startup Startup Your best SEO strategy is to ignore it

Focus on building a product that your users love

There are a lot of myths about magical recipes that put you on top of google's first page (preferably on highly competitive keywords). I've seen a lot of founders thinking about search engine optimization as a kind of holy grail, some almighty wonder-channel sending them humongous amount of free traffic...

But what an early stage startup wants to work on is its value proposition, its product and finding its product-market fit.

Your only focus should be to build an amazing solution to a painful problem, in the most simple and most efficient way you can imagine. Got a way? You need to do even better.

Whatever takes you away from this goal is a distraction.

You want to build for users, not for search engine bots.

A start-up company can't do both.

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  • Bots won't become customers.
  • Bots won't help you validate hypothesis.
  • Bots won't take part in a community.
  • Bots won't call your sales.
  • Fucking bots have no money!

Search engine optimization for dummies

Let's step back for a second: What the fuck is search engine optimization? If you're already familiar with the term and its different meanings, feel free to skip this.

[tl;dr] An attempt to define Search Engine Optimization:

  • You're either trying to rape a 500B+$ business, and good luck with that.
  • Or you're making a product that rocks, and search engines will love it.

What's the main goal of search engine companies?

You can't speak about SEO without understanding a bit of the search engines' goals.

Google's business is to make informations available to people, and they monetize this information. The more accurate information they get to the user, the more money they'll make in the long run.

Search engines wants happy users.

If your pages make their users happy, they will send traffic.

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  • Happy users that find what they were looking for.
  • Happy users that won't come back to search the same thing 10 seconds after clicking your link.
  • Happy users that got relevant informations from their favorite engine.
  • Happy users that won't try any competing service having such great information here.
  • Happy users that the engine know so well it can push highly relevant ads that users will even be more satisfied to read, and click.

If your goal is to lie or trick users onto getting to your site, you have a conflicting goal, and search engines won't be your friends. I'll talk about lying to search engines below. And if as a start-up company, your way to acquire customers is to lie to them, you won't last long.

How does search engines work?

Search engines mostly work by having crawlers that downloads the more content they can on Internet, following links from page to page, ranking pages on thousands of criteria to feed a kind of inverted index (keywords to document index). If you know about softwares like Apache SOLR or Elasticsearch, it's pretty much the same concept. Searh engine actors just made their own super-specialized reverse index to work well with the complex problems they have.

Making your (web or mobile) product easier to read

This should not be a feature, it should be «by design». If you know your tools and use web standards, you should not spend more than a few minutes a day on this part and it will be sufficient to handle 80% of «on-site» SEO. As a corolary to the Pareto's law, you should ignore the leftover optimizations that will eat up an infinite amount of time for small to no value.

You should focus on the 20% causes that produce 80% of the effects, then simply ignore the rest.

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Have clean and accessible URLs, generate your content server side, have title tags around titles, write alternate texts for images, use standard markup... And that's about it on the technical part.

Have a well thought content structure and organization, a clean navigation, (a.k.a. a way for your visitors to find their way in the informations)... That's user centric, bots will love it and you'll be good on the structural part.

In fact, that is not SEO, that's only web development done right, and that's what the search bots want to see. Don't worry if your about your not-so perfect titles, your flaky semantics, your lack of keywords... That's only time consuming bullshit, on a search engine marketing point of view.

Search engines got very good at ignoring those unimportant mistakes, in favor of real user satisfaction related criteria.

Focus on your users. Provide them the best content you can; the best service you can; the most value possible; an amazing user experience. This is what makes a good product. This is the only viable way to search engine wonderland.

To sum up, don't craft for bots, craft for users. And as a bonus, that is what search engine need (amazing results for their users, yay), so you'll have more credit from them.

Making yourself a reputation, be an expert

Good products make people chat, and that's the root of modern search (as invented by Google in late 90s, mostly). Once called PageRank, the rules are now much more complex, but the root idea is the same. The more relevant people say your product is amazing, the more your product is considered relevant.

Oh wait, isn't that how humans already think about things?

It is what you want to create as a company: an amazing service your users will love, cherrish, and be proud to tell their friends or colleagues about.

If you create amazingness, you'll get press for it, you'll get people refering to you because they love your work, your way to present it, the philosophy behind it ... If you have the best service for X out there (let's say, sheep-shaving-as-a-service), people will talk about you for this expertise, and as a bonus, search engines will start to trust your authority on the subject.

Getting nasty with a giant

So now, what a lot of people refers to when speaking of SEO is often something completely different.

Also refered from time to time as «black hat SEO», they do want to cheat, abuse of the system, get a lot of this valuable traffic at all cost.

If you're building a «start-up» company, trying to give birth to a new, previously unexisting, product and business model, this is one of the worst ideas you can have, for three main reasons:

  • You're losing focus, and your product will, as a result, suck.
  • You're getting nasty with a giant, and the giant will win at this game.
  • You're building a business that depends on tricking the system. Is the system decide to unplug your tricks, you're dead.

Still wanna do SEO for the sake of SEO?

If you think all this is bullshit, and that SEO should take a lot of your energy, I suggest you take as the root directives the following document, created and made available by Search Engine Land (you know, they created valuable piece of content, they bring value to the table, and wow, they get free referals by doing so...)

Periodic table of SEO, 2015 version

Take each item, priorize it, and do it, ignoring the 20% that will eat up 80% of your time.

Done? Now get back to your product, and focus 200% on your product, because in the end, you will lose if you don't.

And don't forget one thing: if you focus on things like making bots think you're better than you actually are, the worst that can happen is that they may eventually end up thinking you are indeed a very good answer to a given intent. And I hope the bots have money, because you do need customers.

The (underestimated) cost of SEO

Also known as «The myth of the free inbound channel», I've seen a lot of people say that they will «do SEO» because it's the only way to get traffic for free.

Free, hu?

Let's try to evaluate the different hidden costs. This can't be universal, but try to do it honnestly:

  • Cash-burn related: enginering time, content marketing time, product design time ...
  • Non cash-burn related: impact on product quality, on your time to market, on your team happiness ...

Now give a number, do you think this channel is still free, or cheap?

Focus on building a product that your users love

I hope I convinced you that as a product creator, company builder or hacker of 21th century, the only thing that matters is the value you create for your customers.

Bots aren't customers and won't be.

Having good vanity metrics (like organic traffic) but no traction because of a poor product is the worst that can happen to you. It will kill you slowly and painfully.

So don't fall for the usual mistake:

Your best SEO strategy as a start-up company is to ignore it, plain and simple.

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