9 Startup SEO Mistakes To Avoid

Scott has worked with start-ups on SEO strategy ranging from the well funded (like Simple.com & LendingClub.com) to the very bootstrapped.

I spent the past three months getting to know a bunch of great start-ups here in Portland as part of the 2nd class of the Portland Seed Fund.

SEO ROI graphic by kapost.com

Listening to all these start-up pitches, a quarter or more mentioned ‘SEO’ explicitly and half or more mentioned it indirectly (content marketing, conversion optimization, etc).

Getting traffic from organic search is one of the highest ROI marketing activities a company can do, but its payoff is delayed (see image right).

Because of the delayed payoff many start-up founders think: 1. We’ll do this later or 2. We’ll just outsource this. These are just two of the top mistakes most start-ups make when it comes to SEO.

I’ve divided some of the tips to combat these mistakes into “bootstrapped” and “funded”. It might make sense for a funded company to engage a $1,000/mo freelance blogger, but when you’re bootstrapping you’re probably better off slinging your own blog posts than looking for quality writers (who don’t come cheap).

OK, let’s do this.

Start-up mistake #1: Hiring an SEO agency

I never recommend start-ups hire an outside agency to handle their SEO.

Start-up products/services are often in flux, and hiring an outside has a terrible ROI at this early stage.

Bootstrapped: Spend a few hours reading up on SEO basics for startups. Done? Great! You now know as much as the $12/hour agency kid that you might have had on your account.

Funded: If SEO is part of your core long term growth strategy, hire someone that you would trust to date your daughter/son. I cannot emphasize enough that you need someone you can trust 100%. Your website is too much of an asset to risk in the hands of an SEO that won’t be honest with you.

In-house SEO roles, especially at interesting companies are usually seen as a step-up from agency work so you’ll be able to attract better talent. Make sure they can write, are social enough to build relationships and links offline, and don’t get too hung up on the on-page SEO work (aka the easy stuff, see mistake #7).

J.R. Storment, Cloudability.com co-founder, on not outsourcing SEO…

“We decided to move our SEO in-house recently. It’s too critical to our long term success to outsource.”

Mistake #2: No single person accountable for SEO

You reap what you sow in SEO. And the sooner you start sowing…well, you get the idea. There’s no better day to start implementing an SEO strategy than today.

Someone in your company start-up needs to OWN the results from SEO.

This SEO point person should be reporting all relevant SEO metrics to the team in a public fashion on a consistent basis.

Bootstrapped: Since you’re in charge of everything, SEO is your responsibility. You are constantly talking to early customers, right? Take some of their questions and turn them into posts. Make a habit of doing at least 1 blog post a week to start (if you respond well to negative reinforcement, set up a goal to blog at Beeminder; they’ll take your money if you don’t post!)

Funded: There’s no excuse to not have a solid SEO strategy in place once you’ve raised a seed round. Assign someone to be in charge of SEO. Maybe it’s a new hire (see #1 above), maybe it’s the non-tech founder. But someone needs to OWN your SEO strategy and be in charge of measuring it’s success or failure.

If you’re still convinced you need an outside person, get a recommendation from another start-up on someone they trust to come in and work with your team to develop a strategy.

Mistake #3. Your pretty face isn’t in Google

get your face in Google!
This one is so easy for many start-up founders, and it’s an instant 25% bump on your Google traffic…forever.

You’ll need a Google+ account (yeah, I know…), then link your start-up website with your Google+ profile. The CEO or main founder with the most Google+ pull should do this.

1. Edit your ‘about’ contributor section and add your website:

Google+ about contributor link

2. Add a link to your Google+ profile with ‘?rel=author’ and anchor text of ‘Google+’

link your site with Google+ profile

3. Check the connection with Google’s Rich Snippets Testing Tool

google+ author profile test tool from Google

Link: Google’s Test Tool

It can take a few days for your mug to start showing up in the search results assuming you have enough author authority.

Google has been moving heavily to reward content based not just on where it’s published (ie, Wired vs. your vacation blog), but who published it (Paul Graham doing a guest post on your vacation blog! Winning!).

Bootstrapped: You may not have enough of a following on Google+ to get your face to show up. No worries, setup the connection now, and try to spend some time on G+ circling people you find interesting in your niche.

Funded: God help you if you’ve raised 1m+ and can’t get your face in Google.

Mistake #4: Not knowing your top 5 “money” keywords

I don’t like using the term “money” but it’s the best way to describe the phrases or words that convert best in Google/Yahoo/Bing for your start-up.

I’m shocked at the amount of start-up founders that have no idea of the WORDS that their CUSTOMERS might use to find their product. I’m talking about your average customer, what words do they use to describe what you offer?

