MINUTTIA is a content and SEO agency. Naturally, it’d make sense for us to want to sell our services to every SaaS and tech company out there.
Doing so would be a mistake and, since we’re in the business of building a reputation for ourselves, we can’t risk our goodwill on something we know isn’t correct.
Even though the value of SEO is undoubted, it’s also true that SEO isn’t the best acquisition or growth channel for every company. We believe that this is extremely important and we want to present four cases when a company—your company—may not need SEO.
Obviously, this is our take on things and, even for the cases we discuss below, there are some exceptions.
For the most part though, and based on our experience working with high-growth SaaS and tech companies from around the world, these four cases accurately represent the types of companies that shouldn’t embark upon a journey where SEO is the primary growth or acquisition channel.
Case #1: You’re a company that hasn’t found a product-market fit yet
Reading this may make you wonder: how can we know if we’ve found a product-market fit (PMF) yet? As Eric Ries, the author of the Lean Startup book, points out:
“If you are wondering, you are not there yet.”
It’s true that companies that have found a PMF don’t need to pose the question; they know and feel that they’re there and that they’re ready to get to the growth phase.
As Emmett Shear, one of the co-founders of Twitch, noted in a lecture he gave for Stanford a while back:
“Asking if you’ve found a product-market fit is like asking: how do you know when you are in love—trust me, you know.”
Even though, in general, there are ways to measure the satisfaction and engagement level of your paid customers and users as a way to quantify product-market fit for your company, we’d say that getting to PMF is something you’ll understand when you get there.
In any case, the purpose of this post isn’t to argue on the “when” behind your company’s PMF—or lack of it—rather we’re here to discuss why you shouldn’t invest in SEO before you get there.
There are four prominent reasons:
- SEO usually takes a lot of time and isn’t guaranteed. By the time you’re there, your company may already be dead.
2. SEO is a channel with a hard-to-prove ROI (return on investment) and during the early stages of running your company and developing your product, you need to invest in and validate activities with easy-to-prove ROI.
3. Coming up with an SEO strategy today may be irrelevant in six, nine, or 12 months time—which is when you’re likely to see the results of SEO—when you may have had to pivot your product or strategy.
4. SEO rarely works as a standalone acquisition or growth channel—especially for companies that lack brand awareness in their category. Effective SEO has to be combined with other activities such as content marketing, digital PR, and PPC.
Something important: The above aren’t to say that companies that have invested in SEO prior to finding a product-market fit haven’t found success through it.
For example, one of our clients, Respona, which is a modern link building and digital PR software, started investing in content creation with SEO and organic acquisition as the main scope behind this effort, back in January 2020.
Since then, the company has found great success in terms of its organic traffic and overall visibility by consistently putting out great content.
Obviously, we can’t attribute Respona’s product-market fit to just SEO or the company’s content creation efforts. But, what we can say with confidence is that SEO played a key role in the company’s efforts in raising awareness and growing its reach to new audiences.
That, combined with other activities—and, of course, through building a great product and offering stellar customer service—contributed to the company’s PMF.
This is only an exception though. In most cases, things don’t develop like the above case study. This is why SEO at an early stage may not be what your company needs or should be investing in.
Case #2: You need results fast
From our experience, most early-stage companies and even many scale-ups are tactics-driven and not strategy-driven.
The reason for this is simple: at the early stages of running a SaaS or tech company, you need to invest in things that a) can get you results fast, and b) have a relatively easy-to-prove ROI. Unfortunately, in most cases, with SEO you can’t tick either of these two boxes.
That may be a bit disappointing, but in reality it’s liberating. By excluding channels, you can start focusing on the ones that can really drive business impact for your company. You have the freedom to exclude channels and invest your time and resources on the ones that you know will help you get the kind of outcomes you need at the pace you want.
Here, we need to answer a critical question:
How long does it take—approximately—for SEO to work?
According to a 2017 study by Ahrefs, “only 5.7% of all newly published pages will get to Google Top 10 within a year”.
That’s not to say that a company with a new website with no authority can’t get results faster. It just means that, in general, when starting your efforts around SEO with a new website, you should expect to get results in approximately one year.
Of course, this number should be taken with a pinch of salt. After all, it’s been a while since the study was conducted and since then, competition online has been getting stronger, which means that nowadays it may be even more difficult for a new website to get results through SEO.
We’d reckon that, in general, the above percentage still paints a pretty clear picture as to the fact that SEO takes a while to kick in.
This is not a luxury that many companies have. Some of the reasons why time is off the essence can be when a company…
- Is looking to raise money and wants to reach certain revenue or user acquisition goals that the prospective investors have set
2. Is on the cusp of raising a bridge round and needs to reach certain revenue or user acquisition goals that the investors have set
3. Has already tried other channels that haven’t worked and needs to prove another channel as quick as possible
4. Has set unrealistic goals that can’t be met through the company’s already-validated channels and needs yet another channel
5. Doesn’t have enough runway in the bank and is ready to invest all its remaining funds in SEO
In all of the above cases, SEO isn’t a recommended channel.
