Why SEO is Critical for Startup Founders Today, and Will it Be Tomorrow?

Episode 20 Why SEO is Critical for Startup Founders Today, and Will it Be Tomorrow

Google continues to be the window to the internet. It is the intelligence that informs real-time intentions, and what people are searching for. Great SEO continues for businesses to be the way to let search engines know that your business pages can answer people’s queries.

The advent of Generative AI can uplevel the playing field and create avenues for content creation, images, code, video. The speed at which original content creation – loved by search engines – can be created will have significant effects on SEO effectiveness. The larger impact may be to the threat to Google and its bread and butter. Will this be the technology to finally unseat the search engine giant? And will it be the beginning to change the rules for building business awareness, traffic and ultimately revenue?

We spoke to Steve Taylor, MBA Instructor at The Schulich School of Business – York University, who had some significant roots in Search. He started working with Search in the 1990s and has been one of the leaders at Yahoo! Search Marketing as well as iProspect and has seen the evolution of search engine marketing, with the rise of social media, influencer marketing and the multibillion-dollar ad technology industry. Steve guided us through the importance of SEO and where it could evolve in the next decade.

Transcript
Hessie Jones

Today on Tech Uncensored, we are talking SEO, Search Engine Optimization. And so, since the emergence of search, to me, it’s been the great equalizer for a lot of businesses to be found on the internet. And Google’s business model has not only allowed users to make it easy to find what they’re actually looking for, but it’s also created, on the other side, opportunities for business to be these purveyors of information and knowledge to answer the queries that are coming out of the Internet. My name is Hessie Jones, and today I’m happy to speak to a former colleague of mine, Steve Taylor. Welcome Steve.

 

Steve Taylor

Hey Hessie. Thanks for having me.

 

Hessie Jones

No problem. And we met at Yahoo many years ago. I think I’m going to age myself, so I’m not going to say when, but where he was one of the early leaders of SEO search marketing……

 

Hessie Jones

Not only to really kind of understand some of the early user behavior when it comes to search, but also to help shape some of the experiences as it evolved. He went on to work at Iprospect, it’s an agency that was early also to the game of search. Today, he’s an instructor at the Schulich School of Business, teaching all things digital as well as search. One of the reasons I decided to bring him on was that he’s seen the business of search evolve in this multi-billion advertising industry alongside the rise of social media, its own monetization in the last 20 years. And so now, as we’ve seen with ChatGPT and all these generative AI technologies, we see this critical, I say juncture, where these AI-powered queries could potentially diversify search outside of what is currently Google’s monopoly. So we don’t know what this means yet. Could it potentially change the rules for business in how they build awareness, how they build traffic?

 

Hessie Jones

And ultimately, what will be the impact on the business? So, Steve, thank you for coming.

 

Steve Taylor

Yeah, thanks again. This is going to be fun.

Hessie Jones

Okay, so tell me why SEO is important today as it was 20 years ago. What were your, I guess, early experiences of search? What did it look like back then? And what were some of, I guess, the critical evolutions that we’ve seen since then?

 

Steve Taylor

Cool. Yeah, I mean, I would say the SEO is just as important today as it was 20 years ago, if not more so. It’s because search engines are still primarily the way that people discover new websites and content online. And when you optimize your website for search, you can improve your visibility and attract more targeted traffic to your site. And when you use the specific tactics and strategies used in SEO… I mean they have evolved over time. The basic principles of optimizing your website for search basically remains the same. So whether you’re a small business or marketer individual blogger, SEO really should be an essential component of any kind of online strategy. And the reality is, SEO continues to be important because it helps business and individuals find and reach their target audiences and improve that visibility. When it comes to what it was like 20 years ago, I mean, I started building sites in the mid nineties, and there were dozens of search engines near the end of it. But basically search engines were in their infancy and the internet was still relatively new and uncharted territory. Search engines like Yahoo and Alta Vista, they dominated the market and users typically had to navigate through directories and categories to find what they’re looking for.

