It can be scary to develop a SaaS business and it can be even scarier to invest in SEO, particularly with so many self-proclaimed SEO agencies that might not deliver what they sell you (you’ve probably heard the horror stories)
How can you be confident that you are doing the right things to organically grow your SaaS business? What is the secret to properly performing SaaS SEO? Why is SEO for a SaaS different from SEO for companies in other niches? These, and other important issues, are what we are going to explore here in this guide to SaaS SEO.
Why the SaaS Business Model Changes SEO
In short, a business model for SaaS is one that charges clients for access to a software product, CRM tool, or suite of tools. As they are based on a product that is not tangible or has limited use, SaaS businesses are quite different from other business models. There are a few different ways to monetize a SaaS product. The most common is to charge clients based on their usage, whether that’s per month, per user, or per transaction. Other business models for SaaS include charging for support and maintenance, or offering the product for free but Upselling other products or services. The software development industry is moving more towards subscription-based models and away from the traditional one-time software purchase. This means that software developers need to be able to adapt their business models to reflect this trend.
Once created the product can, and usually is, changed, revised, expanded, and pivoted. In order to enter new markets and attract new demographics things are changing all the time, this presents SaaS companies with some unique challenges – and opportunities when harnessing the power of SEO in the organic search space.
A Rundown of Ranking Factors for SaaS SEO
While it is possible to describe the SaaS business model in a few sentences, the definition of SEO is a little more complicated.
There are many variables that affect the way Google ranks a given website. These factors are evolving all the time thanks to an artificially intelligent search engine that keeps getting smarter.
Therefore, in order to see SaaS SEO results, it is essential to have some understanding of the SEO industry and how it works for your company’s special niche. Here are some of the most significant factors that can impact how your website ranks on Google according to importance:
Google wants to offer its users the best possible results in its SERPS (search engine results pages) and so it pays very careful attention to the way users act when they leave the search page and hit your SaaS website.
For Google’s purposes, user engagement metrics involve how people connect with your website, how long someone spends on your website, your content clicks and interactions, page views (the number of pages visited on your website), what page visitors leave on, and whether they hit the back button or bounce early from your website.
Basically, although it can get more complicated, the more engaged users are, the more likely Google is to award your site with higher placement in the SERPs.
Lots of things change all the time in SEO, including SaaS SEO, but one thing remains constant: Google loves links. Not all links, some links they hate (more on that later) but links remain one of the most important SEO metrics Google takes into consideration when ranking a site.
Link metrics include techniques such as:
- Linking a separate domain to your own
- Internal linking on your website
- The best possible relevance and selection of anchor text that points to your site
- Understanding the domain authority of both your own domain and the page to which you connect via linking.
- Knowing your site’s domain authority and that of the different pages on it
You will also want to be aware of the existence of no-follow vs followed links and how they point back to your site, as well as the location of the link on the source page. The effectiveness of a link building strategy is measured by many other metrics, but these are some of the most important.
This is a broad category of ranking criteria, but some key factors can be narrowed down. These often include:
- The keyword for the target in your title tag
- How pages are optimized within the header navigation of your site for your target keywords
- How the content positions keywords, such as if they are put in page headers and intro paragraphs, used too often or not often enough.
- The content length
- How posts and pages on the site are cross-linked to other similar pages
- Coverage and use of specific keywords around the given subject
- Features of interactive content, such as tiles or cards connecting to other features or pages.
- Quality of content and its usefulness to your target audience.
Other factors relevant to on-site content, of course, may also affect whether a page would rank or not. For readers, quality is important, and you should provide them with helpful information about your product or the industry. Not only does this encourage traffic across other platforms, but it also raises the probability of visitors and shares returning—all the positive things that Google recognizes and rewards.
Technical SaaS SEO and Usability
Although these variables affect user experience, they also have some effect on how your website is crawled, indexed, and how quickly it can rank.
The fewer resources and time Google has to spend on crawling your website and indexing it, the quicker it is likely to rank. Factors such as how easily pages load, which can also be a crucial factor when it comes to user engagement, are included in the technological framework of your site.
Google also looks at how well the link design of your website is built and how many HTTP status errors occur (404s, 500s, 30Xs, etc.). These are found when your site is browsed by Google, as well as any settings for robots.txt, sitemap.xml files, or the manner in which your site handles CSS and JS files.
Although technical in nature, all of these things eventually impact user interaction, search engine rankings, and traffic. And they are, most of all, a solid foundation base for a well-built website.
