Why the SaaS Keyword Research Game Is Changing, And What You Can Do To Win

Very successful SaaS companies leverage organic traffic, content marketing and SEO to scale, and they do that very successfully: content marketing can net up to 448% ROI (Source).

And yet, most SaaS marketers struggle to drive revenue from organic traffic.

Driving traffic is one thing.

Driving revenue is another.

In my opinion, there are 2 reasons for this lack of bottom-line impact of SaaS SEO: 

  1. Companies focus on the wrong type of content
  2. Marketers still consider keywords as a starting point of their content marketing strategy.

Which leads us to the topic of this article: how to perform SaaS keyword research the right way.

By “right way”, I mean, “to drive revenue for your company”.

There are many ressource to walk you through the generic stuff, but they skip one very important step: understanding what makes SaaS brands different, and how that influences the funnel.

So here is what this article isn’t

  • Regurgitation from other articles
  • A step-by-step guide with a zillion screenshots and red rectangles
  • A beginner friendly guide to learn about SEO

Here is what it can offer: 

  • A new mindset on SEO & keyword research for SaaS companies
  • A fresh start for marketers who struggle with content ideation and ranking for specific keywords
  • An expert opinion on the evolution of our industry in the next few years.

With that said, let’s get on the same page :)

The true purpose of SaaS Keyword Research

I won’t insult your intelligence by offering a “definition” of SaaS Keyword Research here.

But still, I would like to discuss the purpose of keyword research.

Keyword research is the first step in producing a Saas SEO & Content Marketing strategy.

So far, so good.

But here is what most people forget: this content strategy should be designed to drive revenue.

Traffic is great, but it doesn’t do anything for you - apart from making you feel good.

What matters is how that traffic converts into leads (signups, MQLs, PQLs, etc.). 

And then how many of these leads become paying customers.

When I discuss keyword research here, this is what I mean.

Keyword research to drive traffic that is going to drive revenue.

Revenue-generating traffic is often found at the bottom of the marketing funnel - and this is what I think most brands should focus on - more on that later.

Start Keyword Research With Your Funnel

The usual marketing funnel is divided into generic “steps”: 

  • Attention
  • Awareness
  • Consideration
  • Conversion
  • Customer

These steps are sometimes grouped into 3 stages: 

  • Top-Of-The-Funnel (TOFU)
  • Middle-Of-The-Funnel (MOFU)
  • Bottom-Of-The-Funnel (BOFU)

We know we want to focus on BOFU content to be successful at driving revenue, but knowing this isn’t enough to design an effective content marketing strategy.

We first need to understand why SaaS companies are so unique.

What makes SaaS companies unique?

You’ll have to bear with me for a second here.

I’m going away from the main path, but it will all make sense quickly :)

The SaaS business model is quite unique.

It relies on increasing the Customer Lifetime Value (LTV) to a maximum, which means Customer Acquisition Costs (CAC) can be quite high as long as LTV is high as well.

To increase LTV, SaaS brands develop great products that solve problems. Knowing that you’ve solved a product is the first step of achieving product-market-fit.

In order to maximize LTV, SaaS product owners have a tendency to stack features on top of the original product.

In doing so, they usually drift away from what makes the product great in the first place.

This has 2 effects:

  1. The product can become “bloated” with features (for good or bad reasons)
  2. The value of the product becomes harder and harder to understand for users.

Take box.com.

Box.com is a content storage, sharing, and collaborative platform.

This is their top-menu:

I cannot judge whether all of the features are actually useful - or make sense from a business standpoint.

But I can tell you that, as someone getting to know them for the first time, it’s really hard to understand what they do.

This is a very hard problem to solve for most scaling SaaS companies. 

It has to do with your positioning, knowing the problem you solve, and knowing your target audience.

You can’t be everything to everyone.

And you will see how that is linked to SaaS keyword research.

3 mistakes SaaS companies make with their keyword research

With product development being mostly focused on adding new features rather than stripping down (look, you should really strip it down), it makes sense for most SaaS marketers to start there.

Features.

This is the first mistake: SaaS companies start with features first.

In other words, they start their keyword research process with their product in mind.

