SEO for Startups
Insights from Jeremy Moser, CEO of uSERP
Happy Saturday to the 8,501 builders, marketers and unicorns reading this newsletter.
Today we're going to look at SEO for startups and it's two most important components: backlinks and performance-driven content.
We'll hear from Jeremy Moser, founder & CEO of uSERP.io, on how startups should think about SEO strategy.
I'm incredibly excited for this mega-guide. Through my work at SmartAsset I've seen what it takes to scale an SEO program and Jeremy's experience really resonated with me.
I think this is some of the most valuable information you'll find on how startups actually do SEO at scale.
Time to read: 7 minutes
Difficulty level: MEDIUM
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"The basis to success in SEO is great content and backlinks."
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SEO for Startups
Every startup has to decide whether to get into the SEO game.
SEO is a long-term growth strategy that requires considerable investment, consistency and resources to scale.
But it can be an invaluable source of "free", high intent traffic. Nothing converts like visitors who are actively searching for a solution to the problem that you solve. And domain authority compounds over time, such that the more backlinks and domain credibility you have, the easier it is to rank future content.
Here are excerpts from my conversation with Jeremy Moser, whose SEO agency uSERP has helped 150+ startups scale through SEO.
When should a startup be thinking about SEO?
If you jump into SEO too early, you run the risk of having to pivot within 4-6 months and a lot of content on your blog that's not that relevant and will need to be reworked significantly.
We recommend having a resemblance of product-market fit and a decent internal marketing team, where you've tried paid ads and understand what keyword traffic converts for you.
If you're not sure what traffic converts, then you're basically throwing spaghetti at a wall and hoping it converts. Whereas if you start with pay-per-click ads, you have product market fit, start getting some traction, you'll know how SEO fits into the larger marketing program.
How does Pay-Per-Click help validate potential SEO strategies?
PPC can validate for you why people convert on your product, what their intent is, test different messaging, audiences, ideal customer profiles (ICPs) and keywords to inform your SEO strategy from the start.
How does competitive research factor into an SEO strategy?
Competitive research is tricky because you need to take into account your company size, growth phase and goals. No client tends to have the exact same goals. For example, a company in a hyper-growth phase might come in saying they want a two-year payback period.
But if you're a smaller competitor with less funding and are starting from scratch on your site, trying to replicate what competitors are doing is probably not going to work for you, in the sense that if you don't have the runway for two years, then copying someone who does have that runway and taking a similar strategy is going to leave you without any traffic that converts.
It's all about what's your payback period (how long can you wait to see results?) If you do have a longer payback then you can target stuff that's more difficult, more broad, more top of funnel. If you're looking for results more quickly you need to think outside the box, go long-tail, look at niches that might have a little less competitive coverage.
How should a startup gauge the overall scalability of SEO for their company?
We like to start by looking at a total addressable market for search, by looking at what keywords you would cover. We do this in two different ways:
1) What sort of ideal customer profile do you target? There could be a multitude.
We did some good stuff for Monday.com. Their ICPs were vast. They could cover a lot of different target markets such as construction companies to SaaS. They can cover a lot of different target markets.
One you have a list of 5-6 ideal customers within these niches:
2) What core topics does your business serve to those ICPs? If someone's reading the article, what's the relatability to your product?
Let's say you settle on 5 niches and 5 core topics related to your product. Now you have a whole host of keywords within each of those, which you can plug into any competitive intelligence tool to get a good baseline of traffic total, competitiveness, etc. You can then use this to form your content roadmap.
What is Performance-Driven SEO?
We use a framework called the planning predictor.
It starts with goals, payback period and SEO baseline.
No client is the same.
Some come in hypergrowth mode and have a long-term payback period. Others come in doing lead gen and want to see results more quickly. If they're top of funnel, middle of funnel, bottom of funnel, there's a way to create content around that in a certain order based on where you're at as a company that's going to drive better results. If you're a larger brand you can probably go after very competitive bottom of the funnel terms pretty quickly.
If you're a smaller brand, like an agency or a startup going after "project management" and you're writing an article saying 'hey we're the best project management tool' it's unlikely that that's going to rank very quickly because everyone's already doing that - every larger brand has already done that. So you need to think a little outside the box and target stuff that's a little more niche.
That's what the framework helps you understand - what are your goals, your runway, your payback period, and how do you get those results the quickest.
Performance-driven SEO for us tends to be where you can get the best results the quickest based on those three factors. It will vary for every company.
There's a great meme from Brian Dean that SEO is simply content + backlinks. Yet SEO can also be made incredibly complex with secondary, more technical nuances. Where do you fall on the spectrum?
That meme is spot on in my opinion based on the work we've done for 150+ startups at this point. It just boils down to the basics at scale for a long time. There's a lot of ways to get tripped up in SEO like E-E-A-T, all these crazy acronyms, super overwhelming if you're just coming to SEO. There's all these core updates you see all the time where people are freaking out.
What commonalities do you see among those who are most successful at SEO?
