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The Truths and Myths Of SEO

The 4 Eternal Truths Of SEO (And The 4 Persistent Myths) Remember when SEO died? It’s like a cat with 9…hundred lives. With other ways to aggregate traffic, such as Social Media, and paid advertising, it does seem like SEO has become slightly less important. But the truth of the matter is that as long […]

The 4 Eternal Truths Of SEO (And The 4 Persistent Myths)

Remember when SEO died? It’s like a cat with 9…hundred lives. With other ways to aggregate traffic, such as Social Media, and paid advertising, it does seem like SEO has become slightly less important. But the truth of the matter is that as long as people enjoy and require good content, you will always have search… Even if people are speaking their search queries out loud and not typing them. So what will hold true for SEO in the future, and what myths have you been eating up? Let’s dive in…  

 The 4 Eternal Truths of SEO

With Google updating their algorithm daily, the only true constant is change. But SEO will always be based on user’s and therefore a few simple truths are always set in stone, despite what you may read in the next buzzworthy article you pass by. Those truths are:

1. You Always Need More Links

Inbound Linking Inbound links matter.  Inbound links will always matter. With all the changes Google makes to its algorithm (more than one change per day) the rumor has spread that back links (aka inbound links) no longer matter. While their weight has varied, the number of inbound links has always mattered and always will. But not all inbound links are created equal.  The search engines are assessing the “authority” of your site and very much consider the authority of the sites linking to you. A link from NASA counts more than a link from Joe’s Garage. And, while long-standing links can indicate authority, new links can indicate freshness and relevance. So always be linking.   Also, it’s important to clean up old links or disavow spammy links.  It can be a difficult (but well worth doing) activity to get low quality referring websites to eliminate their link to your site, but in the end Google will see that as a diligent webmaster deserving of higher authority. Google Disavow Links And a fair warning, disavowing links should be used cautiously. The last thing you want to do is disavow a link that is increasing your page/domain authority.  

2. You Need To Get The Site Right

Basic Website Layout Getting your site right, from an SEO perspective, means making sure that all the on-page elements are optimized for SEO.  Be sure there are no broken links or orphan pages. Install the appropriate SEO plugins for the platform that your site is built on.  If you are on WordPress, here are the main 3 you can’t live without: Yoast SEO – this one is hands down the best SEO plugin and they keep coming out with new updates that make it better and better. Their plugin has nifty tools that help you manage your meta headlines and descriptions, sitemaps, and more. If you’ve done any kind of work on your site already, then you probably already have this plugin installed, but making sure you use Yoast to the fullest extent is the most important part. WP Smush – this free plugin helps shrink image files down which will improve page speed load time for your site. WP Super Cache (or any caching alternative) – This plugin “cache’s” your pages, which is just a fancy way of saying taking your existing pages and making them easier and faster to access by your users. The details on how that happens is irrelevant for now. Just know that caching your site will help pages load faster, which is very important for SEO. There are many free or freemium tools available to help with this task.  Take a look at Yoast’s Ultimate Guide to WordPress SEO for more ideas on how to optimize your site.  

3. Quality Content Wins

Quality Content Now more than ever, the search engines reward quality content with high ranking. Let’s face it, there is a lot of noise out there. With over 2 million blog posts published every day, you need to write content that matters. And in order to do a good job, drive traffic, and convert that traffic, you will need to write content that is going to rank well. Every blog post you write should have the goal of ranking #1 for a specific keyword term. And with the average length of articles on the first page of Google having risen to over 2,000 words, that means you need to write something spectacular: Average Content Length What does this mean for your content marketing strategy? Maybe you should combine some recent articles to make one great one. Or maybe you should hold off on publishing for the sake of publishing. Consider rewriting your entire SEO and content marketing strategy to align with the core principle that: Crappy content will get you nowhere, and stellar content might also still get you nowhere, but at least you’ve got a chance. Jay Zo Quality vs Quantity As Jay Acunzo pointed out at Content Marketing World, it’s not about making quality over quantity, it’s about making MORE quality articles. Think about how to write great articles and begin to amplify those efforts. Avoid the content cliff (see above). And if you truly can’t do it yourself, then you need to hire an expert (or convince them to do it for free/exposure) to get the job done. Don’t hire a VA, and especially don’t hire a non-English speaking VA. Hire an expert! There aren’t great platforms out there right now for this, but I’m sure something is on the way.  

