We’ve all heard the news: AI is killing search.
Pictures of evil robots and nuclear blasts dot the web as marketers around the globe tremble at the thought of their traffic plummeting.
Already the odds are grim. As it stands, 90% of content does not get any traffic from Google, and as the web grows more crowded (and AI-driven) those odds likely will not improve.
So what are we to do?
Should marketers throw in the towel on SEO? Or is there a path forward we can take to rise above the competition and continue to grow our traffic?
There is a path forward, but only if you evolve your approach to SEO. In this blog post, we'll dive into the newest wave in SEO: Product-Led SEO. This post will teach you to think strategically and creatively about SEO, so that you can adapt to any change Google throws your way.
The reason so many folks in SEO are panicking is that the way most people approach SEO is dying out.
For years, since the dawn of SEO, the method has been straightforward:
In the early and mid-2000s, this approach worked wonders. It was the golden goose for many and was unquestionably successful. However, as we moved past the 2010s and now in the 2020s, the golden goose is aging and it’s no longer laying eggs.
Why? Because everyone does this now.
Everyone uses the same keyword research tools, plugs in the same seed keywords, follows the same suggestions, creates similar content, and ends up with SEO strategies that mirror their competitors.
In other words, they don't stand out in Google.
This scenario worsens in the age of AI, where content generation has sped up. The time to write several dozen blog posts has shrunk from months to minutes, thanks to AI tools. In this context, a cookie-cutter SEO strategy will no longer cut the mustard.
So what are we to do?
Well, we can think differently about SEO. We can think product-led.
Product-led SEO is a fairly new term (coined, I think, by Eli Schwartz’s book of the same name), however, the principles of it are not entirely new (but well laid out in the book!).
In fact, my approach to SEO (having worked as a product manager for 5+ years) has been fine-tuned around the principles of product-led SEO. Nowadays though many SEO agencies call themselves product-led, but what does it really mean?
I like to define product-led SEO as thinking about your website as a product as opposed to a collection of content.
When most people think about SEO, their mind immediately jumps to blogging. They think, "We need a blog” or “We'll put content on our blog." This has been the common perception of SEO for the past 20 years and it has led to many websites featuring blogs bloated with old content.
Instead of using SEO and keywords to market the product, let your product and customers drive your SEO strategy. Just as good product managers know their users and this knowledge to inform a product roadmap, good SEO strategists need to know the target user, their challenges, and what their buyer’s journey looks like to inform a content roadmap.
I’ve worked as a product manager for over 5 years at HubSpot as well as another tech startup, and over my time at those two companies, I have honed a product manager skillset that adapts surprisingly well to SEO.
“Product management” comes in a variety of flavors, but can usually be boiled down to “own the problem, and be the voice of the customer”. Good product managers have a deep understanding of the customer they solve for and can communicate that understanding to stakeholders. There are three things that I’ve seen product managers do very well:
So let’s examine these in a bit more depth.
Good product management starts with a rock solid understanding of your users.
I have yet to meet an effective product manager who did not regularly talk to customers. It’s just impossible to know what to build if you do not have a firm understanding of the problems you are solving. Knowing the customer is the first step of any product strategy. This involves knowing their preferences, needs, and wants, and translating this understanding into a product or feature that provides value.
Good product managers don’t just look at what their competition is doing - they innovate.
Product managers seek out opportunities to innovate and carve out unique spaces in their customers' minds. This involves considering what competitors are doing and finding ways to improve on it, or better yet, identifying what competitors are not doing that can potentially be a unique offering.
Good product managers always rely on data to validate their ideas. Using data-driven insights can show if what you're doing is successful and inform the direction you should take next.
In product management, we often talk about the concept of 'ship it' — regularly releasing features and getting them into users’ hands. This allows you to collect feedback, understand how users interact with the feature, and make iterative improvements.
Now let’s apply these to 5 principles that I believe define product-led SEO.
SEO is a heavily data-driven aspect of marketing, and when we look at SEO through a product management lens, we can approach it in innovative and highly effective ways.
To successfully apply product management principles in SEO, we first need to understand who we're targeting. By developing detailed buyer personas, you can get a clear picture of who your audience is and what their pain points are. This will guide your SEO strategy, helping you create content that resonates with your target audience and solves their problems.
Just like product managers align their work with business goals, SEO should also be aligned with specific business outcomes. You're not just aiming for more traffic or checking off items on a content calendar. The goal is to help the company reach its business objectives. So, it's essential to start with the end in mind, considering what you want to achieve with your SEO efforts.
I’m a big fan of setting SMART SEO goals, these are goals that are specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-bound.
You should always be looking for opportunities to innovate within SEO. Instead of replicating what your competitors are doing, find ways to stand out. Consider what questions your competitors aren't answering or find new ways to address those questions.
You can also innovate through the type of content you create. If a video library or interactive quiz would serve your persona better, do that instead of writing the same blog posts as your competitors.
Data plays a critical role in a product-led SEO strategy. It can help you understand how your content is performing and how it's impacting your business. Pay attention to the data to be strategic in your approach, be unique, and differentiate yourself from your competition.
Where possible, track metrics that matter to the business (revenue, demos, leads, subscribers) and find ways to attribute movement in these metrics to the activities you are doing (wriitng content, earning backlinks).
