Weston Bergmann

SEO for Startups

Weston Bergmann

Location, location, location!

This is one of the quintessential business statements that is as true today as it was when it was first uttered. The difference between then-and-now is the context for why it’s still true.

Originally it was meant to describe the natural foot traffic of a city. If your retail operation was off the beaten path, there would be no foot traffic, and thus none of that traffic would ever convert to customers. The same principle is true today; it’s just that the traffic is digital and the equivalent of first floor real estate on Main Street is now the top 10 on Google.

I’m an investor in startups; I’ve dedicated my entire life to this stage of business and love every second of it. I’ve acquired part of just under one hundred companies in the last three years alone. I mention this not to brag, but to establish the credibility necessary for you to keep reading if you’re an early stage entrepreneur. I’ve watched some of my portfolio fail at SEO, some succeed and some plateau in that average range for which feels like they’ll remain perpetually stuck.

This article will touch on some of the basics required for a high-quality search engine campaign. But for the most part, it’s a macro-oriented attitude adjustment.

Gear Up for the Marathon

I am an avid reader of blogs such as this one, books on the subject, podcasts, YouTube videos — essentially anything that will keep me on the cutting edge of the SEO game. It’s my job to do so because I then take that information and turn around and give it away to my startups who hopefully use it to grow their companies, and proportionately the value of the equity I have in them.

But I even find myself getting overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information out there. It creates more questions than answers. Which of this stuff should I concentrate on? How credible are these sources? If I start doing all of this stuff when am I going to have time for anything else? The intimidation and frustration that stem from these questions make many of my entrepreneurs give up before the race even started.

So here’s the good news and the bad news: this isn’t as much rocket science as you think it is.

Ninety percent of the technical tricks and complicated code that can (and eventually should) be implemented is really just the cherry on top to help you beat out the biggest of your big competitors. The majority of the work that needs to be done can be learned within this article and doesn’t need an ounce of programming knowledge to make it happen. That’s the good news.

The bad news is there is no shortcut in this article. It’s going to take a long time for you to start kicking sufficient butt. Quality SEO for startups is a marathon. If you think it’s a sprint you’re setting yourself up for the disappointment that makes people quit. Set your expectations accordingly and just start. There’s a good chance your competitors aren’t as far along as you might think, and if you never start you’ll never stand a chance at catching them.

SEO is the Accumulation of Small Wins

Let’s compare SEO to basketball.

To win a game of basketball you must get the ball through the net many times. Sure, that feat could be worth three points, most of the time only two, and sometimes just a single point. Does this frustrate a good basketball player from going "hard in the paint" over and over? No. He or she recognizes that to win they need a lot of little scores. It’s not like if they shoot a blind/backwards/upside down shot from half court they all of a sudden automatically win the game.

As a startup, by definition, you’re just starting. Which means you won’t have built up any of the metaphorical points you’ll need to win. This is the beginning of your game, so if you don’t start scoring small things now you’ll never be able to look back at the end of the game with the "W." SEO is the accumulation of a bunch of small wins, not blindly backing into some major score that will change the fate of your company’s rankings.

So how do you score points? There are many ways, but for the most part they all fall under three categories. Here they are:

Non-Reciprocal Links

Google’s job is to provide its searchers the best possible information based on what they’re searching for. Some of that criteria most assuredly should be the credibility of the site providing said information.

One of the ways they determine this credibility is to diagnose how many other sites are pointing at you, AKA linking to you. The true wording for this is “non-reciprocal links” because you want people who are linking to you, but you’re not linking back to them.

This makes sense, right? Arizona State University has thousands of people linking to it because it’s a bigger school than, say, Arkansas State University, which has the same acronym. So, probability states that if someone searches for “ASU” they’re probably looking for Arizona State, not Arkansas. The number of links pointing at the real ASU allows Google to give it the number one position without ever having to actually do any human-grade research into the two universities.

So you have to go out and get people to link to you. Don’t get too creative here. Creativity can lead to attempts at shortcuts, and shortcuts in this day-and-age of SEO can lead to penalties. The best ways to get high-quality links are from guest blogging, press and listings on websites as a preferred vendor of some sort. This battle needs to be fought one link at a time. Remember, you’re running a marathon; don’t get frustrated by how many tries it will probably take to "win." Just start.

Not to complicate things, but it’s worth noting that not all links are worth the same amount of points. To keep up with the basketball metaphor, some might be three pointers and some might be free throws. The amount of points Google gives you for a link is dependent on a number of variables, but these are the two most important:

(a) The PageRank of the site linking to you (how credible and popular their site is), and

(b) Where the link is located on a website (a link directly on a homepage is more powerful than a link on a contact page, which is more powerful than a link in a blog post, which is more powerful than a link in an archived page that isn’t ever seen anymore).

Social Signals

Of the three major things that fall under the algorithm that decides your ranking’s fate, social signals is the newest.

Google, and other search engines for that matter, are now checking your site’s social media pages. Once again, this makes total sense. If I’m looking for a coffee shop online, and I’m comparing two different ones, the one that has thousands of followers is probably better than the one that has a mere hundred of their friends and family. This is “social proof” in practice. Humans have been using other’s opinions of a business to help them make purchasing decisions since the dawn of time; now Google is using the same principle to help you make decisions.

So you need to improve your social game, and I’m gonna keep saying it: this isn’t going to happen overnight. Social signals mean two major things: the number of followers your main accounts have (Facebook, Twitter and Google+), but also the engagement rate of your followers (retweets, likes, comments, shares, favorites, +1’s, etc). So you’re striving for numbers, but also quality and engaged numbers.


The last thing Google is trying to match for its searchers is the relevancy of the keywords they’re searching for to the sites Google is displaying. In other words, does your site use the words that people are searching for? The closer the match, the better. This is what allows you to beat out gigantic sites with millions of non-reciprocal links — because you have the ability to be more relevant than them.

Start by re-wording your main pages, and especially your homepage. Next, move on to creating some sort of a blog. By doing this, you’ll be forced to use various long-tail keywords. (For novices, this means people do indeed search for generic things like “angel investors;” but in combination there are more total searches for things like “Kansas City angel investors," “venture capitalists in Kansas,” “raising capital for Missouri startups,” and “Missouri startup angel investors.”) You can’t just list all these things on your homepage though, it doesn’t work that way. Instead, by writing a blog you’ll be able to naturally fit all these different long-tail phrases into your site in a natural way that Google rewards.

The last note on content is that it is heavily rewarded if the content is added and tweaked regularly. In other words, post as often as you can without it becoming an absolute burden. Google is looking to point its searchers to sites that are keeping up with trends, providing fresh news and being all around more engaging. Thus static sites won’t get as much credibility as ones that are updated regularly.

A Reflection

There you have it, the basics of SEO. As you can see: I promoted not a single cheat, quick tip or shortcut to great rankings. Everything on this list will take a long time to accumulate.

Remember that to win a basketball game you must get the ball in the net many times. Although the fans love the game winning shot, the math gods can’t tell a difference between the first point and the last. A lot of your competitors have already quit out of intimidation. Are you going to let the same thing happen to you?

Weston Bergmann is a Kansas City angel investor that helps startups achieve higher likelihoods of success. He’s the lead investor in the Missouri-based business incubator and seed accelerator BetaBlox. His dog’s name is Bootstrap.


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Rob Wilson
All great and practical pieces of advice Wes, and something I think all new owners and founders would be wise to take heed of, Though with the loom of semantic web on the horizon (many aspects are already being incorporated), and the possibility of taking the "key" out of keyword, life will be very interesting in 2015. The only static variable in this industry is change.
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