When it comes to SEO, it all starts with keyword research.
Before you kick off a link-building campaign or invest in creating quality content, you need to understand where the volume is, how competitive terms are, and the intent behind those queries.
But what does an effective keyword research strategy look like?
For SaaS companies, there are the obvious ones, like your brand name and product category (e.g., “email marketing software,” “accounting software”), but Google processes more than 40,000 searches per second. How many opportunities to drive traffic and leads are you missing?
In this article, I walk you through a framework—the SEO pyramid—and how to think about keyword research for B2B SaaS businesses.
What is the SEO pyramid?
The SEO Pyramid categorizes search term types for B2B SaaS businesses. These categories, along with descriptions of each category, can be seen in the diagram below:
Generally speaking, the categories at the top of the pyramid (e.g., brand terms, solution terms, etc.) have the lowest volume but the highest purchase intent. Terms at the bottom usually have higher volume but little to no purchase intent.
How can the SEO pyramid help you find organic opportunities?
Many marketers place all their efforts in going for the #1 for solution terms (e.g., “point of sale software”); however, that usually isn’t where the most opportunity is.
Take “proposal software” as an example. It’s a popular product category but gets only around 1,500 searches per month. However, proposal templates like “business proposal template” or “marketing proposal template” (“problem terms,” according to the pyramid), get more than 500,000 searches each month.
There’s less purchase intent with the latter terms, but a higher chance to rank. This is what the framework is designed for—to help you spot your biggest SEO opportunities. To put it in action for your SaaS company, follow the steps below.
1. Brainstorm some initial keywords.
Start by brainstorming potential keywords in each category. For point-of-sale software, your brainstorming might look like this:
- Solution terms: Point of sale software, POS software, iPad POS, Android POS, Retail POS, Cafe POS, etc.
- Integration terms: POS software for Xero, POS software for Quickbooks.
- Alternative terms: Cash register, cash book.
- Upstream and downstream products: Deputy (employee time tracking software), BigCommerce (ecommerce software), etc.
Catalog your seed list in a spreadsheet to keep track of them. As you continue your research, start adding metrics like volume, competitiveness, etc.
2. Research your keywords in your chosen keyword tool.
If you’re using Ahrefs, add each term into the Keyword Explorer tool. (You can upload a CSV.) Record key information like:
- Search volume: The estimated number of times this term is searched for each month.
- Clicks: The percentage of searches that result in a click (increasingly Google is serving up answers directly on the search engine results page, which is resulting in fewer clicks, so it’s important to not down the number of clicks as well as searches.)
- Difficulty: In AHREFS, this is shown as a number from 1- 100 and is a score that shows how difficult it would be to rank on the first page for this term (based on how strong the current pages that rank are). Under 20 is generally considered easy where 80+ is almost impossible unless you already have a highly authoritative site.
- Current rank: If you already have some content that ranks for this term, then record your current rank. It’s important to note this as it’s generally quicker to get results by moving a page from #15 to #5 then it is to build a new page and get it to rank.
While you’re in the Keyword Explorer, it’s also worth looking at some of the keyword suggestions to see if there are related terms you didn’t identify in your initial seed list.
For each term, click through to find the volume, clicks, and difficulty metrics and record them in your spreadsheet.
3. Model out the potential results.
Once you’ve built your list of keywords and collected related metrics, it’s time to identify where you should focus your SEO efforts.
Avoid putting too much emphasis on maximizing metrics like volume or minimizing competitiveness. Model the estimated value of traffic all the way through to the sale. Otherwise, you risk spending months optimizing for the wrong keywords—ones that may drive vanity metrics or micro-conversions but very little else.
Create a spreadsheet for each category of terms in the pyramid and map out the expected search volume, clicks, sign-ups, customers, revenue.
|Solution Terms||Problem Terms||General Terms||Searches||4500||2,500,000||500,000|
|Visit – Signup Conversion Rate||10%||5%||2%|
|Signup to Customer Conversion Rate||4%||1%||2%|
Obviously, there are many assumptions in there, but the goal isn’t to get entirely accurate numbers, just an estimate. It’s more to get a feel for which category—once you’ve taken into account the various volume and conversion rates, it has the most opportunity.
