For startups, engaging in marketing sounds easy, but quickly becomes complex and hard to navigate. With so many different marketing channels that a start up can choose from, simply deciding which channel to pick is the first difficult hurdle. 

Today, I’ll be focusing on how startups should understand if SEO is an option they should consider and what determines whether or not they should engage. 

The Issue with Startups and SEO

A common issue between startups and their understanding of SEO is the mindset that both need. When it comes to entrepreneurships and startups, founders need to be innovative, think outside the box and are often coming up with services or products that do not exist in the market. 

SEO on the other hand takes the opposite approach. It’s all about ensuring that when people Google search something, that they will find you. 

This is where the conflict happens. 

People will only go searching for things they already know exist. Therefore, if this was 2005, people were probably not searching for “ridesharing”. 

Today, the conversation is much different. Everyone knows what ridesharing is and there are people searching for it.

This is the problem when it comes to startups succeeding in SEO.

People will not search for things that they don’t know exist. They also will not search for terms that you are coining, because again they don’t know that phrase exists. 

You Have to Put Your Startup in Some Sort of Box

This is the challenge. Many startups have been groomed to be unicorns, to be different and rage against the industry. However, this is not the mindset for SEO.

SEO requires that your business locate keyword searches that are high in volume, so that when users are searching for a business like yours, they will find you.

Therefore, to make SEO make sense for the business, your startup needs to align itself with searches that people are searching for. So if we were to take the example prior with ride sharing and it being 2005, if a startup wanted to build exposure for their ridesharing app, and wanted to be found on Google they would have to optimize for what current users at the time were searching for. 

So they may have had to rank for keywords like “Taxi Services” or “Taxi Alternatives”. This is because users are already searching for this and the strategy is by ranking for these terms, you hope users will see your search result, be intrigued and take a look at your site. 

For startups, to succeed in SEO, you need to find the closest comparable service/product that your target user would be using. So in this sense, what is the product or service you are replacing? Whatever that is, that is probably what you need to rank for. 

Is SEO a Good Fit for My Startup

This is where the real question of SEO boils down for startups. Is SEO a viable marketing channel for my business.

The answer here boils down to these factors: 

Closely Related Searches

There are startups whose business functions are similar to pre-existing services in the market. The business functions may be innovative, however the service or product to the client is almost identical. For example, this is like 99 Designs. The company innovated on graphic design services where users can pool different designers, however the service that is being provided is relatively the same for the user. 

Fort startups like these, SEO makes a lot of sense, because you are offering a comparably similar service that a customer would get the same service or product, of course, they may get it cheaper or it may be delivered in a different way. 

However, there are some startups whose offerings are so different that it’s difficult to hone down on exact searches that people would be looking for. So in this case, I’d actually argue that the ridesharing example I provided earlier is an example of a business where SEO is probably not a good fit for them. No one knows to look for that service and if they try to rank for taxi the resources needed may be too high to compete with taxi companies. In addition, users who are looking for taxi services on Google are most likely NOT looking for ride sharing, especially when they don’t know what that is. 

Competition

This is not something exclusive to Startups. A big determining factor for businesses and startups in determining if they should compete in SEO is the competitive landscape. If big goliaths and players have solidified their position in search engine results, then it will be very difficult for startups to over take them. Compound this with the long term nature of SEO, these factors can be daunting and make SEO not a good fit. 

So going off what was discussed earlier, sometimes the investment for SEO is way too high. 

To determine the competitive landscape, there are many resources out there that do a great job of teaching the basics of SEO and SEO metrics.

I actually gave a talk about this at the CSUF Incubator in Fullerton, if you want more details.

Not Enough Runway

Another common issue that startups have with SEO is the time investment. SEO is a long term play, sites can take anywhere from 6 months to 2 years to rank for keyword groups that they have designated. 

If your startup is looking to disrupt an industry where there are only a couple goliaths, then you will most likely air on 2 years if you are competing head on. 

For some startups they do not have the funds or the time to wait that long. In this case, SEO may not be a good fit and other opportunities would probably be better. This can come in the form of paid advertising, whether search ads or paid social. 

Succeeding in SEO as a Startup

SEO is a complex marketing channel. It’s much harder to understand, however it is a lucrative marketing channel that many businesses use as primary source for their lead generation and sales. 

The benefits SEO provides is that for those who are searching for things on Google tend to be very low in the funnel and have intent to buy. They have clearly shown it by going into Google.

SEO thus gives you a prime body of consumers who are qualified because they have shown intent and now you need to convince them that you should be the business they go with instead of others.

I have helped many businesses and startups succeed in this realm and seen many grow their business this way, however I have seen many startups and businesses go in it when they clearly should not have.

It’s worth taking a step back from automatically thinking your startup needs SEO. Go over the factors above, talk with some SEO professionals and get the information before you commit 6 months to 2 years of resources and time into SEO. 

More on the author, Jason Khoo


Jason started freelancing in SEO back in college, sold his first agency and now is founder of Zupo, which is an Orange County based SEO consulting agency helping construct powerful long term SEO strategies for our clients. Jason also enjoys multiple cups of tea a day, hiding away on weekends catching up on reading and rewatching The Simpsons for the 20th time.

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