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SEO is a waste of time for (most) indie hackers

Most indie hackers are pre-validation. And IMO, that means most of us shouldn't even be touching SEO… yet.

That said, I've been noodling on this for a while and, despite having a decent amount of SEO experience, I wasn't sure if my anti-SEO hunch was right. So I did some digging.

Google gave me the usual "SEO is the only thing that matters" articles (written by SEO companies, surprise surprise). But diving into what actual indie hackers were saying gave me some gold. Here's what I've found.


Does SEO work for indie hackers?

From what I can see, there are three schools of thought here:

  1. "SEO is king and there are lots of tactics that can get you on the first page of Google." — SEO consultants and agencies
  2. "SEO is essential, but you should just set up your site and write quality content for humans." — Indie hackers who have had success with SEO
  3. "SEO is dead for indie hackers. Google is being gamed by the big dogs." Indie hackers who invested resources into SEO and got the short end of the stick.

And after reading through all their arguments, my TL;DR take is this:

Do SEO, but not until after your product is validated — like, money-in-your-pocket validated. Then increase SEO efforts a little bit at every stage of growth.

When SEO doesn't work for indie hackers

SEO is a bad idea for indie hackers if they are A. Unvalidated, or B. Overextended.

Unvalidated products

Don't waste time on SEO if you haven't validated your product. Most product ideas do not get validated, so why spend time improving SEO on something that probably won't go beyond an MVP?

If you are validating correctly, then it shouldn't take long at all for you to get that validation (or not get it). Even if you think SEO needs to be started immediately, as I've seen so many people stress, it can surely wait a couple of months for your MVP to hit the market and get some validation data.

I did see one or two people who disagreed with this, but on the whole, I think this should be a pretty easy pill to swallow. Initial effort should be spent on building and releasing your MVP. Period.

Overextended founders

As far as being overextended, here's what I mean. The time and money you have available will increase over the course of the product life-cycle. Money can purchase SEO services or create more time (via outsourcing, etc.). And time means that you can do more SEO or make more money. So don't overextend yourself… Wait until you have more time or money, then spend it on SEO.

Brass tacks

SEO shouldn't be all or nothing. It should be a gradient, a slow progression, that increases with time.

SEO Basics

So if we agree that SEO is worthwhile once your product is validated, then it's important to dig into SEO a little deeper. I'll cover the basics. Resources to go deeper will be included at the end.

There are three fundamental parts of SEO:

  1. Technical SEO
  2. On-page SEO
  3. Off-page SEO

Technical SEO

Technical SEO is about allowing search engines to find, crawl, render, and index your webpages. Post-MVP, it's important to get your technical SEO right. Not before, IMO.

There is a ton you can do with technical SEO, but here are some high-leverage items to get you started:

  • XML sitemap: Your sitemap is a map for crawlers. Format it in an XML doc, and make sure you're following the sitemap protocol. Then submit it to Google Search Console.
  • Schema markup: This is how you can help search engines to understand your content. It also helps your site stand out — check out Google's search features and the schema needed for them.
  • SSL certificate: This is pretty obvious, but use https instead of http.
  • Check your indexing: If a page can't be indexed, fix it. Ahrefs has a free site-audit tool which includes an "indexability report". You can also check your robots.txt file and look for "Disallow: /".
  • Check for broken links: Broken links tend to happen on older sites, but it's still worth checking. Drlinkcheck.com can give you a report.
  • Core Web Vitals: Check your load-time with Google's PageSpeed tool. If it's slow, optimize it. And keep an eye on general usability for site visitors too.
  • Mobile-friendly: This is another common sense one, but it bears mentioning.
  • Internal linking: This can happen between blog posts, or it can be more structural (i.e. links between hierarchical pages).

On-page SEO

On-page SEO is about creating content that will rank in the search engine results pages (SERP). It's what most people think of when it comes to SEO. While the technical SEO is a one-time (plus frequent audits and optimization) type of thing, this needs to be done for every new page.

