Today, software is more important than ever. Individuals use it to stay connected to their loved ones, create art, and everything in between. Businesses use it to increase productivity, save money, and allow their staff to focus on their core products and services. According to Statista, organizations worldwide use an average of 110 software applications to maintain operations.
Needless to say, there’s a lot of competition no matter what area of software you choose to tackle. It’s against this backdrop that we launched our company – UsefulPDF.
Our major challenge was how do we compete with companies that have billion-dollar valuations, millions in investor funding, and millions in revenue? Our answer was simple–SEO (search engine optimization). This guide will walk you through the challenges we experienced, the strategies we adopted, and how you can do the same irrespective of your industry.
Challenges of launching a new brand
A new company is almost like a newborn child. It requires constant attention, cannot fend for itself, and gives you little if any, rewards for a considerable amount of time. Unlike a newborn, it usually has to compete with entrenched players from day one. For our brand, the major challenges were:
Little to no trust
We’re in the electronic signature and document automation space. These are mission-critical areas for any business. One wrong step and you have a contract that’s not legally binding or one that can be challenged in court because due processes weren’t adhered to.
Electronic signatures are legally binding due to the E-SIGN Act in the United States and similar laws in Europe. With that being said, there are specific guidelines that need to be followed.
The stringent regulatory environment and a new brand with no social capital such as a social media following, reviews, customer case studies, etc. made it more difficult to gain the trust of potential customers.
Many of our competitors have been around for well over a decade and have become the de facto first choice for many potential customers. They have strong brands and strong SEO results that fuel their growth day after day.
To make matters more challenging, we’re competing on two fronts because of the nature of our solution.
On one side, we have electronic signature software which is a space that’s seen many competitors spring up over the last few years. Of those competitors, a few of them have marketing and sales budgets equal to millions of dollars which are used on paid advertising, media mentions, influencers, and more.
On the other side, we have document generation which has a few well-funded unicorns that don’t need to worry about profitability for the time being. They can and do invest heavily in paid acquisition in a way that drives the cost of acquisition up so high that organizations competing in the industry have payback periods approaching one year or more.
Our limited budget made this approach unsustainable. Because of this, we couldn’t compete directly with them on the paid acquisition front using the resources available to us at the time. Since we knew we couldn’t outspend them a more creative strategy was needed. This is why we turned to SEO.
Tiny marketing and sales budget
Another challenge we experienced and the one that scares off most new businesses is the fact that our budget paled in comparison to the organizations we were competing against. They had millions, we had thousands. This forced us to think outside the box, take the best of what was available, and adapt it to our situation.
The good news is that we were able to turn our challenges into strengths and grow our search traffic by leaps and bounds in a relatively short amount of time.
While the above results are respectable, we still have a long way to go. The rest of this guide will focus on the nuts and bolts of how we were able to compete directly with brands that have more of everything than we do.
How we leveraged SEO in our go-to-market strategy
We didn’t just start creating content and cross our fingers hoping for the best. My team and I took a deliberate approach to our SEO strategy. The first step was to do a deep dive into what our competitors were doing.
1. Competitive analysis
The first step into any campaign you launch should be research. Part of that research is competitive analysis. Not to copy them but to see what’s working and what isn’t then take the best parts. Our analysis included:
Web traffic represents the number of visits or sessions spent on a given site. You can look at this broadly for an overall representation of how many users are visiting a given site. For a more granular look, you can also break it down depending on the search query that brought them there.
This metric let us know the potential traffic available in our niche – excluding brand searches. Armed with this information, we were able to do some back-of-the-napkin calculations for other important business metrics.
The domain authority score represents the perceived trustworthiness and value of a given site. The higher the score, the more Google and other search engines identify the information you provide as being useful. While the overall mix of factors that make up this score is somewhat variable, you can expect things like backlinks, internal site structure, and search traffic to attribute to your score.
Understanding this gave us an idea of how much time, energy, and resources we’d need to put in to effectively compete. There are different ways to track this but we use Ahref’s Domain Rating and Semrush’s Authority Score.
Keywords being targeted (organic and paid)
We uncovered the keywords other brands were targeting, especially the paid keywords. This gave us a clear indication of what words and phrases were profitable and what high-converting pages looked like.
