SEO had its heyday.
The empires of Moz and Hubspot were built on it. The rise of digital marketing was dependent on it.
But then it became saturated with competition.
And yet, it’s still a go-to lever for SaaS companies seeking a traffic boost.
And sure – with time, resources and investment, you can boost traffic organically, with SEO efforts.
But is it the right traffic? A quick look into organic traffic conversion rates can answer that question…
“Very small, negative ROI.”
The reality of the negative return on effort with traditional stabs at SEO reveals a hard truth:
SEO – these days – involves so much more than conventional SEO.
The myth that SEO wins customers has persisted even though the reality has changed.
Take Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz (and now of SparkToro, which we love ‘round here). Rand questions SEO’s effectiveness:
“I am concerned about how competitive the SEO field is and the relative ROI of input to output, especially for early stage, just starting out content practices.”
Or Rachael Pilcher, founder of Mighty Fine Copy, who told me that, for her, SEO is simply one part of the optimization process:
“No marketing tactic exists in a vacuum. Everything is connected, and that’s especially true when it comes to CRO. SaaS startups can often become obsessed with optimizing for SEO – but forget to optimize for the human who’ll be reading their content.”
This is the reason marketing teams struggle with SEO: the organic search myth is based on traffic and keywords. It comes from a time when all you needed to do was rank #1 in Google. It doesn’t tell you what you need to do to get your visitors to convert.
So let’s unpack what’s really wrong with conventional SEO. So we can stop making potentially costly mistakes.
3 reasons conventional SEO can make your customers bounce
Reason 1: Keyword-led SEO doesn’t enable product market fit
Your team creates a keyword list that represents their knowledge of your product. The goal is to rank high in Google for those keywords. This keyword list then becomes the foundation of your web copy and content marketing strategy.
The problem is: there’s no guarantee your chosen keywords will be a good fit for your ideal prospects.
“Hang on a second, Sarah, we’re ranking #1 in Google for all the top keywords – won’t conversions follow?”
People don’t convert because they land on a specific page.
Successful search-to-convert strategies must involve actually understanding the value customers get from the product. You get this sort of understanding from things like customer interviews and user testing.
In his book Product-Led SEO, author Eli Schwartz challenges the connection between search, keywords and content, replacing it with messaging created for users:
“If content is the product of a website, and the goal of the website is for readers to consume that content, … words for the sake of a word count or keyword goal is an utter waste of time. Product-Led SEO requires thinking of the reader and why they should spend their precious time enjoying the content.”
So how do you get to product-market fit for SaaS SEO?
You start with identifying your target audience and building the empathy that persuades prospects to convert to buyers. This means talking to your customers, building SEO into your buyer personas and no longer using Google rankings as the core measure of your SEO success.
You listen to Eli Schwartz when he says “Product-Led SEO requires you to think of the user first and the search engine second.”
This is how you move away from writing for search engines and develop an understanding of your buyers and the metrics that show their intent.
Reason 2: SaaS startups in a saturated market can’t differentiate with messaging that starts with SEO
SaaS startups often craft their home page headlines around undifferentiated messages that are optimized for SEO keywords.
The best way to avoid this is to stand out from your competitors with a Unique Selling Proposition. However, even this isn’t guaranteed, as Mark Ritson points out:
“In recent years the question of whether differentiation is even possible, never mind how to achieve it, is rarely far from the surface among evidence-based marketers.”
CXL Founder Peep Laja also pushes for companies to stand out:
“Differentiation and positioning can’t be delegated to lower rank marketers. It’s not a tactic somebody can ship. It’s not a line of copy one writes.”
So, what role does SEO have to play in the loss of differentiation?
Starting with a list of SEO keywords and cramming them all into your home page hero section produces pretty much the same result: identical messaging for completely different products.
After all, my car is a “road travel solution” or “automobile”… but I know there’s a difference between a Porsche, a BMW and a Ford.
Check out an example of how one “different” message keeps popping up in home page headlines. This is what it looks like for Mailchimp’s email marketing platform:
(Source: Screenshot taken July 29 2021)
For Dropbox’s file sharing software:
(Source: Screenshot taken 29 July 2021)
And for Semrush’s SEO platform:
(Source: Screenshot taken 29 July 2021)
But is it TRUE that – for email marketers, collaborative teams and SEO marketers – their #1 reason for buying is that everything is in one place?
These “drag and drop” keyword optimised value propositions are everywhere. Talent companies like Toptal, DesignBro, Andela, Gun.io and Codeable all use some variation of: “Hire the top [insert number]% of [insert job role].”
