I used to think of SEO as a “scammy” strategy for startups. Here’s why I changed my mind.
This is a post about being wrong.
About totally misjudging something, and waiting too long to try it because of preconceived notions.
And about how finally digging into the potential value of doing SEO “right” convinced me that it was worth pursuing.
If you’re in the same boat — that is, curious about SEO but not really sure where to start or why — then this post is for you.
Three Reasons We Didn’t Do Any SEO Before
There are a number of reasons we hadn’t given much thought to SEO in the past. Looking back, some of them were completely valid, and others totally misguided…
Our team is big on focus. We believe in optimizing our time to spend it on the things that we know will drive results, and cutting mercilessly in the areas that don’t bring much of a return.
That’s why we deleted our Facebook page last month.
Things were already going well, and in a world where we’re spending hundreds of team hours per week on product, blogging, content promotion, support and customer development, we didn’t really have the capacity to shift focus to SEO.
At least, I didn’t think we did.
2) Lack of Knowledge
I’ve started four businesses, and grew them all without even thinking about SEO.
I don’t say that to brag; I say that to explain that SEO simply isn’t something I’ve come across in my career. It’s not something I’ve ever worried about.
Because of that, I knew next to nothing about it until I hired Jordan, our CTO, a self-taught search marketer who has successfully used SEO and SEM in his own businesses since 2000. Jordan has led the charge and taught our team a lot about doing SEO “right,” but before that, I didn’t really know much about it.
Which leads me to…
3) “SEO Is Scammy”
I have no doubt that I’m going to piss off some SEO experts by saying this.
But frankly — probably because I didn’t know anything about it — before last year, I had the pre-existing notion that SEO was not a whole lot more than a scammy tactic to “game” Google.
My experiences with “SEO” mostly consisted of:
- Struggling to finish reading blog posts and company websites that were obviously built to house keywords, and not interesting content.
- Seeing (and deleting) posts with generic comments and links back to business sites on this blog, every single week.
(Note: I actually don’t mind people linking to their business on our blog at all. If you’re adding value to our community, I’m all about spreading the good word. It’s those who don’t even take the time to read or contribute before spamming us with their links that I can’t stand.)
- Getting pitch after pitch from offshore SEO “agencies” offering to write keyword-optimized articles and submit them to hundreds of sites around the web.
Unfortunately, this was a case of only seeing the bad side and assuming the worst. And even more unfortunately, that ignorance was costing us traffic.
Why We Decided to Optimize Our Website
We first began to consider the idea of optimizing our marketing site for Google when we did our last redesign. And while we didn’t do it then, I was warming up to the idea.
The more I read about real SEO — and not the scammy stuff I had come across — the more I began to see the real value in taking this on.
Some of the resources I found invaluable were:
- Neil Patel’s SEO: A Comprehensive Guide for Beginners.
- David Zheng’s guest post on OkDork, How We Grew OkDork 200% With These Exact SEO Tips.
- Brian Clark’s How To Create Compelling Content That Ranks Well In Search Engines.
- The Adaptive SEO Approach by Yomar Lopez on the Unbounce blog.
Finally, I looked at our own conversion numbers, and what I found sealed the deal.
Visitors from external sources were signing up at a rate of 2.9%.
Traffic from the blog was converting at just over 5%.
But traffic from organic search? A whopping 9.4%.
A new goal became clear: we needed to increase our search traffic.
Our Strategy: How We Built a Solid SEO Foundation
I want to be very clear: this is NOT an expert-level plan for SEO.
This isn’t even an intermediate list of the things that you could do.
This is how we, as a startup that was doing literally nothing for SEO, began to build a foundation to increase organic search traffic to our marketing site.
If you’re an SEO expert, this will be very basic. But if you’re interested in taking the first steps — and seeing how we got awesome results from a simple process — then read on to see what we did.
Step 1: Identify the Problem
We had a single-page marketing site that, while converting reasonably well, wasn’t doing us any favors in search engines. In a crowded space, we were often falling onto the third, fourth or fifth page for searches relevant to our customers.
Takeaway: While our site was doing well when it came to conversions, we were leaving money on the table with a single-page design by not giving search engines anything to pick up.
Step 2: See What Prospects Are Searching for
We had a bit of a head start here, as we had done similar research for a small AdWords test last year. But essentially, we used Google’s Keyword Planner to check how frequently people were searching hundreds of different terms (and variations of those terms).
For some of the terms, we simply guessed, but for many, we used records from my customer development conversations, which continued to pay off. As it turned out, many of the challenges and goals our customers described to me were high-quality targeted keywords for us.
