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14 SEO Tips for Startups

Note: This article originally appeared on TechCrunch (“14 Steps to Successful SEO for Startups”). For startups, it is dangerous to entirely separate product and marketing – both strategically and organizationally. A great product isn’t overly useful without an audience. And a great marketing strategy can’t save a poor product. Product and marketing have to coexist.

So when imaging, building and eventually launching your product, it is important to also hone the marketing strategy. There are five core channels:

- Paid marketing (SEM, display, affiliates, etc) - Social & viral marketing - Search engine optimization (SEO) - Partnerships & business development - PR

For early-stage companies, advertising at scale is expensive and consequently difficult. Furthermore, PR and business development become easier efforts as the company matures. So where does that leave you as a resource-constrained startup?

Marketing needs to come from the product itself. Last week I explored the role that social and virals play. And while the tech world is fascinated with social media and major platforms like Facebook and Twitter, we shouldn’t overlook the role of SEO (and consequently Google). Like Facebook and Twitter, SEO is another opportunity to expand your funnel and increase your audience — without an advertising budget! Also like social, SEO is far more effective when built directly into the product (“from the ground up”). Here are 14 guidelines for thinking about SEO.

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Quora Opens to Google, SEO is Rocking

A little over a year ago, I wrote about Facebook's new vanity URLs and the immediate SEO boost that ensued. Quora recently opened up their content to Google... and it appears as though it too is the beginning of an SEO boom. It makes sense considering how deep, rich and unique Quora's content is - which to Google is a goldmine. Furthermore, the questions and answers format has always been relevant to search engine queries. Two great examples are Ask Jeeves (now which was built with this in mind and Yahoo Answers, which for years has ranked terrificly in Google.

SEO has emerged from a talent (usually buried within the organization) to a business. Folks like Demand Media have turned it from art to science - and for folks like Quora, it can be an important lever for traffic acquisition, findibility, etc. Ultimately, it boils down to the lasting value of the your site's content - and Quora (and others) are in a great position for that because of its community and the dynamic nature of site (content evolves over time - it is not a static, one-time piece).

Here is a simple example of just using my own name as a query. Within a week Quora has emerged on the first page... which is impressive:

Facebook's Open Graph Search Engine: The New SEO?

Strangely lost in last week’s iPhone 4 hype was Facebook's announcement of their “Open Graph Search Engine”. It is very young and therefore inelegant – but it is significant move that Google likely is worried about (at a time when Google is aiming to compete directly with Facebook) Facebook is beginning to index off-Facebook content within their search functionality… assuming it is Facebook “connected”. So just an entire industry emerged around Google SEO – publishers should undoubtedly be thinking about optimization within Facebook search.

And to Facebook, this is clearly is an effort to incent publishers to integrate Facebook on their core sites… and consequently: index the web, connect it to the Facebook social graph, and semantically AND socially unite the on / off Facebook experiences.

Powerful. Of course Facebook search is still a relatively small piece of Facebook’s experience – that will change over time. And this could be the acceleration point.

And for aggressive, forward thinking publishers – this marks a major opportunity… just like those early companies and individuals who dedicated resources to search optimization.

As SERPs Get More Crowded, SEO Gets More Challenging (With New Opportunities)

Internet marketers used to optimize for the "first page" - in other words, being one of the top ten natural search results. While there was declining value with each search position, you could still derive significant traffic from lower positions. But as Google gets smarter and more sophisticated - the search page gets more and more crowded.... which significantly heightens the importance / impact of high rankings... and weakens the value of lower positions. Think about how Google's search results have gotten more crowded. Depending on the query and category, search results pages now include a mix of: photos, news clippings, product data, stock quotes, Twitter mentions, mp3 tracks, etc. SERPs have become more crowded, more colorful and - sometimes - distracting.

While the SERPs have changed dramatically and impacted traditional SEO, it also represents an opportunity for other creative traffic drivers. I have written about the SEO benefit of Facebook and Twitter, but there is significant, proven opportunity around photo, blogging, product and xml optimization.

Below are two screenshots of a newsworthy query (CJ Spiller - NFL Combine standout) and a product query (Tag Heuer). Notice how much of the SERP is not traditional "organic" results.

Facebook Vanity URLs are Immediate SEO Boost

Before Facebook's vanity URL land grab, I speculated that it would be a major SEO boost and could result in an additional 275m monthly visits. Just three days after Facebook's URL release (9:01pm pst on Friday), the SEO benefits are clear (and immediate).

