In this guest blog post, Shawn Parrotte, Marketing Manager at Designli and friend of the Founder Institute, dives deep into the world of SEO and provides you with expert tips on how to make your startup easier to find on the internet.
It’s tragic, but on the internet, even the best products can go unnoticed. Like a tree falling in an abandoned forest with no-one around to hear, if you launch a product and no-one can find it, will it even make an impact?
Say you’ve created a product you know will benefit someone. Hundreds, probably thousands of hours were spent planning, coding, testing, re-testing, debugging, and designing it. You’re down to the last phase: the launch.
But, if you’re like a lot of startups, marketing doesn’t come naturally. You know your stuff - but maybe your “stuff” just isn’t knowing how to get people to your product. That’s okay. No-one can be an expert at everything.
But here’s the thing about digital marketing: even though social media gets all the attention, search engines still hold the keys to the kingdom. Understanding and implementing the basics of search engine optimization at the early stages of your startup will not only help your site rank better from day one, but will give you a solid foundation if you need to hand off the responsibility as your team grows.
That’s why we’ve made this quick SEO guide specifically for startups. So you can rock your product launch, build your audience, and grow your startup.
If you have a good handle on how search engines work already, feel free to jump straight to our 7 strategies. If not, let’s dig into how Google, Bing, and the rest do their thing.
What is SEO, really?
Let’s look closely at how Google actually works. A person decides they need something (some information, a solution, a product) and, if they’re like 75% of online US users, they’ll type a search query into the Google search bar in hopes of finding what they’re looking for. From Google’s results on the SERP (search engine results page), they choose the website or webpage that best suits their request.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) studies how search engines like Google select pages to include in their results and uses that data to optimize a web page for that search engine.
Well, yes and no. The algorithms used by search engine engineers are fantastically complex, but many of the factors they weight you have a lot of control over.
How search engines work
A search engine’s goal is to serve the “best” results to the user, and it’s this list of “best” results that keep SEO researchers up at night. How does the search engine decide what’s best? What data is included in their calculations? And what may hurt a website’s rankings?
To answer these questions, we need to ask, “What does a search engine do?”. Well, it has two main jobs:
Crawling and Indexing webpages (building a map of the internet)
Providing users information (locating and serving the best spots on the map)
As the engine crawls web pages, the links provide the “routes” or “highways” to drive to the next “city”, the next page. Crawling one page locates all the links on that page, and the search engine’s “spiders” follow each link to the following page. And this keeps going until there are no more pages to be found.
When the spiders follow the links, they build a map, or an index, of the web. Each page is assigned a spot in this index, and the search engine returns the most relevant information for the user based on their algorithm.
This is your most important SEO element.
How do you get a good spot in the index? Popularity, ultimately. But it makes sense, right? The more people visiting a particular site and sharing their content, the more useful it must be. It’s a pretty reliable metric for providing useful sites to searchers, but as Google’s algorithm evolves other factors become important too.
But when thinking about reverse engineering popularity online, here’s the most important equation you need when for SEO for your site:
(Valuable Content + Viral Sharing = Relevance) = Higher SERP Ranking
If you’re creating content that is valuable to an audience - this could mean blog posts, infographics, podcasts, videos, and more - they’ll naturally share your links around the internet. As your content gets consumed by more people and they link back to you when they share it, more roads will lead to your spot on the map, i.e. your pages in the search index. As your site’s value and influence builds, search engines translate this as relevance. And more relevance means better results.
This may be a little too simple, but if you ignore the quality of your content, your SEO is dead -- no one wants to be annoyed with junk content that’s boring, difficult, or irrelevant.
So if content isn’t everything, what else is there?
SEO building blocks for startups
Okay, so while good, shareable content is a must-have, you need a handle on the other pieces of SEO to get your site ranked. Here’s what you need to know to get your startup in front of your target audience.
On-page SEO vs Off-page SEO
Simply put, your website has two types of SEO to help it get seen: on-page and off-page. On-page SEO consists of making your website and it’s content easy to understand and navigate for search engines. This means optimizing web copy, the page navigation, url structure, and metadata. Off-page SEO is how other pages link to yours, your trust ranking, social influence and the site’s personal information.
Keywords tell search engines what your page is about
When you know the kinds of language that your target audience uses when they want to find your product or service, you can then use those phrases directly in the copy on your site. Don’t go overboard with “keyword stuffing” because Google can easily know when you do that and will penalize you for it. But by naturally including the targeted keywords and phrases that matter to your business into the text you’ll be sure that the search engines know what the page is about.
But just having the keywords on your text is not enough. Search engines must be able to find those keywords and know how they’re used. That’s where knowing some HTML comes in handy.
