The SaaS Company’s Guide to Link Building & Off-site SEO
You’re a SaaS company, and you’ve either decided to start an SEO campaign, or yours is in trouble and you need to whip it back into shape. You know all about the onsite portion of SEO — optimizing your site with the proper technical structure, ongoing content strategy, and meta data—but you’re struggling to find your place when it comes to offsite strategies.
You’ve come to the right place.
This guide is designed to walk you through the fundamentals of offsite SEO, in total, with specific respect to the unique challenges SaaS companies face. If you’re not in the SaaS industry, you can still use most of this guide—just know that different industries face different challenges, and yours may present obstacles I haven’t fully accounted for in this guide.
This guide is also broken down into a few main sections, so feel free to skip to the ones you feel are most relevant to your needs:
Introduction, to clarify what offsite SEO is and why it’s important for SaaS companies
Unique challenges, to elaborate on the main obstacles and priorities a SaaS company should focus on
Guest posting and manual link building, to cover best practices for a manual link building approach
Offsite SEO is a culmination of all the ranking factors Google and other search engines consider that aren’t directly on your site. Because these aren’t on your site, they’re more difficult to control, but they also offer more credibility, as these factors serve as third-party indicators to your domain’s authoritative strength.
Take a look at Moz’s breakdown of ranking factor clusters (which is an approximation, but still relevant):
Link features alone account for a cumulative 40 percent of total rank potential, compared to only 15 percent for on-page keyword and content features. Along with social metrics, offsite SEO accounts for 47 percent of your total propensity to rank—meaning if you ignore offsite SEO, you’ll be sacrificing 47 percent of your search visibility potential (more on that later).
Unfortunately, offsite SEO isn’t as basic as it used to be. Thanks to updates like Penguin, posting links pointing back to your domain all over the Internet isn’t going to boost your ranks—instead it’s going to get you penalized. Instead, you need to carefully balance your strategy, building relationships with other authorities, placing links only when relevant and valuable to users, attracting links naturally with your best content, and nurturing user relationships on social media.
Offsite SEO is a complex web of habits and exchanges more akin to relationship management than construction.
Why You Need It
As I’ve already established, you can’t have an SEO campaign without an offsite component. It simply won’t work; even if your onsite strategy is perfect, you’re still only accounting for just over 50 percent of Google’s ranking considerations.
You could argue, then, that you don’t need SEO at all. It’s possible to skate by without a bona fide SEO strategy (though I haven’t seen any shining examples of SaaS companies who have done this), but let’s take a look at why SEO is an almost-necessary investment.
First, consider the ROI of sales and marketing for SaaS companies:
After hitting a critical threshold of 20 percent investment, there’s a major turn in the growth of monthly revenue. This is because SaaS companies are dependent on visibility to new customers in order to make new sales. Since most SaaS companies operate exclusively online, the only options for increased visibility are advertising and organic improvements, the former of which is ridiculously expensive at higher volumes, and the latter of which is most successfully executed with a content and SEO strategy. SEO also offers compounding returns, compared to advertising, which offers reasonable, yet linear growth patterns.
Long story short? SEO is the best tool you have to sustain long-term revenue growth.
But offsite SEO is about more than just increasing your visibility and traffic in search engines. If done correctly, you’ll increase referral traffic from whichever sources you build links on, your brand reputation will improve, and you’ll earn more customer loyalty as a result. As a SaaS company, customer loyalty is vital if you want to stay alive. Take a look at this customer churn graph:
The fastest-growing SaaS companies are the ones with the highest rates of customer retention, and offsite SEO can help you achieve them in addition to all its other benefits.
Unique Challenges for SaaS Companies
Hopefully, you now see why offsite SEO is so critical for SaaS companies. I’ll get to the “how” in a minute, but first, I want to address some key, unique challenges that SaaS companies face while pursuing the strategy.
Differentiation. The SaaS model has potential for huge revenue growth, but because this is common knowledge, the market’s been flooded with competitors in recent years. If you want to be featured as a thought leader, you need a solid way to differentiate yourself. If your niche is especially competitive, this can be hard to find; think about how to angle your brand to a specific demographic, or what information you can gather that no one else can.
User trust. You can gain ranks pretty easily with a consistent offsite content strategy, but users’ impressions of your brand are an independent concern; just because you successfully earned a link doesn’t mean you’ll generate additional user trust with its placement. Finding a way to build and improve this trust is essential if you want to attract more loyal customers; this generally requires an even greater focus on the quality and value of your content.
