- The case for content marketing
- How to do keyword research
- How to determine keyword viability
- How to create content
- Publishing checklist
Over the last three years, more than 250,000 new users have signed up for Boords, our bootstrapped SaaS business. The vast majority of these users found Boords through search engines. We reach these potential customers with what I’ve come to call search-optimised tools.
It sounds dramatic, but I don't believe Boords would exist without this strategy.
I began investigating organic search as a customer acquisition channel after reaching the limits of our very naive social media strategy, which amounted to occasional tweets about new features. Each month, fewer people signed up, and more people churned. Something had to change.
I’m a web developer by trade and knew nothing about content marketing, organic search or search engine optimisation (SEO) at the outset.
This is the guide I wish I had.
Search-optimized tools are tools or templates we’ve built with the aim of ‘ranking’ on search engine results pages (SERPs) and getting Boords in front of potential customers. They leverage our most significant advantage as bootstrappers: we can build genuine, honest to goodness internet. We aim to create valuable tools in the space around our product and do so more nimbly than our competitors.
Before we go any further, let’s address the elephant in the room. SEO has a mixed reputation in the web development community and something of a shady past. Thankfully the strategies which give SEO a bad name - keyword stuffing, private blog networks etc. - are either no longer effective or, in many cases, actively harmful. Now more than ever, quality wins the day.
I firmly believe a search-driven marketing strategy can help you understand what your customers want and help you reach them. Search-optimized tools enable bootstrapped SaaS businesses to build brand awareness and consistently reach potential customers.
Case study – Storyboard templates
I came to see the power of search-driven content marketing for SaaS products while growing my own SaaS, Boords. Boords helps professional creatives make and share storyboards online. In 2018, I made a handful of storyboard templates and published them on our marketing site. I guess it took around 10 hours to make the templates, then another 4 or 5 to build the landing page.
Three years later, in spring 2021, that storyboard template page has brought in just over $200K in traffic value, averaging around $6K a month. Traffic value is an Ahrefs metric that estimates the amount one would have to spend to acquire the same amount of traffic via paid ads.
Any way you cut it, that’s a good return on investment.
It took a few months to start bringing in moderate traffic. This could have been faster if we’d tried to build links more aggressively, but we’re not funded, and we have a product to build, so link building wasn’t a priority. We just put the templates out there and let them do their thing.
Over the last month, our storyboard templates have brought us almost 8,000 new trial customers. We offer a freemium service with a fairly typical free-to-paid conversion rate, so only a small percentage of these free subscribers become paying customers. Nonetheless, it’s a reliable source of new customers.
Section 1: The case for content marketing
Time well spent
Your time is precious, and you need to improve your product. I get it. Bootstrapping is a zero-sum game.
However, as a bootstrapper, you have to make up for the lack of outside investment by using your own time. And investing time in building search-optimised tools which draw customers to your business is one of the best investments you can make.
Unless you have a channel through which you can repeatedly acquire new customers, your startup will not survive. Once the launch traffic has died down, you need a long-term, affordable way of bringing in new customers. That’s what makes search-optimised tools such an effective SaaS content marketing strategy.
Making, not marketing
Just like digital product design, great content marketing is about solving problems.
This can take the form of writing, but as a bootstrapper who makes actual, honest to goodness internet, you have an enormous leg up. You don't have to play the same game as everyone else.
That means you shouldn’t write blog posts. At least not to start with. Pure written content does not leverage your advantage as a maker of internet. If you can build tools that solve potential customer’s pain points, you have a head start. Use it.
You’ve already done that with your product. Search optimised tools just do the same thing again on a smaller scale.
Tools are future-proof
Written content which answers simple informational queries is increasingly automated. This automation happens in two ways; on the SERP and through AI-driven content writing tools.
For example, search for the date of a significant world event. It’s in Google’s interest to answer this query as quickly as possible, so you’ll see the date of the event at the top of the page. Question answered. Quickly answered questions manifest as low click-through rates (more on clicked vs non-clicked searches later).
