Creating a B2B SEO Strategy for Startups That Drives Leads

Source: think with Google

B2B marketing now looks suspiciously like B2C.

Just ask companies like Mailchimp, Buffer, Dropbox, or Atlassian (which I’m part of). They grew significantly without even having a sales team.

The biggest driver for those companies is Inbound Marketing: Search Engine Optimization (SEO), E-Mail, Organic Social Media, Video/Audio, Influencer and Content Marketing. Why is it so successful? Seth Godin puts it best: “Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them.

3.5 billion people search on Google every day, which makes SEO the most important (Inbound) Marketing channel. Besides traffic volume, it comes with two gifts: users are pre-qualified, meaning you already know they have a certain problem – and SEO traffic is technically free.

Your audience is on Google, but the gatekeeper you have to overcome is an algorithm armored with hundreds of ranking factors that decides which result ranks on top of an organic search.

In this article, I’ll show you how to create an SEO strategy that beats the algorithm. We’ll start by looking at the role of SEO in a greater B2B business strategy. Then, we’ll cover creating and structuring content that ranks well. Finally, we’ll top if off with measuring SEO success in B2B.

Define the Role of SEO in Your Customer’s Journey

The first step in creating a SEO strategy is to understand the role of SEO and the purpose of your website. Is it an assistant or the driver of sales? That question is answered by your business model: low-touch sales companies can drive major sales with SEO. In the enterprise theater, though, it plays a small role.

Palantir is a billion-dollar B2B company that sells to only a few customers, mostly government agencies, banks, and hedge funds. Their website plays merely a role for branding. SEO is not important to them. The site is an assistant in the sales process.

Mailchimp, on the other hand, sells their product through their website. Their salesperson is the website. Hence, SEO is extremely important. So much so that if Google decided to exclude Mailchimp from organic search, the business would probably struggle to survive.

After defining the role of SEO in your company, you need to define its role in the sales process and buyer’s journey, too.

Let’s simplify the funnel for a moment and say there are three stages:

  • Awareness – realizing a problem
  • Consideration – looking at different solutions
  • Purchase – deciding to buy a solution

When SEO is assisting sales, most of the site is structured around the middle and bottom of the funnel. You show visitors how your product can solve a set of problems and then try to connect them with a salesperson for a demo. Most of your content is structured around sales enablement: explaining how the product works, customer case-studies, whitepapers and e-books.

When driving sales, SEO needs to drive user acquisition at the top of the funnel. That’s the case for low-touch sales B2B companies (think: Mailchimp). You need awareness content to get on your target audience’s radar, show them how your product is better and then make it as easy as possible to buy it.

Once that’s decided and you understand the importance of SEO for your company, the next step is finding out what content to create for each step in the funnel.

Become a Topic Authority

SEO starts with search and search starts with keywords. When building content for different funnel stages, you have to identify the right keywords.

Let’s take Mailchimp as an example again. www.mailchimp.com ranks for brand keywords, like “Mailchimp,” “Mailchimp login,” and “Mailchimp pricing.” That comes almost automatically because Google gives brands a bonus to rank for their names.

Tool: SEMrush

Those are bottom of the funnel (purchase) keywords: users know exactly what they want from which site.

Generic keywords, like “email templates,” “landing page,” and “email marketing” are much more competitive and harder to rank for. Those are the ones driving awareness.

Tool: SEMrush

That’s where the money is! Tens of thousands of people search for those terms alone every month. Ranking for such terms drives new businesses and creates brand awareness.

The middle of the funnel is often represented by “Brand X vs. Brand Y” or “Best X software” keywords (consideration).

To best address the funnel, we now focus on topics instead of keywords. A topic is a set of relevant keywords for your business that you should create content around. Say you wanted to rank a landing page for the keyword “email templates,” then you should consider what other keywords are part of that topic and include them in your content. Instead of hard keywords, think about what a user needs to know when reading about email templates. Sub-topics like “what makes good email design” or “how to customize an email template” should come to mind.

The benefit of a topic-centered approach is not only that you can establish yourself as a thought leader to users, but also to search engines. From the Google Quality Rater Guidelines, we know that the search engine is capable of identifying how authoritative a site is for a specific keyword/topic based on its content. Google calls it E-A-T: “Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness.” With the help of machine learning, Google is able to determine how “deep” a topic is covered. Does a piece of content only cover the surface or is it written by an expert? Does it provide real insights or is it just meshed together?

A modern approach to facilitate E-A-T on a site is “Topic Clusters,” a concept that Hubspot first promoted. The idea behind the concept is to create one big long page for the short head keyword of a topic (called “pillar”) and then several articles that zoom in on the details (called “clusters”) and link between these two page types.

