In the spirit of the great Buzzfeed content marketing hacks, here are the 8 things startup founders need to know about SEO!
Honestly, what you’re in for is a non-marketing, non-search oriented exploration of why SEO is critical to startups, founders, and your success or failure as a new venture. I had the honor of joining Social Media Fly Girl Kate Buck Jr. during Austin Startup Week for a chat with nearly 200 entrepreneurs about SEO and Social Media. Thanks to amazing work by WP Engine’s David Vogelpohl and Rachel Graham, we packed the house in hopes of giving entrepreneurs an edge; in my hope of helping startups realize that SEO isn’t something you can do and perhaps should, to acquire customers, but that it’s something that you must live and breath.
What follows are the talking points that accompany my exceptionally well designed slides 😉
The 8 Things Startup Founders Need to Know about SEO
1. If you aren’t found in search, you don’t exist.
What the heck does that have to do with SEO? Where is the tip list about meta data and alt text?? Stop right there. Check yourself. I’m not talking to those of you who want to do SEO. I’m not talking to the marketing folks trying to learn SEO. I’m speaking to you, the founder, this is what you need to know about how important Search Engines are to your business, NO MATTER WHAT YOU ARE DOING.
You can open the slides here
I learned in the first startup that I joined, some 15 years ago, that if you aren’t appearing for every query appropriate to your business, you don’t exist. I was told that on my first foray into raising capital; within the first few meetings with VCs, I heard repeatedly that we weren’t ready for funding, we weren’t even showing up in Google.
Whoops. Here I am, a search marketing expert, and I hadn’t even considered that the very first step in the due diligence that investors perform is searching for you. The same is true of potential partners, customers, employees, and mentors – everyone starts with a search. What I learned in those early days was not that they meant whether or not our business showed up on a search for our name but that every name search, founder search, product/service-related-to-our-business search, if we didn’t show up in Google, it was valid for an investor to conclude that we had neglected a very fundamental piece of doing business today: we live in the information age and a lack of information indicates an inability, an unwillingness, or a neglect of providing it. Your new venture can’t fail in that regard.
Take a look at slides 2-4 in the deck. What I’m showing here is how that problem manifests for startups by showing you how HARD it is to find Angel Investors in Austin. You know what I’m talking about – you are trying to raise money, you turn to Google to find appropriate investors do you not? The results provided are woefully unhelpful simply because those businesses, those investors, aren’t providing their information – they aren’t making themselves readily available.
As a result, two of those search results happen to be mine – the first, for an article I wrote, and the second, for a similar question I answered seeking to help local founders find those investors. I’m not bragging, I’m pointing out that because of a LACK of understanding the implications of Search, of the implications of the information age, my two pages on the matter meet that demand – and one of those pages isn’t on my site but Quora: SEO doesn’t mean working on your site alone, it means optimizing search engines to support your business.
Optimizing search engines to support your business
Frontburner Marketing’s Kyle Bailey helped me grasp the implication of my early fundraising oversight even more when he pointed out that because I speak a lot (such as was the case here), he was shocked to discover that I, an “SEO,” didn’t have a picture show up when he searched for Paul O’Brien Headshots.
Whoops. Here I am, a search marketing expert, and I hadn’t even considered that since I speak at conferences and events, people will be looking for my headshot.
Today, you’ll find three photos and the top result for that search directs people to my site.
If you aren’t found in search, you don’t exist.
2. Think of Google as a Person.
You need not be overwhelmed trying to think about the complexity of SEO! You need not hire a consultant or SEO Agency. Google behaves like a person. As the founder of a startup I merely want you to be constantly conscious of the fact that there is a person named Google constantly looking for you. Your job is simple to make sure you’re found.
But the challenge in doing that is realizing that that person is looking for the ideal result for their query, and they might be looking for many different things:
- Your address
- Your video
- Your list of features
- Your pricing
- Your contact information
- Your founder profiles
- Your latest news
And as a person keep in mind they are seeking the best possible result for that search and that means they want a site that works well, shows up on mobile devices or browsers, is fast, and responsive. They’re seeking a business with great service, a reputation, enthusiastic fans, media coverage, and happy customers.