What are the top 5 key phrases that you wish your website was #1 result for in Google? Maybe it’s ‘project management software’ or ‘live cute puppy cam’ or ‘bingo card software’….

You need to know at least your top 5 “money” keywords. These aren’t phrases you necessarily rank for now in Google, they can be aspirational. But these money keywords help drive your content strategy.

For example, here’s our top 5 “money” keywords:

1. SEO Software
2. SEO Tools
3. SEO Monitoring
4. Keyword Rankings
5. SEO Reporting

We don’t rank in Google well for those terms yet…but as we get more press and blog coverage, we use these terms to describe our product. And I know people using those phrases to search will enjoy our software.

What are your top 5 money keywords?

Write them down:


Done? This applies to both bootstrapped and funded companies.

Mistake #5: Not leveraging pay-per-click data for SEO

Bootsraped: you’re probably not doing PPC.

Funded: OMG, you better be using this data.

If you have a budget for pay per click, you know exactly what words people are using that buy your product or service.

Why not take those high converting words and create content around them? This is such a guaranteed win in SEO, I’m shocked at the number of companies that sit on gold mines of pay-per-click data and never think to hand it off to the content creators.

You can even do PPC just for pure keyword research purposes. Since paying Google can get expensive, test a few of your top keywords for a few weeks to make sure those keywords really do convert for you. That way you know for sure that any content you create around those phrases will convert well.

Plus, great content for natural search results can work as landing pages for PPC as well.

Mistake #6: Putting SEO in a lonely silo

Good SEO takes a holistic approach to online marketing.

A good friend of mine in high school used to say, “You can’t put a tic-tac on a pile of shi*t”.

Getting loads of traffic to a site that is broken and has no clear call to action is the same thing. It’s just waste.

Optimizing for search traffic means:

  • a beautiful design to attract links and convert traffic better
  • goal conversion tracking so you know what keywords and traffic sources are converting best for your main calls to action
  • having a social presence: google+, facebook, twitter
  • building offline connections. The best links I’ve ever built came from meeting people face to face.

Mistake #7: Bad domain name

I’ve taken heat for our own startup domain name from advisors outside the SEO industry…but you know what, our customers love it. It’s a premium domain that gives us instant cred to our target customer.

Take this advice from the only SEO I’ve ever hired myself, Debra Mastaler of Alliance Link. Here’s what Debra had to say about startups choosing bad domains…

If there was one thing I could suggest new companies do before all else is conduct focus groups on a number of URL’s before they pick one and create a site around it. A lot of companies come up with an idea and try to fit the name to the service or product being sold. With most single word domains long gone, they find spelling variations and odd TLD’s to represent their products. Problem is, if the URL doesn’t resonate with the demographic behind the site, you’re going to have an even tougher time getting the brand to stick. Conduct a focus group on your URL and ask if the name inspires sales and recall.

Mistake #8: On-page SEO lust

“we just need to have keywords in our page titles, right?” – overheard startup founder on SEO.

Google has gotten incredibly good at crawling sites over the past decade. The chance that your startup has on-page SEO issues is small, yet many startups get hung up on easy on-page SEO issues like:

  • URL structure (you know who doesn’t care? Google)
  • Keywords in title tags (OK, that took 2 minutes, now what?)
  • Keyword density (are you kidding me?)

Why so much infatuation with on-page issues?

Because they are freakin’ easy things to recommend fixing. You don’t have to pick up the phone and pitch to get a link (oh the horror, the phone), you just tweak some meta things!

Low-skilled SEOs love on-page issues. It’s how we can generate like, 1,000 recommendations for your site! Wow, look at these 1,000 URLs you should rewrite, I’m a frickin’ genius.

On-Page stuff is child’s play when it comes to SEO. Don’t get caught in the trap of making your site “perfect” for Google.

Here’s the formula to SEO success:

1. Create great stuff (product/content)

2. Get buzz (links, shares/likes, +1’s, tweets)

3. Repeat.

Wait a second Scott….#2….that sounds kinda hard? Oh jeez….so does #1!?

No crap. This leads to the last mistake…

Final mistake: Thinking SEO is easy

If SEO was so easy, why aren’t you living in the bahamas off all the traffic you get to your site? Oh wait, it’s not.

Never believe someone who says, “SEO is easy…”

“SEO theory” is pretty simple.

Actually getting results from SEO?

Not so easy. Results from SEO come from a smart brain, measuring results with the right tools, and executing your little buns off.

Hopefully you can avoid some of these common mistakes I see startup companies making all the time. Please email me anytime (scott [at] serps.com), I’d love to hear from you.

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