In Episode 580, Rob Walling chats with Ross Hudgins, an SEO expert, about seven common things that SaaS founders either do well or frequently get wrong.
The topics we cover
[4:42] Put your blog in a subfolder, not a subdomain.
[7:18] With keyword-focused content, make the URL exactly the main keyword.
[10:10] Be thoughtful about feature page keywords
[13:39] It’s really hard to rank for “best X software” queries
[16:24] Use on-page content marketing best practices
[20:50] Build passive link assets around keyword
[22:58] Answer keyword questions immediately, right after the H1
Links from the show
- On-Page Content Marketing Best Practices
- Readability: the Optimal Line Length
- Ross Hudgins (@RossHudgens) | Twitter
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Rob: It’s Startups For the Rest of Us. I’m Rob Walling. So good to have you back. This week, we do almost a throwback education episode where I have Ross Hudgens, who’s an SEO expert and been doing it for a very long time, and runs an SEO and content agency with 110 employees.
He comes on and we talk through, essentially, seven of the most common do’s and don’ts, common mistakes, common things you should be doing as a SaaS founder. It’s not a 101 look at setting your H1, then build links, and blah blah blah. But it’s things that he sees people messing up or doing really well with, and we run through him.
Before we dive into that, I want to remind you that if you haven’t subscribed to receive the two exclusive hidden episodes, you should head to startupsfortherestofus.com. I have two never publicly released podcast episodes and accompanying PDF guides. First one is called 8 Things You Must Know When Launching Your SaaS. It’s pretty prescriptive.
The second one is 10 Things You Should Know As You Scale Your SaaS. Less prescriptive, of course, because as you get further in, maybe there are different paths. So enter your name and email, and you’ll get both those delivered to your inbox. We don’t send a ton of email to the Startups For the Rest of Us list, but we actually do send a really good email that our assistant producer Aaron puts together, which is show notes. It’s some additional information about each episode every week, and just a deeper dive into these episodes.
If you haven’t checked that out, if you’re not on the mailing list—honestly, there’s some mailing list you sign up to and you’re like, I need to get off this thing. Of course, if you decide that that’s us, it’s an easy one-click unsubscribe. But what I find is that our retention rate is very high once people do start getting the emails. I get them myself, I look through them, and I enjoy the walk-through of these episodes. With that, let’s dig into seven SEO tips every SaaS can use with Ross Hudgens.
Ross Hudgens, thanks so much for joining me on the show.
Ross: Thanks for having me, Rob. Glad to be here.
Rob: For folks who don’t know you, you’re the founder and CEO of Siege Media, a 110-person SEO-focused content marketing agency. You have clients like Asana, QuickBooks, and Norton. I chuckled when I said 110 people because that’s a big ass agency, man. Congratulations.
Ross: Yeah, thanks. Thankfully, we’ve done it slowly over nine years so you don’t feel the anxiety, but randomly, I’m on a walk and I’m like, wow, there’s 110 people in this company. It gives you a little nervous breakdown on occasion.
Rob: Yeah, because I know a bunch of agency owners wherever because of MicroConf, the podcasts, or whatever. I feel like a lot of agencies are in that 10- to 25-person range, but it’s pretty rare I meet someone in triple-digit employees. I will say, in my experience, there are a lot more SaaS companies that make it there sometimes just because they’re funded and they hire like crazy, but also because the recurring revenue allows them to last that long. Whereas agencies can be more spiky, right?
Ross: Yeah, we’re lucky. We’re in a space where our space makes sense for predictability like reoccurring content marketing, search, this is something you don’t really stop. I think that has helped with retention and predictability. We have one service line, effectively. That helps scalability a little bit better.
Rob: I also imagine results have something to do with it. You don’t make 110-person by delivering a crappy quality.
Ross: You’d be surprised, but most of the time, yeah.
Rob: Fair enough. Awesome, man. Thanks for coming on the show. You and I have known each other for a couple of years now, I believe, since TinySeed kicked off. You’ve been one of the most helpful mentors in terms of just practical, tactical tips and advice directly to founders.