Here are the big ones:

  • Keyword research: Keyword research sometimes gets a bad rap because it is associated with keyword stuffing. Don't pack keywords into a post just for the sake of having keywords. But do allow keyword research to inform your choices of what to write about. As an indie hacker with (probably) a low domain rating, you'll want to go for low-competition keywords with high search intent — visitors should be searching for the answer you're providing, and they should be in your target market. In other words, it's all about long-tail keywords. I always use Ahrefs, but there are a ton of very similar products out there — Moz, SEMrush, etc. I also find the free Answer The Public tool super helpful for finding related keywords. I've done a lot of keyword research in my day, and it takes time to get a real feel for it… and even then, you'll often be surprised by what works and what doesn't. Google's algo is a fickle and mysterious beast.
  • Heading tags: Get your heading tags right. There should only be one H1, and it should be the title. This will be displayed in the SERP. So yeah, it's pretty important. Ahref's site audit that I linked above can help you find missing H1 tags. H2 and beyond are a hierarchy of subheaders that make content more skimmable. Ease of reading is key in SEO.
  • Optimize meta titles and meta descriptions: These are HTML elements that will be displayed in the SERP. Make them easy to read, include keywords, and keep them short (>60 and >155 characters, respectively). For more info, head here.
  • Image optimization: Use descriptive filenames and alt text. And compress images for faster load times.
  • SEO-friendly URLs: Use the page title of the slug (minus special characters, numbers, etc.), use dashes instead of spaces, and try to have a solid keyword in it.

ABOVE ALL: Create quality, helpful content that people actually want to read.

Off-page SEO

This is about ranking factors that are not directly under your control — mostly backlinks. Here are the basics

  • Backlinks: This is the most important part of off-page SEO. Getting backlinks. Trading backlinks is a little sketchy, but there are ways to get backlinks — namely, providing value. Whether it be through providing expertise on HARO, broken link building, or simply getting your quality blog post seen by the right people. Getting linked to from a website with a high domain rating gets you that sweet, sweet link juice and can have a big impact on your own domain rating (and SERP rankings). Relevance also matters. Make sure they're "dofollow" links.
  • Traffic: You can also increase traffic through brand-building activities. This will, in turn, help your rankings.
  • Pretty much anything else that will improve search ranking: Guest blogging, being a podcast guest, social media, and honestly most of the other marketing practices you're already doing — they're all (at least indirectly) off-page SEO.

SEO by business stage

For our purposes, I'll just break it down into three stages

  • Pre-validation: No SEO
  • Early revenue: Do technical SEO first, then onpage but not a crazy amount.
  • Mature revenue: Onpage and offpage

SEO resources

There are tons of resources out there. Here are a few free ones:

Courses:

  • SEO Training by Eric Schwartzman: Learn about SEO basics, the best SEO strategies, and integrating SEO with other marketing activities,
  • SEO Training Course by Ahrefs: SEO training for beginners. Learn about basics like keyword research, on-page SEO, and link building.
  • SEO Training Course by Moz: SEO tips and tricks by another trusted name in SEO.
  • SEO Training Certification Course by HubSpot: An intro course that covers website optimization, link building, keyword research, etc. Comes with a certification.
  • Blogging for business: I took this one when I was trying to figure out SEO and it was pretty helpful. It teaches you how to write articles that convert, with an emphasis on SEO. It's also a good primer on how to use Ahrefs, if that's your tool of choice.

Newsletters:

  • Growth Memo: @Kevin_Indig's newsletter on SEO and growth. I'm a subscriber. Lots of thorough write-ups and case studies. Free.
  • SEO Notebook: Tons of great tips, strategies, and tricks from Steve Toth and other experts. I've been a subscriber since I first got into SEO and every email has had some really solid information in it. Free.
  • Ross Simmonds: Essays on how successful businesses do what they do by @thecoolestcool and his team. Really great long-form writeups. I'm a very happy subscriber. Free.
  • Ahrefs Weekly Digest: Weekly articles from their blog (and elsewhere). I've found some real gems here. Free.
  • The weekly SEO: SEO articles curated for you each week. I'm a subscriber and it's pretty good but I haven't personally found it very actionable. Free.
  • #SEOFOMO: Top SEO news and resources delivered to your inbox. I'm a subscriber and it comes highly recommended by experts. Free.

What indie hackers are saying

I'll wrap up with a few comments that I think summed up the argument pretty nicely.