If you read most SaaS keyword research content out there, this is what people tell you to do: list features, and start with that.

This couldn’t be a worse approach.

Fortunately, I’m here to tell you this: nobody cares about your product.

Sorry to be the one to bring it to you.

Here’s to make you feel better: you’re reading this, and you couldn’t care less about me either.

You’re reading this because you’re trying to solve a specific problem.

People care about finding a solution to their problems.

A way to ease the pain.

Not about brands, products or features.

Focusing on features means you are focusing on yourself (and your product) instead of focusing on the problem(s) the product can solve.

This is the second mistake: SaaS brands ignore pain points.

The solution to this is to use the pain-point SEO method which I’m going to describe in a moment.

At least 80% of your content should be focused on solving specific pain points/problems.

If this sounds easier said than done, don’t worry - I’m going to show you a method that makes this very easy.

But identifying pain-points and problems isn’t the end of the journey.

These pain points are not born in a vacuum.

They are felt, experienced by people.

This is the third mistake: SaaS marketers ignore users.

SaaS SEO isn’t about keywords: it’s about people.

People have jobs to do, which means they need to solve problems.

They express these problems online, and you show them how your product can help solve them.

The process starts with people, and so should you keyword research process.

If this sounds quite abstract for now, it’s because it is.

Keep reading to know how to include people in your SaaS keyword research process.

3 solutions to build a strong SaaS keyword research framework

Now that we know the 3 mistakes to avoid: 

  1. Focusing on oneself
  2. Ignoring pain points
  3. Ignoring users

We can reverse engineer a list of steps to build a better process : 

  1. Start with your users
  2. Identify their Jobs To Be Done (more on this later)
  3. Identify their problems
  4. Figure out topics
  5. Find keywords that fit
  6. Flush out the topics.

This is the basis of our keyword research framework for SaaS companies.

And as with all things: it’s easier said than done.

Why you should NOT start with keywords when doing keyword research for SaaS

That does sound quite counterintuitive. 

But hear me out.

We’ve already identified that starting the process with keywords has apparent flaws: 

  • It forces you to ideate content without a clear picture of who your audience is
  • It nudges you to focus on your features instead of problems
  • It can make you forget about the people you’re actually writing for.

Unfortunately, it does not stop there.

Keywords have a few more flaws: 

  • They make you focus on vanity metrics (Search Volume, Difficulty)
  • They lead to bad reporting & measurement.

Let’s start with keyword metrics.

Feel free to skip the next section if you don’t want the SEO-centric stuff. I think it’s valuable to read it, but you can skip it if you’d like.

Search Volume, and the inexorable descent into hell

I hope this grandiloquent title grabbed your attention!

I want to stop for a minute and discuss 2 keyword metrics that are misunderstood and misused (even by SEOs): Search Volume and Difficulty.

How Search Volume Is Calculated, And Why It Makes It Really Bad

Let’s start with search volume.

Simply put, search volume is defined as the number of times a specific query is searched for on Google within a specific timeframe.

You can read this article by Ahrefs for more information.

As Ahrefs mentions, most tools (yes, including theirs, even if they say they “refine” the data) rely on Google Keyword Planner data to pull search volume.

Here is what Semrush has to say about how they calculate search volume

Here goes: they take data that they acquire from third-parties (Keyword Planner + ???), and they apply algorithms that are designed to guess the actual search volume.

Yes, I know, they call it “forwarding the resulting set of data to a computing cluster and receiving a computational model.”

That sounds a lot like complicated guessing.

But wait a second: are you telling me two keywords with the same search volume are typed the same amount of times per month in Google?

All tools display search volume by increments of 10 (up to 100), then 50 (up to 1000), then 100, etc.

Nothing about this is granular.

And of course, this is without taking into account other things: 

  • Seasonality (tools display search volume based on trends as well)
  • Country (search volume differs by country, obviously)
  • Industries
    Does “10” mean the same thing for “30 minute meeting rule” and “10 benefits of employee retention”
  • Typos, variations, etc.
    “30 minute meeting rule” and “30-minute meeting rule” have different search volumes

I could go on and on, but here comes.

