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Is SEO the right type of marketing for your startup?

Picture of Evan Cunningham-Dunlop
Evan Cunningham-Dunlop
// // Award-winning digital marketing expert Evan Cunningham-Dunlop answers an eternal question...

This is an article by Evan Cunningham-Dunlop, CEO & Founder of digital agency Living Online, as well as specialist SEO agency Perth SEO Studio, national property publication The Property Tribune, and the soon to be launched Perth Website Studio.

Let’s talk about search engine optimisation (SEO).

SEO and the idea of “free” traffic is one that has enticed many a startup founder since the big G was launched back in 1998 (that’s 25 years ago for those playing at home).

You know what we’re referring to. That elusive mysterious land of wonder, where the rivers of Google traffic flow like honey into the ravenous revenue pots of your business.

It sounds like a dream scenario – but is it too good to be true?

As an SEO practitioner with more than a decade of Google tuning under my belt, I can confidently say that SEO can indeed be used to create a land of plenty. In fact, entire business models have been built on the back of search engine optimisation, albeit to varying degrees of success.

For example, if you haven’t heard of Demand Media before, then feast your eyes on this rollercoaster of a journey – from $0 to $2 billion USD valuation in 5 years, peaking in 2011 as it became the 17th biggest web property in the USA, before being hit by the Google “Panda” update, which contributed to the valuation falling from its astronomical high. Demand Media rebranded to Leaf Group in 2016 and was acquired by Graham Holdings in 2021 for $323 million USD.

That’s of course still not bad, but nevertheless also serves as somewhat of a cautionary tale of basing a business model on the vagaries of Google’s algorithms.

It’s fair to say that SEO can be used to drive business growth, but it can also be risky. What’s more, in my experience I’ve also found that SEO is right for some businesses, but not right for others.

Is SEO right for me?

If you’re a startup founder you might be asking – “Is SEO the right type of marketing for my startup?”

This is a question that’s been asked of me countless times since launching Living Online 14 years ago, and more recently since launching our specialist SEO brand Perth SEO Studio. In my experience, I’ve found that the answer largely depends on the following factors:

  • The business model
  • The target market
  • The competitive landscape
  • The available alternatives
  • The founder’s risk appetite
  • The startup’s financial resources

I’d like to unpack each one, sharing a little about what I’ve found through my years as a founder, marketer, and advisor for hundreds of startups.

The business model

Some business models lend themselves heavily to search engine optimisation as a viable marketing channel. In fact, for certain types of businesses SEO is one of the only viable marketing channels available.

Let’s take The Property Tribune for example. Since launching this business on the 1st of February 2021 we’ve grown our audience to more than 125,000 sessions per month, mostly derived from organic search.

As a media publication, the nature of this business means that we need to generate large amounts of traffic which we can then monetise through various forms of paid offerings. It’s a game of high volumes and relatively low “values per visitor”.

Therefore, paying to acquire traffic to our website through Google Ads, Facebook Ads, or other forms of sponsored promotions would be expensive when compared to the level of revenue we can generate per visitor. In other words, we would generally lose money on paid advertising.

Therefore, search engine optimisation is not only a viable option, but is one of the most viable forms of marketing for a media publication. Other forms of marketing that work well for media publications include organic social media, email marketing, and most importantly – having a product that’s so good that people want to come back to read again and again.

The target market

Are you targeting a niche market? Or are you trying to be a small fish in a big ocean?

It’s much easier to develop a successful search engine optimisation campaign for a niche target market, than it is if you’re trying to adopt a broad-based targeting approach.

Imagine that you want to sell socks.

Now if you’re trying to become the world’s biggest online sock store then that’s a tall order. You’ll be up against some big names, with deep pockets, who already have entrenched positions in the search results. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done (anything is possible), but you’re going to see a very low yield on your early efforts.

Conversely, if you decided that you want to sell bamboo socks, now that’s a much easier proposition. In fact, the very act of choosing to be a bamboo sock specialist will instantly make Google see you as being more relevant for bamboo sock-related queries than a generalist sock retailer who sells bamboo socks as one of their many product lines.

Combine that with a niche geographic focus and the game becomes even easier again. Hint: we’re not launching Perth Website Studio for kicks and giggles.

Of course, by becoming niche you might think that you’re limiting your target market, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to be a specialist than a generalist in business – and that includes with SEO!

The competitive landscape and available alternatives

Competition plays a huge role in deciding whether SEO is right for your startup.

In some industries, the SEO landscape is highly competitive, so you might find yourself experiencing a relatively low return on effort with this channel.

This is particularly relevant when considered alongside the potential return that could be generated through other forms of marketing.

Let’s explore another example, sticking with ecommerce retailing for the moment.

Again, let’s imagine that you’ve decided to sell bamboo socks. But in this example, let’s imagine that there’s already a lot of companies selling bamboo socks on Google and that they’re all investing large sums of money into their search engine optimisation campaigns.

Competing in this environment as an early-stage startup isn’t an idea that fills you with joy.

But thankfully you’re a creative and resourceful individual and you realise that TikTok has seen a huge influx of eyeballs, and that if you nail the influencer marketing approach, then you could reach a mass audience for a very low price. In fact, you also fancy yourself as a bit of a comedian and decide to create an alter ego sock-puppet wielding weirdo of a character who’s excruciatingly awkward, but also hilariously inappropriate, and who just happens to be toting the world’s best pair of bamboo socks on their hands.

