Book Review: “Product-led SEO: The Why Behind Building Organic Growth Strategy” by Eli Schwartz

Did you know that the collective value of all organic traffic in the world is more than a trillion dollars!

First a little story. In 2011, when I started my product career with Naukri.com (India’s largest public Internet company by market cap as of Apr 2021 and leading classified site for over 20 years), I had ZERO idea about anything called SEO. Anyway I was tasked to work on the jobseeker acquisition and engagement funnel at the classifieds leader and happened to work with an inhouse SEO team. Frankly, I did not know anything about the term called “Product-Led SEO” or that term existed in wider usage until I happened to chance upon this book

As I progressed through this book “Product-led SEO: The Why Behind Building Organic Growth Strategy” by Eli Schwartz, I harked back to those times a decade back and could retrospectively see the work our team did fit well into the paradigm this book describes. Little surprising now that Naukri was able to fend off any impending threat from many job aggregators like Indeed, Mitula or Jooble as well LinkedIn to a certain extent during that time while successfully managing to navigate the web to mobile transition. The absolute traffic from SEO grew by 3x in those 4 years and in my assessment a sound SEO position remains a competitive moat for the company till today!

Book cover of "Product-led SEO" by Eli Schwartz
Cover Image of the Book: “Product-Led SEO…” by Eli Schwartz

Coming to this book, it is a good concise one arguing essentially that product-driven growth when combined with SEO’s strategic application can unlock growth for most companies. One should not expect hands-on SEO domain knowledge from the book, for which there are umpteen online resources one can refer to. However this book does neatly describe challenges any SEO leader and practitioner faces in a complex org and offers clear tips to navigate the org dynamics. The author, in my view, remains honest in recognising the limitations of SEO craft in driving low-cost growth which makes his advice throughout the book even more credible. So let’s dive in!

General Background about SEO

SEO is an acronym for Search Engine Optimization, and that it is a process of taking known rules of how search engines work and building it into a plan to improve upon the visibility

  • Product-Led SEO builds a great product for users first and optimizes for search second
  • Maximizing SEO visibility requires taking the known rules about search engine best practices and applying a level of creativity and logic to develop a strategic approach
  • Focusing efforts on technical SEO, on-page factors, or user-experience optimization together is essential to drive results through SEO

In general, these are the 5 stages of how Google or any search engine works 

1. Discovery 

  • Discovery is the algorithm that crawls the web to identify new pages and sites that Google has not previously indexed

2. Crawling 

  • Once a URL is discovered, Google has to decide whether it wants to expend the resources required to crawl the URL. It’s typically constrained by crawl budget for every site that Google enforces

3. Indexing 

  • The indexing algorithm determines how to cache a web page and what database tags should be used to categorize it
  • The indexing algorithm will decide whether to trust the content or not based on technical SEO signals on the page
  • The most important part in any SEO audit is to check whether links are getting indexed by Google

4. Ranking 

  • Ranking uses the information from the first three algorithms to apply a ranking methodology to every page

5. Intent understanding (BERT)

  • This NLP algorithm launched in 2018 doesn’t directly impact the rankings of websites for queries, it rewrites the actual queries to what Google believes the user is searching

Latest trends in SEO

1. Complaints that SEO is only getting harder are a byproduct of all the AI already included in the algorithm

  • Google doesn’t just have a better understanding of what its users want, it has used AI to dramatically change how it values links
  • This is the change with the biggest impact on users

2. Frequent software updates from Google including the the two biggest updates to its algorithms

  • The first update was called Panda rolled out in 2010. The goal of Panda was to flush out sites that used keyword matching just to rank on highly searched terms without providing content of any value to those keywords on the page
  • The second algorithm update was called Penguin and was released in 2012. Penguin’s target was manipulative link-building practices. When Google discovered unnatural links, it levied a penalty on the site

3. Mobile SEO and Trends in Voice Search

Google ranks websites on mobile optimization the same way it does on a desktop. Google recommends having a mobile-responsive site that will look and function great on a mobile, tablet, or desktop environment. The nuances between SEO for desktop and mobile are in how users interact with search and websites after they click

  • However, on mobile there are fewer results, meaning a number-five slot on mobile is essentially like being on page two of results
  • A mobile-first index merely means Google is ranking the content of a website that is visible to a crawler that emulates a mobile browser

4. While mobile was last decade’s big paradigm shift in SEO, this decade is going to be all about voice and smart assistants

  • Also the number-one reason voice search is never going to replace multiple results is voice must be perfect, and perfect is never possible in our changing world
  • Also as voice assistants get increasingly more powerful, having a proper schema is important

What’s product-led SEO?

The key part of building a Product-Led SEO strategy is that it is a product (an offering of any sort) that is being built. An ideal Product-Led SEO strategy is programmatic and scalable, creates something new, and addresses untapped search demand i.e. build an experience that is useful for users first, and the search engines will follow

Product-Led SEO requires thinking of the reader and why they should spend their precious time enjoying the content

  • Create the content that you know there is untapped demand for. Google will reward you and will direct users to you with search-query suggestions
    • Nevertheless unlike other marketing methods, content is inherently trackable and should justify its RoI
  • Bad content for paid marketing channels is less prevalent than that in SEO since marketers know that the costs are high in case the content is not engaging their users enough

Should SEO be the focus area for early stage companies? 