(Source: Screenshot taken July 29 2021)
CRM software like Salesforce, Zendesk and Pipedrive helps you to sell more:
(Source: Screenshot taken July 29 2021)
Communication and collaboration tools like Basecamp, Teams and Slack combine everything in “one place”:
(Source: Screenshot taken July 29 2021)
So, “what’s the problem?” I hear you ask.
The problem is…
SaaS startups in a saturated market can’t win customers with keyword-led home page messaging alone.
The Nielsen Norman Group explains that differentiation is essential – to gain only several minutes of user attention, you must clearly communicate your value proposition within 10 seconds:
“If the web page survives this first – extremely harsh – 10-second judgement, users will look around a bit. However, they’re still highly likely to leave during the subsequent 20 seconds of their visit.”
Keyword stuffing used to be the foundation of SaaS SEO strategy. But with increased competition in saturated markets, if you want people to stay on your site and convert, you must be different.
Reason 3: SEO optimized copy lacks strong – and effective – voice
One of the biggest mistakes SaaS founders make is to buy into the SEO myth that a keyword-led strategy alone will lead to business growth.
However, this approach does not include talking to your target customers and mapping their motivations. And if your prospects don’t see themselves in your copy, how can you expect to persuade them to buy?
Copyhackers founder Joanna Wiebe insists that the most powerful messages come from your prospects:
“You’re not writing copy; you’re feeding your prospect’s words right back to her. We want her to see herself on the page. We’re selling her a better version of herself. So we use her words, not ours.”
So now you might say:
“But that’s so simple! Why the heck didn’t I know this already?”
Because it takes time, effort, specialist skills and a scientific process of customer interviews, surveys and copy testing.
The strongest impact of this is found on SaaS home and sales pages.
Skeptical? Take a look at Toptal’s home page:
(Source: Screenshot taken July 29 2021)
FIRST: you’ll notice the talent company headline formula that we explored earlier: “Hire the top [insert number]% of [insert job role].”
NEXT: we’re presented with job role keywords (“developers, engineers, programmers…”).
AND THEN: target audience keywords (“start-ups” and “top companies”).
Even the CTA is a keyword signpost!
And there’s nothing wrong with that – except that it’s boring – and your visitors don’t like boring.
So, when you put it alongside the home page headline for Toptal competitor Lemon.io, the difference is clear to EVERYONE:
(Source: Screenshot taken July 29 2021)
The headline jumps out, hooking the reader immediately. The body copy marries brand voice with voice of customer, and the CTA – “match me with a dev” – binds brand voice to customer needs.
And if you strip away the strongest elements of voice, you’ll notice that the keywords are still there: developers, programming and engineers.
So, let’s look at the keyword value of the blog versus the home page:
Lemon.io is using keyword-led content, just not on the home page. This high-ranking blog uses strong voice:
(Source: Screenshot taken 12 April 2022)
The stats say it all. Lemon.io’s new website, written by Copyhackers (i.e., the people who run the website you’re on right now), has driven 40% year-over-year growth to $2.7m revenue and 60% higher traffic than they’d had in the six years before.
Would Lemon.io have achieved these results without using voice-of-customer research?
Their founder, Aleksandr Volodarsky, doesn’t think so:
“Copyhackers did amazing research and created copy that fully resonated with our audience. The conversion went up 2x, every day I’m getting messages like: “I had to read this page to the end.” But most importantly, because we speak our customers’ language, they remember us and convert by going directly to the home page after visiting it a few months before for the first time.”
Justin Blackman, founder of Pretty Fly Copywriting, tells me SaaS startups need to take this one step further:
“Customer language is insanely important to nailing your message, but what sets you apart is how you reflect that language. You can use it verbatim, or you can run it through a filter.
“Imagine their words are a selfie. Before you post ’em on Insta, you can make them brighter, darker, zoomed in, less zitty, more smiley, or even turn them into a koala. You can change the way they hit your reader’s eyes.
“There’s nothing wrong with using their language as is. It’s when your competitors use the same dialogue that we all begin to sound samey – and the best practice is no longer the best practice.”
You see, if everyone else buys into the SEO myth and creates a home page that wipes out their brand voice, you should do the opposite.
When you combine SEO with your customer’s language, you move from shallow keyword-led messaging to a differentiated home page that – wait for it… wait for it…….. – converts.
How to fire up those conversions using the science of communication
The science of communication helps illustrate why SaaS founders can’t rely on SEO alone to do heavy lifting on their website.
