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SEO may not be dead, but according to entrepreneur and angel investor Chris Dixon, it might as well be to startups.

According to Dixon, "SEO is no longer a viable marketing strategy for startups." Period. End of discussion.

In a blog post this weekend, he wrote:

Google keeps its ranking algorithms secret, but it is widely believed that inbound links are the preeminent ranking factor. This ends up rewarding sites that are 1) older and have built up years of inbound links 2) willing to engage in aggressive link building, or what is known as black-hat SEO.

Citing an "ad-riddled TripAdvisor page" that ranks far better than "a cleaner and more informative page" from a site called Oyster, he concludes:

...there are many billions of dollars and tens of thousands of people working to game SEO. And for now, at least, high-quality content seems to be losing. Until that changes, startups – who generally have small teams, small budgets, and the scruples to avoid black-hat tactics – should no longer consider SEO a viable marketing strategy.

To be sure, SEO is competitive. In any given market, there are lots of companies that would love to have top SERPs for the most desirable search queries but obviously, there's only room for a few winners with each query.

Does this mean, however, that startups should essentially ignore SEO, as Dixon suggests? Absolutely not. The reason: few marketing channels are easy for startups to dominate. And for good reason: if you're a new business trying to break into a competitive market, it's going to take a lot of hard work (and some luck) to grab attention and build credibility -- no matter how awesome your offering.

Let's look at a few other marketing channels:

  • Search advertising. If you can't rank organically, you can of course buy your way into a prominent position in the SERPs. For some startups, AdWords can be an excellent marketing tool. But it's not perfect.

    Consumer internet startups relying on advertising for revenue are often not good candidates since they'll spend more on ads than they make back, and even startups that sell something may find PPC to be ineffective if their value propositions, pricing and user experience are not yet refined.

  • Social media. Billions of tweets and status updates traverse the internet on a daily basis. Naturally, there's a lot of noise, and even the most prolific of multitaskers can only handle so much. For startups hoping to market themselves through social media, social media is likely to be just as competitive as SEO, and in some instances, it may be even more competitive.
  • Traditional PR. Many startups, particularly those with VC funding, retain a PR agency. For some, it pays off. But for every startup that gets a major hit (read: a national newspaper or television feature), there are plenty that receive little in the way of sustainable media attention that drives meaningful growth.

In all of the marketing channels above, companies large and small spend billions annually. So at the end of the day, if you really want to, it's easy to argue that there's no marketing channel fit for a startup. A startup will almost always face hefty competition in all channels.

So what's a startup to do? The answer is simple: prepare for a challenging road, and be ready to experiment until you find out what works! Obviously, startups should have a marketing plan, and ideally some marketing-savvy individuals on board, but the reality is that even the most sophisticated startup plans generally require lots of refinement.

The channels you expect to work might not work as well as you had hoped, and others that didn't look so promising might prove to be winners.

The good news about SEO is:

  • There are plenty of low-hanging fruit. A startup can do itself a lot of favors by following the most basic of best practices, such as using valid markup. Additionally, it's worth remembering that a big part of SEO success is avoiding mistakes. When developers, for instance, understand how search engines parse content, they can avoid dumb architecture decisions that hurt SEO.
  • SEO isn't a silo. Success in other marketing channels can have a positive impact on search engine rankings. If you build up a huge social media following, that may help boost your position in the SERPs now that Google and Bing are increasingly looking at social signals.

    If a press release gets picked up and you're featured in the New York Times (with link), that may help too. In other words, even if you're focused on other marketing channels, there's a good chance those channels are helping you SEO-wise.

Obviously, any startup expecting to achieve #1 rankings on Google for popular keywords overnight is going to be disappointed. But then again, let's be honest: any startup that simply expects to go viral a la Facebook and Twitter is probably going to be disappointed too.

Patricio Robles

Published 7 March, 2011 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2403 more posts from this author

Comments (17)

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farouk

thanks for the post, i always gain future insights from the posts i read on econsultancy

over 5 years ago

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Ian Hearsey

What a load of to put it politely rubbish. It depends on so many factors and post the farmer/panda Google update 10,000 of low quality links have less importance in the way in which a site ranks.

You should be able to rank for your brand name and also various long tail versions of your keywords with the correct qualifiers. You can add geographical locations, price, technical terms, product details.

If you build good quality content that will naturally gain links then you will win both ways. If you are trying to outrank Levi's for the term Levi's then its never going to happen is it.

over 5 years ago

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Gareth Rees

Shame that such a person would make such a sweeping generalisation. It's a poor, ill informed opinion. SEO is all about beating what's put in front of you, so each niche or industry is different. For some, start ups can thrive after a short while if they have a strategy (I've done it), but for the really competitive terms, sure it might take a bit longer but that goes for every other aspect of the business too.

over 5 years ago

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Ian Hearsey

Well said Gareth, its so wide of the mark and spoken by someone who seem to have little understanding of SEO beyond the fact that links count.

