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SEO Advice for Bootstrapped Startups

19 Nov 2010, Posted by admin in Featured,Nohat, 41 Comments

SEO Advice for Bootstrapped Startups


SEO can provide a hugely valuable source of traffic, if done right – especially for a bootstrapped startup where money is tight. If your new product can rank for terms that potential customers are searching for, it can allow you to turn your startup into a success and can send you traffic that you may not be able to justify using AdWords for. Having said all of that though, the most important piece of advice for a bootstrapped startup (or any startup) is, sadly, this:

1. Do not rely on SEO to market your product

It sounds contradictory, but its true. There are two main scenarios for new startups, the first is that it’s a completely new product or proposition, for example – balaclavas for pets. The second is that it’s a slant on an existing product, such as a service that allows other people to lend small amounts of money to others at a more reasonable rate.

The problem with scenario 1 is that, because it’s a new idea, people won’t know about it and so they simply wont be searching for it. You can check search volumes for particular keywords using Google’s AdWords keyword tool – but take the data with a pinch of salt, as it’s not always entirely accurate.

For scenario 2, because it’s an existing product, the competition is likely to be far too strong (at first) to get those rankings. Even though the person-to-person micro-lending example above is a relatively newish idea (the example is actually stolen from Zopa, who have been around for a few years now) – the new site would still be aiming to rank for terms like “small loans” and “payday loans”, which are remarkably competitive and could take a huge amount of time and effort to rank for.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be thinking about SEO when you prepare for launch, however. Launching your startup is one of the biggest opportunities you have to gain links into your site – links that, later down the line, could prove to be invaluable in allowing you to rank above your competitors, or rank for particularly high traffic driving phrases. While there are a huge number of intricacies with search engine optimisation, the basics are to find the right key phrases to target, to include those terms on the page naturally and within the page title and, of absolutely massive importance, to get other sites to link to you.

When launching your startup, even with just your minimum viable product, there are a large number of chances to pick up links – potentially some of the strongest links you could hope for.

2. Think about links during your initial launch coverage

Try to ensure that, when other sites cover your launch (potentially sites similar to Killer Startups), they include a link back to your site. While those initial links will be very useful in sending traffic your way in the early stage, they can be massive useful later by allowing search engines to find your site and gain authority and link value. Traindom has an excellent list of places to submit your startup to, and the comments of this Hacker News page are also very useful.

3. Tie link building into your initial promotion

If you’re going to promote your new product, see if you can incorporate a way to build links at the same time. A year or so ago, I noticed a marketing campaign by a company that involved offering bloggers a “plant a tree” widget for their site – if you placed the banner on your site, they’d plant a tree. If anyone were to copy your embed code and put it on their site, your score would go up – the higher your score, the more trees they would have planted for you. It meant free advertising for the company, it made them look good, it was an interesting enough idea that they might have potentially picked up natural links anyway and each widget included a link back to the “download this widget” page on their site. (I can’t find any traces of the competition now, so I’m not sure it’s still running – but if you find it, please give me a shout). Make sure you don’t overcook this idea though, or you could cause Google to review what you’re doing – make sure you read this post first so you know where the line is.

4. Build in a reason for people to link to you

Similar to the example above, try to find a reason for people to link to you – and think about ways you could tie it in to promoting your product. Think about approaching relevant bloggers and offering them exclusive early access to your product, or free 1 month/2 month/lifetime membership, in exchange for a review on their blog.

5. Ask your customers to link to you

If you have any new customers, it’s worth mentioning in the confirmation email that you’d be grateful if they shared word of your new site, and would be especially thankful if they linked to you.

6. Provide something to actually link to

If you’re launching a minimum viable product, you can still try to include something on the signup site for people to link to. When news sites are covering your startup, they may not be too inclined to link to you if all you have on your site is a signup form. If, however, you have a promo video explaining your product, a more in-depth description or an easy to understand illustration of your service (for an example, check out Appointment Reminder) then you’ll have a much better chance of gaining links during any blog or press coverage.

Getting other sites to link to you may not be hugely important in the short term, except for sending traffic your way, but in the long term the links that you can pick up when you launch can prove to be some of the most valuable links your new site may get.

7. Find the search terms your customers are using

What you would type into Google to find your product may be significantly different from what your customers (or potential customers) would search for. You can check which search terms have the highest number of searches by using Google’s AdWords keyword tool. But again – take that data with a pinch of salt, it’s impossible to say how accurate it is. Also, when you check keyword search volumes, it’s best to make sure you check “Exact match” instead of “Broad match” (the default).

