saas seo

SaaS SEO: The 8-Step Guide to Building a World-Class Strategy in 2021

Fadi George
Dec 31, 2020

SEO is dead!

Yeah, right.

Times have changed. Technical SEO specialists are running out of tricks as modern themes are better built; CMS Systems are more sophisticated in their back-end architecture to take care of a lot of the technical stuff; content creators think that simply creating content will do the trick as search engines get smarter.

The reality is: SaaS SEO strategy is a balance of art and science.

But the bottom? Your content is about delivering value.

How to build a SaaS SEO strategy in 2021

A complete SEO strategy for a SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) company requires great planning (approach, scope, and content calendar), process (the regular cadence of content creation), and reporting (keeping an eye on where you stand in the SERPs relative to the market and your competition).

Follow this modern framework for building a world-class SEO strategy for your SaaS or Software company for 2021 and beyond - so you can drive sustainable website traffic, and short- and long-term business growth. 

Here’s the 8-step process to building a world-class SEO strategy for your SaaS venture in 2021.  

1. Coordinate a SaaS-focused SEO discovery workshop

The very first step towards building an SEO strategy is to discover your brand’s purpose, what you’re offering as a SaaS company, and what searchable terms you want to show up for. This includes internal or industry information, as well as external factors like customer behavior.

Kick off a workshop by answering questions to help identify the product or service. It can be as broad or as specific as possible. Start with very broad questions like “what would you like to be found for on Google?” Then, gain insights from questions about the specific features and functionality that the product has and what software categories it fits in. The answers you come up with will allow you to gain a better understanding of the verticals or industries you’re targeting.

Answer these questions in your SEO discovery workshop:

  1. Ideally, what would you like to be found for on Google?
  2. What questions are your ideal customers trying to answer?
  3. What features/functionality does your product have?
  4. Who are your competitors?
    1. Direct
    2. Indirect
    3. “In the space"
  5. What software categories would you define your product/service fits in?
  6. What industries/verticals are you pursuing?
  7. What are some examples of how customers use the product? (List of solution use-cases.)
  8. What are some industry terms/acronyms/jargon?
  9. What products do you integrate with?

For example, if your keyword is “document automation”. This opens up the opportunity to do keyword research around the features and functionality of document automation, such as “AI for documents”, by industry, such as “document automation for lawyers”, or by type of document, like “contract review automation” - not just the search for the SaaS solution - “document automation software”.
This gives you the ability to get significant rankings on broad terms by building up authority on the subject with long-tail, less competitive terms.

Try this SaaS SEO Pro Tip

SAAS SEO PRO TIP:

Depending on the industry, it's always good to analyze industry terms or jargon to recognize the search volume behind those specific keywords. Doing so enables you to get an idea of different keyword combinations you could be targeting.

Identifying your competitors should be the next part of your workshop. This allows you to capture data for competitive research. Cover questions like “who are my direct competitors, indirect competitors, and in the space?”, “What are the software categories that I want to be recognized in?” and “What questions can I help my ICP (Ideal Customer Profile) answer?”

The reason we capture this in the SaaS space is that there are likely companies you may not be competing with directly that rank on topics that you may care about too. It also gives you a great competitive landscape

Sometimes there may not be a direct competitor that's on your radar, but there is likely a company that has strong marketing and a solid SEO strategy that you can reference for your own keyword research in order to get examples and see where some keyword gaps or opportunities are. This leads us right into the next step: creating the keyword list and analyzing these competitors.

2. Create a keyword list and analyze competitors

Now the fun begins!

Creating a list of current keyword rankings is the start of step two.

Pick your SEO research tool, our favorite is SEMRush. Start by inputting the domain in the “Organic Research” and choosing a location-based index (i.e. if you’re in the US market, make sure that you are looking within that index). If you’re going global, repeat this exercise by region.

saas seo - semrush organicFind all current keyword rankings and then export the full list - try and keep it around 1,000-1,300 words so it doesn’t get too crazy. Repeat this process for each of your competitors and export the individual ranking data for each one.

Once the extraction (snapshot) is complete, now you can start the research and expansion.

Use the broad match on the Keyword Magic Tool, and start plugging all of the different keywords and variations that you've collected based on what you want to rank for and export everything that has proven volume behind it (at lead 10 searches per month) - keyword, seed keyword, volume, cost per click (CPC) and competitive density etc.

Importing all of your findings into a spreadsheet is the key action item from this step. This allows you to better organize your keywords while also gaining visibility of your positioning compared to your competitors.

If you're thinking: "Why is this so tactical?! I just need an SEO strategy."

It's all part of the plan.

Remember: “art AND science”.