There’s a handful of mentors who just provide an outsized amount of give back or value, I would say. You and I started talking about you coming to the show and what to cover. Do we cover your startup story? There are all these different options we could do. But really, seven SEO tips for every SaaS company, I think, is a pretty cool way to kick it off.
This goes back to more of the old-school Startups For the Rest of Us. We used to do more tactical teaching stuff, we haven’t in a long time. Whether you’re thinking about SEO or not, most of your tips are not very time-consuming. I get the feeling that you pulled some of these from—it could almost be renamed like seven SEO Mistakes most SaaS companies make if they don’t know what they’re doing.
Ross: That’s a good point.
Rob: That’s how I think about it. It’s almost like, if you’re going to go on a big SEO campaign, these are absolutely critical. If you’re not, these are still good things to look at and be like, oh, if I move that from a subdomain to a subfolder, I can get a bunch of benefits. Let’s dive in. That actually kicks us off. The first SEO tip you have is to put your blog in a subfolder, not a subdomain.
Ross: Yeah. That’s one of the ones, to your point, I see most commonly as a mistake. People will put their site or blog on a subdomain, most often for security issues or maybe just convenience. You’re more technical than I am. You probably know that answer better than I do, but you see that a lot.
Unfortunately, Google is not so great at breaking out that that’s the same website. The mistake is that they differentiate it. So you have all these links and authority that go to your main site, and all the content that’s hosted on those subdomains effectively doesn’t get valued the same.
In our results and what we’ve seen, you can see up to 20–30% lift simply by moving a subdomain to a subfolder. Ideally, it would be website.com/blog/learn, as compared to blog.website.com. That’s mainly so Google can see that these are the same thing very clearly. Because it goes back to the days of Blogspot and things like that where you would have your own subdomain. I think that’s one reason Google did it that way.
We’ve seen that. I would also suggest looking on Twitter. Ran has a great thread, which maybe we can put in the show notes, of just tons of different case studies. If you search subfolder versus subdomain, all the math is just very clearly subfolder.
Rob: This one was surprising to me because I know that this used to be the case. If I went back 10 years, 2011, I knew for sure that subdomain was not good. I thought that around five or six-ish years ago, people were saying that Google was smarter than that now and that they could figure it out. It sounds like Google’s not quite as smart as we thought they were.
Ross: Yeah, effectively. It’s been as recent as a year or two. Consistently, I have never really seen anything saying the opposite. I think you can be okay on a subdomain. It’s not a critical error, but if it’s somehow feasible for you and it’s not a major, major headache, it’s worth doing.
HubSpot is the cautionary tale where you look at their site and they’re so prominent. They’re on blog.hubspot.com. They do quite fine, but that might be the exception rather than the rule. You can still be successful, but everything we see seems to point to subfolders doing better.
Rob: Got it, and that is the reverse proxy maneuver we used to do because certainly, a lot of blogs are going to be on WordPress, not all. But if you put it on WordPress, you don’t want to go on your production rails server or whatever. So you have to then do a reverse proxy and loop it through. Google that, folks, if you haven’t seen it.
Second SEO tip is when creating keyword-focused content, make the URL exactly the main keyword. You want to talk us through that?
Ross: Yeah. Just to give Google confidence that the article is about something, the more you focus on that thing in the URL structure, the more optimized and clear it’ll be to Google. An example of how someone could go a different direction is, say, you’re trying to rank for podcasting tips. You would want to make that exactly the URL with a hyphen in between those two words.
What people commonly would do is say, podcasting-tips-for-SaaS-companies or something like that. Every single thing you add after the keyword could potentially dilute the meaning to Google. It focuses on the topic. So by really making exactly that main keyword, you uber focus it. From our experience, I’ve just seen better results doing that on a consistent basis.
Rob: Got it. If I was trying to rank for podcasting tips but my article title was a lot longer than that, you’re saying make the slug, that’s a URL slug, make that the keyword.