 

Steve Taylor

There was also a lack of loyalty to search engines. People would jump around one search engine to the other, just trying to find what they’re looking for, mainly because not all of them were perfect and you had to define what you’re looking for. So keyword based searching was also in its early stages, with search engines using basic algorithms to match search queries with whatever they deemed relevant web pages. However, the accuracy of those results were often poor and the search experience was often frustrating and a time consuming one for a lot of people. Since then, search engines have evolved dramatically, with Google emerging as the dominant player in the market here in North America. The development of more sophisticated algorithms, including Google’s Page Rank algorithm, has helped improve the accuracy and relevance of search results. Other important evolutions in search include kind of the rise of mobile devices and voice search, which fundamentally changed the way people search for information online and social media. I mean, it became a key player in search, with search engines increasingly using social signals to help determine the relevance and authority of web pages. I mean, search has come a long way since the early days of the internet, and it’ll most likely continue to evolve in new and interesting ways as we go on.

 

Hessie Jones

Okay, so let’s go back to one of the comments that you made about social search. Because when you and I were working together, I was working on the answer side and you’re working on the search side. And at that time it was relatively still early, it was still keyword based from your perspective. But from my perspective, I was using Answers as a people search engine and what we could get in terms of effectiveness was the ability for people to actually get more finite results about things because they were asking real people who understood context a lot more than Google. So tell me about how search has actually evolved with the rise of these community platforms and how do they play together?

 

Steve Taylor

It’s a good question. I mean, the rise of community platforms like Answers or Quora has certainly had an impact on search as people increasingly turn to these platforms to find kind of more granular and specific data or information. One way that search engines like Google have responded to this trend is by incorporating community generated content into their search results. This includes features like Google’s people also search feature. Or sometimes you’ll see a list of questions and it’s basically based on user behavior and search history. Or when Google, maybe they highlight a specific part of a YouTube video that answers the question that’s being searched, and that’ll be just in the search results. I believe this is done in an effort to answer the user’s questions as quickly as possible, and I imagine that that’s going to continue to be the case, especially with the rise of generative AI. I just think they’re going to try their best to keep their dominance and show their importance by doing that.

 

Hessie Jones

Okay, so that leads me to the next question. So today, or maybe in the next little while, what are the major search engines that a startup really needs to pay attention to to boost the rankings? And assuming that you’re talking about generative AI, we assume now we can introduce Bang into the mix.

 

Steve Taylor

Sure, yeah. I would say as a startup founder, there are a few major search engines that you should pay attention to in order to boost your rankings and improve online visibility. First off is Google. They’re the world’s largest search engine. They have about 90% market share in Canada and the US. Google is still the most important platform to optimize for. The vast majority of people use Google to search for information online, so it’s critical to have really strong presence on this platform. Bing only accounts for about 5% market share. However, Bing has emerged as a viable alternative, and it’s worth considering when optimizing your website. With the launch of its new AI-powered search engine that’s running on next-generation OpenAI Large Language model, which is more powerful than ChatGPT and customized specifically for search. This development can make Bing an even more important factor in the search landscape. So it’s definitely worth paying attention to and optimizing for if you want to improve your search rankings and reach more potential customers. It’s more of the long play. And then there’s an alternative to those two. There’s DuckDuck Go, which is a privacy-focused search engine.

 

Steve Taylor

It’s gained a loyal following in recent years, and it’s worth considering for its niche audience. It doesn’t have a huge audience market share wise, I think it’s somewhere around the 1% mark, but it’s a different audience that isn’t on those other platforms. And that’s the thing you want to consider. You just want to understand how much time and effort you’re putting into all these things. The thing is, when you’re optimizing your website for search engines, it’s important to focus on creating high quality, relevant content that provides value to your target audience. And this can include optimizing your website’s structure, the meta tags, and content to ensure that it’s easily discovered by search engines like Google and Bing.

 

Hessie Jones

Okay, so let’s break this down a little bit about SEO and its effectiveness. So react to these statements or questions.

 

Hessie Jones

“SEO results in higher traffic and conversions. Correct?”