Each competitor should have its own tab in your spreadsheet. This way, all of the competitive data, along with your data, can be stored in one place. A portion of your spreadsheet can and should also include a portion like the example below:

SaaS SEO competitors
In this instance, the first column is your company and the rest are your competitors. Each row represents a keyword and each number represents its ranking, which is linked to the content it is ranking for.

How is this done exactly?

For each competitor export, you plug in competitors' URL in SEMRush to explore the domain overview––rankings, traffic, authority etc. This gives you visibility to see exactly where and what you are ranking for alongside your competitors.

We will be adding our research template here. If you would like to receive it once we’ve made it public, please leave your email and we will send it out to you.

3. Prioritize your SaaS SEO keywords and phrases

This one is simple, a little laborious, but very valuable.

Once you have exported all of the keywords based on all the input data.

Create a column for keyword prioritization on your spreadsheet. For this step, it’s easiest to hide all columns except for your keyword and priority column so you can just focus on the terms. 

Mark your keywords with either "High", "Medium", and "Low". Remove anything that you don't want to measure against or prioritize. Once you have those all marked, filter for all of your high keywords and choose your top 10 or 15 keywords. 

The objective here is to get a priority list that is not based on buying intent, SEO value, or search volume - This will be your direction for framing and prioritizing new content. Having your top 10-15 keywords will set the core of the most important things to rank for, whether it's for demand generation, thought leadership, and/or owning a space. 

4. Map keywords to the SaaS buyer journey stages

Ah, yes. The buyer journey.

It's important to note that although the approach here is for "search engine" optimization, you shouldn't write for the search engines - write for the people. Add value with your content, and Google will thank you with good rankings.

The same process that you followed with the prioritization, repeat that, but with a column that maps each keyword to "Awareness", Consideration" or "Decision". This is especially useful for when you are developing a content marketing strategy or building web pages and landing pages. When looking at the buyer’s journey, you can get a better picture of how content fits together, and if you're leaning too much in one direction or the other when you get into a rhythm of regular content creation - too focused at the bottom, or the top of the funnel. 

Here's a great piece from MOZ about this.

Essentially, anything that's broad and typically has higher volumes, you place into the "Awareness" stage. These a typically describing broad topics and definitions.

The "Consideration" stage is where it can get a little tricky, as some can easily fall either in the awareness or decision phase. Consideration keywords are more exploratory. The user has identified their problem, they don’t know of a solution but they are seeking an answer. For example, something like “automated Word document from Excel”, would likely be in the consideration phase. Likewise, if someone is looking for a template that's a consideration – maybe they haven't decided that they're buying a software, but they're looking for something.

For software or SaaS solutions, there are a handful of terms that indicate buying intent - the "Decision" stage. Here are the words to look out for:

  • "Software"
  • "System"
  • "Platform"
  • "Program"
  • "Tool"
  • "Best"
  • "Buy"
  • NOT "Best Buy" :)
  • "Pricing"
  • "Review"
  • "for [Industry]"
  • "Alternative to [Competitor]"

Here is an example:

seo for saas - buyer-journey

Use your best judgment here. Having these mapped correctly provides your content team with a gauge of what content to produce and the keywords to target for your SaaS content strategy

Try this SaaS SEO Pro Tip

SAAS SEO PRO TIP:

For Software or SaaS companies, it’s best to save your decision-based, high-intent keywords for use in specific Product/Solution web pages rather than blog posts. This doesn't mean that they can never be blog posts, but they're best fit to be web pages that talk about the solution itself and seek to target a specific audience. A great way to support these high-intent pages with blog content is by creating a buyer's guide - it's great for sales collateral, lead generation, and building authority & trust as the user is evaluating different solutions.

5. Identify SEO opportunities and low-hanging fruit 

No junk food here.

Let's have our 5+ a-day of healthy, low-hanging fruit.

seo low-hanging fruit

Here, you look at your priorities combined with the buying intent (the person's stage in the buyer journey) - where you know the intent is high and visibility is low. For example, if a keyword is in the "Decision" phase and has a "High" priority, that's a really good signal for an opportunity.

Start by sorting your current rankings column from the highest position to lowest (lowest to highest numbers) and then identify opportunities for anything that's just at the bottom of page one to the end of page two (position 10 to position 30 - 10 because this result usually fluctuates between 10 and 11, which is on and off the first page). These are your low-hanging fruits - tackle these first!

The pages that are ranking for these terms have enough authority to have caught the search engine's attention. You can make a few simple on-page optimizations in order to get those up the rankings rather than writing and publishing something new that you have to wait to build authority for and hopefully see results for.

It's important to get those optimized to get onto page-1. Once you're on the first page of the SERPs, there is the opportunity to shoot straight to the top with a featured snippet - if you write and structure your content well, you can take the featured snippet (position one/zero). If you can get this position, the answer box makes it even more valuable.

featured snipped - saas seo example

After you have optimized for everything ranking from position 11 to 30 (your low hanging fruits), you want to go from position 31 onwards. Once you get to positions over 60, 99 would be the highest number that you'll see.

