SEO is no longer a viable marketing strategy for startups

Many of the today’s most successful informational sites such as Yelp, Wikipedia and TripAdvisor relied heavily on SEO for their initial growth. Their marketing strategy (whether deliberate or not) was roughly: 1) build a community of contributors that created high-quality content, 2) become the definitive place to link to for the topics they covered, 3) rank highly in organic search results.  This led to a virtuous cycle where SEO drew more users, leading to more contributors and more inbound links, leading to more SEO, and so on.  From roughly 2001-2008, SEO was the most effective marketing channel for high-quality informational sites.

I talk to lots of startups and almost none that I know of post-2008 have gained significant traction through SEO (the rare exceptions tend to be focused on content areas that were previously un-monetizable). Google keeps its ranking algorithms secret, but it is widely believed that inbound links are the preeminent ranking factor.  This ends up rewarding sites that are 1) older and have built up years of inbound links 2) willing to engage in aggressive link building, or what is known as black-hat SEO. (It is also very likely that Google rewards sites for the simple fact that they are older. For educated guesses on which factors matter most for SEO, see SEOMoz’s excellent search engine ranking factors survey).

Consider, for example, the extremely lucrative category of hotel searches. Search Google for “Four Seasons New York” and this ad-riddled TripAdvisor page ranks highly:

(TechCrunch had a very good article on the TripAdvisor’s decline in quality).

In contrast, this cleaner and more informative page from the relatively new website Oyster ranks much lower in Google results:

As a result, web users have a worse experience and startups are incentivized to clutter their pages with ads and use aggressive tactics to increase their SEO when they should just be focused on creating great user experiences.

The web economy (ecommerce + advertising) is a multi-hundred billion dollar market.  Much of this revenue comes from traffic that comes from SEO. This has led to a multibillion-dollar SEO industry. Some of the SEO industry is “white hat,” which generally means consultants giving benign advice for making websites search-engine friendly. But there is also a huge industry of black-hat SEO consultants who trade and sell links, along with companies like content farms that promote their own low-quality content through aggressive SEO tactics.

Google seems to be doing everything it can to improve its algorithms so that the best content rises to the top (the recent “panda” update seems to be a step forward). But there are many billions of dollars and tens of thousands of people working to game SEO. And for now, at least, high-quality content seems to be losing. Until that changes, startups – who generally have small teams, small budgets, and the scruples to avoid black-hat tactics – should no longer consider SEO a viable marketing strategy.

Selling pickaxes during a gold rush

There is a saying in the startup world that “you can mine for gold or you can sell pickaxes.” This is of course an allusion to the California Gold Rush where some of the most successful business people such as Levi Strauss and Samuel Brannan didn’t mine for gold themselves but instead sold supplies to miners – wheelbarrows, tents, jeans, pickaxes etc. Mining for gold was the more glamorous path but actually turned out, in aggregate, to be a worse return on capital and labor than selling supplies.

When a major new technology trend emerges – say, the rise of online video or social media – entrepreneurs can try to capitalize on the trend by creating a consumer product (mining for gold), or by creating tools to enable consumer products (selling pickaxes).  For most technology trends, the number of successful companies created in gold mining and pickaxes are comparable, yet the gold mining businesses tend to get much more attention. In online video, YouTube is often thought of as the big winner; however, to date, more money has been made by online video by infrastructure suppliers like Akamai. Y-combinator is known for their high-profile B2C startups but their biggest exits to date have been in infrastructure (most recently Heroku which rode the popularity of Ruby on Rails to a >$200M exit)*.

When you start a company, the most important consideration should be working on a product you love (a startup can be a 5+ year endeavor so if you don’t love it you probably won’t be able to endure the ups and downs).  A secondary consideration should be matching the skills of the founders to the market.  Tools companies tend to require stronger technical and sales skills, whereas B2C companies tend to be more about predicting consumer tastes and marketing skills. A final consideration should be the supply-and-demand of startups in the space.  Because B2C companies tend to be “sexier” and get more press coverage, many entrepreneurs are drawn to them. This tends to lead to greater competition even though the market opportunities might not justify it.

There are many exciting technology opportunities emerging today: some are horizontal like mobile, location, and local; others are vertical like fashion, art, real estate, education, finance and energy. If you are an entrepreneur thinking about starting a company around these trends, consider selling pickaxes.

* Note that there are many great B2C YC companies, so the list of exits will no doubt change and probably skew more towards B2C over time.

The “thin edge of the wedge” strategy

Establishing relationships with new users is the hardest part of growing a startup.  For consumer products establishing relationships can mean many things: installs, registrations, purchases, or even just getting users to think of your website as a place to go for certain purposes.  For B2B products, establishing relationships means getting internal users or testers and eventually contracts and payments. For business development partners – for example API/widget partners – establishing relationships usually means getting functionality embedded in partners’ products (e.g. a widget on their website).

One common strategy for establishing this initial relationship is what is sometimes known as the “thin edge of the wedge” strategy (aka the “tip of the spear” strategy).  This strategy is analogous to the bowling pin strategy: both are about attacking a smaller problem first and then expanding out.  The difference is that the wedge strategy is about product tactics while the bowling pin strategy is about marketing tactics.

