Why You Shouldn’t do SEO Before You’ve Reached Product Market Fit

SEO these days is very tough … Emphasis on the very. This harsh reality is that even large businesses with big budgets can’t guarantee success. However in this article I’ll be referring to startups, In either tech, retail or b2b. This may be a controversial post and I expect it to be within the SEO community, but that’s fine as long as all perspectives are considered.

Going back 5-10 Years

5-10 years ago SEO was a different ball game. You would write keyword specific content, optimise the URL structure and meta title, get a few links from article & web directories and more or less be set (for medium to low competition keywords). The more articles you could write, the more links you got, the more traffic you got. This made SEO very predictable and thus may businesses were formed off the back of this. Often large teams were assembled to do this very task and got high ROI results very quickly.

Penguin to Present

The day penguin struck it shook many businesses and let’s be honest even shook some of the most hardened SEOs confidence. Article and web directories were dead and many turned to guest posting (which now is questionably ineffective). Getting quantifiable performance in organic search is much harder to predict and requires much more time and resource to get right. For a startup this is a dangerous dangerous field to play in … Essentially a black box of time and money.

Unfortunately for startups cash isn’t exactly in abundance, due to this they often seek the cheapest means of getting traffic with the highest likely ROI. SEO is often their first port of call.

Getting Real With SEO & Startups

Due to the enormous time and energy required with little confidence in results, I wouldn’t invest in SEO to start with, in fact I’d strongly not recommend it. Before you get to that point you should have strong metrics that point to what your average conversion rate is, how you convert off PPC and the value for specific terms. A lot of businesses fail and this is largely down to the value proposition and the market need for that idea. Failing to understand that and pumping energy into SEO with a poor product will ultimately destroy your business.

Don’t do SEO for a startup if: 

  • You haven’t even made a single sale
  • You haven’t tested the effectiveness of terms on paid search
  • The product/site needs a lot of work before being viable
  • You haven’t proven there is a need for your site

Do do SEO for a startup if:

  • You’ve trialed paid search for your terms and know your conversion rate
  • You’re gaining traction within your market
  • You know which product category is worth pushing

To sum this post up (which was partly inspired by Rank Fishkin’s whiteboard Friday on Google’s Evolution). If you haven’t proven product market fit, haven’t made a sale, have a poor value proposition or don’t see the site lasting more than 5 years don’t bother with SEO unless you have the fundamentals down to a T. Organic search performance is something that has to be planned years in advance, many startups don’t make it that far, so you better be doing everything under the sun to ensure this business is going to be worthwhile.

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