@hansvangent thinks it's necessary to start SEO before you even have an MVP:

You’re forgetting that with SEO a lot of it, is compounding interest. It is little steps, repeated for a long time, and there are so many different aspects to it.

So yes, I would set aside time now for it, every week, or otherwise, you will be paying to play for the rest of your life.

I get it, it's easy to calculate that if you put one dollar in ads you get X dollars back. But you still need to spend it.

You don't need to create millions of blog posts, start with making sure your site is technically solid, that it loads blazingly fast, and then start adding content...

But according to @martid:

…Especially when starting, it's a cost of opportunity. What will bring the biggest ROI. The money that will come from SEO is at least 6-12 months away. If you focus on direct sales, it could be 0-2 months away. You can use that money to grow further, using Ads, Promotions, set up affiliate campaigns. Pay for influencer campaigns. Partner offer bundles with entrepreneurs in the same space.

I'm not saying SEO is a total waste of time and money. It has value. But it's not worth the hype everyone gives to it. If you have the resources for content creation and marketing, fine, go for it.

But not before you've marketed and validated your product. Not before you have resources to dedicate to it. Not before you've grown your social media presence and interacted a lot with your users.

@Askedo agrees, but he uses that to his advantage:

My business is entirely built on SEO. SEO is a long-term strategy. You need to think 1-2 years ahead in terms of your time investment. So, if you are looking to get customers tomorrow then SEO is not your friend.

And, this is actually good news (!) since many companies are not patient enough for this. This makes SEO an open field for anyone willing to invest long-term.

I do evergreen content, and stay away from anything that doesn't age well on my site…

And finally, the venerable @zerotousers made a couple of great points:

...So if you want to focus on SEO & acquiring users at the same time, my recommendation is to focus on channels where the direct result is a) getting potential users, and the indirect result is b) getting valuable links which would cause Google to rank you higher for more relevant phrases. Some of these channels include (as I previously mentioned): press, posting on other blogs (with relevant traffic), getting included in resource pages (more on this later), etc.

Also, you're making one big assumption by focusing on SEO: You think that search traffic will bring you paying users. Are you sure about this? One way to test this assumption is to spend some money on Google Ads…


What did I miss? Let me know your thoughts!


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  1. 1

    Great post! As an indie hacker you can quickly check your sites SEO via www.serpmaze.com . It will give recommendations on what you should optimize

  2. 7

    Cool post!

    As someone who works in a marketing agency as an SEO specialist, I saw a few types of companies/individuals:

    • Ones that never cared about SEO and just wrote generic content to their blog
    • Ones who care about SEO but never really knew how to do it right
    • Ones who care about SEO and have done it from day one and knew what they are doing

    The companies/individuals that cared about SEO and did it from day one had much better traffic and lead flow.

    I work mostly with SaaS companies, and I know that indie hackers' SEO is different, but I think the fundamental reasons behind it are the same.

    Indie hackers need to think on the long run. You can be very creative now, write viral articles, bring leads using growth hacks, and have a spike of traffic to your site. But at one point, it will fade, and you'll need to use your creativity again, turning the entire indie hacker life more like survival mode.

    SEO might be slow and time-consuming, but it's a method you can count on in the long run if done right.

    I recently published a SaaS SEO guide that can give useful insights for anyone who cares about SEO:

    https://growtika.com/saas-seo/

    1. 1

      WOW!
      your guide is really complete :-)
      thx for sharing

    2. 2

      Thanks for weighing in!

  3. 5

    Great guide! I like to think about SEO as our base camp. As soon as the product is validated we cover the keywords we believe we can rank for in 3-6 months.

    Then we focus on doing things that don't scale. Going on LI and connecting with potential users and listening to them, answering questions on Reddit and listening to relevant conversations, and the same on Quora. And plugging our SEO pages when it makes sense.

    Of course, every product is different but most of them can benefit from a "little bit of SEO" which plays the role of connecting all other growth activities and making them multiply.

    It's also easy to turn SEO-based LPs / blogs into videos and TikTok. You've already done your research :)

    btw. for the use case above - we've decided to build a side project so we can jump into every relevant conversion on Reddit. It's called Surfkey and it sends you a notification every time someone mentions a relevant keyword. Great for early-stage growth as well as learning about the problem space.