8. Protect your new brand name

You’ll absolutely, without doubt, want to rank for your brand name – but if your startup is a success then you’ll want to make sure that other people aren’t easily able to outrank you. Knowem provides a really useful service that lets you easily check a large chunk of the popular social network sites to see if your brand name is available to register. If you have the time, it lets you register them one by one, or they’ll register it for you for a small fee.

And now for the experts

This post was originally going to be much shorter, but then I thought it could be significantly more useful for bootstrapped startups if it included advice from some extremely experienced SEOs. For everyone that helped – thanks very much!

Aaron Wall, SEO Book

Add a free feature which is accessible, useful, and spreads virally. It can create a stream of links and mentions that quickly replaces an ad budget.

Decide in advance who you want to be compared against and offer the points upon which you should be compared. Blekko recently used health search as an example of where they beat Google, offering specific queries where they were better. Make it so that the companies you are comparing yourself against can’t change to fix “the issue” you are creating without drastically altering their business strategy.

When preparing your launch, ensure you have at least a few stats you can talk about, as these can help make reporting feel more firm / less soft when journalists write about you.

Solicit feedback from socially connected folks & give them early access. Blekko’s “closed” beta had 8,000 people in the test.

Tom Critchlow, Distilled

Rank for your name

If you’re launching a startup with a funky name like strtpsitesRawsm.com then make sure you rank for the full query “startup sites are awesome” as this is what people will search for when they want to find you and those branded searches are incredibly valuable. To rank for these queries – try and make sure you put the full words on the site somewhere in the text. This is especially relevant for me as I’m about to launch www.7bks.com which is pronounced “7 books” but clearly might not rank for that term unless I mention it on the site in text.

Don’t do SEO

Wow. Ok, so let me explain this one. There are two things that make SEO tick: 1) links, 2) links. Unfortunately you’re going to struggle to get links initially so don’t obsess over SEO as a major factor. What you SHOULD do is make sure that your other activities are SEO-friendly. So don’t actively do SEO, but do do things that will bring you SEO benefit like outreach to relevant communities, viral blog posts, embeddable content etc. All of these activities are solid marketing tactics in their own right but in the long run will help your SEO.

Wiep Knol, Wiep.net

In my opinion, there are three elements that are important for the success of a marketing campaign: Brains, Balls and Big bucks. It’s not a problem if you miss one of these three elements -like startups usually miss the Big bucks-, but it does mean that you have to focus a bit extra on the other two elements.

The most important part is that you’ll have to be creative (Brain) with your marketing, and link marketing is just a part of that. Send out press releases for example, but with a different angle than most of the regurgitated stuff you can find on most press release and news websites. Make yours stand out from the crowd to increase the chances of getting picked up by large websites and blogs. Also, make sure to start networking with important players in your industry (journalists, bloggers, etc.) well before you launch. Help them wherever you can, so they have the feeling that they owe you something by the time that you’re ready to go.

Also, don’t be afraid to fall flat on your nose every now and then (Balls), if you don’t try you’ll never succeed. For example, you could email the top guys in your industry and ask them to participate in some research, contribute to a massive article, or to answer a few questions for an interview series. Some probably won’t even reply to your request, but others may be willing to help you out and even to help you promote the content piece. Ego is a *very* effective link hook (see this post on the most influential UK SEOs for example), so make sure to use that when contacting your most important targets.

Rishi Lakhani

Get Your Keyword Association From Day 1 – when I see startups, many have really good ideas, and really cool funky names. Nothing wrong with creating a brand name out of thin air, in fact it’s advisable. However, from an SEO point of view, these “made up” names don’t mean much when trying to rank for generic keywords. My advice would be to include your keywords and service message, all in one, by the use of a well targeted tagline.

Consider Geekosauros – a name I made up to represent a new startup that aims to be a Thesaurus specifically for the scientific community. The name is pretty cool, and brand able, but has none of the keyword targets in the logo or name:

Geekosaurus

So what would I do? Well the top keyphrase the site wants to try and aim for is “Scientific Thesaurus”. I would use a tagline in the logo and on the site “Thesaurus for the Scientific Minded”:

Geekosaurus

See what I did there? I included the words from the phrase in the logo, such that over time the strapline becomes synonymous with the brand identity. There are multiple effects of doing this:

1. Gives you a nice title and strong identity in SERPs if you use it in the home page title, which ensures that the keyphrase is covered:

Geekosaurus Google Snippet

2. When blogs, newspapers, etc write about the site, they will be tempted to lift YOUR definition of the business, instead of creating their own. This means that the Press and PR you get isn’t working in silo but working to push your generic keywords as well.

