SEO for SaaS: The Definitive Playbook
There's more to SEO than just finding the right keywords. Discover how to grow your online discoverability with this proven framework, built specifically for SaaS companies.
SaaS marketing is challenging.
You’re working with longer sales cycles, complex software products, and a lengthy buying journey that often requires up to 15 touch points before a prospective customer even engages with your brand.
Plus, tech buyer behavior has changed.
In today’s Amazon era, the business-to-business (B2B) buying process is becoming a lot more like business-to-consumer (B2C). With the internet at their fingertips, tech buyers are armed with more information than ever before. They’re going online, doing their own research, and forming perceptions of your business long before ever speaking to a salesperson.
As many software categories grow crowded with new competitors, it’s more important than ever to build a strong digital presence and be discoverable online.
This is why search engine optimization (SEO) serves such a critical growth function.
Without proper SEO, it’s impossible to build an inbound marketing strategy that gets eyes on your brand and buyers in your funnel.
Luckily, you don’t need to be an SEO expert to reap the benefits of this practice. In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about SEO for SaaS. Plus, offer tactics and unique recommendations for getting your own organic search strategy off the ground.
What is search engine optimization?
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of improving elements of a website to grow visibility in organic search engine rankings.
The idea behind it is that we have some level of control over how we rank in organic search results. When you’re “optimizing” a website for SEO, you’re essentially making adjustments that help search engines to better understand it.
Paid vs. organic traffic
There are two main sources of search traffic: paid and organic.
Paid traffic refers to any web visitors that landed on your site by clicking on a paid advertisement. This includes search ads or any other digital ads that you’ve placed across the web. On the search engine results pages (SERPs), paid results are featured at the very top and clearly marked with the word “ad.”
Organic traffic refers to web visitors that found your site through organic search results. This is often called “earned” traffic since it was not paid for.
These results will almost always appear in the SERP directly below the paid ads.
As you can guess, SEO revolves around improving organic traffic specifically. The higher you rank on the SERP, the more likely you are to capture web visitors and get more eyes on your brand.
Why is SEO important for SaaS companies?
As mentioned earlier, buyer behavior has changed.
Fifteen years ago, a technology buyer would get in touch with a salesperson (probably over the phone), review the product specifications provided by the seller, and make a purchasing decision. The buyer-seller relationship was direct and the sellers held control over the buying process.
Now, the power dynamic has shifted. Buyers are empowered to go online, read reviews, compare different vendors, and do all of their own research before they ever speak to a sales rep from your company.
When buying behavior shifts, the way businesses market themselves has to, too. For software companies, being discoverable has become critical to fueling growth. And one of the first places people go online is — you guessed it — a search engine.
That’s where SEO comes into play.
Research shows that 75% of online users don’t scroll past the first page of search results.
People expect quick and accurate answers to their questions. They don’t want to scroll through pages of results to find what they’re looking for. That’s why ranking on page 1 (preferably near the top) is so important.
You could have the greatest and most advanced solution on the market, but if your brand isn’t discoverable online, then it won’t matter. There’s an old joke among SEOs that page 2 of Google is the best place to hide a dead body.
Make of that what you will.
SEO for SaaS: Why it’s different from traditional SEO
Although most SEO practices are applicable to many types of businesses, the unique SaaS business model requires its own set of rules and frameworks.
A software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution is one that’s hosted on its own server, making it accessible to its users on multiple devices via web browser. Customers buy a subscription and pay for the software on an ongoing basis, usually monthly or quarterly.
This is different from the traditional software buying model, which requires businesses to pay a large sum upfront for a software product that can only be used on one device.
This subscription-based model has exploded in popularity due to the lower upfront costs, scalability, and overall ease of use. For SaaS marketers, however, it poses an entirely new challenge.
SaaS sales cycles are often lengthy, depending on the price of the product. It’s typical to have multiple stakeholders involved in the buying process, requiring longer negotiations to get a deal across the finish line.
This means your marketing likely has to account for a variety of personas: individual contributors, managers, executives — the list goes on. Someone at the manager level has entirely different responsibilities and pain points from a C-suite executive. The content you create as part of your SaaS SEO strategy must be hyper-targeted to account for these differences.
Additionally, SaaS solutions are known for their robust features and frequent product updates. While this is certainly beneficial for customers, it makes marketing the product that much more difficult.
Most SaaS products are complex to begin with. But when you throw new features into the mix, there’s an ongoing need for new go-to-market material to keep your current and prospective customers in the know.
With every new piece of marketing collateral comes the opportunity to capture more traffic and convert new customers — further proving the need for an SEO strategy.
Developing a comprehensive SEO plan for a SaaS solution requires strategic consideration at all stages of the funnel. Every aspect of your website, from the product pages to the blog, must be properly optimized to meet your target customer at different digital touch points throughout their buying journey.
Throughout this guide, we’ll provide you with all the information you need to build an SEO plan that’s fit for your software business.
Other agencies might help you get discovered in search.
How search engines work
Before we dive into the specifics of SaaS SEO, it’s critical to understand how search engines determine rankings.
There are billions of web pages on the internet. The job of a search engine is to sort through these pages to find the most relevant content to match a user’s search query — all in less than one second.
They do this by following a three-step process: crawl, index, and rank.
Search engines use bots, commonly referred to as web crawlers or spiders, to review the content on a web page.
These crawlers are responsible for scanning the content to understand the information on the page and index it appropriately. They use internal links to hop from one page to another as they make their way across a website.
