10 Mistakes Every Startup Should Avoid When Optimizing for Search Engines

Search engines are still the number one place people turn when they want to learn something new or solve a problem. If you want your startup to attract and retain the level of attention it needs to survive, investment in SEO is a no-brainer. That said, SEO done poorly can end up doing more harm than good, and it’s easy to make mistakes if you don’t have the experience. Here are ten things to avoid if you want your startup to succeed in the search engines.

Mistake #1 – Poor/No UI and UX

It’s amazing how often webmasters still believe that you have to sacrifice the user interface and the user experience in order to get the best results in the search engines. If anything, this is the opposite of how search engines work today. Algorithm’s like Google’s Panda are designed to demote sites that offer users a poor experience.

Design always starts with the user. Search engines come second.

Test your interface by putting it in front of your users. Experience has taught us that the vast majority of users will interact with a website in the same way, and it only takes a small sample to figure out how most of your users are going to behave.

Mistake #2 – Slow Page Load Time

Do not assume that everybody has an internet connection like yours. Avoid the use of interfaces based on Flash and don’t use images or animations where text will suffice. This is especially important with the recent push toward mobile, where internet connections are much slower.

A large portion of your audience will leave if the site doesn’t load within a few seconds. You don’t have to sacrifice multimedia, but it should load last, and the site should be useable without it.

Don’t skimp on hosting. Nothing is more frustrating to a user than using high speed internet and still dealing with a website that loads as if it were on 56K.

Mistake #3 – Ignorance of Social Media

Even if all you cared about were the search engines (and what startup is that naïve?), you would still need to care about social media. The search engines currently use social signals as part of their ranking algorithms. While they still aren’t as important as links, social signals increasingly become a sign of trust that lends legitimacy to your other signals.

Mastering social media requires more than testing the placement of your social buttons. It requires the creation of content that demands to be shared, and regular interaction with your target audience. Interaction with social influencers is perhaps even more important.

Mistake #4 – Blog Content with No Value

The search engines are currently designed to evaluate how well a page solves problems for its users. It’s not a perfect system, as everybody who’s come across a spammy site knows, but it does tend to filter out the junk over time.

With every piece of content you create, you need to identify the problem it is attempting to solve, and make sure it solves that problem better than any other piece of content on the web. If you can’t do that, it means one of two things: you’re targeting saturated keywords, or you’re not investing enough in your content.

This is where it’s worth hiring outside talent. If you’re not knowledgeable enough about the subject, or don’t have the talent to portray it in the most helpful way, pay somebody with a proven track record. Hire somebody with a popular blog on the subject and leverage their reputation to bolster your own. This is what can really set you apart from the competition.

Mistake #5 – Targeting Search Engines Instead of Users

Hopefully you’ve already started to pick up on this message from the previous entries, but this subject is important enough to deserve its own subheading.

The days of keyword density are over, and they ended a long time ago. It’s amazing how often we still run into this misconception. If your keyword is in the title, and it’s what the article is about, you’ve already met your keyword requirements. Trying to impose any kind of artificial frequency on the use of the keyword just results in an article that looks like spam to anybody who reads it.

The same goes for optimized anchor text. Yes, if you can fit a variation of your keyword into the anchor text of a backlink, you should do this occasionally. But anchor text isn’t the holy grail of link building that it once was. In fact, over-optimized anchor text is a destructive force that can actually hurt your rankings or get you penalized. Focus on building links that get a click-through.

One of the most positive signals you can send to the search engines today is a repeat visitor. If a user searches for a term and clicks through to your site more than once, the search engines take this as a very positive sign, and happily send more users your way. This is one of the most underrated signals out there.

Monitor analytics to find out which pages see the highest returning visitor count. These are the pages you want to emulate with your future posts, and these are the pages most worth promoting.

Mistake #6 – Poor Site Architecture and URL Naming Convention

This is an especially easy mistake to make and it can be harder to get right than you might expect. Here are a few things you should try to avoid:

  • Multiple pages with the same or similar content – This one is especially problematic for ecommerce sites, since they often host a huge number of pages with similar content focused on different products. If possible, you want to alter the content so that it’s different for every product. This isn’t always possible, of course, and it can be extremely time consuming. Another alternative is to simply noindex the pages with duplicate content so that Google doesn’t see it.  Yes, this will cut product pages out of the search results, but it will also prevent an algorithmic demotion.
  • Dynamic URLs – These can be a crucial part of some interfaces, but they can be very confusing for the search engines. Once again, you’ll want to make sure that your dynamic URLs are created in a folder that gets noindexed, or it can lead to massive duplicate content issues and confusion about which page to show in the search results. Create a single canonical URL for each piece of content and focus on promoting it. Noindex your dynamic URLs.
  • Meaningless URL Naming Convention – This is less of a problem than it was in the past, so if your site architecture is already built around garbage URLs, it’s actually counterproductive to go back and change them. However, in order to maximize benefit from the search engines, you will want to adjust the way URLs are built in the future. A good URL naming convention makes the hierarchy of the site clear, and makes it clear what each page is about.
  • Redirects – In general, you should avoid redirects when possible. Too many redirects tell the search engines that your pages are unstable and won’t stand the test of time. Redirects are sometimes unavoidable, of course, but you need to execute them properly. In almost every case, you should use a 301 redirect, not a 302 or 307. A 301 tells the search engines that the page has been moved permanently, and Google treats it like a link to the new page. A redirect always causes a drop in ranking power from the old page to the new one, however, so avoid using redirects when you don’t need to.

