Organic Search: A Powerful Growth Engine for Opportunistic Startups

Conventional wisdom among many startup founders and investors suggests that to build significant scale as an Internet company, you must be able to demonstrate strong repeat usage, engagement, and virality.  If your users aren’t coming back to your website frequently and/or sharing with their friends, how will you generate sustainable growth? While these metrics may be critical for some startups, there is one major exception to this rule – that is, sites that are fortunate enough to have figured out how to attract millions of free monthly visits from Google and other search engines.

Organic Search Market Overview

According to SimilarWeb, a platform for measuring consumer behavior online through its worldwide panel of tens of millions of users, in October 2014, an estimated 28% of all desktop traffic across the millions of websites in its database came from organic search (as opposed to direct traffic, referrals, or social media.) Within organic search, 89% of this traffic came from Google. In select categories though, the majority of traffic to all websites in that category is actually driven by users searching for something specific online. A few notable examples are Health (63% from search engines), Reference (62%), Food and Drink (57%), Home and Garden (56%), and Recreation & Hobbies (55%). Any company entering one of these markets would be making a huge mistake by not evaluating the potential strength of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) as a critical customer acquisition tactic.

Even some of the largest sites on the Internet are almost entirely dependent on organic search as opposed to direct visits or referrals from other sites. For example, in SimilarWeb’s Top 200 US websites, you’ll find popular sites like WebMD (87% from search engines), About.com (87%), Wikipedia (83%), TripAdvisor (70%), and Yelp (67%) that all generate over 2/3 of their traffic from users who first go to Google or Bing to type in a query. Without SEO, these sites would have a fraction of the traffic and revenue they have today.

Upward Mobility in SEO: A Boon for Startups

There is no doubt that organic search can be an extremely powerful customer acquisition channel, but how easy is it for a newer company to master the ins and outs of SEO and build meaningful levels of traffic in a reasonable period of time? To answer this question, I analyzed historical ranking data from SEMRush, a company that tracks keyword rankings and competition for over 100 million keywords on the web. In looking at the top 30,000 search-driven sites in the United States this month on SEMRush, I uncovered some interesting trends. When comparing this to a similar list from May 2012, the oldest data set I was able to access, I found that 42% of the top 30,000 sites today (as ranked by estimated search traffic) were not in the list of top 30,000 sites 2.5 years ago. This suggests a reasonable degree of fluctuation in search rankings that presents an opportunity for SEO-savvy startups to gain share against incumbents. In looking at an even more recent list (from August 2013), that number was still surprisingly high, with 29% of today’s top 30,000 sites not appearing on the same list 15 months ago. When analyzing the ups and downs of the rankings of individual sites more deeply, I found that a lot of the fluctuations seemed to be due to Google’s increasing emphasis on promoting high-quality content. Google’s major algorithm changes in the past couple of years have generally benefited agile, user-driven companies with a unique content strategy that sets them apart from competitors.

Some notable examples of sites that have benefited from a focus on SEO best practices include Genius.com (now ranked #181 on SEMRush), CarGurus.com (ranked #284) and ApartmentList.com (ranked #990) who all grew from nonexistent or relatively small levels of traffic to millions of monthly visits from SEO in less than 2 years. Although generating growth at this frenetic pace is not a trivial task, there were many other examples of new companies that entered the upper echelon of SEO-driven sites in just a few years.

How Startups Can Evaluate the Importance of Organic Search

Mastering SEO is certainly not critical for all startups, and its relevance varies significantly by industry. However, for any company that offers content of any kind that is likely to meet the needs of a meaningful population of online searchers, it is one that should not be ignored. Two fantastic research tools that should be explored have already been mentioned: SimilarWeb and SEMRush. With SimilarWeb, you can check to see what percentage of traffic is being driven by SEO for any competitors and other adjacent sites, and determine if it is moving the needle for them. With SEMRush, you can generate lists of hundreds of relevant sites that overlap with your top competitors in Google’s search results, and dig in deep to lists of thousands of keywords that may be relevant for your own site. By looking at patterns across groups of keywords and top competitors, you can start to piece together a preliminary view on which SEO strategies are most effective in your market and where there is room for improvement. Once you do this, you still have your work cut out for you, but popular resources like Moz’s Beginners Guide to SEO,  QuickSprout’s Advanced Guide to SEO, and even Google’s own Webmaster Academy and Guidelines can help get you up the learning curve fast enough to make strong progress on your way to generating strong levels of traffic from SEO.


3 Comments

  1. Aaron K.

    Hi Stephen,

    I enjoyed reading your piece. For small/newer companies fighting for search engine authority, SEO is often as misunderstood as it is critical. I’d like to add to your argument a few takeaways from my own experiences while dealing with SEO issues with my own startup over the past three years. Based on the thoroughness of your insights, it seems to me that you may already know these things; however, others reading your post may not, so here’s to hoping we benefit others together.

    — Decision: Outsource content creation or DIY? —
    There exists no shortage of companies that claim to exist between your company and your industry’s SEO throne. Specifically, by now I have been contacted (read: spammed incessantly) by dozens of these companies, selling long form content creation as a service. Would that be LFCCaaS? For a few thousand dollars per month, they will create fresh content and emanating from your site, often from your blog if that’s ideal. The masses will adore you, and you will enjoy your morning coffee knowing this was a great leadership decision for your startup. Right? Wrong.

    For small companies, the temptation is dangerous: spend some money for “expert” help with gradually gaining search engine authority versus your competitors. Based on my experiences, I am cynical and literally resentful of how poor the results actually are in these situations. No one should know your company’s ecosystem – and be able to write long form about it – better than you and your team! Why should we aspire for anything less?

    To state my point as clearly as possible: companies like this will waste your money and your time. You won’t be as satisfied with their content as you would be with your own, even if you’re staying up all night creating it.

    Thanks again for your piece here, Stephen. Best wishes.

  2. Yongju Shin

    Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is indeed an important tool for all startup online companies. It cannot be empasized more. If a company gets a front-page coverage in GOOGLE, surely that company will get a lot of traffic, which will be beneficial for network effect and mobilization. From reading the blog, I came across the part where it said that GOOGLE valued sites that had high-quality content in contrast to others that would have somewhat a mediocre or low quality. In other words, that woud mean that if a company's contents were good enough, then the company's site would be placed in spots where it's most likely to be seen by other users. Accordingly, the content would be important to get a good spot in Google or other search engines. I guess creating high-quality contents should be prioritized before only depending on search engine optimization. What do you think?

  3. Guy Yeshua

    Hi Stephen great post,
    SEO is indeed a key traffic generator for many websites. From my experience certain companies build their websites to be SEO “friendly” and base their traffic generation on Google. Websites like WedMD and About.com that you mentioned or Laptopmag.com are such examples. The content on the websites is structured and built according to search queries, so if you would ask Google for “a dentist in Boston” or “the best tablet” they will reach a high rank and generate inflows to the website. This traffic has many advantages as it is free, targeted with high purchase intent. Someone looking for “the best tablet” has very high purchase intent and is a super valuable user for advertisers. The main issue is that you don’t have a brand name, “Direct” traffic on SimilarWeb is a good proxy for brand name. This becomes more dangerous when Google as you mention adjusts its algorithms without warning. Recent Panda and Hummingbird releases caused such SEO dependent websites to lose up to 50% of their traffic, some were able to recover and adjusted the structure to accommodate the new algorithms other failed and to adjust their cost structure.