I've been working in SEO and online content for over 10 years.
For the last 5, I've worked as a freelancer and run an agency that works primarily with startups and tech companies (generally Series A+ with $10mm++ in funding). Of course, I’m a big believer in SEO and content marketing as a smart, long-term growth strategy.
I've seen it work. I know it works.
I've also seen so many startups fail miserably at SEO. Dumb mistakes, flat-out misunderstanding, and severe miscalculations—I've probably seen them all. And a huge majority of those fuckups stem from a few key problems with the thinking and approach to SEO.
I'm calling these the 7 Deadly Sins of Startup SEO.
1. Confusing a plan for a strategy
The number one mistake startups make trying to execute content marketing is a lack of strategy.
Most teams confuse having a plan
for having a strategy.
But these aren’t the same thing.
Having a content plan or an editorial calendar does not mean that you have an actual content marketing strategy. The strategy is a high-level framework for how the content you’re creating will actually translate into tangible business growth.
If you don't understand why you're creating that content, how it works together, and how it will demonstrably achieve a specific business goal, then you don't have a real strategy. You need to do more research and better understand why (specifically) you're executing specific tactics and then how you can make them work.
2. Trying to hit home runs instead of playing Moneyball
Most successful SEO & content marketing strategies are about playing the long game. The results, the traffic, the sales rarely come in overnight.
But many startups treat content marketing like they’re stepping up to the plate and trying to hit a home run with everything they publish.
They think that if they just hit a few big homeruns, they'll go viral, their company will grow, and they'll win the game. Meanwhile, they aren't investing any effort in base hits that win games and—ultimately—championships.
It's go viral—or die trying.
But most content doesn't go viral. Most companies don't win by making one big splash. They win by making small waves over and over and over again until it turns into a tidal wave.
Most SEO wins won't come on the back of a single lucky break. This is a losing strategy that relies almost entirely on luck rather than strategic planning and proven frameworks.
Stop trying to achieve overnight success. Create a strategy and execute—day in and day out. SEO takes time and if you spend every day trying to hit a homerun, you might look up and realize that you missed every shot and the game is over.
3. Treating content as a monolith
Not all content is created equal.
Some content works great for bringing in targeted search traffic. Other content is great for driving engagement and shares.
Each of these can have a role within the strategy.
But the mistake is thinking that all content is interchangeable and can be used to achieve every single goal. Each piece of content should be created to achieve a specific goal within the context of the overall strategy—but a single piece doesn't need to accomplish everything.
Likewise, you can take the core message of your content and repurpose it for different channels. Optimize it to achieve a specific goal.
Understand the strengths of different kinds of content—what tends to rank, what tends to drive social traffic, what gets shares, what generates links, etc—and then create specific content with those outcomes in mind.
4. Trying to rank for commercial intent keywords with informational content
One of the most common SEO mistakes is trying to target a high-value, commercial-intent keyword with a blog post.
Google differentiates between informational queries ("what is email marketing software") versus commercial intent queries ("email marketing software for small businesses").
And, in most
cases, it is nigh impossible to rank informational content for a commercial keyword.
This means that if you want to rank for these high-value keywords that are most relevant to your startup, you need optimized product marketing pages + a linkbuilding strategy that helps them rank. If in doubt, do the query yourself and see what kinds of pages show up in the results.
5. Praying for links instead of building them
Asking for links sucks.
But it can be the difference between success and complete failure.
For many startups, links are directly correlated
with users, revenue, and growth.
Consider the difference between ranking #11 (top of page 2) for a high-value, important product keyword versus ranking #3 or #4 (page 1). The difference here could be 0 traffic versus hundreds or thousands of new customers each month. And that difference could also be determined by just a few high-powered, relevant backlinks.
Links drive SEO, which drives traffic to all of the key pages on your site—from your blog to your homepage.
This piece of your strategy is simply too critical to leave to chance.
If you were trying to raise VC funding, would you just sit around and wait for someone to reach out about investing? NO! You'd pound the pavement, build connections, and give yourself the best chance for success. Linkbuilding works the same way.
You can't rely on people finding your site and linking to it on a whim. You need a clear plan and dedicated resources to building links to your website in order to drive SEO success.
6. Using SEO in a vacuum
The smartest marketers and the fastest-growing companies in the world invest heavily in SEO. But they don't invest in SEO alone.
Focusing on just this one strategy and channel means that you're leaving 50%+ of the value on the table. The full value of the search traffic you generate is not just the one-off chance that you get to bring someone to your site and try to convert them on the spot.
It's also the downstream value that's created by SEO.
- Increased brand awareness
- Precision retargeting
- Lower CAC for direct response
SEO should be a foundational strategy for many startups—but it shouldn't be the sole strategy in almost any case.
7. Giving up too soon
Look, the hard truth is that SEO is slow, monotonous, and unpredictable.
Anyone who promises specific outcomes or clear-cut timelines is full of shit.
But, if you're investing in SEO, you should go in expecting for a long-term investment. It doesn't happen overnight. Sometimes it takes years for the compounding growth to truly justify the full investment.
This means that many startups simply give up too early. They may even be on the cusp of big SEO wins that make it all worth it. But, they stop trying or change course because the results don't happen soon enough.
The key to avoiding this mistake is in how you measure and analyze the impact. It may not be the obvious metrics—like traffic or sales or leads—that move right away. You may need to measure a variety of different KPIs to fully capture the progress and future value of the SEO work that you're doing today.
Look for leading indicators like search impressions (Google Search Console) or specific keyword rankings and their movements.
Find these key top-line metrics and pair them with the downstream KPIs that matter most.
Analyze the trends over short to medium timeframes, then project longer-term outcomes. This will give you a sense of what progress is being made, even when it seems like nothing is happening. It will also keep you focused on investing in tactics that move the needle and help you avoid focusing on vanity metrics that may never pay off.
Hopefully seeing these problems explained can help you avoid making the same mistakes with your own startup.
If you have questions, feel free to drop them below and I'll do my best to answer.
Edit: Removed Twitter link! Sorry, Gary! :)