Launching a startup is a huge task all on its own. While it can be a challenge to factor SEO into the mix, it’s an incredibly important consideration. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand shares a comprehensive plan to kick off your new SEO audit and grab a piece of that organic search pie from the get-go.
Hi, everyone down at StartCon. Thank you so much for having me. My name is Rand Fishkin. I’m the co-founder of Moz, and today I’m going to be talking to all of you and to Whiteboard Friday fans everywhere about how to kick-start an SEO audit for your startup.
So what I’ve done here is I’ve taken our classic SEO pyramid, sort of you’ve got to start with a strong base and work your way up. Well, I flipped it, because, in an audit scenario, we’re actually going to start from the bottom and work our way to the top. So I’ve inverted our pyramid. We’re going to start with crawling and accessibility, and we’re going to work all the way up to conversion.
Now, SEO in a startup setting can be challenging. I’m going to assume that your startup has already launched your website or your web content, your application, and that now you’ve just realized, “Wait, maybe we should do some of that SEO stuff.” And yes, you should. Let me make three big reasons, three big cases why you should.
- Search traffic is among the highest percentage of all referral traffic on the web. So whereas social traffic sends approximately 5% to 6% of all the web’s referral traffic, search engines send about 28% or 29% of all the web’s referring traffic. This is data according to SimilarWeb who has a large clickstream panel that they look at.
- Organic search traffic is more than 90% of all the clicks that go to search results. So 90% of the clicks are going to organic, 10% or actually less than 10% are going to the paid results. Companies around the world are spending $40, $50, $60 billion a year or more on Google’s paid search results alone. That organic stuff is a competitive advantage because it means low cost of customer acquisition. It tends to mean higher retention. It tends to mean higher conversion rates. Very, very attractive traffic.
- Searches are a specific request from a user that says, “I want this thing and I want it right now.” That’s some of the most powerful traffic you can possibly be in front of on the web, and, as a result, the startups that can get their product, their service, their company, their brand in front of those searchers can have an outsized impact.
Now, we need to kick off this audit.
Crawling, indexing, and website structure
What I’ve essentially done here is taken sort of the top three things to be thinking about for each of these and detailed them for you. So when it comes to crawling and web structure, we want:
1. Everything on one sub and root domain.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen startups use blog.startup.com, or use startupblog.com. Or they blog only on Medium.com instead of blogging on their own site and using Medium as an additional network to amplify that content. Or they put everything on their app and their app is one page, and so Google can’t index anything except that one page. Generally, all of these are terrible ideas. If you can, keep everything in subfolders, or if you call them subdirectories, of your website. Don’t separate out your content on to multiple sites, and don’t build anything on somebody else’s site unless you’re also using it on your site and just referring back. You want to use Medium, that’s great. You want to use Facebook, great. You want to use LinkedIn Publishing, fantastic. Always have the “Here’s the link to the original” and point it to your website.
2. You can sign up for Google Search Console (it is free).
That will help you identify a lot of crawl errors and issues. If you work with a professional SEO, chances are they’re going to use a tool like OnPage.org or Screaming Frog or Moz’s Crawl. Those are all good too. They can provide a little bit more extra detail.
3. Eliminate duplicates, search URLs, and thin pages
One of the things that you will want to do, when you’re looking at your site, is eliminate duplicates, search URLs, meaning pages on your site that are essentially just search results — Google does not like your search results in their search results — and thin pages, pages that have very little content. You might think, “Oh, but they target some extra keywords for me.” Yeah, but Google considers your site as a whole. If you have thousands of pages with very thin content, they’re going to rank your other content lower, and that is not a good thing. You do not want that.
Keyword research & targeting
1. Make a big, broad list.
You could do this in Excel. You could do it in a Google Spreadsheet. You could do it in a tool like Keyword Explorer. I want you to use a bunch of different sources. I want you to look at keywords that your competitors are ranking for. You can find that from lots of different tools. You could use something like Keyword Explorer. You could use SEMrush. You could use KeyCompete. You could use SpyFu. There are lots and lots of tools that allow you to do this.I want you to also use the related and suggested search terms that come up when you search for the key terms and phrases you’re already targeting in Google. I want you to use semantically-connected terms and terms that are in the format of questions. A lot of folks like Answer The Public. Moz also has the filter in Keyword Explorer for queries that are in the form of questions. These will give you a big, big, broad list.
2. From there, you’re going to need some metrics:
- You want volume, you can get that from Google’s AdWords Keyword Tool. You will have to either start an account and pay some money for some paid search ads. Otherwise, Google only shows you these terrible things. Or you’re going to have to use a third-party tool like a SEMrush or a Keyword Explorer.
- You want difficulty, so you want to know how hard it will be to rank. That is not the same as the Competition Score that you get from AdWords. Competition in AdWords is just the competition in the paid search results. Not the same thing as how difficult it will be to rank in the organic search results.