    1. 1

      Yep, that's solid advice.

  4. 4

    Hey James,
    this is maybe THE BEST summary of what SEO is and at which stage to use it, that I have read, like EVER! Posts from any SEO "gurus" included.

    I wanted to thank you for putting this awesome guide together! This is really helpful to SEO newbies and anyone trying to better understand the different aspects!

    Personally, I might be biased about the effectiveness of SEO as I have developed https://vispr.net which is a SEO WordPress plugin that solves SEO with do-follow backlinks through UNIQUE ready-made partner directory pages.

    As most Indiehackers will not even use WordPress for their projects, this might not be a working solution for most people here, but as someone intimate with SEO I still need to second everything James says here.

    SEO makes NO SENSE if done too early!

    SEO is a long-term game and you should NEVER expect immediate results. If you need to evaluate your project quickly, either use community feedback of your perfect target audience or use a limited budget for paid ads to verify interest in what you are doing.

    As you mentioned context is super important. If there is nothing to relate to, even backlinks may run into a dead end.

    Something that most people and SEO newbies do not realize is that the main purpose of the Google Search is to END the search asap and find the best solution to the query. Which means, that generic and broad keywords that address a general topic are completely useless.

    But most people are using generic keywords that do not describe their product or offer a solution. Even worse, if you do this, then you need to compete with everyone else using the same (limited) keywords. Instead use long-tail search phrases as keywords and you are seeing better results.

    Compare for yourself and think about what might get you better results:

    "Fitness"
    vs.
    "Nike Dry-Fit muscle shirt for male athletes black size XL"

    Always think about what people are actually searching for that your service or product would be able to fix or provide.

    Hope this adds some value to this great post from James :)

    1. 1

      Thanks! And great points, I appreciate the input.

  5. 3

    Loved reading this interesting article. Useful SEO guide for founders both in the pre-validation phase as well as the post-validation stage.

    1. 1

      Glad you enjoyed it!

  6. 3

    Useful article, thanks! Everything is said correctly.

  7. 2

    @IndieJames this is.. a gold mine ! Thank you :)

  8. 2

    Another terrific post of @IndieJames! Totally agree with @FakeScouts, can't say it any better: it is the best SEO summary, especially for newbies. It covers everything a newbie needs to know:-) Thank you James!

    1. 2

      Thanks! Glad you found some value in it 😃

  9. 2

    If you're an indie hacker, chances are you're not getting much ROI from SEO.

    Learn why and what you can do instead.

  10. 2

    Valuable article. Thought-provoking. Lots of insight. Thanks for sharing a valuable, thought-provoking, and insightful article.

  11. 2

    I agree with this 100% here's why:

    • If you're going to build something for at least a year because you have see signs of PMF, you need to start thinking about SEO early on because you will see benefits towards the end of your period:

    now this doesn't mean you have to start hunting for backlinks but there are some very "cheap" SEO on-page tactics that you should ALWAYS respect.

    • Not putting SEO in your tactical pocket means that if you keep working on your product and you're getting traction from customers/word of mouth/direct sales....you're going to regret it!

    however like the author James says, if you have just barely started and are still looking for a minimal sign of PMF then you might use your LIMITED resources wisely elsewhere!

    I fear that most people WASTE their time doing this: I truly believe the biggest problem is that people validate a problem for WAY too much time and not LEANly enough, then realize that they don't have anything.

    They end up SAD with a domain name, 5 newsletters signups, 15 twitter followers and a $200 Webflow bill.

  12. 1

    post full of precious information
    love it!!!
    continue sharing this with us

  13. 1

    Hey great post!

    I really think you nailed down the broad strokes approach without getting too far into the nuance of SEO.

    I wanted to add my two cents for what its worth, I head up the Search/SEO division at my agency and have seen the pitfalls of companies and individuals invest in SEO too early.

    Talking to the early stage start ups or people bootstrapping; the only single thing you need once your website is live is to make sure that you rank first for your brand name. Every other marketing channel is better than SEO 90% of the time if you can achieve this.