 

Steve Taylor

Okay, so since we’re getting into more specific questions, I’ll just preface that when it comes to search engine optimization and search engine marketing, every answer will or should start with “it depends” because these strategies are highly dependent on variety of factors including your industry, your competition, your target audience, your budget and goals. So there’s no one size fits all approach to SEO and SEM. What works for one business may not work for another. That being said, I’m going to do my best to answer your questions in a way that can benefit everyone that’s listening.

 

Steve Taylor

So the first one was what do we know today about the effectiveness of SEO….

 

Hessie Jones

From a conversion perspective? Higher traffic, higher conversions typically.

 

Steve Taylor

So today we know SEO remains essential component of any successful online strategy. By optimizing your website and content for search engines, you’re going to improve your visibility and attract more targeted traffic to your site. And studies have consistently shown that organic search traffic from search engines like Google and Bing are going to generate a higher ROI than other forms of digital marketing such as social media or paid advertising. Additionally, the vast majority of people use search engines to find information online, so having a strong presence in the search results is critical for reaching your target audience. However, the effectiveness of SEO is not really guaranteed. It can take time and effort to achieve results. Success in SEO requires long term approach that focuses on creating high quality, relevant content, building backlinks from reputable sources, and ensuring that your website is technically sound and optimized for search engines.

 

Steve Taylor

So does SEO results in higher traffic and conversions? Yeah, SEO can lead to higher traffic and conversions. By optimizing your website and content for search engines, you can improve your visibility and attract more targeted traffic to your site and this can lead to increased brand awareness, more leads and ultimately more conversions for sales.

 

Steve Taylor

So I think there’s definitely still definitely room for a positive angle on that.

 

Hessie Jones

Okay, so then the next question, I think it has to be coupled with the one after.

 

Hessie Jones

Is SEO the best driver for effective marketing? I know that’s a blanket statement, but for the most part it’s basically saying that the information that comes out of, let’s say your SEO research is the one that you should use to determine what your content strategy is. What your marketing strategy is online?

 

Steve Taylor

I would say again, always it depends. But SEO can be a highly effective driver of marketing. It’s not necessarily the best or only option for every business. The effectiveness of SEO is going to depend on a variety of factors like your industry, competition, your audience. For some businesses, SEO may be the primary driver for their online marketing efforts while others, social, paid advertising or other strategies may be more effective. The key is to develop a comprehensive marketing plan that’s going to take into account your business goals, your budget, and your target audience, and includes a mix of strategies that work together. That being said, I would say SEO can be highly effective way to drive traffic. And it’s important to remember that SEO is a long term strategy. It’s going to require ongoing effort and attention. Success in SEO requires a focus on creating high-quality, relevant content, getting those backlinks, and ensuring that the website is technically sound and optimized for search engines.

 

Hessie Jones

Okay, so is the starting point really about the research? Because my understanding is, okay, so you built your ICP, your Ideal Customer Profile. You understand kind of like their buying journey, you know what questions they probably will ask at different points in the journey. So what does SEO research look like? What actually should a company be doing to become a lot more search relevant.

 

Steve Taylor

Interesting question. I mean, it really does come down to your keyword research. Keyword research is fundamental in this because one thing I love about keyword research is it’s the most honest that anyone’s going to be with you about what they’re looking for. Target focus groups and stuff are great, and you can get some real insights. But the thing about search is that people have a problem that they’re trying to solve and they’re doing it by any means necessary. And so the keyword research is really telling you the desire that people have and it’s just going to give you more. The problem with that is that it’s such a wide net that you’re casting with keyword research.

 

Steve Taylor

Where do you draw in? And this is why it’s so important to have a goal and understand what you’re trying to achieve and what kind of traffic that you want. And that’s going to help guide you when you’re trying to do this keyword research and find out. Start with fundamental, easy things like high-level concepts that are surrounding your business, but really dive into the questions that people have and the pain points and see where it branches out to.

 

Steve Taylor

I’d say that’s like the number one step to go. Does that help answer that?