Sometimes the wedge can be a simple feature that existing companies overlooked or saw as inconsequential. The ability to share photos on social networks was (strangely) missing from the default iPhone camera app (and sharing was missing from many third-party camera apps like Hipstimatic that have popular features like lo-fi camera filters), so Instagram and Picplz filled the void. Presumably, these startups are going to try to use mobile photo sharing as the wedge into larger products (perhaps full-fledged social networks?).

Sometimes the wedge is a “single player mode” – a famous example is early adopters who used Delicious to store browser bookmarks in the cloud and then only later – once the user base hit critical mass – used its social bookmarking features. Other times the wedge lies on one side of a two-sided market, in which case the wedge strategy could be thought of as a variant of the “ladies night” strategy. I’m told that OpenTable initially used the wedge strategy by providing restaurants with terminals that acted like simple, single-player CRM systems. Once they acquired a critical mass of restaurants in key cities (judiciously chosen using the bowling pin strategy), opentable.com had sufficient inventory to become useful as a one-stop shop for consumers.

Critics sometimes confuse wedge features with final products. For example, some argue that mobile photo sharing is “just a feature,” or that game mechanics on geo apps like Foursquare are just faddish “toys.” Some go so far as to argue that the tech startup world as a whole is going through a phase of just building “dinky” features and companies. Perhaps some startups have no plan and really are just building features, likely with the hope of flipping themselves to larger companies. Good startups, however, think about the whole wedge from the start. They build an initial user base with simple features and then quickly iterate to create products that are enduringly useful, thereby creating companies that have stand-alone, defensible value.

The bowling pin strategy

A huge challenge for user-generated websites is overcoming the chicken-and-egg problem: attracting users and contributors when you are starting with zero content. One way to approach this challenge is to use what Geoffrey Moore calls the bowling pin strategy: find a niche where the chicken-and-egg problem is more easily overcome and then find ways to hop from that niche to other niches and eventually to the broader market.

Facebook executed the bowling pin strategy brilliantly by starting at Harvard and then spreading out to other colleges and eventually the general public.  If Facebook started out with, say, 1000 users spread randomly across the world, it wouldn’t have been very useful to anyone.  But having the first 1000 users at Harvard made it extremely useful to Harvard students.  Those students in turn had friends at other colleges, allowing Facebook to hop from one school to another.

Yelp also used a bowling pin strategy by focusing first on getting critical mass in one location – San Francisco – and then expanding out from there.  They also focused on activities that (at the time) social networking users favored: dining out, clubbing and shopping. Contrast this to their direct competitors that were started around the same time, were equally well funded, yet have been far less successful.

How do you identify a good initial niche?  First, it has to be a true community – people who have shared interests and frequently interact with one another.  They should also have a particularly strong need for your product to be willing to put up with an initial lack of content. Stack Overflow chose programmers as their first niche, presumably because that’s a community where the Stack Overflow founders were influential and where the competing websites weren’t satisfying demand. Quora chose technology investors and entrepreneurs, presumably also because that’s where the founders were influential and well connected. Both of these niches tend to be very active online and are likely to have have many other interests, hence the spillover potential into other niches is high. (Stack Overflow’s cooking site is growing nicely – many of the initial users are programmers who crossed over).

Location based services like Foursquare started out focused primarily on dense cities like New York City where users are more likely to serendipitously bump into friends or use tips to discover new things. Facebook has such massive scale that it is able to roll out its LBS product (Places) to 500M users at once and not bother with a niche strategy.  Presumably certain groups are more likely to use Facebook check-ins than others, but with Facebook’s scale they can let the users figure this out instead of having to plan it deliberately. That said, history suggests that big companies who rely on this “carpet bombing strategy” are often upended by focused startups who take over one niche at a time.

Builders and extractors

Tim O’Reilly poses a question every entrepreneur and investor should consider: are you creating more value for others than you capture for yourself? Google makes billions of dollars in annual profits, but generates many times that in productivity gains for other people. Having a positive social contribution isn’t limited to non-profit organizations – non-profits just happen to have a zero in the “value capture” column of the ledger. Wall Street stands at the other extreme: boatloads of value capture and very little value creation.

I think of people who aim to create more value than they capture as “builders” and people who don’t as “extractors.” Most entrepreneurs are natural-born builders. They want to create something from nothing and are happy to see the benefits of their labor spill over to others. Sadly, the builder mindset isn’t as widespread among investors. I recently heard a well-known Boston VC say: “There are 15 good deals a year and our job is to try to win those deals” – a statement that epitomizes the passive, extractor mindset. The problem with VC seed programs is they not only fail to enlarge the pie, they actually shrink it by making otherwise fundable companies unfundable through negative signaling.

The good news is there is a large – and growing – class of investors with the builder mindset. Y Combinator and similar mentorship programs are true builders: their startups probably wouldn’t have existed without them (and the founders might have ended up at big companies). There are also lots of angel and seed investors who are builders. A few that come to mind: Ron Conway, Chris Sacca, Mike Maples (Floodgate), Roger Ehrenberg, Keith Rabois, Ken Lehrer, Jeff Clavier, Betaworks, Steve Anderson, and Aydin Senkut. There are also VCs who are builders. Ones that I’ve worked with directly recently include Union Square, True, Bessemer, Khosla, Index, and First Round.

Given that there is a surplus of venture money, entrepreneurs and seed investors now have the luxury of choosing to work with builders and avoid extractors. Hopefully over time this will weed out the extractors.