Search Volume exists as a RELATIVE measure - not an ABSOLUTE one.

It is great to differentiate how much more a specific topic is searched for, when compared to another one.

It is very bad at telling you anything in a vacuum.

For some industries, 100 is a very low search volume.

For others, 100 is the best you can get.

And guess what: it does not matter.

Search Volume tells you nothing - it should be used to compare keywords and topics.

Certainly not prioritize one over others.

Say you’re choosing a car.

Top speed isn’t the only factor to consider.

If it were, you’d be going on vacation with an F1 car.

Does it make sense?

No.

Does it make sense to prioritize a keyword because it has a search volume of 3,900?

You can guess what the answer is.

Search Volume And Intent

Even when used to compare keywords, search volume does not tell you anything about intent.

The more search volume a specific keyword has, the broader it is going to be.

It’s quite logical: more people type more generic stuff.

On the other hand, the more something is typed, the less qualified traffic it brings.

Ranking for “seo tips” is great, but it probably won’t bring any business.

If your goal is revenue, ranking for “B2B SaaS SEO tips” is probably much better.

Prioritizing off of search volume means ignoring the intent, which makes no sense - intent is what brings business.

Intent is what connects keywords to people.

Here we are now with a couple of reasons why search volume is quite a bad metric to use at the start of the keyword research process: 

  1. We do not know exactly how it is calculated
  2. It has a lot of moving parts (trends, seasonality, variations, etc.)
  3. It does not take industry into account
  4. It does not take intent into account.

Now let’s look at keyword difficulty.

Keyword DIfficulty And The 9 Circles Of Hell

Yes, I’m quite certain I want to keep the hell metaphor going. :)

Keyword Difficulty is the second metric marketers usually turn to in order to prioritize content ideas.

The usual saying is to “prioritize keywords with high volume and low difficulty.”

We’ve already addressed the “high volume” part of the equation, so let’s look at “low difficulty”.

How Keyword Difficulty Is Calculated

The calculation for Keyword DIfficulty (KD%) is much easier.

Keyword tools look at the number of referring domains for the top 10 results ranking for a specific keyword.

Based on this, they determine a difficulty score.

That “keyword difficulty” is supposed to represent how difficult it will be to rank for that query.

100 is super ultra mega duper hard.

0 is taking candy from a newborn.

Let me ask you a question: do you think that this is the way Google ranks websites?

Do you think Google is like “oh, these guys have more referring domains, so they should rank higher”?

No.

This is the way it used to do it, and it led to very bad results, lots of spam, and algorithm updates to fix it.

Furthermore, with 15% of searches being brand new (never searched before), we run into funny situations.

Keyword Difficulty Is A Terrible Metric: An Edge-Case Analysis

So let’s have a little fun.

Let’s take a fairly “high” search volume query: “saas experience meaning” - 89 Keyword DIfficulty in Semrush.

When my human brain tries to understand the keyword, I think someone read or heard the words “saas experience” and wants a definition.

Here is what the SERP (Search Engine Results Page) looks like: 

Google has no idea what results to offer.

But Google still has to guess.

So it proceeds to show very general articles on very general websites.

These have the best chance to match your search.

Now, do you think it would be hard to rank for that query?

Probably not.

But the tools tell you to stay away from it - because they’re algorithms.

Should you stay away from this one?

Absolutely - the intent is garbage.

Should you remove all “Very hard” and “hard” keywords from your content strategy by default?

Maybe not, after all! 

So now we know: keyword difficulty is a very bad metric as well.

The “prioritize high volume and low difficulty keywords” saying makes no sense: 

  • High volume keywords are not good by essence
  • Low difficulty keywords are not good by essence

Doing this is a recipe for failure.

Now, can you guess why so many SaaS companies say content doesn’t work?

The rise of topics vs keywords in SaaS SEO & Content Marketing

Now that we’ve established what not to do (prioritize off of search volume and keyword difficulty), let’s look at what you should be doing.

Why Topics > Keywords, and the evolution of Google

In order to better serve us in our daily lives, Google is working hard to understand what we search for, but also why.