Scientists Bruce Westley and Malcolm MacLean came up with a holistic model of communication that marketers would be smart to pay mind to.
Here’s what it looks like:
- Source: The person who imagines, creates, and sends the message (we’ll skip over this in the analysis as it’s pretty self-explanatory).
- Message: The meaning that is sent to the audience.
- Channel: How the message travels between source and receiver.
- Receiver: The person who gets the message from the source, analyzing and interpreting the message in ways both intended and unintended by the source.
- Feedback: Messages the receiver sends back to the source.
- Environment: The atmosphere, physical and psychological, where you send and receive messages.
- Context: The setting, scene, and expectations of the individuals involved.
- Interference: Anything that blocks or changes the source’s intended meaning of the message.
Writing with a scientific approach forces you to create copy that is based on research into the needs, desires, context and motivations of your audience.
If you don’t start there, your SEO efforts will be wasted.
Element #1: The message (customer research)
It’s easy to focus on the SEO myth and forget that your copy needs to use your customer’s language.
Research is the answer. Great copywriters spend 80% of their time on research and 20% writing. Why? Because your copy needs to connect with your visitors. Then they decide whether to buy or not to buy.
So, if SaaS SEO doesn’t provide that focus, how can you create it?
- Look at reviews on Amazon, G2, Product Hunt or Capterra
- G to Reddit or Quora threads
- Search in the comments on Twitter and Facebook
- Ask your customers directly using interviews and surveys
Why spend hours staring at an SEO keyword list when you can get your customers to write your copy for you? And in the process illuminate money keywords?
Here’s an example from Asana:
Asana uses customer language right there on the home page – you can’t miss it. They’ve swiped their clients’ words from G2 reviews and played them back to them.
Asana isn’t selling project management software.
Asana is selling solutions to customer problems and answers to their motivations.
And just a note: If you’re writing SEO for a blog, then traffic is typically most important because you want to push your target customers (i.e., those reading your blog) to your sales copy. But when you write a home page or sales page, you need to put your prospect’s needs and motivations first, so your copy drives them to action.
Element #2: The channel (SEO)
The only way to explode the SEO myth is to understand that organic search is a channel of discovery. It’s not the reason that your visitors convert.
One of the best illustrations of how to use multiple channels to drive your message is Andy Crestodina’s boat metaphor in his fantastic Content Strategy Explained in 180 Seconds:
But this doesn’t mean you have to throw SEO overboard. You can weave it into your broader strategy for driving traffic to your website.
I asked Andy about the role that SEO has to play, and he said this:
“Visitors from search are often very engaged. Unlike visitors from social media, they tend to have strong intent. It may be informational intent (they’re just looking for answers) or commercial intent (they know they need help). Keep in mind that key phrases indicate intent. That’s the first step in attracting qualified visitors.”
Luckily for us, Andy also gathered insights on how channels compare:
As you can see, you need a mix of channels to reach the right audience.
Because, as Rand Fishkin explains, a single-minded focus on SEO puts constraints on your outcomes:
“If you’re in a space that Google isn’t trying to enter or take traffic from themselves, if the competition is still light enough that you can rank without massive, lengthy investments, and if your target audience is actually searching for what you offer, SEO is still a pretty solid investment… But I certainly would not recommend putting all your eggs in that one basket!”
In other words, you need to broaden your definition of what is effective. He continues:
“Regardless of what you call it, this process of earning an audience’s awareness of your brand by getting featured in places they pay attention is a powerful, and deeply under-invested-in tactic. That’s part of what makes it so high-ROI. Competition isn’t nearly as prevalent, few businesses even know to try and pitch a podcast, sponsor an event, or publish a guest editorial in an industry newsletter, and thus, the brand-building and direct-response returns are superb.”
Why is this important?
Because Rand has grown his new business, SparkToro, at an average rate of 10%, with almost zero focus on SEO.
I hear you, Amy.
Talk about busting the SaaS SEO myth wide open.
And from the guy who founded Moz.
This is the thing: Andy and Rand, both of whom have been known for years for their organic search expertise, don’t see SEO as the only answer to SaaS startup growth.
If you use a range of tactics, you’ll attract a good fit audience that is ready to engage with your website.
Element #3: The receiver (writing and editing to the reader)
Every word you use and how you frame them directly impacts how effective your copy is.
You’ve ideally nailed the message in research. Now, your writing needs to be spot on. So, what are the rules that will make your copy convert like crazy? Here are two that will take your copy to the next level, both courtesy of Jo here at Copyhackers. The first:
The YOU rule.
