One way I’ve found to cut down on support requests is to make sure I write publicly about any issue that keeps coming up for my customers.  Other small companies contact me for advice fairly frequently, and that also tends to retread the same issues, so I’m going to blog it in depth once rather than giving fifteen people 30% of my thoughts on the same issue. One common issue is “How do I improve our SEO?”

Strategy as opposed to tactics: SEO has a lot of opportunities for micro-optimizations in it, from rewriting title tags to dynamically interlinking content pages.  They’re all interesting subjects and I’m not going to talk about them.  If you don’t feel comfortable in your meat & potatoes SEO yet, head on over to SEOBook or SEOMoz.  Both are excellent resources.  I’m going to focus on core decisions you make about your business and marketing approaches rather than page-level optimization.

Why Startup SEO Is Different

Essentially every business on the Internet from multi-billion dollar giants like Bank of America down to a one-man software business is dependent on SEO, because Google has become the primary navigation tool for the Internet.  (I suppose I could write “search engines” but I feel no particular need to maintain the polite fiction that there is more than one search engine in the United States.)

SEO for a small business is very different than it is for Bank of America.

Limited budgets: Startups cannot devote huge amounts to advertising, branding campaigns, or link acquisition.  (Paying for links will theoretically draw the wrath of Google to you.  In practice, once you’re above a certain size, you’re immune.  If you’re reading this article, you do not have immunity.)

Low domain strength / trust: Google tends to trust older domains, domains with lots of links, and domains with lots of older links.  All of these are signals of what one might call trust: the longer you’ve been on the Internet and the more people who asserted your quality by linking to you, the less likely you are to be a useless spammer.  However, if you just registered your domain last Tuesday, Google has a priori no reason to trust you over the other billion pages on the Internet.

Cultural aversion to SEO: There is a pernicious myth among startups that SEO is a black art aimed at perverting the purity of the search results.  This is partially because search engine spam is indeed a problem and partially because Google is very good at influencing the culture of technically adept people, and it is in Google’s best interest to make people think that their algorithms are the authoritative voice of God.  (Google, for all its image as an open company with significant OSS contributions yadda yadda yadda guards their index and algorithms with a ferocity that would do Microsoft credit.)

Algorithms have no moral status.  If your engineering team sorts records using an n^2 sorting algorithm, then tells you that they did it because the sorting has always been n^2 and therefore this is the Morally Correct Way To Sort, you need to whack your engineering team over the head and tell them to do better.  Similarly, your SEO strategy is simply the input you provide Google’s black-box algorithm which sorts search results: just because it is ineffective does not mean it is the Morally Correct Way To Sort.

A related worry is that SEO hurts the user experience.  It certainly doesn’t have to — a good deal of SEO is about creating stuff your users want to use, surfacing content in a way that is understandable to them, and not breaking your site’s usability when seen from the primary Internet navigation method (Google).  I wouldn’t advocate black hat methods: the black hatters are better than you are at them, and if you use them you’re in a constant arms race with Google (who has billions of dollars, thousands of sharp engineers, and the peaceful conflict resolution skills of Darth Vader) when as a startup you’re already biting off more than you can chew.

Why Startup SEO Is Better

On the plus side, you do have some advantages as a startup:

Strong Technical Skills: I’m a moderator in charge of programming topics at SEOBook and we get an awful lot of nuts and bolts questions like “How do I edit a title tag?” or “How do I do a 301 redirect in Apache?”  Thankfully, since you presumably have programmers who know what they’re doing, you’ll never need to ask either of those.  In addition, you can program tools and content to improve your marketing, including SEO.  We’ll discuss specifics in a moment.

Link Richness: SEO is, at competitive levels, mostly about link acquisition.  It is very difficult to get a link without paying for it in many sectors of the information economy.  For example, while there is probably a thriving micro-community of online taxidermists, they probably control relatively few links compared to their numbers.  However, if you’re a startup, you probably hang out on Hacker News or similar where the blogs-to-person ratio is 6.3, a new useful bit of OSS can make news in four continents on the first day, and online interaction forms a substantial portion of the personal and professional identities of your peers.

There are pluses and minuses to this: a lot of people overadapt to the fickle preferences of TechCrunch et al.  That reminds me of dodgeball in fourth grade except there are 100,000 kids and it is mathematically possible for all of them to be picked last.  Appealing to your peers can’t be your only marketing strategy.  However, it is helpful for when you’re making a cold start, to help get the link to rankings snowball running.  One business which did this very well is Balsamiq, which sent letters to blogs big and small to get coverage.  Steal Peldi’s approach to writing them: it is aboveboard and works.

