SEO is hard. SEO for product pages is even harder. SEO for product pages for products that don’t exist? Seemingly impossible.

However, with the right approach, it’s really not much harder than ranking top-of-the-funnel blog content. In fact, the process can be scalable across multiple product pages and you can leverage quality content creation to do so (not just a high domain authority or thousands of pages and user generated content).

At HubSpot, Scott Tousley and I took on the challenge of ranking product pages for products that are yet to exist. We did it through a traditional HubSpot content-heavy approach, and leveraged what is known as our Pillar & Cluster model (more details on this in a minute) to feed product page SEO (more details on the model in a bit). We also heavily invested in content promotion and link building tactics, which anyone can do, regardless of resources or company size.

The results in only 3 months (October through December 2017) were solid. Here’s an example of our customer feedback software page ranking at number 3 (above companies with live products):

In this article, I’ll walk through the higher level strategy of why we chose the approach we did, and then I’ll also dive into tactical tips to apply this knowledge at whatever business scale you’re operating.

Product Page SEO: An Indirect Content-Based Approach

It’s really hard to build links to product pages.

For obvious reasons, those writing content are not jumping in excitement to write promotional pieces with product links. Some opportunities exist, but not enough to outrank product pages that have been around for years and that have acquired natural editorial links with time.

Similarly, it’s not feasible to create massive content-heavy product pages. We needed something simple, because as I mentioned, the product wasn’t actually live yet.

So to get past those hurdles, we leveraged link equity and site architecture.

Specifically, we followed HubSpot’s Pillar and Cluster model and relied heavily on internal linking and external link building on our massive “Pillar” content.

Let’s step back and define some of those terms, because there’s a bit of jargon here that’s necessary to understand.

  • Link Equity: Also known as “link juice,” it’s the idea that certain links pass value and authority from one page to another.
  • Site Architecture: The planning and structuring of website content.
  • Internal Linking: Hyperlinking content within your own site.
  • Pillar & Cluster model: A model created by HubSpot that values topics over keywords to boost SEO as well as UX.

While some of it is speculative, there are some general heuristics when it comes to link equity that come in handy when it comes to ranking product or transactional pages. According to an episode of Whiteboard Friday, here are three principles for link equity:

  1. External links generally give more ranking value and potential ranking boosts than internal links.
  2. Well-linked-to pages, both internal and external, pass more link equity than those that are poorly linked to.
  3. Pages with fewer links tend to pass more equity to their targets than pages with more links.

With that in mind, we created massive guides for topics with lots of search traffic volume. These are our “pillar pages,” or in other words, our 10X content.

We expected these to attract the most links, and we directed all of our link building efforts towards these pieces.

We complemented these pillar pages with “cluster” content, articles with similar topic themes that focus on longer tail keywords. These linked back to our pillar pages as well as to each other.

Finally, on all of our pillar pages and our cluster content, we linked as high on the page as possible to our product pages.

Again, this is based on the HubSpot Pillar & Cluster framework, which looks like this, structurally:

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Or to get super specific, here’s the actual visualization we used to show our particular efforts:

As a specific illustration, here are three pieces of content we created that actually correspond to this strategic architecture:

This video does a good job explaining the general gist of the idea. Essentially it’s an architectural view of content creation, particularly for blogging and SEO:

This process of content planning is an iteration of website architecture, which is basically the “planning and design of the technical, functional and visual components of a website – before it is designed, developed and deployed.” It’s also a strategic method of content planning that helps build authority on specific topics.

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Organizing your site in a logical way isn’t just good for SEO, it’s good for user experience and navigation in general.

With that in mind, here’s how the specific process looked when it came to content creation.

 

Planning Content for SEO Volume and Easier Link Acquisition

To start, we aligned our content from the bottom up, meaning we knew which products we were attempting to rank and had to work from bottom-of-the-funnel up to the top.

So, let’s go back to our example, Customer Feedback Software.

We knew we’d have a product page for this where people could actually sign up. But from there, we worked backwards to research which terms commanded the most search traffic around that theme.

In this case, both Customer Feedback and Customer Satisfaction drove a ton of demand, so we created pillar pages for both of those that both linked back to the feedback software product page. Here are the specific pillar pages we ended up creating:

SEO research for the pillar pages also included comprehensive long tail keyword research based on questions we could answer on the broader topic. These longer tail keywords would eventually be spun out into individual cluster posts (i.e. blog posts), but also incorporated into the pillar content itself. Some of these posts included:

…and many, many more of course. These were more specific and lower search volume posts that complemented the larger themes of customer satisfaction and feedback.

So, for a post on Customer Satisfaction, we included sections on things like customer satisfaction software and how to improve customer satisfaction scores:

In addition, we aligned with our content team to create tons and tons of cluster blog posts that linked to and supported the themes set up by the pillar pages. An example is this blog post we published on customer feedback survey mistakes:

Finally, all of these posts – whether pillar or cluster – included product page links, and cluster blog posts also included links to our pillar pages (with exact match anchor text, as you can see above).

