Nothing is more important to a startup than getting those initial customers through the door. Without them, you won’t make any profit—and potentially lose momentum before you even begin to grow.
Luckily, there’s one marketing channel you can use to drive customers to your website—even if you’ve only just opened shop.
In this post, you’ll discover the basics of Search Engine Optimization (SEO)—and more importantly, learn how you can use them to win customers for your startup.
We will cover:
- What SEO actually is (and why it’s important for startups)
- On-page SEO basics you need to know
- The importance of keyword research
- How to create great content
- How to promote content and build backlinks
What is SEO and why it’s important for startups?
Before we dive in, let’s be clear on what SEO actually means.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of making your startup’s website visible in organic search. So, when someone heads to Google to search for a product you offer, you’re boosting your chances of being seen there.
Getting to the top spots takes some work. Search engines need to rank their results in order from best to worst, depending on how well they suit the searcher’s query.
That means your startup website has to fit certain criteria straight out of the gate, such as:
- Your website needs to load quickly
- It should provide a good experience for the user
- Your content should be engaging and helpful for your target user
But if you think you don’t need to do SEO as a startup company, think again.
Research shows that 53% of all website traffic comes from organic search, and the percentage is growing. That makes search engine optimization super-important—especially if you’re a new business looking to gain customers.
You need to focus on SEO so that search engines like Google can find and crawl your site, and deem it worthy enough to appear in its search results.
What makes startup SEO different from regular SEO?
No matter the size of your business (or website), the core principles of SEO remain the same.
However, bigger sites, brands and businesses will often have an established authority which means they’ll rank well. Google already knows and trusts them; they’ve been around for years. They already have historical content and a strong backlink profile, so they can rank for competitive keywords.
For startups, however, none of that historical background is there—which means you’ll need to drive organic performance using content and outreach.
Established businesses also often have much bigger budgets, which may allow them to invest more time into SEO. They’ve got cash to hire an in-house team or to outsource the work to a specialist agency. Startups, on the other hand, are likely much more time-poor (in some cases, running the entire company is a one-person show).
Still, knowing how to do SEO can help you steal a march on your competitors, no matter how big they are.
Don’t expect instant success
Before we go any further, we’ve got one quick word of caution: SEO is a long-term strategy. It can take up to a year before you start seeing any real impact.
If an agency or SEO consultant promises quick results – be careful. It’s very unlikely they’ll be able to “get you to number one for your target keywords,” no matter how persuasive they may sound.
But, don’t give up hope entirely.
Your startup SEO strategy sets you up for success in the long-run. You’ll already have a strong website by the time your competitors clock onto it. And, you could drive some qualified traffic to your site using paid advertising and social ads in the meantime.
1. Learn on-page SEO basics
There are many factors that affect how well a site ranks, but startups shouldn’t obsess over the more advanced strategies and nuts and bolts of on-page and technical SEO.
Instead, focus on the basics and ensure there are no big issues preventing your site from appearing in the search engine results page (SERP).
You can use a ready-made CMS (content management system) like WordPress or Squarespace to build your site. Of the shelf platforms also allow you to install plugins to modify and tailor the website to your needs.
Sitemaps help search engines navigate around your website to truly understand what you’re offering—and therefore, what you should rank for.
You can then focus on these on-page SEO tips:
- Use properly optimized title tags. These are the snippets of text you’ll see in a results page and can be edited with the SEO plugins we mentioned earlier. Include the target keyword, make it compelling, and relevant to the page. Title tags have a limit of around 60-70 characters, so make it short and to the point.
- Add a click-worthy meta description. Although not a direct ranking factor, a well-optimized meta description can improve click-through rate (which can in turn lead to a boost in rankings, as well as traffic). Meta descriptions have a limit of around 160 characters, so include a call to action to drive clicks from the SERP.
- Use short, SEO-friendly URLs for blog posts, such as /blog/seo-tips.
(Never put dates in the URLs if you want your articles to be evergreen. Search engines might see them as outdated and rank them lower.)
- Use proper heading tags. Search engines love well-formatted content. Use headings and subheadings to break up your content and highlight areas and subsections of information. Every page should have one H1 tag; the title of the page that should include the page’s main target keyword(s). Subsections should be broken up with H2, H3, and H4 tags. This makes it easier for search engines to scan and understand the page.
2. Focus on keywords with your content
Keywords are the lifeblood of any SEO strategy. Think about it: if nobody’s searching for a keyword, there’s no point in targeting it.