I secured the URL Before Friday, my Facebook profile ranked 7th on Google for "ryan spoon". Now, Facebook has moved into the 5th result. Not only is this just three days after the URL launch, but Google is still showing the old, unoptimized URL in the search results (see below)... so there is much room to improve:


Relatedly, I received a Google alert for my domain ("ryanspoon") this evening and two things are of note:

1. The alert is of my Facebook profile... suggesting that Google is actively and intelligently crawling Facebook (and Facebook is delivering data feeds) 2. The alert links to the vanity URL (unlike the SEO results) google-alerts

Also interesting, Google has a special treatment for Facebook listings - including my network and the names of a few of my friends. Google could go further and link to those friends directly, reveal recent activity (ie status updates) and so forth:

ryanspoon-facebook-seo facebook-seo-public

Facebook Vanity URLs = Big SEO Boost for Facebook

Facebook's vanity URL push (covered by TechCrunch) is a big deal for two reasons:- the direct business model opportunity - traffic via natural search

Let's leave the business model alone for the now as it is unclear whether Facebook plans to tie a business model to vanity URLs (whether or not they choose to do so - users would certainly be willing to pay subscriptions for the ability to brand themselves on the web's most popular social hub). Let's also assume that, regardless of whether Facebook implements a direct revenue model, there will be indirect benefits particularly from brands and advertisers who will continue to build their on-Facebook activity (branding, advertising, content, etc).

The most direct benefit of vanity URLs, however, is traffic via natural search. Facebook is the web's largest network and its most active social / content hub. In a people search, Facebook should by all accounts appear as either the first or second result (for most individuals). Yet they typically don't... Google "Ryan Spoon" and you get:

#1. (should be #1) #2. LinkedIn (good content, but static) #3. Twitter (my account ID is berecruited ... so the optimization isn't even there) #4. CrunchBase (wow... that is high) #5. (another personal site of mine) #6. Mobile Twitter (fascinating this is so high) #7. Facebook (other than - this is where I contribute most of my content) #8. Techmeme (an article of mine)


An optimized vanity URL should almost immediately move Facebook into the #2 result. As hot as Twitter is, Facebook is more than 10x in size and activity. Currently, Twitter sees about 10% of its visits arrive from Google. With some liberal math:

- 20m monthly visitors (Compete) - ~200m monthly visits (Quantcast) - 10% visits from Google (Compete) - 20m monthly visits from Google

Assume that 50% of those visits are derivatives of Twitter's brand name (generous) and you have 10m monthly visits from Google.

According to Quantcast, Facebook sees about four billion monthly visits - which is about 20x Twitter. This gives you a sense of what improvement in Google's rankings could mean for Facebook - which currently, according to Compete, sees 7.9% of its visits from Google. If Facebook reaches reaches the 10% mark, the above match would mean that Facebook would realize an incremental 84m visits from Google. Of course, it could be argued that Facebook could / should move beyond the 10% mark (particularly if they surpass Twitter and LinkedIn and others in SEO).... and those numbers get very big very quickly (15% would be ~275m incremental visits).

Whether the business model around vanity URLs is direct or indirect - the Facebook model is predicated on users and activity... both of which benefit significantly.

I'm Reinstalling Disqus - Two Months After Turning Disqus Off

Two months ago, I wrote this blog's most read article: After 5 Days on Disqus, I’m Turning Back to WordPress Comments. The quick, controversial summary is that I installed Disqus and, after concerns of not being able to fully leverage that content for SEO and on my own site, I reverted back to the standard Wordpress comment system. Apparently I wasn't the only blogger struggling with whether this issue - the comment debate was rich and included prominent bloggers, Fred Wilson (a Disqus investor) and even Daniel Ha (Disqus' CEO). I concluded that post with the following:

I think Disqus is close. And I expect that I’ll give it another test-drive shortly. But it’s going to take some additional benefits as a blogger (I clearly see the benefits as a reader); and as I think about services I’m willing to pay, perhaps that’s the solution for Disqus: offer premium accounts. I’d be willing to buy that.

Well, I've concluded that it's time to "give it another test-drive" and here is why: 1A. I have become a more engaged, excited FriendFeed user. This is important because, while I still struggle with the SEO fact, it could be argued that a moderate-to-highly trafficked blog will see greater traffic gains through Disqus' FriendFeed integration than through the incremental SEO benefits of the comments. Outside of selfish traffic reasons, following my readers through FriendFeed (via Disqus) is a great, interesting benefit... which leads to:

1B. I've become more interested in discussion and interaction than in absolute pageviews. Obviously, traffic and discussion are correlated, but I'm hoping that both grow with Disqus (and at the very least, that discussion grows).