Now that you understand more about some of the most important ranking factors for SaaS SEO it is time to dig deeper into just how it is all done, or how it is done as a part of a successful campaign at least.
Keyword research plays a huge part in any SaaS SEO campaign and it is important to get it right from the start, right from when you begin creating or revising, the content on your site and any content you may later publish off it linking back to it.
Users may input all kinds of terms if they are searching for the kinds of SaaS product(s) you offer, and it is up to you – or your SaaS SEO agency – to figure out just what those might be. Understanding what is known as search intent can be the single most important aspect of keyword research and developing a proper strategy.
The concept behind searcher intent predicts what the searcher wants to find while using a search engine.
SEO teams like to take a detailed approach to the analysis of keywords and what the overall likely outcomes are for a given keyphrase. It can also help to keep in mind why a potential buyer, particularly if your product falls under a highly competitive niche, may be looking for that specific keyword.
Therefore, we like to undertake the same searches ourselves. This allows us to get a ‘real-time’ idea of what kind of content Google “thinks” is important to the chosen keyword.
We collect research data from a variety of tools after creating a list of basic keywords. We will talk later in the guide about the tools we use and the frequency and difficulty of keywords. Finally, a targeted keyword list completes our initial keyword research work. It can be refined and extended, but when you start developing your SEO plan, even a simple list can serve as a strong base.
This is how we start off with SaaS keyword research, not all SaaS SEO agencies follow the same path. However, as it has worked for lots of clients in the past, and continues to do so, we think that our SaaS keyword research methodology is just about right.
Technical Site Issues
You cannot build something great on a weak foundation, and a website with technical issues is a weak foundation for any SaaS SEO project. That is why any issues should be tracked down, and rectified, before the real meat of any SaaS SEO campaign begins.
(Again, we are going to discuss the way we do things at Pearl Lemon, and we do them because they work.)
First, by conducting a thorough technical SEO audit, we can examine your site’s technical framework. This helps us to get an understanding of any and all SEO-related problems and how they may influence how users and Google’s access to the content on your site.
We typically review the website using a few different tools. The ones we use depend on how detailed we want the technical audit to be. When we have decided which areas need to be fixed, we first establish priorities for what to address first based on what is currently having the biggest negative impact on existing SEO.
SEO Content Issues
Once we have a handle on the technical SEO issues at hand, we dive into SEO content.
A basic SEO content strategy initially consists of looking at the target user you are trying to attract, their goal when searching for keywords, the actual keywords they are looking for and what content is available to – or can be created – provide them with the information – and trust level – needed to make a purchase.
Building a successful content strategy allows us to look at your website critically and decide where to position the target keywords too. Additional pages will need to be built in order to target keywords that do not currently have corresponding content on the web. More blogs may need to be added, or images and data (this is especially true for SaaS companies.)
Finally, we also need to look at how to organize and structure content so that it provides a relevant hierarchy structure designed for user interaction, whether that user is a human or a search engine bot.
Not only does a good SaaS SEO content strategy look at the posts and pages already on your website or the content that need to be developed for greater user engagement. A good SaaS SEO Content strategy also entails exploring the longer-term content creation cycle around targeted long-tail topics.
This ensures that when it comes to keywords associated with your industry, you cover every base and that you establish yourself as an authority within that space. This will allow your site to better rank your targeted keywords over time. It will also better engage your audience and build their trust in your company and products and services.
This can take a significant amount of time, but by creating blog posts and website content without relying on any objective, most content producers find themselves in the all-too-common “wandering in the desert” analogy.
Offsite Link Building SEO for Saas Companies
Eventually, any SEO campaign has to move offsite and start on that all-important link generation process.
There are some areas of SEO in general that are plagued with dodgy tactics that have tended to give the industry as a whole a ‘shady’ reputation at times. Link building is probably the biggest of those, and, in the link building arena, black hat SEO is a problem.
As we know that while black hat SEO tactics can produce some interesting short term results – as in a week or two – we also know that the outcome of shady link building is a painful lesson from Google in what happens if you try to game them. Recovering from a Google Penalty is hard, and often expensive, so why would you put yourself in that position in the first place?
While there is a multitude of SEO link building techniques and strategies that have come and gone, when building links for our customers, Pearl Lemon stands by an authentic and deliberate PR method.
Our team reaches out to contributors across various media (both generic and niche to the industries of our clients) and pitches content ideas based on a single piece of content on the client site OR a new piece of content specifically created for the outlet we are negotiating with.
The placement itself is a win-win situation. Publishers and content creators get high-quality content their audience can relate to, our clients receive a quality backlink to boost their SaaS SEO.