To find that information, we plugged in the domain of our competitors in Ahrefs and sorted based on organic keyword difficulty and traffic. After pulling out keywords, we plugged them into the keyword research tool in Ahrefs which gave us information about the CPC (cost per click) and estimated click-through rate.
As a rule of thumb, the higher the CPC, the more valuable advertisers believe the keyword to be. A higher click-through rate means more are viewing the pages that appear within the search results. This is important because many high-volume search terms are also zero-click searches which we wanted to avoid at all costs.
For paid traffic research, we used a similar process but looked at the paid traffic difficulty to help us understand how many advertisers found that phrase important. We also looked at the estimated traffic they were getting from the query. Together, these approaches helped us build out our initial list of keyword targets.
This is a subjective metric but still important. All things being equal, search engines will present the pages that best satisfy the intent of a searcher. They can’t measure quality but humans can. Search engines track certain ‘user signals’ such as dwell time, bounce rate, and click-through rate.
This piece of content is subjectively good because it provides internal navigation, gives additional resources, answers the searcher’s question, and is easy to consume. It satisfies the metrics tracked by search engines.
This content may be considered lower quality because it doesn’t directly answer search intent, doesn’t provide additional resources, and asks the visitor to go to another page to get their answer.
As we went through this process, we discovered dozens of direct and indirect competitors. This gave us a better idea of the market and where we could excel.
2. Organizing the research
Multiple documents, spreadsheets, and data points aren’t the goal of research and analysis. The goal is to turn the information you gather into useful insights. We adopted a simple approach to categorize and prioritize content for our SEO strategy.
How important is it to the business?
The importance of certain keywords is obvious. For example, an eCommerce brand selling clothes would immediately know that a keyword like ‘buy men’s blue jeans’ was relevant and could bring direct revenue. A short-tail keyword like ‘blue jeans’ would be more difficult to claim due to how general it is. It’s also far more difficult to draft copy around broader terms due to the lack of intent behind them.
If someone is searching for ‘blue jeans’ what are they specifically trying to find? Do they want to figure out the types of blue jeans in the world? Are they interested in what blue jeans are and their history? Are they trying to buy a new pair? With a term so vague, it may not be valuable to your business – especially in the early days.
Why is that?
Identify search intent
There’s a concept called search intent. It’s the understanding of what a searcher wants to accomplish by searching for something. What is their goal or reason for looking for that information?
Search intent can be broadly classified into:
They want to learn more about a topic. E.G. ‘When was the Pearl Harbor bombing?’
They’re looking for a specific website but don’t know how to get to the page they’re interested in. ‘NerdWallet credit card comparison page.’
The person searching is ready to make a purchase. ‘Buy black Air Max 90s.’
The searcher is looking for more information about a product category or a specific product before making a purchase. ‘Best Laptops for Video Editing.’
What search intent should you focus on?
It may seem like the best option is to go directly to the transactional and commercial search phrases. Unfortunately, this may not be the best choice because there will be stiff competition and you’re not a trusted brand yet.
Remember, these were challenges we faced. Even if we could rank on the first page for a transactional key term, we’d lose a lot of business because people didn’t know anything about us.
Because of that, we had to choose a mix of informational, transactional, and commercial search terms and give them a score based on our current needs. We used a scale of one to ten with one being irrelevant to us and ten being our top priority.
To repeat this process, you’ll need to create a list of criteria against which to assess keywords. That’ll prevent the process from being too arbitrary. After giving them a score for business importance, we moved on to ranking difficulty.
How difficult will it be to rank?
There are multiple factors that contribute to how difficult a keyword is to rank on the first page of Google. We could have created our own criteria for this but there was no point as we were using SEO tools that have already done the heavy lifting.
Instead, we simply took the score provided by Ahrefs and plugged it into our spreadsheet where we were tracking keywords. We turned the number into a decimal so a keyword difficulty of 50 would turn into 0.5 when it was added to our spreadsheet. I’ll explain why we did this a bit later.
Note that the numbers Ahrefs or any SEO tool gives you should be taken with a grain of salt. I encourage you to view the SERPs yourself and consider the quality of the sites, the quality of the individual page, and your own understanding of the niche.
Many terms that looked impossible for us on paper bring in a huge amount of search traffic for us right now. Let’s move on to the last area we took into consideration.
