Discussing SEO as a customer acquisition tool, myths about website traffic, and Google Search’s monopoly with Tim Soulo

Tim Soulo is the Chief Marketing Officer and Product Advisor at Ahrefs, a powerful software suite that helps marketers with keyword research, competitor research, link building, rank tracking, mentions monitoring, website audit, and much more. Viewed as one of the most influential SEO masterminds in today’s digital marketing industry by many, Tim frequently shares his knowledge on various marketing concepts through blogs, research papers, and at marketing conferences.

The Freshchat team recently caught up with Tim for an interview where he emphasizes on the importance of using SEO as a crucial customer acquisition channel and suggests marketers to be wary of measuring vanity metrics.

Questions:

1. What does the popularity of SEO tools say about the importance of SEO?
2. What are some useful tips for businesses to grow their customer base?
3. What are some vanity metrics that marketers should stop measuring?
4. What are the best metrics to measure the success of your marketing?
5. How to create different content for customers at different stages of their user journey?
6. Should SEO be owned by a business or is it okay to outsource SEO projects?
7. What can bootstrapping businesses do, on top of SEO marketing, to acquire more customers?
8. How can startups with lesser budget use SEO to compete against bigger brands?
9. Should businesses consider DuckDuckGo and Bing.com for their SEO marketing?
10. Should we be worried about Google’s ever-increasing monopoly in the SEO world?
11. What’s an improvement that you would like to see in Google?
12. What would you do differently if you had to restart your marketing career again?
13. If you had to bullet point your marketing learnings from your experience over the years, what are a few things that stand out to you?
14. What’s a skill every marketer should learn?
15. What are some disciplines businesses should follow in order to taste success in their content marketing?

What does the rise in popularity of tools like ahrefs.com say about the importance of SEO in marketing?

Tim: I think that SEO is much more than just making your website rank in Google. If you think about it, SEO helps you research what your potential customers are searching for online. So basically, you know what people are looking for. For example, if you have a brand with multiple products, you can grow your business simply by studying what people are searching for, what questions are they asking, and what problems are they facing.

A lot of businesses do that; they research if people are looking to solve a specific issue and if there are opportunities in that market. Then, they create a product based on the search demand.

So yeah, SEO is much more than just ranking pages. It goes beyond just picking keywords and building some links.

If we look at SEO as a customer acquisition channel, what are some useful tips for businesses to grow their customer base?

Tim: The most useful tip is to do keyword research and make sure that your website addresses as many relevant searches as you can potentially address.

For example, say there is a hair salon that offers 10 different grooming services. When people search Google for a specific service, such as, “hair salons that offer bridal make-ups”, users might not be able to find the salon’s website if they have all of their services in a single home page. But if they create 10 pages for each of the services they offer, there is a higher chance that customers will find their website because there is a specific page about that.

SEO can help you acquire new customers by letting you identify what kind of things people are looking for that would be relevant to your business and make sure you have separate pages addressing these kinds of things. From there, you have to do some promotion because pages don’t rank unless you do some SEO promotion on them.

Generating leads mean nothing unless you can influence the bottom line. No matter what metrics makes your business successful, you—as a marketer—have to influence those metrics. Click To Tweet

You recently gave a talk in Chiang Mai SEO Conference where you said keyword search volume is a wrong metric to measure. What are some other metrics that marketers should stop measuring?

Tim: One of the false metrics that I would suggest marketers to stop measuring is, of course, website traffic. It’s actually quite easy to get traffic online. But the traffic that is easy to get is usually not relevant to your business.

My favorite example of it that I often talk about is this famous brand in marketing software. They have a CRM software that I have actually never used. But I researched their blog because they have one of the biggest blogs in the industry in terms of the amount of traffic they get. They get over a few million people monthly visitors to their blog from search alone. I was interested to research what kind of articles they have and which articles bring them the most traffic. When I plugged their blog into Ahrefs to see which pages bring them traffic, I saw that the page that was bringing them the most traffic from search is on the topic of “How to Make an Animated GIF in Photoshop”.

This was more than a year ago. At that time, that single article brought them more traffic than the entire search traffic of Ahrefs blog. Back then, we had less than 100,000 visitors per month coming to our blog from search while that single article had more than 100,000 monthly visitors from search.

It’s not that hard to get tons of traffic to your website. You just have to pick topics that are insanely popular. But if you have some kind of marketing CRM software, it’s not an easy sell. It’s hard to persuade a person to buy a marketing software when they think it costs quite a bit. It’s especially hard if they land on an article about how to make a GIF image. Even with the most creativity, I don’t see a way to funnel them from creating a GIF image to purchasing a complex and expensive CRM software. That just doesn’t happen.