Ross: Exactly. The title itself can be a little more fluffy, definitely add, click-through rate elements and brand voice. You can even put something in front of the keyword. I generally would suggest putting the keyword as close to the front as possible, which is a more obvious tip. The URL just doesn’t need that in the same way. So that’s a place where you can just get exact, and then do the brand voice and click-through rate type stuff in the title itself.
Rob: It’s funny you say putting it towards the front of the title. A little-known fact. You may have heard this on this podcast or may not have, but when Mike and I originally started this podcast, we were wondering, what do we name this thing? Because we’re not going to talk about venture capital.
SaaS wasn’t as prominent as it was today. It really wasn’t a big thing, and so we weren’t going to call it the SaaS podcast or anything. What we’re saying is we want people to find it in search, in iTunes search, what’s now Apple Podcasts. The search algorithm is not very sophisticated. It wasn’t sophisticated then and it’s probably not much more today.
So we wanted startups in the title and we realized, I think we want startups right at the start. We were racking our brains for what do we call it. Startups what? Startups today? Startups this week? Normally, if you have startups, a lot of the startup podcasts have startup later in the title, but we wanted it earlier on.
It turns out, Mike owned this domain already. It was in his GoDaddy account, Startups For the Rest of Us. He registered it. It just stumbled in. I don’t know. I don’t have much evidence on whether that helped us in search or not because there’s no analytics. But I do know if you type in startups, we used to rank at the top three for years in iTunes. I don’t know if that was from reviews or from the title.
Ross: Probably a combination.
Rob: A little of both? It always is, the on-page and the off-page. Tip number three is that almost every feature page that you have on your SaaS marketing site should aim to target keyword software, even if it has certainly low search volume. Talk us through this and maybe give some examples so people will understand what you’re saying.
Ross: Something I’ve seen in some SaaS companies, especially just starting out, is a common architecture. You have your homepage as the generalized view of what your software does, and then you have the sub-feature pages. I don’t always see the sub-feature pages targeting keywords, but there’s an opportunity there even if the search volume is relatively low to do that. Also, it speaks to should that even be a feature page because someone has enough want to demand for this that they’ve done a search for it.
An example of that might be podcasting software. It might be the homepage, and then you’d have a sub-feature page on podcast analytics. That could hypothetically be podcast analytics software. Some mistakes I see is someone might just say, podcast analytics when a lot of time, people do add software as a refining term.
So by having that maybe in your main H1 and also your title tag closer to the front, as we talked about, and always searching that for each feature page, you should be able to at least optimize for potentially some long-tail search volume. If you’re going upmarket and enterprise, that could be a very valuable longtail search that gets you a qualified audience.
Rob: I’m going to be honest, this might be my favorite tip of the seven. That if I were a SaaS founder today and didn’t have this, this would add a minimum go on my to-research and think about more to figure out what level of effort this would require to do. Because I am super intrigued by this idea of just having a few more elements of content. What you’re saying is even if the keyword volume is crazy low, you just have this really high likelihood of ranking very high for them, is that right?
Ross: Correct. There’s product research in there too. If you’re doing long tail on podcast analytics, they might add refining terms that should give you some hints about maybe what your product should have or hypothetically, at least they want, that could be elements you include on the landing page that drive conversion, all good things that can help you rank. The lower competition they are, often, the easier you’ll rank for it.
Rob: Yeah, and I’ve seen some sites do this. I believe veed.io. One of the co-founders spoke at MicroConf Europe a few weeks ago. I had gone to their site just to check it out as I do because I wasn’t familiar with the tool. They have a bunch in their top nav. They have basically what you’re saying, or at least similar. They have a lot of actions like add image to video, add music to video.
I guess they don’t have the software element of it, but, yeah—screen recorder, software, webcam recorder, right. Okay. They have it in there pretty well. Do you think veed.io is doing what you’re saying? I suppose it is a question for you.
Ross: Yes. That’s a good refinement, probably a qualifier. Maybe the better way to phrase it is that everything should have some search volume thoughtfulness to it. Not everything might actually make sense to include software, but everything should have some kind of significance.