How to approach each category in the pyramid
Once you’ve identified a few areas of opportunity, what’s next? How do you improve rankings and traffic in each category? Let’s look at some different approaches.
Unless your SaaS company shares the name of a common word or brand new, you’ll rank pretty highly for brand terms. Companies like Basecamp, Flow, and Slack—all common words—dominate those search results. (That dominance was built over time, as search engines increasingly recognized that user intent sought out the company website, not a basic definition.)
If you don’t rank for your brand term yet, you may want to purchase ads to help jumpstart your efforts. A few hundred dollars in ads run for your own brand is fairly effective and can help you build momentum.
The first step is to identify the solution-specific keywords you’re going after. When I was with Campaign Monitor, everyone internally thought of the product as “email marketing software.”
However, when we did some keyword research, we realized that there was quite a bit of search volume for things like “email newsletter service” and even “eblast tool.”
Tools like Ahrefs can help identify the best keywords to focus on. Take into account not just volume and competitiveness, but product/term fit as well. For example, Campaign Monitor lacked a lot of features required to do advanced email automation, but it was a great fit for sending email newsletters and mass campaigns.
As a result, we focused more on those kinds of keywords—we wanted our strategy to generate customers, not just traffic.
Create new product pages or update existing ones
Once you’ve identified the key solution terms, the next step is to make sure you have dedicated pages that target them.
Each page was optimized entirely for that solution term (and some minor variations) and included copy, imagery, and testimonials on how InVision is great for iPad prototyping or design feedback.
If you search any of these terms today, you’ll see that InVision ranks in the top three nearly every time. The pages continue to drive a ton of traffic and sign-ups.
Build links to these pages
Your final step in getting these pages to rank is to start getting links.
Go through your site (including other product pages, blog, support docs, etc.) and link to the page wherever it makes sense. For example, if one of your product pages mentions the word ‘prototyping’ then link to the prototyping page. While it has long been rumored that 100 internal links is the upper limit of links per page or blog post, you can continue to experiment to find what works best.
For instance, a link to the iPad prototyping page from a blog post about best practices for iPad prototyping is going to be more valuable than a link from a post about general design best practices). Adding these pages to the footer of your site can also help as the footer is usually on every page of your site, so in one change you’ve effectively created a backlink back to the iPad prototyping page from every other page.
Guest posting on other sites is generally the best way to earn backlinks, as solution-focused product pages don’t naturally attract links. Unlike an informative blog post or free tool, they’re not adding enough value to attract a lot of links naturally.
Though more time consuming and resource intensive, links through guest posts can certainly help your page rank overtime.
If your product has several integrations, this can be a great way to attract search traffic, particularly if those integrations have large user bases.
Here’s how you can approach it.
Identify the best terms to target
Ideally, you want to target something like “[solution term] for [integration name].” For example, it might be “POS software for Quickbooks” or “proposal software for Salesforce.”
These terms show that the user is looking for a solution like yours and needs it to integrate with another product in their stack.
The key is to target the right solution term. As mentioned earlier, “email marketing software” can also be called “email newsletter software, “eblast software,” etc. Find out which is best for your product.
Create dedicated integration landing pages
Although you likely have some existing integration pages on your site, these often target existing customers. They assume the reader is a user of your product and usually contains information only about how the integration works, how to set it up in your account, etc.
Worst of all, they usually contain no call to action to sign-up or request a demo.
There’s a massive opportunity to show new users is your product’s great features, testimonials, social proof, etc.
This page from proposal software Qwilr is an excellent example of how to do integration landing pages well.
The page targets people searching for “proposal software for Hubspot” and follows landing page best practices. It includes an overview of Qwilr’s features, testimonials about how great Qwilr is, a badge showing that they’re a certified partner of Hubspot, and multiple calls to action to sign up or request a demo.
Build links to these pages
Like solution pages, it’s difficult to acquire links naturally to these integration pages. They just don’t provide enough value to earn links from other bloggers and websites.