Algorithms change, and simple searches are answered more effectively on the SERP. This is a good thing – it means the shady SEO strategies of the past, which provide no value to anyone other than site owners, are dying a death.
It also means low-quality written content is not a viable way of reaching potential customers.
Tools, on the other hand, solve a specific problem. You cannot auto-generate a tool. That kind of utility comes from knowing your market and building something to help them.
Organic vs Paid
Search-optimised tools are a compounding investment; they grow more valuable over time. Consider the chart below:
Paid search is a quick way to get traffic, but it requires continuous funding (which, as bootstrappers, we don’t have). Organic search has low initial returns, but well-made content will generate continued returns for months or even years.
High-profile startups like Canva and Masterclass have sophisticated content marketing strategies geared towards acquiring customers through organic search. The scope of their efforts is beyond what we, as mere bootstrappers, can hope to deliver. However, their successes show that organic search is a legitimate, time-tested growth lever.
Section 2: Keyword research
Root keyword search volume
The first step is to find the root keyword or phrase which people use to find your product. This is the most succinct way you can describe your product. Think of it as a category. So, for example, our root keyword for Boords is ‘storyboards’.
Root keyword in hand, you need to determine how many people are searching for your root keyword. Even great content will fall flat if no one is searching for it. As Steph Smith puts it:
Even though SEO is a fancy word for a not-so-fancy industry, keyword research is essentially a mechanism to see if this is something people are actually looking for. If there is no search volume, yet I still think it can deliver value, I’ll write it anyway. But I want to be cognizant of this: Google processes billions of queries and if there is literally no search volume, I need to be able to justify why this might be.
We use Ahrefs for keyword research. It’s certainly not cheap, but if reaching your target audience through search is a priority for you, it’s hands-down the best tool for the job.
To start, plug your root keyword into the keywords explorer and see what the search volume is. Keyword volume statistics are available both for a given country and globally.
If you’re not sure of your exact root keyword, Ahrefs’ ‘also rank for’ feature can provide some helpful pointers. Below, the root ‘storyboarding’ query had 6K volume per month, but ‘storyboard’ has 56K.
Note that Ahrefs search volume figures are estimates. They are no doubt good estimates, but they are estimates nonetheless. If search volume for a given term seems improbable, consider using another keyword research tool to verify it.
Build a list of related keywords
If you have a root keyword with significant volume, you won’t be able to rank on page one of the SERP by going after it directly. Instead, you need to build content around less competitive, related keywords or phrases. These are known as short or long-tail keywords.
Short-tail keywords use your root phrase, combined with one or two modifier words. For example, ‘storyboard template’ is a short-tail keyword.
Long-tail keywords combine your root phrase with three or more modifiers, for example, ‘storyboard templates for google docs’. Long-tail keywords have lower search volume, but they’re less competitive and therefore easier to rank for.
If you’re struggling to generate a list of related keywords, there are a couple of methods to try.
The 'alphabet soup' method
The alphabet soup keyword research method involves inputting your root keyword into Google, then typing a, b, c etc. and seeing what suggestions pop up. It’s a great way of getting an overview of search terms that may not have occurred to you previously, although it requires a fair amount of filtering.
This method has two advantages. First, it’s free, and when you’re bootstrapping, every penny counts. Second, the data comes straight from the horse’s mouth (the horse being Google, in this instance).
As we saw previously, the Ahrefs keyword explorer offers a way of finding related keywords in a similar fashion to the alphabet soup method but with less legwork. Keyword suggestions also come with keyword difficulty and search volume, which, as we’ll come to see, are key components when qualifying content ideas.
Section 3: Keyword viability
By now, you should have a list of keywords you’re interested in creating content around. Next, you need to know if your keywords are viable. There are five top-line metrics to consider:
- Search volume
- Existing content quality
- Keyword difficulty
- Cost-per-click (CPC)
Volume is the estimated number of monthly searches for a given keyword. As an estimate, it’s not exact, but it’s a good indicator of whether there will be enough return on investment for a given tool or template.
As a general rule of thumb, anything below ~500 searches a month may not be worth pursuing unless the query has a very high purchase intent related to your specific product (more on keyword intent later).