Strategic SEO Objectives

Ideally speaking, well prior to launch you should figure out exactly what you hope to get for from SEO.  “Rankings” is not an acceptable answer.  Neither is “visitors”.  I could get your startup ranked for [fried squirrels with wasabi] by the end of the day, but unless you’re selling a book of very eclectic recipes that probably won’t do you much good.

If you’re selling display advertising, coating every search result under the sun might actually work for you.  (Display advertising is, essentially, search advertising’s less talented brother: it is essentially a second bite at the apple for advertisers to get a click when users avoided the AdWords ads on Google.  I have deep, deep doubts about the sustainability of display advertising as a business model.)

If on the other hand you’re trying to get users or sales for your application, you have to balance the needs of your SEO operation with the need to convert users.  For example, your homepage will almost invariably be the strongest page on your site.  It probably has to be conversion-oriented rather than conversation-oriented.  However, outside of the home page, conversion-oriented pages don’t attract links that frequently.  Almost nobody blogs “Hey guys, I saw an awesome sales letter today, check it out” and if they do you probably don’t want their attention anyhow.

So your SEO strategy is likely going to involve a mix: non-commercial offerings designed purely to solicit links/attention, semi-commercial scalable content generation which we’ll talk about in a minute, and sales funnels supported by the rest of your website.

Aiming at a moving target: The first cut of your SEO strategy will be wrong, just like v1.0 of your product will be non-responsive to the needs of your users.  That is OK: after you start you’ll begin collecting insights and data which let you refine it.  You want to get something out the door as soon as possible so that you can begin collecting links, other indicia of trust, and data on what is working for you.  Many startups wait until launch to put a significant amount of content on their websites.  This is almost always a mistake.  If you can’t show the application yet, no problem, talk about the problem domain.  Talk about the needs of your customers.  The “media launch” where Steve Jobs comes down and presents the iCommandments works very well if you have a built-in base of millions of radical fans and a PR budget which could buy Chile.  If you’re reading this, that probably doesn’t apply to you.  Google is going to hate your bones when your website first debuts onto the world stage: start that clock ticking as soon as possible.

There is no Google sandbox: If you’re well read about SEO you’ve probably heard about the “Google sandbox”, where sites languish for months or years prior to ranking.  There is no Google sandbox per se: a site doesn’t magically jump from zero to hero because it is 180 days old.  Google can find sites within minutes of them appearing on the Internet and rank them inside of an hour if Google has sufficient reason to.  The sandbox is the perceived reality, though, because from a cold start it takes a while to build up symbols of trust, such as links from trustworthy domains.  All the more reason to get started early.

SEO Is A Feedback Loop

Sites tend to built self-reinforcing authority: the site at the top of the rankings for teddy bears (almost certainly Wikipedia, I can tell you without looking) is the first people go for teddy bears and the most likely to collect another citation when someone is writing about teddy bears.  That will help that site rank for teddy bears and everything else in the future.  In this sense, winners win in SEO.

What does that mean for you?  Well, if your startup does designer teddy bears, Wikipedia has a built-in advantage over you for ranking for [teddy bears] and that advantage gets stronger with each passing day.  However, all is not lost: by moving further down the long tail of search terms, you too can benefit from self-reinforcing authority.  If you’re the best place on the Internet to go for [kimono teddy bears], your site will get stronger each passing day just by virtue of that.

If you’ve done much conversion optimization this should not be a big surprise to you, but things at the top of a page get clicked much more than things lower on the page, all else being equal.  This is equally true of search results: when AOL released its data, the top result got over 40% of the clicks, the second result 11.9%, etc.  The entire second page, by comparison, got only 10%.  SEO is a winners take most game: for a given search term, the vast majority of the benefits flow to the handful of sites at the top of the first page.

What does this mean to you?  It means focus on search terms you can win.  You will not prevail against the likes of Microsoft, Google, et al for head keywords in most circumstances, unless your product becomes synonymous with the niche.  (A head search term is at the popular end of the search frequency distribution, as opposed to on the long tail.  This is completely relative: [money] is a head term relative to [bingo cards], and [bingo cards] is a head term in the bingo niche relative to [valentines day bingo].

