When it comes to long term ROI, few online marketing strategies compete with search engine optimization, especially when it is executed in a way that is defensible as legitimate marketing outside of SEO. If you’re not clear why SEO is such a powerful strategy, the subject has been covered elsewhere and in great detail. My personal favorite comes from Search Engine Land: The Ultimate List of Reasons Why You Need Search Engine Optimization.
That said, over the past couple years Google has been releasing updates and cracking down on SEOs who have approached the strategy merely as a method of manipulating search results, using strategies that don’t make sense for any purpose other than SEO. The major updates over the past couple years include:
Google Panda – First let loose in February of 2011, Panda is designed to target thin content and low quality content. Mediocre posts, such as those that show up in article directories, had been clogging search results for a large number of long-tail keywords, and Panda was released to diminish their presence. Panda has since been incorporated into the main algorithm, affecting pages as soon as they are indexed.
Google Penguin – This algorithm update was introduced on April 24, 2012, and its purpose is to target web spam. It seeks out sites that rank as a result of spam link-building practices, like automated comments, paid links, and other links that don’t serve users, and would seem very odd if search engines didn’t depend on links for ranking information. The first Penguin only analyzed the homepage of a site, but a subsequent update to Penguin’s algorithm looks deeper. Penguin still has not been incorporated into the main algorithm, and only impacts rankings when a data refresh is put into effect. This occurs every 6 months or so.
Google Hummingbird – Released around August 20, 2013, and officially announced on their 15th birthday (September 27, 2013), hummingbird is a rewrite of Google’s core algorithm. The primary change (or at least the one that was publicized by Google the most) revolves around how Google interprets search queries. As people search more often from their mobile phones, with voice search, they use longer, more conversational search queries. Google is attempting to interpret what searchers mean, rather than what keywords they are using. The release coincided closely with the cutoff of keyword data in Google Analytics, making it difficult to interpret how searchers are ending up on your website.
Altogether, millions of sites have been impacted directly or indirectly by these algorithms. Many lost their rankings, along with their income, overnight as a result. Businesses that relied on rankings in Google to turn a profit went out of business. In the wake of many of these updates, several webmasters would proclaim that “SEO is dead.” If that’s true, it is reborn every time, with new principles and techniques. In other words, SEO is an evolving discipline. Several industry experts have written excellent posts about why SEO will never die. Here are two of my favorites:
To this day, I’ve never seen an online marketing strategy that offers better long term ROI than SEO (if it’s done right). It would be foolish of me to claim that an entrepreneur or startup needs SEO, since startups and entrepreneurs succeed all the time without it. However, I don’t think I’m stretching things in the slightest to say that if you don’t employ SEO, you will be wasting money.
With SEO being so crucial for digital marketing, I’ve decided to compile a list of the all-time best SEO strategies for entrepreneurs and startups, regardless of your budget. These strategies are defensible as marketing outside of SEO, so even if they someday stop offering direct SEO benefit, they will always offer positive ROI, and in all likelihood they will always provide at least indirect benefits in the search engines.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
1. Solve a Unique Problem
As a startup or an entrepreneur, you should already know that the easiest way to succeed is to be innovative and unique in a corner of the market that isn’t really known for its innovation or creativity. On some level, this can also be considered a part of your SEO strategy. If your product or service is unique, it has that “purple cow” factor Seth Godin talks about. It’s memorable, so it gets talked about. In many ways, it’s even more important to be memorable than it is to be “better.”
In an online context, getting talked about doesn’t just mean getting exposure in social networks, blogs, and media outlets. It also means getting linked to and searched for. These kinds of behaviors influence your rankings in the search engines, creating a self-perpetuating effect. The more popular become, the more the search engines contribute to your popularity.
There’s no reason to end this with your products and services themselves. A successful long term SEO strategy is all about positioning yourself as an authority in your sector of the market. You cannot position yourself as a thought leader by merely repeating what others have said.
Before moving on, I want to be clear about what I mean here. I’m not claiming that every piece of content you make should be entirely unique. Great artists get inspired by each other, and great scholars cite one another. However, authorities from either discipline combine ideas they pick up elsewhere. Successful online authorities find creative and informative links between ideas, they inject personality, and they appeal to audiences that may never have been exposed to this kind of information before.
Put simply, nothing that you release online should copy from a single source. It must pull in information from a wide variety of sources, it must solve a problem in a unique way.
Another thing I’d like to stress about being unique: this doesn’t mean that your topics should be entirely unique either. While you certainly can and probably should reference obscure topics, you need to have some mainstream appeal in order to grow. That means you’ll want to tie these obscure topics to major niches. We’ll get into more depth on this when we talk about content marketing.
