SEO For Startups

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Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is the best, cheapest way of getting customers to your site. But how do you optimise a site for maximum SEO effectiveness?

tuggle_koorayIf you’ve got a startup, then you want user growth. One of the most tried and test methods for getting users is to harness the power of search engines. Everyday literally billions of searches are being made by people who are looking for something, perhaps something you can offer them.

For some time, I’ve been building www.tuggle.com.au, a search engine for local products. At the beginning of this year I spent a bit of time focussing on making it more search engine friendly. Starting with a handful of visitors a day in January, the last two months have seen over 30k visitors, more than 90% of which are from Australia (our target market), and that’s just the beginning.

Relevance + Credibility = SEO Win

Getting good search engine rankings is based on two types of measurable quantities:

On-page “factors” are things related to how your pages are created. You can think of these things as affecting your page’s relevance to a particular search query.

Off-page factors are things that involve other websites, usually related to how they link to you. You can think of them, since Google does, as affecting your page’s credibility.

When you combine credibility (off-page) with relevance (on-page), you have a source of free, targeted traffic. This traffic can make the difference between your startup being a success, or something you need to figure a way to talk up in your next job interview.

Off-page factors (credibility)

The main way to gain credibility (off-page factors) is to have other websites link to yours. The more credibility the linker site has the more credibility it passes on to you. So a link from brw.com.au is likely to hold more weight than one from a friend’s blog that was created last week. However you also want those websites to be relevant to what your page is about, and you want the links to your page to contain some relevant keywords. If the link says “click here” that’s definitely not as good as “mens discount razor blades”, assuming you’re selling discounted razor blades for men.

Interestingly .edu and .gov domain name websites will automatically pass on more credibility so if you can get your high school or uni to write about you, or some government program to list you on their website, that’s a little easy win for you.

You probably know that getting links is a good way to boost search engine traffic. The hard part is figuring out where to get those links. That’s a huge topic in itself, and one I’m still working on myself.

Note: this little idea that the number and quality of “inbound” links (links to your website) indicate page “quality” or “credibility” is at the heart of what made Google so much better than it’s predecessors Altavista, Excite, Lycos et. al. and what the Google empire is built on.

On-page factors (relevance)

Next you need to make your page relevant to the users search query. The way to do this is to first identify what your users may be searching for. Identifying what keywords/phrases you want to target is a huge topic in itself, and not one I have much experience with because the content on Tuggle is generated by the retail companies, I can only tweak how it’s presented.

Once you’ve identified your keywords your can start to tweak these factors for maximum search engine love.

Title: You need to have some of your targeted keywords in the page title. This is the title that shows up at the top of browser and is determined by what you put between the <title></title> tags.

Url: It might be hard to believe but having keywords in the url is really important. If you can have keywords in your domain name, that’s the best option, but if not having them in the directory path, what comes after .com.au or .com, .net etc is crucial. Apparently the earlier the keywords appear in the URL then the higher the weighting they get. But don’t worry too much about the weighting, as long as the keywords are in there then you’re good. Having an easy to read url is more important, as that affects click-through rate.

H1: The <h1></h1> indicates a page header. Again as with the url and title, having your keywords in here is crucial. But again being natural and creating something pleasing to read for humans is also important as that affects your site usage (another factor).

Note: The difference between the title and h1 is, the title shows up on the actual web browser software, the h1 shows up on the page.

Content: Having keywords within your page’s content is key. But don’t put them in artificially. Make sure the content is written in natural language, i.e. don’t “stuff” keywords into content, since that hurts your page usage (another factor) and can get you a direct penalty.

Internal linking: The key idea behind the Internet is the hyperlink. Today we usually see these used for some kind of structured page navigation bar. They were initially intended to be used within text content, with words and phrases being linked to other pages that were relevant. If you take a look at any page on Wikipedia you’ll see how useful that can be.

The good people at Google believe relevant internal linking indicates a high quality website. So linking from page to page, in particular from within the content of your pages will give you a boost to your search engine optimisation efforts.

Outbound linking. A little known way to get a better SEO result is to link to other relevant sites. The logic is that you’re making your website more useful by helping your visitors find other relevant content. Users like that, Google likes users and hence Google likes you, well at least it likes your web pages.

Page design: Believe it or not, Google is now so sophisticated that it can “look” at your page design, and it gives a higher ranking to pages that are clean, clear and are easy to use. How they do that involves some sophisticated machine learning, so don’t worry about the specifics, just remember. Lot’s of silly ads, or cluttered design will hurt you.