The result of that? Well, they may either:

a. Link to your site using the full definition, hence including the tagline as anchor text
b. Or link to your domain with your keywords in close proximity, which is also considered a “signal” for search engines to rank sites for generic keywords.

Rae Hoffman-Dolan, Sugarrae.com & Outspoken Media

I think the main piece of advice I would offer is to figure out who your brand is before telling the world who it is. And sometimes, this means spending some time prior to launch writing content nobody will ever read, especially if you plan to have a company blog. With brands of mine such as Outspoken Media and Sugarrae, obviously, we knew who we were (us!) pre launch, so we didn’t need to write “pre-content” to figure it out. But with brands I’ve built like BlackBerry Geeks and Android Geeks, etc we spent a few months writing content while developing the site (both sites launched with several months of content in place) to get a feel for who we were and who we wanted to be in the space and to consumers. It allowed us to find our point of difference, which in my opinion, is absolutely essential to Internet success, whether you’re “simply” an affiliate website or a traditional company/brand.

Richard Baxter, SEOgadget

(As a quick note from Rich, he’s writing this from the perspective of having started his own company SEOgadget).

On a tight budget, you’ve got to look at what you can do cheaply, and sort those activities by the highest potential return. I genuinely believe the single biggest reason why we have a company at all is because of our blog. Starting a blog on WordPress costs nothing, and good WordPress hosting can be very inexpensive, too. Your effort is rewarded by traffic and (hopefully) credibility in your niche. If I could start SEOgadget over again, I would still run the site from WordPress, and write about topics I care about.

Of course, networking with peers and people you generally hold respect for can make a great deal of difference. I have so many great friends that have, often many times over, tweeted, sphunn, linked to, recommended or in some way contributed to my work. Those people know who they are, and I’m very grateful they exist. If, as a startup, you have material to promote – build great relationships and network online. It works. Networking, and a good blog or some kind of emerging industry presence can open up opportunities to speak or attend events. Most industries have some kind of conference these days – what are the criteria you need to satisfy to be invited to speak?

For a low budget start up, I often think – if you build a great product, they will come. I know that’s pretty standard advice these days, but it’s true. More than just building a great product, it’s about who knows about the product at launch. Have you researched a PR / launch strategy? Do you have a few technology bloggers or influencers in your field who have advanced knowledge of your startup?

I would check out Rand’s post on having a launch plan.

It’s quite important to build a site platform that is scalable. Don’t worry about big keyword research and large site architecture on day one – but do make sure that what you’re building will scale easily. Baking in search engine friendly URLs, internal navigation and page templates is pretty simple stuff these days, but I still see startups with horribly polluted session ID based URLs and shocking duplicate content problems before they’re even a month old!

If you have the capability – bake in an embeddable content theme into your product from day one. Does your product produce data, charting, pricing, jobs, salary data, images, videos etc? There’s little excuse for a product that doesn’t have an embeddable content strategy at some point in the development cycle. With the right embedded strategy, you could save a lot of time and effort in building links. All you need to understand is what would make someone share your product? What would their reward be?

If you’re keen to make your product embeddable, consider making it sharable, too. Check out Spreadable.com – developed by the good folks behind Chargify, you can reward the people who share your products through social media channels by thanking them with a discount code after they’ve shared your product. Pure brilliance.

David Naylor, Bronco

Get a blog on the site and use the URLs that will later become landing pages.

So www.startup.com/ is the new site that will take 6 months to get to market, while it’s in the incubate status we collect the keywords we are wanting to rank for and plan the URL structure, we install WordPress in the root and start adding blog content to the SEO url structure:

www.startup.com/blog

www.startup.com/Keyword-Cat

www.startup.com/Keyword-article links www.startup.com/Keyword-Cat
www.startup.com/Keyword-article1 links www.startup.com/Keyword-Cat
www.startup.com/Keyword-article2 links www.startup.com/Keyword-Cat

We use the www.startup.com/Keyword-articles for social attraction. People link better to non commercial ;)

But we know full well that on launch day the www.startup.com/blog will 301 to blog.startup.com, but we don’t 301 the articles they become the landing pages of the sites keeping the backlink equity they have built up :)

Rand Fishkin, SEOmoz

1. Leverage your network of contacts at launch to help draw attention, links and traffic to the site. If you’re a heavy user of social networks like LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter, beef up your participation and connections prior to launch and announce your new site at an optimal time. If you have reporters/press/bloggers in your network, asking them for help/coverage/links is smart, too.