2. I believe that Disqus will solve the SEO piece ... And hopefully not in a super-technical, API-only way...!). I also assume that Disqus is actively working to fix this.

3. On the same note, I am not sure that WordPress is actively working on a Disqus-like product ... And at this point, that is likely the only solution that I would give preference to.

4. I really respect the way that Disqus reached out directly to me via the blog and email and offered assistance. I am always willing to give my support to products and people who I feel connected with - and Disqus has been great

5. Frankly, I am jealous of other sites that have implemented Disqus. I know many of my readers and commenters have Disqus accounts and I am hoping that they will be more motivated to interact when Disqus is live. I love Fred Wilson's blog and make it a daily read over my morning coffee... but the community he has built and the commenting that exists there is some of the web's richest content.

And with that - Disqus is live... hopefully to stay! I have more work to do on the blog (when not swimming Alcatraz) this weekend, primarily migrating to the newest WordPress version so that I can use the iPhone App.

Disqus - After 5 Days on Disqus, I'm Turning Back to Wordpress Comments

I'm an avid reader of Fred Wilson's blog and was tempted to test-drive Disqus when Fred first integrated it onto his site. I finally decided to install it on my blog (which is powered by Wordpress) after Fred wrote his post "Three Reasons to Use Disqus". It's worth noting that installing Disqus is amazingly easy. I installed Disqus on Sunday... Today is Thursday and I have decided to remove it.


In concept, Disqus is bold and a clear improvement over static comments. I believe fully that threaded, social and portable commenting is the future of discussion and is certainly empowering for readers. I like being able to follow a user's activity across other blogs - for instance, I just accessed all of Gabe Rivera's Disqus comments (here) and arrived on some fascinating blogs (that I wouldn't have found otherwise).

As a blog owner, though, Disqus simply isn't empowering enough.... yet:

My core issue is that the content (and it can be argued that comments and discussions are the most important aspect of a site) isn't truly mine. It's rendered via javascript on my end and as direct html on That means that I lose all of the SEO value of the comments (which is significant) and Disqus gains from it. Honestly, that makes me quite uncomfortable. A couple other critiques:

- Trackbacks are critical elements of a blog (SEO, navigation, etc). They aren't yet available with Disqus and are must-adds.

- Disqus doesn't provide commenter emails and contact information. Sounds minor, but I have engaged directly with numerous readers and formed deep relationships. Another must-have before I switch back. (update: according to Daniel Ha of Disqus email addresses are accessible; full response in below comments)

- The administration and deep interactions occur on - and consequently off my site. Furthermore, as the admin, there is neither enough transparency nor available configurations.

I think Disqus is close. And I expect that I'll give it another test-drive shortly. But it's going to take some additional benefits as a blogger (I clearly see the benefits as a reader); and as I think about services I'm willing to pay, perhaps that's the solution for Disqus: offer premium accounts. I'd be willing to buy that.

A New SEO Business Model - Selling Your SEO Data / Logs?

Here are a few of the search engine queries that delivered traffic to my blog this morning: - Dunkin Donuts California - Google Analytics Real Time - Google Analytics Real-Time - Xobni Blackberry - Xobni for Blackberry - Direct TV Commercials - Google Analytics vs Slimstat - How to Synchronize Outlook with Gmail - Sync Google Outlook Contacts - Uninstalling Xobni Problems

If compiled over time and with more specific information (geographic, etc) - this is valuable data. Do you think that Xobni would be interested in the volume or "Xobni Blackberry" queries? Would Google be interested in knowing how many people are looking for real time Google Analytics or having trouble syncing Gmail with Outlook? There are no Dunkin Donuts in California - but I get enough search queries to demonstrate that DD would have a healthy following... they'd surely be interested in that data (particularly if zip codes can be associated).

While my site traffic isn't massive - I have 100,000s of data points like those above. TechCrunch and other larger sites are sitting on far bigger sets of data that would be massively valuable to CMOs, product managers, advertisers, and others. Companies often launch preliminary paid search campaigns to test user appetites for certain keywords and copy... that data could be made available via natural search and effectively reveal user intent, query volume, competition, product strategies, etc.

I am not sure how the marketplace for this sort of information would work - obviously user privacy needs to be respected and it's technically complicated. I also wonder if this opens up an ad marketplace. For instance, would a web analytics company want to advertise on targeted pages where traffic arrives from the query "Google Analytics Real Time" or "Google Analytics vs Slimstat"? The impression volume likely won't be high - and it would require a long tail of content - BUT the CPMs would be very high.