Building authority from scratch. All SaaS companies are relatively young, since it’s a relatively new concept. Building authority is easy when you have lots of history and data to support your brand:
If you’re starting from scratch, however, you’ll find it’s notoriously difficult to get your foot in the door anywhere. The most critical period for offsite SEO development is your first few months—you’ll see the lowest returns on your investment, but you have to keep going if you want to scale.
Scaling to new sources. After your early momentum starts to subside, you’re going to find it difficult to keep scaling upward. SaaS companies have a huge potential for future returns, especially compared to SaaP companies:
However, to sustain this exponential growth model, you also need to exponentially scale your offsite strategy. This is certainly possible, but it requires a steady increase in your time, effort, and quality.
Keep these challenges in the back of your mind as you read the next few sections and start planning your strategic approach. Understanding and compensating for these weaknesses is critical if you want to be effective.
Guest Posting and Link Building
Guest posting and link building should constitute the bulk of your ongoing strategy, as it’s the most reliable way to build a reputation and guarantee high-profile links. In this strategy, you’ll be producing high-quality content that other sites host for their users. Many of these posts will contain links that point back to your domain, which in turn pass authority to your site to support your ranking efforts. These links may also be followed by interested users, generating referral traffic, and having your name associated with this content can also increase your brand visibility and authority.
However, it must be done properly, or you risk ranking penalties, growth stagnation, and even consequences for your brand reputation.
Ingredients for Success
First, understand that not all links are the same. There are dozens of qualities that factor into what makes a good link “good,” the most important of which revolve around making sure your links are valuable for any users encountering them.
To achieve this, you’ll need to pay attention to four critical ingredients: the strength of your sources, the quality of your content, the placement of your link, and the overall diversity of your offsite strategy. I’ll be taking a look at each of these, in turn.
Identifying the right sources
The domain-level and page-level authority of your link’s placement source factor in to how much authority it ends up passing to your site. For example, a high-authority site (like an international news publisher) will always pass more authority per link than a low-authority site (like a domain that just emerged and posts questionable-quality content).
There are a handful of ways to determine the overall authoritativeness of a chosen source. The easiest is intuitive—think about whether this is a site you personally trust. The more objective method is to use an external tool to help you calculate a domain’s authoritative score. I’ve done this for YouTube in two examples below, using Moz and SEO Review Tools:
You can see its authority is about as high as it gets, with a long age and millions of root links.
The relevance of your source to your domain may also factor into the quality of your source, especially at lower levels of authority. For example, if your software is designed to help college students study better and you’re posting content on a niche site dedicated to helping the elderly pay their medical bills, you better have a good reason to post.
Of course, finding the perfect site—one with an exceptionally high authority and relevance to your brand—is hard, and it’s even harder to get content featured on those sources, as most high-authority sources are highly discerning in what they allow to be published. Your strategy should carefully balance sites that are easy to have content posted on and sites that are more authoritative, gradually increasing the overall authority of your backlink profile—but I’ll get into more detail on this later.
Drafting the right content
You also need to make sure your content is up to snuff, for three major reasons:
Publishers will only accept good content.
The strength of your content will support your link’s authoritative strength.
Good content will leave users (and other publishers) with a better impression of your brand.
So what constitutes “good” content here? Mostly the same factors that constitute good content on your site:
A valuable or practical function (preferably related to your software).
A unique topic that hasn’t been done before.
High levels of detail.
Multimedia integrations (i.e., images and video).
Original findings (data, research, opinions, etc.).
A strong, consistent tone.
Proper formatting, with scannability.
These are some of the fundamentals, but there’s one more factor you have to consider when drafting content: the relevance to your source. Users of your target site will be accustomed to certain content features. This may mean a specific formatting, a specific topic, or a specific angle. You need to be prepared for this, and draft your content around those requirements. Otherwise, you’ll be rejected—either by the publisher or by the users themselves.
Securing link placement
Once your content is drafted, you can’t just stuff a link in and expect to reap the benefits. Remember, your link placement has to be valuable for the users, or else you’ll stand to lose more than you gain. Keep the following in mind:
Contextual relevance/utility. Your link should be a citation of facts originally posted on your site, using your site as an illustration of a point you made, or referring to your site as a source of more information. These functions (and a few others) make the link useful to readers.
Appropriate anchor text. Old-school methods required stuffing keywords into your anchor text, but Google now explicitly warns against such practices. Take this snippet as an example of what not to do:
Innocuous positioning. Publishers know that posters often leverage their platforms to build links. Accordingly, they’re on the lookout for link builders—and they’ll weed out your links if they suspect them as being intended to manipulate your rank. Accordingly, you’ll need to disguise your link among other links to make sure it doesn’t stand out.
Timing and frequency. It’s rarely a good idea to include more than one backlink in a single post—doing so makes your effort riskier in exchange for a very small increase in potential value. You may also want to avoid including a link with every post—but I’ll touch on this in the next section.