2. Plan a bit of post-launch viral content. If you can put together remarkable video content, write an amazing blog post, do cool data analysis or infographics, all of these are worth a shot to spur on marketing and awareness. Just make sure not to get disheartened – you may need to build 5-10 pieces like this before one actually “goes viral” and earns you the kind of traffic, attention and links you want.

For more information on SEO for bootstrapped startups, a number of people have recommended checking out these useful posts from Rand:

SEO for Startups: Top 7 Lessons
I’m getting pretty tired of startup advice that doesn’t include any mention of SEO
Advice for Startup CEOs

Did I miss any useful SEO for startups blog posts? If so – please give me a shout in the comments.

Flickr image from Snelvis.

You should follow me on Twitter here.

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41 Comments

November 19, 2010 10:10 am

Richard Baxter

Thoroughly enjoyable read, and nicely done for getting all of that input together! Speak soon buddy.

November 19, 2010 10:15 am

Copywriter Jobs

There are some really good points here. As a recent startup, one of the factors we have found to be important in terms of achieving rankings is having regularly updated content on the site.

November 19, 2010 10:45 am

Sweta Shah

Worth to read. The post contains complete information to market a startup with avoiding tedious linkbuiling job through using another techniques. One can easily create a marketing plan for startup from this post or can think to revise their marketing plan.

Thanks for the such a good informative post.

November 19, 2010 10:57 am

firegolem

As a recently exited SEO from a start up, the two major issues were:

1 no understanding of SEO and no bandwidth to care
2 they allocated no developer or design resources to SEO

Either have a plan and resources to allocate to SEO or ignore it so you don’t get distracted by it.

November 19, 2010 11:01 am

James Taylor

I found your site in the Google searching for ‘ balaclavas for pets’. Can you tell me where I can buy one for my lizard?

November 19, 2010 1:31 pm

Ryan Beale

Awesome Post!! I agree that solely relying on SEO as a startup is a big mistake. However, integrating a marketing plan that incorporates Blogging, SEO, Social Media, & Paid Search should be considered :)

November 19, 2010 2:40 pm

David

excellent post! the tip from D. Naylor came just so handy at a time when I actually needed for one of my sites. Post bookmarked and forwarded to a few friends. thanks for all this info.

November 19, 2010 3:04 pm

A couple more links | Adrian O'Connor's Funny Little Blog

[...] SEO Advice for Bootstrapped Startups [...]

November 19, 2010 3:26 pm

Justin Freid

Great post – I think the most important take away is don’t rely on SEO for your marketing. Yes it can help your business tremendously if you do rank but it takes a lot of work to get there.

November 19, 2010 3:45 pm

Dan

Epic post! LOL @Jimmy_iC

November 19, 2010 3:56 pm

Chris

Cracking read mate. Really good points well done on pulling it all together. Job very well done.

November 19, 2010 4:04 pm

seowizzard

I have to say that it would be pretty stupid if you set up your business and relied on SEO however it is a good foundation for any business starting and and if you work with the right group of people can see increases in traffic and conversions.

November 19, 2010 4:19 pm

Paul Tyler

Some great information here. I work for an agency and am always trying to push this sort of information to our sales team who believe that SEO is the magic formula to all new websites. This will be passed around!

Thanks

November 19, 2010 4:20 pm

Troy

Thanks for keeping the message honest. I thought this was going to be another SEO pitch, but it wasn’t. Good helpful read I’ll be bookmarking as we try to launch.

http://tech.rawsignal.com

November 19, 2010 5:08 pm

Tim Draw

Hey do you guys still sell lizard snowsuits? I found your guys site listed there and i want to get a snowsuit for my lizard. Please e-mail me back asap k thx :-)

November 19, 2010 5:14 pm

Cynthia

Thanks for the great info and for helpful links. I’m part of startup and new to SMM. I’ve bookmarked and printed for reference.

November 19, 2010 6:35 pm

Shalin Jain

Very informative. Must read article for every startup.

November 19, 2010 7:32 pm

Jijesh Devan

An excellent article. A quick question for you, how valuable is a link when it is in the comments section? For example, how valuable is a link to my webpage from this comment viz-a-viz a link you create to my website.

Thanks for the reply.

November 19, 2010 8:06 pm

regex barclay

Lizard me timbers!

November 19, 2010 8:54 pm

Gfiorelli1

Wow… no words to express how I appreciated this post. It is a really valuable source for all of us with ideas, tight budget and a great passion that push us to start our risky adventure in business

November 19, 2010 9:46 pm

admin

Hi guys, thanks for all the comments.