However, one place where you can get a link is from the integration directory on the website of the specific integration (e.g., from the integration directory on the Quickbooks website, if your product integrates with them).
Most large software companies also maintain App Stores, such as Salesforce’s AppExchange and Microsoft’s AppSource, which provide self-service tools for SaaS businesses to manage their listings. That makes it easy to secure a link directly to your integration landing page from a high-authority, high-relevance site.
If your product has some popular alternatives, going after those terms can be useful as well.
For instance, Mandoe is digital signage software that makes it easy for people to create digital signs and then display them on any Smart TV. “Digital signage” and its close variations have about 4,000 monthly searches, but alternatives like “LED signs,” “neon signs,” “lightbox signs,” or even just basic “business signage” queries have close to 25,000 monthly searches.
Compared to LED or neon signs, digital signage can include animation to catch the eye, so it makes sense to try to sway people searching for those lesser alternatives.
Here’s how to effectively rank for alternative terms.
Identify the right keywords
As always, start by identifying the alternatives people search for, the volume of those terms, how competitive each term is, and how well your product solves the problems for those queries.
Continuing the example above from Mandoe, we realized that even though there was reasonable volume for “LED signs” and “neon signs,” those signs are generally used for a different purpose than digital signage (typically for displaying static content, like the business name or logo).
So, we thought it best to focus our efforts on terms like “lightbox signs,” which suggest the user has a problem that digital signage can solve.
Build great content
Ideally, these wouldn’t be standard product pages that simply explain the features of your product. If the user is looking for an alternative, like a lightbox sign, you need to convince them why your product is a superior alternative. Positioning matters.
When framing your product or service, present the problems with that specific alternative. In the case of lightbox signs, it can be difficult to change content, and some solutions don’t offer quality animations.Once you’ve convinced people of the alternative’s shortcomings, then you can present your product.
Mandoe does a good job of this on the page above. They present the shortcomings of lightboxes and then show how Mandoe can help businesses overcome these and get better results. They immediately address the three biggest issues with their competition.
Use Google Ads to drive initial traffic
If your website is primarily about digital signage, you’re unlikely to rank for “LED signs” or “neon signs” right away. The best way to get started here is to use Google Ads to buy your traffic at first.
Doing so will give you valuable data:
- How many searches there really are for this term. (Third-part tools are often inaccurate.)
- How many visits you’re likely to get from a top position.
- The conversion rate from visitor to sign-up/lead.
- The conversion rate from sign-up/lead to customer.
- The average contract value.
With a little more information and clarity on what that data means, you can decide your next steps strategically.
For many B2B SaaS companies, problem terms are the biggest opportunity. This is particularly true for those that aren’t competing in an established product category (and, therefore, have lower volume for solution terms).
Simul Docs, a version control and collaboration tool for Microsoft Word, has done a great job with this. People don’t often search for “version control software for Microsoft Word.” In fact, according to Ahrefs, global monthly volume for that term and its close variants is less than 200 searches per month.
However, when people are doing the thing that Simul improves (i.e., trying to collaborate on Word documents), they tend to search for things like “coauthor Word documents,” “compare Word documents,” “revert Word documents,” etc. There are almost 100,000 searches per month for those terms.
These pages are all quite similar in design and structure but tweaked slightly to present the product as a way to address the specific problem the user has.
Here’s how to get similar results.
Identify the best terms
If your site is primarily about a particular topic (e.g., Microsoft Word, in Simul’s case) and you try to expand your problem terms too broadly (e.g., “collaborating on Google Docs”), you may have a hard time ranking—Google doesn’t view you as an authority on Google Docs.
When planning which problem terms to go after, consider your site’s topical authority along with volume, difficulty, and product/term fit metrics.
Create dedicated pages
Depending on the problem term, these pages could be anything from informative blog posts (e.g., “4 ways to collaborate on Word documents”) to feature-driven product pages.
Build links to these pages
Like solution pages, it’s difficult to naturally acquire links to these problem pages, particularly if they’re the feature-driven product page variety.