4. Never wear the ‘Black Hat’

Search engines always wanted to provide user with the most relevant results.  What has changed is their ability to weed out trickery and “black hat” SEO techniques with updates such as Google Hummingbird. Tricks like link farms no longer work and black hat activity in general has been rendered relatively ineffective. Even when “Black Hat” SEO techniques did work, it made no sense to use them.  This was because Google would inevitably catch-up with the practice and likely ban you or your client. Just look at what happened to JCPenny when Google caught them buying links:
Google Penalties Crush Your Traffic

image credit: searchenglineland.com

Being banned by Google does not make for a good day! And if you look at their backlinks, it’s fairly easy to see that they skyrocketed right around the November mark:
Abnormal Increase in Backlinks

image credit: searchenglineland.com

This is a tell-tale sign of faulty link building and it is very likely that Google’s algorithm can automatically flag such activity and then review your site for “activity against the Google webmaster guidelines,” which leads to removing your entire site from search engines.   Over time black hat techniques will only become less and less effective, which means there is absolutely no reason to take the risk.  Stick to creating content and building quality backlinks.  

4 Persistent Myths of SEO

There’s nothing like a buzzworthy headline to get people to read an article, but that doesn’t mean the content always holds true. Many authors and blogs pander to the “fear” side of marketing and feed some relatively embellished articles on the industry, just to get your eyeballs. Let’s quickly defunct some SEO myths right now, so we never have to worry about them again:  

1. SEO is Dead

Every few years, SEO is declared “dead”. But it never dies.  And it is not dead now. SEO will not die because Search will not die.  Search engines were a quantum leap beyond their forebear, the Yellow Pages.
Time Spent on Devices Mobile vs Desktop

Image credit: Smartinsights.com

Everyone searches, whether on their laptop or their mobile device.  They search for information, for products, for services, for answers… for everything. And SEO capitalizes on the fact that savvy marketers can now get their message/website/content in front of those who are showing purchase intent in real time. Intercepting and interacting with those users displaying purchase intent (whether at the research or buy phase) is the mission of Search marketing and of SEO.   And that mission will never die.  

2. It’s OK to “SEO” the Site After It’s Launched

Website Launch Checklist Just like you can install the plumbing after your new house is built.  SEO needs to inform the design and build phase of your site, not be added after the fact. On-page factors need to be optimized, such as user flow, heading and headline design, and the structure of your site and blog. And oftentimes line spacing is a critical and overlooked issue, as blog text needs to be made more and more for scannability. Content choices need to be researched as to search volume and competition so that your key static pages can be assigned the proper URL slugs. SEO is not something that is “one and done”.  Search is dynamic.  The engines change.  User search behavior changes. This means you need to start with a clear SEO strategy, and continue to improve and adjust as time goes on. Don’t treat SEO like an afterthought.  

3. If You’re Doing Social Media You Don’t Need to do SEO

SEO and Social Media can work together, but one is not a substitute for the other. Google’s Matt Cutts  has said that social media signals do not effect site rank: But then, he has also said (previously) that they do. Clearly social signals have some sort of minor factor in your rankings, as they made Moz.com’s search ranking factors, but certainly not enough to ignore SEO altogether. They work more in conjunction with each other, whereby social media can amplify content, get page views, backlinks, and engagement that tells Google the page is worth ranking. Marketers generally assume (or hope) that social media content at least conveys “link juice”.  But it is very clear that social media does not replace the need for SEO.  

4. Spending Money on Paid Search Helps Your Organic Rankings

Paid Vs Organic Unfortunately this is not true. SEO would be easier if there was a linear relationship between paid search spend and organic ranking, but there is no such correlation. But, paid search provides a powerful resource for choosing your keywords. Google Keyword Planner is still one of the best ways to build a content keyword strategy. Simply log into your AdWords account (you can create one for free), navigate to Keyword Planner Tool, and type in the keywords that you are thinking of: Ballet Piroutte Here we see that the term “pirouette ballet” is searched 480 times and the term “how to do a pirouette” is searched 880 times. This means, that if we were creating content on this, our URL slug should probably be “how-to-do-a-piroutte” but we should likely include the phrase (or it’s likeness) “piroutte ballet” in the article. Also, take a look at the Google search results for this keyword: Google Search results ballet pirroutte   Notice the top 3 positions are a written step by step and then 2 videos. We can assume that when people are searching this term, they want to see it happen in a video, not read about it. Google knows that… So don’t try and rank #1 for this keyword term without a video. In fact, trying to rank in the top spots for this term at all will be very challenging, so if you are beginning your content strategy, you should probably start somewhere else. Or, create your content, and use paid search to outrank the others… Because as we saw in the search results, no one is bidding for this term. So while paid does not influence organic ranking, the two can be used in conjunction with each other to build a content and SEO strategy that delivers the results you are looking for.