Once a page has been crawled, it gets added to the search index.
Think of the search index as a giant library with billions of books. When a page is indexed, it gets added to the library. This means your page is ready to be included in search engine rankings.
Once your website information has been indexed, search engines use sophisticated algorithms to look at a variety of factors and determine rank.
Factors such as relevance, content freshness, and usability are all taken into account within the context of the search query to provide the user with the best results.
Search engine algorithms
Search engines are notorious for their algorithms, a top-secret set of processes that they use to rank content on the results pages.
To complicate matters further, these algorithms are frequently updated. This means that your website could go from ranking first to not ranking at all overnight. While most algorithm updates aren’t that drastic, they can still have an impact on your web traffic. That’s why staying on top of industry news and events is critical to SEO.
It’s important to note that among the SEO community, much of the focus revolves around Google specifically. This is primarily because it’s by far the biggest and most popular search engine, dominating 92% of the market.
For the purpose of simplicity, we will mainly be referencing Google and its ranking algorithms throughout this guide.
Although we will never know exactly what goes into determining rank, Google does provide us with a few clues:
Search intent and relevance
We know that search intent and relevance are key ranking factors.
This ensures that if you’re searching for “social media scheduling software” the results won’t populate with used car listings. Google uses search terms, referred to as keywords, to match the relevance of your page content to the intent of the search query.
Location and past search history
Location and past search history are also taken into account when customizing your search results.
For example, if you’re searching for “restaurants in Paris” Google will use your location to see that you’re actually in Paris, Texas, not the city in France.
It also uses your past search history to make recommendations based on things you may be interested in. If you’re frequently searching for Walmart.com and click on Walmart listings a lot, Google may start to feature that retailer’s products more prominently in your search results.
Google also cites quality of content and authoritativeness as ranking factors.
To measure quality, Google primarily looks at the number of backlinks as well as the overall “spamminess” of your website. When a credible domain links back to a page, that page instantly gains more authority in the eyes of Google. We will dive further into the importance of backlinks later on.
A website needs to function properly to be featured in rankings.
If Google’s goal is to provide the best possible recommendations for its users, it’s not going to populate results pages with websites that have technical problems.
The subject of site usability leads us directly into the next section: technical SEO.
Technical SEO for SaaS
Technical SEO is the process of enhancing the backend elements of a website to help search engines crawl and index the site more effectively.
Because there is some level of technical knowledge required to execute on technical SEO items, these responsibilities are often a joint effort between both marketing and product development teams.
Technical SEO elements
The technical elements of a website are important to optimize for because they are a direct reflection of usability.
To improve your website’s technical SEO, there are seven key factors to focus your attention on:
Smartphones have changed the way that we consume content.
In 2020, mobile makes up more than half of internet usage worldwide. If your website isn’t properly optimized to provide a great browsing experience on mobile, then you’re potentially alienating a huge chunk of your audience. Search engines recognize this, too.
In 2019, Google rolled out mobile-first indexing. This means that it uses the mobile version of your website when it’s indexing and ranking your website.
A major component of technical SEO is making sure that your site is equally as functional on mobile devices and tablets as it is on desktop. Most modern content management systems will let you preview content on both mobile and desktop, allowing you to catch any problems before a page goes live. Additionally, Google offers a free Mobile-Friendly Test tool that allows you to test pages just by entering the URL.
Internal linking structure
Web crawlers have to be able to get to the pages on your site to properly index them. If a page has no internal links pointing to it, then the crawlers won’t be able to locate it. In SEO, this is referred to as having poor “crawlability.”
To avoid this, establish a robust internal linking structure. An effective internal linking structure is hierarchical, wherein the most important page (usually the homepage or top service page) links out to several slightly less important pages, and so on.
Pages that fall within the same category can link to each other as well as to pages in other categories. This makes it easier for both crawlers and humans to navigate your website.
Sometimes you might have pages that you don’t want search engines to crawl.
That’s where a robots.txt file comes in handy. A robots.txt allows you to manage crawler traffic on your website and exclude specific pages from being visited by search engine spiders.
Having a robots.txt file is optional and often unnecessary for smaller websites. Making one small mistake on a robots.txt could have a dramatic negative impact on your SEO. We recommend that you consult with your development team before embarking down this path.
A 404 “page not found” error occurs when a link points to a page that no longer exists. A link that sends you to a 404 error page is referred to as a broken link.
Having numerous broken links on your website can negatively impact your SEO rankings because it makes for a poor user experience. It also hurts your website’s overall credibility, since you’re pointing users to pages that are non-existent.
Mining for 404 errors should be part of your routine website maintenance and most can be easily fixed with a simple 301 redirect.
Site and page speed
There are few things more bothersome than slow websites — and search engines agree.
Knowing what we know about Google, it’s easy to see why it would value site speed as a ranking factor. Having a website that loads quickly is essential to providing a positive UX for your web visitors. On the other hand, a slow website is a one-way ticket to a sky-high bounce rate.
Throughout this guide, you’ll notice there’s a pattern when discussing ranking factors. If something hurts user experience, it’s likely also going to hurt your discoverability.
While there’s no hard and fast rule for the optimal loading speed, the consensus among SEOs is that anything under 200ms of load time is considered fast. You can test your page speed for free using Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool. It quickly scans page content and provides suggestions for making the page run faster.