Instead, what they need to do is convert these people into leads by taking their contact information. Then they have to make their salespeople reach out to customers to see if they are interested in moving to their CRM platform.

But this is a common mistake that a lot of businesses do. When marketers join a new company, the CEO tells them to bring more traffic to their website as part of their marketing KPIs (key performance indicators). However, it has nothing to do with the bottom line.

So then what are the best metrics to measure the success of your marketing?

Tim: The best possible metric to measure is the bottom line. Be it the number of customers, be it the annual recurring revenue, be it the margin on your business—whatever is the metric to measure your bottom line. If you want to be a successful marketer and if you want to be paid well, you need to be able to influence the bottom line.

All those leads mean nothing unless you can influence the bottom line. No matter what metrics make your business successful, you—as a marketer—have to influence those metrics.

tim soulo chiang mai seo conference

Tim discussing ways to create quality backlinks to the crowd attending the Chiang Mai SEO Conference in November 2018. (Image source: Tim’s Ahref page)

What’s your advice to marketers for creating different content experiences to customers at different stages of their customer journey?

Tim: Honestly speaking, I’m not a big advocate of creating customer journey. I think there is an opportunity to tighten the entire customer journey into just one visit to your website. Think about it, if someone has a neck pain and they go to Google search for “neck pain remedies”, that doesn’t mean that first they need to know about the medicines for neck pain, the different kinds of fitness remedies that are out there, or a massage device to help them get rid of it.

The first step in the user journey is that they have a problem and they will research about it. The second stage is that they will learn about the specific solutions and choose the one that they like. For example, I would rather choose a massage device for my neck pain because I don’t like medicine as a solution. In the third stage, customers will compare different massage devices and pick whichever they like best. This is how marketers usually describe a user journey.

But I believe that when someone searches for neck pain and lands on your website, you have the opportunity to make a person go through the entire journey right on your page. You don’t need to send them to different pieces of content. On your page, you can explain about the neck pain, where it comes from, and what are different options to cure it. Then, on that same page, you can say that medicine is not a reliable solution because it works for some people but doesn’t work for others.

I do believe that you can convert a person from any part of their user journey. You can convert people when they are picking between different massage devices or when they realize they have neck pain and need an immediate solution.

Most marketers think that customers will learn about their product during the onboarding process and then sign-up for a free product trial. They think customers will sign-up for a free trial or free version and they will start figuring out what does this software do or what is the “aha” moment.

I don’t believe that this happens after people sign-up. At Ahrefs, for example, we believe that the “aha” moment for a customer happens when people realize how to use the software and the value of it. They first Google something, land on an Ahrefs blog, read how to use our software, how it helps, what set of problems it solves, then they realize, “Ok, this is so cool I want to use this software and stay as a customer.” Only then they will sign-up and begin their onboarding.

By creating content, targeting searches, educating people within a piece of content, and explaining the value of your software, you can convert and retain them. If it’s relevant, they will sign-up and stay for long.

Many businesses outsource their SEO to offshore agencies because they run on a shoestring budget. Do you think SEO and content should be intrinsically owned by the business or is it okay to outsource SEO projects?

Tim: It depends on the person who you outsource it to. I know some good agencies who are genuinely interested to help you grow your business and produce the best work because they care about their reputation. I also know some agencies who are simply interested in delivering you ‘x’ number of articles per week and get their money.

If you are considering an agency to outsource their content, I suggest you talk with them more and see if they have any interest. For example, I know of an agency who don’t just produce hands-off content. What’s so cool about them is that they will come and interview someone from your team if they have to write an article. They want to get information from inside the company. They want to dig into the company and into the minds of people who run the company so that they can create content based on that first-hand information.

I don’t really know a lot of agencies who do that. Mostly they will just do keyword research and write whatever articles they can.

When you keep your SEO and content in-house, you can influence it. For example, here at Ahrefs, the reason why almost every article we publish in our blog heavily features our use cases, our data, and our own experiments is because we have our own marketing team responsible for creating content. One of the latest articles that generated quite some buzz in our niche was about podcast advertising. We were doing podcast advertising since last year so one of our team members wrote an article with all her experience in sponsoring podcasts. It was interesting, unique, and based on our own experience. For an outside agency to write an article like that, they would have to first interview us to get insiders’ insights about the experience.

So it all comes down to the quality of the agency. I think you have to use your original and unique expertise and experiences to create original content. Otherwise, the content would be simply generic and no one would be interested to read it.

It’s a mistake to be in the market where there is a competitor who is better than you in every single way. Click To Tweet

What can bootstrapping businesses do, on top of SEO marketing, to acquire more customers?