Also, keep in mind that “solving a unique problem” means many different things. It’s not always about writing a helpful blog post. Videos and images are heavily neglected and seriously underrated. Perhaps even more underrated are tools. The basis of nearly every top site on the web is a tool. You don’t need to be the next Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, or Adobe to gain some exposure, but if you create a tool or an interactive piece of content, you will create experiences for your users, and experiences are more memorable than text, image, and video.
Finally, never underestimate the importance of your brand concept. What is your brand about? This is especially important, because it provides the context that drives all of your other decisions. If you haven’t already, take a look at your market and define what’s missing in your corner of the market. You need to decide what is unique about your brand, both in style and substance, and let that drive the way that you approach building unique solutions to problems.
2. Let Your Brand Concept Drive Your Domain Name
There are some in the SEO community who advise you to choose a domain name based on keywords. This is a bad idea.
I’m sure you already know the benefits of choosing a brand name, so I won’t go into too much depth about that before we move forward. That said, I’d like to point to leading ecommerce software platform Shopify. There is something about the name itself that sends a message of legitimacy, modernity, and simplicity. I feel as though I knew it was a real brand before I knew anything else about it. (It helps that I’m pretty sure I first heard about it in a top media site somewhere.) This is enhanced by your first impressions when you visit the site.
Now, suppose they bought the domain name www.ecommerce-software.com instead? Sure, that might give them a bit of a boost in the search engines (although the exact match domain update has more or less removed this effect anyway). But ecommerce-software.com is not a brand name. Shopify does tell you something about what the brand does, but it doesn’t hit you over the head with it.
Now, onto the SEO benefit here. Yes, there’s the obvious fact that it’s easier to talk about and link to a domain that has a memorable name and sounds like a real brand. In addition to that, it’s important to realize that Google also looks at searcher behavior and uses this as an indication of authority.
Here’s the thing. If somebody searches for “ecommerce software,” Google isn’t going to interpret that as a search for the site with that name. They’re going to interpret it as a search for software platforms, because people searched for it long before the existence of that domain name.
But if somebody searches for “shopify,” Google’s algorithm “knows” this is a search for the brand name, because nobody was searching for this term before Shopify existed. Most SEOs are fairly sure that, at this point, Google is crunching this data and using it to influence rankings. In other words, if people search for “shopify,” it helps Shopify rank for other terms. In fact, Shopify actually does currently rank number one for the term “ecommerce software.”
In short, if you can drive searches for your brand name, and your brand name is unique, you can expect your overall performance in the search engines to improve, even for searches other than your brand name. But if you drive searches for your brand name, and your brand name is generic, Google may not be able to tell that people are searching specifically for your brand, and you will lose some of the benefit associated with this search behavior.
3. Design for Humans, and Make an Exceptional Website
Designing primarily for search engines is a fool’s errand. We’ve come a long way since 1999. Trying to stuff keywords onto a page, or otherwise “optimize” it for search engines in a way that makes it less useful or interesting for users rarely has any positive effect. It’s actually much more likely to work against you, or even get your site penalized.
We’ve discussed at length how to build compelling sites with rich UI and UX, but here are a few of the takeaways:
- Embrace responsive design. Mobile has passed the tipping point, and there’s no going back. If you design only for PC users, you will miss a massive portion of your audience. Don’t make this mistake.
- Learn to split test in order to maximize your conversions. Measure how users are interacting with the site, and wait until you have statistical significance before you declare a “winner.” You should generally only split test major changes, like core messages and design decisions, because it takes 10,000 impressions before you can conclusively spot even a 2 percent difference between two options.
- Get on board with usability testing. While split testing is perfect for conversions, usability testing is a must if you want to produce an ergonomic problem. You don’t need huge sample sizes to do usability testing. All you need to do is see how a few people instinctually use your site before spotting a problem. If a problem occurs once in that small sample, you know you need to fix it. It’s pointless to continue testing until that problem is fixed, so that other problems become more apparent. Usability testing has a very different mindset from split testing, but both are vital.
- Leverage consumer psychology. Specifically, Robert Cialdini’s six principles of influence play a big part in user experience and conversions: reciprocity, commitments, authority, social proof, scarcity, and rapport are all musts. It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the concepts of loss aversion, status quo bias, and anchoring.
We’ve also talked about the importance of Dr. Jonah Berger’s 6 principles that make content more shareable:
- Social currency – People share things to grow or maintain their social standing. Liking something isn’t reason enough to share it.
- Triggers – Context plays a big part in whether or not we share.
- Emotions – Intense emotional content is more likely to get shared, particularly if it is funny or awe inspiring (though fear and anger have their place).
- Public – Most humans have an innate trust in the wisdom of the crowd, particularly if the crowd in questions shares our beliefs, values, and interests.
- Practical – The more actionable information is, the more likely we are to share it.
- Stories – Information is more meaningful to us if it is presented as a story, and hence we’re more likely to share it.
