The Lean Startup for SEO

The hard part about SEO is that there are too many unknowns. Traffic patterns, changes with Google, and errors on your site create uncertainty. And uncertainty is something that you can’t measure. If you can’t measure it, you’re not going to improve site traffic.

The solution? Treat your website like a science experiment.

The Lean Startup Concept

The concept of how to handle uncertainty on your site traffic comes right out of the book “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries. Ries’ book talks about how to handle uncertainty in business. By pretending to know what they don’t know, many business people fail to see the dangers around their business before it’s too late to react.

In a Lean Startup business, according to Ries, managers don’t forecast far out based on guesses. AKA, no huge business plans. Instead, they create a “minimal viable product” that tests their business assumptions and creates a baseline from which to measure. They then track their assumptions to either validate that they’re on the right path or use that experience to “pivot” their business into a new direction.

The key is rigorous and repeated experimentation with your assumptions. If your assumptions survive, then you’re on the right track.

Building the right SEO path is similar. By aligning your site against a base set of SEO keywords first, you can gain that same baseline from which to compare. You’re then building traffic with real data as a guide. It’s the Lean Startup for SEO.

Creating Your Base

The trick to start your experimentation is finding a good base of keywords to work from. This is especially true if you have a new site or have a site where Google Analytics was never installed.

Start first with keywords in your industry. A search of literature within your industry will help, but you can also just ask your customers “how did you find us”? Pin down those two to three word phrases that prospective customers might use to find a business like yours.

For instance, if you’re a tailor in a medium-sized town and you want to attract high school students going to the prom, see what your competition would use. Are they using “Plus Sized Prom Dresses” or “Custom Prom Dresses” or “Unique Prom Outfit”.

Your First Experiment

Yes, this process is based on assumptions. But once you have a list of phrases (say, 10), go to Google’s Keyword Planner tool and start to test. The tool is at

You’ll need an account, but once in, you’ll use the planning tool to estimate traffic for those keyword choices.

To do this, go to the menu bar and navigate to the “Tools and Analysis” | “Keyword Planner” to open up the planning tool. From the tool, click “Search for New Keyword and Ad Group Ideas”. The tool will ask you for your project or service information, your website and for other details. Fill it in and submit.

Once in the tool, you’ll see two tabs: “Ad Groups” and “Keyword Ideas”. Go to the “Keywords” tab and compare your keyword list with what Google picks out.

Google Adwords Keywords Tool

Do you see your keywords? If so, look for that sweet spot where there is low to medium competition but decent traffic. Traffic will be under the heading “Avg. Monthly Searches” and the “Competition” heading classifies either “Low”, “Medium” or “High” competition.

The goal is to find keywords where there is significant traffic but unexploited by your competition.

If you don’t see your keywords, click the “Modify Search” button to the far right and then enter your keywords previously chosen in the field. You’ll see that same table of search volume and competition, but against the list you previously selected.

Select the top 5 phrases that look the most promising.

Endless Experimentation

This is where the “Lean Startup for SEO” concept kicks in.

Just because Google validated some of your keyword choices doesn’t mean your keywords are right. It only means that your keywords are your best assumptions. Keyword success only matters when it drives traffic, just like a business plan only matters when it drives sales.

You now have to align your site against those keywords and start to measure your success or failure. This means rewriting content, adjusting headlines and tweaking photos, among other things.

However, what you now have are a set of five separate “experiments” that you will use to test your assumptions. If the keywords generate traffic, the experiment continues. If the phrase doesn’t generate traffic, then you need to change the way you are aligning your site to support that phrase or “pivot” and find a new set of keywords.

There is no end. There is only more experimentation.