Mistake #7 – Not Claiming Google+ Authorship

Google+ is one of the less popular social networks, so it’s not uncommon for digital marketers and webmasters to wonder why it’s worth claiming authorship. This is a mistake, because Google+ is the social network that Google’s search engine has unfettered access to. Every interaction on that social network is monitored by the search engine, and Google can usually tell which accounts are run by actual humans by monitoring activity on their other properties like YouTube and Gmail.

Claiming Google+ authorship would be worth it even if it were just for one single benefit: a snapshot of your avatar right in the search results. By placing your image right next to your search result, Google+ authorship makes your search results stand out and appear more trustworthy. This inevitably encourages clicks and sends more traffic to your website.

Many speculate that authorship will eventually play a part in a concept called AuthorRank as well. AuthorRank would grant higher rankings to ages that were written by authors who have sent positive signals in the past, and possibly who display a great deal of activity and attract attention on Google+ as well.

Mistake #8 – Building Too Many Links Too Fast

Any strategy that allows you to build a large number of links yourself (or through automated software) is dangerous. This sends artificial signals to the search engines and it indicates that your link profile is being manipulated: that it’s unnatural. This can lead to swift penalties that hurt your traffic and damage your bottom line.

Don’t mistake this for a warning against using tactics that attract a large number of natural links in a short period of time. These strategies are totally above board, in fact, they are the best possible way to improve your search engines.

The question is where the links are coming from. Google frowns upon links that you build yourself. It’s as simple as that. In Google’s utopia, every link to your site would be completely natural, and nobody would point a single link to their own site ever.

This is clearly unrealistic, but it should help you understand how to approach link building. Just because a link is “hand built” this doesn’t mean that it’s a link Google wants to see. To protect your site for the long haul, you need to focus on building links that are defensible as marketing efforts.

The mantra I always use (and some of you may be sick of it by now) is “would I build this link if it were no-follow?”  If you wouldn’t, it means you are building the link purely to manipulate search engine rankings, and that means it’s strictly outside of Google’s terms of service. That’s true even if the content is high quality and everything else is done “right.”

By asking yourself this question, you can focus on building links that bring traffic to your site, and promoting content in places where it will attract natural links. This not only sends all the right signals to Google, it also assures that your marketing strategy will be a success even in the absence of search engine rankings.

Mistake #9 – Ignoring the Value of Content Marketing

Content marketing is the art and science of attracting attention and building trust with content alone. It’s about promoting your content in places where you can expand your reach, and retaining customers with content that keeps on giving. This means that you expand the benefits of content beyond pure SEO, start embracing the power of social networking and email marketing, and you start thinking about guest posts and other collaborations as an opportunity to send referral traffic to your site.

It also means that you start to place a bit less emphasis on site traffic, and a bit more emphasis on brand impressions. Several studies suggest that brand impressions influence sales more than clicks do, and this should influence your approach. Clearly, it’s always better to have impressions on your own site, where the data is more easily measured and you have full control of the message, but if you focus too much on site traffic you will lose the opportunity to increase impressions elsewhere.

Finally, content marketing means learning about how viral promotion works, and what makes people want to keep passing along a piece of content. Viral promotion is one of the most important ways to expand your reach, although it’s important to ride the right balance between reach and relevancy. Also, it’s important to recognize that customer retention is just as important as expanding your reach, and the approach to each goal is different.

We cover content marketing extensively in this guide.

Mistake #10 – Hiring the Wrong SEO Agency

It’s almost always better to hire an SEO agency than to try to do the promotion on your own, but choosing the wrong agency can be even worse. We recently discussed 20 questions to ask an SEO agency before working with them, and here are a few takeaways from that post:

  • A firm should have some contingency plan or compensation if they fail to provide results or drag you through a penalty.
  • The firm should have some unique selling proposition that sets them apart from other SEOs.
  • They should be transparent with you and the SEO community about how they do business.
  • They should rely primarily on tactics and strategies that will work no matter how much the search engines change.
  • It should be clear how they plan to make you an industry authority when they, as SEOs, are not experts in your industry.
  • They should have strong outreach and relationship building skills.
  • They should share results of previous successes.
  • You should play an important part in the process.

Check out the link above to learn more. The important thing to remember is that SEO done poorly can actually do more harm than good, so treat it the way you would approach an investment in the stock market.


Search optimization is a rapidly changing field, and only forward-thinking agencies can give you results that will last. Search marketing is one of few roads to cumulative, passive site traffic, and it’s well worth investing in, as long as you don’t make these rookie mistakes. Be careful who you work with and watch your back. Invest in SEO that improves your branding, strengthens your relationships, and secures your future.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s