Page usage: Since Google owns the most common web browser Chrome, they can track what sites people are using, how long they spend, how likely they are to engage with the content and how likely they are to enter the URL directly into the browser bar. The more of this good stuff you have the higher your ranking. However getting these “factors” up requires good page design and having relevant, useful and timely content. So if you thought you’d stuff your pages with keywords, even if you think you can avoid a penalty, it’s still a bad idea. Anything that turns off human users will hit your search engine rankings.

Click-through rate: The click-through rate is the number of times your link is clicked divided by the number of times it shows up in the search engine results. Google assumes if people are clicking your links more you’re doing something right and increases your rankings. Tuggle could use a lot of work in this area. It currently gets many thousands of views a day, but only gets a few hundred clicks, something to work on. The best thing to do is look at the sites that are ranked more highly, esp if they are big companies that are likely to have lots of traffic and large teams that can spend time crunching the numbers, and umm copy them. By the way your real goal is to get users not higher rankings, so naturally bettering your click-through rate also gets you closer to your real goal in a very direct way.

Use www: You’ve probably noticed that sometimes websites start with www and sometimes they don’t. Apparently websites listed in search engines with www get 16% more clicks, I made the mistake of going with just tuggle.com.au initially, required a little work to get Google to use www.tuggle.com.au instead.

Mobile-optimisation: You absolutely need to have a mobile optimised version of your website. Having a proper mobile version will increase your site usage stats, and will also get your a little “mobile-optimised” label next to your result in the search engine leading to higher click-throughs. If you’re not a web developer (or even if you are one) converting a regular desktop design to “responsive” design is something you can outsource (since it’s pretty easy to write a clear spec).

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Penalties

To prevent spammers from beating legitimate websites and creating a pointless SEO war, Google can and will penalise sites that do things that are for want of a better word “dodgy”.

Paid links. The classic black hat SEO trick is to pay for links. This might have worked in 1999 but this is a sure fire way to get either penalised or removed from the Google index. Do not do this.

Slowness. If your pages load slowly, you won’t rank as highly. This is especially true for mobiles. This is not a reason to move away from standard CMS solutions like WordPress to expensive custom-coded sites, but it may be a reason to upgrade your hosting package.

Keyword stuffing. Back in the late 90s (before Google ‘was a thing’) a classic trick was to put keywords into white text and have a white background. Users thought it was empty space but those creaky old search engines thought it indicated legitimate content. Today there are more sophisticated ways of trying the same thing. Don’t do this, you’ll get a penalty and/or have pages removed from the index.

Doorway pages. A new algorithm update is coming, which will specifically target doorway pages. These are pages that were optimised to rank highly for certain search terms, but when you visited the page they just linked to other pages.

Generally speaking don’t worry about penalties. If you’re genuinely trying to build something of value, then the chances are these penalties hit the spammers and help you. But it does help to know what they are.

Getting your Pages Indexed

All the on-page and off-page SEO in the world won’t help if search engines can’t find your pages. This is one of the particular challenges I have with Tuggle. There are over 4 million pages, only about 500K of which have been indexed so far.

You’ve got two options:

  • Link to that page from your home page or a page linked from your home page. The more links away from your homepage, the less important Google thinks the page is.
  • Create a sitemap, this is easy if you have a small site. But if you have a large constantly growing site, you’ll need to automate this, and that can be quite a bit of work in itself. Google has some info on this here https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/183668?hl=en

You don’t need to be an expert

If you’ve got a web-based startup getting a good grounding in the basics of SEO can help you get targeted, free traffic that keeps on coming. This is even truer if you have marketplace type business where you have two types of customers.

Just focus on the basics:

  • make sure you’ve optimised your <title>, <h1>, url (very important) and content for your keywords
  • linked to other interesting content within and outside your site
  • and of course if you can, work hard to get others to link to you.

It probably goes without saying that you should also do everything you can to make sure your content is something people find valuable and want to engage with, not only is that important for SEO, it’s kind of important if you want your company to succeed.

However you don’t need to be an expert. Search engines are getting smarter all the time, and many of the recent changes penalise people who focus on “tricks” and “hacks” over building something users want to engage with. As a startup this almost certainly makes your life easier: focus on engaging with your customers!

Ankur is a Perth entrepreneur sharing his experience working on Tuggle.com.au while trying out the nomad thing travelling through SE Asia.

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