The Future of SEO

Image Credit: VentureBeat/Chris O’Brien

Above: Behshad Behzadi, director of search innovation at Google’s Zurich lab. You can see a clip of Behzadi’s presentation here.  

So what is the future of SEO?

 Well, that depends on the future of search.  And what is the future of search?  Who better to ask than Google? Speaking at the Futurapolis Conference in Toulouse France, Behshad Behzadi, director of innovation at Google’s Zurich Lab, addressed the subject: “The future of search is to try to build the ultimate personal assistant,” he said. To that end, there are four aspects of search that, according to Behzadi, will continue to be dramatically changed and reinvented in the coming years: Voice – The future will include voice searches that will be as natural as most conversations with other people. Context – Google’s algorithms will be able to link your searches to understand what you’re trying to find or figure out. Location –  Location awareness is becoming more powerful and will become proactive in alerting you to things nearby that may be of interest. Personal Information –  As Google learns more about you, it provides more and more reminders, or suggestions.  As it collects more data, expect those results to become even more specialized.  Especially in Europe, this raises controversial privacy issues.   Whatever the future of search, SEO will be along for the ride.  Google looks into the future of search and sees the ultimate personal assistant.  But have no doubt that an army of SEO professionals will be doing their best to influence the suggestions that ultimate personal assistant makes. What do you think? Is SEO an important part of your strategy? Are there any other myths about SEO you’d like to bust up? Leave your answers in the comments below. About the Author: Bob Heyman Bob Heyman is known as the “Father” of SEO, having both coined the term Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and having co-founded the first search marketing agency.  He is the co-author of five best-selling books about internet marketing, including Net Results and Digital Engagement.  His most recent books are SEO 4 Authors and SEO 4 Small Businesses.  He has co-founded three internet marketing agencies.  His clients have included Intel, Avon, Bristol Myers Squibb, Sothebys’, World Vision, Sony, REI and Trend Micro.

Case Study: How to grow your SaaS startup to 10,000 paying customers

How Intercom Got $10mil+ in Annual Recuring Revenue Without Splashy Media Coverage, a Sexy Story, or a Famous Founder While companies like Slack have earned praise, press, and huge valuations for their rapid growth, an Irish-born startup called Intercom has been quietly but steadily creating a new category of software. And even though the company is still in the […]

How Intercom Got $10mil+ in Annual Recuring Revenue Without Splashy Media Coverage, a Sexy Story, or a Famous Founder

While companies like Slack have earned praise, press, and huge valuations for their rapid growth, an Irish-born startup called Intercom has been quietly but steadily creating a new category of software.

And even though the company is still in the “early adopter” phase of its market development, its products making in-roads into the low end of Salesforce’s, Marketo’s, and Zendesk’s markets.

In the last 12 months, the company doubled its customer from 5,000 paying customers to 10,000. They’re generating tens of millions of dollars in annual recurring revenue. Most recently, they raised a $50 million dollar venture round.

While this kind of growth is rare for even excellent SaaS products, Intercom’s story offers lessons for every SaaS startup founder and marketer around.

So how can you create, market, and sell a product that catches on and grows?

The key – if there is only one key – turns out to be simple (even though it’s hard): build a product that solves a big, expensive problem that you, yourself deeply understand.

This is exactly what Intercom’s founders did when they built Intercom to solve the problems they, themselves, faced when marketing, selling, and providing support to customers using a half-dozen different tools.

As they built their product, they discovered that a whole lot of other people had a similar set of problems. As Intercom grew, they found more ways to use and expand their offering to address both their own growing pains and the demands of a rapidly-expanding set of customers.

Of course, there’s a lot more to the story, and it can teach all of us a few lessons about how to create successful products.

 

It’s hard to define a new category when you’re the only one in it.

If you’re setting out – as more than a handful of founders have – to build a faster, cheaper, or better designed version of Zendesk, the problem you face is clearly defined: you just have to look at Zendesk, and ensure your product is faster, cheaper, and/or better designed.

Same thing goes for sales software, task management, or any other pre-existing category: you can look at the dominant players in the space and potentially carve out a niche by mimicking their best features and improving on their worst.

But if you’re building a complex, category-defining product, the problem is a lot less constrained.

You can’t simply say “We’re Uber for Salesforce!” and be done with it. You have to define what you’ve built without a clear reference point, and this is almost always incredibly hard.

Indeed, defining the product in clear and compelling terms (i.e. getting your product marketing right) seems to be an ongoing challenge for even founders and marketers of successful, high-growth SaaS startups everywhere. It certainly has been for Intercom.

