It’s a misconception to assume that the size of a company determines when you need to think about SEO. Knowing the right timing to invest in SEO might be what dictates success or failure of your online presence, and ultimately your business
It’s when the time comes to think about a website, that most business owners realise they need some level of SEO advice; hire an SEO consultant, or even have an in-house SEO team down the road. After all, at some point everyone knows they need to show up in search engines when people search for their brand, or searches related to their business vertical… The problem is, most entrepreneurs and business owners don’t usually have a clue about when they should consider taking in SEO advice. And, in extreme cases, they only think about SEO when they already have a website built. Which in most cases leads to pretty serious problems and setbacks.
When it’s time to make time for SEO
I’ve been close to SEO and advising businesses for at least 10 years now. In some of my spare time I even do business mentoring and give free advice as part of my pro-bono, voluntary contributions as Google Developer Marketing Expert and Google Top Contributor. Most entrepreneurs know they need traffic and users for their projects to take off, but they struggle with the timing, and one of the most recurrent questions is related to the right timing to invest in SEO as part of their Digital Marketing efforts.
We know each business has its own dynamics and it’s almost never a one-size fits all approach. As SEO isn’t a one-size-fits-all set of recommendations either. But, knowing the right timing to invest in SEO might be what dictates success or failure of your online presence, and ultimately your business. So, let’s take a look at a few scenarios about the different stages of business growth and think about some sensible approaches. Harvard Business Review (HBR) has some interesting articles on business growth. I particularly recommend looking at The Five Stages of Small Business Growth and Evolution and Revolution as Organisations Grow to have a notion of the different stages of business growth, in case you’re not familiar.
Make and Sell (Startup stage)
Build your product and take it to market; this is usually the focus in the first stage of a business. You don’t really know what your digital presence, or website will be, what to put on it and how to market your unique value proposition, let alone knowing which marketing channels are the most efficient or how your online presence will grow… Heck! From what I’ve seen, at this stage there are so many businesses that never made a sound market analysis, or even bothered to think about a unique value proposition; it’s scary! Really folks… You need to seriously think about these!
As a startup, your concerns about establishing a digital presence should begin even before you think about a website. There’s no worse feeling than hiring an SEO consultant and being told the current website is completely unfriendly to Usability and Accessibility principles, and by consequence, to search engines. I’ve had to break the bad news myself, more times than I would have desired. And it’s not a good feeling for either side. We know startups don’t have a lot of resources, or even marketing budget, but it’s essential to get a few things right from the start, at least the technical setup.
If you’re a startup, you don’t have to hire a consultant for a one-year contract, or embark on a massive Digital Marketing project. But don’t neglect the importance of an accessible and technically sound website. Try at least to hire a consultant for a small SEO project, or even an audit, aimed at your specific needs. Make sure when your site is launched, at least it meets the basics for a sound structure and doesn’t have to be completely rebuilt.
If you can’t pay for a tailored advice, at least make an effort and read free resources like Google’s SEO starter guide; check Google’s Webmaster Academy, and when in doubt ask at the Google Webmaster Help Forum.
Survival and Efficiency and Operations
If you’re at the stage where you worry about being profitable and operationally efficient, means you already have an idea of how things go. You probably know your competitors more or less well and have a solid Marketing plan (or at least you should have) — Also, if you’re here and never thought about a unique value proposition I would call an emergency meeting right now!
At this stage usually you’re already thinking about a Digital Marketing strategy. You might have all your technical setup more or less ironed out (or not), but you’re very likely drifting towards a more strategic than technical plan. Nevertheless, you should always make sure your technical setup meets the standards and that you’re not leaving any low-hanging fruits on the table.