Yes. SEO is the practice of optimizing EVERYTHING about your business so that you show up when people are seeking you.
3. Think of your Website as a Library.
How do you possibly optimize everything?? Again, think simply, think of your website as you might a library. Are the books organized in the right sections? Do they have covers? Are they indexed by author, title, genre, and more? Is there a librarian offering assistance and a computer I can use to find what I need? Is the door to unlocked? Is there a sign on the building, parking, and a finished road so cars can even get there??
Is your library lacking books I’d expect to find? Is the bathroom broken and reeking some nasty smell? Did the local newspaper right a nasty article about the snobby research assistant who helps but hates doing so?
This is an old technique for teaching people how to think about SEO, take a look at the idea in more detail here to get a sense for what to consider.
4. SEO is NOT a Channel, it’s a Practice.
Pop quiz. What’s the easiest way to bomb your fund raising pitch? List SEO or Content Marketing as a key part of your go to market strategy.
You can’t buy SEO. You can’t pay to acquire customers therein nor run ads to reach your audience. Search engines are not merely tools to reach new customers, they are tools on which you have to appear or you simply don’t exist.
Given that fact, and the fact that they are constantly evolving and working to create the best user experience possible for THEIR audience, you have to constantly evolve and maintain your visibility therein.
Like a law firm or medical practice, the tools of the trade and rules of the road today will be different tomorrow and as soon as you cease practicing medicine, your business dies.
More importantly, like that practice, everyone matters. From the Administrative Assistant in the front office to the practicing Lawyer, everyone determines the effectiveness of that firm and likewise, from the website developer to the customer service rep, EVERYONE needs to be conscious of what’s going on in search engines and how their job affects those results.
Consider simply what happens when I have a problem with your business and I need help. I turn to Google for a solution, to get back to your site, for a way to complain, for an FAQ… we turn to search engines for the information we need to address our issue and if YOU aren’t there, something else is.
5. Everything Affects Google.
I really need you, the startup FOUNDER, to appreciate that. Your CMO can worry about how to make search engines work best. Your CTO needs to be conscious of how the website supports that. YOU have to grasp that everything from the number of fans you have on Twitter to the news that you had to lay off a few people will affect how you appear in search engines. That’s SEO.
When you’re asking advisors, consultants, marketing professionals, “SEOs,” or just looking up on Google what matters to SEO, the fact is even the kitchen sink is included. (I’m not kidding! If the kitchen sink in your office sucks, employees might not be as enthusiastic about being there. That trickles down to your competitiveness for search results).
6. Competition Changes Everything.
Now that you’re with me that everything matters, you can appreciate how competition changes everything in a heartbeat.
Remember those investors we’re pitching? What do you think they think when they search for your product, your service, your resume, your Facebook page, and you don’t show up but your competitors do?
Whoops (your fault, not mine, this time).
Take a peak at slide 9 with me now as I did an experiment to help prove my point. A few weeks ago, someone in the Austin Startups Facebook Group asked, “Who is the best SEO expert in Austin.” After a few names were mentioned, mine included, someone pointed out somewhat dumbfoundedly, “…look it up on Google.”
Makes sense doesn’t it? You want to find the business best at something, you’d expect it to be at the top of that search.
Now, appreciate for a moment that I don’t really do SEO anymore. I work with VCs and later stage startups as a part time CMO. But indeed, my professional profile brand leads people to believe I do SEO and it’s still fair to say I know what I’m doing. But frankly, the mention of my name as the best SEO in Austin was something with which I was both gracious and surprised but also a little frustrated, that COME ON PEOPLE… I don’t DO SEO.
Why don’t I “do SEO” any more? As you might have gathered, you can’t really do SEO. Since everything matters, it’s not really something you can outsource. You can hire an advisor or consultant to teach you. You can create content and run search marketing programs. But SEO is something that you all need to do so I try to make a habit of actually disparaging people from trying to hire the Best SEO Expert. And that’s when an idea clicked…. an opportunity to show people that.
2 days later, my site had the 3rd result for that query. I had gone from not appearing at all when someone searches for “Who is the best SEO expert in Austin,” to removing from the results marketing agencies and “SEOs” who were claiming to be just that.
