Starting a car with SEO (license plate)

SEO for Startups: Lethal Mistakes

Organic search is one of the best sources of inbound leads. Data from Search Engine Journal shows that SEO leads are about nine times more likely to convert and cost 61% less than outbound leads. SEO clearly provides a strong return on investment, which makes it ideal for startups with small budgets. The search engines are also one of the few mediums where startups can compete with large brands. Unfortunately, they will still face some challenges. As an entrepreneur, you should understand these pitfalls and the steps you will need to take to overcome them.

Challenges that Startups Face

There are also a number of different challenges that startups must contend with. Here are some disadvantages they will face:

1. Fewer Natural Links

Larger brands have an established presence. Satisfied customers, journalists and other followers naturally link to the company, which improves its SEO. Startups don’t generally have the same presence, which means they will need to do most of their own link building.

 2. Limited Budget

You need to invest money to benefit from SEO. Unfortunately, as a startup, you have less money to spend than your corporate competitors. A large corporation was able to pay $5.5 million to purchase the domain name to have an SEO advantage. Most startups could never afford to spend anywhere near that much for their entire campaign. Fortunately, you will have a chance to compete against them without spending a lot of money. Most businesses pay between $2,500 and $5,000 on SEO and feel it is still worthwhile. They are more likely to succeed if they narrowly define their market and make sure their SEO efforts are executed in the most effective way possible.

3. Limited Data

Search engine marketing requires a lot of trial and error. Larger brands have had time to test the ROI of various keywords. New businesses don’t have the same analytics data, so they will need to run A/B testing out of the gate to measure the effectiveness of various strategies.

Mistakes That Kill Startups

Most startups don’t have staff with finely-tuned SEO skills. Here are some common mistakes that you will want to avoid.

1. Putting SEO on the Back Burner

Many startups wait until they are ready to launch their product or service before starting their SEO campaign. Unfortunately, delaying SEO means that they are going to have to wait a long time to notice any benefit. They should start investing in SEO right away to start reaching their customers.

2. Failing to Budget for SEO

Many startups invest substantial amounts of money in research and development, securing capital and other investments. They usually pay for SEO with whatever money they have left over. The problem is that SEO usually costs a lot more than they expect, so they don’t have a lot of money left over to spend on it. They may feel that a few thousand dollars a month is a lot of money to spend on SEO. However, it is a critical investment to make at the beginning.

3. Mistakes With Keyword Research

Many startups try to optimize for their company name or keywords that relate to the services they are offering. This rarely pays off for companies offering cutting edge solutions, because customers have never heard of them. You will need to base your SEO campaign around keywords that your target users are currently searching for. This will help get them on your site so you can help sell them on your products or services. For example, a company that sells a new product that saves money on gas is unlikely to get any traffic optimizing for the product name, because nobody is actually searching for it on Google. They would be better off optimizing for keywords such as “save money on gas” or names of other products that save money on gas.

4. Creating Unnatural Looking Link Profiles

Businesses need to use natural link building strategies to rank well in Google. Google is becoming better at identifying unnatural link building patterns. Generating natural links is even more important for new websites for a couple of reasons:

  • It is easier for Google to tell when newer sites are purchasing links or engaging in other activities that violate its guidelines.
  • New sites are also more likely to be targets of the Google Sandbox.

Neil Patel of Quick Sprout has studied the rankings of different websites and found that many that used traditional link building penalties have been penalized since the 2012 EMD update. Larger businesses have well established brands and social media presences, which helps them receive natural links from satisfied customers, journalists and other followers. These links are more likely to boost their SERP rankings. Startups can create link profiles that seem natural as well, but they need to be more strategic about it. They often get penalized because their profiles look too unnatural. Their SEO campaign needs to focus on making it appear that their links were earned.

5. Expecting SEO to Gain Traction on its Own

Many entrepreneurs believe that they don’t need to do any work to rank in Google. One study from the Small Business Development Index found that only about a quarter of businesses had an SEO strategy. These companies often believe that their rankings will improve without any work. Unfortunately, your SEO isn’t likely to meet growth expectations without strategic thinking. The hard truth is that it takes a lot of work to consistently rank well in Google. Almost 90% of small businesses that created a formal SEO strategy felt that it paid off.

Outreach is extremely important for startups. They need to create a social presence and give others a good reason to link to their content. Since they don’t have the reputation larger firms have, they will need to be a lot more proactive about it.

6. Not Tracking Results

Many startups overestimate the amount of traffic and revenue they will generate from organic search. Larger companies have more data showing what the ROI of different keywords and SEO strategies are. Small businesses will need to test the impact different strategies have on their rankings. Installing Google Analytics and other web analytics tools will help them see how well their strategies are paying off.


Talk about the need to invest in SEO right away. Align your budget with your performance expectations. Make sure the stakeholders understand the importance of brand-centered SEO and earned link building over first generation SEO tactics.

Published 01/12/15, Edited 08/02/18.

About Kalen Smith

Kalen Smith has been an online content marketer and SEO analytics researcher for the past five years. He has been published on the Content Marketing Institute, Hubspot, Business Insider and other entrepreneurial publications. He is also the author of "The Ultimate Guide to Guest Blogging" and several other informational products on digital marketing. Read more of Kalen's posts here.

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  1. Nice article. Going to share to my Facebook page now. Thanks!

    “Not Tracking Results”
    ^Blows my mind when a client tells me they haven’t been tracking their results.

    • Emory Rowland January 13, 2015

      I actually got one of those in real life the other day. Amazing but it does indeed happen :)

  2. Pingback: SearchCap: LinkedIn Search, Target Mobile & Google AdWords Scripts

  3. Great post Kalen! All these points are right on the money. Some of the challenges I’ve faced over the years working with small businesses have been; lack of budget priority, lack of patience, lack of commitment to the long term strategy. I also get a lot of clients that have been burned by bad SEO’s and it’s hard escaping from the transference received from the victims. It’s almost like we have to play therapist. But for me the positive results make it all worth it.

  4. #1 is the first thing I think of when I think “startups and SEO”. I see it all the time, startups pushing off SEO until it’s do or die time, which is obviously too late.

  5. Awesome Post
    i think i will borrow a leaf from those flashy ideas :-)

  6. A friend of mine discusses the convenience of SEO and it’s satisfying to know that it can really help your business. But the problem is since I am just starting to build my company I don’t have enough budget to invest with this. Most of the companies fail because they prioritize the wrong task when it comes to SEO. Even for businesses that are already experiencing the benefits of SEO.

    • Emory Rowland April 29, 2016

      Michelle, Agreed. I see this all the time. SEO is so much about prioritizing what will get you the most bang for the buck.

  7. Really a nice post! These days peoples are going to listen everyone call himself as SEO expert. On the other hand the real experts didnt get enough financial help from their clients. Both are avoidable. I understood these from this post.

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