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How Online Startups Can Build Audiences on the Cheap

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Last week, prominent investors CHirs Dixon and Sarah Tavel declared in blog posts that two marketing tactics favored by many startups — search engine optimization and viral promotion via Facebook — were no longer viable. Investor and Hunch co-founder Dixon said he hasn’t seen any startups gain traction through SEO since 2008. The arms race between Google and the “black-hat” optimizers that build link farms and content farms makes SEO ineffective and expensive. Building off Dixon’s argument, Bessemer Venture Partners’ Tavel said she thought Facebook’s viral efficacy had been severely diminished.

The real truth is that both remain effective but neither is free, and never was. So let’s examine how a startup making consumer apps or online services can get that much-coveted first million or two users as cheaply as possible.

SEO never was free. Big companies spend thousands of dollars on optimization tools (e.g., BrightEdge, Covario, SEOmoz, Yield Software) and search specialist agencies like iCrossing and 360i. These tools and services help companies with tagging and linking, making their content and apps more discoverable and indexable by search engines. But more importantly, SEO still works.

Search guru Danny Sullivan advises multiple marketing tactics, and says he sees SEO working for plenty of companies. His own relatively new content site gets 20 percent to 40 percent of its traffic from search. Q&A sites like Quora and Stack Overflow have grown primarily through search and word of mouth. In this interview, Stack CEO Joel Spolsky concedes his sites’ user interface is so bad he depends on Google as his front end.

Likewise, while it’s true that Facebook has clamped down on free promotions, the biggest Facebook success story wasn’t built on free viral tactics. Social commerce giant Groupon’s president Rob Solomon told me in an interview that Groupon didn’t do much SEO. It bought some paid listings and display ads from Google, but most of its marketing budget went for Facebook advertising. Along with SEO, most consumer startups should continue to use Facebook, but expect to spend some marketing dollars there.

Of course, there are plenty of other tactics to consider when building an online audience. To see more, read my weekly update at GigaOM Pro.

Image courtesy of flickr user loop_oh

14 Responses to “How Online Startups Can Build Audiences on the Cheap”

  1. In all seriousness, since about 2008, I found ALL new startups here on GigaOM. There’s no other popular site on the wild wild web that’s so devoted to them.

  2. Hi again David,

    For proof of what I just said, about Web CEO being a major SEO player, you don’t have to just do Google searches for various keywords (which is obviously more relevant in this industry than any other): you can go to and see how many people visit per month compared to those who visit the sites of the companies you mentioned. 44,000 unique visitors per month have resulted in ~800,000 downloads of the desktop SEO software. The mistake that resulted in our being left out of that Forrester report shouldn’t have to cascade into the reports of major tech blogs like GigaOm. Please consider this when editing this article or writing others.

  3. David,

    Why would you mention BrightEdge, Covario, SEOmoz, etc without also mentioning the leader in the field at least in terms of desktop software as opposed to cloud-based software: Web CEO (which also now has a great cloud-based version)?

    If you do a Google search for “SEO Software”, none of the companies you mentioned appear in the top 5.

    Are you implying that great SEO software shouldn’t help point search engines to itself? Is that supposed to be irrelevant now, even when talking about SEO software itself?

    That Forrester report was paid for wasn’t it? Are you really reporting only on companies that paid to be considered in such a report? That isn’t remotely fair.

  4. Wut a useless posting. A bait switch article… tell us that SEO and facebook don’t work, then concede they kinda do but cost money, and offer no alternatives. Just repeating what others have said below. Officially my last visit to ‘gigaom . com’ :s

  5. This is a highly debated subject and, after researching the subject thoroughly, I completely agree with you that SEO is still a valuable practice for startups. Despite the fact that Google’s algorithms trust older domains and are suspicious of newer sites, startups can still reap all the benefits of SEO without breaking their banks to hire an SEO consultant. Unique, engaging and keyword rich content that naturally attracts links is still king for SEO. Startups can write good content quite inexpensively through blogging, for example. The key is to set goals early, whether they be sales, users, awareness or engagement. If you’re interested in learning more, I recently wrote a post on this subject:

  6. This is an empty posting. It claims it will tell us how startup can build an audience on the cheap. It has no real advice here.

    Om: I select blogs on density, not volume. This article is a fail.

  7. As the article doesn’t come with many suggestions, let me add one (although I’m a bit biased :)
    Adding your own Q&A section to your site is a great way to get easy organic traffic and also building up a community.
    My company offers a SaaS solution for that called Answerbase ( and you can set your Q&A site up within minutes and test it out in our 30 days free trial.
    Some of our clients have received a quite remarkable organic traffic return on that.