Write all your sentences to start with “you.” This tests the clarity and specificity of the offer and forces you to speak directly to your customers.
Chilli Piper’s home page contains typical copy for a Series A SaaS that’s just secured $18m in funding and plans to invest in marketing. It feels catchy, easy-going and lists the core benefits:
(Source: Screenshot taken 25 Nov 2021)
BUT it doesn’t answer this question:
What’s in it for me?
So, let’s rewrite it using the “you” rule:
Now your web copy feels like an actual conversation.
Because the moment you make your writing about your prospect is the moment that you make a connection with them – now they know what your solution does for them.
And the second rule:
Use first person headlines. Write headlines in the first person for problem focused audiences. In 10x Web Copy Jo explains why this is so powerful:
“What sounds better than the stuff going on in my own head as the person visiting your page, right? So first person wherever possible. Quotation marks to help put that person inside the copy you’re trying to get them to read.”
And this is backed by statistics. Research shows that only 13% of customers believe a sales person can understand their needs. But 76% of B2B buyers expect businesses to know their unique problems and expectations.
Here’s an example of first person copy from Follow Up Boss:
(Source: Screenshot taken 26 Nov 2021)
Do you see how it creates immediate empathy?
The quotation marks make it clear that you’re echoing their voice. Then the rest of the page explores the problem in detail and presents the solution.
Headlines that “get” your customer force SEO into the backseat. And then empathy boosts conversion rates.
But most SaaS websites are written to fulfil SEO traffic requirements, and this eclipses science-based copy designed to persuade.
That’s why Joanna invented the seven sweeps – to help marketers scan for what’s not working. To sum up these are:
- Clarity Sweep: What are you trying to say? Is it clear?
- Voice and Tone Sweep: Is the voice right? Does the tone work?
- So-what Sweep: …So what? Why should I care?
- Prove it sweep: Is your point / claim proven by something that is NOT your copy like testimonials or research?
- Specificity sweep: Is it specific enough to not be distracting? Or woolly?
- Heightened emotion sweep: Do you get an emotional response? Can you make it stronger?
- Zero Risk Sweep: How can you resolve risks to drive action?
Once you master the seven sweeps, you can decide where to use SEO. If your keywords make your copy less persuasive, then remove or reframe them to drive your prospects to action.
Element #4: Feedback (A/B testing)
To avoid SEO solely driving your copy, you need to A/B test. This is a scientific approach that enables you to iterate and learn about your audience.
Take RJMetrics, for example.
They tested their pricing layout with a variation that included a cost-calculator.
Variation B completely bombed. 62.5% of visitors were using the calculator, but only 1.2% were clicking on the CTA.
Why? Users weren’t scrolling.
So they created a new Variation B – moving the sign-up button above the fold. They tested the page with the cost-calculator again.
And Variation B beat the original by 310%.
The point is this: big wins can come from the methodical testing process that learns and tests and learns some more.
Element #5: The environment (awareness and market sophistication)
The problem with SaaS SEO is that it reflects market-level messaging that is often reused by companies in the same space.
You must find a way to differentiate based on what your customers are looking for rather than the SEO terms that they use in search engines.
Before we run through some examples, you need to understand two ideas from Eugene Schwart’s 1966 book, Breakthrough Advertising. Let’s look at these in more detail.
The Five Stages of Awareness
The five stages of awareness have a direct connection to how familiar your prospect is with your specific product. Here’s Brian Clark’s summary in Copyblogger:
- The Most Aware: Your prospect knows your product, and only needs to know “the deal.”
- Product-Aware: Your prospect knows what you sell, but isn’t sure it’s right for him.
- Solution-Aware: Your prospect knows the result he wants, but not that your product provides it.
- Problem-Aware: Your prospect senses he has a problem, but doesn’t know there’s a solution.
- Completely Unaware: No knowledge of anything except, perhaps, his own identity or opinion.
The Five Levels of Market Sophistication
You need to determine your prospect’s market sophistication to address their skepticism and filter out claims that won’t drive a buying decision.
- The Pioneer Level: There is no other product like yours, so there is no competition and you can make simple claims.
- Outbid the Competition: The competition has gained ground and you’re simple claims are no longer as impactful.
- The Unique Mechanism: Your audience hears the same claims all the time and you must find a unique outcome.
- Take out your competition: Your competitor has caught up and is making the same claims, so you need to make new claims.
- The Story-Telling Phase: The claims have become so big and bold that they’re unbelievable – empathy is the best way to win prospects.
“That’s all very interesting. But what does this have to do with SEO?”