How much traffic does it bring in?
Traffic was separated from its importance to the business because we don’t just need traffic, we need relevant traffic. It would make no sense for us to get a hundred thousand visitors a month to a page about the best GIFs.
We used Semrush and Ahrefs to determine the estimated traffic of each keyword and plugged it into our spreadsheet. At this point, the document looked a bit like this.
This is a good start but we’re far from done. We still need to prioritize the keywords to target based on the ones we’ve shortlisted. To do this, we came up with a simple formula to take into consideration the business impact, keyword difficulty, and traffic.
(Business impact/keyword difficulty) multiplied by traffic
For example, a keyword has a business impact of nine, a keyword difficulty of 75, and traffic of 1,000 visitors a month.
The formula would be (9/0.75)*1,000 which would give us a score of 12,000.
A keyword has a business impact of nine, a keyword difficulty of 23, and traffic of 500 visitors a month.
The formula would be (9/0.23)*1,000 which would give us a score of 19,565.
Even though it provides less traffic than the first one, it has a higher score to reflect the easier keyword difficulty. It’s not a perfect system but it is a way to standardize your approach to targeting keywords.
3. Going after quick wins
After choosing a keyword, the next step was to determine the type of content that would make the most sense for it.
Your competitors can help with this. For example, if you see that all the search results on the first page are product pages, it may be safe to create a product page for that keyword. If, on the other hand, you see that they’re all articles, you may want to create one as well.
In our case, we decided to go after low to mid-volume keywords that had a natural progression to our core product like this free tool.
Before the product was ready, it led to a prelaunch landing page and it also worked to collect email addresses. This has been the core of our early acquisition strategy and is still going strong.
We also tackled specific articles that were relevant to people that would be looking for our solution but would also lead to a natural interest in our solutions. These included articles like ‘how to create an electronic signature’ and many more.
A lot of the content started to rank and bring in a large amount of traffic. We also created landing pages that would achieve favorable positions in the SERPs (search engine rankings pages) over time. These were our core product pages with the stiffest competition but were necessary because they’re what allow people to understand what our product is all about.
We also tackled low-hanging fruit that didn’t qualify as blog posts or true conversion-generating landing pages but served to build up our brand.
This three-pronged approach allowed us to zero in on thousands of opportunities. The only problem is that we had low domain authority so we needed to build up a quality link profile—fast.
4. Building relationships for rapid link building
Unfortunately for us, we didn’t have a unique data set or something we felt had the opportunity to go viral. That left us with good old-fashioned SEO link building. Our approach was slightly different.
Instead of building links to individual pages which most SEOs would recommend, we ignored all the content we were initially creating and directed our efforts to the homepage.
We created a site architecture that would be easy for our visitors to navigate and focused on building brand recognition. It’s no secret that Google loves brands and that has been well documented. From an SEO perspective that meant building links to our homepage with branded anchor text.
While doing this, our domain authority naturally went up and we were recognized as a brand in the eyes of Google. After we’d built a large number of quality branded links, we shifted our focus to links that would point to individual pages.
Now, the question is, how did we go about building links.
I’m sorry that I don’t have any epiphanies for you here. We did it the old-fashioned way. We reached out to people and built relationships with them. The reason this worked so well for us is that we reached out with a mutually beneficial proposal.
Instead of, ‘hey, link to our site,’ we reached out with ‘hey, link to our site, we can give you x, y, and z in return.’
We designed our cold pitches to open the door for many more partnership opportunities down the line. Maybe they own multiple websites and, based on the way we pitched them, they’d ask if we wanted to keep collaborating.
“Uh, yes please.”
This was the exact strategy we used to get hundreds of backlinks to key pages and move up the SERPs like a rocket ship. It’s not difficult to execute but it does take effort and consistency.
SEO for your business doesn’t have to be difficult
SEO is often considered an opaque discipline that’s hard to get any results from. In some cases, that’s true but the most important factors for success are quality content, a strong brand, and backlinks.
If you get these three things right then the rest will flow. To get started with an SEO program, assess your competition, tackle low-hanging fruit first, and then build relationships with relevant people in your niche. If you do the last part well then the hardest part of SEO – link building – will become much easier for you.