Incidentally, I can’t recommend The Long Tail enough for anyone interested in SEO.  If you’ve been on the Internet the last few years you’re probably sick to death of it and have read the (accurate) criticisms of conclusions about books and music being overstated.  However, no single book will improve your thinking on SEO as much as The Long Tail will.  (In particular, read up on tails within tails.)

For the amount of effort it would take you to rank #12 for the head term of your choice, which will result in marginal traffic even if the head is huge, you could rank in the top three for a huge basket of tail terms.  Additionally, one of the things you’ll notice is that conversion rates for head terms are terrible.  People searching for the terms on the head are either just beginning their research into a topic or are less sophisticated.  Generally, those are not the searchers you want.  Longer, specific queries are more common among people who have done the research and are nearing a purchasing decision.

Here’s an example for you: for the last several years I’ve ranked on the first page for [bingo cards] most of the time.  At the moment I’m probably, oh, eightish or so.  That was worth about 6,300 visits in 2009.  That resulted in three purchases of my software, for a value per visitor of a bit more than a penny.  Wheeeee.

By comparison, [free bingo cards] gets less than a fifth as much traffic, according to Google’s keyword tool.  However, the 1,200 visitors there also bought 3 copies.  (If that you didn’t expect people explicitly looking for free things to convert at five times the rate of undifferentiated searchers, welcome to the Internet.  Nothing makes sense except the data you collect.  Get something out there so today so you can find which 90% of everything you know is wrong.)

Now if we go waaaay down the tail to [geography bingo], we find that despite it having fairly few searchers (I only got about 300 hits visits year from it), it is quite lucrative ($70 CPM).  I could spend my entire life working in bingo and never be #1 for [bingo cards], but for a non-competitive tail term like [geography bingo], I’m #1 by virtue of showing up.

Sadly, a lot of startups of my acquaintance are so focused on the product that they don’t bother showing up for the topics that matter to their customers.  I won’t pick on anybody in particular (sidenote: write “Its OK to mention this conversation publicly” on an email to me and you might get a backlink when I need an illustrative example, like here), but it is very common for startups to launch with less than 1,000 words of text on their website and all the content behind the sign in screen.  That essentially cedes the long tail to your competitors.

Thus, my generic SEO strategy for a startup is a) be the best on the Internet for b) as many topics as you possibly can be that c) matter to your paying customers.

Making SEO Scale

Everything about a startup has to scale ridiculously disproportionately to the time invested in it, because you have too much to do and not enough people to do it with.

Some people say this is why you have to work 80 ~ 100 hour weeks.  If I worked 100 hour weeks, Scholastic Publishing would still be able to afford to devote a thousand man-hours for every one I can, if they chose to.  Your only hope for rising above the din on the Internet is to work smarter than your competitors.  Happily, your small size, technical skill, and agility let you run rings around the other guys.  One way is through scalable content generation.

Content in SEO is sort of a dirty word.  It can mean anything your users can consume: text, video, whatever.  Sadly, when people talk about content they are mostly talking about commoditized garbage, because the quality levels of content produced at scale are generally terrible, as you’re about to see.

There are about four approaches for creating content at Internet scale:

User-generated content.  Strategies centering around user generated content really devolve into two things: one, you hope people will steal hand-crafted content from elsewhere and put it on your site while you look the other way long enough to build traction (hello, Youtube, Scribd, etc) and two, you generate vast amounts of mostly excruciatingly worthless content which happens to match an equally vast amount of search terms.  Then, you sell display advertising against the visits for those searches.  This is essentially the business model for WordPress — give a blog to anybody who asks for one, display AdSense ads to folks who arrive on old posts via Google.  The ads give them the answers the content could not.

I don’t mean to malign user-generated content too much.  Sturgeon’s Law says that 90% of everything is garbage, which implies that 10% is not.  However, it is very difficult to use that 10% that is not garbage to advance your business goals, because it is not conversion-oriented and your advertisers don’t pay premium CPM rates just because the page the user landed on is worthwhile.  (Actually, in practice it tends to work out the other way around: if the page the user lands on is worthwhile, it will likely satisfy their desire, and economic value from that searcher ends.  That means low CTRs to ads and, accordingly, low CPMs.  If on the other hand the page is useless, then they might click on an AdSense link to continue the search.  This is the perverse incentive by which advertisers pay to make the Internet a mass of garbage.)

