Crashing into growth marketing: a CEO journey. Part 9 — SEO (and a funny thing about winning)

SEO is optimising for humans, not for Google. Even my cat knows this now.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned throughout this course, it’s been that I’ve had a life-long misconception about winning. As this is a long blog post, we can start from my childhood story (cue nostalgic soundtrack).

I had a major issue with competitions. I was never enthusiastic about social games or motivated to race other kids. I dreaded the PE class where I was expected to run fast and compete against others. I didn’t take part in spelling bees or science fairs even when I was good at the subjects. I absolutely hated visiting those kids who had video game consoles with racing games.

Don’t get me wrong, I totally loved learning and becoming better at things — I often had 12-hour days packed with dance, drawing and astronomy classes in a single day after school (and before homework). But even in the subjects where I was doing well, I never cared to compare myself with others, or try to win anything.

I had a really weird conception of what it means to compete. Or win.

Back then it was a simple excuse. I just wasn’t the kind of person who could run fast. I wasn’t the best student in any subject. I was somehow exceptionally untalented at video games.

And I wasn’t that exceptionally good at anything else either to go and compete.

It’s taken me a whole life to realise that actually my school never prepared me for running, they just told me I was failing at the race. I was never coached for competitions. I had never learned to play video games as we didn’t have a console at home (and I didn’t have a close friend with one, either).

And for the good stuff, I turned down the opportunities to be coached that last mile. I don’t like competing, I said. Don’t bother.

The major revelation (30 years later) is: winning is not really about being talented at something. You need to prepare for the race. You need to become better at winning. Better at racing. Better at preparing for the race, and better at preparing to win.

And that’s a skill we were not taught at school. The skill of learning to prepare. Learning to win.

Business tutorials (in this case, CXL marketing courses) are fundamentally different from formal education. They’re not meant to teach you only information about a subject. Business tutorials are meant to coach you to be successful in your business. They’re preparing you for the race.

And that’s the thing that usually makes a difference between winners and losers — who comes in best prepared.

You need to keep winning when you run a business. I’m glad I’ve started accepting the help for actual winning. I know how to do my stuff. Now tell me how to win.

What can you win?

Could Zelos win with cold calling? We tried, and it felt exactly like sorely losing the 500m race in middle school when my only weekly running practice ever was the occasional 30m sprint to catch a bus.

Could Zelos win with presenting at conferences? That one time we tried was miserable and I still regret the money we spent. Could Zelos win with LinkedIn advertising? After seeing the video tutorials I’m pretty confident it’s not for us. Neither is influencer marketing.

What if someone tells us again that we should be active on Instagram? Or get more Twitter followers? Those are not real battles. There’s no definition of winning there.

After 9 weeks of tutorials and battle descriptions, I’m starting to understand what it actually means to win in marketing (indeed, I totally had no clue before). And from the variety, I can already start picking what’s accessible and reasonable for us.

We may have a good chance with sharp SEO in our content marketing plus an occasional YouTube / Facebook video campaign.

That’s already amazingly specific for an early stage startup. No more worrying about the Twitter followers. We know what to do.

The early bird.. starts preparing SEO before midnight

Unlike any crazy hustle hacking startup stories where the founders used plastic spoons to dig their way through concrete walls to a Silicon Valley afterparty and met Elon Musk who bought their company after 30 minutes of being impressed by their ability to juggle beer bottles in zebra costumes..

…growth hacking is about spending long nights copy-pasting words and numbers from Excel to Google search to Excel to MOZ to Excel to Miro to Excel to…. Rinse and repeat, one million times.

In order to win, you need to really prepare for winning. And in order to start preparing, you really need to understand what winning means.

When I started learning about startups and marketing terms, Search Engine Optimisation used to sound like a technical buzzword. All the cool startups had SEO. All the successful startups were experts at SEO.

It sounded like a scientific programmer thing where the technical co-founder went into your website code and sprinkled around some magic unicorn glitter that made the website smell good to attract the Google Search Fairy.

Well, my glitter scent description was close enough, but in reality most of SEO has little to do with anything that my technical co-founder would want to do. Of course, there’s the technical part that deals with sitemaps and robots.txt and the such. But after that’s set up, attracting Google Search to your website is as straightforward as putting up a welcome-sign with a list of things you have to offer. Google will happily take your menu and present to anyone who goes into their search engine.

But winning at SEO is figuring out what actual, living and breathing people are asking from Google.

If there’s a high demand for the latest craze of red velvet cake, it’s not good SEO to write “Waldorf Astoria cake”, in your menu (although it is exactly what one would mean by red velvet cake) And it’s not the search engine’s fault to fail you.

When people ask for red velvet, they’re served exactly that, and your website traffic stays at zero. And it’s your own fault for calling your red velvet cake with the fancy name.

