We have just launched (yesterday actually!) a website for our startup - providing mobile and Facebook app development services. Sales will totally drive from leads generated from the website. Therefore SEO is of highest importance to us. However, we have limited funds for investing in SEO and finding the right ethical white-hat SEO professional (who are not scammers - considering there are so many SEO self-proclaimed experts out there) is always a challenge. One safe option (but will probably take too long) is that I get myself trained in SEO (I have a background in technology).
In this scenario, what would be our best approach towards SEO.
The only thing that really makes a difference in organic SEO matters these days is quality content and links to your site (from other good sites i.e. not mass-ad sites).
I don't know what your business is going to be about but you should think about how to get generating useful content for your users, in a broader sense than only the services that you provide.
For example, if I had a site offering phone unlock services, I might start writing a wiki or knowledge base about how it works and why carriers block phones in the first place - in simple words. Something that is useful to your potential customer both in general knowledge and in the scope of your business.
Another good thing is publishing papers and stuff related to what you or your development team is doing. A lot of big web agencies tend to develop some internal library and later open-source them; then they write a blog about updates, ways it works and how it's useful, etc.
If your content is interesting and useful, then people that have directly or indirectly worked with your company's products will almost certainly start mentioning and linking the reads in blogs, facebook, twitter, you name it. That's the best external SEO you get.
Apart from that, good internal SEO techniques are also important. Make sure all your pages are accessible to the google bot (at least the ones you want google to crawl), include good keyword headers and decent titles. Read the google webmaster blog to learn how to make your content semantic and how to write smart (include the most important keywords in your text, without bloating).
Paid advertising still renders traffic, but it's your job to make that traffic stick and make people come back to your site and make it attractive to new visitors.
PS: Don't hire SEO experts unless you need some very specific advice from them (e.g. how to make shebang style URLs accessible to the google bot). In my experience, even if they're not a scam as per dictionary; everything they know you can find on the internet by yourself.
EDIT Regarding your question in the comment; think like this:
Suppose one of your iphone apps got turned down at the apple store for design issues (pretty common thing). What was the reason? How did you feel about it? What steps did you take to solve it? How did you deal with your client's deadline? Make sure to include the e-mail you got from apple somewhere so people that get something similar can google it and find a solution on your site.
*I've had a lot of success using varying combinations of these tactics. Recently, one of my sites got a Google Pagerank of 5/10 in just a little over six weeks after registering the domain--mostly, by interviewing my peers and posting on forums. You don't need to spend any money to get love from Google, you just got to work like a dog.
**. Stay away from mass directory submission services that get your listed on thousands of sites. The directories they submit to are worthless.
* Also, don't bother releasing free WordPress themes. I have over a hundred sites linked to one of my themes, but when I search for my theme, it doesn't even show up in the top 100 results. So imagine my credit link back to my site isn't doing me much good.
SEO takes a long time to build. Maybe up to 6 months before you reap the rewards. I agree with Tom that the best approach to this is creating content related to the service your are providing. Start a blog but don't write with the intention of selling. Instead write with the intention of helping others solve their problems. You will eventually build a reputation in your industry and people will start referring to you.
Now since your website has already launched, you are probably eagerly looking for visitors and can't afford to wait for 6 months. If this is what you are thinking, then go for paid advertising to get yourself quick prospective customers.
If you are looking for a good resource to learn SEO by yourself, check out http://seomoz.org/blog/
When starting out with SEO for a new web site you need to understand the basic strategy, goals, metrics and finally tasks that will deliver you the desired results. Understanding the basics will help you decide if you should do it yourself or hire a consultant/firm to do it for you.
There are 2 main activity tracks within SEO:
a) Content optimization work : making sure site content is
keyword-rich and original, titles and descriptions of pages are
optimized for length and describe your content well. This is a task
for your content writer.
b) Basic site architecture : URL structure,
redirects, link format, and finally code implementation (making sure
your site is indexable). c) A mix of the two. If your site has a lot
of dynamic pages, you will need to generate page titles and
descriptions automatically based on a template, so your content
writer and engineer/developer will need to work together to figure
out the best formula.
TIMELINE. This will depend on how often your site is indexed by
search engines. While for new sites the frequency can be only once a
month, some established sites can get indexed by Google daily. So, if you make content optimizations
to your pages you could see results as soon as your site is
WHEN TO DO. As soon as you start building your web site (before
launch) and on ongoing basis after launch. If you haven’t
registered a domain name yet, consider choosing a name that uses a
keyword for your product or market; this can become a heavy
competitive advantage later on.
There are many different ranks that SEO tools check for. I tend to
focus on these two:
a) Google’s Page Rank (aka PR) that uses a 10-point scale. This rank
doesn’t change often – only 1-3 times a year – so there is no point
in checking it obsessively. It is one of many factors that affect a
site’s position in Google’s SERP (Search Engine Result’s Page) and
can be used to evaluate your competition, among other things.
b) MOZrank that SEOMOZ describes as a “link popularity score.”
It uses a 100-point scale and updates about once a month, so it can
be very useful in evaluating progress on your SEO efforts. If you’ve
never heard of it, go check your site’s MOZrank using Site
TIMELINE. To see the results of your link building work will take
some time: at least a month and possibly many months. This is
because your efforts might or might not translate into the results
you seek, and you will not have full control over the entire
WHEN TO DO. I suggest to start before you are even ready for a full
launch of your web site. And never, ever stop.
The answer above is a partial repost of my blog post - Introduction to SEO for startups (explains metrics and timeline): http://blog.binarytype.com/intro-to-seo-for-startups.html To get started with site promotion and link building without spending any money, see my other post - Free link building for beginners (do it yourself, no-cost SEO):
In my experience with the various startups I've worked for, you have to know when to spend your money on SEM.
Don't blow your money just to say you did -- use tools to determine appropriate keywords and spend on them while building a content base.
Also, a really, really profitable portion of our SEO came from the fact that we did a lot of research on the keywords used by our competitors. A lot of the time you can get a feel for whether or not your keywords are as useful to your SEO as you think by simply comparing them against those of your competition.
Also, look at those who kick butt at SEO and do what they do. For example, the stack exchange has struck the right balance of user generated content and URL structure that allows for search indexes to totally drive new users to existing content... all while the content base is exploding in size. its a fundamental strategy that makes the odds for SEO success insanely high.
Following Jason and Kristians comments, research and monitoring are extremely important. You cannot just "buy" optimization and expect it to work - constant tweaking is necessary to determine what keyword / optimizations work for your particular goals.
I would suggest focusing on three competitors and determine what it is that makes them "important" to you - is it transactions? SERP? Social presense? Usually its a combination of the three (and then some).
Then I would take the time to learn about the ongoing monitoring tools that help you make informed decisions (and train you in the process) I've used seomoz before - their tools and advice columns are high quality - and they seem to have a good feel for the startup space. Here's an example.
Of course, there are other providers out there - YRMV. Pick one and start learning. But constant, iterative analysis of your position and how it meets your business goals is an important step.