Remember, a shareable website is a site worth linking to, and that means it’s likely to turn up more in the search engines.
4. Business Blogging: The Best of Both Worlds
If there were no such thing as SEO, by far the best way to build a repeat audience would be to set up a blog. Thankfully, one of the best things you can do for your SEO is set up a blog. So that works out nicely.
Blogs are great for SEO because they allow you to produce a large number of pages and target a wide variety of potential search query subject matter. You can start by digging up untapped interests with market and keyword research (it does still matter). Your goal is to find out what the people want to know, and what none of the quality bloggers are talking about. We’ve always found that writing the “ultimate” blog post on a particular subject is one of the best ways to get noticed.
The whole idea is to find a relatively popular subject matter that people want to know about, and write up a blog post about that topic that dominates any other post in the search results.
Outside of SEO, blogs are almost certainly the best way to retain an audience online. Email lists produce more repeat customers than any other channel, but studies have shown that promotional emails lead to unsubscriptions. A blog is the best way to keep people coming back. It allows you to leverage the principles of influence and shareability that we discussed in the previous section in a way that no other channel can.
Blogs outperform email newsletters because the content is out in the open. Anybody can find it, and search engines can pick it up.
While I highly encourage you to use video and images, search engines don’t fully understand them, and they aren’t versatile enough to deal with every type of content. A blog augmented with video and images, especially video and images designed to fit into, say, a Facebook feed, is the best choice.
Blogs encourage people to subscribe to receive messages from you, even if they haven’t joined a loyalty program or anything along those lines. This allows you to reach a much larger audience than would otherwise be possible.
Social networks are an important part of online marketing (more on that later), but since you don’t own the platform and you reach a much smaller portion of your subscribers, they shouldn’t be your primary channel.
We’ve written extensively on the art of blogging to acquire customers and promote your business, and we strongly recommend you take a look at how to do that.
I mentioned before that your content can certainly touch on obscure topics, and it probably should if you want to show up in search results earlier on. At the same time, I stressed that it’s important to connect every post to one of the major niches. Here they are:
- Social Media
- Personal Finance
If you wish, you can attach “entertainment” or “comedy” to this list, but I think those really belong everywhere.
If you want to see examples of successful blogs in action, take a look at what Hubspot and KISSmetrics are doing. These sites market themselves almost exclusively through their blogs, and doing an exceptional job.
The central goal of your blog should be to create two audiences: a core following and mainstream appeal. Without a core audience, you don’t get repeat sales. Your audience doesn’t grow, because there’s no base audience to build from.
Without a mainstream audience, you don’t get new visitors and exposure, so there’s nothing to grow with.
The more useful, entertaining, novel information you share on your blog, the more your site will get linked to. This will send referral traffic and boost your exposure in the search engines.
Finally, guest posts on other blogs are another way to build traction and links to grow your audience. However, guest blogging shouldn’t be your only method for building links. If you aren’t capturing email subscriptions from your guest posts, you’re either guest blogging in the wrong places, or failing to offer a good enough reason to subscribe.
5. Content Marketing to Increase Brand Awareness
In October of 2012, Neil Patel argued that content marketing was the new SEO. The idea was still somewhat controversial at the time, but now, just over a year later, it’s essentially become the default view of SEO professionals.
We highly recommend taking a look at this Forbes article: 5 Big Brands Confirm That Content Marketing Is The Key To Your Consumer.
How is content marketing different from blogging? Well, if you have a cohesive brand concept and you’re sticking with it, there shouldn’t be much of a difference in tone or message. Content marketing just expands what you do with blogging into a larger number of media:
These work especially well as a method for picking up email addresses. Forcing a visitor to provide their email address in order to see a typical blog post is infuriating to your audience, and can alienate you from a lot of people, as well as prevent you from showing up in the search engines. But posting a free piece of premium content and asking for an email in exchange for it can be an extremely powerful way to build up your list, assuming you actually let users know exactly what they’re getting into. (Nothing is worse than a reluctant email list).
Other than that, I don’t believe that your approach to content marketing should be fundamentally different from your approach to blogging. Any content you produce that you don’t plan to use as a “bribe to subscribe” should either be published on your blog or on a high traffic platform like somebody else’s blog, a massively popular forum, or a highly active social sharing community.
At the same time, it’s important to draw attention to your “big content,” rather than just publish it in your blog, where it will get buried under new posts. Post a link to it somewhere prominent on your site. First impressions are a big deal, and you want first time visitors to see your most comprehensive, useful, and entertaining content before they see anything else.
This is equally true for content that you’ve published elsewhere. If your absolute best piece of content was posted on Forbes, rather than your own site, there’s nothing wrong with pointing users to it. In fact, the results will likely be even better than they would otherwise, since this is seen as an endorsement from a top tier media outlet.