It is exciting to build links because your business does not invest the same budget on ads, specifically Google Ads, that will inevitably be taken down as soon as you no longer have a budget for it.
A link goes live instead and, over time, begins to add more and more value. Google is delighted by older links. The longer the link relationship is indexed, the more often we find that search engines trust the site to which the link points.
Building superior quality links means you get assets that will compound over time in order to boost your site. Not only will you start to rank higher in keyword searches, but that ranking will increase over time. It is difficult to build a good link profile and your competitors will have to work AWFULLY hard to outperform your rankings once you do.
Now that you have a better understanding of the way this all works – when it comes to working with Pearl Lemon and indeed working with SaaS SEO in general, we are going to loop back and take a closer look at some of the tactics and ideas we have just outlined and some ideas on how you can give it a go yourself.
SEO Keyword Research for SaaS
You will want to collect any data you have on your target customers to begin the keyword research process, grab a lot of notebooks, Excel sheets or whatever works for you and plan on spending at least a couple of hours on this initial keyword research for SaaS session.
Start by defining and creating a few categories that will help you group the various types of keywords that you find. Bear in mind, you can always change the categories later. Examples of keyword categories relevant to a SaaS business model are provided below:
Product Category (general) – Think of general words such as program, device, solution, platform, tool, etc. for this column.
Solutions – If multiple solutions are offered by your product, then from a solution perspective, think of words that apply to your product. Examples include increased traffic, risk mitigation, websites security, automation etc.
Features – There are possibly numerous features in your product, so split these out as keywords. Examples include accounting imports, security portal, export data, integration with ‘X’ api, etc.
Industries and Customers – If your business represents just one form of customer this will not apply, but if the majority of interest in your product is likely to be dominated by several customer groups or industries then these groups can be added as keywords too.
Integrations -Many tools incorporated with several SaaS products. This can be beneficial given that other businesses have search volume for their brand name, which you can use in your SEO efforts. Using any established integration partner, we suggest. HubSpot, QuickBooks, Stripe, Slack, Facebook, Drift, SalesForce, SquareSpace, and so on are examples.
Alternatives to Rivals – There is often a competitor who is already dominant in your space. For instance, let us assume you are building a CRM tool and your competitor is Salesforce. To get useful keyword suggestions and content ideas, consider using words such as ‘salesforce alternatives’ or ‘salesforce rivals.’
Another tip as you gather SaaS keyword ideas is to pursue plural and singular keyword variants, as they often carry different search volumes and search intent. We do not recommend that misspellings be used – an old, old SEO tactic – because it can be difficult to authentically place these misspellings in the content of your site.
Also, Google’s AI search bots are much smarter than their old ancestors. They know the right spelling of words and will instead recommend results using the correct spelling.
Do Some Manual Keyword Research
With your list in hand – or on screen – it is time to take the keywords you have brainstormed into the real world.
Fire up a browser, but one in in incognito mode, so that your personal search history will not color your results here. To get an idea of what Google thinks users want to see, evaluate the first 2-3 results for each keyword. This is important data for your campaign and may even give you new keyword and/or future content ideas as well.
As you gather keyword intelligence in this way, you will also start to learn more about search intent.
It is essential to include a column with the type of search intent that you can deduce for each one on your keyword list. Search intent examples may include the following:
Knowledge/Awareness – These keywords are used when the phrase has been made available to a searcher recently, but probably has not developed an opinion or is seeking education. For those words look for definitions in a rich snippet format.
Research– These keywords are slightly more comprehensive than keywords for awareness, although from time to time there might be some overlap. Searchers have become conscious of what the word means but are now researching to learn more.
Transactional – It is useful to target transactional keywords in a variety of cases since the search goal here is likely to purchase or obtain a new product or service.
It can often be difficult to deduce the search intent behind keywords, but keep in mind that a reasonable rule of thumb is to target long-tail keywords for the transactional side of things and more general, shorter keyword terms for knowledge.
Generic Keywords Vs. Longtail Keywords for SaaS SEO
By concentrating heavily on attempting to rank first for longer tail keywords, you will get your SaaS SEO project to the best possible start. These tend to drive conversions that can easily justify a larger SEO investment, while a higher investment of time and energy – as well as money would be required to get similar results for the more generic terms. If you can make gains there at all, which often startups in particular realistically cannot.
The opportunity to create a useful library of content that can ‘fan out’ under a more generic term is another advantage of concentrating on a long tail strategy. SEO is also about establishing trust and authenticity with both Google and your target audience – Google calls this E.A.T. – and if you can use long tail keywords to become ‘the people who offer great advice on X generic keyword term’ it can only be a good thing.