Solid keyword research can help you define your audience’s interests and problems. You can then use these keywords to create targeted content that appeals to that audience—and move them through your buying funnel to turn them into customers.
Here’s how to approach keyword research as a startup.
Pay attention to keyword intent
One of the biggest SEO mistakes you can make as a startup company is failing to understand keyword intent. Put simply: this is the intention of someone searching that keyword.
Do they want to buy something? Or are they just looking for information?
When you’re looking for keywords to target, we can break them up into two main buckets:
- Top of funnel content: If someone is searching for answers, they may use question-based keywords like “how to do SEO.” They don’t show any intent to buy something; they’re just looking for information. This makes such topics easier to promote and build backlinks to—hence why they tend to bring more search traffic.
- Bottom of funnel content: People closer to making a purchase may use comparative terms like “SEO versus PPC” when weighing up their options. These keywords tend to be more targeted and have a stronger buying intent. But, they’re often trickier to rank for because companies know they bring sales.
It’s smart to have a mixture of both types of keyword intent when you’re planning your startup SEO strategy.
That’s because you can get short-term wins with top of funnel content, and start driving awareness of your website.
But with the bottom of the funnel content mixed in, you can start to build momentum. You’ll get a steady stream of organic visitors actually looking to buy—which will help prove ROI in the long-term.
Focus on keyword difficulty and search volume
Regardless of your niche, it’s crucial to cover topics your audience is interested in.
You don’t want to spend hours writing an SEO-optimized blog post that nobody cares about. It’s a total waste of time.
Instead, the key is to choose popular keywords and create outstanding content centered around your chosen topics. We can see the popularity with a keyword metric called search volume: the average number of people searching for that term each month.
You can find this with free tools like Ubersuggest:
These broad, high volume search terms such as “content marketing” shown above allow you to build a library of content for keywords your audience searches most frequently.
The only downside? Popular search terms are trickier to rank for because everyone wants a slice of the pie. However, long-tail keywords with a low keyword difficulty are much easier to rank on page one for.
You can use the Ahrefs Keyword Explorer tool to discover the keyword difficulty for your target keywords. The higher the KD number (out of 100), the harder it will be to rank for that keyword
The tool also gives you rough idea of how many backlinks you’ll need to rank on page one:
Your startup SEO strategy should focus on a combination of low difficulty keywords to drive some early traction, whilst also throwing a few high search volume keywords to create content around popular topics.
Build authority with the topic cluster method
When defining your content marketing and SEO strategy, covering topics in detail is key. But very few people take this into account and miss out on easy opportunities to build links to their content.
The topic cluster model allows you to easily interlink between:
- Pillar content, such as “how to start a business”
- Targeted pieces of content that focus on more granular keywords with fewer search volume, such as “10 steps to write a business plan”
Here’s how that might look for a topic cluster on “content marketing”:
The TOFU keyword “content marketing” would be targeted by the pillar content, with links to and from the more targeted long-tail keyword queries that form the cluster content.
As well as providing a good experience for your users, the topic cluster model supports your SEO efforts. It highlights your important pages, which allows search engine crawlers to move between them more easily. There’s also a clear and obvious link between them—boosting topical relevance.
Reverse engineer competitors’ top-performing topics
Want a quick way to find proven content topics that are relevant to your audience? You’re in luck. (And no: you don’t need spy goggles to find them.)
First, take your competitor’s domain and paste it into Ahrefs. Use the “Top Pages” feature in the sidebar to find your competitors’ most popular and successful content. You’ll get a screen like this:
The great thing about this report is that you can see which pages on your competitor’s site that drive the most traffic. And, you can even click through to that keyword to find more information about it—including the search volume and keyword difficulty—to judge whether it’s something you should also be targeting.
3. Create high-quality content
Research has found that companies with blogs get 67% more leads than those without blogs.
This makes sense: a blog is a great way to add helpful, high-quality content to your site. And it can improve your SEO performance in a number of ways:
- Google’s complex algorithms can understand what quality content looks like, and rank it better—regardless of how new your startup is.
- Comprehensive, in-depth content is more likely to attract backlinks. A Buzzsumo study found that 50% of content attracts no links whatsoever, so your content has to be top drawer to get those links.
- Google tracks user metrics such as bounce rate and time users spend on a page (also known as dwell time), which means engaging content can help your pages rank better in search.
