One of the exciting early milestones for every startup is launching your first website. That moment when you announce your company to the world. You want to make a great first impression, but it's easy to get carried away and spend weeks on it (when you really need to get back to building your product and generating early revenue). By leveraging today's SaaS services, you can launch an analytics-ready, SEO-optimized website in 48 hours.
Start with the Foundation
First, you need to build the foundation for your website. Unless you're immediately launching a self-service SaaS product, you don't need a super-specialized infrastructure that can scale to billions of visits per second. And you don't need a one-of-a-kind design that will immediately go viral and be on the top of every "best startup website" list. You need to launch a solid website that meets your immediate goals (like getting beta signups or attracting potential recruits) as quickly as possible, so you can get back to work.
In 2006, I built Aster Data's first website (the sole purpose of which was to look cool to potential recruits) in a few hours using iWeb:
Despite it's relatively basic appearance (even by 2006 standards!), the website served its purpose and stayed virtually unchanged for more than two years, until we came out of stealth mode in mid-2008. (As for its effectiveness, Aster Data was acquired by Teradata in 2011 for $263M.)
We'll start by building your new website's foundation in four steps:
- Choose a Platform
- Choose a Hosting Provider
- Choose a Template
- Get the Content
1. Choose a Platform
The first thing you need to do is pick a platform. If your goal is to have an analytics-ready, SEO-optimized website (which it should be!), then you should use Wordpress. Period.
While there are a number of other platforms that are great for quickly launching websites (I use SquareSpace for several small personal sites, for example), when it comes to the availability of plugins for SEO-optimization and data analytics, nothing else comes close. Add to that the fact that you can customize virtually any part of it (which can be crucial for both optimization and long-term scalability), and it’s a no-brainer.
2. Choose a Hosting Provider
It used to be that choosing a hosting provider was a matter of finding the cheapest one you could. Now, search engines take website performance into account in their rankings, so cheapest isn’t always best.
Since our goal is to have an SEO-optimized website in under 48 hours, we also don’t want to waste time configuring and tinkering to get everything working (as much as we might like doing that :) ). There are several hosting providers that specialize in Wordpress hosting, meaning that you can deploy a new Wordpress-based website with a press of a button. The best of these also have built-in caching systems and tie-ins to CDNs, so they can deliver significantly higher website performance out of the box.
My personal preference is Pantheon, which in addition to push-button deployment of Wordpress includes automatic edge caching, daily backups, and an impressively simple, yet powerful, deployment model that includes integration with Git.
3. Choose a Template
Dirty little secret of websites: almost none of them are built from scratch.
Today, there are an impressive number of Wordpress templates that can be heavily customized, so you can quickly and easily create a website that looks like you hired a team of professional designers (when all you did was edit a config file). And if you happen to have a talented designer like Gail Yui on your team, she can focus on the visual aesthetics of the site, rather than reinventing the grid model.
Don't hand-write HTML. Don't waste time that could be spent on your product building a website on top of Bootstrap. Just pick a template and go.
(In case you're wondering, we based The Engineer & The Designer on this template.)
4. Get the Content
This is the most time-consuming part of the process. Creating the content for your website can take hours or it can take weeks (and when you're an early stage startup where every decision feels like it will make or break the company, it can easily become confrontational). My advice here is to limit your scope and try to keep perspective.
Minimize the initial size of your website, time-bound the writing process and remember that anything you create can be improved and iterated on. If the goal is a "Sign Up for Beta" page, create the content for only that page and add the "Team" page later. Your goal is to get the initial website out as fast as possible while satisfying your initial goal, so focus on that.
Yes, you only get one chance to make a first impression, but it's also true that time is money. Find the balance.
SEO Optimize Your Website
Once you've got your initial content into Wordpress, the next step is to SEO-optimize it. The goal here is to tweak your content so that it is search engine friendly, allowing more people to find you organically. While this may not seem like a priority initially, applying some simple best practices can have a big impact and ensure that people can find you on the web (like VCs and potential employees!).
If you don't know what SEO is or, worse, think it's still only about stuffing keywords into your content, take a few minutes to read this Beginners Guide to SEO by Moz (if you prefer to watch a video, here's a 15 minute introduction to SEO by Moz Founder Rand Fishkin, who's arguably the smartest guy in SEO).
