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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.