- You want to know click-through rate opportunity. If there are lots of ads above the fold, if there’s a knowledge graph, if there’s an answer box up top there, that’s going to drive clicks away from the organic results, and you need to know that before you choose to target a keyword.
3. Prioritize by the importance to you and to your company.
You’re going to use these metrics and you’re going to prioritize by the importance to you, to your company. You’re going to prioritize by the ease, the difficulty, and by the traffic, which is some function of the click-through rate opportunity and the volume, in order to choose right keywords for you. You’re going to prioritize that big list that you’ve got, and then you’re going to start targeting. We are going to create content that targets those searchers and serves them well.
Accessible content that delights searchers
Why do I say delight searchers here in this third section? Well, because content that merely serves your purposes, that ranks and maybe gets one or two percent of people to convert on your site, give you their email address or sign up for whatever it is you have to sign up for, a free trial, or a subscription to your software, that’s fine. But you’re probably going to be outranked by someone who does a fantastic job of serving searchers before putting their own interests into the mix. If you put your interest ahead of searcher’s interest, over time, someone else is going to take that traffic away from you and Google’s going to rank them first.
1. Don’t just serve your own interest, your own funnel.
Satisfy those searchers.
2. You can use low engagement metrics to identify poorly performing URLs.
So if you filter in your Google Analytics, your Omniture, whatever you’ve got, by pages that receive traffic from Google referrals and then you look at bounce rate, you look at time on site, you look at pages per visit, and you see pages that are very low on those metrics, well, that is going to tell you, you are not doing a great job of serving those searchers. Google will probably, over time, push you down, push your competitors up. That’s a bad thing.
We want content that is doing a great job of delighting searchers. It has to serve both their implicit and explicit query. The explicit part of the query, that’s usually obvious. The implicit part can be a, “What do they really want to do after that, once they have that answer?”
Keyword use & on-page optimization
Next, we’re going to take that content and we are going to optimize it for search engines and searchers. That means using keywords intelligently and doing some smart on-page optimization.
Now, classic SEO kinds of things, some of them no longer apply. The meta keywords tag, for example, that’s gone. We don’t need to do the same sort of every little variation of a keyword demands a different page that we used to do in the past. But things like…
1. Keyword use in the title, the URL, the meta description, the headline, and inside the content still matter.
What we should be doing nowadays, though, is taking all the keywords that share the same searcher intent, where the searcher is trying to essentially accomplish the same thing. Let’s say I’m a mobile phone directory and I have a bunch of reviews of mobile phone devices. “Best mobile phones, best cell phones, best smartphones, best smartphones 2016,” guess what? They all share the same searcher intent. I should have one page targeting all those keywords, not a separate one for each one.
2. All the keywords that share the same intent get one URL.
Snippet, markup, & schema
This is essentially where I’m trying to stand out from the pack in Google search results. If you’ve performed a search in the last five years, you know that it doesn’t just look like 10 blue links anymore. There are a lot more rich options for how your snippet, the search engine result position that you appear in, can look to searchers, and that can drive a lot more traffic.
1. Check out Schema.org.
So check out Schema.org and check out the types of results in your specific field or industry or that go with your content that could be met by schema that Google supports right now.
2. Look at your keyword research for the types of results that already appear in your SERPs.
You should be taking a look in your keyword research at the types of results that already appear in your search engine result pages. So if you check out your keywords, you’re using a tool like Keyword Explorer, you can see here’s a distribution of search results that contain images, ones that contain news results, ones that contain recipe-rich snippets, ones that contain video, whatever it is, and then you can choose to do those.
3. Identify “answer box” opportunities.
15%, just about 15% of all search queries in Google today have an answer box of some kind. An answer box, meaning that featured snippet up at what we call result number 0, before the top 10, usually right after the ads. That can drive a tremendous amount more traffic. If you have answer box opportunities, you can take those from your competitors, or you can have your snippet appear in there. There’s a great presentation from Doctor Pete that you can check out on Moz or a Whiteboard Friday on that same topic as well.
Alternative formats & engines
Next, we want to think about non-Google sources of traffic or non-google.com web search sources of traffic. For example:
1. YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world.
YouTube is the second-largest search engine in the world, ahead of even Baidu, ahead of Bing, ahead of Yahoo. If you are doing video content, you should be thinking about YouTube. Even if you’re not doing video content, you should be checking YouTube’s search volume to see if lots of people are searching on YouTube for answers to the questions that your business could answer with video.
2. Consider alternative search formats like images, news, and apps.
You also want to consider alternative search formats, like images, news, and apps in lots of spaces. For example, in home decor and home repair, image search is very, very popular. Obviously, in spheres like politics and technology, news is very popular. For lots of kinds of queries, apps are very popular, particularly those ones that happen on mobile and have a clear app use or need around them.