The time it takes for your website to load is also dependent on the server it runs on, so be sure to choose a quality web hosting provider. Other things you can do to improve page speed are optimizing image file sizes to be smaller and removing unnecessary plugins or add-ons.
Search engines can also knock your organic rankings if you have duplicate content.
This is generally described as having two or more very similar pieces of content that live under different URLs.
Duplicate content hurts your rankings because it confuses search engines. If you have two very similar articles, the search engine will have a hard time choosing which one to pull into search results. Additionally, it dilutes your link equity.
Instead of having one piece with lots of backlinks, you have two (or more) pieces with backlinks that are split between multiple pages.
Most of the time, duplicate content isn’t intentional. If your website has been around for a while and you’re frequently publishing new pieces, it’s more than likely that you might write something about a topic that’s been covered before.
The easiest way to fix duplicate content is through 301 redirects. You just have to choose which piece will serve as the “main” one and redirect the others to it. This will also help you to preserve the link equity of the pages that are being redirected.
A schema markup is a code of structured data that helps search engines deliver more informative results.
When you add schema to your site’s HTML code, you enable Google to crawl your site more effectively. In turn, it can populate search results with rich text snippets.
A rich text snippet is simply an enhanced search result that features additional data. A standard search result shows a title tag, meta description, and a URL. A rich text snippet result includes additional elements such as star ratings, pricing, and events.
Schema markups are useful because they make for more eye-catching search results. Plus, they provide a better overall user experience since the reader receives more information directly in the SERP.
Technical SEO tools
Technical SEO can feel daunting to marketers who have no technical background or expertise. However, there are many tools available on the market that make it easy for people of all skill levels to run technical audits and keep tabs on your site’s technical health — no need for a computer science degree.
Here are a few of our favorites:
For more technical SEO software recommendations, check out this full list of the best SEO audit tools for 2020.
Off-page SEO for SaaS
Non-technical SEO is broken down into two main categories: on-page and off-page.
The term “off-page” is used to refer to any SEO activities that happen outside of your own website. This usually refers to the act of link building but can also include other off-page activities such as social media networking and digital PR.
Earlier in this guide, we learned that Google considers website authority to be an important ranking factor. This concept was first introduced in 1997 as part of Google’s PageRank algorithm. The main idea behind PageRank is that a page becomes more valuable if there are other pages linking to it.
Ask yourself: why do we link to other websites in our content?
It’s usually to cite an external data resource or provide the reader with additional information.
Giving a backlink is one way of saying, “I trust this website and think it would be a valuable resource for my readers.”
Google recognizes this and rewards websites with strong backlink profiles in the SERPs.
Link building for SaaS
If your SaaS brand is well-established, then it’s likely that your website generates backlinks on its own. However, this level of web authority and brand awareness can take years to build.
If you’re still in the early stages of growing your brand, having a strategy for building backlinks is crucial to improving your search rankings. No matter how unique or compelling your content is, it won’t be successful if your website has a weak backlink profile.
Plus, it’s important to note that not all backlinks are created equally.
One high-quality backlink from a respected domain holds more SEO value than five backlinks that come from uncredible, spammy websites. Not only do you need to get more backlinks, but your efforts have to be focused on getting links from authoritative domains.
Over the years, SEOs have developed countless techniques for building backlinks — some of which are easier than others. Since backlinks hold highly-coveted SEO value, it should come as no surprise that most websites aren’t just giving them out for free. This makes link building one of the more labor-intensive parts of search engine optimization.
Let’s explore each popular link building tactic individually.
This is the tried-and-true approach to building backlinks. It requires finding related content on the web and reaching out to the author via email or social media and asking them to link to your page, showing the value it adds for the audience.
As with any form of cold outreach, not everyone you contact will respond to you. It’s a numbers game.
To see results, send a high volume of custom messages and ensure your ask is highly-targeted and relevant to the person you’re reaching out to. For example, pitching a promotional product page likely won’t garner any responses. Always aim to pitch premium content pieces such as reports or in-depth guides that provide immediate value.
So many people try to build links without a clear value proposition. In B2B software, everyone has seen the same generic article over and over again. If you want to build links you have to offer something that’s new and unique.
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As more people have adopted off-page SEO practices, content creators are inundated with cold emails asking for backlinks. As a result, this method has become less and less effective over the years.
If you decide to go the cold outreach route, beware of people who offer to sell you backlinks. This type of practice is considered highly unethical and falls under the category of black hat SEO, meaning it violates Google’s terms of service. Participating in a paid link scheme can cause your site to be penalized or even permanently deindexed.
Broken link building
Broken link building requires finding dead links in existing content and asking the website owner to link to one of your pieces instead. This tactic is proven to be very effective since you’re providing instant value to the website owner by finding and fixing a broken link on their page. The main downside is that you’re limited by the number of broken links you’re able to find.
Additionally, it’s important to monitor the links you’ve already secured to make sure they’re not broken either. If you find broken links to your website, be sure to send the right URLs to the site owner that’s linking to you. This ensures that any potential visitors actually make it to your site.
Guest posting is the process of sourcing opportunities to create relevant content for external publications.
This method is exceptionally popular because it goes beyond just “building backlinks.” When you publish an article on an external site, you’re building relationships with that company, as well as growing your brand’s expertise and visibility in front of another audience.
The key to successful guest blogging is partnering with credible publications that have the same audience as your business. If you’re publishing your work on a channel that your audience doesn’t visit, there’s not a ton of value beyond just generating a couple of backlinks.
