Advice to startups on the importance of SEO

A well-known Berlin business angel revealed the mindset of the investor community recently when he said „I only invest in web start-ups with at least one SEO specialist in the team.“  Very few web companies still function completely without traffic from Google et al. Indeed, SEO used in addition to SEM is the primary source of traffic for most companies and in contrast to pay-per-click text ads, if it is done properly, SEO offers the possibility of huge returns for a minimal investment. No wonder, then, that SEO expertise has become an increasingly sought-after skill in start-up teams.

Image: Graur Razvan Ionut

I would like to explain what I see as the most important aspects of search engine optimisation in a series of guest posts here on Gruenderszene. These are aimed primarily at prospective SEOs and all those who,  willingly or not, must now deal with the task of optimising websites for search engines. The articles are tailored for the typical founder/webmaster who does not have a large SEO budget, who cannot afford expensive SEO tools and who does not employ external SEO agency professionals. Specialist terminology is kept to a minimum for ease of reading, but some jargon is unavoidable. Please comment or ask questions if anything is unclear.

On- and off-page optimisation

SEO work falls into two distinct strands: „on-page“ and „off-page“ optimisation. The former includes all activities that are carried out directly on your own web pages, for example, changes in the source code. Off-page optimisation describes any activity outside the virtual four walls of your own site. In practice, off-page efforts are mostly focused on procuring a good external link structure (so-called link building), as this is currently the biggest lever for a good ranking in Google’s search results. But a good SEO should always keep an eye on both strands. Here are some basic rules for on-page optimisation and link building.

Checklist 1 – On-page optimisation

1. Is there sufficient and adequate content on the site? And above all, text content? All content, including non-text content (e.g. video, images), should be readable by search engines.

2. Is your content „unique“? Beware of content syndication, as non-unique content (whether duplicating content on your own site or from an external source) is best avoided. This applies not only to whole pages, but also to short text segments of a few sentences in length.

3. Structure your pages with classic HTML headers from H1 to H6. Your most important keywords should occur in every page headline and/or page title. Ensure that all images are provided with a text description using the „Alt“ attribute so they can be read by search engine spiders.

4. Include a meta-description for each page in the source code. A good page description is more important than the use of keywords on the page.

5. Create keyword-specific landing pages and give these priority in the page hierarchy.

6. Give careful thought to your URL naming convention and then never change it once it is adopted. Dynamic URLs are most problematic. NB: Ruby on Rails automatically creates search engine friendly URLs, but these are not yet search engine optimised.

7. Set up your internal link structure so that important pages are reached with as few clicks as possible, so search engines arrive quickly at their destination. Beware of any page-turning or list-sorting function that may accidentally duplicate content.

Checklist 2 – Link building

1. Does your link structure look natural? The best approach is to collect many links with a low Page Rank and fewer with a high Page Rank (the Pyramid Principle). Try to get links from the homepage and subpages of other domains and point them to your own homepage and subpages. Links from sites that are in the same language (and country) are more valuable.

2. Try free (or cheap) sources for links that do not include the „no follow“ tag. For example: entries in web directories; article directories; blog comments; forum postings; ‚About me‘ pages on community sites; guest posts in blogs with a related theme; press releases accompanied with URLs; post linkbait articles in a private blog and use trackbacks; provide other content as a testimonial, etc. The possibilities here are endless. If you discover new sources for links, don’t shout it from the rooftops otherwise they will be picked up by others and more quickly devalued by search engines as a link transmitter.

3. Approach link building as an ongoing project. Remember that links are not permanent and may „disappear“. Also, the competition is likely to be actively seeking links. If you simply stand still, you are likely to go backwards.

4. Links should emerge over time rather than all at once, to appear more natural.

5. Spread your links around and do not overdo it with any one source, e.g. relying primarily on blog comments. If in doubt, a few too few is preferable to a few too many, as many links coming from the same domain will diminish the value of each. Never pay blog users for additional links from the same domain as blog spammers always stand out negatively.

6. Anchor text in links should vary and not only contain commercially profitable keywords.

7. If you are good at negotiating, you can often buy or rent cheap links outside of the well-known link exchanges.

8. If you go the route of buying or renting links, be aware that this practice is not welcomed by search engines if it is for the primary purpose of search engine optimisation, so weigh the risks against the potential benefits thoroughly.

9. Links from sites with a similar theme attract less attention but many SEOs assume that these will be weighted more heavily in future for rankings. If in doubt, it is better to start building links today from sites that share keywords with your own.

Look out for my my next post, where I will be discussing some of the key points outlined here in greater detail.

About author Jochen Maaß:

SEO for startups Jochen MaassJochen Maaß is an old hand at SEO. In 2000 he founded specialist SEO agency artaxo AG in Hamburg, Germany. The company went on to create SEOlytics,  a leading software solution for search engine optimisers. Check back for future guest posts from Jochen about SEO and related topics.

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