Working at a startup in any capacity is constantly challenging and rewarding. But does SEO really differ whether you’re working at an agency with Fortune 100 clients or building a team at a start up? Having worked in house at a small B2B e-commerce company, a well known digital agency working with the above mentioned Fortune 100 companies and now working at a startup I can confidently answer: Yes…and no. It entails all of the same principles, but with more opportunities to shape content and process and a lot more convincing and leading, since at least in the beginning you won’t have an SEO team to support you.
In a nutshell, running SEO at a startup is a little like Beauty and the Beast because quite frankly I’m not always sure which one I am. Sometimes I feel like the young, beautiful Belle and I could just sing from the rooftops when I see our unique visitors soaring WoW. And then sometimes it seems like I am the big, ugly beast yelling at people to implement important fixes and scaring the whole office, all the while swearing that there is a handsome prince buried deep inside. But, like all good Disney films, although this journey may have some ups and downs and you may occasionally be tempted to run away, we can all be confident that there will be a happy ending.
I’ve put together the the biggest challenges and most rewarding aspects about doing SEO for a small start up. Have your own thoughts or experience? I’d love to hear them, especially any advice for a newbie in the startup world.
1. Freedom to be Creative: By far the best part of doing SEO at a startup is the incredible freedom associated with the role. Since you are responsible for driving natural traffic and conversions no matter what, creativity is really encouraged. Being in on the ground floor means you are there while the branding and messaging are still being shaped and that you can actually help shape them. When I worked at an agency, we constantly felt constrained by our clients branding and legal restrictions. At a startup the more creative the better – especially if it doesn’t cost anything.
2. The opportunity to shape the role SEO plays: My biggest frustration when working at an agency was being removed from what was actually happening on the ground. Half of my job was to convince the client that SEO was truly worthwhile and was a better use of their resources than every other project or channel. At a startup, I get to create a permanent and important role for SEO, making it an integral part of every important content, engineering and strategy decision. It’s a pretty amazing opportunity.
3. Sitting across from engineering: This probably sounds silly, since sitting across from people who spend all day staring at code doesn’t sound so exciting. But the truth is that the closer you are to the tech and engineering teams, the closer your projects are to getting implemented and fast. And being physically close is definitely one step towards winning over their list of priorities, which means that you can be flexible and change your plans and strategies as Google’s algorithm or your customers do, ensuring that your site stays on the top of SERPs.
It also means, quite frankly, that the engineering team is more likely to surface questions or come to you for advice than if you were on a different floor or especially if you were only an outside consultant. Having all of the content and the entire site programmed as SEO-friendly is integral to any SEO-ers success, so be sure to stop by the engineering table every morning just to say hello and maybe to bring them some home-baked cookies.
4. Knowing the leadership team: Working at a startup, you don’t just know the founders and the early joiners, you work with them everyday, which means that you have a direct line to the leadership when you need a project implemented asap or have a large concern.
This also gives you an incredible window into what is happening behind the scenes and where the business is going. I’ve had several projects fail in the past because of misinformation or a lack of clarity from the involved partners. Knowing a business’s priorities, resources, strategy and personality can make the whole difference between a project or idea’s success and its failure.
5. Partnerships with Social & PR: I’d say once a month for the last 12 or so months, I’ve read a post about how SEO and social need to be working closer together and how social is the future of the SEO. Of course, all of this depends on how SEO and social interact and team up, which puts small businesses and startups at a huge advantage.
In this particular case, I also sit across from our social guru and evangelist and we are in constant communication. Not only do we discuss SEO strategies for our social content and how to phrase certain posts, I also get to leverage his efforts for link building.
Having an evangelist who users and influencers already interact with and trust (and in our case love), means that links to our site are truly votes of confidence and a desire to share our awesome content, instead of deliberate link building.
This makes my job easier in the short run, but it also means that our links are genuine and therefore really valuable and really strong in the long run, no matter what version of Panda or Penguin Google rolls out next. I work more closely with our social team, since we’re on the same team, but the same applies to PR.
1. There’s nowhere to hide: I know that no SEOers would ever do this, but occasionally someone will tell me that SEO is all about explaining off changes in rankings and traffic based on things that are out of our control (seasonality, algorithm changes, offline campaigns, etc). Well, the bad news is that in a startup there is very little room to explain things away.
Firstly, there’s rarely enough money for tons of complicated campaigns or enough branding for huge swings in seasonality. But more importantly, you are it. At the end of the day, you are solely responsible for the growth of natural traffic to the site.
And while that does not happen in a vacuum, it does happen on your shoulders for all of the above reasons. You know leadership, you work with content, you bribe the engineering team, so why didn’t you push for an important project harder? At the end of the day, you are your startups SEO and you have to know it.
2. Branding? What Branding?: Although we may not always like to admit it, SEO benefits tremendously from our client’s brands being known. And in a startup, that just isn’t there yet. You don’t get extra clickthrus because someone recognizes your brand and people don’t just google your brand because they saw an ad or an event we sponsored and remembered us.
That means that one of my goals in SEO is to help build that branding, even at the cost of other short term projects, since in the long run that will drive a lot of visits and more importantly trust from search engines (and therefore strength in SERPs).
Of course, the flip side is that as your company’s branding grows due to all of the other marketing, social and PR campaigns being run, you can ride that wave and watch your natural traffic and CTR increase MoM.
3. Be prepared to fight: Every business has limited resources and everyone’s job is to ensure that they get the resources that they need to do their jobs. As you can imagine, in a startup resources are extremely limited, especially as they pertain to coworkers bandwidth, and every project needs to be justified with projections.
As anyone who has worked in SEO for more than a year knows, SEO projections are difficult because they rely on so many factors. But even if you are the world’s best projector, you still need to fight a little harder to get what you need.
Want that page updated in a specific way? Feel that all pages need to be programmed as responsive-web? Want a particular project prioritized? You better get your high school debating trophy out because you are going to have to fight for your right to optimize.
Beauty vs the Beast
Fortunately for me and all of my fellow SEO colleagues working at startups, Beauty never has to fight the Beast. In fact, as always at a startup, collaboration is the key. It’s only when you convince people of what you need politely, or in some cases have a great relationship with them and win the battles that you need, that SEO can really succeed, which of course means that your website can really succeed. Remember the last scene in the Disney version? Belle turns the Beast into her handsome prince. With a little determination and a lot of teamwork, you too can turn your small startup into the handsome prince of the internet.
NB: Notice that Gaston has not appeared anywhere in this post. If he factors into your experience doing SEO at a startup, you should reconsider how your company is doing business.
Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author, and not necessarily the views of Caphyon, its staff, or its partners.