content. It doesn’t want its users to see pages that aren’t relevant to their needs. For us, SEOs, this means that to rank, we must create content that delivers on the search intent, and fulfills the person’s need.
That factor is search intent.
If you truly want to understand why someone searches for a particular keyword, you need to analyze the current SERP against several factors:
Let’s analyze a keyword from the aforementioned topic - startup marketing - using this method. For this, I’m going to use “content marketing for startups.
First, here’s a snapshot of the SERP (US search results).
Let’s run those results through the three criteria I outlined above.
Naturally, there is more research to be done. Ideally, I should review each of the top-ranking pages in detail. I should try to understand what they have in common, and what unique information each of them offers its readers.
Based on that, I could establish what I should be including on my page to match, and then, outdo their efforts.
And then, I should outline, plan, write, edit, and publish the content.
Now, I do appreciate that it’s very easy to say. In practice, however, writing SEO content is a complex and lengthy process. The thing is - It’s the only way to go about if you want to build search visibility and organic growth for your startup.
Be prepared to spend at least a year building the body of content large enough to start delivering results from the SEO strategy.
Lead SEO - Pancake
In SEO, content promotion largely relates to link building.
Although, in the past, some SEOs considered whether promoting content on social media would affect rankings but we already know that it’s not the case.
Building links, on the other hand, can help us strengthen the authority of a page, and communicate its value to Google.
(Unfortunately, just like with content writing, link building is far easier said than done.)
There are two aspects of links that we must discuss here - What links to get, and how.
There are two aspects of links that we must discuss here - What links to get, and how.
There are two types of links you can build - internal and external. Both are valuable and support your SEO efforts. That said, each works in its unique way, so let’s discuss them in more detail.
Internal links are links that connect different pages on your site. These links help you build topical relationships between relevant content assets, and suggest what other content would help the person learn more on their topic of interest.
On top of that, internal links help support internal site structure, and allow search engine crawlers to easily reach, access, and crawl your content.
Because of that, internal links also pass authority between your pages. In this case, a linked page receives a little bit of the authority of the page linking to it to boost its authority.
Finally, the anchor text of your internal links gives search crawlers a hint regarding what the page is about. For that reason, it’s always better to link with a relevant and contextual anchor text, rather than a simple “read more.”
External links, on the other hand, are links pointing to your pages from another domain. These links act like a confirmation of your page’s value. No one would link to it and suggest it to their readers unless it was a valuable resource, after all.
Google uses external links as a signal of authority, and evaluates each link for its strength, topical relevance, and various other factors. As a result, not all links are equal, and not all links deliver the same SEO benefits.
Some of those links might even hurt your site, and result in a Google penalty, so be very cautious when building links.
Fair question. Your startup doesn’t have many content assets to link to yet, after all. Nor do you have the level of authority that would make others reference your brand or site.
So, what could you do? Well, there are several link building strategies for startups:
Over time, as your body of content grows, you’ll be able to expand link building efforts to other strategies, and promote individual pages that way, too.
When we focus on SEO, our attention goes to the actual work.
To most of us, doing SEO is pretty much synonymous with:
But eventually, you start wondering whether your efforts are working.
This is an even bigger issue when you have someone else - an SEO agency, perhaps - building your organic growth.
Naturally, you’ll want to know whether their actions drive results or at least, have a potential to drive meaningful results for your SaaS.
But here’s the problem.
Not every SEO metric will reveal your progress, not from the high-level business perspective. And unless you’re a seasoned SEO, figuring out what metrics matter to your SaaS can be quite a challenge.
I mean, google the term, SEO metrics and you’ll get endless lists filled with tens of suggestions that, more often than not, seem more like a complete list of all the SEO metrics the author knew about, than a recommendation for building your internal SEO reporting.
Because let’s face it, as a startup founder, what do you care about the average word length of your pages? Or the number of backlinks you lost last month? Or domain rating distribution? (BTW, these are actual examples I’ve found in articles recommending metrics for founders.)