Instead of using SEO as the foundation of your copy, frame your pages around a flow that speaks to what your customer is thinking at that point. Their awareness. Their sophistication.
Let’s take a look at these using the FollowUpBoss hero section as an example. . .
When your customer is solution aware, they will measure your product against competitors.
In this scenario, the best copy makes a simple claim in the headline:
“Never Lose Another Real Estate Lead.”
Your subheading can then bring in the product to describe how it works:
“Get all your leads in one place and take control of your follow up. Work smarter, deliver a first-class client experience and close more deals.”
To determine the level of market sophistication, I google the problem… see how much competition there is… then come up with an hypothesis and a gameplan.
Here, Follow Up Boss exists in a sophisticated market, so their copy avoids market repetition and walks their customer through the conditions for success.
Real audience empathy comes from understanding stages of awareness and market sophistication. This lets you drive action through copy – rather than just increasing traffic through SEO.
Element #6: Context (wireframing)
When you switch from a single focus on the SEO myth to wireframing, you’re bringing in design elements that can increase conversions.
What does that mean? Here’s Joanna’s take on the relationship between copy and design:
“Visual design builds your online storefront and sets the environment for your online salesperson (i.e., your copy) to sell your unique products to your unique customers.”
It means that you need to lay out your copy to create an intentional flow from one message to another.
Joanna’s original wireframe for Lemon.io’s home page illustrates that conversion copy involves thinking visually.
Joel Klettke, founder of Business Casual Copywriting and Case Study Buddy also takes UX design seriously. He reminds us that wireframing is a lesson in what works best for the audience:
“Copywriters need to understand how the compelling copy they write will translate to the web to avoid creating intimidating walls of text. Designers need to know how to arrange the visual elements of the page to make consuming the copy an effortless and engaging experience.”
Many SaaS marketers use SEO for organic search and visibility at the cost of the core elements of conversion rate optimization. You need to bust this myth and use wireframing for your home page and sales pages to give focus to the messages that will convert.
Side note: Balsamiq is a great tool for quick, easy wireframing.
Element #7: Interference (objection analysis)
If you’re still unsure about seeing SEO as one element in a conversion ecosystem, then let’s think about objection analysis.
When we use objection analysis, we reveal what stops our visitors from converting. By answering our customer’s objections, we resolve their hesitations and persuade them to take action.
Here’s some sample objections and counter objections borrowed from Conversion Rate Experts in Making Websites Win:
- If visitors don’t know what it does, then explain what it does.
- If visitors know what it does, but they don’t know why they’d need one, then explain the benefits.
- If visitors aren’t convinced that it will do what it claims to do, then add proof.
- If visitors don’t know whether it’s compatible with your existing technology, then explain the compatibility details.
- If visitors think it’s too expensive, then justify the price.
- If visitors don’t trust the company, then show evidence that the company is trustworthy.
- If visitors are going to think about it, then provide reasons to act promptly.
So how can you find your customer’s objections?
You can use on-site polls and user testing to learn from non-customers. You can interview brand-new customers and trial users. You can use recorded web sessions and review mining to listen to what your customers are actually saying about using (or not using) your product.
Let’s look at SaaS G2 reviews to see what they reveal about the obstacles that might prevent visitors from buying.
Here’s one for Vidyard:
Objection: “I wish videos could render a bit faster.”
Question: Does it do what it claims to do?
Mitigation: Testimonials from customers that say how fast the product is. Demo that shows the actual start-to-finish rendering process, with a timer.
Of course, the only way that you can actually resolve this objection is by improving the product speed. So, you’d need to loop in your product team and then get feedback from users to put on your website as testimonials.
As another example, this is an objection for Prezi:
Objection: “I don’t like paying for something every month.”
Question: Can you flex the subscription model?
Mitigation: Offer a pricing structure for annual purchase.
This isn’t about the cost; it’s about how your customers pay. The only thing that would move this customer forward is a different payment option.
Remember this: copy is a conversation. Broadening your tool kit beyond SEO helps you frame your copy to answer objections and gives your SaaS startup a better shot at that higher conversion rate.
SEO is one part of SaaS website optimization. And other elements are growing more effective.
SEO is a channel. It is how your ideal prospects find you. If your copy helps your prospects to understand how your product solves their problems, you can create powerful messages that convert website visitors into buyers.
It’s critical to have a conversion optimization strategy to balance your SEO and mitigate the risks associated with putting all your hopes on a single tactic. Especially one whose effectiveness has decreased.
SEO alone will not grow your business, but it is part of a chain that also includes the conversion copywriting process.