Code tells search engines how to read your page
Your site’s code tells spiders what to crawl, what they’re crawling and where to go when they’re done. If you’re not comfortable with coding, invest in someone who knows what they’re doing. It’s worth it.
The main elements you need to be familiar with are:
H1s & H2s
Image Alt tags
Make sure you’re using targeted keywords in each of these so you don’t confuse the search engine algorithms.
Links tell search engines where to find your page...and a whole lot more
Links can be your best friend or they can sink you quickly. There are two types of links important to SEO: outbound and inbound.
Outbound links are those links you place in your content that “link out” to other sites. Glance through this article, and you’ll find several outbound links in each section. The most important factor is where these links go.
Links to real, relevant, accessible and trusted content are good. Links to garbage are not. As a rule, only link to content and sites your reader will find valuable.
Inbound links are off-page links that point to your site. Also known as backlinks, these tell search engines how useful your page is. Getting an inbound link from a trusted site can boost your trust ranking and prove to search engines your site is considered reliable by its users.
As you promote your site, you’ll hear a lot about link-building campaigns. These are campaigns focused on building inbound links to your site to increase your influence and boost your ranking. Moz.com has a great resource on launching and maintaining a successful link-bulding campaign.
7 SEO Strategies for early startup success
Okay, so we’re clear on the basics. Now how do you get your startup on the SEO map? Here are 7 quick tips.
1. Write valuable content
If you produce content your audience needs, make it easy for them to find, and share it freely, you can’t help but attract a loyal, buying mob -- the goal of every startup. Do the opposite, and you’ll type your fingers raw...all alone.
Include keywords in your titles and headlines
Use keywords around your links (instead of “click here” --> take a look at the links throughout this post. Each one has anchor text to tell you what you’ll find on the other side.)
Post new content or update your existing content regularly.
Quality over quantity. This is huge. Bring readers back for your awesome content and make it irresistible to share.
Don’t scrimp on your content during your startup. Invest in a good writer who can connect with your audience and give you a trustworthy voice.
2. Plan your keywords carefully
Keywords are really misunderstood. Choosing your keywords based on your visitor’s buying stage can yield exciting growth for startups. There a three kinds of keywords:
Transaction - I want to buy a tv or I want to stream a movie.
Information - I want to know who makes the best pita in Southie.
Navigation - I want to go to Instagram or my favorite online shop.
Specific is better. Think about it: if you rank high for “coffee”, how many users typing simply “coffee” in their search bars are looking to buy your roast? How about ranking for “small-batch coffee roasters” or “small-batch coffee roasters in Phoenix”? Now you have someone looking for your specific product and maybe even in your specific location. Even better, you’ve just narrowed the competition for your keyword!
These are known as longtail keywords. When Google auto-completes your searches, those are longtail keywords you could be ranking for. They tell you what stage of the buying process your searchers are in.
Generally speaking, the more specific the keyword, the closer to buying.
3. Speak your audience’s language
SEO isn’t all about keywords. I know I’ve stressed keywords -- and they are important -- but you can have all the keywords perfectly placed and still not have content your audience connects with.
Demian Farnworth explains what SEO keyword research really means.
[Keyword research is] about knowing your audience so well that you learn which words will grab their attention, earn their trust, and persuade them to subscribe to your newsletter, download your book, buy your product.”
Now think about your audience. As a startup focusing on SEO, maybe you don’t know your audience well enough to speak like them. Fix that!
Read what they read
Follow who they follow on social media
Watch their favorite movies and tv shows
Find them on Youtube and listen
Physically hang out where they hang out
Send a survey
Find those keywords and how they actually use them. Then, build high-quality content around those words, and your audience will find you.
That’s SEO keyword research.
4. Link to your content with purpose
The coveted backlink is a startup’s bread and butter -- and a shady link-building campaign can be it’s guillotine. If you’re outsourcing this, do your research to make sure the company is legit.
Real and relevant
This should go without saying, but there’s a reason I’m saying it. Real links actually go where the user expects them to go. And don’t redirect. Google hates that.
Include relevant links to quality sites that you find useful and that your readers find useful.
Share your content on social media to build backlinks and followers.
Use your anchor text wisely. Instead of “click here”, imbed your link in a description of what the reader will find. Moz.com has a great article on smart SEO link practice. (see what I did there?)
Earn quality links. Build relationships with influencers via social media, commenting on their blogs or finding them at conferences and networking events. As long as you approach this with the attitude of genuine interest and adding value, you can get links from trusted sites and individuals. That’s kind of a big deal with the Google gods.