Not all links are equal :) and you can gain success through hard work and planning like all other areas of business. I wonder if he has had his fingers burnt by getting a poor SEO service.

over 5 years ago

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Nik Makris

Having valid mark-up won't help your SEO one bit. It might make the page display more consistently on different web browsers, but search engine spiders don't care if your page is valid HTML.
Just make sure you use HTML heading and title tags etc and populate them with rich keyword phrases based on the page content.

I also agree with Ian Hearsey regarding long tail keywords.

over 5 years ago

Paul North

Paul North, Head of Content and Strategy at Mediarun

I agree with Gareth and Ian. Dixon is just not thinking here. Ignore SEO and rankings factors for a minute and think would Google or any search engine work well if they ignored or devalued newer sites? No. So they won't allow their algorithm to skew their view of the internet so badly. They've known for years that age does not equal relevance.

over 5 years ago

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Web Design Greenwich

Interesting post.But what about "CONTENT".... "Google keeps its ranking algorithms secret, but it is widely believed that inbound links are the preeminent ranking factor.".....as true as that may be, I think its well obvious that content draws the line between quality links and spammy ones..

over 5 years ago

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John

If your company has an amazing product and you let people know online, then people will link to you. It could happen overnight. But your product better be damn amazing.

over 5 years ago

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David Hickson

The interesting thing about tripadvisor is that, despite all, it is getting fresh, relevant content uploaded every minute of every day -- simply because it has hit sufficient scale that its users effectively do its SEO for it. That, surely, is the point.

As for start-ups (and depending on the type of start-up you are) if the start-up is smart enough to think about the opportunities offered by the platform upon which it is trying distribute and can bake marketing into their product (including, btw, SEO - after all tripadvisor's SEO is baked into their product), so that with some of their users' actions comes a bit of marketing as integrated collateral, then boom...

over 5 years ago

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iNET SEO

As echoed above, what a load of tripe! The longer you leave SEO, the longer it is going to take in the long run. You might not gain immediate results, but 6-12 months down the line you certainly will.

I would question anyone who said not to bother with SEO or Social Media, no matter how well established the business is! That is very bad business sense.

over 5 years ago

Donal Langan

Donal Langan, SEO Director at Easyroommate Ltd

Agreed, this is a comment from someone who doesn't understand SEO, getting a good all round SEO strategy together to target low hanging fruit and Universal search, get on blogs, forums and review sites and assess your competition for your keyword set - very often the top five is weaker than you'd think, will definitely benefit any new web-site, without having to go anywhere near 'black-hat' techniques.
As for Oyster being better than TripAdvisor makes you wonder if some of his Angel money has gone that way ;-)

over 5 years ago

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iNET SEO

"As for Oyster being better than TripAdvisor makes you wonder if some of his Angel money has gone that way ;-)"

@ Donal - I don't think you have to take too many guesses there ;-)

over 5 years ago

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Ron Rule

I couldn't disagree more.

The notion that social media is somehow better marketing tool for a startup defies all logic. It's like saying "Lets try to reach people in a back-door kind of way while they're chatting with their friends, instead of putting ourselves in front of people who are looking for exactly what we sell."

When you're first getting started, it's more important to get SALES than build a brand - especially if you're riding on investor funds. And nothing delivers qualified leads better than targeted search traffic.

over 5 years ago

Donal Langan

Donal Langan, SEO Director at Easyroommate Ltd

I agree, that's the whole point of Organic search results - they are more relevant to the search, maintain scent so hopefully deliver higher converting traffic.
However, social media isn't 'back-door', it is a conversation about your products (good & bad), and ignoring it as part of an online strategy is short sighted. Having said that, if you haven't got the basics of good site design and keyword research done, then your site is in trouble...

over 5 years ago

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Richard Mills

I agree with Gareth Ian & Paul, SEO is not dead and it does help, my recent experience with a new startup is proving that SEO done properly, does work and that Google, Bing etal do indeed pay attention to this in their algorithms.
With a well placed PPC campaign to complement the SEO, you can with a following wind, be off to a flyer.

over 5 years ago

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Damien Wright, Marketing Officer at Loughborough College

Excellent article. I agree with Dixon that it is difficult to compete with big companies with a long established web presence but it's certainly not a waste of time. Our own efforts at SEO have seen us performing considerably better and now that we understand the game and how it works expect to be moving up the SERPs quite quickly.

over 5 years ago

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Mark Chambers, Owner at Mark Chambers Online Marketing

I would, as a startup, engage a freelance Web Developer who also knows about SEO, so that you will end up with a site that is well optimised for your target keywords and so will have a headstart. Of course this is not the only channel and Social Media and Pay Per Click should be considered as well as tradtional networking.

over 5 years ago

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