SEO… So mysterious, so complex, so… distant. Why can’t you just unveil yourself to us and come out of the marketing jargon-filled forest?
SEO has long been a frustrating marketing topic for me to grasp. I devoured tutorials, articles, and posts to wrap my head around the topic, but it still wasn’t enough for it to click… at least not until recently.
For me to get a clear understanding of how SEO works, I’ve had to experience its impact first-hand. Here’s a real story of phenomenal growth powered by SEO and content, which denudes marketing’s favorite black box.
Growth at Ladder
At Ladder, a growth marketing agency with offices in NY & London, we solve acquisition, conversion, and retention problems for dozens of startups and established companies. In working across a wide spectrum of clients (SaaS, Apps, E-Comm) we perfected the art of building systematic, scalable growth engines via structured marketing experiments.
So surely if we can grow our clients’ businesses, we should have no problem growing our own, right? A growth marketing agency with stagnant growth would kind of be like Guy Fieri passing off as Usain Bolt. Not a good look.
Well, luckily for us, growth has been tremendous over the past 2 years. And we got there using the same tactics we’d use across our client roster.
We first experimented with different channels, audiences, and ad messaging to pull qualified traffic to our site (acquisition tactics). Then we experimented with different contract models to get clients to actually sign deals (conversion tactics). And today, we continue to perfect our servicing model to increase client happiness (retention tactics).
The first 2 key steps are aimed at getting qualified people to come to our site, and then convert at several stages along the way, from signing up as a lead to becoming a client.
All startups will share a similar challenge.
To crack this magical equation, you need to experiment, and to experiment you need cash (digital marketing media budget). The tough part is that not all businesses crack the code in a few weeks with $5,000-$20,000. On certain accounts, we’ve had to spend over $100,000 to find the right combination, but once you find it, you’re set. You can “turn on the jets” –- double, triple, quadruple, even quintuple your media spend and get 2x, 3x, 4x, 5x your leads.
SEO for Business Growth
But Ladder was a bootstrappy startup. And your startup should be bootstrappy too. We couldn’t afford to burn $100,000 to find our winning combo. Instead, we needed to balance out paid efforts with organic activity.
This is where the beauty of SEO comes in. We started publishing content with the hope of one day pulling leads onto our site organically, aka for free.
Consider this: If you type in “top SEO agency in Seattle” into Google, who pops up?
Okay cool – We see a bunch of agencies show up on a map, then a few results from publishing companies. The first organic search result for an agency website is one called “Seattle Web Works”.
If Ladder wanted to become an SEO agency and pick up clients in Seattle, we couldn’t just ask Google to place us in the top position for that search term.
Realistically, we’d have 2 options:
- Option 1: We’d bid on those search terms (+seo +agency +seattle) to rank on AdWords as the top ad, and we’d also do some testing via paid social with geographic overlays.
- Option 2: We’d build a content marketing strategy to convince Google that we are the most relevant search result for that query.
Option 2 is your ideal SEO strategy because, in reality, SEO is all about content marketing.
Its main benefit is that although it takes a lot of time and effort, it doesn’t require paid media spend, so once you do start showing up on the first page, you will be getting leads for “free” and those leads will come in every month, depending on the search volume.
Building a Baseline SEO Strategy
So how do we convince Google that we are the most relevant search result for a specific search query? That’s the art of SEO.
Step 1: Know which terms you want to rank for.
If you’re a small startup, you will not have built enough trust with Google (see step 3) to rank on a competitive search term (for ex: car insurance), so be sure to target keywords that have a lot of relevant search traffic and low competition. Use tools like SpyFu and Google Keyword Planner for this research,
For example: Before writing this post, I noticed that the search “Understanding SEO” gets 500 searches per month and that there are only a few good pieces of content that pop-up for that query, some of them outdated. I see an opportunity for Google to see me as a more relevant result for that query. And naturally, I see value in having LADDER pop up on SEO related queries.
Step 2: Set yourself up for success.
This is the first major component of SEO. If Google can’t easily read and understand your content, there’s no way its algorithms will prioritize it for its users. Google needs basic information to determine whether a piece of content could be relevant to show to a user.
If your URL contains the terms “blog” and “SEO” that’s already a good sign for Google. If your content is well structured, with an H1 headline that contains the phrase “Understanding SEO”, and an H2 that reads “Components of SEO”, and images with HTML alt tags like “SEO-simplified” you are giving more clues to Google that you are in fact talking about that specific topic.
Set yourself up for success, do your homework, and make sure your site is easily crawlable by Googlebot.
Step 3: Convince Google you are the best search result.
But Google DOESN’T yet know that you are an expert on the topic, and therefore among the best results to show users.
Here’s an example: If you are a university and you publish a research document on SEO and your URL contains .edu, Google will already favor you a lot more (rank you higher) in the search results. Why? Because Google knows that professors are generally trustworthy sources of info! Stay in school kids.
But if you aren’t a university, how do you convince Google that you are legit?
Well… Google Search is not a person. It’s an algorithm. In fact, it’s an algorithm that treats the web as a popularity contest between sites, and uses that as a way to determine who is trustworthy.
If 25 million domains link back to the New York Times homepage every day, Google understands that the TImes is a search result that people want to see. So the first part of this step is to create awesome content that people will share and link back to. The more people link back to your content, the better you stand a chance to convince Google you are the real deal. The second part is to build popular “backlinks” (people writing content that directs users to your site).
Why This Works
Going back to the NYTimes example — Because their site is so popular and authoritative, Google will trust their links out to other sites more than other sites. So if NYTimes writes an article about your startup, Google will automatically consider your website to be valuable – Much more than if you got 12 backlinks from tiny publications.
This is a popularity contest: How many people are talking about you (sharing your content) + who is talking about you (domain authority).
So if Ladder wants to rank first for “top SEO agency in Seattle”, we’d have to do a lot of work creating great content, distributing it to the right communities, and building relationships with popular platforms to increase our popularity index in that niche. That’s basically SEO in its rawest form.
Impact of SEO for Ladder
To fully demystify the subject — and end on the growth story that helped me piece everything together — when we first started writing content, Google had no idea who Ladder was, nor whether we were a credible source of information. We couldn’t rank for organic keywords. So we founded the Ladder Blog and we wrote a ton of content on relevant marketing and business topics, focusing on keywords with highly qualified search volume and low competition.
We set ourselves up for success with robust H1/H2/URL structures and amplified our content on multiple relevant forums like Growth Hackers to get more eyeballs and ultimately more attention + backlinks.
Over time, the hard work paid off, we started ranking organically for terms like Event Tracking and Marketing Certifications, and our blog has grown to 15,000 monthly visitors. We’ve gotten published in publications like Salesforce and Forbes, and we now get half our business inquiries per month through organic content.
All of this for free.
So when we look at Ladder’s performance and start to notice that our customer acquisition costs have dropped significantly, it’s because we’ve built a repeatable, scalable growth machine that not only takes advantage of paid media spend, but also organic growth via SEO.
That, for me, was the “aha” moment.
Find yours by following the steps I outlined above.