Here are the four steps to prepare your SEO-optimized website:
- Install Wordpress SEO Plugin
- Install an SSL Certificate
- Check Website Grader
- Submit Sitemap to Search Engines
5. Install Wordpress SEO Plugin
The first step in preparing your SEO-optimized website is to install the Yoast SEO plugin. This is by far the best plugin for optimizing your content. It adds a dashboard to the bottom of the Wordpress editor that provides real-time feedback as you write your content:
Use the Yoast SEO plugin (as part of following SEO best practices) to ensure that your website content is optimized for search engines.
6. Install an SSL Certificate
An SSL certificate allows your website to be viewed over HTTPS instead of HTTP, enabling communication between your website and browsers to be encrypted.
SSL certificates used to be used by only big companies and the security-conscious, but last year Google started taking SSL into account as part of its search engine rankings. As of August 2014, HTTPS-enabled websites rank higher than insecure websites.
Bottom-line, if your goal is to rank in search engine results, you need to have an SSL certificate. Most domain registrars offer certificates for relatively cheap. If you’re a Wordpress-optimized hosting provider like Pantheon, once you’ve got your SSL certificate, installing it takes just a few clicks.
7. Check Website Grader
HubSpot has an excellent, free tool for evaluating your website’s SEO-readiness called Website Grader. Enter a URL and you’ll get a score out of 100 showing how effective the website is (you’ll notice that 10% of that score is the SSL certificate from the previous step).
Recently, Google released its own website evaluator called Test My Site. Google’s evaluation has a higher emphasis on mobile performance, another factor increasingly impacting search engine results.
Between these two sites, you’ll get a comprehensive checklist of things to do to optimize your website. Go through the lists and start checking things off! Depending on the template you’re using, the final 5% may be difficult to get. Remember that our goal is to be done in 48 hours or less, so temper your OCD tendencies and strive for 90% or better.
8. Submit Sitemap to Search Engines
Once your website is optimized, the last step is to submit your site maps to Google and other search engines. A site map is an XML file telling search engines the structure of your website. The Yoast SEO plugin automatically generates site maps, so most of the work is already done.
However, there is one quirk to be aware of. Search engines standardized on the filename sitemap.xml, so when they’re looking for your sitemap, this is the file they’re looking for (you might have noticed that you failed that part of the website grader test). Unfortunately, Yoast stubbornly decided to name their file sitemap_index.xml. This means you need to create a 301 redirect from sitemap.xml to sitemap_index.xml. Refer to your hosting provider's documentation for how to do this.
Once that’s done, you should submit your sitemap to the search engines. To do this, create an account with Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools. Aside from allowing you to easily resubmit your sitemap if it changes, these services let you see if there are any errors when search engines crawl your site:
Resolve any errors detected, and you’re done!
Install Analytics Tools
The last part of launching your analytics-ready, SEO-optimized website is to install analytics tools. Even if your first website is a "Coming Soon" page, having these tools installed from day one will provide you with valuable insights that you can use later.
I recommend installing the following three free tools:
- Google Analytics
9. Google Analytics
Google Analytics can be installed in Wordpress either manually or by using a plugin. There are some advantages to installing the tracking code manually, but for most installations using a plugin will suffice.
Once Google Analytics is setup, you have access to an incredible wealth of information that can be sliced and diced in countless ways:
MixPanel is a powerful tool that makes it easy to understand how users navigate your site. With built-in cohort analysis and retention metrics, you can visualize where users drop off in sign-up flows or how long-term retention is impacted as your website evolves:
MixPanel's pricing is based on number of visits, so the free plan will likely be sufficient in the early days of your startup.
If your website includes any sort of action (signing up for a beta email list, submitting a resume, etc.), then you should install Optimizely from day one. Optimizely lets you perform A/B testing on your website through an easy-to-use WYSIWYG interface. It automatically segments your traffic and provides statistically significant test results:
Update: Optimizely recently eliminated their free plan and replaced it with a 30-day trial.
With these steps complete, you're ready to launch your analytics-ready, SEO-optimized website. From here, you can iterate and improve with all of the information necessary to make effective data-driven decisions. Best of all? You can get back to what you really need to focus on: building your product and generating early revenue.