3. Check out Google Maps if you’re in local.
If you are in the local space, you’re going to want to check out Google Maps, which can send a tremendous amount of traffic. Through there, you can use a tool like Moz Local or Yext for that.
4. Ecommerce should pay attention to engines like Amazon or Etsy.
If you’re in ecommerce and you’re selling a physical product, there might be engines like Amazon or Etsy, where you could and should be putting your product.
Links and amplification
Yes, links still matter. Yes, they are still critical for rankings. You will need a lot of links from good places that are editorially pointing to your content, to your website, in order to rank well.
You also want to earn other forms of amplification that will then lead to links. Social sharing is one of the big ones. Word of mouth is obviously a big one. Lots of forms of advertising can eventually lead to links through awareness and those sorts of things.
1. Before you ever create content, ask the question: Who will help amplify this and why?
If you don’t have a great answer to that question, and I mean a specific list of people or a specific list of outlets, you shouldn’t hit Publish. Go and do that work first and every piece of content that you create will have more success in terms of amplification and reach and link potential and the potential to earn an audience. And why are you creating content if no one’s going to see it? This isn’t a forest. You don’t need no trees falling.
2. You want to choose a link flywheel that’s going to earn you links over time.
There are a few different structures.
- News and press tends to be a good structure that earn links over time in a flywheel sort of format.
- Content marketing tends to be one.
- Partnerships tend to be one.
- Embedded content tends to be one.
These flywheels tend to encounter friction, and that’s where you use these smart hacks, like submissions to certain kinds of directories that are editorial and high-quality, or outreach on a one-to-one basis. But you don’t want to be doing these one-to-one kinds of hacky link building unless it’s in the service of a flywheel that’s going to move faster over time and grow your link profile while you’re asleep.
Conversion and funnel optimization
So you’ve done all this stuff to serve searchers well, to earn their trust and their traffic, and now we have to realize two things.
1. Conversion takes time and it takes a lot of visits.
In fact, WordStream, Larry Kim, did some great research showing that, over time, on a second or third or fourth visit, conversion rates move up by hundreds of percents versus that first visit.
Don’t expect that you’re going to rank for a keyword, drive someone to your site for the first time and convert them instantly. That rarely happens. Sometimes, but rarely. What’s generally going to happen is that you’re going to earn that click first, and then, over time, you’re going to earn them back again, maybe through social channels, maybe through amplification, through word of mouth, through type-in traffic, through a branded search, through another completely unrelated search. Then eventually, they’ll find their way back to you, and on the third or fourth or fifth visit, they will convert.
So we have to be thinking about: How can I delight people? How can I brand them? Then, eventually, I want to draw them back to my website and close the deal through my funnel. That’s what conversion optimization is when it works in the organic world.
Okay. We’re through this very, very basic audit process. A few frequently asked questions that I always get from startups:
A. “Should I get a consultant, an agency, or should I do it in-house?”
- If you know that SEO is going to be a long-term, competitive advantage that you continue to invest in and it’s going to be something you need to do for the life of your company, you should go in-house as soon as possible.
- If, however, it’s (SEO) more like a nice-to-have and it’s a helpful marketing channel, but it’s not a core competency and you’re not going to build the company’s marketing strategy around it, consultant or agency can work just fine. And there are some great ones, by the way.
B. PPC versus SEO.
- Paid search is easy to invest in. It is high-cost, but it’s fast to get started. For this reason, it’s incredibly competitive, and it tends to be the case that people are bidding at or very close to their maximum ROI to spend ratio, meaning, unless, you have an incredible business model that’s way better than all your competitors, there’s not usually a lot of competitive advantages to be earned in return on investment or in cost of customer acquisition to lifetime value ratio in PPC.
- SEO, on the other hand, takes a long time. It’s a lot of investment. This is often a six-month or a year process before you start earning big returns, and, therefore, very few people invest in it strategically. It is a much bigger competitive advantage.
C. I get this from a lot of folks, especially in the technical world. “Can’t Google just figure this all out?”
- No, they absolutely cannot. If you ignore these things and choose not to invest strategically and specifically in SEO, Google will not just figure it out. That has never happened to anyone who has made SEO a true competitive advantage in their startup, in their company’s marketing channels. It’s just not how it works.
D. “Does social media impact SEO?”
- The answer is yes, but indirectly. When you do good things on social, they can lead to good links. They can lead to good engagement on your site, which is certainly a positive signal for Google, and they can lead to word of mouth, which can result in branded searches and more clickstream traffic to your site, and all these sorts of things that Google can see. But if you think that buying a bunch of likes or a bunch of tweets on Fiverr is going to help your page rank higher, yeah, you’re in for, well, five dollars of pain. Fiverr is quite cheap.
All right, everyone. Thank you so much for having me on StartCon. Thanks for watching me on Whiteboard Friday. And I hope to see you around Moz and maybe down in Australia sometime in the near future. Take care.