Research existing content
Pop your keyword into Google, and look at the results. What’s the existing content like? What could be improved? Are there any glaring omissions?
There will inevitably be other people creating content around your keyword - that’s a given for any query with significant search volume - but almost every search can be answered more effectively in some way. That improvement may just be a more attractive or better-designed template or tool. Perhaps it’s a more user-friendly tool with less advertising. Let quality be your guiding light.
Don’t try and beat the competition at their own game. Also, it should go without saying that you shouldn’t just copy what’s on a competitors site. It won’t work, you’ll likely get penalised, and it’s just an icky thing to do.
Keyword difficulty is a numeric representation of how hard it will be to rank in the top 10 search results for a given keyword. The higher the number, the harder it will be to rank.
Ranking signals is a complex and ever-changing topic, and an in-depth analysis of it is beyond the scope of this guide. For our purposes, ranking is broadly inferred from:
- The quality of the content. Does this page answer the question the user set out to solve?
- Backlinks, i.e. how many other websites link back to your page.
Ahrefs provides a handy colour-coded KD score, which gives an at-a-glance indication of how hard it will be to rank for a given keyword. Generally speaking, anything green is good to go, yellow should be ok for an established site, and red means you’ll need to put some serious effort in to beat the content which is already out there.
As a bootstrapper, only go after green keywords. Possibly yellow. If you don’t have many backlinks to your existing content, it will be hard to rank above more established sites in the medium term. That’s not to say it’s impossible, but it will be a very long-term play that could take years to pay off. There are quicker wins when you're starting out.
The little grey/blue bar represents clicked vs non-clicked results. It tells you how many people click on a search result or just look at the search results page (SERP) then leave without visiting a page.
A low click-through rate for a keyword means the SERP solved the user's problem. No click needed. Consider this search for USD to GBP exchange rate:
Google’s default currency conversion tools quickly answer this search, so 72% of ‘usd to gbp’ searches appear ‘without clicks’.
By definition, low clicks per query are rarely a problem for search-optimised tools (which is why they are such a good strategy for acquiring new customers), but it’s still something to bear in mind.
Cost-per-click shows the average price advertisers pay for an ad click in paid search results for a given keyword. If the CPC is high, advertisers are paying more to appear at the top of those searches, which is a good indicator that there is commercial intent behind the query.
Keyword research checklist
- KD < 40
- Volume > 500
- Good clicked/non-clicked ratio
- Bonus: High CPC
Section 4: Content creation
Search-optimised tools are just that; tools. On-page written content is not the aim of the game. Don’t worry about keyword optimisation, and certainly don’t stuff keywords into a page where they don’t belong. That’s a surefire route to poor user experience.
That said, there are a few places where keywords are helpful:
URLs themselves are less relevant as a ranking factor than they once were, but it’s still good practice to include your target keywords in the URL itself. e.g.
Keep page titles under 80 characters. Any more than that, and it will get chopped off in the SERP. Use your keyword in the title (if it makes sense), and use Title Case.
Make sure your brand name is at the end of the page title. It makes it more apparent to people searching what your keyword is about.
Interestingly, search engines will often not use the
<title> tag exactly as you define it. They frequently move around brand names, add or change dividers, or any number of other tweaks they deem necessary. There’s nothing you can do about this, so just stick with best practices
Use keywords in filenames. So, if your keyword was
meat tenderisers, and you made a chart showing key features of a great meat tenderiser,
meat-tenderisers.jpg would be a good filename. Naming your image files this way increases the chances they will appear in an image search.
Depending on your CMS, your image filenames may be obfuscated when you upload them, so consider hosting critical image content on your own image hosting service (e.g. Amazon S3) so you have full control over the filename. Hosting such content on a custom subdomain (e.g. downloads.yourdomain.com) isn’t strictly necessary, but it adds credibility and is a non-sleazy way of building brand awareness.
It’s common practice, particularly for B2B SaaS companies, to hide whitepapers or infographic downloads behind an opt-in email form, then send the piece of content itself in the email.