Let’s run through an example. Say you’re a SaaS company that makes accounting software and you want to rank for the keyword “enterprise accounting software.” You start out by creating one long article for that keyword, the pillar, that covers the complete topic. Then, you go ahead and create a series of articles that zoom in on specifics of the topic (clusters) and link them to the pillar page. You could create cluster content around “why is enterprise accounting software important,” “how to connect enterprise accounting software to salesforce,” or “how to change your enterprise accounting system,” etc. The goal is not to cover every keyword variation – the goal is to create a content hub that’s useful to your users. A one-stop shop for any information around that topic. One of the cluster pages should be a landing page, on which visitors can sign up for your product.

Focus on one topic cluster at a time. Bring on experts to contribute, either with a guest post, a quote, or co-authorship. The better the topic cluster, the more your brand benefits over the long-term.

One great example of this comes from Typeform, which created a topic cluster around “Net Promoter Score (NPS).”. The topic is important for the business because Typeform is often used to send out NPS surveys.

They link to the topic cluster in their website footer:

In the left-hand navigation, you see all the sections of the pillar content.

An example of cluster content is Typeform’s “Star Wars Guide to Net Promoter Score.”

Pillar and cluster content can live under the same subdirectory, for example, typeform.com/net-promoter-score, or be spread throughout the site. The former is ideal but the latter can work as well.

Pillar and cluster content can live under the same subdirectory, for example, typeform.com/net-promoter-score, or be spread throughout the site. The former is ideal but the latter can work as well.

Identify the User’s Intent

One of the most important factors to consider in SEO is user intent. In the past few years, Google tweaked its algorithm towards making user intent a prerequisite in organic search. For example, if you search for “apple” you’ll find the company, not the fruit. Google understands what people want. That’s why it’s important for you to factor that into your content creation process.

You can reverse engineer the user intent of a keyword by looking at the pages that rank for it in the top 10. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: since Google ranks pages high that solve the user’s problem, we can understand the problem by looking at the rankings.

Let’s look at the search results for the keyword “project management software”:

The first thing that sticks out is that Google is showing a list of project management software solutions at the top of the search results. That indicates that users searching for this keyword want a selection or overview.

Next, when we look at the top 10 pages that are ranking we see that almost all of them compare different solutions (marked in red).

Tool: Ahrefs

Only Wikipedia provides a definition of project management software, and two results are actual products. Those two indicators tell us that the user is looking for a comparison, not a single solution.

So, when you create content, start with the user intent. It also decides the content format that’s most useful for the query:

  • Long-form article
  • Comparison (table)
  • List
  • Video
  • Infographic
  • Widget

We’ve established that for the keyword “project management software” users are looking for a list of the best solutions. That implies that they want to compare them against each other. So, if you would want to rank for this keyword, you have to make that information as digestible as possible with a comparison table or widget that allows users to filter after their preferences. This is just an example of how content can be structured to match user intent.

How Should B2B Companies Measure the Success of SEO?

SEO is best measured with a set of metrics. It’s not enough to just measure the traffic coming through SEO because that says nothing about its quality. You also need to measure business impact. Lastly, you need an engagement metric to understand the quality of content by looking at how people interact with it.

Let me provide you a couple of suggestions.

KPIs:

  • Organic entrances
  • Clicks on organic search results
  • # of relevant keyword rankings in the top 10>

Business impact:

  • MQL from SEO
  • Sales from SEO

Engagement:

  • Social likes/shares
  • Time on site
  • Pages per visit
  • Scroll depth

Focus on one metric for each category, look at it on a weekly basis, and create a dashboard everyone has access to. At a startup it is especially vital that everyone is aligned on the same metrics and understand the impact of effort.

You might wonder why Bounce Rate isn’t included in engagement metrics. It’s not indicative of quality. It doesn’t say whether your content was helpful to a user or not. Sometimes visitors just look for a single piece of information and leave your site without clicking further through. That’s not always bad.

How you put together you stack of metrics depends on your preference and what suits your business best.

Summarizing – What Does a Good SEO Strategy for B2B Look like?

An elegant SEO strategy in B2B fulfills three main purposes:

  • It strengthens the brand and creates the right perception around the business.
  • It brings in qualified leads by addressing all stages of the sales funnel.
  • it shortens sales cycles by providing prospects answers to questions before they’re asked (sales enablement).

It’s important for strategy to know its place in the sales process because that makes the business case for the right amount of investment. Once that’s decided, a B2B company’s strongest weapon is content. Topic clusters that revolve around user intent and topics are the best structure for content.

I’m often being asked what role technical SEO plays. For B2B companies, technical SEO becomes important when the site grows to 500-1,000 pages. That could be the case if you have public facing product instances (think: customer profiles and accounts that can be found through Google). In that situation you should consider some technical optimization to make use of all these pages, minimize spam, and strengthen your landing pages.

References

1. Seth’s Blog, Permission Marketing
2. Internetlivestats, Google Search Analytics
3. Google User Content, Seatch Quality Evaluator Guidelines
4. Think with Google, The Changing Face of B2B Marketing

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