In the same way that product managers ship features regularly, SEO professionals should be 'shipping' content regularly. Don't sit on drafts or wait for your content to be perfect. Publish it, see how it performs, and then optimize it based on user feedback and data insights.
Applying product management principles to SEO can bring about a fresh perspective and open up a world of opportunities. Understanding your users, aligning with business outcomes, innovating, using data to inform decisions, and relentlessly shipping content are all principles that map well to SEO and marketing. There are three key activities you will do as an SEO: keyword research, content creation, and link building, so let’s apply these principles to them next.
When most people talk about SEO it usually comes down to keyword research, content strategy, and link building. Technical SEO is worth paying attention to, but for most websites as long as you have a sitemap and aren’t doing anything too funky with your sub domains, you don’t have to worry too much.
The traditional methods of keyword research, content strategy, and link building are as follows:
Rather than take this approach, here is a product-led way to approach these common SEO tactics.
Keyword research tools are great (we built a pretty good one!), however, they only tell part of the story. If you limit your keyword research to what a tool will spit out, then you will end up with an SEO strategy that is fairly flat and not compelling.
Rather than let a tool do all the work, I try to center my keyword research around the customer I am targeting and the core problems they experience, the goals they have, and the challenges they face in trying to achieve these goals. Like any good product manager, I try to take in as much data (and with as much variety) as possible:
I also like to brainstorm bottom-of-the-funnel keywords by looking at:
The goal here is not to end up with a long list of keywords to target. The goal is to understand how and why your target customer uses Google to solve their problems. When done well, this should give you a sense of the questions your customer is asking and how those questions change and evolve through the funnel.
Remember, product-led SEO is about building a website that is useful. We need lots of data to ensure the content you create is useful. About that content, let’s talk content strategy next.
Good products solve problems and do so creatively and uniquely - your website is no different. A product-led content strategy goes beyond the cookie-cutter “write a blog post once per week”. Rather than think about content as some static thing on your website, I like to think about content as a feature designed to serve your users and fit into a larger feature set on your website.
Now, blogging very well could be a great feature for your website. We blog frequently, however, there are other types of content to consider as well:
In building content strategies for clients, the chief aim is to brainstorm a content strategy that is designed to solve problems for the target customer and move them further down the funnel.
And lastly everyone’s favorite topic: link building.
Playing the link building numbers game sucks. We’ve all gotten emails that start off with “Hello dear” and then continue on with some drivel about DA and a list of spammy websites. Don’t do this.
Instead, let’s think outside the box, and instead of creating content and then trying to find someone to link to it, create content with the express purpose of earning links.
No one wants to link to your blog. But if you have:
And if you have done a good job of networking in your industry, then you have a recipe for link building success.
Now this all still sounds a bit theoretical, so here are three practical examples of a product-led approach to SEO in action.
Insoles.com is run by a small team in Minnesota where they sell shoe insoles online. Insoles.com has the benefit of competing with major retailers like Amazon, REI, and Dick’s Sporting Goods along with the actual insole brands that they sell.
It’s a recipe for SEO disaster.
Rather than fight the same game all these e-commerce giants play so well, we wanted to know why people bought insoles and if Insoles.com could build a defensive moat for their website. We ran a survey with the Insoles.com team to better understand why their customers bought insoles and how often they did. We found that people buy insoles for three reasons:
So we engineered the entire website to make it as easy as possible for people to find insoles for these three reasons. Insoles.com has pages that cover insoles for any sport, the most common conditions their customers have, as well as many different types of shoes.
For the effort put in, the results were pretty incredible to see. Insoles.com routinely dominates these queries and has built up considerable authority over the years. You can check out the full case study here.
Narakeet is a Saas text-to-speech video software platform that allows users to turn PowerPoint slides into videos.
When we first started working with Narakeet, they had tried blogging and leveraging top-of-funnel content to build their traffic with pretty dismal results. We realized they were going up against some very big players in the video software space, so working quickly while staying light on our feet would be critical.
One of Narakeet’s greatest strengths is the fact that they support 80+ languages. This is the key differentiator between them and their competition who are venture-backed and have more powerful user interfaces. Rather than fight on features, we leaned into the fact that Narakeet can blow their competition out of the water with their language support.
Narekeet published a series of pages for each language that they support and their traffic exploded. This gave them an authority boost that allowed other pages and older blog posts to start ranking, and the compounding effects of SEO took over from there.
Each of these three example SEO strategies very well could be replicated, but that would be missing the point. The goal is not to simply create content at scale, or use a tactic like programmatic SEO. Rather, the goal is to:
While the search landscape is undoubtedly changing, I have zero doubts that a product-led approach to SEO will allow websites to adapt, evolve, and continue to grow their traffic.
Product-led SEO is not a hack or fad, it is an approach to SEO that relies on strategy, creative thinking, and puts your customer at the center of your efforts. While the tactics at our disposal will change, the principles and thought processes will not.
I’ve seen firsthand with our clients how impactful a product-led approach to SEO can be. If you would like to learn more or see how this approach can be applied to your business then I would love to chat.
Schedule a free consultation to see if a product-led approach to SEO is right for you.
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