  • The author recommends that early-stage companies first spend as much as they are comfortable allocating toward paid marketing before they shift to SEO. Also SEO investments should not be made by businesses that are close to the edge on survivability
    • Paid marketing will help quickly determine product-market fit, identify customer journeys, and generate revenue. Knowledge gained from paid marketing will help SEO maximize its success
  • In later-stage companies where the new hire will only work on SEO projects, prioritizing skill sets is critical
  • The business category and type of customer are two of the biggest factors in how one should invest in SEO. Visibility only matters when you are visible to the right user. For many categories, especially long-sales-cycle B2B, SEO is absolutely the wrong investment
  • SEO is an optimization channel, not a demand-creation channel. SEO efforts improve the visibility of a website when the demand is already there

Competition and SEO

1. For SEO, the competitor is any site targeting the same search terms. Also one should assess whether she is targeting queries that real humans would actually write? Since search is all about queries written by users, the underpinning of any tactical effort is keywords

2. Pay attention to your competitor’s specific tactics, whether in the content type or technical setup. How, specifically, is that site driving growth?

3. Predicting how the competition might react should be an essential part of how you develop your SEO strategies

What’s an SEO persona and how to identify it?

SEO persona is the one that pays you (or whatever the conversion element might be), and one should track those people back to the original acquisition source. Those people will be aggregated into the persona buckets that should be your focus

  • Persona research should answer questions, such as where in the buying funnel a user might be when they’re visiting a particular piece of content

Channel Strategy and SEO

1. Brand traffic is great, but it doesn’t indicate SEO success. Growth of branded traffic will plateau at the natural penetration level of the brand. The focus of SEO should always be on non-branded search since their potential is immense while branded search grows with brand awareness.

  • Consider also that good ranking on targeted keywords is often aspiration and may never be achieved
  • Paid could dominate brand placements at a very inexpensive cost in a way that organic never could. OTOH SEO is a hybrid between branding and performance traffic
  • Word of mouth is also not a sustainable strategy since that can dissipate quickly

2. SEO and paid marketing are very similar from a performance standpoint. Ultimately SEO is done by humans for humans and it takes a unique person to be able to combine customer empathy with creativity layered in SEO knowledge

Duplicate Content and SEO

How is duplicate content generated? 

  • One area that is a common source of duplicate content is the lingering legacy of site moves and updates. So, when undertaking any big update or migration, it is vital to get it right
  • A full site migration should only be undertaken when absolutely necessary for legal purposes or branding needs. One major consideration to keep in mind with all redirects is the redirects likely have to be maintained in perpetuity
  • The primary takeaway on updates and migrations is that they should be done carefully, slowly, strategically, and with full consideration of the risks

How to identify duplicate content?

  • Google Search Console can be particularly helpful in identifying problems with duplicate content
  • It’s possible that so much of a website is duplicate, it could fall into the realm where the Panda algorithm might think the website is of too low quality to be included in Google’s index

Linking Strategy and SEO

1. Links are a critical part of Google’s ranking algorithms, as a link to a page is a vote of popularity and contextual relevance. Quality is not created by a website alone. The page giving the link will also have its own authority, which will be determined solely by the search engine

  • Every domain has to stand on its own within the web, based on its own backlinks. Google claims to view hundreds of factors in determining rankings, links have always been a very prominent part of the calculation 

2. Attract links instead of acquiring them. Most social media links (Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, etc.) do not count as quality SEO backlinks. To generate links, just do what a PR agency would. Build relationships with journalists, understand what they like to write, and pitch stories

  • Some of the best link builders use PR methods
  • In your link-building efforts, be creative and generate unique data

3. Externally, page rank is a two-way street, so a site that wants to hoard all of its page rank would nofollow all its external links. Many websites inundated with spam links, including Wikipedia, opted to make all their outgoing links nofollow by default

  • It’s very likely there’s no real difference between a follow and a nofollow link, so one should not place much stock in the classification of a link

4. A site directory does not have to be a visually well-designed page to be effective. It can truly be an alphabetized list of every category and page on a website

  • The ideal internal-link graph looks like the route map of a budget airline that thrives on point-to-point connections

5. Featured snippets: This is when Google takes a portion of a website’s content to answer a user’s question and puts it in a box in the first position. If you are just looking for awareness, this might be a feature; otherwise, else avoid ending up in these boxes

Stakeholder Management and Navigating Org Dynamics for SEO Leaders

1. Justifying RoI. SEO should be measured the same way any product is measured: by adoption and engagement

  • Much of effective SEO Product management, especially in a large company, is about diplomacy
  • For smaller companies, if you are competing on search with a large competitor, know that you have the advantage, as they can never adapt to change as fast as you. Negotiating the system in a larger company is part of the essential skill set
  • Most sites cannot do statistically significant A/B testing on SEO because of traffic significance. Large sites can, and a change might lead to lower average ranking positions on search, but if its net result is higher conversions, it is a winner

2. One has to consider that rankings alone, as a KPI for SEO, is a vanity metric and should never be used in budgeting, or financial modeling. Also since paid and organic searches are both going after the same user, the author recommends strategizing each channel’s core competencies and having each focus on its strengths

3. A good metric in growth in impressions on search pages. Use the data you have and not the data you think you should have. Then, find a way to test and trial until you build the data you need

4. Using keywords as a predictor of how much search traffic you can expect to generate is not a viable option for a few reasons since there is competition for high traffic words and some keywords may not even exist

  • Without the ability to rely on keyword search as a north star for your new product, you need to find a proxy instead. Use a tangential product that might have similar demand, and use the search volume for that site

5. For a growth-minded Product manager or marketer, the bureaucracy can be negated by embracing incremental wins as a method to succeed. SEO should be viewed as a Product in and of itself

  • Instead of asking the engineers to update a whole bunch of SEO requirements, ask for engineers (or content or money) to build X for SEO

All in all it’s a great book for product leaders and founders to understand and lay foundations around as to how SEO can potentially unlock growth for their product! For really low level details about the art and science of SEO, author refers to very authoritative sources which can be explored. Hope you enjoy reading this book!

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