Google is using AI and algorithms like Rankbrain, BERT, and most recently MUM to produce great search results at scale.

You can read this article on the Google blog if you want to learn more.

Here is an interesting quote form the above piece: 

“As we introduce more MUM-powered experiences to Search, we’ll begin to shift from advanced language understanding to a more nuanced understanding of information about the world.”

In other words: Google is moving away from keywords in search.

It is more and more trying to understand the overall context of a search - the overall topic.

For us in SaaS SEO & Content Marketing, it means 3 things: 

  1. We need to stop thinking about keywords
  2. We need to stop producing low value content that only matches a specific keyword intent
  3. We need to write great content that satisfies a variety of intents, and provides deep information and expertise.

All the signals that Google has been giving in recent years, from EAT, product reviews updates and MUM, point in the same direction: we need to build great content that people ACTUALLY want to read.

This is great news, because that’s also how you drive revenue.

And you know what the best part is?

90% of people are not doing it.

Period.

Why the SaaS Keyword Research Game Is Changing, And What You Can Do To Win

All of this means that we need to approach our SaaS keyword research process differently.

Our #1 job is to identify problems that the product solves.

To do this, I like to use two methods in conjunction: 

  1. The Jobs-To-Be-Done (JTBD) framework
  2. User research and interviews

The former can be used without access to actual customers or prospective customers.

You need them for the latter.

1. Using the Jobs-To-Be-Done framework for SaaS keyword research

The Jobs-To-Be-Done framework was initially developed as a means to drive product innovation.

By focusing on the “jobs” that users have to perform, you can design a product that fits their needs.

However, we can divert it from its original purpose to use it for SaaS keyword research and content ideation.

The idea behind JTBD is that people buy products and services because they help them do their jobs.

Here is how Tony Ulwick defines these jobs in this article on the topic: 

  1. People buy products and services to get a “job” done.
  2. Jobs are functional, with emotional and social components.
  3. A Job-to-be-Done is stable over time.
  4. A Job-to-be-Done is solution agnostic.
  5. Success comes from making the “job”, rather than the product or the customer, the unit of analysis.
  6. A deep understanding of the customer’s “job” makes marketing more effective and innovation far more predictable.
  7. People want products and services that will help them get a job done better and/or more cheaply
  8. People seek out products and services that enable them to get the entire job done on a single platform
  9. Customer needs, when tied to the job-to-be-done, make innovation predictable

In other words, people don’t want to buy shovels, they want to buy holes.

The shovel is just a means to an end.

“Jobs” range from simple tasks to overarching individual goals: 

  • Close the company’s books for the quarter
  • Educate a team on the benefits of content marketing
  • Keep a remote team productive
  • Become the best saas marketer on the planet

Ok, the last one is a stretch, but you get the point.

By identifying your customers’ JTBD, you will be able to ideate effective content that caters to their needs - what they need to get the job done.

You can go and read about Jobs Theory - it’s quite fascinating.

Let’s take an example.

Time-tracking: an example of Jobs Theory applied to SaaS keyword research

Let’s say you need to design a content marketing strategy for a time-tracking solution like Toggl, Everhour or Hubstaff.

Your Ideal Customer Profile is a manager of a team of 5+ people.

Here are some of the “jobs” you can ideate for that ICP: 

  • Keep accurate count of what people spend their time on
  • Keep accurate count of project hours
  • Keep accurate count of client hours
  • Report time & resources to upper management
  • Invoicing clients based on time spent
  • Reporting hours to clients
  • Etc.

These are all time-tracking related.

But you can go further: 

  • Keep track of project expenses
  • Ensure deadlines are met
  • Ensure projects are correctly scoped out
  • Setup & maintain a project management tool for the company
  • Etc.

If your ICP includes a small business owner, like an agency founder, you can include: 

  • Understanding company profitability
  • Making sure the company stays profitable
  • Hiring and laying off people
  • Etc.

In a few minutes, you should be able to ideate a lot of “jobs”, which you can then group into larger pillars.

In our case: 

  • Time-tracking
  • Expense tracking
  • Invoicing
  • Company profitability
  • Project Management
  • Task Management

You KNOW that your users are interested in these topics, because they relate directly to their needs.

