how to create a scalable seo strategy

note: This was orginally written for Lenny’s Newsletter.

Q: My startup is just getting started, and we’re pretty sure SEO will be key for us. How would you recommend we fight against an incumbent who is doing really well at SEO?

Before we get into the meat and potatoes of how to approach and answer this question, I’m going to make a couple of assumptions about you and your product:

  1. You’re starting an SEO program at your company from zero, or you’re a fairly new company that people don’t know about yet.
  2. You don’t know much about SEO other than the fact that someone said that it’s something you should invest in early and that it’ll get you “free” traffic.
  3. You have a relatively large degree of freedom to create, modify, and remove products and pages on your website.
  4. You’re not a B2B company. That’s not to say that this guide isn’t useful for B2B, but you’ll have to get more creative about how you leverage the advice given here.
  5. You’re trying to rank in Google. This advice is generally going to be helpful with any search engine, but I’ll be referring to Google/Googlebot a lot.

By the end of this post, you will be armed with a toolkit that will allow you to go toe-to-toe with incumbents in any industry. I’ll be leaning on my experience from leading SEO at four different companies, including Airbnb, AngelList, SpotAngels and Upsolve. These last two, SpotAngels and Upsolve, each grew from less than 1,000 organic visitors/month to over 250,000, after investing in an SEO strategy like the one I’ll describe.

As a final note before we get started: This post is in no way a substitute for original thinking, creativity, and hard work. It merely serves as a guide to help you create a coherent, scalable SEO strategy.

How should early stage founders overcome the SEO advantages of incumbents?

The answer is simple (but not easy): Create many valuable web pages in a scalable and cheap way.

Let’s break this down:

  1. Create valuable web pages SEO is all about creating web pages. Lots of web pages. But not just any pages. The secret to any successful SEO strategy is to create pages are as helpful to search engines as they are to your users. At the end of the day, SEO is creating a product for a pretty stupid bot. Give it the content it wants and make it as easy as possible for it to consume it.

  2. Make it scalable Your goal is create an SEO strategy that will be scalable and cheap. Blog posts, title tag tweaks, and keyword stuffing aren’t scalable, and require a ton of manual effort and upkeep. You’ll need to create pages with the right kind of content that Google is expecting – fast, engaging, and targeted.

In order to do this two things well, you’ll need to ask yourself these three simple questions:

  1. What kind of pages should I create?
  2. What should go on these pages?
  3. What features do I need to create on the page in order to make Google love it?

What kind of pages should I create?

An easy way to answer this question is to ask yourself: what are people searching for that my product is uniquely situated to answer?

Answering the above question shouldn’t take too long. Write down all of the unique pieces of information that your startup has access to and look at how you can use this data to create useful and engaging content. Strava has routes, Airbnb has listings, Pinterest has pins. What do you have? Your goal should be to take the unique information that you have and mold it in a way that will answer questions that people are already asking Google.

Your goal is to discover a keyword space that you can move into. If we’re a startup that sells flowers, we shouldn’t be trying to rank for keywords such as “flowers” or “red roses”. Not only are those terrible keywords because they have no user intent, they’re also ridiculously competitive. You want to create pages that capture a specific user intent and this is usually done by capturing the long tail of traffic. Sure, you won’t catch the white whale of “flowers”, but if you’re able to capture all of the keywords that follow the formula “{flower type} for sale in {location}”, you’re going to be capturing valuable, highly converting traffic. Your goal should be to niche down when you start, and as you grow in authority, you’ll have the space to create more pages and move into new keyword spaces. Figure out what the keyword structures for your company could look like.

SEO isn’t about capturing the top keywords, it’s about capturing the long-tail of keywords. You can win SEO by focusing on raising the minimum bar of your long-tail pages.