Choosing your Focus Keywords
By this stage you should have a nice big list of keywords and understand the search intent behind them. But you cannot use them all, so you will have to whittle your list down and determine the keywords you are going to focus on. Your focus keywords.
The key data points that we at Pearl Lemon choose to include in our SaaS SEO keyword research and the methods we use to source this information are below.
Search Volume – The simplest data point to remember when evaluating the value of a keyword is search volume.
This metric calculates the approximate volume within a fixed time frame of the search for a given keyword. The time frame is represented as the amount of the monthly search volume (MSV).
A monthly search volume based on a previous six-month average is usually used by tools such as Google Keyword Planner and Ahrefs’ Keyword Explorer. This average will provide a clear idea of how many people are looking for a keyword. The search volume will make it easier to exclude one keyword over another if they are pretty similar.
Difficulty – A Keyword Difficulty Score is given by tools like Ahrefs and WordStream. The concept behind Keyword Difficulty is to analyze Google’s top-ranking variables to build a score out of 100 that determines a keyword’s difficulty; the most difficult is 100.
Ranking – How your currently ranking for a given keyword will show how important Google thinks your site is for the subject.
If that particular keyword is more difficult, it is a strong sign that your website is already competitive. You should now target keywords with greater difficulty if this is the case and hope to be able to achieve movement.
This is also a great baseline for any SaaS SEO project. Later on, you will be able to look back and see how your rankings have been influenced by what you have achieved.
Ranking URL – The ranking URL helps decide the page for a given keyword Google thinks is most important. In certain situations, this URL might not even be the ranking page you would expect to see. You may want to make some changes right away in this situation.
Rich Snippet Results– Rich snippets are produced by certain keywords. Rich snippets are information that Google collects from a search query and shows without a user needing to click on the result directly inside Google.
These results often help answer a question quickly. If Google has chosen to pull this data from your site, ranking for a rich snippet spells authority for your domain. But they can be a double-edged sword.
Rich snippets can have a negative impact on clicks as users often do not have to leave Google to answer their query, so the traffic does not help your website. However, if the user is searching for more details in other situations and needs to go deeper, it is likely to be your site they head to next, as it was the one that – in their minds anyway – Google told them to by featuring it in a snippet in the first place.
SaaS SEO Keyword Research Tools
There is a growing list of analysis tools for keywords, but we only rely on a limited number of them. Everyone has their favorites, but ours include AHREFS, SEMrush and, of course, Google Keyword Planner.
If you are doing your own keyword research and are willing to use up a few hours of your time take some of the keyword tools that catch your eye for a test drive to see if they work for you. Or stick to the tools we mentioned, we promise they work REALLY well.
Eventually, you will be left with a list of keywords that you will then need to incorporate into almost every aspect of your SaaS SEO campaign from this point on. This is why keyword research is so important, it really does lay the groundwork for everything else you do.
About Those Technical Errors
Remember at the start of this piece when we mentioned addressing technical SEO errors in order of importance? You might be wondering what the order of importance is. As tech people yourself you may very well have the skills to tackle most of these yourself, but some do not have to be tackled as quickly as others when a new SaaS SEO campaign is getting off the ground.
At Pearl Lemon we tend to consider the following the biggest issues that should be addressed before any other, smaller issues that can be revisited as the SEO campaign progresses:
This is potentially your site’s most deadly technical issue, the Page Not Found error. If you get a nasty 404 page, you need to fix it but in certain situations, since the page loads perfectly, you might not even know that your server is creating a 404 error and you will see all exactly as you would expect.
404s will be identified in your crawling tool, so you should analyze those closely to ensure that they are not pages that you expect to be properly loaded. Since disappearing pages indicate a bad user experience, Google does not want to see 404s on your site. Either fixing the page if it is disabled or make a 301 redirect to the most appropriate location is our usual suggestion.
Google will not rank pages with a slow load time (more than 2 seconds), period. This is a Google direct declaration. This does not mean that it must take less than two seconds for your site to load, but Google thinks it would be very cool, so we suggest that you do your best.
This not only affects your SEO rankings by the way; it impacts your conversions because users are more likely to convert on fast-loading and easy-to-navigate pages. To determine what makes your site load slowly (no matter how fast it is), use a tool such as Google PageSpeed Insights, so you can optimize it.
This sounds like load time, but it means does your site load on the computer of the user appropriately. For example, does your site load as well if a user is on a mobile, not desktop? It should.
