If you’re in touch with the marketing world at all, you know about the value of search engine optimization (SEO). A favorite strategy of tech startup entrepreneurs and big business corporate marketers alike, SEO is a highly cost-efficient strategy that can help you dominate the digital landscape – or so people say.
In reality, if you talk to a variety of business owners and read stories online, you’ll find opinions on SEO that vary. Some people swear it’s the strategy that keeps their business afloat, while others insist it was a total wash.
Disproportionately, new entrepreneurs seem to struggle with SEO – but why is that the case, if SEO is so valuable?
A Primer on SEO
We’ll start with a short lesson on SEO, in case you aren’t familiar. SEO is all about optimizing your website, both with onsite and offsite changes, to increase its rankings in search engine results pages (SERPs). In other words, when your customers run online searches for brands like yours, your company will be listed higher in the subsequent results.
This is accomplished through strategies like onsite content development, technical website optimization (including backend coding tweaks), and offsite link building. Collectively, these help you optimize your site for specific target keywords and phrases – while also boosting your “authority,” or perceived trustworthiness, so you rise above the competition.
It takes months to years for an SEO strategy to truly take off – if you’re doing things right.
So are all these entrepreneurs doing SEO “wrong?” Or is there something limiting about this marketing strategy?
The Most Effective Marketing Strategy… But Wait!
By my estimation, SEO is arguably the most “effective” marketing strategy in the world. I put “effective” in quotes because different people want to optimize their strategies for different goals. SEO does have weaknesses, including its long-term time horizon and sensitivity to competitive issues, so it’s not a perfect strategy for every business.
However, there are usually workarounds for the biggest weaknesses in SEO. And if you come at it with the right combination of strategies, you can make it extremely cost-efficient – with an eventual return on investment (ROI) higher than almost any other digital marketing strategy.
The big issue is usually a lack of understanding about the strengths and weaknesses of SEO – a lack of understanding of how the strategy works, or an unwillingness to accommodate its needs.
Let’s look at how this problem manifests more specifically.
The Budget Problem
One of the biggest issues faced by new entrepreneurs is what I’ll call the “budget problem.” It’s definitely possible to spend too much money on SEO. If you overpay for an agency that isn’t doing its share of the heavy lifting, or if you invest in the wrong assets, it’s possible to overspend and wreck whatever chances you had at getting a positive ROI.
However, it’s more common for entrepreneurs to be low on cash. They want to practice SEO as cheaply as possible; this isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but it can lead to corner cutting that ultimately jeopardizes your effectiveness.
For example, let’s say you pay a small rate for the cheapest content creators you can find; you’ll end up with shoddy, rushed content that ultimately hurts your brand reputation rather than helping it. It’s much better to invest in high-quality content. Let’s say you keep your link building at a small, local scale; you’ll have a hard time building the momentum you need to contend with your top competitors.
It’s a catch-22 for many new business owners. You need to invest significantly in SEO to see decent results, but you may not have the money to do it in the early days of your business’s development.
The Black Hat Temptation
SEO tactics can be broadly categorized into “white hat” and “black hat” subsets. White hat tactics are those that are purely ethical and in line with Google’s terms of service. These include things like writing high-quality content, distributing that content, and collaborating with other influencers.
There are also black hat tactics, which break ethical guidelines and put your website on the chopping block for a Google penalty. For example, spamming links, utilizing link schemes, and churning out keyword-stuffed content at scale are all considered black hat.
In the middle, we have gray hat techniques that are debatable in terms of ethical and regulatory status.
Generally speaking, if you practice black hat tactics long enough, you’re going to be penalized. Your site will plummet in rankings, and in extreme cases, you could be delisted from Google entirely. But here’s the thing; some black hat tactics can lead to short-term gains. This makes them extremely tempting for entrepreneurs trying to jump the gun and rush their SEO progress.
Accordingly, many entrepreneurs fall into this trap, rushing into black hat tactics, and eventually compromising the integrity of their site.
The Timeline Problem
Remember, SEO is a long-term strategy. You can automate parts of it, invest more heavily to speed things up, and take occasional shortcuts to scale faster – but you’re still going to end up spending months of effort to get the results you want.
For some entrepreneurs, this is a reason to never touch SEO in the first place. They simply avoid it, favoring short-term strategies to boost their brand visibility. For others, impatience sets in; they spend a couple of months optimizing for search engines, then bail when they don’t see incredible results.
Both these entrepreneurs end up missing out on the incredible long-term potential of SEO. Its ROI only ramps up after several months of consistent effort.
The Hubris Problem
SEO is low hanging fruit in some ways. In just a few hours, you can learn the basics of the strategy. And if you spend a few hours a week reading free content on the internet, you can probably become adept at it. However, some entrepreneurs take this to mean that they can become a self-sufficient SEO expert in a matter of weeks.
Trying to learn everything and do everything by yourself is a disaster waiting to happen. There are too many things that can go wrong, too many areas to specialize in, and too many volatile changes for a single person (or a small team) to reasonably keep up with. That’s why most successful entrepreneurs end up hiring an SEO agency or outsourcing at least some of their work.
The Competition Problem
Some entrepreneurs run into a major problem with competition. SERPs are a finite resource; there’s a limited number of keywords and phrases your target audience will search for, and each of those SERPs has only 10 slots on the first page. If you want to get any value from your strategy, you need to shoot for the top 3 positions. So what happens if your top 3 competitors are already ranking?
This is a dilemma even for experienced optimizers. One option is to brute force your way through with a bigger budget and better content – but this conflicts with the “budget problem.” Alternatively, you can differentiate your brand with new and different keyword targets or a slightly different target audience.
The Priority Problem
Additionally, most entrepreneurs are juggling multiple priorities simultaneously. When you’re working on a superior product design, a pitch for new investors, and a dozen new hires simultaneously, it’s natural for your marketing strategy to take a backseat – especially when it’s costing you a lot of money. Because of this, many new SEO strategies end up half-baked, leading to inferior results – which makes entrepreneurs feel like there’s something wrong with SEO itself.
Overcoming the Challenges
All of these challenges can be overcome. In fact, most of them can be overcome just by doing your research and understanding them better. As long as you’re willing to do your homework, analyze your efforts, and adapt to new circumstances, SEO has the potential to pay off.