We just had Patrick McKenzie, better known as patio11, at 500 Startups give us better SEO advice than I’ve learned in 3 years. I learned so much I wanted to hug the guy. Here are some of the best nuggets. If you have zero clue about SEO, start with the SEOMoz beginner guide.
"Your website is just what I’m looking for!"
Use Google Adword’s keyword tool to come up with keywords and write pages that speak to those topics. If you’re a productivity app, write a page for “increases productivity in Healthcare”, another for “increases productivity in Education”, “lowers cost in Healthcare”, and so on. Rather than automating it or having the CEO or head marketing guy write everything, you want to define a process such that a freelancer or team member can create content responsive to those keywords with a consistent level of quality. eHow previously made a killing by having an army of monkeys banging on typewriters: they got people to write low-quality content about a topic that people were searching for. (Aside: The content was so unsatisfying that people clicked the more relevant ad at the bottom. Brilliant business that people hated. Google is thankfully squashing it with their Panda update. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to create content in a fashion that scales while simultaneously ensuring that the user experience of consuming your content remains good.)
Use keywords in your copy, in your description and title tags. If someone is searching for project management for hospitals, it would make them giddy to land on 37Signal’s Basecamp and see how it solves project management in healthcare.
Exact match domains are a great strategy because they start ranking in search results quickly while not requiring as links relative to other domains: Halloweenbingocards.net will rank for “halloween bingo cards” very fast. It cost Patrick $8.95 to buy, $100 for a writer to make 5 pages of content, and he made thousands in sales. This works for .com (.edu, .org) domains, but not for non-US TLDs like .co or .ly. (Exception: certain large countries with well-established TLDs, like the UK with .co.uk, have those TLDs enjoy the bonus for searches originating in that country.)
Design Matters. A lot.
A good looking, well designed website will convey credibility and professionalism. Even if you’re just two guys coding at a Starbucks, you can look like a big, well-known brand. Invest in design.
Your Biggest Enemy
It’s not your competitor, or another startup, or even Google. It’s the back button.
Tricks to Get Links
First, realize that programmers, journalists, and other internet savvy people control the links on the internet. Build relationships with them, even when they are not your target customer, because their links boost your search rankings. 37Signals has a big following on the internet, which helps make them the number one search result for their target customers to find them.
Engage with bloggers who are just a little bit bigger than you. It’s much easier to reach them than a TechCrunch writer. When you write a blogger, make sure you tell them in plain English why your content is directly relevant to their readers. They’re busy, don’t make them guess.
What Makes Link-worthy content?
If your startup has an interesting story to tell, it often makes for a better blog post than writing about the product. Open source projects and API documentation are also great for the developer audience, which remember is overrepresented online (and can give you a lot of link juice). If you need inspiration just look at the Ok Cupid blog, lots of brand personality and good content. It takes them a while to write the blog posts, but it pays off.
Twitter has No SEO juice
Tweets have close to zero value from an SEO perspective when compared to standard links. It’s better to get people to write blog posts that link to you. Patrick goes as far as taking off the Twitter buttons from his sites, since they satisfy people’s craving to share without returning any SEO value. He prefers Delicious buttons. There is value in reaching influencers through places that do not give good links if you can then convince those influencers to link to you from their own sites.
Don’t use a Subdomain. Who Knew?
If The New York Times or another high profile website links to your blog at blog.domain.com, your domain doesn’t get full credit! It’s better to set up your blog as domain.com/blog. 301 redirects don’t transfer all the link juice, so it’s better to service domain.com/blog directly.
Github, Slideshare, Tumblr are fantastic, but don’t give them your link juice. Put your content on your own domain.
The quickest way to accomplish this technically is with a reverse proxy on domain.com/blog
More Words are Better
Search engines are not good at determining the content of a video or an image. Use alt tags to describe your images (using keywords, of course); it’s good practice for search engines and blind people with screen readers. Since alt tags can be manipulated, text describing your content is even better in Google’s eye. Transcribe all videos so that crawlers can index the content. Avoid duplicate alt/meta tags and content.
Landing pages should be text rich. The current trend among startups to put 40 words or less on their landing pages is terrible for SEO because there is little text for Google to pick up. Patrick’s landing pages have 800 words. However, there are times when you trade off on SEO to increase conversion. Highrise sells to a design audience who responds to faces (as revealed by heavy A/B testing - that’s a great process story, btw). Their landing page has little text but it converts visitors into customers very well.
Faces Better. So Are Logos.
Dave McClure first wrote about the importance of faces, and Patrick agrees that they convert better. Helpspot’s founder put his own picture on the landing page and conversion went up 10%! Faces are so popular that there’s even headsethotties.com - you know they are fake but you still like them. In general, people are A/B testing the heck out of things, so when they converge on a trend there’s a good reason: e.g. they have figured out that pictures of buff guys work well for fitness oriented sites.
If a big name website covers your site, add the logo to your landing page, ideally near the big button you want people to press. It adds credibility and makes you look big.
Things That Don’t Provide Value
Don’t use the keyword meta tag. Google stopped looking at it a long time ago because it was so easy to game. Need keyword ideas? Look at your competitors’ keyword meta tags.
Obvious HTML Tips
Keep HTML lean. Don’t use style tags, keep comments out, put scripts in separate files.
One style for title tags is descriptive copy of what you do (use the keywords your customers are searching for), followed by a pipe character, and then your company name. Google most often uses the description meta tag for their search results. It should an enticing, human readable value proposition to visit your website, because it has to compete against the description of the other ~9 links on the search engine results page which the user might otherwise click on.
"Google is the Primary Navigation for the Internet"
That’s what Patrick said 16 times. How many searches did you do this week? Whatever you think of SEO, it’s really important and most people are leaving money on the table. For more, read Startup SEO and the rest of Patrick’s blog.
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