Diversifying your strategy
It’s a bad idea to use the same tactics over and over again. If you do, you’ll see diminishing returns, and your reputation might start taking hits. The best way to keep your SaaS reputation intact and improve growth at the same time is to diversify your strategy in three key ways:
Sources. Posting more links on the same source offers diminishing returns; the better way to increase authority over time is to seek out new sources. Diversify your backlink profile as much as you can.
Destination pages. Links pass page-level authority as well as domain-level authority, so mix up what pages you link to (i.e., don’t always link to your home page). This will also make your links seem more natural over time.
Nofollow links. Google is wise to link schemes, and is always on the lookout for predictable patterns of link building. Accordingly, it’s in your best interest to omit links from your guest content occasionally—but that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice referral traffic. Including nofollow links instead of regular links will mask these links from search engines but still give you referral traffic potential.
Now that you know all the ingredients that make up a strong SaaS offsite SEO campaign, let’s take a look at the steps you’ll need to take to go from 0 to 60.
Step One: Building Onsite Authority
If you currently have no offsite strategy, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an initial source to take you on as a guest poster. You’ll first have to build up some authority on your own; that means making sure your website is chock full of great content, including a regularly updated onsite blog. You can complement this with some social media following building or some professional networking—the end goal is simply to make yourself seem like more of an expert.
Step Two: Finding the Low-Hanging Fruit
Once you have an onsite basis of authority you can cite as a kind of “resume,” you can start scouting for sources that present low-hanging fruit opportunities (I’m not a fan of this buzzword, but it fits here). You’re looking for any reasonable opportunity to get your content featured, so start with local publishers who might be interested in your business, such as neighborhood communities or local news publishers. You can also target specific niche sites, like blogs or forums, that only cater to businesses in your industry. This will help you develop an early momentum for your reputation—don’t worry if they’re not the best of the best.
Step Three: Managing Ongoing Relationships
Once you establish a network of different contacts and publication opportunities, work on cultivating those relationships. Submit content regularly, engage with your new audiences in blog comments and on social media, and work to solidify your foundation at this level before you attempt to move on. This means stepping up the quality of your work, writing more types of content that your readers want to see, and giving back to the community (possibly by offering guest spots on your own blog).
Step Four: Seeking Bigger Targets
Once you’ve managed this stage for a while, you can start scaling up your strategy. Start looking at higher-profile targets, especially ones with a national readership, and pitch content to them. At higher levels, don’t be surprised if some of your applications get rejected; competition is tough, and it takes time and patience to earn a spot in these circles. Stick with it, keep improving your content, and don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone to build more links; not every publication opportunity necessitates you writing about your software. Once established as a major national thought leader, you should have no trouble developing even more opportunities to place links.
Of course, manual link placement through guest posting isn’t the only way to earn more links. Some have even criticized this strategy, saying it inherently violates Google’s terms of services, which state that any link intended to manipulate rank is a “bad” link. However, rank manipulation is only a secondary motivation when you’re using links to support your arguments or cite facts—as long as your content quality is in check, you shouldn’t have to worry about a penalty.
On the other hand, there is a strategy that can earn you more links without any manual placement whatsoever. In this strategy, you’ll be producing content specifically intended to circulate (“go viral”) and naturally prompt people to build links pointing back to your domain. In effect, you’ll establish yourself as an authority people naturally want to cite.
This is especially valuable for SaaS companies because it naturally encourages a word-of-mouth-based wave of attention. As you gain more social followers (and users of your software), these effects will become even more pronounced.
To be effective, there are four goals you must achieve.
Goal One: Produce Quality Content
The first step is the simplest to understand, yet the most difficult to accomplish. You have to create content that people consistently want to link to—completely on their own. What type of content earns links?
Long-form content, generally more than 1,500 words.
Original content, such as original research or extended reports.
Emotionally compelling content, including content that offers a surprise, or content that stimulates fear, elation, laughter, or sympathy.
Utilitarian content, meaning anything that makes life easier for someone—people want to share useful material with one another.
Multimedia content, especially infographics and informative videos.
It’s easy to digest these qualities, but hard to put them all together in a single, well-written package. There’s no perfect formula for viral content, but these guidelines should serve as a decent starting point for you.
Also, don’t expect every polished piece you produce to be a major hit—sometimes, even the topics and body content that seems like it would perform the best falls flat once it hits audiences. I hate to say it, but there is a bit of luck involved here.
Goal Two: Syndicate!
The mistake most SaaS companies make at this point is assuming that your content will magically start attracting readers and visitors. Yes, once it rolls out to an initial audience, those audience members will theoretically share and link to it in further circles, but you have to syndicate your piece to those audiences first.