Additionally, make sure you have a data-driven content writer on board who is ready to craft these pieces as well as a digital PR strategist who builds the relationship with the outlet, makes sure proper edits are made, and that posts are structured in the way that blog managers are looking for.
Create citable content
As mentioned earlier, some pieces of content are easier to pitch than others. Along with being easy to pitch, these pieces are also effective at generating backlinks organically. Content that features original research or data falls into this category.
People naturally link to this type of content because they’re citing your work as a resource.
Think about what type of original data people in your industry are looking for and try to create an asset around this. Anything that’s a trends or statistics piece is a great example. Citable content generates links on autopilot.
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This doesn’t always have to be written content either. The term “guestographic” was born from the idea of creating an infographic and pitching it to other websites as a method of generating backlinks.
Infographics can be time consuming to create. Many people will agree to feature an external infographic and link to it because it instantly elevates their content without having to do all the heavy lifting of making the infographic themselves.
PR-driven outreach involves generating backlinks through landing media opportunities such as a feature on a podcast or speaking at an event. Similar to guest posting, this is a “two birds one stone” tactic.
When another company agrees to feature you (or someone on your team), they will promote the event across their marketing channels and throw you a couple links along the way. This is an effective way to get more eyes on your brand, improve your backlink profile, and grow relationships with other companies.
Regardless of which method you land on, the most important thing to remember is that building links is an ongoing process. You’re never really “done.” There’s no magic number of backlinks that will skyrocket your website to the top of the SERPs.
Staying consistent and ethical in your approach is key to success.
Although building backlinks is the activity that’s most commonly associated with off-page SEO, social media also falls under this category.
Most SaaS companies leverage social media for promotion, advertising, sharing culture, and even customer service. But your brand’s social media activity can also have an impact on your website’s performance in organic search rankings — just not in the way you may think.
Throughout the years, Google has gone back and forth on whether or not social signals influence the elusive ranking algorithm. And while there’s no hard evidence that points to social media as a major ranking factor, the consensus among SEOs is that it does have an indirect influence on organic rankings.
Having a big presence on social media gets your content noticed by more people, which leads to more shares, and ultimately, more backlinks.
Social also has a big impact on brand building. The more popular and recognizable your brand becomes, the more likely it is that your audience starts to search for your company by name. This is called a branded search.
When a user searches for a specific brand, it’s indicative of a heightened level of trust and familiarity. Branded searches lead to higher click-through rates, which are known to have a positive impact on rankings.
On-page SEO for SaaS
In contrast to off-page, the term “on-page” SEO refers to optimizations that take place on your website. Put simply, it’s the process of adjusting different internal web elements for improved visibility in the SERP. This is also sometimes referred to as “on-site” SEO.
Content is the foundation of on-page SEO.
Your website can’t rank for keywords that it doesn’t have content on. And this includes more than just long-form content (i.e. blog articles). All content on your website gets crawled and indexed — including core product/service pages, “about us” pages, and even careers pages.
Through on-page SEO, you’re optimizing all of these pages to ensure they’re search-friendly.
The importance of keywords
Throughout this guide, we talk a lot about search terms — the words and phrases that users type into search engines to find what they’re looking for. Formally, these are known as keywords.
Keywords are the building blocks of successful on-page optimization. When building out web content, the goal is to target specific keywords that relate to your business.
For example, say your company sells payroll software. Throughout your website, you want to target the keyword “payroll software” as well as any other keyword variants that your audience may use to find this type of solution, such as “HR payroll software.”
Using these terms throughout your site tells Google that your solution is affiliated with “payroll software” and it should populate your site in the search results for that keyword.
Seems easy enough, right?
Of course not. If it were that easy, everyone would be doing it.
Effective on-page SEO isn’t as simple as just using the same keyword over and over again.
This is called keyword stuffing and has a negative impact on organic rankings. Search engines are smart — they can tell if you’re overusing keywords in a way that’s forced. It’s viewed as an unethical way to “game” the system and it makes for a terrible UX.
As you’ll learn time and time again, anything that harms user experience likely also harms SEO.
To avoid keyword stuffing, always keep the reader at the center of your optimization efforts. Keywords are meant to guide and structure your web content, not take over it. A properly optimized page will feature keywords wherever there’s a natural fit in the text.
On-page ranking factors
When it comes to optimization, some on-page elements hold more SEO value than others. To best prioritize your efforts, let’s review the top ranking factors to be aware of:
As software marketers, one of the first things we learn is the importance of writing a good headline. A strong headline grabs the audience’s attention and entices them to keep reading.
In SEO-speak, headlines are often referred to as title tags. A title tag serves the same purpose as a headline, but some would argue it’s even more critical because it’s the first thing a user sees in the search results.
Your page could rank number one for a keyword but lose valuable traffic to competitors if it has a lackluster title.
Additionally, title tags help search engines understand what the content on your page is about. While Google won’t knock you for having a boring title, it will take into consideration whether or not there are keywords in your title.
For this reason, always include the primary keyword you’re targeting toward the beginning of your title tag.
Page headers (H1, H2, H3, etc.) serve many different purposes. They help to provide structure, organize information, and improve readability.
Similar to title tags, headers also serve as signals that help search engines understand the content on a web page.
Although header tags are no longer as important to rankings as they once were, still be mindful of how you’re using them. Pages should follow a hierarchical structure, with the H1 as your leading header, followed by H2s, H3s, and so on.