We also included CTAs on our pillar pages that lead to our product landing pages:

In all cases, no matter what type of content we were created, we sought to create 10x content, the kind you’d actually want to link to. Particularly with our pillar pages, this meant included linkable content “hooks,” such as:

  • Original data & stats
  • Original Images
  • Charts and Graphs
  • Quotes from influencers
  • Frameworks
  • Pros and Cons Tables

We tried to include anything we could that was outside the typical Wikipedia-style me-too content. We didn’t want to rehash what was already out there, we wanted to be better and different. So, for example, we designed our own survey examples, like this one for NPS:

Or, for example, for our Customer Feedback page, we included pros and cons tables to help visitors decide which type of feedback surveys to use:

Now that we had a solid base of quality content, we built out a distribution and link building process to make sure we rose in the rankings and got some eyes on the pages.

 

Building Links and Distributing Content

Link building is its own monster, and to do it true justice would require its own multi-thousand word blog post.

To summarize, however, we tried all the major link building tactics and some worked better than others.

Generally speaking, the ones that worked the best were the least scalable: they involved relationships that had been built over months and years. On a similar point, the ones that were the least effective were the ones that are the most popular and overused: Skyscraper Technique link building, HARO pitches, roundup posts, etc.

The most important part, in fact, was the process of discovering influencers and link targets to begin with. Since we wanted both high relevance and high authority links, we created a “bullseye” framework to distinguish between Tier 1, 2, and 3 targets.

  • Tier 1 – Blogs and influencers directly related to the Service Hub. These include bloggers who write about customer success and customer success practitioner. It may also include direct competitors to our tools.
  • Tier 2 – Blogs and influencers who are semi-related to customer success. Includes customer experience, survey tools, and user experience software & experts. It may also include other products that don’t directly compete, but they are still kind of related to customer success/support.
  • Tier 3 – Larger blogs and influencers who focus on broader marketing and business topics. Not super related, but due to high domain authority, still opportune link building opportunities (plus, there’s no competitive nature to these sites, so they’re more willing to link to us).

There existed an inverse correlation between our Tiers and the ease of link acquisition.

Tier 1 was the most difficult, mainly because most of the sites and influencers were competing for the same keywords. On the other end of the spectrum, large blogs that write on broad marketing topics generally weren’t too concerned about competing, so it was much easier to work with them.

 

Measuring, Optimizing, and Beyond

Measurement is important in SEO, and in marketing in general. You need to know if you’re moving in the right direction, and if not, how you can possibly remedy that or optimize your efforts.

To do that without going too crazy watching too many keywords, we followed only the spearheads topics of our content strategy using Accuranker. We figured that if we ranked these, the longer tail keywords and most specific cluster posts would easily follow (and if they didn’t, it would be easy enough to optimize them later on).

Here’s what a typical Accuranker report looked like earlier on in our efforts:

Which is much better than where we started, which is from scratch:

You can use other tools for this, such as Ahrefs and I’m sure a dozen more, as well.

If you’re operating at large scale and want to customize your reports more, you can build a homebrew tool, though if you’re just beginning in your SEO and measurement efforts, it might not hurt to start with a software solution so you can focus on your actual SEO execution.

Hopefully, you can choose a solution that allows you to get a weekly email report with your rankings. Peaking too often can be tempting but ultimately unhelpful due to natural fluctuations in SERP rankings (especially in the first few months of publishing content).

When you know your weekly ranking trends, you can spot early ineffectiveness and course correct.

For instance, our knowledge base guide wasn’t moving at all into the top 500, but all our other content was. So, we 1) added about 1000 words and more influencers quotes to our pillar page 2) changed the title and the H2 subtitles and 3) went super hard on link building to our pillar page. As of today it’s sitting at position 5.

Similarly, I saw that we weren’t ranking for the cluster article we wrote on “customer satisfaction surveys,” even though it was a few thousand words, and in my mind, quality content. We simply changed the title and the following week it was ranking.

Finally, we tracked user acquisition as well. You can and should be doing this anyway through your tool of choice (Google Analytics, Amplitude, etc.). As a result of our SEO efforts, our beta requests saw a sharp increase:

 

Conclusion

Good SEO is rarely the result of sporadic hacks and luck, rather, at scale and for acquisition, it’s the result of a solid process and playbook (just like any other aspect of growth marketing).

This playbook should have multiple components, ranging from content strategy and architecture to differentiated and compelling content creation and all the way to promotion and link building. All the pieces matter, some more than others depending on your specific situation.

For instance, a smaller authority site may have to put a lot more effort into content creation and link building that a large site like HubSpot or Shopify. It all depends on where your competitive advantage lies.

However, with a bit of strategy and content architecture, no matter the size or scale of your company, you can get product pages to rank and actually acquire users from SEO, not just top-of-funnel vanity traffic.

 

Alex Birkett

Alex Birkett is a Growth Marketing Manager at HubSpot, focusing on freemium user acquisition. Previously, he worked on growth at ConversionXL. Find him on Twitter or alexbirkett.com.