Guest blog to borrow an audience. When you guest blog on a relevant site, you get to donate a link. Now you have a link to your site from your guest blog site, and viola! Your score jumps. If you can frame your startup in a way that solves a problem for that site’s audience, the owner will often be happy to have you post the article.
5. Get the little things right
The technical side of SEO can get overwhelming, but just getting the basics right can put you miles ahead of the competition. Moz.com lays out SEO code as simply as I’ve seen, and here are some key takeaways you can get started on right away.
Meta descriptions are powerful click builders. These are the little descriptions that show up on the SERP after the web page title. Instead of whatever is at the top of your page going there (“if this page is not displaying properly…”), take advantage of it by giving the user a tasty preview of your content.
HTML tags show a crawler where to look. Keep your keywords inside HTML (not in video or rich text where they can’t find it), and they can be easily crawled. Use the heading tags in order on your page, and include keywords within the tags.
Don’t let slow pages turn your traffic away. Keep your site streamlined, so your readers aren’t waiting on your super-HD graphics to download before they can get to your product. Especially with the increase in mobile users, download speed is critical. Link out to your non-essential videos and HD photos to improve your overall site’s speed.
Structuring your page URL with keywords lets a user know what to expect on that page. Keep it short and human-friendly. Try to avoid using parameters (those “&id=44” mark ups that show up in your search bar). If it looks clean and contains the user’s keyword, it puts your user at ease. Rand Fishkin lays out some good URL principles in his article on Moz.com.
Keep your sitemap clean and current. Stephen Spencer has a short but useful article on optimizing your sitemap for SEO. Crawling your site first can help you fix any errors Google would find later -- duplicate content, dead links, etc. You can generate a sitemap with a plugin, and there a ton of options out there. But once you create it, keep it current by updating links daily. If you’re following the fresh content rule and posting regularly, staying on top of your sitemap gives Google the best chance possible to find and index your content quickly.
6. Don’t forget your app
Way back in 2015, mobile searches on Google had already begun to dominate the market, so by 2016, Google began indexing apps to include on their SERP. That means your startup’s app must be SEO-focused, too.
Search Engine Land is a great resource for app SEO, and here are a few key takeaways from one of their older but better “SEO for apps” articles.
Place your most relevant keyword in the title.
Kissmetrics points out a 10.3% increase in search rankings for apps with keyword-conscious titles. And do NOT change your title to keep up with new keywords. Update your description and profile page to adapt to your market’s keyword relevance.
Link to your app profile page from your site.
The profile page and the number of downloads provide a majority of Google’s criteria. Use your best keywords to make your profile page easy to find.
Use your startup’s name in the anchor text of your link.
Just like we talked about, you’re optimizing your anchor text for all your links, right?
Provide a download link at the top of your web page.
Make it easy to download the platform-specific app for your visitor. The web is being overrun by mobile users, so promoting your app is a must.
Improve your ratings and reviews.
Follow-up surveys and in-app feedback can provide invaluable insights into your users. Users like to vent -- just make sure your users don’t vent in their ratings. Offer an in-app feedback or help feature where problems can be resolved without hitting the review stage. Downloads and reviews are huge to your app’s ranking. Don’t be afraid to encourage your happy users to put in a good word for you.
Don’t forget to categorize.
Categorizing and sub-categorizing your app makes it easy for the picky user to find. Like longtail keywords, if a user is looking for an app that does exactly what your app does, placing it in the correct category makes it easy for them to find it.
Write an SEO-healthy app description page.
Use your best practice for SEO in your description page. Write a concise description in our audience’s language, and include keywords most relevant to your market and product.
With nearly 270 billion app downloads projected for 2017, your startup’s app must be optimized to be competitive. Don’t treat your app as second-rate to your website. It could be that more users see your app than your site in the very near future.
7. Always be agile
SEO is not a one-and-done process. Just scroll through Kim Speier’s “quick” history of Google’s algorithmic updates, and you’ll see the search giant’s engineers are working overtime to give online users the best experience possible.
What does this mean for your startup? Adopt an agile SEO strategy early. Keep tweaking, but don’t obsess.
Fresh content ranks well, and keep up to speed on your keyword research. Know your audience’s newest longtail keywords, and focus on ranking well for those.
SEO for startups is simple: Produce good stuff
Remember, Google’s goal is to find the best content for your audience. That means your job is to produce the best content you can, and to make that content easy for Google to find.
Produce, optimize, share, repeat. Google will find your awesomely-designed product -- just make sure they’re impressed when it does.
Creatively Bold. Humbly Priced. Designli offers fixed-price app design and development to entrepreneurs and small businesses. Click here for more information.
(Notebook with Tolls and Notes about SEO,concept image by Shutterstock)