How do you discover these long-tail keyword spaces? Creativity, imagination, and stealing ideas from your competitors. Some of the keyword spaces you’ll want to move into are going to be painfully obvious. In the case of Upsolve, a non-profit startup that helps individuals file bankruptcy for free, the obvious space they want to move into would be how to file for bankruptcy in {state}. When it’s not obvious, you’ll have to get creative with the data that you have at hand, and figure out what type of searches users are performing that 1) you can answer and 2) will get users to perform an intentful action(sign up/booking/purchase/download). You can look at the search volume of the keyword space that you want to target by using Google Keyword Planner(free), SEMRush($), or Ahrefs($).

What should go on these pages?

There’s an oft-repeated phrase in SEO circles that’s especially relevant here: Content is king. Simply put, the more high-quality content that you have, the more traffic that you get. There’s a reason why Nerdwallet’s entire SEO strategy is centered around producing extremely high quality pieces of content written by Pulitzer Prize winners.

There’s also a reason why every single recipe website you’ve ever visited has that really long and obnoxious intro text about the recipe. It’s because text is the primary signal that Google uses to rank your pages.

Every page on your website is a piece of content, and your goal is to produce as many high-quality pieces of content as possible. Unlike Nerdwallet or recipe websites, you probably don’t have the time or resources to manually write out blog posts and long-winded stories about how much your dog loves your lemon crinkle cookies. Instead, you’ll want to create the content yourself programmatically, using the data points that you’ve outlined in the previous exercise, and apply it to the keywords that you’re targeting. Think of your page as a very elaborate page from a Mad Libs, and you’re using whatever internal and publicly available data to fill in the blanks.

Now comes the fun part of the exercise. Sketch out your ideal page. Create the page that has all of the information you can provide to the keyword that you’re trying to target. Use as much of your internal data as you have available to flesh out the page and provide context to users and Googlebot. As a sidenote, if you have access to user generated content, this is the best kind of data that you can put on your pages. It provides natural, keyword rich content that is useful to your users for social proof, as well as to Google.

As you create this page, make sure to think about how these pages scale based on the quality of the data that you have. Since we’re creating one template to generate potentially hundreds or thousands of pages, you need to think how the pages look like in the best and worst case scenario. For example, Strava’s San Francisco running routes page is going to look a hell of a lot better than their Fresno one, because of the amount of quality data that they’ll have from their users. You’ll want to make sure that you can maintain a good bar of quality on your lesser popular pages. If the pages don’t meet your minimum bar of quality, cut them out. Block Google from accessing them by adding a noindex tag or blocking it on your robots.txt.

36 high quality routes in popular areas in SF Mostly out-and-backs

Going back to our imaginary Flowers startup, we’ve decided that we’re going to create pages that are competing for the keyword “{flower type} + {city name}”. We’re a San Francisco based company, so our data is most robust in SF, while the data that we have in Fresno is quite limited. The below data is what I’d outline to figure out what content I have that I want to put on our pages, and which cities have the available data.

Looking at the spreadsheet, the Fresno page we’re creating is quite weak. It’s missing five of the nine data-points, and key information like flower arrangements and local flower shops in the area aren’t available. The next step is to think of ways to increase the quality of the data for our lesser known locations. We can bootstrap the data that’s needed, such as hooking into the Yelp API to pull the local flower shops in cities that’s missing that data, or using some of our existing data to craft a workaround. In this case, we could show popular flower arrangements available in nearby cities or programmatically create flower arrangements based on what individual flowers are available in a city.

What features on the page do I need to create in order to make Google love it?

As important as content is on a page is, there are a couple of important SEO features to consider as well when designing your pages. This section will be a bit more prescriptive than previous sections, but should give you fundamentals to know what SEO features/tags are important for you to consider, and what mistakes companies usually make when creating SEO pages.

