Having worked with literally thousands of clients from startups to Fortune 500 companies, we have been the recipients of a great deal of hands-on know-how when it comes to SEO. I don’t say that to boast, but to underscore there is a big difference between startup SEO and enterprise SEO. Not only do enterprise websites have much larger budgets for reaching massive scale on their outreach link building campaigns, they, in many cases, already have decades of links and content that has stood the test of hundreds of search engine updates and user scrutiny. In other words, they’ve earned authority over years of search engine vetting. Whenever a new site is launched, something the BERT-powered, AI is asking itself when it crawls a new site is:
Why is this new site special?
What makes this site better than [Any XYZ Fortune 500 brand] that already ranks for similar keywords?
Why should I rank this page above those that already exist on the same topic that I know users already love?
While every new page would love to immediately rank, a big component of whether or not it does is dependent on the authority and links of the underlying URL. And, brand new sites simply don’t have the history to compete, especially in a world where the game of SEO requires massive input just to stay relevant.
Unless a startup has acquired an existing site with an existing, aged backlink profile, established brands will have thousands more earned and promoted backlinks with an established profile over decades of work.
While we were able to acquire an existing domain in the digital marketing space, we still have competitors who are digital marketers themselves. Imagine how we feel: we’re marketing ourselves as marketers and attempting to compete against other digital marketers!
Playing catch up is possible, but doing it at scale may require outside help, including link building, public relations and perhaps even a potential domain acquisition with existing links.
It’s nice to have clients like this (which we do), but it’s not nice if you’re a startup in the same space, competing for overlapping keywords. This profile represents a site with millions invested in promotion with over decades in business.
The most trafficked sites on the internet are, at least in part, that way due to the massive quantity of their indexed content. I always like to use Amazon as the perfect example of targeting the long tail. When they were founded in the mid-90s, they went after a niche that had the largest number of SKUs possibly available to any online retail company: books. They’re initial launch included listings for some 2M+ titles, searchable by title, description and ISBN. Not only were they searchable on the site itself, but they were readily indexed by the search engines who drove the largest amount of traffic, especially in the earlier days.
Even if your startup has the pleasure of operating in a blue ocean industry and has a product or service that is truly unique, you will still be behind on meaningful content for servicing the customer “problem + solution” via online search, forcing you to play catch up via lots of written content directed at your ideal customer.
If you’re one of the many startups in a competitive space where everyone is jockeying for the same keywords, you’ll want to see what you are up against, but performing a site search on your competition to see the total number of indexed pages:
A site search will help reveal how much content your competition already has (and likely what you may need to create in the coming months and years), but a thorough content audit of the best competitors may help reveal more data (e.g. internal linking, backlinks, etc.) that may be helping to drive the organic traffic to more established brands who may be considered your competitors.
SEO ranking takes longer than ever, for many of the reasons we have already discussed above. Anyone who’s seen the smooth-talking SEO sales pitch, has seen a chart that looks like this:
The problem with this chart is that:
1. It’s not indicative of reality for MOST new websites. Most new sites don’t reach truly impressive organic traffic numbers until they reach the proper vesting and aging of their content and backlinks. That generally tends to happen in phases as Google’s algorithm has updates to reflect your work over several years. Most of the startup websites we advise and work on don’t hit absolute massive scale until late year 3, early year 4.
2. There’s a high likelihood vanity metrics are at play. Whenever I see stats for a startup’s brand new website that starts to see big traffic spikes, the question I always ask is, “what organic keywords are driving that traffic?” and “what is the user intent of those traffic-driving keywords?” Commercially-relevant keywords are VERY difficult to rank for. Yes, you can rank for terms that have decent volume that may still match user intent, but in most cases, those terms can still take years to acquire coveted, conversion-driving rankings.
3. Things can (and will) change quickly. If you’re new, a spike on Google Search Console or Google Analytics is more likely to be retraced in the next update, which these days is right around the corner. So, when I see a spike on a new site in GSC like this, I absolutely expect a dip on the next update. For new(er) sites (I define that as anything with live pages and links <3 years old), there is a greater likelihood of seeing massive spikes and drops in rankings, especially for coveted “money” terms. This will occur for several years. If you’re going to show a chart like the above, I want to see the next chart for the same site after the next Google update. It’s affectionately called the “Google Dance” for a reason: two steps forward, 1.5 steps back.
The bouncing and traffic irregularities of a new site will continue until it truly vests in the eyes of the search engines. Gains will be made if regular content is posted and quality links are procured, but the reality is that nothing can truly shake off the vesting shackles but the vesting itself.
And, Domain Authority (by Ahrefs) and Domain Rating (by Moz) aren’t as big of a factor here either. Sites with very low Domain Authority, longer vesting, great on-site content and great internal linking structures can still fair well as long as they have the appropriate aging.
As a good friend puts it well,
The best time to plant a tree is 20+ years ago. The second best time is today.
That’s not the most encouraging thing to say to an online startup trying to break out of the noise of everyone else trying to make a name for themselves in a zero-sum online world, but for most startups, it’s the reality they must deal with if they are going to succeed.
1. Start. The sooner you begin by getting your site up and getting content published, the better. It helps get you down that aging/vesting curve much more quickly.
2. Get Cranking on Content. This includes on and off-site content writing. And, for those who may want to start a business while they have another job, you can outsource both your link building and outsource your blogging, knowing full-well that such an investment will prove worthwhile if, in a few years, you have a website that is ranking well and driving traffic for it’s desired keywords.
3. Ignore Analytics. Not really, but if you have the long term vision in mind, be aware that things will look very drab for the first few years. Yes, get Google Analytics installed on the site with the proper tracking and triggers, but don’t get too caught up in the traffic until it actually starts to convert into sales and leads.
4. Don’t Focus on Keywords. Aim to rank for specific keywords in your internal linking structure and off-site backlink building, but don’t become too enamored by where you stand for particular keywords even in year two. Key implementing best practices and by year three you should start to see results. Yes, you should focus on keywords, but don’t make them the primary focus in the early days. Focus on quality content instead.
5. Implement a PPC Strategy. If you can’t wait three years for revenue to start flowing (let’s be honest, who can), you will need to supplement your SEO with a quality and ROI-positive PPC campaign, driving paid traffic to your startup website. With the right retargeting, you can also use this to build brand awareness and find the keywords you should use that actually convert, for your organic campaigns.
6. Ignore Vanity Metrics. While some of those metrics mentioned above definitely fall into this category, things like trying to get to a particular Domain Authority or Domain Rating are third-party metrics that often simply don’t matter. I have seen sites that pull in hundreds of thousands monthly with DA <40, but they had great quality/quantity content and great content aging.
The biggest struggle that remains for most web-based startups, especially those without some type of financial backing, is that they are trying to do digital marketing without any real budget. Those that don’t have a budget will need to learn SEO on their own and just do some massive catch-up hustle in order to eventually compete with larger brands online.