    This solves a few issues:

    1. If you rank for your brand name your technical SEO is usually good enough, the foundations are there to build on this later
    2. People won't find you early through generic search terms, you're not yet a major player in your category so why should you rank for broad terms. Build the brand/product first
    3. Eliminate an option. SEO is a shiny object and your time/money/energy is better served on other growth channels. Know that if you rank for your brand, people can find you.

    Great post, I see too many fall for this trap early on and it's hard to watch. I hope some people take your advice and it steers them on the right path

  14. 1

    I have been debating whether or not to start adding blog post content for the product I am building. Haven't launched yet. And this was super helpful.

  15. 1

    SEO is one of most beneficial marketing way . Its hard but if you are on right track . It will give you high boost.

  16. 1

    First thing I read being on this site, I'm flabbergasted at the amount of value I just got, thank you :)

  17. 1

    I think this approach is bang on.

    Until a product is validated, has some degree of product-market fit, investing heavily in SEO is a bad idea.

    Also, before you get to SEO, you're much better focusing on activities that will generate word of mouth and inbound links, such as thought leadership, more viral / shareable content, and maybe some limited PR.

    Once your have some kind of baseline domain authority and confidence in you product, then you're ready to invest in SEO.

    Context: I do content marketing at PostHog. We only started investing in SEO seriously since I joined in Jan – a good year or so after the business started. Before I joined, the founders had invested some time into outreach and viral content, getting stuff on Hacker News etc., which made my job growing organic SEO so much easier.

  18. 1

    When the context is SEO. My perception:

    1. Take care of technical and on-page SEO.

    2. SEO is a game of time and quality. If anyone continuously gives quality content for a long time. If possible to get a good rank on search engines.

    3. There are more than 200 factors on Google to get a rank on the first page(According to expert opinions, Google does not publish SEO factors officially ).

    4. Make content for humans, not for search engines. Great content automatically covers search engine factors.

    5. There are many spammers and spam agencies in the SEO industry. Be careful about these. Don't lose your money, time, and brand reputation.

    1. 1

      👍 Thanks for weighing in!

  19. 1

    Valuable article, with some great SEO resources!

    I think the use of (early) SEO strategy as an indie maker greatly depends on what sort of product you are creating and most importantly how comfortable you are, as an individual, with all the various ways of promoting your product. Engineering-as-marketing can be a great way for Technical Founders to generate valuable traffic and potential customers at a low cost, and it happens to mostly rely on backlinks and SEO.

  20. 1

    Thanks for the insights. Do you think all off-page SEO needs to be organic, IE your own blog? Or should you be trying to get blog posts put elsewhere?

  21. 1

    i am agreed with you but not totally i have worked with a SEO agency(https://www.taskade.com/templates) for a year in the begining i found it on the top but after some time as new things introduced it become slower and slower it does not mean that seo is dead it means you have to update your self according to new updates.

  22. 1

    Very well said. My product is in the validation stage and I will only be spending money on SEO when I get some paying users.

    1. 2

      Good plan :) And good luck validating it!

  23. 1

    Should one work on SEO if product is launched in semi-saturated or saturated market? In case of semi-saturated or saturated market you already know that there is a need for your software/tool in market. So in that scenario can we skip PMF step?? Any thoughts?

    1. 2

      Interesting point. In that scenario, I am assuming you're niching down hard, correct? If not, I'd suggest doing so, as that's probably the best way to get a foothold in a saturated market. If so, then you may still need to validate that your product will work in that niche — one of the big companies having a toe in your niche doesn't validate your product IMO. The only scenario where validation might not be necessary is if there is a small company doing extremely well, specifically in your niche, and your feature set matches theirs almost exactly. Otherwise, I'd still suggest validating first and waiting on SEO until you have some paying customers. But that's just me. 🤷‍♂️

  24. 1

    Such a great post. SEO is important, but it's definitely not a must and really depends factors like your passion for writing, industry content standards etc...

  25. 1

    Great post @IndieJames. Nice to get some thoughts from other indie hackers.

    I come from an SEO background and have been doing SEO for 7 years, so I am biased. However, I strongly believe that even if SEO isn't your main channel and you don't intend on it being your main channel, you should cover all of the SEO best practices from the get go as they're the stepping stones to just having a solid website for your guests/users.

