SEO for Startups: What Founders Need to Think About
Written By: Joey Randazzo
Joey Randazzo is the owner and Founder of Portland SEO Growth Partners based in Portland, OR. He’s worked with dozens of global startups to build growth-centric SEO campaigns.
Published: August 13, 2022
You might have recently wrapped up your Series B round with a $20M equity injection.
Or, you might be pre-seed looking to prove initial success to investors.
As a venture-backed startup, no matter what stage you’re at, marketing can be complicated and convoluted. You need reasonable CAC numbers for investors for the short-term. However, you also need to think 3-6 months down the road to ensure, before the next round of fundraising (or, if you’re at that stage, to prep for an IPO).
This guide provides helpful thought exercises to determine if SEO is right for your startup
It also shares SEO strategies depending on what stage of company you’re at. Keep reading to learn more.
How to Navigate This Guide for Startup SEO Growth
SEO case study for a startup from Pre-Seed to Series A
Flexbase is a startup fintech company. They launched the first credit card for construction companies with 0% interest for 60 days.
We started working with them in late 2020, before they even launched their website.
Their founder, Zaid Rahman, says:
“I don’t know why I was looking for SEO back then. We didn’t even have a website or a completed product.”
They launched their Webflow website in 2021. Back then, they actually didn’t have the credit card in the product roadmap. Back then, we were looking to help them launch a product to help construction companies automate regulatory documents such as payapps, lien waivers, and more.
That’s the thing with start-ups. Pivots are inevitable. SEO should take that into consideration (we’ll share more about how to plan your SEO campaign around pivots below).
Then, in early 2022, Flexbase launched their credit card product.
Their SEO investment has been around $3.5k per month, with some fluctuations.
Now, in September of 2022, after 2 years of working together (through many pivots), here’s where Flexbase is at:
- Before working together, they didn’t have a website: 0 organic traffic from Google
- September 2022: should finish the month with 7,000+ organic website visitors from Google, +80% of which are non branded visitors
Here’s a screenshot from Google Analytics proving traffic performance:
- Before working together, they didn’t have a website: 0 keywords ranking on Google
- September 2022: should finish with 4,500+ keywords ranking on Google, with many high-value, bottom-of-funnel keywords in the top 3 positions of Google (such as “credit card for construction” and “expense management for construction”)
Here’s a screenshot from SEMrush proving keyword performance:
*explanation: leads are defined as anyone giving their name and email. Activations are leads who make it through the entire funnel and become customers.
- Before working together, they didn’t have a website: 0 conversions from SEO
- September 2022: should finish with averaging 6+ leads per day from SEO and 1.7 activations per day from SEO (50+ per month)
Projections for 6 months from now (March 2023):
- Traffic: +20k organic visitors per month from SEO ($0.17 per visitor from SEO)
- Keywords: +12k keywords ranking on Google
- Leads/Conversions: 800+ leads per month and 170+ activations per month from SEO (CAC of $20.50 from SEO)
Now, Flexbase’s current SEO performance and future projections aren’t astronomical. We’re not talking about millions of organic visitors.
However, the projections are leading to real activations. Real users at a very impressive CAC.
These projections are also built on a HUGE foundation of content. We’ve written hundreds of pieces of content. However, it paid off. Investors salivate over the CAC numbers above since this is just one channel: SEO. It doesn’t include paid media through PR, paid social, influencer marketing, and more. Flexbase is turning into a customer acquisition machine.
Zaid Rahman, the Founder of Flexbase, shares his thoughts on our SEO campaign:
“The SEO performance is really solid. It’s leading to consistent growth and continually reducing our CAC numbers month after month. We’re quite happy with it.”
High-performance SEO campaigns for startups can make investors salivate
Investors care about a lot of things. They want your product to work. They want low customer churn.
But the thing investors care about most? Healthy MoM company growth at low CAC. And SEO can help you accomplish that.
At the end of the day, that’s it. Can you affordably acquire a lot of new customers?
High-performance SEO makes investors salivate for a couple reasons:
- When your target audience searches for a solution to their problem, you rank –> which leads to conversions/customers
- When you’re with an investor at dinner and you say “hey, go to Google right now and search for ‘pest control software’ who do you see show up? Yep, you see us. We’re dominating” – it’s a flex.
- SEO is like farming. If done right, it only gets better. If you’re currently getting 5k organic visitors per month from Google but you double down on content and prove SEO growth, investors can visualize the future
Many startups praise SEO as a growth tool to increase valuation or lead to a successful IPO
Take NerdWallet, for example. They’re an SEO machine and have been building their content engine for years.
In their public Form S-1 documentation leading up to their IPO, they say that SEO was hugely influential to their success.
Here’s what they say:
“We have a substantial organic and performance marketing presence that drives high-intent traffic. Our organic marketing program leverages our substantial, proprietary body of trusted guidance coupled with expertise in SEO and public relations, to reinforce NerdWallet as a trusted authority in personal finance. Our performance marketing is also highly optimized for profitable revenue growth.”
I personally think this is a gross understatement. SEO is the backbone to NerdWallet’s entire business.