Folks who succeed in the long run are just creating great content, they're updating it frequently, they're making sure it's actually beneficial to the reader.
They're not just saying 'oh this keyword has 40,000 visits per month, let's pump out a piece with an A.I. tool and get it up on there and drive some quick traffic'. You can do that, but even if you do, folks aren't going to stick around, they're not going to convert. You need to think of it from a quality content standpoint.
Once you have quality content, thinking about how you promote that, get good links to it.
Really the basis to SEO success is those two things.
Sure, technical SEO is a part of it. Ensuring site speed, good architecture. Those are important too. But really it's about doing the basics at scale, and overcomplicating it in the short term isn't going to help you that much until you've got a large site that's started ranking. That's when you can start getting into the nitty gritty details where some of those levers might give you that 1 or 2% extra edge. But if you're just starting out it's usually not going to make a difference compared to pumping out really good content and getting really good sites to link back to you.
What backlink strategies scale? Which do you recommend for companies at different stages of development?
If you do a google search for link building tactics you'll tend to see a list of 'Here's 100 different tactics'. All those are really unnecessary. Maybe 2 to 4 of those are actually going to work and scale.
If you're doing things like broken link building or hunting 404s, it's really time consuming and your wins so few and far between, that your actual cost of acquiring those links becomes so high. You really need to think from a scalability standpoint.
To get a lot of high quality links at scale, you need to rank for a lot of high quality keywords that people are searching for. So it's sort of a Catch-22.
For a smaller company, the best way to get links at scale is doing a unique content marketing piece.
We did this for our own company, it's called the State of Backlinks report. We surveyed ~800 folks in SEO roles across companies and niches to understand their opinions on how backlinks impact their SEO strategy, what tools they use, what's working, what's not, getting unique and interesting data.
That article gets almost zero organic traffic.
There's really no keyword you could target that piece to without making it read like some piece that's not very interesting to share. We want the piece to be interesting, people to engage with it and share it around. It's got about 400 unique sites linking to it and 1,000 links to it, and those are high quality sites like Shopify, Hubspot, Neil Patel. very large domains.
Think about that for your own niche as a startup.
What kind of interesting data can you collect from internal usage. Maybe it's in your own software. Maybe people do X in their email marketing campaigns. Anonymize unique data and pitch it to journalists at scale. That's what we see works best if you're just starting out. You don't have much content to share. You don't have much authority. People aren't going to naturally link to a piece of content, so you need to go all out to create a unique piece of content that folks are excited to share and read.
Talk about the PR infrastructure you've built out that allows you to distribute content:
We've built up a good number of relationships with publishers, website owners, media journalists, bloggers, etc in various spaces where we have an ease of leverage for distribution. It's really a gamechanger. I recommend to anyone that they start building relationships with people in their niche so that anytime there's an opportunity for cross promotion you can benefit each other to rank.
One of the challenges as a new company is credibility. How do you get a journalist to link to a study as a relatively new company?
We like to establish credibility in a few ways.
1) Leverage the founder's brand:
It gives the journalist an idea of past success, prior history.
If you've got a leveraged newsletter, something you can give them in return. 'Hey if you cite this study on your site, we'll share that around and drive some traffic there.' You have something of value to offer, instead of just saying 'Here's something cool we did.' People won't respond very well to that unless you have something of value to add or the content piece is so unique that people can't help but share it.
3) Use expert quotes:
This is really good for brand new sites. Survey a few experts in your space.
We did this ourselves, we surveyed Brian Dean and a bunch of other folks in the SEO space and got their opinions on the study we did. We send it out beforehand before it goes live.
We have the raw data formulated into clean graphs, images, custom data points and graphs, and send it to the experts that have all that credibility, and say 'Hey here's some really cool data, this might help inform your strategy, if you want to give a quote we're writing some articles and putting some money behind distribution. You're going to get mentioned in this.
Usually folks are willing to do that and share a couple minutes of their time.
Once you've got even just one or two credible experts within the article you're writing, where they've given they're thoughts and opinions, it makes your outreach far easier. You're essentially sourcing some of their credibility into your own, putting that backing behind your content.
What other backlink strategies are scalable?
Statistics pages can be good.
We did that for our own site as well and that one has hundreds of links from really good sources. Those are generally pretty competitive so you might want to think outside of the box.
Don't necessarily go off of search volume for content like that. We did one around link building statistics and that one at the time we created the content said it had around 30 searches per month. But it clearly has much more, as we've gotten 600+ links from unique domains pointing to that one. So clearly a lot of folks are searching for it even though the tools don't say that. So take what the tools say with a grain of salt.
Ask yourself is there anything long-tail in your niche around that...any statistics you can create that are a little deeper.
For example, if you're a new email marketing tool, you're probably not going to succeed if you create an Email Marketing Statistics page. Hubspot's covering that, every large email marketing tool covers that. Maybe you go deeper - such as hospital email marketing statistics. Whatever your core functions are.
