How SEO is overcomplicated (Guest post by Nigel Stevens!)
By Tracey Wallace
I’ve been helping B2B SaaS companies build revenue-generating SEO programs for a long time . . . and I’d like to see if you’re interested in buying backlinks for $25 each (kidding, KIDDING).
Tracey and I have been working together for nearly a decade (!) and she asked if I was interested in writing a couple issues of Contentment about something to do with SEO while she’s on mat leave.
I was super down, but, not gonna lie I started writing about 5 different pieces on VERY specific SEO topics . . . until I realized that I should start from the basics.
I’ve spent years explaining how to think about SEO to content pros, but never actually wrote it down. So, thanks for forcing me to do it, Tracey!
Hopefully this issue can help you understand how to frame SEO to leadership, better leverage it within your company, and begin to lay the groundwork for more content resources at your organization.
When I talk to founders or leaders from B2B SaaS companies, they usually say something to the effect of, “We know we’re doing something wrong technically and really need to identify it to fix our SEO.”
One of the great achievements of the SEO industry over the past 20 years is making SEO mysterious and misunderstood for people who don’t practice it.
There’s this omnipresent idea of an elusive technical fix that is always blocking you from success, which non-SEO people are incapable of understanding.
And this myth is totally perpetuated by the SEO industry, possibly intentionally to increase reliance on them? (I’ll leave that conspiracy for another day)
I believe that for most companies, SEO has become more difficult but also more straightforward than ever. That might sound contradictory, but let me explain.
For the vast majority of B2B SaaS companies, the #1 blocker to SEO success is not an elusive technical problem (though this can be the case), but instead building a system to create very good content that answers searchers’ core questions better than incumbents. Companies need to do this while also conveying their value prop and brand message. Harder still, is avoiding the internal landmines that make all of this difficult to do to begin with.
Which parts of SEO are important for B2B SaaS sites?
To explain why that’s the case, I’m going to start by redefining SEO:
I think this is generally understood, but the prioritization and importance is where people get really turned around with SEO.
For the majority of B2B SaaS websites, you can clearly divide these into creating growth and enabling growth. (Marketplace websites are another beast entirely, and won’t be covered in this essay)
If you take one thing away from this essay, let it be this:
Building backlinks, having a fast website, and strong site architecture—“technical SEO”—are not going to give you SEO results by themselves. They will just lift (or sink) the “boats” of your content strategy.
When it comes to technical SEO, the 80/20 lands you at 3 major considerations:
A quick disclaimer for the hardcore SEO peeps who read this: the summary here is a huge oversimplification, and these categories are not mutually exclusive – they all impact each other.
To expand on those a bit:
- Make your site indexable: This could get restated as “don’t f—- things up”. People are terrified of these mistakes, and for good reason.
I’ve seen a robots.txt crater a site’s traffic, and noindex tags mistakenly get applied to some or all pages. This can absolutely tank your search traffic and needs to be accounted for.
The problem is, the extreme outcome of search-crushing site errors has convinced most folks that it’s the problem (it usually isn’t).
- Page structure: a mix of ‘crawlability’ and also just having easy-to-parse pages. Headings, clean HTML, all that good stuff.
This applies for at both the a) sitewide level — are your page templates set up well?, and; b) page level — we’ve seen quick results from cleaning up individual page structure.
- Internal linking: do you have enough internal links pointing to each page, and do they provide some context around the purpose of the page? On that note….
Internal linking is by far the #1 “technical” problem/opportunity for B2B SaaS sites.
The first thing I ALWAYS look for when auditing a SaaS website is their internal link distribution. I would say 9/10 sites do a poor job of this.
Think of internal links as votes of confidence to your web pages. From Google’s perspective: if you don’t even link to it and think it’s good, why should they list it in search results?
Think of #1-2 as vitally important things you have to check, but more ‘boom or bust’ issues. They can absolutely crush you, but it’s probably not your problem if you’re following web dev best practices.
In contrast, we consistently see quick uplift by improving internal linking — and it also plays a vital role in crawling and indexing. My friends at Graphite have a solution to internal linking that’s worth checking out (no stake for me, just helpful!).
The thing is, regardless of all these technical points that enable growth, most companies are not doing the hard part that will help them create growth.
So if technical SEO isn’t always so complex, why is SEO difficult?
TLDR––success comes from content, and content is hard.
For most B2B SaaS companies, your success comes from:
- creating content that fulfills some aspects of search intent (“ranking”);
- differentiates from other results (“get clicks and resonate”)
- tying into your product or company narrative so that you’re delivering a message and driving an action (“converting”)
Doing any one of those things takes effort, but is doable. Threading the needle between all of them is where the value in SEO truly lies—and then making sure that everything else makes sense. This is where we concentrate our efforts at OGM.
Now, “content” is a much-used term that everyone defines differently. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll call it the content of a web page.
For online stores, “content” is everything on your product or category pages, or any other pages that provide information and answer questions (I promise I’ll bring it back to SaaS in a sec).
As a random example of the latter from the bike helmet company Thousand, they have a blog post on “bike helmet laws in California.”
People often think of B2B SaaS SEO as similar to ecommerce: get a bunch of high intent traffic to your “product” pages—which are usually landing pages.