They have transcription services. That might not make sense like convert audio to text just because of what they do. Probably it doesn’t make sense to add software at the end, but a lot of their pages do, to your point. Maybe that’s the clarity on it. Just look up what makes sense for each of those.
Rob: Your fourth tip is it’s really hard to rank for “best X software”. Try to do that indirectly instead of ranking directly. What do you mean by ranking? Let’s say I’m a podcasting software like best podcasting software. If I try to rank number one for that, very difficult. So how do I rank indirectly for that?
Ross: Yeah, the indirect fashion is thinking, not that I’m trying to get my own website to show up for that, but rather, how do I get on all the sites already showing up for that? So open up that query, look at all the sites that are ranking, and reach out to each of them, set up a profile, and then go and get reviews on those sites.
How those best queries operate is users most often want an unbiased third-party to tell them what the best software is. That’s where being a first party actual provider of the software technically invalidates what people are trying to find with that search. It still happens. The very authoritative sites occasionally pull it off where they rank for that.
My general suggestion would be to try to rank for, say, podcasting software without best. They’re not necessarily looking for that third-party validation always with that search. Then, on the best terms, get that review site listing and try to build on the ones that you think will be there for the long-term. Very often, Capterra, Software Advice, those sites stood the test of time and probably are showing up on your results as well.
Rob: Which is interesting. You say they stood the test of time. It’s interesting because usually, I’ve seen Google in its vast knowledge and constant evolution. Every two or three years, it decides to de-emphasize something and re-emphasize something else, and an entire site like Capterra just gets wiped out. I think of Mahalo with Jason Calacanis. What was that one, it was the do it?
Rob: EHow, eHow was one, wikiHow, there were a bunch that used to rank all and they’re just gone from the SERPs. I have to imagine, they lost 80%, 90% of their traffic, but that has not happened to Capterra. Do you know why that is?
Ross: That’s a good point. You made me google this to reconfirm that. I actually think they have lost a decent amount of headway, not a huge amount, but they’re not ranking as dominantly as they had before. To your point, I think it’s all about what value you’re bringing. Like eHow, they’re not truly a credible source for a lot of things like how to plan a wedding. You’d rather go to The Knot, brides.com, or something compared to eHow.
Software Advice was good, but I think there’s also, for sure, it was pay to play there. It still is, I think, on both of those, so that’s probably something Google does not like. That’s effectively an arbitrage sale and maybe trying to find a solve for that.
Rob: Tip number five is use on-page content marketing best practices and you link out to a blog post. You want to talk us through a couple of those? We’ll obviously link this blog post up in the show notes. Let me know what are the four or five sub-points there.
Ross: These are definitely good to visualize, but at a high level, have large fonts. So 16 pixels plus is ideal. I generally recommend 18 pixels plus. That just makes it very readable and easy to track to each line. I see gray on white fonts a lot. You want black on white, most often. It should be easy, again, to read. It shouldn’t be difficult to do that.
Rob: Why does Google care? Why would Google care if it’s gray?
Ross: Because they care what users think. That’s user. This is more user experience that backs into rankings kind of thing. So we’re trying to build pleasurable experiences, and these are just the surface level characteristics of that.
Rob: Got it. Cool. So that was the second one, black on white, not gray and white.
Ross: Or otherwise stated, very easy to read text. Sometimes designers will do gray on white because it maybe looks okay, but then you can’t actually functionally read that very well. Another example is some people will have very wide column widths. So it’s hard to track as a reader to the next line consistently if it’s a wide column width.
If you’re around 50–60 characters per line, if your font size is larger, it makes it easier to do that tracking, maybe even thinking about that with your own column width. But this sometimes happens on feature pages. I’ll see, on these pages, people will put the text completely full width and it’s just not a great reading experience. But even on blogs, it’s hard to do that tracking. It causes people to bounce, lower engagement signals, which costs you rankings.