NerdWallet is averaging about 20 million (yes, million) organic visitors per month from Google:
They’re ranking 1st for keywords like “current mortgage rates” which have hundreds of thousands of searches per month.
They did this through an insane amount of high-quality mass SEO content.
Without SEO, NerdWallet isn’t a highly valued public company. Even worse, without SEO, NerdWallet wouldn’t even still be alive as a company today.
Is SEO right for your startup? A helpful thought exercise
SEO is just one form of marketing & growth. You’ve got paid social. You’ve got influencer marketing. You’ve got other growth hacks like strategic partnerships. You’ve even got traditional marketing, such as billboards or TV commercials.
One form of marketing isn’t better than the other.
Brex, a startup credit card company targeting other startups, knew that their target audience was clustered in Silicon Valley. So, early on, one of their main growth hacks was buying EVERY billboard in and around San Francisco for a month.
Smart move. And not related to SEO.
Let’s dig into some of the questions you can ask yourself to determine if SEO is right for your startup:
Before you get any further, ask yourself if you desperately need traffic/leads like... yesterday.
If you’re at the point of your startup where you need traffic, leads, conversions, or sales immediately in order to survive, then SEO isn’t for you.
SEO takes time to build. On average, it takes 6-12 months for startups to see noticeable traction with SEO. It’s a long-term asset that, if done well, will have you giggly with money symbols popping out of your eyes in a year from now, but not next week.
Now, if you’re willing to wait 6-12 months to see success from SEO, keep reading. Otherwise, you should probably go look for answers on how to drive traffic immediately to your site through paid strategies like social media or influencer marketing.
Are people searching for your product/solution on Google?
This is, by far, the most important question.
Let’s say your startup is an app specifically for veterinarians to use internally with their employees to increase productivity.
Okay, got it.
How many veterinarians per month are searching for “app to increase productivity for veterinarian clinics”? According to the keyword research tools out there like SEMrush, there are zero people per month searching for those types of keywords. The volume is low to non-existent.
Investing in national SEO to rank for “app to increase productivity for veterinarians” probably isn’t worth it. Instead, going to trade shows, standard business development workflows, and partnerships with other veterinarian-specific tools are going to move the needle much more than SEO.
Sidenote: That’s not to say that veterinarians aren’t searching for other queries on Google. There are X people per month searching for “software for veterinarians” – if you were able to rank for that keyword by writing a comprehensive guide comparing all the different software options for veterinarians, that would be valuable. But, since those queries aren’t for your specific solution, you’re not driving visitors at the bottom of the funnel which will lead to a much lower conversion rate.
What's the competition like?
Are you trying to rank for a keyword like “business productivity software” which is crazy competitive with dozens/hundreds of startups creating tools/software for this specific solution?
Or are you trying to rank for hyper-specific, lower difficulty (not easy… just LOWER difficulty) keywords like “dermatology staffing company”.
Who’s dominating for your target keywords? What type of content are they producing?
Here’s a quick exercise:
1. Think through your top 5 most valuable bottom-of-funnel keywords.
For example, if you’re an infrared sauna startup, it might be keywords like “best infrared sauna” or “infrared sauna for delivery.”
2. Search these bottom-of-funnel keywords on Google to see who’s ranking in the top 5 positions
Which companies are ranking? Is it Amazon, Ebay, Etsy, G2, etc? Or is it newer startups like yourself?
If the entire first page of Google is being dominated by huge players, then that makes your opportunity more challenging (not nonexistent, but more challenging).
Sidenote: +70% of all clicks on Google go to websites ranking in the top 5 positions. So don’t spend too much time on the bottom of page 1. And definitely don’t venture to page 2.
3. Think through your top 5 most valuable middle/top-of-funnel keywords, which are likely question-based keywords
These are educational-based keywords. We’ll use the infrared sauna company example that we used in #1.
These keywords might be “benefits of infrared saunas”, “should I buy an infrared sauna?” or “are infrared saunas worth it?”
4. Search these bottom-of-funnel keywords on Google to see who’s ranking in the top 5 positions
Which companies are ranking? And what’s the quality of their content?
Do they actually provide valuable content that answers user’s questions are is it your standard, BS article for SEO that’s stuffed with keywords?
Important! Competition shouldn’t scare you. It should just set expectations.
If your market is incredibly competitive from an SEO perspective, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start building the foundation. It just means that it may take longer to see results, but it’s still a valuable and worthwhile growth channel.
SEO strategy and budget laid out depending on your startup's maturity
This section is nearly impossible to answer as it depends on many factors. There’s no perfect formula. It’s not a universal fact that “20% of your marketing budget should be allocated to SEO” or anything like that. And, if folks do tell you that, then they’re wrong.
At this stage, we’ll assume that you don’t have a website or just launched a website. You’re probably not ranking for many keywords on Google or driving any traffic.
At this stage, your brand can benefit from some front-loaded SEO work, such as:
- Competitor analyses: what are your competitors doing? Why are they doing it? Which pages are driving the most traffic on their site? What are some keyword opportunity gaps?