@Jijesh – it depends on what you mean by ‘valuable’ – if you mean whether it can help you rank better directly, then it won’t help – it uses the nofollow tag (like most blogs do, automatically, to help prevent spam). But if some people like your comment and choose to check out your site, it could be valuable to you that way..

@Troy – good luck with your launch! If you need any beta testers, feel free to give me shout

@Jimmy_iC I will make you a tiny balaclava out of string

November 20, 2010 8:25 am

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November 21, 2010 2:31 am

Geno Prussakov

Many have already said it, but it bears repeating: Thank you for taking the time to put together this piece.

One thing that’d be helpful in the above post (for better navigation) would be a “table of contents” preceding the text, and linked to each section (from “Do not rely on SEO…” one to the Resources/Experts Speak). Other than that, it’s a jewel. Retweeting and sphinning it as soon as I post this comment.

November 21, 2010 2:44 am

Haris Krijestorac

If you go with a name that doesn’t have your keywords in it, it is also good to NOT incorporate common words into your startup name. Those words will be more competitive to rank for. You’ll have to focus on ranking for those words and probably do PPC, instead of focusing on the words that are drawing in new visitors organically.

November 21, 2010 6:02 am

Jim Spencer

My partner and I will be launching a local seo consulting business. A great domain name, WordPress and Thesis are installed. So, it’s like we are teed up and this post just substituted a new driver that sends the ball down the fairway on remote control. No more bogies.

The suggestion of deciding and writing about who you want to be compared to is genius in so many ways. If you don’t they will. If you do, you control the market’s perception.

Now I have to go think on what kind of embeddable content we could create or at least some content worthy of linking to.

November 21, 2010 5:51 pm

Mike

Wow very detailed post. Thanks!

I think that a nice PR will really help a startup with their SEO if they know how to utilize it for their own needs.

December 2, 2010 3:32 am

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December 9, 2010 6:17 pm

Gareth Rees

There’s some serious info in here. Great point about approaching customers. There’s always links, usually fairly decent ones from client sites, friends sites, suppliers that are great to kick off with.

December 21, 2010 6:05 pm

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February 3, 2011 3:28 pm

SEO Advice For Bootstrapped Startups

[...] This is an excellent post: http://sharkseo.com/nohat/startups/. [...]

March 9, 2011 11:26 pm

Arrow SEO

Great post, covers every aspects of starting an SEO project. Great for future references. Thanks!

April 1, 2011 12:05 pm

Louis Rix

Very interesting post – some good ideas and sites where i can submit my new site too. Kipcall.com looks like a good place to start. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

April 28, 2011 4:08 pm

Jamie Fairbairn

I agree with the advice not to solely rely on SEO. Online marketing in general covers many different areas and some clearly work more quickly than others.

Having regular content to link to from social media sites is a must for visitors and SEO.

I have over 100 articles on online marketing for startups and SMEs on my blog if anyone wants to read more.

Thanks.

Jamie

June 30, 2011 5:10 pm

Jackie

Another way to obtain links is to utilize social networking websites. Sites like Facebook, Youtube and LinkedIn and many others allow you to place a link back to your website. Not only does this count as as a link back, it also gives your start up more exposure and enables you to interact with potential customers.

July 20, 2011 1:46 pm

Dave Cain SEO

What a sterling effort – great post, great read and some fantastic advice for any startup business! For me the point about “Think about links during your initial launch coverage” is a must – this can really help in the long term!

August 17, 2011 2:16 pm

Marlous de Groot

Nice article, what also interesting can be, make a Infographic for your product what you want to promote en send it to relevant bloggers, this works well for some clients of us…

November 29, 2011 5:59 pm

Web Designer

A very well written article indeed. SEO is not enough for a startup to market your products. However, SEO should be started from day one so that in the near future, like after a year, the business can take full benefit of SEO.

March 13, 2012 10:54 am

Marcus

SEO is not that hard, it’s more about picking the right battles, and having the skill and determination to follow through

June 1, 2012 6:34 am

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December 21, 2012 2:32 pm

Wordpress website

Great post, and the tip of “Ask your customers to link to you” Is great i sent a mail to my new customers. Thanks!

February 25, 2013 3:03 pm

Petra van Leiden

Great article! Thanks. Is it ok to comment after 3 years :)?

In time a lot has changed. Too bad that Google is putting away SEO results. It isn’t in behalf of the search user. On a 15” computerscreen there are just 1/3 seo results against 10 paid search results.

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