 

Hessie Jones

Yeah, I think it does. So if we start to move into… let’s say you’ve done some of the basics in optimizing your website, making it search engine friendly. Some startups or some companies will actually couple that or complement that with paid search. Can we start to distinguish? We understand fundamentally the difference, but how do they play together and when is it important to introduce paid?

 

Steve Taylor

Sure. Okay, so paid search and organic search are two distinct approaches to driving traffic to your website. Paid search basically involves paying to display ads on a search engine results page. Sometimes you’re going to see this noted as SERPs. That’s the acronym for Search Engine Results Page. Just putting that out there in case you’re like looking online after this podcast. So you’re basically looking for specific keywords and phrases. These ads, typically they’re going to appear at the top or the bottom of the search results page, and they’re going to normally be marked by something like sponsored or ad, and they can be an effective way to drive immediate traffic to your site, but it can be expensive and requires an ongoing investment to maintain that. It’s not quite an addiction, but it can be if you’re not managing the SEO part of it. So organic search, the part the SEO helps, on the other hand, involves optimizing your website and your content so that you rank higher in the search results for specific keywords and phrases. This involves creating high-quality, relevant content, optimizing the structure, like I said before, and maybe the navigation, as well as building backlinks, meaning like links from other sites or other reputable sites to your site.

 

Steve Taylor

And organic search can be really highly effective way of driving targeted traffic, long term traffic to your site. But it requires an ongoing effort and it can take time to see those results. And while paid search and organic are distinct approaches, they can work together as part of a comprehensive search marketing strategy. By using paid search to drive immediate traffic and complementing it with organic search efforts to build long term traffic, businesses can maximize the effectiveness of the search engine marketing efforts overall.

 

Hessie Jones

Okay, it’s funny because this happens a lot, especially with our website and even with my personal website. There are a lot of people that are asking to put sponsored posts on your site or even incorporating one of the links so that you could backlink into their site. What does that say when you get a lot of requests for that on your site? Does it mean that your site is actually search-engine friendly if you’re getting pummeled with this kind of spam on an ongoing basis?

 

Steve Taylor

I wouldn’t try to analyze your site’s effectiveness by the level of request that way just because it can just be spam. I think the most important thing is to ensure that whenever you’re looking at linking out to another site that you do your due diligence and make sure that it reflects well on your site.

 

Hessie Jones

Okay.

 

Steve Taylor

Don’t chase the money on that aspect because you could just be linking it to garbage websites, which in turn could end up being a negative on your site.

 

Hessie Jones

Okay, yeah, that’s cool. I just want to reiterate I’ll get you to reiterate some of these basic principles to achieve search engine rankings because at the end of the day, anything that you do is going to inform so many other things from a strategic marketing perspective. So can you just reiterate some of those principles again?

 

Steve Taylor

Like the fundamentals, basically?

 

Hessie Jones

Yeah, I think the fundamentals.

 

Steve Taylor

Okay, that’s fair. Yeah, we can definitely do that. So, okay, let’s start with the keyword research. I’ll just start with that again. One of the most important aspects of SEO is identifying the keywords and phrases that your target audience is using to search for information related to your business. This involves conducting keyword research to identify high-value relevant keywords that you can target your website’s content. The way that you can find these keywords. There are tools like Google Ads Keyword Planner that’s through their ad platform. It’s a free-to-use tool. If you’re not advertising anything, you get a range when it comes to the volume that those search terms get generally. If you are advertising, you get a bit more specific data. If you want paid tools to use, tools like SEMrush, Ahrefs which is spelled Ahrefs, and Maz are all great paid tools that will help you find keywords and give you more data. Personally, and this is not sponsored post anyway, I prefer SEMrush just because their historical data goes back to I think 2012 and so it can really give you some trend data to understand what’s the behavior of these keywords and stuff like that.