This is a bad idea for bootstrapped SaaS businesses. Potential customers are much more likely to engage with (and share) great content which has a lot of value directly on the page, and more engagement on-page means better ranking signals. Your goal is to provide as much value as possible, and that means reducing friction between the resource you’ve created and people receiving that value. Email collection only adds to that friction.
The only exception to this would be for a highly targeted B2B saas in a sales-led, high-margin business (i.e. not most bootstrapped SaaS apps), combined with a drip email marketing campaign to nurture potential customers who download your resource. As you might imagine, such an approach requires a lot of work and optimisation (a.k.a. time). There’s a place for email marketing in SaaS startups, but this isn’t it. As a bootstrapper, you very likely don’t have a whole lot of spare time to optimise a sales funnel for a subsection of potential customers.
Section 5: Publishing & Distribution
Good SaaS content marketing distribution mostly just sets the wheels in motion. Investing in inbound marketing is playing the long game. Return is measured in months, not days. That said, you should do a few technical things when publishing new content to set you off on the right path.
Create a sitemap
Sign up to Google Search Console (it’s free), verify your site, and submit a sitemap. Sitemaps don’t improve your rankings in themselves, but they show search engines the structure of your site, which becomes more and more relevant as your site grows.
Submit new URLs
When you publish a new page, it’s good practice to submit it to Google’s URL inspection tool. It’s a quick way of letting search engines know that you’ve added new content to your site. As with sitemaps, it won’t improve search ranking, but it can speed up the initial recognition process.
If you own any other websites or can beg a favour from someone who does, link back to your new content with a dofollow link. The anchor text of your link should clearly describe what your content is about - e.g. ‘storyboard template’, and the link should be a natural fit. Don’t jam links in where they don’t belong, don’t ‘hide’ links by making them invisible. Google is very good at detecting nefarious strategies like this and will penalise perpetrators accordingly.
Internal links are often overlooked, but they’re a great way of piggybacking off your existing content to tell search engines about a new page on your site. The same rules that apply to external links apply here: make it natural, and use a dofollow link. Existing blog posts or guides are good places to consider placing internal links to new content. Navigation links are helpful from a UX perspective but don’t send the same powerful ranking signals as links in copy.
Pro tip: find anchor text link opportunities on your site with
site:yourdomain.com “your keyword”. You’ll get a list of potential places you can add links to your site.
Note that links near the top of a page carry more weight than links near the bottom. As your site grows and you have more pages drawing in search traffic, linking to a new resource near the top of a high-ranking page is a very effective way to build traffic.
If you have very few pages on your site, you’ll have limited internal link opportunities, but internal linking should be part of your content marketing plan.
You may consider sending new resources to your email list, but be sure that they will be genuinely useful to your subscribers. Just because your resource is useful to a potential customer earlier in the buyer’s journey doesn’t necessarily mean it will be useful to a long-time user of your software. Email lists can be a quick way to get eyes on content but use your discretion. You’re playing the long game.
Unless someone is accountable for the results, don’t outsource your content marketing efforts to a marketing agency. You can outsource elements of your strategy, but the vision and direction must come from you, the founder.
You have a much better understanding of your industry and potential customers than a digital marketing consultant. As a bootstrapper, you don’t have the budget to make an engagement like this work. You can’t outsource the first-hand knowledge which comes from building a product. Plus, creating free, high-quality resources for your audience builds trust and improves retention in the long run.
Ideas are cheap. It’s the implementation which counts. The internet is awash with ‘hacks’ and strategies promising to help you grow your business. Quality is not a hack. It’s hard to make something genuinely good. Few people are willing to put in the work to make it happen, but if you are, the rewards are there:
Sometimes, magic is mundane. If you’re willing to embrace the grind, you can pull off the impossible.
– Jacob Kaplan-Moss, Embrace the Grind
Aim to make the highest quality content on a given topic. Worst case, you’ll have put something genuinely useful into the world. Best case, you’ll have put something genuinely useful into the world and established a steady source of organic traffic (and, by extension, new subscribers) for years to come. Win-win.