We also used Keyword Tool, which generates a list of Google’s autocomplete suggestions for any search, to find long-tail keywords that people were searching for.
This research also proved to be invaluable for the strategy of our new customer service blog, which we were building at around the same time. I’ll dive much more deeply into the development of that blog in a future post.
Takeaway: Keyword research is a “get your hands dirty” process, but well worth it. Try to think like your customers, or better yet, actually talk to your customers to learn how they think. There are tools to make this easier.
Step 3: Plan the Sitemap
We ignored any keyword that had many tens of thousands of searches per month (e.g., customer service), and did our best to focus on smaller to medium sized terms (a few thousand searches per month).
Because ranking for a term like “help desk software” would not only be a huge uphill climb for us, but it would hardly yield the most targeted prospects (there are many, many people who search for “customer service” who will never buy customer service software).
On the other hand, the smaller keywords (e.g., “help desk for saas startup”), while they didn’t have nearly as many searches, would yield far, far more targeted leads.
Plus, by focusing on 100 smaller terms rather than one or two big ones, we would “diversify” our targeting so that the success of our site wouldn’t be dependant on the fluctuating interest in a single term.
We took our list of keywords and began to build the sitemap. Our goal was to create enough pages so that we could target the most important keywords, but to stop before we began creating duplicate content; something that, aside from damaging the visitor experience, is a sign of those “scammy” tactics and an instant turn-off when I see it on a marketing site.
We housed our map in a simple Google Spreadsheet to help us keep track of which keywords we’d need to hit for each page, along with titles and meta descriptions.
Each page had one or two “primary” keywords, along with long-tail keywords that we used to capture hyper-targeted searches. We would try to make sure that our primary keywords were included across the headers for each page.
Takeaway: There are a number of guidelines and best practices for building a sitemap, but it comes down to picking the most high-value keywords and building content that people will want to read.
Step 4: Wireframe
We built simple wireframes for each page. Complete enough to give us some idea of what kind of copy we’d need, but basic enough that the copy could still take the stage without worrying about where it would “fit.”
Takeaway: We’re big believers in “copy first” design, so while we mocked up basic wireframes, we left ourselves plenty of room to let the copy be the star.
Step 5: Copy
Even though the goal of this effort was to improve our SEO, our keywords still came second in our copy.
We were sensitive to our fear of our site moving away from the customer-friendly messaging we have and losing our “voice” at the expense of trying to force keywords into our copy.
So first, we focused on doing all of the things we learned how to do in our first redesign. We used language from our customer development interviews and tried to talk like our customers do. We hit pain points, goals, and important benefits; including many of the ones we knew were successful from tests on our existing site.
And while we had the keywords in mind as we developed the copy, we didn’t worry about whether or not we “checked them off” along the way.
Only after we were happy with the way everything read did we look at ways to incorporate:
- Primary keywords into headers
- Secondary keywords into subheads
- Long-tail keywords into copy
In addition, anywhere we linked to other pages within the site, we would try to include the primary keywords for the linked page around the hyperlink.
In the end, we were satisfied that we were able to maintain our voice and tone while improving the copy.
Takeaway: By writing interesting, quality content first, we were able to incorporate our keywords afterwards and still maintain messaging that resonates with our customers.
Step 6: Design
After putting the pieces together, we were left with a site that looked and felt good enough to launch.
Our friends at Less Films also created an awesome product video for the homepage that incorporated everything we’d learned since the first time we made a Groove video. The making of the video was an in-depth and fascinating process with tons of research and background work involved, and I’ll definitely be writing about the experience here in the future.
Takeaway: Our total time from start to finish was just a few weeks. A simple design process let us ship a solid site quickly and iterate from there.
It’s early, but the results have been promising.
A week after launch, we were ranking on the front page for a number of our targeted terms.
And with the lift from organic search, overall conversions were boosted, too.
Note: these results might not be typical. We’ve spent more than a year building this blog, and our site has quite a bit of SEO power because of the number of links that it gets. But with time, you can do exactly the same.
How to Apply This to Your Business
We’ve still got a long way to go. And plenty left to do when it comes to fortifying our SEO strategy.
But by just taking a few simple steps, we’ve managed to get some very exciting results.
As I said, this isn’t an advanced, or even intermediate strategy. In fact, there’s a good chance that you know more about SEO than I do.
This is meant to serve as a basic primer for businesses who were in the same position as us: afraid and unaware of how to actually do SEO right without becoming “those people.”
If you haven’t started doing any SEO because you don’t know where to start, then I hope this post has inspired you to give it a try.
It was certainly worth it for us.