    When a business is in its earliest stages, having a speedy, secure and easy to use website is going to make it much easier to acquire new users.

    Adding a sneaky plug here, as again I am biased, my business "Validation Run" (https://validation.run) helps with the validation stage of any business, product or campaign by measuring the activity of real people as they search and evaluate your proposed ideas. Along the way we're able to identify the best performing channel for you in the process.

  26. 1

    Validating your idea before/without doing SEO might work for some ideas (SaaS, services, etc.) and might not work for others (Job boards, blogs, content driven) which heavily depend on traffic.

  27. 1

    Excellent post. I specialize in the business of expertise because I think it's a great low-risk stepping stone.

    In that neck of the woods I'd even go so far as to say, don't worry about SEO at all.

    Do a little bit so the people that wanna find you can find you. But that's it.

    The reason why is that you don't want to be one of the options of the consideration set in an environment of perfect competition. [1]

    What you want is unfairness and being in a situation where there is no competition. I.e. your brand equity (the premium people pay for your brand over the generic alternative. this is not the formal definition obviously.) should be through the roof.

    So the situation you really should be in is not potential customers googling "positioning for indie hackers" but your name / product / service.

    NOTES

    [1] Perfect competition occurs when all available options in the consideration set are interchangeable according to the perception of the consumer, thus choices mostly get determined by price. As a result, profits get competed away until they reach a stable Nash equilibrium. This is why mainstream economists (and marxists) love them so much. 1. They're easy to model. and 2. You end up with a consumer surplus situation which means the willingness to pay (how much a consumer would pay) is higher than the actual price.)

  28. 1

    This seems interesting, thanks for sharing!

  29. 1

    SEO is a waste of time - most indie hackers don't need it to succeed.

  30. 1

    Absolutely amazing post and I have to say I agree with a lot of it even though I own a SEO startup. I just think that SEO shouldn't be the main focus which is why I started my startup in the first place. We just created an AI called QwickSEO that automates everything so people can focus on other things.

  31. 1

    This is a new perspective. Thanks for sharing

  32. 1

    Is there any startup want to test your MVP?
    Let me do it for free. How can I help you?

  33. 1

    But for new SaaS or websites, SEO may be an excellent choice to grow them. So many people will search for keywords to find something they need.

  34. 1

    what do you think about using tik tok or other forms of marketing?

    1. 1

      It's important to get the word out about your MVP somehow, so I'd do it on whatever platform you already have some kind of following on. Twitter is a pretty common one. I don't use Tiktok but I know a lot of people swear by it. I'm definitely not saying you shouldn't do any marketing... just that SEO is best saved for later.

  35. 1

    I agree, seems to be like the future is: short video viral content + websites + community.

    Though, TikTok is investing in SEO, so it'd be nice to instead of investing in SEO for your website, best to do it through TikTok!

  36. 1

    I always found that by writing SEO is a channel that you can exploit if you need it.

    If you are planning on creating a content-heavy business, SEO can be a very useful tool. If not, there are other channels like using referral recommendations and QR codes.

  37. 1

    Agree with the exception of you should make sure your technicals are 100%. Wasted time and money on SEO for competitive KWs. Wish I didnt focus on SEO as a strategy, but... I am happy how well my site performs when I do add new content.

  38. 1

    Thanks for this write up! It was a helpful summary for an SEO noob like myself and I appreciate the point of view on when to invest in it.

  39. 1

    @IndieJames, I appreciate the shoutout!

    BTW, I moved Growth Memo to a new address: kevin-indig.com

    1. 1

      My pleasure, it's good stuff. Updated - thanks for letting me know.

  40. 1

    Totally disagree. SEO needs to start as soon as you have a domain. It takes a few months to start working, yes... but if you don't start now, you won't have the traffic when you need it.

    1. 2

      Really? I'm with the OP. Don't waste time on traffic. Use your network, social media, etc. to sell it first. If it works, then invest in SEO. I've had so many domains for products that went nowhere... doing SEO would have been a huge waste of time 😅

  41. 0

    SEO is one of the most powerful weapon if any person know how to use it. http://axolotlsquishmallow.com

  42. -1

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