It’s common to hire an independent SEO consultant, or a small agency that will help you on your recurring needs and be a more ongoing presence. There will be months of intense work and demands together with more laid back periods of time where mostly reporting and maintenance work will be carried through. It’s here, also, that after engaging in a small SEO project, many businesses fall into the mistake of assuming “they’re optimised” and don’t need further presence of an SEO professional to advise them. Business owners or directors are constantly worried about cutting costs, and often ignore the biggest risks of not having a professional and qualified advisor at all times by their side. Unfortunately, more often than not, decisions like these lead to scenarios like this one:
What you see above is a visibility graph of an online store (a small to mid-size business) that migrated their CMS in October 2014. They bought the sales pitch of their platform vendor and didn’t have anyone with solid SEO expertise by their side to advise them. The result? They did a site migration in the possibly worst time of the year, and lost Black Friday and Christmas to their competitors. After one hard year work and fighting with their CMS vendor, they finally started making changes (Yes! One year after…) and taking advice and things look promising again. But let’s not shout victory just yet!
Success and Market Expansion
Usually, businesses at this stage have a solid marketing strategy. Their operational departments and processes are fairly defined. The bad part here is usually the lack of cross-departmental collaboration. I’m sure we’ve all been in that meeting where someone asks “Hey! Who put that up on the website?” It’s common to have multiple departments or internal teams in-charge of different areas of the website — Web Design, Content, Metrics, UX, SEO, etc. — The problem is, usually these departments don’t talk to each other unless they’re forced to. Also, in many cases an internal SEO team doesn’t exist yet.
A business at this stage should (if justified) aim at having an in-house SEO team. This team or department, should be composed by multi-skilled and multidisciplinary professionals, otherwise they will hardly be taken seriously by their peers. An in-house SEO team, plays a crucial role of being both catalyst and a filter among all departments that touch the digital presence of a business. Their main role is usually aimed at preventing disasters, rather than bringing in revolutionary ideas for growth. But this doesn’t make their contribution less valuable. Any input of the in-house SEO team regarding the website, digital marketing strategies and tactics, should be taken in consideration at all times.
It can also make sense to think of multi-departmental, collaborative work between the in-house SEO team and an external SEO consultant or Digital Marketing agency.
While any in-house team will mostly have a specialised and verticalized knowledge of the product or business, an external consultant might bring a set of fresh eyes to the table. This is usually most beneficial when you’re looking at expanding your reach or looking for more radical ideas for growth.
At this stage many companies have more than one in-house SEO team. In most common scenarios, the company business covers more than one country or region, and there’s an added need for customization and adaptation to the particularities of each country or region. The business starts to pay serious attention to KPIs and data in order to make decisions, and often is much less prone to accept hunches and make gut-feeling decisions.
If your business is at this stage, you probably shouldn’t be questioning the need of SEO advice in your business. You should be heavily investing in it… Not having either an in-house SEO or a consulting agency in a large B2C (and even in many B2B businesses) represents a competitive disadvantage.
Problem Solving and Innovation
There isn’t much to say here, except give a few examples like NASA or SpaceX (actually SpaceX could be seen still at the Survival and Efficiency and Operations stage). Companies like these don’t really need to worry about SEO that much from a competitive point of view, but still they do have internal SEO teams.
SEO isn’t a commodity
Google and most search engines are always changing. According to latest reports from 2015, Google made more than 1000 algorithmic changes, these are not only things you see directly reflected in search result, but also what is considered on your site and how your it’s evaluated against what users want to find when they search.
Pretty much like a dietitian is essential if you want to keep balanced and healthy eating habits, SEO advice is essential for the online success of a business lifecycle, mostly if you want to keep a good standing and avoid disasters in search engines. Regardless of your business size, having a good and qualified SEO professional by your side can in many cases be the factor that tells success from failure.
It’s important to think about SEO at any stage of a business. If you’re starting, take it in steps, you don’t need to take on a big SEO project. If you’re already a stable business at cruising speed, don’t overlook the competitive advantage of making the most of your digital marketing efforts. Avoid wasting resources and time by going blind with your online presence or even pursuing bad advice. After all, you don’t want to push a button on your CMS, and realise the next day all your traffic search engines is gone.