 

Steve Taylor

So then you got on page optimization. Once you’ve identified your target keywords, you need to optimize your website’s pages to ensure that they’re properly structured and contain relevant high-quality content. And this includes optimizing the meta tags, the header tags, the alt tags for the images, and any other kind of on page elements to help search engines better understand what the content of your site is all about. That leads us into the technical optimization. In addition to on page optimization, you need to ensure that your website is technically sound and free from any kind of technical errors that may impact your search engine ranking. This includes things like how fast the page loads for all the individual pages, how mobile-friendly the site is, and the site architecture, as well as just the basic cleanliness of the code. You want to make it easy for the search engine spiders to understand the code and what the website is all about. I think if you’re building a blog type site, I mean WordPress is still the gold standard.

 

Hessie Jones

Is it really?

 

Steve Taylor

Yeah. I would pair it with the Yoast SEO plugin. There are other options. That’s just my personal preference. You can use off-the-shelf type platforms like Square Space or something like that, but they struggle on a technical side and it’s harder to change. If you are doing an e-commerce site, then something like Shopify would be great or WooCommerce paired with WordPress might be a good option as well. So then it takes us into link building. Just like building out links. Link building is another key aspect of SEO. It involves acquiring high-quality backlinks from other reputable websites. And this is going to help to demonstrate the authority and relevance of your site to the search engines. It’s just going to show relationships and it can boost your overall rankings. Then you get into the content marketing side and this is where you’re creating the high-quality engaging content. This is a critical component of SEO. Generally when it comes to word count on page, you’re looking over 1000 words generally and so you want to make sure that every word counts and is engaging with the audience. You want to make sure that people are actually reading the content.

 

Steve Taylor

One way that I’ve done that in the past is there are online tools to check how long it would take to read the content on this page. It takes three minutes to read this content and then you look at what the Google Analytics tells you or whatever analytics package you’re using and see how long are people spending on this page, and compare and contrast. It’s like if people are spending 20 seconds on this page and it would take three minutes to read it, it’s giving you a really strong signal that the content is not engaging them the way that it should. Okay, so yeah, you want to do all those things by focusing on all those key fundamentals, it’s going to improve your Seo’s website’s visibility and rankings on the search engine to drive more traffic to the site.

 

Hessie Jones

Okay, so let’s do a little bit of a pivot because everybody’s talking about ChatGPT, Generative AI, and so let’s talk about the content side because now we’re seeing a technology that’s I would say making people a lot more lazy. So when we’re creating content right now, you could actually get one of these tools to actually generate content for you. And so there is a quote that I want you to respond to because as much as we can probably scale the original content creation, there’s also another side that says maybe it’s not such a good idea. So listen to this and tell me what you think.

 

Hessie Jones

“Despite all the hullabaloo about AI tools writing content for you, it’s not there yet. They can’t create original content, only scraping what could be found on the internet. Most can’t even do a deep dive to even get a high enough word count for some content. Often too, the information they pull is a few years old, so the content it generates could be outdated and irrelevant.”

 

Steve Taylor

Okay, so I agree that AI can improve the personalization of search results, taking into account factors like previous search history and preferences to provide more relevant and useful results. However, it’s worth noting that personalization is just in search results has been part of search engines for years, and AI is just one tool that can help enhance this process. Additionally, while it’s true that personalized search results can reduce kind of the random incidental traffic to a site, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to eliminate entirely. A website will still be able to attract new visitors through a variety of channels like including social media, advertising, word of mouth, and we can’t count out the fact that search engine algorithms, they’re continually updated and it’s possible that they incorporate random serendipity into their algorithm to account for this type of lost experience. That’s the thing about if we only look at the analytics, we only look at the past, it’s only going to predict what’s happened. If we see that users stop using it, and that part of the reason is they don’t feel that they’re finding the random things that they like to before, I suspect search engines will just modify the algorithm so that those kind of experiences happen.

 

Hessie Jones

Okay, that’s cool. The other side of this now is on the search side. So on the user perspective, like, we’re saying that these generative AI capabilities will go beyond just someone searching a statement or a keyword. So here’s another thing I want you to respond to. Okay, so “with AI’s ability to understand context and the intent of a search query, it’s likely that the search results will become much more personalized as the algorithm gets to know the individual and shapes its responses accordingly.”