- Robust keyword research: what are the hundreds of keywords your target audience are searching for on Google? What’s the volume and competition for each keyword? Which keywords should you be targeting over others?
- SEO roadmap/calendar for highest-priority activities first: should you start by creating a page about X? Or is your technical SEO the priority? Each brand is unique and their SEO roadmap should be unique.
Foundational content creation: Do you have pages for each service/feature/benefit of your product? If you don’t have content for this, then this needs to be created with SEO in mind.
- You should entire your site is, from a technical perspective, set up for long-term SEO growth: the idea here is to build a site that scales instead of breaks. Many startups do a patchwork job on their initial websites, leading to painful rebuilds down the line.
Monthly budget: $4-8k per month to frontload critical work
Let’s assume that you’ve covered everything above listed in the pre-seed round.
At this point, you likely don’t need to start thinking about an in-house SEO team. Maybe you’ve just hired a team member to oversee marketing, but they’re probably not an SEO pro.
So, the strategy at this point will likely be…
- Ongoing content creation targeting middle/top-of-funnel keywords: For example, if you want to rank for the bottom-of-funnel keyword of “pest control software” and you’ve already built a foundational page that targets this keyword, now it’s time to build website authority through content. What are question-based keywords that pest control companies are asking? Maybe it’s “how to hire pest technicians?” or “how to grow a pest control company?” – creating valuable, expert-level content answering these types of queries does two things:
- It helps you rank for the question-based keywords: if someone is looking for an answer to “how to hire pest technicians?” and reads your content, you can 1) potentially capture lead data them through in-content calls-to-action or 2) you can remarket to them on social media for your actual product
- It adds more authority to your bottom-of-funnel keywords: if you want to rank for “pest control software” and have 20 supporting articles that are related to pest control “thought leadership,” then that can help your bottom-of-funnel SEO performance.
- Reporting and analytics tracking: What keywords are you ranking for? How’s SEO performance going? Are the strategies working or should they be tweaked?
- Building domain authority through white-hat backlinks: Can your CEO be featured on podcasts in your industry? Can you leverage platforms like HARO (help a reporter out) to be featured as a subject matter expert in a digital publication? Can you do a crazy growth hacking exercise (giving your 1,000th user $50,000) as a PR stunt to gain media attention and backlinks?
Monthly budget: $2.5k – 10k per month. The front loaded work is done. So, at this point, it’s a matter of how much content you want to create to scale performance.
Let’s assume that you’ve covered everything above listed in the pre-seed and seed round and things are going well.
At this point, it’s likely about…
- Doubling down on SEO through content: Writing 3-6 long-form articles per month that truly add valuable to your target audience
Converting your SEO traffic through CRO (conversion rate optimization): it’s not just about driving traffic. It’s about converting traffic.
- You might consider hiring an in-house SEO manager to orchestrate growth: even if you do this, at this stage you’ll want to continue working with 3rd party agencies/consultants to execute and implement the work.
- You should be building content assets (long-form articles, potentially podcasts, website tools like calculators, and more) to drive value for your customers.
Monthly budget: $9k – 20k per month. This includes in-house payroll and 3rd party agency/consultant investments.
Series B and beyond:
At this point, you should consider…
- Having a full in-house SEO and content team: You should be publishing a minimum of 8+ SEO pages (whether landing pages or long-form content) per month targeting valuable keywords.
- Optimizing old content: SEO and content isn’t a “set it and forget it” type thing. You should be reviewing old content to either 1) optimize it, 2) delete it, 3) overhaul it
- Video content strategies: Google owns YouTube. Just think about that for a sec.
- Building relationships with partner, in-industry sites: With the goal being to get featured on their sites for beneficial backlinks.
- PR campaigns to launch new products/services: For example, are you a startup tech company? Every time you launch a new product, your goal should be to get featured on TechCrunch. Not only is this valuable for investors, but it’s valuable for SEO since Google will see TechCrunch covering your brand and consequently increase their trust in your site (which increases Domain Authority for your site).
SEO should be an in-house, well-oiled machine. That’s not to say that external agencies/consultants aren’t worth it at this size. It just means that they should be used differently, for more high-level strategy, extremely complicated technical solutions, and more.
Otherwise, if you’re solely relying on 3rd party agencies/consultants this point, you need to start building an in-house team.
Monthly budget: Minimum $20k per month for in-house team and 3rd party agencies/consultants.
It’ll be more affordable to hire in-house content specialists, writers, developers who have resources allocated to SEO, and more than to solely rely on external agencies/consultants.
No matter what you do, track marketing performance to make educated decisions
If you’re able to acquire customers for $10 per customer through paid influencer marketing on Tik Tok which is driving crazy user growth, then we’re not saying that you should remove some of that budget and allocate it to SEO.
It’s a matter of testing and tracking. If you’re investing in content, you need to be robustly tracking your content marketing KPIs. Testing some more and tracking at an even deeper level.
You have a limited marketing budget and you want to use it as effectively as possible. To do that, you need to have deep marketing insights to know, with relative confidence, which channels are worth investing in and which aren’t.