What you need to know is whether your SEO efforts are pushing the company in the right direction, and I recommend that you evaluate these five metrics for that:
If you’re only starting with SEO, you can just focus on monitoring the traffic in Google Search Console, looking at growth of impression first, then clicks and CTR once your pages start ranking well enough to generate those.
But over time, you should also monitor traffic changes over time, say, traffic growth in the last 12 months or so.
Year on year traffic trend to see how your organic traffic changes over longer periods of time. I also recommend splitting this between various sections of the site. So, you could monitor changes to organic traffic to the blog, the commercial site, etc.
When we talk about search visibility, we mean how prominently your pages appear in search engine results for specific keywords or queries.
You can monitor search visibility by evaluating impressions in Google Search Console. A growth in impressions will mean that your site ranks for more and more keywords, and its visibility for those is also improving.
Many rank tracking tools also report on visibility and allow you to compare impressions with the no. of keywords ranking in various positioning, like no. of keywords in top 3 spots, top 5, top 10, and so on. What’s more, you can often compare your visibility with the competition to get a better understanding of how it changes across the entire search market.
I always recommend tracking rankings in three separate groups.
(Full disclaimer, this division is not my idea but something I learned when working with a large enterprise SEO platform where we split our keywords in those three groups, and I think it’s a perfect way to use ranking data to gain valuable business insights.)
The first group are the benchmark keywords. These are the phrases you already rank well for, say in top 3 results. The reason to track those is because these rankings can help you spot any issue or problems with the site. A sudden loss in top rankings doesn’t necessarily mean a google penalty, of course, but it is a warning sign that something might be wrong.
The second group are high-opportunity keywords that you should be ranking well for but you don’t. You still need to work on these pages, and monitoring their ranking changes will help you evaluate whether your efforts are working.
The last group are new keywords, the ones that you want to rank for but aren’t already.
I admit that engagement is a great metric to track but it often delivers more insights to people like me, SEOs, rather than founders. However, it’s still good to review your engagement from time to time to see whether your content resonates with the target audience.
Not every company defines their organic goals but if you did, it’s worth monitoring how organic traffic helps complete those.
Again, this is something you usually set up in your GA and then filter by organic traffic.
For the end, let’s discuss what tools and software you need, what tools might help (but you don’t necessarily have to have,) and what would not help you at all.
Starting with the first group…
As you’ve learned earlier, your strategy involves four different activities, and these tools will help you deliver on all of them.
SEO platforms combine several different tools and capabilities and help you develop and manage the strategy.
A typical SEO platform would include:
Tools like Google Analytics or other traffic analysis platforms let you access data on your site’s traffic, and monitor its changes over time.
GSC is invaluable for an SEO strategy. It delivers data and insights about your site’s organic traffic and performance directly from the search engine. It’s also where you can monitor your traffic growth, analyze crawling and indexing, and access a host of data to help you see your site the way the search engine does.
For me, it’s the tool where I spend the most time, and it’s also the first port of call when I need to evaluate a particular issue or problem with the strategy.
Most SEO platforms include at least a basic crawler to conduct a site audit. It’s a good-enough capability, and certainly enough for small sites.
But it lacks the punch of a manual crawler.
You, probably, won’t need to conduct too many in-depth crawls at first. But later, as your strategy grows, you might need to crawl a single page, for example, to understand what prevents it from achieving its full SEO potential. Or run a crawl on a specific section of your site to assess its optimization, and so on.
Tools like Grammarly or Hemingway will help you improve your writing, polish up the grammar, and take your content to a whole new level.
I admit; these tools make phenomenal claims. Apparently, they can automate your entire content creation. With them, you’ll, supposedly, publish 100s of SEO-optimized pages at an instant, and so on.
What these tools don’t tell you is that your content will be weak. Their automated outlines won’t take your specific audience into consideration and will just include the most common sections of top-ranking pages.
The writing won’t pass any quality checks either. Hell, in many cases, it will be atrocious, and done to a template.
In short, yes, you will publish a ton of content with them but the only result you’ll see will be sending your domain into obscurity.
That’s everything there is to know about startup SEO. All that’s left is to start implementing those strategies to position your startup in the search results and start building organic growth.