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A startup is assumed to be a highly innovative entity. In all fairness, the best startups do have some aspect of innovation. Not necessarily in their ideas, but also in other parts of execution.
However, this leads to a glaring misconception that everything at a startup needs to be innovative, to an extent where traditional and established methods are almost ignored. I, myself, didn't focus on Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) for close to a couple of years.
To my surprise, many other guys I spoke to weren't paying attention to SEO either. So today I plan to right that wrong. Let's just put SEO in perspective and then I will attempt to explain the concept in very simple & engaging terms.
Basics first. Among the various indisputable truths, such as the Earth being spherical and not flat, is that people don't like being sold to. That's why you find new ways to abuse the credit card salespersons when they call you.
Next, while I usually don't like to throw stats at you, this one is quite staggering. 3.5 billion - that's the number of searches on google, not every year or month, but every day. Picture this: by the time you read this mail, a few million new searches would have taken place. That's why we have a popular saying: "Don't ask a question before Googling it. Don't answer a question as 'Google it'".
Also, each person searching on Google does it with a certain intent. That intent is expressed in the words they type. All you need to do is to figure out what your potential customers might type to express their intent. The process of listing those phrases and ensuring that when customers type those phrases, your website is what they see in results, is the entire game of SEO.
First step, as discussed, is to find a list of phrases that your potential customers might type to find a service such as yours. These are called keywords. You need to "rank" for these keywords, i.e. your website should appear on the first page of Google. They say the best place to hide a dead body is the second page of Google - a morbid statement, but unfortunately true.
Now about keywords - the more specific, the better. But as you start to narrow down, so does the volume of people searching that phrase. Initially, even 50 specific searches a month can be good. To check the volume of your keywords, you can use this tool - it is decently extensive and also has a generous free plan. Frankly, shortlisting keywords does require some hit & trial. Looking at the keywords your competitors rank for can be a good starting point.
Now that you have a list of keywords, we need to understand how Google works. For this, I would like to take the analogy of a library.
Let's say you want to research about photosynthesis (I promise the example is arbitrary). The most relevant books would likely have "photosynthesis" in their title itself or at least in the title of the chapters. That might give you hundreds of books. To narrow it down, you might want to know the number of times the word photosynthesis appeared in the book.
That's not a bad way of explaining how Google does its indexing. Instead of the book & chapter titles, it looks at the "Page title" and also the headings on each webpage, with total keyword occurrences on that page also taken into account. Therefore, you would want to optimise each page by including a keyword in these places. Naturally, this is called "On-page optimisation".
Since we might still have tens of books and require a way to order them, we now need a second level of ranking. So you might reach out to your friends and ask them for a reference. It is very likely that the book with the most references is the one you pick. But not all such endorsements are equal. Some friends might be more reliable than others and their opinion would have greater weight.
Now, replace friends in this analogy with other websites, and references with links that other websites give to yours (also called backlinks). More reliable friends are popular websites, such as Forbes and TechCrunch. While Google doesn't publicly share the reliability scores, some companies (Moz & Ahrefs) have formed estimates called Domain Authority or Rating. It can be a maximum of 100 and the higher the better.
Last nuance. Some friends might say that while they have heard of a particular book, they can't speak for it completely. Even backlinks are similar. Some websites might be comfortable endorsing you ("do-follow" link) and some would not ("no-follow" link). Bottom line: you need as many backlinks (preferably do-follow) from high domain authority websites.
With that, I am done with the explanation of SEO - frankly, from a concept perspective that's all there is to it. Now you just need to start executing. Your next steps should be:
Surely, you don't need more convincing to get started on SEO. Let's kick-off then!