 

Hessie Jones

So it’s talking about an algorithm that knows information about the searcher before they even put in their input. So they could have, and this is from my perspective, more of an ethical issue, they could have your history of buying, they could have your price point tolerances, they would understand some of your previous pain points. And so when the search engine starts to know more about the consumer, the search results are going to be much more refined and narrow to that individual user. And the key thing here is they say that this spells the end to random incidental traffic coming to a specific site. What do you think?

 

Steve Taylor

So I agree that AI can improve the overall results, taking into account factors like previous search history, that preferences provide more relevant, useful results. However, I think it’s just worth understanding that this kind of stuff is just a continual evolution and that people are going to be able to find….

 

Steve Taylor

The thing about personalized results is that the reason why search engines continue to do this is that people tend to connect better with it. And so part of me feels like it’s longing for something that actually isn’t true. I think that search results tend to have been personalized for a long time. Way back, even in 2011, there was a book that came out called The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser. There’s a great Ted Talk that kind of introduces the concept on that. And I think that there’s no course change actually happening. I think this has been going on for a long time and this is just a new iteration of the same thing.

 

Steve Taylor

Where it’ll end up? I think at the end of the day, people generally want to have the answer as fast as possible to whatever question that they have, and that’s the reason why these search engines will continue to go down that path.

 

Steve Taylor

Does that help?

 

Hessie Jones

Yeah, it does. You said to me earlier that you think this is we’re headed to one of the greatest times in history.

 

Steve Taylor

I was referring to is like, when I think back to all the time that was spent working in online marketing and being on the Internet and stuff, I’m more excited. I’m as excited today as I was back in the mid 90s, where I feel that we are in a period of time very similar, where kind of all bets are off to some degree and that there is a ton of opportunity in front of us. Where that’s going to take us? I don’t know. But I really think that the generative AI stuff is really interesting and the fact that we’re leading towards even greater AI. Whenever any kind of technology disrupts, sure, there will be some jobs that are affected, but there’s always a ton of new jobs that never existed before that come out. So I’m not a doom and gloom guy. I really think that there’s going to be some really interesting things that come out of this and it’s just to find a fascinating way that we can now learn more and create more with these tools.

 

Hessie Jones

I agree. I think to your point when we spoke is that it is going to level the playing field somewhat, and especially because ChatGPT is open, the creation of, I guess, ancillary technologies that come out of that, and the fact that everyone has access to this data. I’d say from my perspective right now, it’s a good thing. It’s a good thing so that we don’t give all the powers to big tech, which is a bad thing.

 

Steve Taylor

You think having diversity is good.

 

Hessie Jones

Okay. Very cool. All right. I think we’ve run out of time. I can’t believe how fast time is gone.

 

Steve Taylor

It was a lot of fun.

 

Hessie Jones

Thank you, Steve. Thanks for coming today. And where can people find you?

 

Steve Taylor

I mean, really, my favorite spot to some people is LinkedIn at this point. You can find me at I am Steve Tay.

 

Hessie Jones

Okay.

 

Steve Taylor

I think it’s on my screen there, but yeah, reach out. Happy to answer questions.

 

Hessie Jones

Thank you so much again. Okay, so for our audience, if you have any topics you want us to cover, please email us at communications@ altitudeaccelerator.ca. We are currently accepting applications to our Investor Readiness and Incubator program, so please visit us at our website, altitudeaccelerator.ca. This is Tech Uncensored. I’m Hessie Jones, and until next time, have fun and stay safe

Host Information
Hessie Jones

Hessie Jones is an Author, Strategist, Investor and Data Privacy Practitioner, advocating for human-centred AI, education and the ethical distribution of AI in this era of transformation. 

She currently serves as the Innovations Manager at Altitude Accelerator. She provides the necessary support for Altitude Accelerator’s programs including Incubator and Investor Readiness. She will be the liaison among key stakeholders to provide operational support and ultimately drive founder success. 

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