Despite what some companies might try and peddle, there is no workable, one-size-fits-all approach to SEO. No two companies have the same budget, goals or expectations. These differences become even more apparent when we compare SEO for startups, SMBs, and enterprise companies.

Startups are desperate to get a business off the ground. SMBs are looking for new ways to grow and expand. Enterprise companies want to dominate their market.

I’m generalizing here, of course. Every business is different – which is why every SEO strategy should be unique – but there are some key differences all SEOs (and businesses considering employing one) should understand if they want to be successful in increasing the organic visibility of a startup, enterprise or SMB website.

SEO for Startups

I would almost never say to a startup “You should invest in SEO.” As a general rule, they have very little to spend and an urgent need for quick wins.

SEO is the opposite of a quick win.

While some tasks can have an impact pretty quickly – certain technical changes, revising title tags, and adding content to thin pages – the impact is usually pretty small.

Success in SEO generally comprises incremental wins – lots of small wins that alone do very little, but together, make a big difference.

This takes time.

More than a year in many cases.

While you will usually see something happening long before a year (take this screenshot of organic growth from a John Doherty case study as an example of what I mean)…

…that “something” isn’t usually enough to sustain and grow a startup.

Bear in mind, however, that this is another generalization.

I’d never tell a startup that’s secured a lot of investment and can afford to wait it out before seeing an ROI not to spend on SEO.

In other cases, a company might be in a low-competition, high-growth sector, in which they can expect to see fast growth for minimal investment.

Calculating a startup’s expected initial ROI can help establish whether SEO is likely to be a wise investment for the company in question.

To do this you’ll need to look at:

  • Which keywords you would potentially target.
  • How much search volume those keywords are getting.
  • How competitive those keywords are.
  • Expected traffic for those keywords, based on where you could reasonably expect the site to rank after a set period of time.
  • The site’s average conversion rate.

You can estimate expected traffic levels by looking at search volume, expected rankings and click spread in the SERPs.

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Let’s run through an example.

At Mailshake our primary target keywords are “cold email” and “cold email tools.” Combined, these keywords see a maximum search volume of around 4500 a month (bear in mind that this is a rough estimate).

If we ranked top for these keywords, roughly 27% of people searching for them would land on our site. That’s 1215 visitors.

Mailshake’s conversion rate – from visitor to paid user – is about 1.5%. That means if we ranked top for “cold email” and “cold email tools” we would expect to get around 18 new customers a month.

Ultimately ranking for these keywords wouldn’t drive any meaningful revenue – and that’s only if we ranked top for them – something we’re unlikely to manage, at least for a while.

But that’s just us. You might be different.

You have to think about what it takes to get there, how long it takes to get there, and what other things you’re sacrificing to do it.

Ultimately, this will determine whether SEO is worth it.

Working with a startup

Even if it turns out SEO is a safe bet for a startup, you still have to be prepared to work with limited budgets and devise a strategy that acknowledges the high risk status of the business.

On the plus side, working with a startup means there’s a good chance you’ll be working directly with the decision maker. This means getting buy-in should be quick and easy – which is critical when the business is literally on the line.

It’s also easier to make a big impact on a new site than one with years of history.

On the downside, that decision maker might be very nervous about their marketing spend and where the money’s going. They might need hand-holding and regular reassurances that they’re getting value-for-money.

You can help alleviate all these issues by favoring low-risk, quick-win tactics.

Focus on building the site’s backlink profile and expanding pages and content.

  • Find unlinked mentions of the company online and approach webmasters to ask them to link.
  • Sign up to HARO and reply to relevant requests offering yourself or a contact at the company as a source.
  • Approach industry sites and ask about contributing a guest post.
  • Help existing pages rank better by writing more detailed copy and enhancing it with relevant images and video.
  • Start blogging, creating content themes to keep ideas fresh.

Key takeaways:

  • Establish whether SEO is really viable for the business – will they see an ROI quickly enough to justify the cost at this time?
  • Prepare to work with a very limited budget.
  • Create a strategy that considers the high risk status of the business – prioritize quick and easy wins. This might include:
    • Chasing up unlinked brand mentions.
    • Leveraging HARO.
    • Guest posting.
    • Enhancing website copy.
    • Beginning to blog.

SEO for SMBs

The point at which a startup can comfortably claim the label “small business” is the point at which I would generally encourage stakeholders to look seriously at the prospect of SEO.

If a medium-sized business isn’t investing in SEO, I’d be asking why, and strongly suggest they start.

As an SEO, I’d encourage you to focus on finding clients (or an employer) at this level. SMBs should be a bit comfier financially than startups. They should also lack the red tape of enterprise companies.

The result is that you enjoy more freedom than you’re likely to get working with either a startup or enterprise company. Once you gain their trust, they may well just leave you to get on with it, and everybody wins.

That said, some of the obstacles that come with working on SEO for startups apply here, too.


When working with an SMB you’ll probably still be restricted by a small budget. Perhaps not as small as a startup’s budget, but do not assume that a bigger business automatically = bigger budget.

Often, startups are desperate to grow – fast. This makes them take risks and means they may spend more on marketing than they can reasonably afford.

SMBs have made it out of this tenuous period. They’re “comfortable” and while they want to grow, they’re not willing to take big financial risks in order to do it.

This means that while your client or employer might be turning over a decent amount of money, you might not see much benefit from this – or at least, you’ll have to prove yourself before you do.


As with startups, you’ll most likely be working with small websites that are difficult to customize. They may have been built using free templates on sites like WordPress and Wix, meaning what you see is pretty much what you get.

