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:
- "SEO is king and there are lots of tactics that can get you on the first page of Google." — SEO consultants and agencies
- "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
- "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.
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.
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.
SEO shouldn't be all or nothing. It should be a gradient, a slow progression, that increases with time.
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:
- Technical SEO
- On-page SEO
- Off-page 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 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.
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
There are tons of resources out there. Here are a few free ones:
- 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.
- 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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