Mass Semi-Amateur Content Creation: The Demand Media model is capturing quite a bit of attention these days: take an authority domain like eHow, use sophisticated algorithms to generate article ideas for it, pay an army of underemployed freelancers miniscule wages to write uninspired content about the suggested titles, collect hundreds of millions in AdSense revenue.

The quality of Demand Media (et al) content is a cut above Youtube comments, but not by all that much.  I don’t really recommend implementing this model for startups.  First of all, I think Google is going to have to crush it like a bug in the next 12 months, because currently it is a license to print money and is polluting far too much of the search space.  Second, the amount of sophistication it requires is considerable, and while I think that is probably duplicable for a startup (particularly if you used something like TextBroker to automate dealing with the freelancer army) I think you’re better off with your engineering investments in more defensible places.

That being said, study this model and study it well: they’ve got a tight analytics-to-pipeline loop, they’ve got almost everything automated, and their margins are out of this world.  There is no reason you can’t do those things while producing great content by taking advantage of focus and engineering ability that Demand Media cannot devote to every microniche they want to expand into.  DemandMedia can saturate the world in How To questions but will never be able to outpublish me for bingo cards, because they will never detail someone to write a CMS to let their freelance army make those easily.

Talented expert workers: You can have all of your website content created by talented artisans who laboriously polish every bit to perfection.  For example, you could write every page by hand yourself, or hire a team of journalists to do it for you.  Have you seen the financial results for the New York Times recently?  Still want to do this except without the 200 year old megabrand?  Good, moving on.

Scalable Content Creation That Works

So how are you going to create large amounts of content that satisfies needs for your users while still advancing your business needs and not being garbage?  You leverage the unfair advantages that you have because you’re the smallest guy in the room.

Data You Can’t Get Anywhere Else: If you hang out around geeks who can’t get dates, you’ve seen a series of posts by OKCupid on topics such as how your race affects responses in online dating.  This is brilliantly done linkbait: it takes a huge amount of proprietary data (OKCupid response analytics) and exposes it in such a way that it is interesting (“Whoa, the very hottest women really do get hit on less than than you would expect “) , easily consumable (“Whoa, this pretty picture demonstrates that black guys have it hard when dating.”), and easily shareable (“Guys, I found scientific proof of why we need to take our shirts off!”)  If you’re J. Random Dating Affiliate, you can’t possibly duplicate that linkbait.  OKCupid can do it over and over and over again, though: they’ve written the analytics tools, they’ve figured out how to do the research and visualizations, all they need to do is come up with a new hook and bam they’re at the top of the social news sites collecting links again.

If you don’t have interesting data, you should start collecting interesting data.  However, in the meanwhile you can start visualizing or crunching existing data.  This is less defensible — anybody can go to the Census and get a few gigs of various poorly conceived slices to fill their hard drive — but you can add a whole lot of value in less time than you think with some SQL, your graph library of choice, and a well-written executive summary.

One of the few bright points for the New York Times is that they’re capable of doing things like this, for example.  You could have done that.  If you were in the job board industry, you could do something like that every Friday afternoon, by using open source, agile development, and all that jazz.  Pretty soon you’ll be cited as an authority on the subject — because, ahem, someone who publishes repeated analyses of raw data is an authority on the subject (or at least appears to be, which is 90% of what matters on the Internet, for better or worse).

Focus on evergreen content: A lot of people like blogs as content generation engines, and indeed, I think every startup should probably have a blog.  Then people blog on current events.  Bad call!  You see, today’s news is worth reading for about a day — less, in some sectors of the economy.  You’re a hamster on a wheel if you’re trying to keep up with the news — tomorrow, everything you write today is worth markedly less, and a week from now it will be almost totally forgotten.  Instead, pick the concerns of your audience that are roughly static and that will be pretty much the same next week, next month, next decade.  Alternatively, create resources that don’t go stale.

For example, for a bit of extra work that NYT visualization above could use live data, and instead of being a wonderful piece of technology becoming quickly irrelevant to a story from years ago, it could be a hub for the enduring issue of Racial Difference In America.  The NYT is interested in that issue and still will be in 2012.  They don’t have the strategic vision to make that graph with live data, though.  Luckily, your business is not a maladapted dinosaur reacting too little and too late to the changing business landscape.

I like to call this “evergreen content.”  For example, if you have a website selling a service teaching people Japanese, a page on how to make requests in Japanese will be  good for generations.  It is evergreen.  Or エバーグリーン, I suppose.