It’s OK to use keywords in headers whenever there is a natural fit, but be cautious not to overdo it.
Images play a major role in the overall look and feel of your website.
A page can go from good to great just by adding a few eye-catching graphics. But aside from these obvious design benefits, properly optimized images can also give your site a SEO-boost.
In 2020, image search made up 12.4% of all Google search queries. That’s a considerable amount of traffic that’s ready to be captured.
Here are the primary elements to look out for when optimizing your images for search:
As a best practice, always save images with descriptive file names. Throughout this guide, we’ve discussed the importance of context. A descriptive file is a simple way to give Google a clue about the context and meaning of your image.
Here’s an example of a lackluster file name: Screen_Shot-3DJ28P.jpg
Now, here’s an example of a descriptive file name: Link_Building_Strategy.jpg
Alt-text, sometimes referred to as an alt-tag, is text that describes the subject matter of an image. This text lives in the backend HTML code of a site and is not clearly visible; however, it can appear if an image fails to load.
The primary purpose of alt-text is accessibility. Through alt-text, those who are visually-impaired and use screen readers to browse web content are able to understand the images on a page.
For SEO, remember that alt-text provides search engines with more information about the image and how to index it properly. Good alt-text is descriptive, accurate, and concise.
As always, it’s acceptable to include keywords when relevant, but aim to avoid keyword stuffing at all costs.
Image and file size
One of the quickest ways to slow down a page is by loading it with multiple high resolution images. To avoid this, optimize for both image and file size.
Image size refers to the dimensions of the image. The larger the image, the longer it will take to load. Do your best to find a happy medium — one where the image is large enough to read, but not big enough to considerably slow the page down.
On the other hand, file size is the amount of storage space required to store an image. If you compress the file size too much, it could negatively impact quality. It may take some experimentation, but finding a balance between file size and quality is key to image SEO.
A URL is used to identify the location of a page on the web. Most URLs follow the same basic structure:
When optimizing for SEO, the most important part you want to focus on is the slug. A good URL slug is descriptive, concise, and uses relevant keywords. This helps search engines and users to better understand what your page is about.
Here’s an example of a generic, non-descriptive URL:
Now here’s an example of an SEO-friendly URL:
Just by looking at that, you can guess that you’re about to click on a page that has to do with project management methodologies.
Remember, URL structure is considered a ranking factor, it’s not going to make or break your search visibility.
When you’re creating new pages, try to follow the best practices outlined above. But it’s not worth your time to go back and try to fix old, wonky URLs.
Anchor text is the clickable text you use to link to another page on the web.
This allows you to hyperlink a word or phrase, instead of having to insert the full URL into the text. It’s easily identifiable as it’s often highlighted in a different color and/or underlined.
Search engines look at anchor text to gather clues about the link and the page it points to. For this reason, it’s smart to avoid generic anchor text. For example, “click here to read more.”
Instead, aim to make your anchor text as descriptive as possible and use keywords when it’s appropriate. Here’s an example: “check out these SaaS sales tips and share them with your team.”
From the reader’s perspective, descriptive anchor text also helps to provide context around where a link is taking them. If it helps the reader, it’s likely that it’s also going to help your SEO.
A meta description is a short text snippet that appears in search results underneath the headline.
Although it’s not displayed anywhere on the page itself, it’s still a prominent part of what users see in the SERP. The primary purpose of a meta tag is to summarize the page content.
In 2009, Google formally announced that meta descriptions don’t impact search rankings; however, they’re still worth noting because they do have an impact on clicks. At the very least, taking 60 seconds to come up with a punchy and descriptive meta description helps provide readers with more context and entices them to click on your page.
Keyword research for SaaS
Keyword research is the process of identifying search terms and phrases that your audience uses to search for topics related to your business. It’s a fundamental SEO practice that requires you to gain a deeper understanding of your audience and their search behavior.
Oftentimes, the words you use to describe your business and/or product aren’t the same words your audience actually uses in search. This critical step allows you to gain insight into the actual phrases your audience uses and develop a content plan based on your findings.
Keyword research is essentially just copywriting. You’re doing research to find out what words people use to find and describe your product.
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Let’s begin with the concept of search intent.
Understanding search intent
Search intent is the “why” behind what a user is looking for.
When you have a good grasp on the search intent of a given query, you’re able to optimize for it. If your page doesn’t satisfy the search intent of the keyword you’re targeting, then it’s highly unlikely that it will rank for that keyword.
The term was first coined back in 2002 by Andrei Broder, who also outlined the three main types of search intent:
Informational search intent indicates that the user is searching to learn more about something. For example:
When looking at the examples above, you can assume that the user is not looking to buy anything or be sold to. They simply want to learn more about a specific subject.
Transactional search intent shows that the user is looking to buy something. Here are a couple of examples:
The queries above clearly indicate that the user has the intent to make a purchase.
Navigational search intent refers to any query where the user directly searches by brand or domain name. These types of keywords are commonly referred to as branded terms.
Many people search for brands directly on Google because it’s a quicker alternative to typing the full URL in the address bar.
From the examples above, it’s easy to see that this type of search intent is clear: the user knows exactly where they want to end up. For this reason, there’s not much to optimize for in terms of SEO.
It’s highly unlikely that your website would ever rank organically for your competitor’s branded terms and vice versa. Many businesses choose to run paid ads for these terms instead, which ensures that you rank for both the paid and organic results.