So, you know great content is important. But the real question is: how do you actually create it?
Write for people, not for search engines
Many people make a big mistake when writing content: they focus too much on what they think the search engine wants.
Please the algorithm and you’ll please users, right? Not necessarily.
Doing so often leads to poor quality content that’s stuffed with keywords and is of little use to the reader. Google wouldn’t want to rank that.
Their goal is to satisfy their searchers by directing them to high-quality content… not keyword-stuffed garbage that doesn’t even make sense.
Instead, create content with your audience in mind. Write in a natural voice (how you’d talk in real life), as you’ll naturally use the keywords anyway. There’s no need to force it.
Fancy going the extra mile?
Write with the language your audience uses. If they avoid technical jargon, avoid it too. If they’re industry specialists, use the terminology they’re familiar with. You want to reflect them in your content so search engines think: “Oh, their content and this searcher are the perfect match.”
Focus on quality, not quantity
Got the content buzz to start publishing as much content as you can?
That’s a hurdle that most startup companies fall at. They’re committed to SEO and want to reap the rewards that content offers. But the key thing about your content is that it should be helpful to your target customer.
To do this, write actionable, engaging, informative, well-researched content.
The content should recognize a problem your target user has—and then solve it.
Up to four superb articles each month is enough to see success, provided you’re covering the topics your target customer is interested in.
Regardless of what you’re talking about, it’s always better to have two great articles that attract your perfect customer than ten poor quality posts that drive the wrong audience (or worse: no audience at all.)
Create a better version of existing content
Why would anybody want to read the 100th best blog post on a particular topic? Or even the 10th?
Your customers want the best content, so make yours the best out there. This is known as the “Skyscraper Technique”—a term coined by SEO expert Brian Dean, who used this technique to increase his SEO traffic by 110% in 14 days. Skyscraper-ing is a content creation technique we also follow by heart here at Fortis, as it produces great results for our clients.
The basis of the skyscraper framework is to look at content already ranking for the keyword you want to target. Check out what those articles are missing, and craft something even better.
You can do this by:
- Making your content more comprehensive and in-depth
- Introducing new angles and takes
- Making it more up to date
- Including unique research and new data
- Featuring input from industry experts
(You might also hear skyscraper content referred to as 10x content. This term was introduced by SEO expert Rand Fishkin and focuses on the idea of improving the best current content for a particular topic by ten times.)
Make it long-form
There’s no doubt about it: longer content tends to rank better.
The average Google page one result contains 1,890 words. And, longer posts also generate more backlinks than shorter content, on average:
A good middle ground is to aim for 3,000+ words. That way, you can really cover your topic in detail, and make your article comprehensive enough to cover every question your target customer is looking to answer.
Remember, though: it’s quality over quantity. Don’t include fluffy, filler content just to bump up the word count. Every word, every sentence, and every paragraph should have a purpose.
Great design and formatting are important
You can write the best blog post in the world. But if your page is ugly, people ain’t reading it.
Whilst you might drive some organic traffic to your content, a bad user experience means they’re likely to head back to their results page and click another option.
That shows Google your content doesn’t fit that search term—and they’ll rank you lower because of it.
You can improve your user experience by making sure each piece of content is well designed and formatted. That includes:
- Having a narrow layout. Users can get lost when reading lines of text longer than 75 characters.
- Use a large font so people don’t have to squint. As a minimum, go for 16 pixels.
- Use a plain typeface—something easy to read without curls and swirls.
Did we mentioned that your startup’s website needs to be mobile-friendly?
It’s estimated that up to 70% of B2B web traffic comes from smartphones. Google also uses mobile-first indexing, meaning it bases its ranking on the mobile version of your page over the desktop view.
The bottom line: the content you’re publishing needs to read just as well on mobile as it does on desktop.
Break the overwhelming wall of text
Online readers don’t like huge chunks of text. In fact, the average user only reads 20% of a page, and a massive 81% of users skim-read the content.
Whilst you might be writing great content, you need to make it skimmable. That means:
- Adding images and screenshots to explain your points
- Making the most of white space—and give your reader’s eyes a rest—with small paragraphs (up to 4 lines of text)
- Using video to help tell a story if it’s very text-heavy
- Adding bullet points and lists to break up the monotony of paragraphs
- Using subheadings to break the content down into smaller, more easily manageable sections
You can have the best content in the world. But if nobody sees it, Google won’t think it’s any good—and you won’t get the rankings it deserves.