Years ago, Google stated – and continues to state that if your website does not work well on mobile devices, it will not outrank other websites that do. You do not want another edition of your website, either (one for mobile and one for desktop) either. That is an old, old practice that died out years ago.
Most people tend to think this term means content copied from somewhere else. It does, and that’s not good, but there is no longer an actual penalty for it. We still don’t suggest ever using anything but original content though, as although Google will no longer penalize copied content, they will not index it either.
Often a bigger problem is onsite duplicate content. This can be a big problem on product pages. If page after page has the same copy, then even the clever little Google bots get confused and do not know which of these pages to index. So, one of two things happens. Either they ignore them all and nothing gets indexed or they pick one for you, and it might not be the page you would choose.
Google will, however, honor a tag called a rel=canonical connection tag in the <head> portion of your sites. This tag refers to the original or preferred version of that page from various versions of a page, and it instructs Google to give the original page all the credit and authority.
If they are even indexed at all, pages that have very little content on them risk not ranking well. Thin content is described by Google as content that has little or no value to a user and is usually represented by pages with hardly any content on them. In certain cases, to complete a subject matter with more material, these pages need to be considered either for fleshing out further or for combining with other pages.
Missing Sitemap.xml File
There should be an XML sitemap file for your domain. It serves to feed Google the URLs you want their bots to crawl on the website, the priority of certain pages, and how often they are updated, so Google knows when to come back. This file will significantly help get your site completely indexed and regularly recrawled. So, it needs to be there, and it needs to work.
Missing Robots.txt File
The robots.txt file tells Google not to search or index certain parts of your site. This benefits Google because for whatever reason, there might be a lot of pages that you don’t want to be crawled (think duplicate pages or session IDs or pages that don’t serve users but are created by your server), and Google can then reserve its crawl budget for sections of your website that you want to crawl.
You can connect to your XML sitemap file inside this file to show Google the URLs you want to crawl, and that’s a great way to get the ball rolling on a good crawl. Although it is a really powerful tool, be careful how you use robots.txt, and with a single, misplaced “/” you might tell Google to deindex your entire site!
Content and SaaS SEO
Ultimately, content is what people look for as they search for Google or any search engine. And its significance lies in the fact that content functions as a bridge between the consumer and what you deliver as a product or solution for SaaS. Having a well-defined content plan helps create a path for the target audience to connect with them.
And what sort of content do users really search for? First, content can be direct and sales-oriented; the features and pricing of your SaaS product can, for instance, be clarified. Or by simply educating and/or persuading prospective customers, content can be more indirect and concentrate on the development of long-term brand loyalty. To effectively market your product or solution, both types of content are essential.
It is important to continually generate new and useful content for an effective SaaS SEO effort. And being valuable is the main component of the strategy for content creation. This means producing content that discusses your product’s issues, answers the questions of your targeted customers, educates them about the benefits of your solution and positions you and your company as experts in your field.
Although blogs can prove to be a huge element of your SaaS content development strategy, other types of assets, such as webinars, videos, and gated downloads, need to be integrated into the mix.
When it comes to what content to create first, we strongly recommend that you first address content that targets easily rated long-tail keywords. This will help you catch fast ranking wins and gain minor traffic bumps, which will ultimately lead to larger ranking movements for more general keywords with a high search volume later on.
The more you use a general keyword, such as “invoice automation,” through a series of articles covering a number of aspects of that subject, the more important Google recognizes that your content is to that subject over time causing the website as a whole to rank better and better.
You can then dive into more common search terms and ideas once you have mastered these quick-win keywords. At this point, what is important to note is to look for ways to nest the content that you create on your site under the same main theme or category so that you can completely flesh out key topics related to your product. For instance, on “invoice automation” you can come up with ideas such as; invoices for small businesses, Google sheet invoice templates, invoices for freelancers, etc…
Last but not least, to gauge what content your users are engaged with always pay attention to site analytics. You can always repurpose this material for other digital platforms, such as email promotions, social media etc. if you have a pillar topic that is well covered and seems to engage users well. While cultivating these leads, you can not only create another point of contact with your customers but also be able to drive traffic back to your website.
Need help with all this? That is not surprising, as this is a LOT of work and you have a product to develop, sell, maintain and update. Pearl Lemon can help. Our SEO team is well versed in the art of SaaS SEO and have helped companies of all sizes – and in all stages of their lifecycle, boost their search visibility, and, perhaps more importantly their bottom line via a focused SaaS SEO campaign.
Contact us here, and let’s start a conversation about how we can help you.