How can you do this? Social media’s a good place to start. Leverage all your relevant platforms, especially Facebook if your platform is B2C and LinkedIn if your platform is B2B. Both platforms offer in-depth tools to help you target the right audience; for example, Facebook offers organic audience targeting features, and LinkedIn offers selective screening through the use of Groups.
These are just a handful of the hundreds of SaaS-related Groups that exist on LinkedIn:
Of course, you may be targeting a different niche, such as Human Resources or Stock Investing. Cater to your demographics here, and don’t be afraid to push your content out multiple times!
Goal Three: Engage With Influencers
To give your content even more of an initial push, reach out to major influencers in your niche. What are “influencers?” They’re basically rockstars with huge social media followings, regular activity in the community, and a powerful reputation.
The theory is this: if you can get just one influencer to share a piece of your content, it will instantly generate thousands of new views. Oftentimes, you can accomplish this with a simple request or exchange of value. If you engage with these influencers regularly and start building a rapport with them, it becomes even easier to participate in these exchanges.
Finding a target isn’t that difficult, but think about your likelihood of success before you get too involved. For example, take a look at the CEO of SalesForce, Marc Benioff’s Twitter account:
He has 204,000 followers (which is a lot), and almost 9,000 tweets which shows he’s active. He’s also seen retweeting others quite frequently. These factors make him a decent influencer to target, though you’ll notice his engagement factor isn’t as personal or frequent as some other big names in the SaaS industry.
SalesForce, the corporate brand, has even more followers and a more active posting schedule—but the account doesn’t retweet very often, and its engagements are typically limited to customers talking about the brand.
You’ll find advantages and disadvantages in every influencer you size up as a prospect. The key is to find ones who have the highest likelihood of fitting your needs and the lowest demand for investment of personal time. It’s easier said than done, but once you start landing influencers in your professional network, the power of your content will instantly amplify.
Goal Four: Repetition
Sometimes, it takes a while for a content to “take hold” with an audience and start earning hundreds of inbound links. Sometimes, an “ideal” piece of content will fall flat. Sometimes, a piece of content will explode in popularity after you’ve already written it off.
The world of viral content and “link cultivation” is a volatile, sometimes unpredictable one. The best way to hedge your bets and guarantee a long-term return on your investment is to stay consistent in your strategy, and repeat it. Keep producing new content. Keep syndicating it in new places. Keep reaching out to new influencers. Keep refining your approach. Eventually, you’ll get what you’re looking for.
As you form your strategy and begin to develop it over the coming months, keep the following considerations in mind:
Your reputation always comes first. No matter how juicy an opportunity might seem, it’s only worth it if it makes your company look better to users. Customer retention—and therefore, brand reputation—is your greatest asset as a SaaS company.
Take the best of both worlds. Manual link building through guest posting and link cultivation through content syndication are complementary, effective strategies. Make use of both on an ongoing basis if you want to see the best return.
Make adjustments. Doing the same thing over and over again will make your strategy stall (and might drive you crazy at the same time). Don’t be afraid to make adjustments and try new things, especially as you learn more about what your readers like and want.
Scale with your audience. SaaS is an industry with massive growth potential, but if you want to see that growth, you have to grow your investment in your marketing strategies as well. Keep pushing the limits with better content, higher frequencies of publication, better publishers, and bigger influencers.
Admit when you need help. Offsite SEO is an intensive strategy that requires expertise, commitment, and tons of time and effort. It’s not for amateurs, and it’s not something you can half-invest in. Don’t be afraid to admit that you need help; there are many companies out there, including SEO.co, who specialize in client-focused link building, and chances are, they’ll be able to do it more effectively and less expensively than you can.
I feel as though SEO is hands-down the most effective strategy for SaaS companies to establish a reputation, attract more users, and increase customer retention. It’s cost-efficient, scalable, digital, and offers compounding returns over time. But for this strategy to be effective, you need a strong, consistent, offsite component that not only increases your rank, but builds your reputation.
Throughout this guide, I’ve helped you understand the fundamental components of such a strategy, and how a SaaS company should specifically adjust these fundamentals for the greatest possible benefit. Now, it’s on you to start taking the steps to earn these results. Whether you take on the work yourself or work with a link building expert to ease the burden and increase results, your commitment to the strategy is critical if you want it to pay off.
Timothy Carter is the CRO for SEO.co/. Since 1997 he's been helping businesses maximize their sales revenue from websites via content marketing, SEO and Internet Marketing strategies. Over the years he's written for publications like Marketing Land, Search Engine Journal, MarketingProfs and other highly respected online publications.