Here’s an easy example with REI and “bike helmets”:
You go to the page and see that it’s a category page with an inventory of products:
This makes sense—while there are certainly ways to search for considerations with bike helmets, it’s kinda straightforward: I want a bike helmet, so I wanna see bike helmets.
You could look up “types of bike helmets” for details there, and, surprise surprise, REI has you covered.
Now let’s compare this to an example in B2B SaaS. Take an extremely competitive category, “customer data platform”.
Segment—one of the best known CDPs—is ranking #1.
But if you look at the page, it is not like an ecommerce page that says “here’s our product, now please buy our CDP” → https://segment.com/resources/cdp/
This is because unlike a bike helmet, or most ecommerce transactions, B2B transactions are usually $1K+ per year, and sometimes up to 6/7/8 figure contracts. To land deals like that and build confidence with a swath of buyers within an organization, there is education involved, and this requires content.
In Segment’s case, they had to create content that defines a CDP, but then also tie it into their narrative and product—otherwise, why even get traffic in the first place?
But if you applied the ecommerce/B2C mindset, you would spend all your time trying to get this landing page to rank for a simple transaction: https://segment.com/customer-data-platform/
I have a simple theory: aside from the overrated importance of ‘tech SEO’, a lot of the misunderstanding in B2B SEO comes from senior marketers conflating searches in their personal lives—such as “bike helmets”—with their professional vertical.
I’ll avoid the rabbithole of “long-form content vs landing pages” which I think is often oversimplified, but point being, this high-performing page didn’t just fall out of thin air.
Segment had to get the buy-in and resources to build it. This involved:
- Input from product marketers on how to talk about the product
- Understanding of the competitive landscape (typically coming from the product marketers, but also involving brand teams in terms of how the market is talking about the topic)
- Looking at what questions prospective customers ask, and answering them in the content (Google offers up some ideas. ChatGPT can, too. But your sales team is the closest on this)
. . . and finally, editors and writers to bring it all together. It was a big cross-functional effort that couldn’t be done in a silo.
And that’s the real problem: Far too many content and SEO teams are being forced to succeed in a silo.
Success in B2B SEO is about selling the vision and getting the resources
The biggest impediment to B2B SEO success is NOT technical issues; it’s the perception that doing SEO means “fix technical stuff and make SEO content rank”, and the resource allocation that flows downstream.
As readers of Contentment, I don’t have to explain to you that creating good content is nice in theory, but hard in practice.
There are many reasons why content is hard, but I want to focus on 2 organizational challenges:
- Budget for premium content production: content is often viewed as a commodity, and many leaders are anchored in 2012 prices. Even if they’re willing to shell out decent money for “SEO”, they draw a hard line at a decent content budget—and producing very good content is not cheap.
- To produce good content for (often complex) B2B SaaS products, you need a lot of input across the organization. Aside from the web and design aspects, there are many non-content dependencies to do a great job—product marketing, product, sales, and support to name a few.
I think these ultimately stem from an honest misunderstanding of how to excel in SEO.
Unfortunately, I often see content being viewed as a checkbox that does NOT require budget or the precious time of others at an org.
Case in point: we are a premium growth firm (aka, not cheap) that partners with companies to grow their organic traffic. Upfront, I always tell a potential partner that our shared success is dependent on doing content really well, and at enough volume.
But sometimes, even though this is understood in theory, the resources are not applied because there’s a core belief that if we just do SEO stuff, we’ll get the traffic. I could (and maybe will?) do a separate essay on how to get buy-in for SEO, but for now, I’ll just say forecast the traffic potential of the whole program, and the revenue you could get from it. My friend Kevin Indig made a good recommendation on this the other day.
Why is really good, high-quality content at volume content such a critical part of SEO success for B2B SaaS orgs? Well, because…
B2B SaaS is extremely competitive
You can get away with half-ass effort when a) you’re a well-established company that Google wants to reward, or; b) you’re in a low-competition vertical.
We’ve all seen very mediocre content ranking in Google SERPs, but it often meets one of the criteria above.
Most B2B SaaS companies are not yet well-known, and therefore need to win by executing well.
I often describe a pie chart that I finally had the excuse to create (thanks, Tracey!), comparing:
- The % of the entire web that B2B SaaS makes up
- . . . with the SEO resources that get deployed in B2B SaaS
The percentages are totally made up, but I stand behind the point: B2B SaaS is a microscopic slice of the web with a disproportionate amount of resources poured in. If you don’t believe me, check Crunchbase and filter to year = 2021!
If you want to not just compete, but also make your traffic impactful, you have to do it at a high level. And doing SEO at a high level means mastering these things:
- Building a system to consistently produce very high-quality content that answers searchers’ core questions better than incumbents, at volume
- Conveying your brand value prop and message within that content (because, again, why else produce the content at all?)
Getting tops-down buy-in for the vision and resourcing in your SEO program is the underrated ingredient for a successful program; otherwise, expectations will be misaligned and content + SEO teams will get overburdened.
The inherent contradiction with SEO is that there are a lot of long-tail factors that impact performance, but for most people, those turn into a distraction from the core parts that drive growth for B2B SaaS companies.
I guarantee that multiple SEO people will take sentences in this essay and blast me for being wrong; and in certain cases, they could be right!
You need someone around to help you navigate the weird long-tail so nothing major gets screwed up. But from an org perspective, focus on the core story around creating content and good things will happen.