Since we all have to be resource-savvy - this approach allows you to get quick, sustainable results.

Why is that important?

  1. You can now quickly demonstrate the value of SEO; which will...
  2. Help you get buy in from leadership; which will...
  3. Allow you to get additional resources (or investment) to supercharge your efforts.

Try this SaaS SEO Pro Tip

SAAS SEO PRO TIP:

SEO is a sum-zero game - so you and your competitors will share a piece of the same pie (your market). If you look for opportunities where none of your competitors are ranking (Hint: usually lower volume terms) those are great phrases to chase. A lot of SEO's focus on volume, but if you rank for a handful of low-volume terms the no one is paying attention to, you'll get quick wins and build authority and contextual relevance for when you create content for higher volume terms.

6. Build your topic clusters 

If you were around in the old SEO days, this was referred to as building "silos" - helps your website build authority in your industry and makes your site easier for Google to crawl and understand.

This analogy really stuck with me, and I believe it's the best illustration of structure.

Let's play a game...

Find all the blue jellybeans.

saas seo jelly bean - mess

OK.

How long did that take? How much did you like that?

Now, find all the blue jellybeans.

saas seo jelly bean - cleanHow different was that experience?

The same way you enjoyed the structure and organization of the second jar, is the same way Google's crawler enjoys your site when it's well structured and organized - These organized silos are what is now commonly known as "Topic Clusters" (thanks, HubSpot).

So, in step, you need to group your keywords into clusters. Once you’re finished, sort your keywords in descending order by volume (highest to lowest). In most cases, from a content creation standpoint, you want to reserve your broadest term (usually highest volume) for your pillar page - this will be your long-form "definitive guide" post. There are examples where it may not be the highest volume, so it's more a "guide" than a "rule".

Start creating content with the lower volume terms (those will be the supporting pieces that will link up to your pillar piece) then create your long-form piece and touch on the various supporting elements from your supporting pieces. 

Ok, let's have fun with this...

Here's a fun example with "peanut butter":

  • "peanut butter"
    • "peanut butter cookies"
    • "jif peanut butter"
    • "peanut butter pie"
    • "peanut butter banana smoothie"

How do I know what topic cluster to tackle first? 

Sometimes this will be very evident right upfront. However, you can reference the high-priority keywords from step 3 to make a decision. If you’re still not sure what topic cluster to tackle first, talk with some other colleagues or stakeholders to hear their inputs.  

After you’ve grouped your clusters, choose the one that best encapsulates what your solution does. That’s the one you want to tackle first.  

If a cluster doesn’t have many options in terms of keywords, then go after the second-best. Once you've identified the clusters that you want to focus on, it comes back to the low-hanging fruits, or something that has been indexed (position 11 to 30 and then beyond). 

If it's not indexed, there are opportunities to find gaps where nobody is playing in this space. These are the next opportunities you can focus on to generate traffic and set yourself apart from competitors. When none of your competitors are showing up for keywords that are 10 searches a month, you can (and should) rank for them. 

Try this SaaS SEO Pro Tip

SAAS SEO PRO TIP:

Don't shy away from low-volume keywords. Even if you focus on 5 different keywords with an individual search volume of 10, you now have a total search volume of 50. Competitors might be focusing on one keyword with a volume of 50, but if you write five really good targeted pieces of content, one piece may actually rank for variations of these keywords and you may capture these higher-volume terms as well.

7. Conduct a keyword gap analysis

Once you have taken care of the low-hanging fruit optimizations in Step 5, it's time to find the content gaps to guide future content and ensure it remains relevant.

How do we use this to determine what content we should create to support the rankings that we already have? Or rank for keywords that we don't have? 

This is where Content & SEO alignment is as important as Sales & Marketing alignment. Essentially, what you need to do is find the gaps in your research. Your industry’s content gaps are where there's little to no competition, generally, for lower volume keywords – that where no one's paying attention. 

You might be thinking, “why would I want to target keywords where no one is paying attention?” Because SEO is, again, a sum-zero game. You can’t all get high rankings for the same thing. If everybody's driving down the same highway and there's a side road that no one's paying attention to, you can actually get to your destination faster, (the destination being page one). 

software seo gap analysis

Not only will you pick up traffic that no one is paying attention to, but you can actually get better results than your competitors, or at least compete with them as well if you tackle it from the bottom up.

Try this SaaS SEO Pro Tip

THE UNDERDOG PRO TIP:

Everyone is chasing the big, shiny object - the higher volumes. Thanks to Google's Rank Brain, it understands synonyms, plurals, and contextual relevance - so a piece of content or a web page will generally rank for multiple search terms. So, if you write 5 great content pieces or optimize 5 pages that rank for 5 of these low-volume terms each (10 searches per month) that's 250 in monthly search volume that no one is paying attention to.