We can also view search intent as a funnel:
A software buyer searching for “what is marketing automation” has a very different intent from the buyer that’s searching for MailChimp by name.
Every time you go to optimize a page or create a piece of content, ask yourself, “what’s the purpose of this search?” Doing so will allow you to view the page through the lens of the user and create content that directly satisfies their intent.
How to do keyword research for SaaS
Now that you’re familiar with the concept of search intent, it’s time to develop a process for performing keyword research.
As a reminder, the end goal is to build out an extensive list of relevant keywords that you want to target in your content.
As time goes on and you get more comfortable with SEO, your process might start to look a bit different than what’s outlined below. That’s perfectly fine as there’s no “correct” way to do keyword research.
You can use this process as a general guideline and build off it to make it your own.
Start with core keywords
First, start brainstorming ideas around core keywords.
These are the search terms and phrases that describe exactly what your company is and does. If your business sells email marketing software, your core keywords might look something like this:
- Email marketing software
- Automated email marketing software
- Email marketing tools
- Email marketing platform
To find core keywords, you will need access to a keyword research tool such as Google Keyword Planner or SEMrush. These solutions are specifically designed to help you identify keywords and review important SERP data such as position and monthly clicks.
Keyword volume and difficulty
When beginning your research, you may notice that most tools use two primary metrics to “grade” keywords:
- Keyword volume: The average number of monthly searches for a particular keyword. Sometimes referred to as “monthly search volume” (MSV).
- Keyword difficulty: A measure of how difficult it is to rank on the first page for a keyword. This is often determined by the number of referring domains needed to reach the front page of Google.
Keywords with low difficulty and high volume are great low-hanging fruit to go after. On the other end, keywords with high difficulty and low search volume usually aren’t worth your time.
That being said, keyword targeting isn’t always this black and white.
Just because “email marketing software” has a very high difficulty doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to rank for it if it’s the primary function of your product. Additionally, targeting long-tail keywords with a low MSV can actually generate more qualified traffic than their shorter, high volume counterparts.
Keyword volume and difficulty are useful metrics for prioritizing what keywords to create content for, but they shouldn’t be the end-all-be-all of your strategy.
Break up keywords by page type
To make the best use of your time, break up your keyword research by page type:
- Contact Us
- Testimonial and/or case studies
- Resource hub and individual article pages
The types of keywords you target will vary by page type because the search intent differs across every page. A user that lands on your careers page is looking for something entirely different than someone who’s browsing your product pages.
The easiest win for software marketers is to build out separate pages for product features and benefits. Think about what people are searching for. The features are what your product does, the benefits are the results. That’s how people will find you.
Director of SEO, Directive
Using the email marketing software example from before, let’s say your product comes with a built-in A/B testing feature. The product pages on your site should be loaded with feature-specific keywords such as:
- Email testing
- Email subject line testing
- Email marketing ab test
These keywords are a direct reflection of what your product does.
But you also need to account for the users who are searching by benefits, or the desired results they wish to achieve. These users may not yet know the exact type of software tool they need, they just know they have a problem that needs to be fixed.
Based on this notion, you should also build content around results-specific search phrases. For example:
- How to write email subject lines
- How to increase email open rates
When you create content around these keywords, you’re providing users with valuable information about how your product and its features can help them solve a problem (i.e. low email open rates.) Following this strategy allows you to target searchers who are in varying stages of their buying journey.
For additional keyword ideas, take advantage of the “people also ask” section of the SERP.
This section populates with common questions related to your search.
No matter how big or small your software category is, you will have competitors. Not only are you competing with these companies for business, you’re competing with them for keyword rankings.
To run a competitive keyword analysis, you will need a keyword research tool — stay tuned for our recommendations below.
Most keyword tools have built-in features that allow users to audit competitor domains. This gives you invaluable insight into your competitors’ top-performing pages, keyword rankings, and overall SEO strategy. You can then use this information to easily identify keyword gaps that you may have missed during your initial search.
Keyword research tools
You can’t perform keyword research without the right software.
Most SEO software solutions come with a specific keyword research feature that allows users to identify relevant search terms, view valuable keyword data, and run competitive analyses. Many of these tools offer free trials that allow you to test the software before committing to a subscription.
Here are a few of our most popular tools that we use at Directive:
For a complete list, click through to discover our top recommendations for the best keyword research tools on the market.
Content marketing for SaaS
Content creation is a cornerstone of SaaS marketing. It serves to educate audiences, generate leads, grow brand awareness, and nurture prospects throughout the software buying process.
As you can guess, it’s also absolutely essential for SEO.
Not all content marketing activities are meant to drive organic traffic. But technically, organic traffic can’t exist without content marketing.
Creating content for SEO
The term “content” can mean a lot of things: videos, podcasts, white papers, web copy, blog articles, case studies, etc.
Different types of content assets are created for different purposes. For example, case studies are primarily leveraged for sales enablement, podcasts are utilized to grow your brand, while white papers are effective for generating leads.
There’s also content that’s specifically intended to rank in the SERPs and drive organic traffic back to your website. This is where all the work you did to identify keywords during the research process is put to use.
At the same time, you must think carefully about your audience and their pain points — not just the keyword you’re trying to target.
Even though your immediate goal is to rank, the greater goal is to provide value to your target market. If there’s one thing you take away from this guide, it should be to create content for people, not web crawlers.