As Intercom’s founder and CEO, Eoghan McCabe told me in an interview:

When we started out, we didn’t know the full breadth and depth of the competitive landscape. We didn’t frame the whole Intercom vision and the idea around what already existed. We simply started to solve our own problems and took it from there.

Because we weren’t entering a pre-existing product category, we struggled to explain not only what it was to the rest of the world, but even we struggled to understand it ourselves. What is this thing we’re building? Why does it matter? Why are people so excited about it? That was basically the fundamental challenge that touched every component of the business, whether it was on the product side, or the go-to-market side.

And, as even McCabe will admit, even though Intercom’s team has come a long way in understanding what they are creating, they still haven’t completely nailed down the language they use to describe it.

But if you’ve built a compelling SaaS product and are having a hard time distilling its essence, here’s some good news: Clay Christensen, the famous Harvard Business School professor and product marketing mind behind The Innovator’s Dilemma, came up with a framework that can help you.

This framework, lesser known than Christensen’s classic theory of disruption, is known as “Jobs To Be Done.

   

How Clay Christensen’s “Jobs To Be Done” framework can help you explain your SaaS product

Christensen’s “Jobs To Be Done” is a product marketing framework that helps you articulate your product’s position and value. It boils down to asking yourself “what ‘jobs’ do my customers ‘hire’ my product to do?”

To make this concrete, let’s say you’ve built a big, beautiful collaborative task and project management application. The job your customers hire that product to do may include:

  • Keeping their teams and themselves focused on the most impactful work
  • Tracking and prioritizing bugs and feature requests
  • Planning a complex marketing campaign
  • Creating repeatable systems and processes that they can delegate to junior people on their team.

Applying “Jobs to be Done” to its full capacity enables founders, product people, and marketers to go beyond demographic-driven “buyer personas” and “user stories” and start to understand the purpose of their products in more concrete terms.

According to Intercom’s McCabe, the “Jobs To Be Done” framework has been invaluable for his team.

Jobs to be Done focuses us on these nuanced problems that arise in people’s lives. If you understand the nuances, you can then understand the specific criteria that the product must have. And then you can focus on building a product that fits those criteria and solves those problems. Anytime we want to build a new product or a new core feature in a product, we’ll actually write out the job to make sure we understand it.”

Now, if you take look at the top of Intercom’s homepage (screenshot below), you’ll see that the headline is a bit murky.Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 4.56.18 PM

The fuzziness of this headline shows that even with the “Jobs to Be Done” framework in the background, boiling down Intercom’s essence to a single sentence remains a struggle for the company.

But applying the framework has helped Intercom do what few startups are able to do: break its core product into multiple successful products AND launch a new product line that catches on.

   

How to split your core product into separate products without losing momentum

Breaking up your core product into separate products can be an intensely risky move. Do it wrong and at best, you piss off your customers. At worst, you lose tons of them. Let’s look at how Intercom did it right:

When Intercom first launched, everything came bundled together. You got all of it–the support, marketing, and product feedback tools–for a price that varied based on the number of active users you had in your database.

But a couple years back, the company broke its core product into three separate products, each one targeting a specific “job” that a given team inside a SaaS company needs to do:

  1. Engage. This is the marketing product, intended to eliminate the need for a full-fledged marketing automation system like Marketo, Pardot, or HubSpot. Engage helps marketing teams on-board new customers and retain old ones by sending automated messages based on their behavior inside an app. The job here is to transform potential customers into actual customers without requiring hands-on contact from a salesperson or customer success team.
  2. Learn. This one is for product teams who need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of their users. It makes it easy for product managers and research teams to send highly-targeted messages to customers, based on what they’ve done (or haven’t done) inside the product. For example, you might use “Learn” to send a message to the 40% of your users who aren’t using that fancy new feature you just launched and ask them why not.
  3. Support. This is a tool for support teams who need to deliver customer support without turning everything and everyone into a “ticket.” Its features include a “Team Inbox” that lets a support team distribute support requests and basic reporting features to track how long responding usually takes.

The benefits of the Jobs To Be Done framework is clear here. Before Intercom implemented the framework, its product was much harder to explain, and perhaps even harder to sell.

   

Jobs To Be Done can also help you grow faster

By dividing the product into a set of jobs and then splitting the core offering along the lines those jobs create, Intercom can punt on its core positioning challenge. After all, if the company can sell individual products to the individual teams who will benefit most from using them, they can tell three individual stories, rather than a single unruly one.

And of course, once they’ve made in-roads into a company with one product, it becomes much easier to sell another product to another team. Eventually, the whole company is using Intercom, and paying a lot more money to boot.

This is a version of the “land and expand” enterprise sales strategy, where a sales team sells a specific product to a specific team or division of the company and then uses the opening that product creates to sell across and up the chain.