8. Execute your SaaS SEO strategy (the 70/20/10 rule)

On-page SEO should never be overlooked. Use the following approach to executing your SaaS SEO strategy: 

  • 70% - On-page optimizations married with your content strategy will be what generates 70% of your results.
  • 20% - Solid internal linking architecture, error/broken link/page load speed fixes & improvements will give you the additional 20%.
  • 10% - the last 10% will be the diminishing returns with the heavy lifting with backlink building, social media efforts...etc.

The content and internal linking should go hand-in-hand if you follow all the steps in this post.

Backlink builders may not like this, but if you don't have anything VALUABLE to link to (see the first point at the beginning of this post), if you are not adding value to the person/company  (or their audience) that you are trying to get a link from, you will not receive any links.   

In addition to some of the body content, you want to optimize the URL, meta title, meta description and Alt tags. Your meta title and meta description are the only two areas that need to contain the exact keyword that you want to rank for. 

Try this SaaS SEO Pro Tip

REDIRECT SEO PRO TIP:

If you are updating the URL, you need to set up a redirect immediately. If you’re using HubSpot, it will take care of the redirect for you upon publishing. 

BONUS ARCHITECTURE PRO TIP:

All posts should also have an internal link in the first paragraph using the keyword or variations of the pillar piece. For example, if your pillar piece is on contract analysis, one of your cluster content pieces should have “contract analysis” in the first paragraph, while your other cluster pieces should have terms like “when considering contract analysis” as a variation because using the exact same phrase every time is a negative signal for over-optimizing.

SaaS SEO Q&A

Question: Can I link to content in different topic clusters?

You can, but ideally, you should keep linking within the same topic. From a technical standpoint, you want to have Google comb through to the page and crawl everything that this page is linking to (ideally in the same topic cluster). If it crawls and finds links that are related to each other, it makes it much more relevant for that topic. 

If you link out to others, it's not going to penalize you. But, essentially what's determining your site to rank is a bot. So, whichever way you can teach the bot that we're really relevant for this topic through internal linking. The objective is to keep the bot crawling through the same pages and then say, “wow, there's like a lot of content here”––writing really good, in-depth content that is linked to other relevant pieces increases your rankings. Additionally, adding external links can help you build trust, especially if you are linking to an authority site. 

From a linking standpoint, the reason we have the pillar page linked in the first paragraph, is because the very first link in your article gets the most authority fed to the next page. So, if you think of the exponential diminishing return is 80% for the first, around 20% for the next, 5% for the next, and lastly, .5%. The further down the page you go, the less of that authority it hands off. 

Question: What if the post I’m optimizing is more than a few years old?

If you’re working on an old post and the URL has been indexed so Google already recognizes it, you can (and should) republish it. This shows that the content is now relevant and up-to-date instead of years old. 

CAUTION: You don't want to unpublish your content for too long because it can potentially be de-indexed. So if the Google bot happens to crawl your site that night, you’ll lose your ranking.  

Question: How do you optimize images?

Your images should also have a level of optimization. The first step is to make sure they are compressed. You can use sites like compressor.io or compresspng.com

Next, your ALT tags should match your focus keyword––and be careful not to over-optimize. If  you have multiple images in your page, not every image needs to repeat your focus keyword, but rather descriptive variations of it. 

Another level of image optimization is including your keyword in the actual image title. However, if this image lives on multiple pages that have different focus keywords, that’s something to consider. If this is the case, keep it broad and high level towards your overall site topic, or maybe the solution that you offer. 

Build a world-class SEO strategy for your SaaS company

Your approach to SEO feeds into like many other things - your SaaS content marketing strategy, paid search and the overall direction of the company. This gives you the ability to consistently find your low-hanging fruit and identify the opportunities and topics that you should be covering first so you can achieve quick results. 

There you have it – our 8-step process to building a world-class SaaS SEO strategy:

  1. Coordinate a SaaS SEO discovery workshop
  2. Create a keyword list and analyze competitors
  3. Prioritize your keywords/phrases
  4. Map keywords to the buyer journey stages
  5. Identify your opportunities and low-hanging fruit 
  6. Build topic clusters
  7. Conduct a gap analysis
  8. Execute (the 70/20/10 rule)

Remember, SEO is an ongoing process, and SEO for SaaS is very competitive. Because of this, your SEO strategy should be continuously monitored for relevancy and improvements so you can produce high-quality results and drive revenue.  

Please let us know if you have any further questions, feedback on your own SEO strategy, or if this is something you would like our team to help you with  – we are more than happy to help.

You can reach out to contact@kalungi.com or to me personally at fadi@kalungi.com.

Happy ranking!

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