Other things are just generally low file size on images. Increasingly, Google is getting smarter and trying to surface sites with really fast site speed. So getting all images under 200 kilobytes, I think, makes sense. You can get even lower than that. Whatever the lowest file size is that still retains the image quality, would be a suggestion for your site, and then just make it scannable. So you should have line breaks, don’t have huge paragraphs, make it easy to read, bullet points, call out sections, blockquotes that look nice. All those things should connect to a nice-to-read experience.
Rob: I like what you’re saying about the images being under 200 KB. It reminds me of our site that we host on Squarespace where the page speed is like 18% or 10%. When I go and I look at all the Squarespace sites that we know of, their loading speed is garbage.
I was asking on Twitter, is this a Squarespace thing or is this fixable? Can I hire someone? I’m willing to throw money at this because migrating off of Squarespace, I think we have five sites and they’re all well designed and there’s tons of content. Migrating is literally tens of thousands of dollars and months of work.
In asking around, most of the responses were, yes, come move to my platform or move to this other platform. That’s an answer, but that’s not really an answer. That’s not the question I was asking. This ties into page speed. That’s what you’re saying with the image size.
Ross: Exactly. For content marketing, especially making content visual is another side of product recommendation. By nature, you should have images. One way people mess that up is bigger images and then you have a slow, unwieldy website as you spoke too.
Rob: It’s hard to quantify these things. I realize a big black box with hundreds of signals that Google’s looking at, but do you have an idea of how much page speed matters? Is it a lot or a little?
Ross: It’s in the context of the users you have. If you have an audience who might be in the middle of nowhere with the worst internet speeds, that could be a bigger factor. Also, we were speaking to the wedding market. If you’re in a space that maybe is very highly visual, you might have to, by nature, build a very heavy page to give people inspiration for wedding ideas.
You would probably have a much worse experience if you weren’t thoughtful about that than someone who was. But if you’re just doing a text-based page on podcast listening numbers, maybe it’s not the make or break of a great experience in the same way. I don’t think they necessarily say, this site is fast and this one’s slow, so rank it worse. But that thoughtfulness of what makes sense doesn’t make sense for this topic, and where and who our users are and their internet speeds probably is where it can be bigger or larger depending.
Rob: Your sixth tip is to build passive link assets around keyword sets like “keywords statistics” and “keyword trends”. You want to talk us through that with an example?
Ross: Yeah. Link building is still a very important piece of the SEO equation. I’m guessing it’s hard for people that are listening to this to do that. So some low hanging fruit I’d recommend for most people is to think about these passive link assets. What are the things that people will naturally Google just to link to on their own websites?
This is a very low lift way to generate links to your website, and some common frameworks where people do that are statistics, trends, or pretty much any specific data point that someone would Google to grab and reference in your industry. We’re using podcasting consistently, that could be podcasting statistics, podcasting trends. Also, specific refinements of that are podcast listening numbers.
Those data points are things that bloggers, reporters, will just Google and then go to that top result, grab that, or just link to that page, and that will build authority and rankings for you. Sometimes thousands of links to these pages that can power the rest of your software page rankings and traction without necessarily having to do that manual outreach each time.
Rob: This feels like one of those that’s like reverse engineering, something someone stumbled upon accidentally. Some site somewhere, whether it’s Time Magazine, whether it’s TechCrunch, or whoever had some statistics and some trends. I bet you, as an SEO, have seen enough ahrefs and were like, how did they get this much domain authority? How is there so much page authority on this page? It’s like, wait a minute, these are ranking high. Is that effectively what happens?
Ross: Exactly. It’s just pattern matching that all these look this way and you dig into it. They’re generally low search volume, so that’s the good news. More podcasts and things like this that people talk about is getting more competitive. But if it’s relevant for you, I would suggest that very cautiously.
Make it make sense for you. Don’t do every statistics post under the sun. But if you’re a podcasting software, yeah, you should have these podcasting topics on your site.
Rob: Our seventh and final tip is, to answer keyword questions immediately right after the H1 with things like keyword is or answer in a way that is super visible to readers. You’re definitely going to need an example for this one and then let’s explain why this works.