  1. Title tags: You should always have a relevant and unique title tag on every single page. This is literally the most important SEO tag that you can have. It’s also one of your primary levers of optimization if your pages aren’t performing well. Your title tag is usually going to be whatever keyword space that you were designing for in the previous exercises.
  2. Internal linking: Far and away the most overlooked SEO feature. This is the biggest optimization recommendation that I make to every company that I’ve ever consulted for. Internal links, are links that you have on your page that point to a different page that is still on your domain. This is extremely important, as Google uses internal linking as a means of determining the hierarchy of information on your site(the more internal links pointing to a page, the more important it is), and to discover and crawl pages on your site. It doesn’t matter how great your content is, if Google can’t find the page. Typical solutions to internal linking are: recommended products, nearby location, other {thing} people liked.
  3. Robots.txt: The robots.txt is used to tell crawlers where they’re allowed to crawl and not crawl on your site. This is important because you probably don’t want Google crawling every single page of your website. More pages is better, but not all pages bring in valuable traffic. Make use of the robots.txt to set up guardrail where Google is allowed to crawl. The more time that Google spends on the pages that you care about, the better you usually perform. After all, Google has a finite amount of resources it will spend to crawl your page. If it’s wasting all of it’s time crawling a useless set of pages(such as user profile pages), it won’t have time to get to the pages that matter.
  4. Javascript Rendering: Google has the easiest time reading a page if it’s served in plain HTML. There’s quite a bit of arguing in the SEO community about how well Google is able to render Javascript, but the way I see it, you want to make it as easy as possible for Google to crawl your pages. Making Google put in extra effort to view the content on your page is just a bad idea. If you care about SEO at all, figure out a way to make sure that your logged-out pages are served server-side. You can do your fancy Javascript stuff once a user signs in.
  5. Schema Markup: If you’ve ever wondered how search results get fancy features on the search engine result pages, like the number of stars your product has, whether it’s in stock, or the number of reviews, it was done through schema markup. There’s so many enhancements that I’ll just point you to Google’s official documentation on what it supports.

There are tons more things to consider from an SEO perspective, I touched on the ones that I think are the most important/impactful. Do your own research. Google has some decent documentation for you to start with.

Closing Thoughts

If all of this sounds incredibly obvious and easy, that’s because it is. Don’t overcomplicate your SEO strategy. Your goal should be to get from 0-80, and that’s usually more than enough to get competitive in your space. Get your pages live and out there, make sure you’re targeting the correct keywords, that your SEO foundations are in place(title tags/meta descriptions/high quality content/internal linking etc) and you should be on well on your way to winning organic search.

  1. You can’t win them all. Not all keyword spaces are winnable. Know which ones aren’t (travel), and hold off on a serious SEO strategy until you’re bigger.
  2. Create pages/products that are somewhat niche, once you have a foothold, go up the funnel.
  3. SEO is creating high-quality content at scale. Maintain that minimum quality bar, and do it cheaply. Your time is valuable, spend it wisely.
  4. Simple is better. Don’t overcomplicate.
  5. Traffic is a vanity metric. Traffic that converts is what you’re after. It’s easy to forget when you’re chasing traffic highs.
  6. The faster your site is, the better. Your users don’t like slow websites, Google doesn’t like slow websites.

SEO Myths

  1. You need to build backlinks: Don’t worry about backlinks. They’re probably not holding you back, and they’re probably not going to be the game changer that you think they’ll be.
  2. It’ll take 6 months for SEO to work: This number is probably closer to 3 months, but if you’re doing things right and are in the right space, you’ll see progress within a month.
  3. You need to hire a full-time SEO to get it right: You don’t, SEO is not that hard, especially if you’re a small startup with complete control of your entire site. Find a trustworthy consultant that can point you in the right direction and have them meet with your engineering team. Some of the most impactful experiments and features that I’ve helped launch came from the designers and engineers on our team. Get your hands dirty, I assure you that it’s easier than it seems.
  4. There’s no way to run SEO experiments: Here’s two great references for SEO experimentation. Keep in mind that just because you can run experiments, doesn’t mean that you should. Experiments are run when you’re unsure about a change or trying to optimize something. If your SEO isn’t in good shape, it’s smarter just to ship.