Anyone who pays attention to the world of search engine optimization knows that maximizing your company's search results on Google and other search engines is not something you can do with a quick pin here and a hasty status update there. It's a full-time job.
But if you're working to build a startup, you've already got a full-time job - or two or three. So should you hire an expert to run your SEO campaigns?
The short answer is yes. That is, if you're Dropbox and Forbes just did a cover story calling you "tech's hottest startup." Or if you tweeted a photo of your founders posing with your new investor, U2 frontman Bono. If not, you're on your own. But that doesn't mean you can't still achieve reasonable SEO results on a DIY basis.
What If You're Not Famous?
"If you're a bootstrapped startup, which most startups are, and you don't have huge resources, you can do it yourself," says Nick Stamoulis, founder of SEO company Brick Marketing and editor of Search Engine Optimization Journal. "There are lots of things you have to learn when you start a business and SEO should be one of those."
Stamoulis says a lot of startups have approached his company to ask about help, only to blanch at the price of a full-scale program. He says a serious SEO program takes a year or two to get results, and most startups can't afford to foot that bill while waiting for the traffic to arrive.
They're better off saving their money, working on their own to achieve some traction and only then breaking off some cash to get to the next level. So Brick Marketing now runs one-day workshops for startups on a budget. The idea is to teach them SEO basics like posting good content and designing promotional, social media and link strategies.
"When our firm optimizes a site, we'll put in 100 hours up front," Stamoulis says. "Then social media elements and content marketing and traditional link building is another 30 hours a month. That's a lot of work. But most startups don't need that. Instead, get a good foundation and build trust with the search engines. It can't be accomplished overnight."
Like getting a date with that hot girl in high school, it takes time.
Don't Wear a Black Hat
Some startups with small budgets and no patience are tempted to hire so-called "black hat" SEO outfits. These firms try to trick the system to boost a site's popularity, trying to get around the search engine's webmaster guidelines," Stamoulis explains. "But if this is your business, you can't afford black hat techniques because you could be severely penalized."
Another trend in SEO is pay-for-performance. Firms tell clients that if their startups don't show up on the first page of a Google search for a given term, the work is free. But short-term performance can come with long-term negative side effects, Stamoulis warns.
"We put in 100 hours for on-site optimization and 30 hours-plus for link building, social media, etc. Who in their right mind would offer all that for free? Unless you're doing things to make things move faster. But to move faster you have to do things black hat."
It's best to buy a white hat and diversify your strategy: Build a good in-house list, run a busy social media program, write a blog, do partnership cross-promotion and pay-per-click advertising. Then, when Google updates its algorithm to target an SEO method it doesn't like (as it famously did a year ago with its Panda update), your site won't risk getting crushed.
And anyone running a website knows how capricious Google can be. In fact, Matt Cutts, head of the company's web-spam team, announced last month at SXSW that Google is now penalizing sites that are "overdoing their SEO... We're trying to make the Google Bot smarter," he said, "so people don't do SEO. We handle that."
But if you don't want Google to handle it for your company, you may still want to hire an SEO expert or try to do it yourself.
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