Tim: I’ve been in those shoes because before I joined Ahrefs, I was bootstrapping my own projects. I had developed two WordPress plugins and I had a shoestring budget to say the least. I was living in a small Ukrainian city, which is where I’m originally from. I was developing those plugins on a part-time basis because didn’t have a big salary to fund my projects.

So I reached out to people who had big blogs and wrote content for them to support my project. I realized that although I didn’t have my personal blog, I could promote my plugins by writing quality content in blogs that already had a decent audience. I mentioned my plugins within the content and made some sale. By creating good quality content for people in my industry, I was also making friends with them. They were eager to even connect with me on Skype and discuss different marketing strategies. They were open to suggest my plugins in their own articles because they now had connected with me previously and they knew what I did or what my plugins did.

It’s all about outreach and figuring out who are the key influencers in your industry. You don’t necessarily have to aim for the biggest names in your industry. Just look up for people who are up and coming, who are just starting out—just like you. You can see they have potential and what they are doing is valuable. So just befriend them because then you can grow together.

I would suggest simply reach out to like-minded people, find common interests with them, write a blog for them, or give them advice. For example, if you see that someone has a terrible Facebook ad and you had run similar ones in the past and had great results, just reach out to them and give them your honest advice.

By connecting with fellow entrepreneurs in your industry, you’re already setting yourself up for success because these people often have their own audience and you can partner with them and do something interesting. It’s all about studying your industry, communities, and interacting with them as you go figuring out how you sell your products along the way.

How can new startups benefit from SEO and other acquisition strategies to compete against a large brand even when they don’t have the same kind of marketing budget?

Tim: There are two sides of the coin. The first side of the coin is that if your competitor is really superior, if they have more budget, if they have a better product, then I don’t understand why did you enter the market in the first place. You have to have some kind of differentiating feature against your competitor that can convince customers to switch to your product. Otherwise, it’s a mistake to be in the market where there is a competitor who is better than you in every single way.

The other side of the coin is, the content marketing that bigger companies do is absolutely stupid. I just told you about how a leading marketing CRM company wrote an article about how to make a GIF image. That company has 2,000 people in their company which might mean that business people and product people are quite disconnected from the marketing and sales people.

When I joined Ahrefs, there were 15 odd people. I was the only marketer back then and we worked closely with everyone in the team. I knew what features we were working on and I even suggested some features that we should have in the software. I knew what our numbers and capabilities were and so I was able to come up with more effective content ideas that our competitors were not even thinking of.

Even if your competition is bigger than you, you can browse their blogs and oftentimes you will see that they don’t understand what they are writing about. Their blog is stupid; they have all sorts of articles but not the topic they should be actually writing about. And because you are bootstrapping your own business and you’re one of the few people running the business, then you understand the business very well. You have an exceptional understanding of your business. It means you can do better keyword research and find better topics that your customers are potentially searching for. You can pitch your product and sell it within that article in a much better way than the content marketing teams in those bigger corporations who don’t really know the product and the industry very well.

What’s your take on other search engine websites like DuckDuckGo and Bing.com? Should businesses consider them as part of their SEO marketing?

Tim: I recently saw a graph of DuckDuckGo that shows their rise in popularity over time. So I am going to try ads within DuckDuckGo to see what kind of results they can give us and at what cost. But I’m not sure about Bing and Yahoo! because we’ve tried them before and we weren’t satisfied with the results.

As a marketer, you have to be working on every channel that is available to you but not until you nail the fundamentals. For example, right now I think that we have figured out our own SEO; we are ranking for a ton of relevant queries and our search traffic is growing like crazy. Right now, we have the right opportunity to look for more channels and invest our time in trying new stuff, such as advertising in DuckDuckGo.

But if you haven’t figured out your fundamental channels, such as search or word of mouth marketing, it probably doesn’t make sense to go and try all those different things. If you start reading different marketing blogs, you’ll easily get overwhelmed by the number of strategies, growth hack tips, tricks and secrets that people are offering you. So my advice is to first go and nail your fundamentals and only then start looking for other customer acquisition channels and fresh ideas to market your business.

Should businesses be worried about Google’s ever-increasing monopoly in the SEO world?

Tim: There are quite a few businesses that are at threat and I think a lot of people in our industry, especially Rand Fishkin, are talking about it. I keep seeing quite a few tweets that talk about Google monopolizing and cannibalizing search results from different websites. It especially applies to flight searches when you use Google to look up flights instead of going to a flight aggregator website. Google is basically taking that business away from websites.

It’s the same thing that happens when you’re trying to book a movie ticket because you don’t even have to go to a specific website. You can just search it in Google and it will aggregate the information from there.

There is definitely a trend and certain businesses are at risk but I can’t make any predictions about where this is going and how far and wide this is going to spread. I don’t know if smaller businesses are also at threat from Google. To be honest, if you talk about flight tickets, the model of aggregating flight tickets is a parasite SEO model because you’re building mini-search engines for flight tickets only and helping people to find the best price. So I don’t see why Google wouldn’t integrate this functionality into them.