For Intercom, whose customers tend to be small and mid-sized SaaS companies rather than Fortune 500s, the “land and expand” process requires a bit less sophistication (and fewer salespeople), but the principle is the same.

   

Jobs To Be Done can even help you launch new products that catch on

According to research by an entrepreneurship professor at North Carolina State University, about 40% of all new products fail.

We see this all the time in technology, when even our favorite companies put out new products out that fall flat. (See: Twitter’s Moments, Facebook Home, Google Glass, Amazon Fire Phone).

Failed products are a sad way to waste a ton of money, human output, and morale, and while there is a much better, lower-risk way to build and launch new products, very few companies do the necessary legwork.

But in October of 2015, Intercom did what so few companies manage to do: they created and launched a brand new product that caught on and grew fast.

This product, called “Acquire,” is an alternative to the live chat software you put on your website to talk to potential customers. And while Acquire would benefit from more sophisticated ways to capture email addresses and communicate with potential customers, it does the job of converting website visitors into new leads fairly well.

When Intercom launched Acquire, they had around 6,000 paying customers. On the back of the new product, that number rapidly hit 10,000. But as McCabe will tell you, launching a new product that nearly doubled his business wasn’t 100% pure luck.

As he says,

Before we built Acquire, we already had people trying to install Intercom on their marketing sites, even though it wasn’t something that we designed Intercom for. A lot of people made that request. So when we launched it, we had a really high degree of confidence that it was something that people wanted.

By diving deep and investigating the unconventional ways your customers already used your products, you can discover the big gaps in your offering. Equipped with these insights, you can build a new product and be confident that it will have instant appeal.

This sounds simple, but it’s easy to get it wrong: building a new product you know your existing customers will love is far less risky than attempting to concoct something new and compelling from thin air.

Of course, even if you focus on building new products for your existing customers, it’s still easy to slip up. Indeed, McCabe says that when Intercom first released Acquire to the public, the product faced “really aggressive churn.”

It was rocky going, but the team had a clear path to addressing the problems and getting their product right. After all, Intercom’s own product happens to be expressly built for collecting feedback about itself.

   

How regular, “expensive” communication with your customers pays huge dividends

This brings it all back around to the beginning: Intercom got started because Eoghan McCabe and his co-founders looked at their 10 years of experience building, marketing, and selling software and concluded that the conventional processes and tools were a disaster.

As he says,

When you think about how humans want to interact, and then you look at how most companies talk to their customers, those two things look very different. They spam them. They treat them like tickets, like statistics. Sales, marketing, and support teams talk across each other so that the customer gets the opposite of a holistic experience. That’s the status quo today: Many different teams in many different apps; no one on the same page about the customer; everyone treating customer like data points and tickets rather than humans.

The solution he and his team came up with was Intercom: an all-in-one tool for communicating with your customers in a far more personal, human way.

The challenge, of course, is one of scale.

When you have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of customers, how can you possibly give them the attention necessary to make them feel like you care? And even if you could, should you?

McCabe’s perspective here is instructive, so I’m gonna share a bunch of it.

Every single conversation we have with every one of our customers goes through Intercom. There’s 50-odd people on the sales team talking to people every day. We’ve got our product folks building segments and getting feedback from different groups of our users and customers. Our research team also talks to our customers in Intercom. Our customer support team does too. I even jump in there to see what conversations people are having and talk to customers, too. While other companies try to add efficiencies over time and try and reduce conversations, we are fully committed to increasing the amount of conversations we have with our users, and always being available.

If all of that sounds like an expensive way to engage customers, it is: McCabe intends to grow his sales and support teams to “many hundreds of people in just a couple years.”

But instead of treating personal communication with customers as a cost center that would ideally be automated, Intercom treats it as an investment. Indeed, McCabe sees all of this interactions critical to Intercom’s growth and success.

   

Final Thoughts: Your existing customers are actually a goldmine of strategic insights.

When new users are confused about your product and tell you, that’s an opportunity to improve your messaging and your on-boarding. When a feature you just launched isn’t getting traction, talking to customers that haven’t used it is a great way to find out why not.

When you talk to your customers as a matter of practice, you can learn all about the strengths and weaknesses of your product, the accuracy of your marketing messages, and the efficacy of your internal processes.

Yes, communicating with your customers in a more human fashion is expensive.

But you know what else is expensive? Failing to understand your customers, watching tons of them leave, and building products that don’t catch on. 

So what do you think? Are you talking with your customers on a daily basis? Or is your company still considering it a cost instead of an investment? Let me know in the comments below.