As someone who has read, and done SEO since the late 90’s, you might think I love SEO. Well, I do like it, but secretly there’s a side of me that despises SEO. Well, let me rephrase that. I despise Google and their monopoly on search.

You know how people say the entry to starting an online business is little to nil? How anyone can just setup a website and compete with the big guys? They’re wrong. They might’ve been right in 2002, even in 2006. But afterwards, Google has just made it incredibly hard to rank for anything substantial, even if you’re following their guidelines.

But do we really need to depend so much on Google to survive?

Recently I’ve been reading a few startup stories and have been noticing a trend. I think we’re close to reaching a point where people might say “You know what? Screw Google (organic and paid). I’m gonna find an easier way.”

One of these startups I’ve been reading about is a very popular social network scheduling application called BufferApp. It’s a consumer app that is targeted towards heavy social media users that need to schedule tweets in the future. A simple feature, but one that is very useful apparently, as it’s used by over 100,000 users.

Where do the majority of their visitors come from? Not SEO – nowhere close. Instead, the Buffer team focused on cultivating relationships with people in the social media industry. They did this through content marketing: writing data-driven blog posts, and sharing them with people who would find that content interesting. They leveraged some of these relationships to reach an even bigger audience by guest blog posting.

Onboardly is another online business that focused on developing relationships. Their co-founder Renee Warren even mentions it as their #1 user acquisition tactic:

The thing with ‘Content Marketing’, to do it right, you need to understand the logistics of PR because 80% of your time is either spent sourcing publications to post your content to or promoting it, so building those relationships is key. Ultimately it is the solid relationships you build that help drive your marketing forward.

Sure you can easily spend millions on advertising, quirky promotions and what not, but – as with many startups and small businesses – cashflow is an issue and allocating those resources to marketing spend is typically not priority. Startout by growing your network, speaking at events/conferences, and getting to know your community (including users, contacts and investors). The best and RIGHT opportunities lie within.

Intuitively, I think most people understand that relationships are incredibly important. For some, it may even be obvious, like enterprise salesmen. But this post is for people building consumer products.

For entrepreneurs in the consumer space, some of us are stuck in this keyword mentality, where we think of our users/customers as keywords we need to target. If we’re building a CRM for real estate salespeople, we’re thinking about ranking and bidding for terms like “real estate CRM”.

But stop and think for a minute: What do we want to achieve? We want to reach salespeople looking to manage their leads. How can we reach those people without relying on Google or any paid advertising? One way is to look at your competition (or similar products in the same vertical), and analyze their Twitter followers. Look at what companies these followers are from. Are there any corporate accounts? Do they have a blog? Can you follow them? Do they live near you? Can you network with them? With some analysis, you can discern who can be a potential customer. From there, you just need to start building relationships.

Of course, the two examples above, Onboardly and BufferApp are both paid subscription products. That’s the luxury of having a product people will pay for. You don’t millions of passive visitors (eyeballs) every month to generate revenue. You don’t need to wait for Google to start ranking you. But if you’re a content publisher 100% reliant on ad-revenue, well.. then you need to keep praying to the Google Gods 🙂

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