Web content vs. resource content
When creating SEO content, there are two main categories you want to focus your efforts on: web and resource content.
Web content refers to the copy throughout all of the pages on your website. This includes the homepage, product pages, careers pages, etc.
Your website is the digital storefront of your business. The main purpose of the content on these pages is to inform web visitors about the features and benefits of your product and encourage them to convert.
For SEO, optimize these pages to target your core keywords as well as key branded terms. There’s not an ongoing SEO need to update web content regularly; however, you should consider revisiting this copy every six months to make adjustments as your target audience changes and evolves.
Resource content refers to the section of your website that’s dedicated to publishing new pieces on a regular basis, such as a blog or resource hub.
When creating content with the intention of driving organic traffic, having a section solely dedicated to new and valuable content is one the most powerful tools in your arsenal.
Types of SEO content
Truthfully, you can create whatever content you think best suits your audience. However, it’s important to keep in mind that some content formats lend themselves to SEO better than others.
Here are the main content types to focus on when mapping out your SEO strategy:
A glossary is essentially a database of terms and definitions. This format allows you to create one master page that’s filled with keywords related to your product. Each term can then link out to its own page.
Since it’s a glossary, these individual pages can be optimized to rank for each specific keyword — without needing to add extra fluff as you would in a traditional blog article.
From a technical perspective, this format creates a tight-knit internal linking structure that’s easy to crawl and index.
The term “pillar content” is used to refer to a comprehensive article or guide that covers all aspects of a broad topic. Pillar pieces are usually quite long, but they don’t go into very specific detail since they cover a very general topic.
At Directive, we recommend organizing your content using the topic cluster model. Each cluster is made up of one pillar piece that links out to other “cluster” posts that cover related sub-topics. These cluster articles are shorter, but they cover a narrow topic in much more detail. This is opposite from the pillars, that cover a broad topic at a high level.
For example, if your pillar piece is a comprehensive guide to social media marketing, then the other articles in that cluster would cover sub-topics such as:
- “10 ways to grow social media follower count”
- “What is a good social media engagement rate”
- “How to find social media influencers in your industry”
This model was originally developed by HubSpot as a way to build a tight-knit internal linking infrastructure and up your chances of ranking.
People use search engines because they need to find a solution to a problem.
Creating a “how-to” guide is an easy and effective way to offer direct answers to your prospective customers’ questions. Plus, this gives you an opportunity to share how your SaaS product fits into the solution.
More and more search terms are pulling up video search results nowadays. It’s easy to understand why Google does this.
Videos are easy to consume and more engaging than written text. It doesn’t hurt that Google owns YouTube either.
Just like images, you can also optimize video content to be search engine-friendly. Be sure to choose a thumbnail image that entices users to click on your video, as well as an eye-catching title and meta description. Additionally, the page content that surrounds your video should also be properly optimized to target a set of keywords.
Statistics roundups are very linkable. Writers and content marketers are always scouring the web for compelling statistics to include in their articles. If they use one of yours, they’ll link to your piece to cite it at a source.
Simple as that.
Similar to stats roundups, reports that feature original research and data are generally very effective at generating links. Data instantly improves the credibility of a piece of content. For this reason, writers are constantly looking for new data sources to cite in their work.
Publish content on a regular cadence
Earlier, we learned that Google values content freshness when determining search rankings. The older a piece of content is, the less relevant and “fresh” it becomes.
If your website is filled with outdated content, your chances of ranking are significantly lowered.
This means it’s incredibly important to publish new content on a regular basis. Doing so shows Google that your website is active and keeps your audience engaged. It’s worth noting that there’s no SEO rule that dictates the ideal publishing frequency. This can vary greatly based on the type of content and how many resources you have to create it.
Whatever cadence you decide on, just make sure you never compromise quality for quantity.
Content promotion and distribution
Creating content is just one part of a much larger strategy. You’re not done with a piece of content just because you hit the “publish” button. Maybe you wrote the best, most comprehensive article on a subject. But if no one sees it, it’s not doing your business any favors.
Plus, it’s important to remember that traffic takes time to build. An article might pick up a few keywords overnight, but it usually takes much longer before a published piece starts to climb the SERP.
To give your content the boost it needs when it’s first published, you must create a promotion plan that distributes your work on channels that are relevant to your audience.
Distributing content creates a flywheel effect. When your article is promoted across every relevant channel, people take notice and begin to associate your brand with having expertise on that subject matter.
Director of SEO, Directive
Popular SaaS promotion channels include:
- Social media networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Reddit
- Email newsletters
- Slack communities
The key is to find out which channels your audience uses the most and establish a presence there. Not only will this drive more traffic back to your website, but it will also help to highlight your brand’s industry expertise and grow awareness.
Updating old content
If your blog has been around for a while, it’s likely that there’s a handful of old articles that sit there and don’t generate any traffic. And as we mentioned earlier, content loses its “freshness” over time.
Luckily, you don’t always have to churn out new content to show Google that your website is active. Updating old content with new information can have just as much SEO value as creating new pieces from scratch.
It’s worth noting that it’s not as simple as just going back and updating the article title from “top email marketing strategies in 2019” to “top email marketing strategies in 2020.” You actually have to go into the content, see what pieces are currently ranking in the top spots, and fully update the article with new information and/or graphics to make it better.
SEO strategy for SaaS companies
To wrap up this playbook, let’s run through a few final items that will leave you with actionable next steps for implementing your SEO strategy:
Making the business case for SEO
Unless the executives at your organization have a background in digital marketing, SEO can sometimes be a hard sell.