One possible way around this is to use these pages to create free tools that show how your product works. On the page where Simul targets “compare Word documents,” they actually have a small tool to upload and compare two Microsoft Word documents.
It’s a great way to demonstrate to people how the product works and capture leads. It’s also a great inbound link magnet.
Upstream and downstream product terms
For unestablished product categories without much search volume, upstream and downstream products can expand your reach.
Kapiche analyzes the free-text responses to NPS and CSAT surveys and provides quantitative analytics on why people gave you the scores they did. There isn’t a lot of search volume for “text analysis tool for NPS,” which means solution terms aren’t an option for them.
They send that traffic to content on their site that showcases how users of those tools can use Kapiche to get a better understanding of the “why” behind NPS and CSAT scores.
Here’s how to execute a similar strategy.
Identify the right keywords
Catalog the upstream and downstream products people in your target market search for, as well as the associated metrics.
Pay attention to how the market is segmented. For instance, in the case of Kapiche, the product is aimed at enterprises, with minimum costs of several thousands of dollars per year.
There are hundreds of survey tools Kapiche could target, but only a handful have the enterprise customers with the volume of feedback and budget for their product. They took that into account when identifying which keywords to target.
Build great content
It’s likely that you don’t have content on your site targeting these upstream & downstream products, so it’s time to build it.
Ideally, these wouldn’t be standard product pages. If the user is searching for an upstream or downstream product, it means they’re in your target market—not that they’re problem-aware, let alone solution-aware.
Focus your content on helping people realize they have a problem. In Kapiche’s case, their content starts with the problem, then goes for the ask.
Do you know what your customers are saying about you in NPS surveys? If not, you could be missing out on valuable information that can help you increase your NPS score.
Only then do they talk about Kapiche and their solution. This is known as the PAS (Problem-Agitate-Solution) formula and is a great approach to take in these pages.
Use Google Ads to drive initial traffic
Given that you’ve likely never spoken about these upstream and downstream products on your website before, you may not rank for them quickly. As with the other suggestions we cover, Google Ads can get things started and give you that same valuable data about traffic and conversion potential.
At the bottom of the pyramid, the goal is to create content (e.g., guides, blog posts) that target key search terms within your target market, even if they’re not related directly to your product.
Given the breadth of possibilities (and ambiguous search intent), this is usually one of the last areas to focus on. Other categories will likely yield more results more quickly. That said, it’s usually where the most search volume is. If you can invest in content for the long term, you’ll get compounding results over time.
A “topics approach” works well here. Create one master piece of content on a topic, then link to it whenever possible. Here’s how we used to think about this at Campaign Monitor.
- Select key topics. If you were writing the “For Dummies” book on your subject, what would the table of contents look like? We wrote about email marketing, so our topics covered things like building your email list, designing a great email, writing great copy, landing in the inbox, reporting on campaigns, etc. Use a combination of keyword research and industry knowledge to build this out.
- Write the absolute best piece of content on each topic. As an example, we wrote a 5,000-word guide on building your email list. It had a two-part framework, a list of tools, countless images, case studies, etc.
- Repurpose the content. We broke the piece of content down into multiple smaller pieces, including posts on our blog, posts on other blogs (including SumoMe and Unbounce), etc. We linked each of these repurposed pieces back to the main piece.
- Link to it from other content. Whenever we mentioned building an email list in other blog posts, guides, etc., we linked back to the main content.
- Build external links to it. We worked with our SEO agency to do some outreach to people who had previously written about email list building and asked them to link to it.
Because it’s a highly valuable piece of content on the topic, and because it has a ton of internal and external links to it, the piece began ranking for terms like ‘build email list’ and was driving tens of thousands of people interested in email marketing to the Campaign Monitor site every month.
The SEO Pyramid is a great framework to identify SEO opportunities you may not have originally thought of, and can lead to significant growth in traffic and customers for your B2B SaaS company.
Use the framework and resources provided to conduct keyword research in each of the areas of the pyramid. When you find opportunity—like some volume and low competition—use the tactics outlined above to drive valuable traffic to your site.