Joel York advises software companies to first choose a large market for their SaaS product.
The second recommendation he makes in his series on The Top Ten Dos and Don’ts of SaaS is to Create a Hub on the Web.
Joel says if you are in the business of SaaS, “you are by definition a web publisher. Web publishers are obsessed with increasing site traffic and converting it to registered users. On the web, there is only one source of traffic: links. “
If you want to drive traffic to your site, then you must become a nexus of incoming, high quality links from sources that are relevant to your business, and most importantly relevant to your prospects’ needs. There is nothing else as cheap or as effective at generating online demand.
How do you become a nexus of incoming, high-quality links?
Links come in two flavors – paid (transient) and unpaid (permanent).
Let’s put to rest right now the question of whether you should use paid links (e.g. AdWords). The short answer is no. They are expensive. And more important, you need to invest your resources into content that will produce permanent links and pay dividends for years.
(The only caveat to the use of paid links: Use them when you want to use AdWords to test keywords for your site.)
That means you will be relying on unpaid links to bring people to your site. The unpaid links you earn will come from two sources.
- Links that are the result of searches in Google.
- Links from other websites.
Let’s shorten the learning curve on links, shall we?
You can chew up a lot of time reading about SEO and how to get more inbound links — time you could spend on your business, your product, or with your family.
I am going to save you a lot of time and summarize Patrick McKenzie’s recommendations on this subject. Not that you shouldn’t read Patrick’s material. You should. You can read his primary blog posts on SEO and links here, here, and here. Or go straight to his book, Sell More Software.
Patrick’s advice boils down to this: Be strategic. Treat your website like a product. Put in place repeatable systems and processes. Produce lots of content on a focused topic that interests you and your customers.
If you take these actions, your site will rank higher in Google for relevant keywords and other websites will link to pages on your site.
Ok, let’s get into the specifics of SEO and attracting links.
Strategic SEO for your site
Patrick McKenzie explains that small business SEO is different from the SEO that Walmart or Bank of America practices. You’ve got some things that work against you.
First, you’ve got a limited budget. Second, your site has low domain strength and trust with Google. And finally, you may believe that SEO is a black art that primarily aims to manipulate Google’s results. You may be reluctant to take the actions which will make it easy for Google to spider, index, and rank your website content.
On the other hand, McKenzie points out that small software companies have a few advantages. You’ve got strong technical skills. This means that you can engineer your way to marketing success in ways that other companies, large or small, cannot do.
Your second advantage is that you live in a link-rich ecosystem of other software companies and the people who follow them. This is a community where “online interaction forms a substantial portion of the personal and professional identities of your peers.” In other words, if you’ve got something interesting, your peers in the software business are going to link to it.
How do you leverage your SEO advantages? Not by focusing your attention on the micro-tactics of on-page optimization or searching out one link at a time.
Instead, McKenzie recommends a more strategic approach.
SEO is a feedback loop
Think of SEO as a feedback loop. Authoritative sites for a set of terms tend to attract more links and become more authoritative on those topics. When people search on those terms, those sites will tend to rank at the top of the search page. Sites like Wikipedia and Amazon. It’s a “winner take most game.” Search engine results at the bottom of the page get a few clicks, while most of the clicks go to the winners at the top of the page.
You aren’t going to displace those authoritative sites for popular terms. Instead, go down the long tail of search terms. Become the authority on search terms you can win.
Create lots of educational and free content on search terms that matter to you and to your audience. Use an agile approach and see which topics attract the most people who visit and engage with your site. Iterate and create more content on those topics.
Thus, my generic SEO strategy for a startup is a) be the best on the Internet for b) as many topics as you possibly can be that c) matter to your paying customers.
How do you scale your SEO?
If you are reading this you probably don’t have a large marketing department that can crank out high-quality content that will improve your position in a large number of long-tail search results.
So how do you create large amounts of content that is good quality and that satisfies your visitors? McKenzie says to “leverage the unfair advantages that you have because you’re the smallest guy in the room.”