Ross: Yeah. A kind of thematic thing to think about with search is low time to value. You want to have the lowest time to value possible with your content. Most times when someone is asking a question such as, what is UX research or what is the Amazon affiliate commission rate, they want to get that specific answer immediately.
A mistake people make, they’ll make to post that, and then they’ll decide they need this multi-thousand-word guide when most often, someone just wants that definition. This is one reason why you see now those answer boxes when you Google things, most often definitions, where Google is showing text above the fold. That I think is the hint that they know users want these things.
In a perfect world, you’d love someone to read all 3000 words, but the reality is we just have to deal with what we have and what users want. I think that’s solving the answer immediately. An example here is if your post title was what is UX research, most often, our recommendation would be to answer that immediately.
You would say right after the post title, UX research is blank. That will help Google understand. If you think about how a robot would think about this, that would give them confidence that this is a definition for that term. It’s very visible even better because that’s good for users also.
I’ve seen people do this in subheaders where the post title might be, what is UX research, the complete guide, and then a subheader, they’ll define it, then they’ll go into more depth under that. So make it visible, immediately answer it, structure it in a way that a robot could understand it, and you’ll benefit both in rankings and potentially getting those quick answers as well.
Rob: The quick answers are when they embed the answer at the top of the page, above the first SERP.
Ross: Correct. Us as SEOs and site owners never were huge fans of that, but it’s kind of nature of the beast and got to play to win. So we got to do what they are telling us to do.
Rob: As we wrap up, I’m curious, you’ve obviously been doing SEO for a long time. You see a big swath of companies of all types. SaaS is just one of the many types of companies that are trying to do this. You’ve worked with our first three batches of TinySeed—I’m always trying to do mental math—the 59th company, 40 plus TinySeed companies you’ve, in essence, talk through because you do some mentor calls and then I know you do some one-on-one stuff.
Are there things specific to SaaS that, I guess, they’re different than maybe for doing a D2C or whatever else? I think you’ve called out a couple of those already here for having all the feature pages. That would really only be SaaS, but any other stuff that you see commonly come up for those companies?
Ross: Yeah. Some of these are definitely those things with the software queries trying to rank for the first-party versions. Some things are on the blogs I see consistently. You probably know some of this as well. It might be more of a content marketing, best practice, but say, having a sticky NAV that follows you on the blog with a contrasting button in the top right that’s like sign up or get a demo, et cetera, that is generally conversion rate best practice to have that there.
That’s something we increasingly are recommending to specifically our SaaS clients, although sometimes worse than D2C as well. Versus topics, alternative topics are huge for search and SaaS. Search volume will be low, but we have clients who have 200 searches over three months and generate $200,000 in sales from a versus article. Those you should do every day, every time.
Rob: Yeah, we do see a lot of our companies come in without them, and that’s the recommendation folks make and I think there is value. It’s that weird low volume, super high converting stuff that I think people sometimes ignore, right?
Rob: Cool. Ross, thanks so much for coming on the show today. If folks want to keep up with you on Twitter, you’re @rosshudgens. You’re also on LinkedIn. Of course, Siege Media is the agency you run and siegemedia.com. Pretty easy to reach you there. Thanks again for joining us.
Ross: Yeah, thanks for having me, Rob. It’s been great.
Rob: Thanks again for joining me this week. It’s great to be in your earbuds. I’m so enjoying this podcast, putting the content together, and having varied episode types and varied content types. I’m glad you’re joining me every week. If you’re not already subscribed, please do.
If you haven’t mentioned @startupspod, thank @startupspod on Twitter, I’d really appreciate it. It helps spread the word. Me and my team here are spending a lot of time and effort to put these episodes together, and to try to provide value for you, all the other bootstrapped, and mostly bootstrap founders in the world.
So anything you could do to get back, I’d really appreciate it. With that, I’ll let you go this week. I’ll be back in your ears again next Tuesday morning.
We are in the process of updating our website so the podcast came right on time! A lot of great info; muchas gracias. Keep up the good work!