Some other backlink tactics that can work well are doing outreach to existing content that's out there, pretty niche specific and high authority. Let's say you're an email marketing tool. There's a lot of content out there already around "best email marketing tools" - you can reach out to those sites and see if they're willing to link to you. You can try to strike some sort of deal where you give them some promotion in exchange.
Link building outreach is all about mutual value exchange. Asking to buy a link isn't the best approach. You really want to approach it from a standpoint of building a long-term relationship. That's where your best links are going to come from. Then you have that person in your network, and you can reach out to ask if they have anything on their end that you can promote to send in return. There's a lot of ways to create mutual value exchange. Anything else tends to be a super high numbers game and won't be worth it in the end.
What common misconceptions come up with startups and SEO strategy?
We often see issues come up with newer startups, maybe they've gotten some funding but don't have an established SEO function within the company.
Folks wanting conversions but starting without any credibility or authority in their space, starting from scratch, just launched their blog. Most bottom of funnel searches are going to be highly competitive from big sites, with big landing pages and tons of authority and links that have been around for years. If you're going into it needing conversions next month then it's going to be unrealistic.
How do we balance the payback period? For smaller companies their runway is typically less. They're looking to see leads within a couple months. So you have to balance that idea, push back against the broad keywords, think more long-tail. If you don't have any content around those bottom of funnel topics, you're generally not going to rank well for it. For example if you have five pages on site around five bottom of funnel searches and don't have content around the journey to support that, you're just not going to see as good of results.
Who is uSERP's ideal client?
Our ideal client is B2B or B2C SaaS, at least Series A, or $10-$15M in funding and around 50-100 employees where they've got some SEO team in-house, a full marketing team and marketing mix going.
We do work with folks who are smaller, but it's more on a case-by-case basis, especially if they have a longer runway. Especially if they have a seasoned SEO in-house and we can bolt on our team and help accelerate the growth.
We do work with some seed stage folks but it depends on the situation.
Walk us through a client you worked with?
We worked with Monday.com for about two years from March 2020 to March 2022 and then transitioned it in-house for them. We took a holistically approach of high volume content at scale. Around 100 high quality content pieces per month.
All long-form, targeting good content within their niche.
They were already doing pretty well from an SEO standpoint but our job was to accelerate their growth based on their payback period. Which for them was multiple years. So that's something to take into account. If you're trying to replicate their strategy it's probably not going to work too well for you if you need results in 6 months.
Our strategy was to identify what core topics and ICPs they weren't currently targeting and expanding those so they had more total addressable market of search.
That was a huge factor. They were pretty narrow in their niche of the content they were targeting, so we expanded that, identifying ICPs from construction to B2B SaaS. So there's a whole host of different topics within each one of those niches you can target. That total traffic potential is massive compared to what they had previously.
Acquiring really good links at scale with higher intent is generally our focus there. So any piece that mentions project management, we want to be listed in there as number one, we want folks who are reading that to be able to click through to the site and convert.
We also did stuff for Early Bird, a B2C fintech app for you to help build savings accounts for your kids. We worked with them from seed stage and within 12 months or so we were hitting around 70,000 unique organic visits per month, competing with big brands like NerdWallet, Investopedia. It's really about building topical authority. We don't need to cover everything around credit cards, but rather focus on what is the actual value they provide to their customers and chime in on those topics at scale.
How do you do pricing?
We're transparent about our pricing. But sometimes it's custom. The average client is generally around $15,000/mo. If they're looking just looking for the link side of things then it's going to be cheaper, but if they're looking for content too then we scale pretty far beyond that as well.
What have been uSERP's primary growth strategies?
SEO has been an interesting one.
If you do SEO as an agency and show up for SEO services in X city, those are typically local businesses with small budgets of maybe $1,000/month. It's not a fit for us.
A lot of our SEO tends to be on link building and referral visit play. Who's talking about best agencies for SaaS, what are the best link building services within different spaces.
Our goal is to get listed on anything that talks about that so users who are reading it engage with uSERP. That drives ~1,000 targeted visits per month to the site from content that is talking specifically about that.
Has your social media presence helped generated business?
Building a brand on social media has been great for us to source leads, build relationships.
Twitter was good for leads for a bit, I think it's saturated for now.
I've found more success on LinkedIn the past six months or so. The audience there tends to be a little more engaged with the subject and are more subject matter experts, to where you're speaking to a smaller audience but the folks I'm talking to tend to have really good expertise, they shoot me DMs with really good questions, so the lead quality tends to be better.
Word of mouth referrals have been really good for us.
We're pretty selective on who we work with so that when we do work with them we actually create good results so they're willing to share our name around.
Thanks again to Jeremy for sharing these SEO insights with us. If you're looking for an SEO agency to scale your SEO, reach out to uSERP here.
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✨ That's it for today.
SEO can be daunting for those that are just getting started.
Keep it simple and focus on great content and acquiring backlinks.
Jeremy's advice to use first-party data to create share-worthy data studies is a great approach for newcomers to establish credibility and get high quality backlinks.
I hope these insights help you in your growth journey.
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