Getting buy-in from the executive team is critical if you want to implement a strategy that actually works. It’s even more important when that strategy requires pulling time and resources from other teams (with SEO, it’s usually product and/or development.)
The truth is that executives don’t care about strategy or tactics, they care about results. Break down the marketing jargon and outline exactly how SEO will help your team hit revenue and growth targets. Every part of your pitch should tie back greater company goals.
Also make sure you’re setting realistic expectations when communicating how long it will take to see an impact — especially if you have limited resources on your marketing team.
Proving the ROI of SEO
As with any marketing strategy, you have to be able to measure your efforts and tie them back to revenue. Luckily, there’s an abundance of SEO tools on the market that are designed to do exactly that.
As mentioned earlier, SEMrush and Ahrefs are two popular SEO solutions with a complete suite of features that also allow you to track all of the most critical SEO metrics. Additionally, we recommend using Google Analytics and Google Search Console to get more granular with your tracking and review data in real-time.
When it comes to the SEO-specific metrics, here are the top ones that you should be monitoring:
- Organic traffic: For many marketing teams, organic traffic is a north star metric (NSM). Using Google Analytics, you have the ability to segment traffic by device type, language, landing page, and even geographic region.
- Number of backlinks and referring domains: In addition to tracking backlinks, it’s equally as important to track the number of domains that give you those links. Google considers 50 links from 50 domains to be more valuable than 50 links from one domain.
- Keyword rankings: This is the number of keywords that a web page is currently ranking for. To take it a step further, you can also track the position in the SERP. Picking up a keyword is great, but landing a spot in the top 10 for that keyword is even better.
- Bounce rate: This is the percentage of users that visit your website and leave without clicking through to another page. A high bounce rate is an indicator of poor user experience and can point to other problems such as misaligned web content.
These high-level metrics help to paint an accurate picture of how SEO impacts your website. But you may need to take things a step further in your reporting since leadership at your organization will likely want to see how these metrics translate into sales.
To better quantify your SEO results, it’s critical to tie traffic and rankings back to these pipeline KPIs:
- Organic demo/trial requests
- Organic MQLs
- Organic SQLs
- Organic opportunities
- Organic deals
Most SaaS marketing teams rely on these KPIs as the primary benchmarks for success. The tricky part is connecting the first set of SEO-specific metrics to these high impact ones.
At Directive, we rely on an LTV:CAC model to prove a return on investment for SEO activities. This model measures the ratio of lifetime customer value (LTV) against the cost associated with acquiring that customer (CAC).
The optimal LTV:CAC ratio is 3:1. A ratio that’s higher than this is a clear indicator that you’re under-spending on marketing. If the ratio is lower, take it as a sign that your marketing is costing you far too much.
Conversion rate optimization
Organic traffic is only as valuable as the conversions it fuels. So while your SEO strategy might be successful at generating a lot of inbound traffic, it’s equally as important to make sure those users are taking action once they land on your website.
To build a robust inbound marketing engine, you must also have a conversion rate optimization (CRO) strategy in place.
CRO is the process of optimizing your website pages in a way that encourages users to take action. If SEO is what brings traffic in, CRO is the thing that converts that traffic into leads and eventually, revenue.
Traffic without conversions is nothing more than a vanity metric.
SEO is a long-term play
With SEO, patience is key.
Sure, there are ways to generate quick traffic wins here and there. If your post goes viral on Twitter you can get thousands of web visitors overnight.
But launching a sustainable SEO strategy from the bottom up is going to take time. A loose timeline for results is 3-6 months. This will vary by industry, since different keywords have varying levels of difficulty and competition.
Most SEO experts agree that a realistic timeline is closer to 12 months. This is assuming you’re regularly publishing new content, building backlinks, and your site is free of technical errors.
Once you start to see initial traffic gains, it’s going to require even more time and effort to refine your approach for long-term success. As time passes, keep a close eye on Google Analytics and try to identify trends in the data. This will help you to improve your content and see what resonates the most with your audience (and Google.)
SEO is an ongoing process, not a one and done item that you can cross off your to-do list.
Leverage third-party directories
In the same way that you wouldn’t book a hotel reservation without reading reviews on TripAdvisor, many businesses look toward third-party directories and review sites for social proof during the software buying process.
Sites like G2 and Capterra have not only grown in popularity among B2B buyers, they’ve also grown to dominate the SERPs for many key SaaS keywords.
For example, when you search for “construction management software” you see that the top three organic results are all directories:
The reality is that most people don’t search for your company by name. They search for the type of software they need and then review their options based on the search results.
So, if your brand isn’t ranking for these keywords and you have no presence on the top directories, all of that valuable traffic is going straight to other vendors.
The main downside here is that many popular directories are pay-to-play — meaning you have to pay for placement. However, your marketing dollars go a long way when you’re capturing traffic at the top of the SERP and getting your name in front of in-market SaaS buyers.
As you can see, SEO is woven into many core aspects of SaaS marketing.
When combined with other search marketing practices, such as conversion rate optimization and paid media promotion, SEO enables your business to capture demand and fuel growth (for free!)
With this playbook in your back pocket, you’re armed with the right information to develop a custom SEO strategy that improves brand visibility, engages your audience, and drives qualified traffic to your website.
Discoverability always wins.
Director of SEO, Directive