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?

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  1. Anthony Pensabene

    All great suggestions. Having a past in PR, I strongly recommend startups consider what PR reps can do for them. No offense to any firm, but "connections" is probably one of the best things they can offer. However, each industry is unique; as a startup and source of information, realize "you" have something to offer; the PR person is middleperson. In many cases, a small startup can do a lot of in-house PR. Also, I would warn startups be somewhat 'selective' with chasing stories and mentions. I was in a situation years ago where I pinged a major reporter, gave her info, and she ensued to use the company in a negative light (unbeknownst until it ran). Some bits for thought.

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    • John Doherty

      Thanks for your comment, Anthony. I totally agree with you about the PR angle. It goes along with the "Create News" section, aka execute big ideas that many people are going to care about. The goal isn't to not piss people off (that's going to happen regardless), but you want to make waves. Startups need buzz around them to really work, and PR is a way to do this. Then work in SEO with the PR, and you're setting yourself up for longterm organic success.

  2. Ian

    Great post John - some questions if that's ok?

    How can you check if you have problems with www and non-www, trailing slash and non-trailing slash? Can this be checked in SEOMOZ pro?

    If I write a Press Release for the launch of a new website or new feature on the site etc what is the best way to distribute these on the web that would help SEO, via PR Wire or contacting the journalists direct in your target publications?

    Same goes for guest posts - do you recommend just emailing a website and asking if you can write an article for them?

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    • John Doherty

      Hey Ian, thanks for your questions.

      1) The easiest way, IMO, is to just type it in the URL in your browser. This takes about 10 seconds to do. If the page loads in non-www and www, then you've got an issue.

      2) There are a lot of different ways to distribute content. I'm not an expert in PR by any stretch of the imagination. I think it depends on the industry you're in. We've had success with BusinessWire and PRweb, I believe, in getting links, but that's not the focus of startup PR. It's for press. If you can get links, great, but you're looking to build a buzz.

      3) Pretty much. You always need to pitch bloggers a value-add though, even if it's just great content (and show them other posts you've done before). I'd recommend starting off by reading their blog and leaving a comment. This will get your name at least somewhat familiar to them and you may have a better success rate. Also, check to see if they accept guest posts by doing searches like [ "guest post"] or [ "guest author"] to see if they've accepted them before. If so, reference that in your pitch.

      Good luck.

  3. Thanks John – I started up a business last year and you’ve nicely summarised many of the areas that I neglected.

    I initially took the attitude of “My target audience won’t use search engines to find my product because it’s too new/niche, therefore targeting keywords is a waste of time”. However, looking back now, I realise that I missed a lot of glaring opportunities. I guess it's typical for a startup to neglect SEO because there are always seemingly bigger fish to fry, but having a 'big plan' for content in place at the outset (as you mentioned) would've made my life much easier now.

    Thanks for the tips – I can say from first hand experience that this is a great primer for startup SEO :-)

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  4. Great post John - timely too

    Our office has just partnered with a PR specialist to help out with all of our clients. Your post has given me some great insight in how to work with PR people.

    Thanks man

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  5. Nice post, big fan... I love They have the most aggressive email campaign I've ever seen. And still no filter. Great stuff, I'd put a bird on all of it.

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  6. Hi John, great info and very true! I love working with startups because there's always something new and exciting that we can "spin" into a facinating release. The www. vs. non-www is not isolated to startups and I am still amazed every time I run into it, which is more often than not!

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    • John Doherty

      Totally agreed, Lisa. There's so much going on all the time. That's part of the fun!

  7. simple and effective. I do believe that working with PR is a great thing. I mean, it's funny first of all, and second you can create something really great for the user, adding an SEO touch good even for rankings.
    I suggest even to talk with other department of your company: to me it's great to have an overview on what's going on in SEM, affiliate, display and stuff like that, because this helps me to find new idea for SEO.
    Things are crazy in a startup environment, but you have an lot of room to create something new and cool.

    thanks for sharing John!

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    • John Doherty

      Thanks Alessio. I totally agree with you regarding other departments in your company. SEO needs to be part of the whole company so that everyone is working towards it. In an online world, you need all parts clicking to really succeed.

  8. I think PR is still a very valuable tool for press, organic traffic and SEO. It is one of those areas that is consistently growing if you have something newsworthy to announce.

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  9. Good tips and advice on helping startups get around SEO. Its all about planning, having the right foundation and implementing and prioritizing the right tasks.

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  10. Thanks for providing the guide for new SEOs.

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  11. I believe I won one of your contests one time about startup SEO. Y NO SHOUT-OUT

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  12. Great Post John,

    I work as an in-house SEO for a small startup company and this was definitely a very interesting read.

    I particularly like what you mentioned about getting a PR rep. I have been trying to do all the outreach myself and it can be very tedious and sometimes disappointing.

    Depending on price, it may make sense to just outsource all this effort to a PR rep.

    I've also found that being active in my niches communities (blogs, Twitter, LInkedIn, Facebook) has helped me to big bigger channels to push my content through. But this is nothing new, right!?

    Again, nice post.


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