Competition Changes Everything.
And thus you can appreciate how it’s a practice that shows investors how sophisticated you are as an entrepreneur. NOT because you do SEO!! That entire experiment was dependent on my being aware of, involved in, credible for, and capable of addressing a question about SEO in Austin. I was able to conduct that experiment because I was paying attention to the market. I was able to gain that placement in Google because I know how and my site, no longer a site about SEO, was still credible, respected, and popular for everything ELSE I do such that a quick article about who the best SEO in Austin is signals to Google, that person seeking, that I can help.
Is that not what you need to be doing?
7. TAG Everything.
My notes are getting long, I realize, so our last few thoughts are on the topic of what you can proactively do. In the back of your head repeat the mantra, Tag Everything.
Tweeting something? Did you tag the other people involved?
Posting on Facebook? Did you tag the other companies related to your article?
Sharing something on LinkedIn? Did you tag the people you want alerted?
Writing a blog post? Did you tag (link to) all the sources referenced, thought leaders mentioned, and other participants in the space?
Tagging and linking does a magical thing. It alerts those mentioned.
Imagine that. What does that have to do with SEO?? In and of itself, nothing. What better way to foster some business development, some fans, some customers, or some investors than to promote them and tag them?
Moreover, it does matter to SEO doesn’t it? (that’s a rhetorical question – remember? everything matters). Tags result in fans, likes, retweets, comments, and links that make your site and your content part of the web (world wide web) of information and remind Google that your information is timely, popular, and connected. If you’re a dead end on the internet, you’re a dead end.
7. Foundation, Function, Finesse.
When you get into the office tomorrow, call a meeting of everyone and lay out the model of the 3Fs. Your entire team should have a role in your business in this regard.
How does that apply to what you appear in search?
- The quality of your website
- Do you have analytics in place?
- Are you capturing demand?
- Are you meeting every conceivable query?
- If you are building a mobile app but don’t yet have Android ready, do you have a page explaining that?
- Are the URLs to your web pages intuitive and logical like a library
We’re not going to get into everything that matters in SEO since everything matters. Being the founder/owner/CEO, your job is to make sure everyone is aware that everything matters and that you have a foundation built upon which search engines can work.
- Are you creating content about your business?
- Are you involved in social channels where appropriate?
- Is the media covering you?
- Are you serving customers effectively?
- Are you addressing service issues?
The day to day functions of your business should take into account what search engines will think. Are they?
- Are you creating a better experience than competitors?
- Are you creating referrals and word of mouth?
- Is the media merely covering your announcements or are they talking about you?
- Are you speaking at the right events?
The finesse is exactly that. What it takes to distinguish what you do.
The one thing that may surprise you.
HOW to do this is the easy part! Simply look it up on Google. There are only so many things that matter when it comes to the technical aspects “SEO” – making sure your site is fast, making sure you have Titles and meta descriptions, making sure your images have alt text, etc.
The hard part is grasping that SEO is not about acquiring customers. It’s not a thing you can just pay to have done for you nor implemented to launch. It’s a practice that your venture either practices or fails.
In the interest of you getting funded, I simply don’t want you to fail because you failed to practice.
Thanks, Paul! Awesome article
Thank you for posting… I couldn’t make it and was super bummed
Really excellent article.
It’s amazing how many people don’t think about their digital presence. In this day and age consumers will look up the service or product they are interested in BEFORE calling anyone. They only want to do business with people they trust AND that comes from GIVING lots of free advice about your niche via the internet.
When they find your posts it creates a sense of trust. I can’t tell you how many people hire me on the first call they make to me because I share so much of my knowledge on the internet.
Paul O’Brien what a great approach. I found your instruction immensely helpful and motivating. It’s caused me to schedule regular blog posts and rethink how I’m doing some things already. Thanks!
Thanks for your insight! #SEObrien #mlitarymoves #militaryfamily #veteranowned #veteranstartup #bunkerlabs #wework
Thanks for the reminder that SEO is a practice that is ever-changing. I’d like to look for SEO solutions someday when I launch my own website for freelancing work. That way, I wouldn’t worry too much about ensuring traffic to go to the site.