Agile — Not Just For The Product: Because you have excellent internal analytics (you do, right?) and you track what is working and what isn’t (you do, right?) and you can quickly bring resources to “market” because you’re using highly productive programming environments (you are, right?), you can try ten things, watch eight fail, and then try ten variations on the best two.

For example, suppose you have a mailing list of customers or fans (you do, right?).  Pitch (comparatively) low cost explorations of ideas to them, like blog posts about topics A/B/C/D/E.  Observe which one gets the most play with your existing customers.  Build (more expensive) resources about that topic, like something which requires custom programming.  (Bonus points: credit your customers with the inspiration for building the new thing!  You want a 95% certain way to get a link from Bob Smith’s blog to your new article?  Cite his contribution to it.  Help them help you get the ball rolling with their blogs, Twitter accounts, blah blah.)

Obviously, if one idea works out well for you, going in more depth or breadth on the same theme allows you to possibly re-use code, link sources (“Hey Cindy, this is Patrick from Random Job Startup.  A few months ago you had some great comments  about our unemployment visualization.  We’re putting together something similar and I wanted to ask if you had any more insights…”), marketing tacks that worked, etc.  (A great micro-idea I heard the other day: watch what people tweet about your stuff, use that as the title next time.  This may be the first time I’ve ever heard of an idea to get actual value out of Twitter.)

Pillar Content vs. Bill ‘er Content

As mentioned, you’re going to have to strike a balance between creating content designed to spread and gather links, attention, etc. and content designed to sell your stuff.  They’re not totally disjoint sets, but in practice non-commercial content will form the vast majority of your links.

If you don’t have any great ideas for non-commercial content (“How do we get people talking about our new squeegee brush?  It is a boring subject”), here’s a couple:

Open Source Software: You’re a programmer and you probably use vast amounts of OSS.  It is highly likely that in the process of creating your startup you will write some plumbing which is not your source of competitive advantage, but would solve problems for other people.  Since you already wrote it, why not OSS it?  Spend a few hundred on a nice logo (this is rounding error next to the engineering time you have invested and will greatly increase spread, trust me), write up a decent page on your website with examples and documentation, and send it to folks you think could use it.

I did this for my Rails A/B testing software, which at the time was a sorely underserved niche.  That is probably my best links-to-unit-effort idea ever, and it got links from authoritative sources like the Ruby on Rails official site who may not have been interested to hear about my new and improved Jane Austen bingo cards.  (Some people have no appreciation for the finer things in life — at least according to the rabid Jane Austen fans on the Internet.)

I have one comment on OSS for SEO which may cost me geek cred: does Github pay your salary?  I love them.  They’re wonderful people.  They contribute a lot to OSS.  They are also quite good at marketing their business and do not require your help to do it.  If you’re going to do OSS to get links, get links to your own site.

Blog Your Email: Do you get pre-sales inquiries or support requests?  Take careful note of how your customers ask questions, because they speak a different language than you do.  I describe bingo cards as “unique”, my customers frequently describe them in email as “not the same” or “not alike”, as it “How do I make bingo cards that are not the same?”  Using the same language that your customers use, answer their questions in public.  This can be bill ‘er content, since somebody asking this question likely has a need they’re interested in paying money in to solve (after all, a person just like them has sent you an email about it, knowing that your answer is going to involve “Oh, you do this on our product”).  Thus, while you are answering the question, you can probably work in a plug for your product.

Good SEO Can Make Your Startup

Your startup can succeed at SEO via the sweat of your brow and a bit of focused creativity, without having to spend hundreds of thousands to do so.  In terms of cost efficiency, organic SEO is probably the most efficient distribution method ever created.  Even with very modest amounts of resources, you can have get hundreds of thousands of visits and add thousands of users to your product.  (I do, and I’m certainly not a towering giant conquering the Internet from my local rice field.  You can do better.)

If you take one thing from this article, please, take this: you cannot afford to not have an SEO strategy.  If the idea of being an SEO gets your dander up, get over it drop me a comment and I’ll suggest something you can do that you won’t dislike but will still improve your SEO.

The usual disclaimers: I don’t get compensated for using people as examples.  I do try to write most people who ask for advice (odds are better if you ask good focused questions, let me get a blog post out of it, etc) but I know a few have slipped through the cracks as of late.  I’m by no means the world expert at this — take everything I say with a grain of salt.