2. Using customer touchpoints teams for SaaS keyword research

The Jobs-To-Be-Done framework does have a downside, and a big one: it’s all abstract.

It’s great, but it’s all based on assumptions, nothing more.

Which is why I recommend pairing that with actual user data.

In our experience, there are 3 ways to gather user data effectively for SaaS companies: 

  • Sales teams
  • Support teams
  • Success teams.

What we call “customer touchpoints.”

Sales teams will provide valuable insights on the needs of the customers. What they need from the product, but also what they need to actually buy. The type of content you should produce.

Support teams will know what people like and dislike about the product, and additional features they may want. This will give you ideas of other “jobs” you might not have thought of.

Success teams will know why people may be inclined to stop using the product, and what they find appealing about competitors.

The simplest way to act on this is to jump on calls. Either alone, or with a team member.

Jump on call, listen, and ask why.

The more you ask, the better you’ll be able to ideate content.

From topics to actual keyword research for SaaS

I hope that, by now, you understand our keyword research framework for software companies: 

  1. Start with your users
  2. Ideate from Jobs-To-Be-Done
  3. Ideate from real-world user data
  4. Research keywords that fit the intent.

This is where we are. Number 4.

By now, you should have a pretty good idea of the broad topics you need to focus on.

In our previous example: 

  • Time tracking
  • Expense tracking
  • Client invoicing
  • Company profitability
  • Etc.

It’s time to flush out these general topics into actual content ideas.

This is where the keyword research tools come in.

But remember: at this stage we want high intent, BOFU keywords.

Content that is actually going to drive conversions.

Here are a few examples of this type of content: 

  • Alternative keywords
    Competitor + alternative

These keywords are typed by people who are interested in finding the best software - they are ready to try something out!

  • Comparison keywords
    Competitor vs other competitor

Another example of people at the conversion stage: they need to understand the best fit for their needs 

  • Best product category keywords
    E.g. “best project management software” or “best accounting software for agencies

Same thing here: the more granular you can get, the better. This depends on what your product does, and how good your positioning is.

  • Integration type keywords
    E.g. “Mailchimp CRM integration” “ClickUp time tracking integrations”

These are typed by people looking for a very specific solution to their very specific needs.

Once you are done with these types of content, you can go broader, with Middle-Of-The-Funnel content - more educational.

Something like this article that you’re reading.

I know you’re not going to buy from us 30 seconds from now, but I hope you’ll remember us if it comes to considering an agency for your SEO needs.

This is a good time to look at content based on features. This is something Everhour does well: they have an article on “best time tracking practices”.

Their content is a prime example of great SaaS content: it’s transparent, informational, actionable, and they’re not afraid to mention their competitors.

And you see, great content just earned them a backlink, for free!

At this stage, there are 3 things to remember: 

  1. Don’t be afraid to tackle jobs that may feel  “far” from your product.
    If your product can help solve them, then please do. For example, Everhour has an article on ClickUp integrations, or Notion alternatives.
  2. Prioritize revenue-generating content. Think about JBTD and how close to converting people are when they search for this. “best time tracking software” > “best jira plugins.”
  3. Don’t build a content strategy for the next 12 months. Go bit by bit. Identify ONE pillar, and flush it out first.
    You can see how Everhour’s quarterly goal is to focus on project management software:

Once you’ve flushed out your actual articles, you need to decide what they’ll look like: 

  • How long they should be
  • What they should include
  • What type of content should be created (Expert Guide, Listicles, Roundups, etc.)

This isn’t part of the keyword research process, but it can help prioritize content.

If you don’t have the resources to produce the best content on a specific topic, it may be better to address it later down the road.

How To Win At SaaS Keyword Research in 2022 And Beyond

The answer to that question is pretty simple:

  1. Focus on your users and prospective customers
  2. Create content that helps solve specific problems
  3. Create the best content you can on the web.

In order to do that, you will NEED to spend some time on audience research - there is no way around it.

You will NEED to focus on topics rather than keywords.

You will NEED to think about people.

People, not keywords.

That's how to do SaaS Keyword Research.

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