With ferocious abandon you launch your brand, to the sound of a few lonely crickets at first, but with perseverance (and a bit of talent) the crickets become a plague of biblical proportions and you’re overwhelmed with orders for your bamboo socks.

Of course, this could be a cringe-worthy and kooky idea and you could flame out on the coals of social embarrassment. Or maybe, just maybe, with authentic commitment and a massive dollop of humour, the idea could work.

Fortune favours the brave – and by being the one who was willing to put themselves out there you might be able to circumvent the competitive SEO landscape and develop a thriving alternative channel.

For niche ecommerce retailers, self-propelled influencer marketing is very much a viable alternative to SEO.

However, we could also look at the competitive landscape in a different way.

For example, let’s imagine that you’re more of a serious B2B brand and you see the search engines as being key to helping you reach your target market.

You try Google Ads but find that the cost per click (CPC) rates have become so high that it makes it difficult to acquire customers at a profitable cost per acquisition (CPA).

In this instance, if your target market was sufficiently niche, then a well-directed SEO campaign would usually generate a better ROI over the medium to long term than an investment in paid search. The price you have to pay to achieve this outcome is the willingness, ability, and patience to withstand the early months where the SEO campaign is yielding low results.

The reward of course is a sustainable flow of business over the long term.

The founder’s risk appetite

Some founders are more risk-averse than others.

There’s no right or wrong way of being a founder, but if you want to succeed with SEO, then you need to have a high tolerance for risk.

This is because search engine optimisation is a game of unknowns. Google doesn’t publicise the ranking factors of its algorithm, so the process of succeeding in search involves doing what you think will work, and then waiting and hoping for a positive outcome.

Added to this equation is the fact that it’s hard to find an SEO agency that knows what the heck they’re doing, so you must not only trust in SEO, but you also need to trust in the practitioner.

And furthermore, the investments required for SEO also tend to be quite chunky on the front end. You need a robust website, with solid technical SEO foundations, populated with a large smattering of content, and then supported by a consistent off-page SEO campaign.

What’s more, there also frequently comes a time during an SEO campaign when the founder’s confidence gets shaken, and they doubt their investment. It’s usually after a few months, where the cash outflow has been consistent, but the runs aren’t yet showing on the scoreboard. It’s at this point that many founders lose their nerve and choose to abandon the SEO campaign.

Succeeding in SEO requires a decent upfront outlay of cash, with an unknown timeframe or quantity of return, and the resilience to hold the line while supplies are dwindling and troops are getting hungry.

Sounds scary.

Risk-averse founders like to play in arenas where the rules are known. They like financial models where you can spend $1 on ads and generate a known return on ad spend (ROAS) on the back end. Nice, safe, and practical.

But sometimes the greatest returns are found by venturing into environments where other people are fearful to tread. And what’s more, the very nature of it being scary tends to suppress competitive activity, which can and often does mean that the potential returns can be greater when it succeeds.

The financial resources

Lastly, it’s important to consider the impact of financial resources.

When people are low on cash, they often look for silver bullets, hoping that this will save them from the tyranny of failed adventure.

They might not have the resources to invest in a paid campaign, so they turn to SEO with the hope that it will somehow be a cheaper and easier path for acquiring customers.

But the reality is that doing SEO properly is still an expensive exercise.

If you try to shortcut by hiring a cheap SEO freelancer, then you’ll usually not only not get the results that you’re hoping for, but often you’ll often find that you’ve done damage to your SEO campaign (usually the process of building dodgy links), which costs time and money to rectify.

So, if you don’t have the money to invest in SEO properly, then don’t do it at all.

If you’re bootstrapping your business, then my advice would be to start by following Paul Graham’s advice and “do things that don’t scale”. Acquire your first customers through your own hustle. Pick up the phone. Network. Build a personal brand on social media. Leverage your sweat equity to develop momentum. Then once you’ve got some cash behind you, then begin to look at SEO as a potential channel.

Conversely, if you’re a funded startup that’s already reached product-market fit, and you’ve either raised a significant round or have achieved profitability, then perhaps now is the time to get your SEO house in order. As an agency we’ve helped well-funded startups generate hundreds of millions of dollars of enterprise value through search engine optimisation campaigns, but we did this with companies that were willing and able to sustain their SEO activities through the early days.


There we have it – we asked the question “Is SEO the right type of marketing for my startup?” – and the answer is a decisively vague “it depends!”

But like any good challenge in life, the difficulties in building an effective search engine optimisation campaign – and in knowing whether to build one in the first place – actually creates the very environment upon which SEO can succeed.

For if it was easy, everyone would be doing it, and then it would cease to have the value it does today.


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Picture of Evan Cunningham-Dunlop

Evan Cunningham-Dunlop

Evan is the CEO and Founder of internationally recognised and Perth-based digital marketing agency, Living Online. With more than 17 years of direct digital marketing experience working on some of the world’s most highly trafficked websites, and a breadth of experience that spans multiple industries and continents, Evan provides advice to the world’s most innovative and forward-looking companies.
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