We’ve already touched on the fact that backlinks are an important SEO ranking factor (when another website links to yours.)
Backlinks are seen by Google as a “virtual handshake,” or a vote of confidence.
Building links from high authority websites means that your own site is likely to be seen as a more authoritative and trusted source of information… and that leads to stronger rankings.
In fact, the average #1 result in Google has three times as many websites linking to it than those in positions #2-10:
Sure, you can tweet a link to your article and throw up a quick LinkedIn post, but that alone won’t cut it. You also need to invest your time in promoting your content to build sustainable organic traffic.
Here’s how to do it.
Build internal links to your content to boost its ranking
Internal links happen when you’re linking around your website from one page to another. It’s why the topic cluster model is so popular: it helps search engines navigate around your site, and group together topics that mean a similar thing.
As a result, building internal links:
- Helps the content rank better
- Has a halo effect in boosting the organic performance of your startup site as a whole
And, the good news: it’s easy to build internal links. Whenever you create a new piece of content, look at the library you’ve already published.
For example: if you’re publishing a new post about how to choose a pair of running shoes, you might already have a post about shoe sizing. Can you go back to the old post and link to your new piece?
Not only does the update prove your old post is still valuable, but you’re helping your new content get found quickly since Google has already acknowledged the old piece.
Use outreach-based link building
You don’t always get something (like backlinks from other websites) automatically. Sometimes you have to ask —even if it does feel awkward.
We call this outreach-based link building: the process of reaching out to other website owners and asking them to link to your page. And who would you reach out to?
For example, you could ask:
- People you cite as sources in your content.
- People who have shared similar content in the past. You can use a tool like Buzzsumo to find this information.
- People who shared your competitors’ content. If yours is better (and it should be), ask if they can share it as well.
At worst, you’ll get a “no.” At best, a nice juicy backlink.
Recommended reading: A guide to Better Blogger Outreach
Start with high-quality guest blogging
Guest blogging is a powerful way to establish authority in your industry… and land some backlinks at the same time.
And, it’s relatively easy—so long as you’ve got the time (or money, if you’re outsourcing) to do it.
Start by reaching out to industry-relevant blogs and websites and offer a unique, high-quality guest post that’s relevant to their (and your) audience. You can find guest blogging opportunities with these search terms:
- [industry] + “write for us”
- [industry] + “guest post”
- [industry] + “contribute”
But before you offer to write for every site that appears, do your due diligence and make sure it’s a site worth getting links from. A bad backlink can spoil the bunch, and make Google think you’re associated with a dodgy website. That reputation can blow back onto you.
Do this with a simple tool like Moz, Ahrefs, or Ubersuggest. Each tool has their own metric, but you’re looking for something that tells you about the authority of the website.
For Moz, that’s Domain Authority:
The websites you’re guest posting on should have a Domain Authority of at least 30.
A site with that score has enough ranking power for Google to consider them as a “good” site, and you’re not risking associating your brand new website with a spammy one.
Within the guest post itself, follow the content guidelines we’ve already shared here, and make sure to link back to your own content. This gives you a quality backlink and can send targeted traffic to your site. Win-win.
Recommended reading: How to Become a Successful Guest Blogger
Leverage content collaboration with other startups
As a startup business, you likely don’t have tons of connections in your industry… yet.
But partnering with other startups is a great way to build momentum and broaden your brand awareness. You’ll build relationships with other people (who can be a solid support system for the turbulent times your startup might face), whilst boosting your SEO power in the meantime.
You could collaborate by:
- Co-authoring an eBook
- Running a course together
- Delivering a joint webinar
- Offering a testimonial to the tools you’re using (getting a backlink as credit)
- Guest-speaking on a fellow startup’s podcast
- Offering a comment for another business’ blog in return for a link
What’s great about this strategy is that the benefits can run both ways. You can each use one another’s areas of expertise to send leads the other way, whilst also building some SEO power for each startup site.
Ready to master your startup’s SEO strategy?
If you want your startup to be a success, there’s no way around it: you need customers.
Luckily, your target customers use search engines every day. You just need to get your business in front of them. How? By putting solid SEO foundations in place, and creating super-helpful content that solves their problems.
Remember: SEO is a slow burn, so it should be part of your startup marketing plan right from the start. Follow the tips in this guide to get your startup SEO strategy up and running now so you can reap the rewards later.