However, you’ll also be in trouble if there are hundreds of other bakers on the market with a red velvet cake. Some have been around since 1872, and have a historical reputation that you cannot compete with (online, this is the equivalent of them having a domain authority above 80, while you’re starting off with 17).

Good SEO means stepping away from that battle for “red velvet cake” and picking a smaller battle. Maybe there’s a more specific demand for “red velvet birthday cake” or “tasty red velvet cake for vegans’’. And just maybe those posh bakers from 1872 haven’t thought of exactly that!

And no, figuring out how people spell out their cake search is the exact opposite of what most technical co-founders like to do. In a startup, SEO is a job for the administrative founder.

The right questions about SEO

The ones to win at SEO-driven content marketing are the ones to keep asking “is this” questions until they find a good answer.

And yes, that may mean hours, days, and weeks of data entry and Excel sheets. Because that’s the only thing that prepares you for winning.

Good questions #1: is (insert keyword) a good topic for the content we want to provide?

  1. that are relevant to your product
  2. where you have something new and interesting to say

I’ve found Google Trends to be a very helpful tool with the general interest, as well as the Chrome plugin Keywords Everywhere.

They provide data on general interest in a keyword, and can validate the gut feeling one gets when evaluating the content topics — am I just hoping that my expertise would interest others, or are people actually excited about the stuff I like to talk about?

For us, the hottest topics are the emerging fields of contingent work and community engagement. One is an innovative disruption in the HR space, and the other is a popular way to support both brand awareness and cause-oriented activism. Neither topic is over-crowded by low-quality articles, and both are slightly rising trends as keywords.

Good question #2: is (insert keyword) something they would search for?

While it’s still a lot of guesswork, I’m finding keyword volume tools (like Google Keyword Planner, MOZ and SEMrush) to be helpful with this. These will also give additional suggestions if your first guess is just a bit off, and they’re able to understand what you’re trying to say (like suggesting that the popular search word is actually contingent staffing instead of contingent hiring).

Good question #3: is this a battle I could possibly win?

For example, on-demand staffing apps sounds like something our audience would type in. Indeed, 50–100 people do this monthly to find something they’re looking for. What if it’s us they need? We should totally show up in this search.

The #1 result on Google is a high-authority competitor (domain authority 76!), and the #10 is a competitor with exactly the same domain authority as us. However, they’re not matching the keyword 100% — their page talks about on-demand staffing, but they’re not an app.

Search volume and front page results for “on-demand staffing apps” on Google Search in United States en/US

If we now publish an article about on-demand staffing apps verbatim, we have a high chance to rank past them and get a first-page display for this keyword. Luckily, I have so much to say about this topic, so it’s an easy one to write!

Also, contingent workforce management sounds like a great long keyword for people to find our website. It’s a description of what our app can help you achieve, and it’s mentioning the topic of contingent work that’s hot right now. While the search volume is reasonable while not overwhelming (50–100 searches per month), the competition seems unforgiving.

Search volume and front page results for “contingent workforce management” on Google Search in United States en/US

The first result that comes up on Google is a definition page (what is contingent workforce management) with a page authority of 43. And the bottom result on front page (at #10) is an article from an HR magazine with page authority of 62.

Our website has 30, so it’s probably not possible for us to beat the definition placement. Sounds like we’d be queuing up on page 3 or 4, right?

But wait! While the rest of the results #2-#9 have a Deloitte article with authority of 90, there’s also a staffing app with page authority of 34! They’ve exactly matched the keyword “contingent workforce management” — it’s the first words of their header, H1 and meta description.

Sneaky! We want in too!

You might think: why do all this manual research when the SEO tools directly tell you the keyword difficulty?

Probably true, however it’s sometimes more complicated. We have an article that nicely ranks first page for keywords at the difficulty 38 and 40 — because it’s much more relevant to the exact keyword than the other results.

Our favorite blog post rocking SEO.

As I’ve been going through the interesting keywords, I’ve found many awesome opportunities where we could outrank very competitive keywords with just being that much more relevant with our content.

But of course there are much more keywords where we just don’t stand a chance.

We won’t go there. Those are battles that aren’t worth fighting. We won’t win.

This is the ninth post of many to document my journey as early-stage startup CEO through the growth marketing minidegree by CXL Institute — a 12-week online program about the practicalities of growth marketing.

Disclaimers: I’ve done intense learning sprints before. I’ve never touched marketing from a practical perspective before this course. Consult a specialist before trying this at home.

Promo insert: My startup is called Zelos, it’s an app that helps you manage tasks and distribute activities with a very large group or community, and you can sign up here for free: getzelos.com

CEO of Zelos Team Management — an app for gig work and communities.