6. Social Media Marketing
While social media has its share of hype, it would be a mistake to neglect it. Make no mistake: as we said before, email produces more repeat sales than any other medium, and it’s the best place to get subscribers. At the same time, people are much more willing to follow you on Twitter or Like your Facebook page than to give you their email address. In short, email is the place to grow your core audience, where social networks are a place to expand your reach, much like guest posts and media exposure.
Keeping this in mind, it’s important to realize that social networks are built for bite-size chunks of content, not extended blog posts. You can use social media to promote you blog posts, but simply sharing your post typically isn’t the way to do it.
If you want to understand what kind of content performs well on Facebook, take a look at Pages like 9Gag, Shut Up I’m Talking, I F*cking Love Science, and Don’t Touch My Hair, Face, or Phone. All of these Pages reside in the top 1,000 Pages on Facebook, and unlike, say Red Bull, they don’t owe any of that success to traditional media exposure, relying almost exclusively on their shareability.
A quick look at these pages reveals several elements that stand out:
- If they link to external content, they usually do so from the text field of an image, rather than simply sharing a link.
- Most of the images are properly proportioned to look good on Facebook.
- The images have at least one of the following elements, and usually more: humor, novelty, cuteness, sentimentality, nostalgia, and usefulness.
- It’s not uncommon for the images themselves to ask, in plain text, to be shared.
- Many of the images contain commentary text, and a fair number of them consist of nothing but text. (Beware, Facebook has a rule against paid posts containing more than 25% text).
- Many of the posts are memes.
- The majority of these posts are at least partially curated from other sources, and this has worked surprisingly well for these Pages. (Many of these pages don’t even link to the original source, in fact. Clearly, you should be giving credit where credit is due if you hope to stay in business.)
While it would be a bad idea to copy exactly what these Pages are doing, since that would likely sacrifice a great deal of your brand identity, Pages like these are an important window into the kind of content that is successful on Facebook. If you don’t understand why these Pages are successful, you will not create a successful Page.
As for Twitter, it’s a very good idea to embrace Twitter cards, and carry the same attitude from your Facebook page over to this platform. A case study at Omoii demonstrates that Twitter cards can double click-through rates on Twitter.
Research from Dan Zarrella suggests that you will get more click-throughs when you:
- Keep tweets between 120 and 130 characters
- Link out about 25% of the way through the text of the tweet
- Tweet once or twice an hour, never more
- Use more verbs and adverbs, fewer nouns, and zero adjectives if you can help it
His eBook also offers insight into what gets retweeted:
- Good news: links are three times more retweetable than standard tweets
- bit.ly appears to be the link shortener that gets retweeted most often
- Novelty is important (sensing a pattern yet), so use more novel words
- Avoid negative emotions, self-reference, and swearing
- Conceptual tweets tend to do better than emotional tweets on average, likely because it’s difficult to convey an emotion in the space of a tweet
- More complex tweets that require a higher reading level actually do better, surprisingly
- Punctuation appears to encourage retweets
In any case, the point to remember is that you should use social media to promote your in-depth content, but the content you post to social networks shouldn’t just be a link to that content. It should be tailor made for that social network: a bite-size piece of content that appeals to a relatively mainstream audience.
7. Networking, Conferences, Events, and Relationships
Increasing awareness, attracting links, and driving branded searches isn’t necessarily impossible if you don’t have relationships with influential people, but it does make the whole process more complicated than it needs to be. Networking is a vital SEO skill, and it always will be.
While guest posts can go a long way toward building influential links and capturing referral traffic, they aren’t everything. A few other ways to work with influencers include:
- Paying influential bloggers, graphic designers, coders, or film makers to produce content for your blog and share it with their network
- Work on collaborative projects with influencers
- Offer value and be helpful to somebody with influence, and do so without any immediate intentions to “cash in”
- Go to live conferences and events where it is easier to build lasting business relationships with other influencers in your field and others like it
- Always be the first one to offer value
- Don’t brag about your credentials and who you’ve worked with before, but do try to work this into your discussions, so that influencers can get a quick idea of who you are and what you’re capable of
- Find out who the most influential people in your own audience are, and make sure to connect with them and keep the conversation going
- You must enjoy the process of networking, or hire somebody who does, in order for any of this to work.
The above strategies are SEO, but they are not exclusively SEO. I chose them because they will help you rank in search engines, but they will also help you drive referrals, build up a repeat audience, and grow your influence. Mix this with some targeted keyword research and your success on the web will be formidable.
Startups and entrepreneurs who leverage the best that the web has to offer will conquer their opponents and successfully carve out a niche in the market. Those who don’t will struggle, and be far more likely to fail. I hope this post has been helpful and informative. If you liked what you read, we’d appreciate it if you passed it along. Thanks so much for reading.