So yeah, it’s business as usual for Google. The problem is, Google has too much resource that makes it harder for other players to wrestle with.

What’s an improvement that you would like to see in Google to make SEO marketing better?

Tim: That’s a funny question because I don’t want to see any improvements in Google along these lines because this is what gives us business. (Laughs)

It’s quite challenging and expensive—even for Google—to create the kind of data that the professionals in the SEO industry would like to see. I don’t think it aligns well with the business model of Google to provide 100% accurate data to SEO professionals can rely on. At the end of the day, Google makes money with ads and they are most interested in making their ads platform the best in the industry, but not so much by giving information to people who want to rank better.

What’s one thing you would do differently if you had to restart your marketing career again?

Tim: I actually don’t even know. I don’t think I made that many mistakes and or huge mistakes that I want to rectify. Probably, the only thing that I would do differently is I’d figure out the concepts of finding search queries that are relevant to your business sooner in my career and pitching your business within the article. So something that I explained instead of going for articles like how to make GIF image targeting search queries that people are searching for and narrowing down the entire customer journey into one article.

You have to use your original and unique expertise and experiences to create original content. Otherwise, the content would be simply generic and no one would be interested to read it. Click To Tweet

If you had to bullet point your marketing learnings from your experience over the years, what are a few things that stand out to you?

Tim: Probably, the first advice that I would give myself after three years at Ahrefs is that, don’t hire too quickly. I know a lot of people when they come to the managing role in some company, the first thing they will think of is to build a team. This is not something I did. I started doing everything myself. I think it was pretty effective because before I hired a person to replace me in a certain direction, I’d know that direction quite well and I’d be able to even help that person get up to speed. So yeah, don’t try to hire people too early. Wait till you actually need some help.

The second learning is that, when you want to hire an awesome person for whatever position in your team, don’t just post your requirements on job boards. Instead, find people who are already doing what you want them to do within your company.

This is how I found Joshua, who is our amazing head of content and who is in-charge of Ahrefs blog right now. Of course, I posted some ads saying I’m looking for a copywriter and blog editor. But all the applications weren’t really what I was looking for. And then on Twitter, I saw that someone has shared a huge article about link-building strategies and when I opened that article I immediately saw that this guy knew a thing or two about SEO. I knew that this guy knows how to write well and is not afraid of investing lots and lots of hours of work in writing articles. So I emailed him and asked him if he was willing to join our team as a copywriter and later head of content.

So yeah, don’t just post some ads. Try to find people who are doing what you want them to do.

The third thing I’d like to say is think more about the SEO, search channels, and all the ways by which people can find you. Do good keyword research, figure out all the relevant search queries that people are using to find solutions relevant to your business offerings, and try to rank for those search queries. What I’m seeing quite often is that a lot of companies neglect SEO.

I see a lot of companies that are not ranking nearly anywhere for the keywords they should be ranking for. You should rank for as many relevant search queries to your business as you can.

What’s the most important skill that every marketer should learn?

Tim: I think that every marketer should learn how to write well or clearly communicate their ideas to the world. This is crucial because, in any online interaction, you have to clearly explain what you’re thinking. You need to explain your ideas logically and in simple terms. It’s part of being able to transmit information from your head into the head of readers or people who are watching your video and listening to your podcast.

This is a very important skill because you can create all those landing pages, blog articles, and creating the content that your end customers will be consuming, but you will be also communicating with your product development team. You’ll need to persuade them that something makes sense creating. You’ll also need to communicate with your higher-ups. You’ll need to persuade them that a certain SEO (project) is worth investing in. You need to communicate with designers and tell them what they should design and where a certain button should be. It all comes down to your conversation skills and your knowledge of basic human psychology and sales triggers.

When you want to hire an awesome person for whatever position in your team, find people who are already doing what you want them to do within your company. Click To Tweet

Apart from using tools like Ahrefs, what are a few other disciplines or routines do you suggest businesses should follow in order to taste success in their content marketing?

Tim: The best thing you can do to uplift your content marketing is to use your own knowledge and expertise in your specific niche as a foundation for your content. Don’t just give your content to a freelance copywriter who you may have hired from a random website. Even when you’re hiring writers for your in-house team, make sure that you work closely with them so that they interview you and get some original information from the product experts. The original knowledge, information, and insights are what drives content marketing in the first place.

Secondly, always tailor your content to the needs of your potential customers. There’s no reason for you to create guides on how to create a GIF image unless you have a software that specifically does that. You’ve to align your content topics with what your potential customers are looking for so that you can pitch your product within those articles.