Once again, that doesn’t mean that results can’t come fast from SEO. This can happen as well, e.g. when you’re a company that’s backed by a big VC firm, but these instances are very rare.
What does that mean for you? If you need results as soon as possible, you better invest your time, energy, and resources in another channel.
Case #3: You don’t have the budget or resources to invest in SEO
We’re not going to set an approximate budget for SEO. At the same time, even though that’s something you’ve heard already, we must admit that the cost of SEO, in general, has risen significantly over recent years. The cost of implementing SEO for your business heavily depends on factors like your industry or vertical, how fast you want to go, as well as how competitive things are in your industry.
How can you know whether you have—or lack—the budget and the resources to invest in SEO? Let’s start by listing all the different activities that are involved in an SEO strategy for an SaaS company in a competitive environment such as online video editing.
The activities that you need to invest in are:
- Content strategy
- Content writing
- Content marketing, including distribution and outreach
- Graphic design for graphics and other multimedia
- SEO strategy
- SEO analysis
- Technical SEO
- Web development for SEO-related activities
Essentially, we’re talking about an operation of at least eight people—assuming that there’s going to be only one person assigned to each of the activities outlined above—that you need to have in your team to properly run your SEO operation.
Regardless of where you’re based and where you’re hiring—e.g. you’re based in the US and you can hire people from everywhere in the world—there are still significant costs attached to this little operation of eight people.
To be fair, when you start investing in SEO, you may not really need all the above resources. You’ll definitely need some of them, though, which means that you need to be prepared for finding, recruiting, training, and retaining all these people to be able to effectively run your SEO operation.
Obviously, there’s also the option of outsourcing some of the above activities to agencies or freelancers.
The fact remains though: SEO consists of many different activities and resources that aren’t easy to find or maintain.
This is something you need to be prepared for. It doesn’t have to be intimidating; you can just use it as a reality check to help you make well-informed decisions as to where you’ll direct the company from a strategic point of view. Because, if you don’t have the budget or resources to invest in SEO, it’s better to avoid investing in it all together.
Case #4: You want to start a new category
Have you ever heard of Drift? Drift is a Conversational Marketing platform or Revenue Acceleration platform these days. Both of these terms were invented by Drift, but for the sake of the example, we’re going to be focusing on the first one.
Even though nowadays Drift has several capabilities to help organizations of all sizes accelerate revenue growth, the company started with just one feature; the ability to add a chat window on your website so that you could communicate with your visitors in real time.
Obviously, website messaging is something that existed for many years, it’s not something new, and back in 2015—when Drift, then known as Drift, started— there were many solutions on the market.
Image Source: Archive.org
Drift, made many things in a unique and innovative way to get to where it is today. One of those things was to create a new category for its product which was named conversational marketing.
This allowed Drift to differentiate itself from the competition and dominate the category that the company itself created. Was this a bold move that could easily not pay off? Definitely. It did work though, and it made Drift one of the fastest-growing SaaS ever.
The way Drift evangelized the term and made it popular was through…
- Writing the book—literally—Conversational Marketing
- Brand and community building activities, such as sending branded swag to their fans and customers
- A conference named Hypergrowth, a podcast named Conventional Wisdom, and other content-related activities
Imagine if Drift tried to make the term popular through SEO or if it invested in SEO early on? That would be a wrong business move since there was no demand for the term back then, or at least there wasn’t sufficient demand for it to justify basing a company’s whole messaging and strategy on one single term.
Essentially, Drift created demand for the term, and then made it popular, as shown below:
Image Source: Exploding Topics
What we can learn from this example is the fact that, when creating a new product category—which is something that doesn’t happen very often—investing in SEO isn’t the best way to go. You have to try to evangelize the category you’ve created through other means, such as the ones that we saw above.
Evaluate Your Current Position and Make a Choice
SEO is a long-term game. It’s also not a guaranteed one.
No one can guarantee you that you’ll start investing in SEO today and you’ll get results in a few months. This isn’t just an excuse that agencies use to lock clients in longer contracts—even though that obviously happens from time to time.
The main reason for this is because, when it comes to SEO, there are simply many things you can’t control. We hope that the above four cases will help you understand when it’s the right time to invest in SEO and, at the same time, avoid investing in it when the time hasn’t yet come.
These cases shouldn’t discourage you, rather we intend them to work as a guide for your business decisions around SEO.
Decisions should be based on a realistic evaluation of your current position and not by being biased by what your investors push you to do, what your competitors seem to be doing, what your team tells you to do, or what other people seem to be having success with.