You’re a startup? Do NOT invest in SEO!

For years it’s been said that dealing with SEO when you’re an early stage startup is useless. But now we have even more reasons to re-think the content strategy.

“Content marketing is not SEO!”

This “fortune-cookie-style” truth is pretty popular on Twitter. For years. And honestly, I can’t agree more. The problem is, about 50% of founders I know presume that “content marketing” means more keyword-focused pieces in their blogs on their product websites. But let’s think for a second, WHY do you need these keyword-focused pieces?

A friend started an e-comm project he hired an agency to help with SEO. He knew the basics (meta-tags, breadcrumbs, meta descriptions, H1, H2, etc.). He also knew about keyword optimisation but never actually bothered to work on it. The agency analysed the business case and offered not just the keywords stuff but the whole content strategy. They insisted that his gourmet online grocery should contain a huge section with recipes: text, photo and video. That competition around recipes was huge but the demand was also impressive. The competition around product names (what he actually sold) was pretty low but then again, monthly requests were less than 100. The agency reasonably presumed that if we get traffic on recipes and link them with the goods people would place orders. Sounds plausible? It did to him, too. He ended up spending a lot on recipes-related content. In a year he ranked #1 in Google for queries like “Chicken and coconut milk tom kha recipe” or “General Tzo chicken homemade”. Traffic grew fast: 10K visits/month, 50K visits, 300K visits. In 1,5 years he had almost 50K people reading my recipes every single day. What do you think was our conversion from this amazing traffic? Pretty close to zero. 0,01%.

No, it was not usability problem (He actually ran tests every 3 months hoping he’ll get rid of this small technical problem and finally get access to all these users’ wallets).

No, it was not the prices or the quality of delivery (He monitored competition and though, there were offers lower than his, it was not a considerable difference, besides, he managed to interview some of the users who were signed up for his newsletter but never placed an order).

The reason why people did not buy anything was….because they were not about to buy anything. Some were just watching “food porn”. Some were curious. Some came in to check the proportions. Some used recipes for inspiration. Anyway, he could be extremely proud of the impassive traffic figures but he had to admit finally that return on investment in the recipe-related content was negative and that it was a mistake.

When I tell this story I almost always hear from technical people something like “But wait, 0,01% conversion on thousands is better than nothing! You got this traffic on your web-site and that’s a good thing, right?” Unfortunately, it was a bad thing. Having this traffic, seeing it growing steadily prevented him from analysing far more important things: the real goal, why we create all this content and how it matches with our business goal. Which was, to make more sales.

Data doesn’t lie

This year I stumbled upon an amazing post in the SparkToro blog where the founder of SparkToro and before that, Moz, basically, the “father of SEO”, Rand Fishkin brought up some astonishing data.

It turned out that, according to Similarweb, more than half of Google searches are zero-clicks. For me, as an entrepreneur, it means only one thing: whoever is looking for something, they don’t do it with a purchase intention. They are looking for educational purposes, for fun, for inspiration, whatever. They are not about to buy stuff that you’ve spent so much time and effort bringing in front of their eyes via Google Search. And you would spend this time and effort, believe me.There are gazillions of pieces of content for every keyword possible already. Google would not rank you until you “prove” that you’re a valuable resource, and you can’t prove that you’re valuable resource until you start ranking on Google and someone finally finds you in this Metaverse of information. So, do you really want to go through all the motions, fight for this rank and finally receive…what? Your share or zero-click searches? Besides, when you’re an early stage startup it’s really tough to decide what keyword to go for. You haven’t figured out your positioning and messaging yet. Are you a SaaS for creators? Or a SaaS for aspiring artists? Are you a marketplace where employers can find amazing talent? Or a job board for remote workforce? You don’t know yet what the chance of getting product-market-fit lies for you, so optimising your content and SEO parameters for something specific makes no sense.

Alternative is not that simple

But wait? What is the alternative? NOT write those blog posts at all? You know, in some cases it’s the best strategy. And here’s why.

Remember my story about the recipes-related content? It was great, and it brought traffic. But this traffic had nothing to do with his business goals. If your business goal is better conversion you’d be much better off if you bring in more existing customers to the website. Here’s my correlation between content goals and business goals as I see it now, and it clearly shows me that he should not have spent resources on recipes-related content.

If you look at the user journey and their jobs-to-be-done you’ll see that Google Search is there but it definitely should not be the focus of your content strategy.

How do you get this map? There are many ways:

  1. The one that I like the most and that has proved to be the most efficient in almost all my cases — customer interview. Talking to real people who are using your service or service of your competitors and who have the roles relevant to your product. Ask them how they get to the problem realisation. What did they do next? Where did they go to do research? Whom did they ask? etc. With just 5–10 interviews you can build a very precise user journey map and pinpoint the right channels for distribution of your content.
  2. Use online data intelligence tools. I always use a mix of see where the competitors sites get traffic from), SparkToro (for insights on social influence and platforms), community search via The Hive Index and try to join in to see what people are talking about and sometimes ask directly, how do I do a research on a topic that would help me do the best purchase of a product similar to one I’m assigned to market. My goal is to find where my customers are and what channels they use to make a buying decision so that I bring my brand in front of their eyes in the right place at the right time.

Is it better than just getting more traffic on the website? Well, it’s not necessarily less expensive. But it certainly allows faster business goals (like better conversion rate, and higher revenue).

So, getting back to the phrase “content marketing is not SEO”. It is not, indeed. And as Google search is getting more and more crowded it goes even farther from it every single day. It won’t harm you if you publish some useful pieces in your website’s blog section. But only if you know that this is exactly what will bring you new customers. And most importantly, that new customer is what you’re after.

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