If you find yourself in this situation, plugins like Yoast can help you get more from a restrictive CMS.

Technically the website’s probably fine (but to be sure, you should always begin with an audit). What you’re more likely to find is that it lacks quality content. Either most pages have very thin content or the site’s missing pages on key topics.

This means that when working with SMBs a big part of your job is probably going to revolve around targeting new keywords (or targeting current keywords better) by creating new pages.


Another common problem on many sites – particularly SMB websites that have grown without the support of an SEO – is cannibalization.

This is where multiple pages target the same keywords (usually accidentally). It’s a problem because it makes it very difficult for search engines to determine the most relevant page of a site for a particular keyword. The result is that no page ranks as well as it would were competing pages consolidated into one.

Here’s a case in point from Amazon UK, which (when this article was written) had 4 pages competing for the term “42 inch TV.”

This is what I mean by targeting current keywords better. Identify instances of cannibalization (the easiest way to do this is to start tracking keywords using a tool like Advanced Web Ranking) and edit content or consolidate pages accordingly.

Working with an SMB

The first thing you should do when starting to work with an SMB is a website audit. While it’s unlikely you’ll find any huge problems, it’s not impossible, so you should always take the time to check.

There’s also a chance you might uncover issues that when fixed, result in some quick wins.

Next, it’s keyword research. Look for new keyword opportunities and ways to target current keywords better.

Once this is complete, you can map out a strategy for creating new pages and improving current ones.

Around this time, you should also begin link-building. Your strategy here will probably include the same tactics I suggested for startups:

  • Find unlinked mentions of the company.
  • Sign up to HARO.
  • Start guest posting.

Depending on your budget, you may also want to invest in creating and promoting a few pieces of link bait.

You’ll probably want to begin writing blog posts, too (which you may or may not use as link bait).

Last but not least, make more of what you already have by investing in CRO.

Key takeaways:

  • Prepare to work with a relatively small budget.
  • Establish whether the website does what you need it to – if not, where possible, add functionality using plugins like Yoast.
  • Check for technical problems with a site audit.
  • Check for keyword cannibalization and include remedying any instances of it in your strategy.
  • Carry out keyword research.
  • Using the results of this research, map out a strategy for improving current pages and adding new pages. You might want to incorporate your strategy for dealing with cannibalization into this.
  • Begin link-building using quick-win strategies like:
    • Chasing unlinked mentions.
    • HARO.
    • Guest posting.
  • Begin blogging.
  • Consider creating linkbait.
  • Start investing in CRO.

SEO for Enterprise Companies

Big budgets and access to key resources like web developers? What SEO would say no to that?

Unfortunately there’s no guarantee working with an enterprise company is going to play out that way.

Bigger budgets (bigger than you’ll get working with startups and SMBs, anyway) are likely, but far from guaranteed.

And that’s not all. There’s one massive caveat to enterprise SEO:

Red tape.

Lots of red tape.

“Large enterprises sometimes have multiple chains of commands and mountains of red tape that make implementing a cohesive SEO campaign very difficult.” Nick Stamoulis, Brick Marketing

Things will move slowly. Chances are your ideas and your work will have to be signed off on by a number of people.

Expect a lot of back-and-forth and to become invested in ideas which get scrapped before reaching completion.

Working with an enterprise company

When starting out with an enterprise company there are a few things you can do, before beginning any actual work, that will help make your life easier down the line.

Those people that are going to want to view and approve your work? Find out who they are and try to get them on your side ASAP.

Set up a face-to-face meeting and use this time to get them invested in your work and excited about your plans.

When you start working on the site, aim to show stakeholders a win as early as possible. This will get them on board with the next thing you want to do.

A website audit can help you do this.

An enterprise website will have a lot of history. It will have changed over time and with it, technical issues will (most likely) have surfaced. This is good. Identify them and fix them, and you can secure yourself some quick wins.

On the other hand, a site with history probably has lots of content and quite a few links pointing at it. This means your work might result in only very small increases in traffic – even if, say, a content piece goes viral.

This is where incremental wins really come into play. An enterprise company is not going to see much impact from a single activity. They need lots of wins which add up over time to boost rankings and traffic.

The most important thing is to choose the right things to work on. Figure out the least difficult tasks you can complete – not just in terms of your own abilities, but in terms of what tasks it will be easiest to get stakeholders to buy into.

Exactly what these tasks will be I can’t tell you. Put the feelers out in meetings. Pay attention to what gets stakeholders interested, and what makes their eyes glaze over. If they start contributing their own ideas, you’re onto something (this is because it’s far easier to get someone to say “yes” when they think the idea is their own).

“If you want someone else to completely believe in your idea, you must make them believe that it was their own idea all along.Vivian Giang, discussing Douglas Van Praet in Business Insider

It won’t hurt to learn some other tricks for getting people to say “yes,” either.

Again, last but not least, incorporate CRO into your work – it has the potential to result in big wins regardless of the site’s history.

Key takeaways:

  • Prepare to be held up and restricted by red tape.
  • Figure out who you’ll be answering to and get them on your side ASAP.
  • Aim to show stakeholders a win as early as possible.
  • Carry out a site audit and get fixes implemented ASAP – this often results in a quick win.
  • Understand that few things you do will have a huge impact on an old domain. Focus on incremental wins, instead.
  • Prioritize tasks according to how easy they are to complete – not just in terms of your abilities, but how easily you can get stakeholders to buy into them.
  • Start investing in CRO.

What are your experiences working with startups, SMBs or enterprise companies? What problems have you encountered and how did you overcome them? Comments are below if you have a moment to share your story:

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