Startup SEO - What SEOs Need to Know

In the Distilled New York City office, we have a number of startups in our client portfolio. We work with software startups, education startups, and fashion startups. In my experience, doing SEO for a startup is a completely different experience from doing SEO for large corporations, which we do plenty of as well.

Today I want to explore some of the lessons I have learned over the past few months that makes startup SEO different from corporate/enterprise SEO. Some of these will also be different from SMB SEO. Tom Critchlow did a great presentation about startup SEO back in October and Rand did a talk about inbound marketing for startups in December.

This post is going to cover startup SEO from the SEO’s perspective. What things do you need to think about and what strategies could you take to capitalize upon their often tight budgets?

Here are the steps you need to take and ways I think about startup SEO. I hope they’re helpful to you.

Dream Big (Create News, Do Awesome Things)

Let’s face it. Startups move quickly. Many of them run on the Scrum methodology, which means that they plan one day and then within two weeks changes can be live and big changes that normally take two to three months in other settings have been pushed through.

This is great. Wonderful, in fact. “So what’s the problem?” you ask. This means that the changes you are used to taking time get done quickly get done fast and you must find new things to do. In order to deal with this, I highly recommend sitting down at the beginning of the project with the client and dreaming up a big plan that will actually take a while. Whether this is a contest, a new videos series, or working to solidify relationships with big influencers (or all of the above),  think of something that will take a lot of time and effort to do.

Lastly, make it beautiful. Some startups stick the status-quo. Why not give the users a “WOW” experience every time? Personally, I love sites like Fab because of the beautiful pictures and well-designed layout:

Solidify Your Technical Base

Many startups can accomplish incredible technical feats with their ninja developer skills, but many of them also do not have a strong technical base. The issues I have seen over and over include massive duplication (www and non-www, trailing slash and non-trailing slash), 302 redirects instead of 301s, a severe lack of keyword targeting and information architecture in favor of “branding”, and a lack of foresight for growth.

Startups are pretty good about setting up Analytics, in my experience, but I’d also recommend setting up a Custom Dashboard for them so that the less technically-minded in the company (the C-level usually) and their investors (oh yeah, let’s not forget those) can get a quick snapshot of what is going on with the site and SEO.

Pro tip - Line this up with their KPIs, and your reporting is easy.

Like so:

Create News and Capitalize on News for Guest Posts

Because startups are often creating a new niche, you may have issues with finding keywords to target that have decent search volume and have low enough competition that a new site that can for them. This is one argument for SEO not being your whole marketing strategy, but you can take this an use it for your advantage. Also, remember that content wins online and in order to stand out from the pack and build your brand, your content has to be amazing. Think Salesforce Social Success amazing.

Take point 1, Dream Big, and use the news that your client creates to get guest posts. Rand covered guest posting well recently on Whiteboard Friday, but when guest posting for startups, guest posts go beyond getting good anchor text. Guest posts almost become like PR. Good posts on good sites get you in front of new audiences and help you to build your audience.

Guest Posts are for Rankings + Branding

Think of guest posting for startups as a branding exercise. The funny thing is, when you think of guest posting as a branding exercise, and you are using the really cool news that they have been creating as a reason for wanting to write the post, you’ll often find that you get better placements, and therefore better links, than will ultimately help out the company into the future.

Plus, you’ll notice that after big hits, your brand searches go up and your non-branded organic increases. Interesting.

See? Told you SEO matters.

SEO and PR Must Work Together

As said above, news is crucial for startup SEO. Every startup therefore should have a PR working for them (even if on a part-time basis) in order to help get the big placements. PRs have relationships and access to journalists that most SEOs can only dream of, and quite frankly since it is their job to do so, it makes our lives easier to work with them instead of trying to get the huge placements ourselves sometimes.

Some tips for working with PRs:

  1. Don’t put them in the awkward position of trying to get exact anchor text. If the link doesn’t work well within the post, their relationship with the journalist might be compromised. Be okay with branded links and partial anchor text. Remember - readability and value over anchor text. Always.
  2. Show the PR that you want to work WITH them. You’re working towards the same goal ultimately. I highly recommend sitting down with the PR to decide who will be reaching out to whom. Doing so will open up the lines of communication.
  3. I also recommend creating a document that allows you and the PR to communicate about who you are reaching out to. This is something I haven’t done in the past, and would have saved me a LOT of time and heartache.

Maximize Your SERP

Because the keywords that you’re going to be competing for will often be quite competitive and will take some efforts to rank in the regular organic SERPs, think about other ways to maximize your listing. Often startups will be able to get a lot of reviews and then can mark these up in the SERPs. (I left a way to do this using Google Merchant reviews on slides 25-30 of this presentation).

Other ways to maximize your SERP include:

  1. Annotated video snippets (self-hosted videos + video sitemap);
  2. News listings if the company produces news and has a Google News feed;
  3. PPC (yes, PPC presence can increase CTRs). Check out Melanie Mitchell’s presentation from last Mozcon.

SEO Can Become Integral To Success

Finally, the best thing about working with a startup doing SEO is that you can bake SEO into the fiber of the company. If you can, I encourage you to go work onsite. By being onsite, you can not only get technical problems solved quickly, but you can also be involved heavily in the content creation and helping shape the direction of the company in a way that favors SEO.

How often do we complain that we have too much time with a client? By working onsite as I have done, you are in the middle of the action and can cause change quickly. Take advantage of that opportunity.

Do you have experience working with startups? What have I missed?