- Data you can’t get anywhere else. You are collecting data all the time about the usage of your software. Are there insights to be gleaned from your aggregate data that people will find interesting? For an example, take a look at the articles that OKCupid has written about topics like how race affects your dating preferences.
- Focus on evergreen content. Avoid writing about current events in your blog. These articles go stale quickly and will not attract links over time. Instead, write material that educates your audience about your topic. Look at Copyblogger. They’ve written thousands of articles over the years about copywriting. They’re timeless. You can read their series on headlines from several years ago. It’s as useful today as it was on the day it was written.
- Agile — not just for the product. Use your analytics to track which articles get traction and which ones don’t. Or articles on ten topics, send them to the email list of your existing customers and see which one or two topics generate the most interest. Then create more in-depth resources on that topic.
- Blog your email. When you (or pre-sales support or customer support) answer questions from prospective or current customers, you are likely answering a question that many other people would also like to hear answered. Why not make it public and publish your response in your blog?
You can’t afford to ignore SEO. Most people still rely heavily on search engines (Google) to find what they want on the internet. Even as a small software company, you can be successful with SEO. You many not have a huge budget, but with a little sweat equity and creativity you can rank well for lots of long-tail terms that cluster around the topic of your business.
How do you get people to link to you?
When you create content for your website, think of yourself as a teacher. You are working to educate and build a large community of people who are interested in the kinds of problems that you know how to solve. Some of these people will become customers. Others will not. But you all share a common bond. Be generous with the people in your community. Create valuable content. Link out to them. Connect them with each other.
Using this approach, here are some of the things that Patrick McKenzie has found successful in building links to his site:
- Make some friends, fans, or fans into friends. Find the online community that is interested in solving the same kinds of problems you want to solve. Engage with this community. Answer questions on their forums, write guest articles for their blogs, become friends with them. Give them a reason to like you and to become interested in your success. Links are likely to follow.
- Blog for your customers and people like them. Learn what topics interest your buyers, the problems that trouble them. Write on those topics. Create real educational value for them. Give them compelling reasons to link to pages on your site.
- Create resources your customers and people like them can use. If you are a non-technical person and you use Google Analytics, sooner or later you are going to have to learn something about Regular Expressions. Robin Steif at Lunametrics was in that situation. So she learned how to use regular expressions. Then she started teaching others. Then she wrote a book and distributed freely online. Her posts and her book have been useful resources for her customers and others. They have produced many links into her site.
- Create resources that other people like to use. Robin also created a Social Media Sizing Cheat Sheet. In the year after she published it, the cheat sheet received 500,000 pageviews! Although many of the people who used this resource were not customers or even potential customers for Lunametrics, the links to the page produced a huge boost in overall traffic to her site.
- Do it with style. People who could visit you site have a lot of choices. Once you have engaged them you can present them with your text that educates and builds trust. But first you have to engage them. And you will be more successful if your site uses a clean and attractive design with some great looking illustrations. People who might link to your site are going to be more likely to tell their friends if they know they are sending them to a place that will be like Leonard’s babies on Big Bang Theory, smart and beautiful.
- Do it to scale. If you create a resource on your site, is it possible to scale to a 100x of the resource? Patrick McKenzie did it with Bingo Cards. Robin Steif did it with Regular Expressions. With good information architecture, site design, and the ability to quickly show the usefulness of your resource, you can build a site that becomes the reference site for your area of expertise.
- Make your content easy to share. With the programming skills in your shop, can you make it easy for visitor to embed your content on their site? Every time they do, you’ve created value and good will for them, and a link back to your site.
- Write like an Authority. In any specific domain on the internet, only one winner emerges. This winner becomes the Authority for that domain. All the links in that domain flow to the winner. The winner becomes Filthy Linking Rich. Better to pick a smaller domain, become the Authority, and win than become an also-ran in a larger domain.
Just because you are small doesn’t mean you can’t become a hub on the web
The way to bring traffic to your site is to become a nexus of incoming, high-quality links. Focus on unpaid links from SEO and links on other websites. Be strategic in how you attract traffic through links. Give your website as much attention as you give your product. Produce lots of content on the specific topics that interest you and your customers.
photo credit: Glory Cycles