In our experience, the main point of SaaS keyword research for SaaS businesses should be finding keywords that actually drive conversions (namely trial signups, demo requests, or contact us form fills).
And yet, most of the advice you’ll find will be ‘prioritize keywords based on volume’, ‘discard keywords with high keyword difficulty’, or ‘go after the same keywords that your top competitors are going after’.
The problem with this advice is that none of them consider whether or not the reader has buying-intent (i.e., the intent to convert into a paying customer).
That isn’t to say that considering keyword difficulty (KD), volume, etc. doesn’t have its place in a good SEO keyword strategy. It does. But in our direct experience with SaaS SEO, if driving sales is your main goal, you should focus on buying-intent above all else.
This fact about keyword strategy is based on 5+ years of helping dozens of B2C and B2B SaaS companies rank for hundreds upon hundreds of valuable keywords and watching high buying-intent keywords convert at a significantly higher rate than keywords with high volume and little to no buying-intent. We’ve found this to be true for large SaaS companies as well as small ones, for self-serve SaaS or sales-led models, and for those targeting enterprise customers or those targeting SMB.
In this article, we discuss:
- 4 common mistakes we see businesses make with SaaS keyword research (and what to do instead) — starting with why we think focusing on volume over buying-intent is a mistake.
- Our process for keyword research (including three categories of keywords that lead to great results).
Curious about having us hone in on the right keywords for your business and creating high quality content that drives conversions? You can learn more here. Or, if you’d like to learn the SaaS SEO strategy that we share below, we also teach our content marketing strategy and process in our course and community.
4 Common Mistakes in Saas Keyword Research That Causes Wasted SEO Effort
Mistake #1: Focusing On Volume over Buying-Intent
Many in-house marketers and agencies prioritize high-volume keywords because they’re using SEO for top of funnel marketing. That is, they aim to attract their target audience by ranking for topics related to their industry. Then, they lead the readers through the various stages of the funnel and hope that eventually the reader will convert.
The main issue with this approach is that very few of these readers will ever truly be in the market for a product like yours. And, no amount of “dripping” content to them via email marketing will create a need for your product if there wasn’t one to begin with.
For example, let’s say a company selling human resources (HR) software goes after ‘human resource management’. According to Ahrefs, this SEO keyword has a search volume of 15,000 searches/month.
On the surface, this seems like a great keyword for an HR SaaS company. It has a lot of search volume (15,000 searches a month for a single term is massive in B2B software), and it’s on the topic of HR. Seemingly, people in HR would run a Google search for this, so you should get customers from this keyword.
But let’s dig a little deeper. Here’s what already ranks for this keyword:
As you can see from the screenshot above, most of the top ranking articles provide general information about what HRM is.
While the keyword is roughly on the topic of HR, nothing about that keyword indicates the reader is ready to buy HR software. Any one of the following personas could be searching for this term:
- A college student writing a research paper about HRM
- A company founder who just hired their first employee(s)
- A job seeker looking at different fields to apply to, including HR
- A high school student considering a career in HR
However, it’s unlikely that HR managers, directors, or other HR professionals who buy HR software would be searching for ‘human resource management’. It’s a search query about a basic concept in their space. But these target customers live and breathe HR (and have presumably worked in HR for years or decades) so they already know more than any introductory article on HR has to offer.
So, simply put, this SEO keyword has no buying-intent. By going after keywords like this, you’ll be spending time and resources chasing readers who will likely never become paying customers. This will likely manifest as a miniscule blog to signup conversion rate in your analytics (<0.1%).
In our opinion, the results aren’t worth the time and effort — especially when there are plenty of higher converting keywords on the table.
What to Do Instead
For the vast majority of SaaS companies, there are people who are ready to buy a product like yours right now. So, from our perspective, it makes more sense to target keywords that will attract these readers first.
For example, someone typing in ‘HR software for small businesses’ is literally looking for HR software to buy today. If you sell HR software for small businesses, why wouldn’t you target keywords with high buying-intent like this one first, before spending time and effort on more informational, TOTF keywords (like “human resource management”)?
Keywords with high buying-intent lead to much higher conversion rates and massively more leads generated from SEO.
After the first two years of working with Geekbot, here’s what we found:
- Conversion rates. Articles going after BOTF keywords had a 4.78% conversion rate compared to just 0.19% for TOTF keywords — that’s a difference of 2,400%!
- Total number of leads. We had 22 BOTF articles published that generated 28,190 organic pageviews. For TOTF keywords, we had 42 articles that generated 204,303 visitors. Despite nearly twice as many TOTF articles that generated nearly 10X the organic traffic, BOTF articles brought in 1,348 conversions while TOTF articles only brought in 397 conversions.
And it’s not just with Geekbot — we see results like these for all of our clients. Time and time again BOTF articles outperform TOTF articles when it comes to conversion rates and total leads (you can read more case studies here).
Note: We don’t exclusively go after BOTF keywords. We simply start with BOTF keywords and work our way up the funnel after hitting as many BOTF keywords as possible.
Mistake #2: Ignoring High Buying-Intent Because of Low Search Volume
Mistake #2 is similar to mistake #1, but in this case, the individual knows to prioritize buying-intent, and yet they shy away from high buying-intent keywords if SEO tools say the monthly search volume is low.
We hear this objection all the time from clients: “I understand that high buying-intent keywords have higher conversion rates, but that won’t help us if only a few people are searching for it.”
We’ve written more extensively about why targeting keywords with high buying-intent but low volume still makes sense, but essentially, what it comes down to is:
- SEO tools typically underestimate the true volume of a keyword.
- The high conversion rates more than make up for the lower traffic.
Let’s look at our client, Circuit, as an example.
In the first two years, we created content and ranked for dozens of keywords that supposedly received less than 20 organic searches per month (according to Ahrefs) — and yet we still brought in conversions. Here are just a few of the results:
- 6 competitor comparison articles brought in 149 organic signups in 2 years.
- A niche how-to article brought in 31 conversions in six months.
- A use-case article brought in 12 conversions in four months.
And, even though Ahrefs showed 0-20 searches per month for each of these articles, we saw significantly higher organic search volume for these articles. For example, our post targeting ‘routific alternatives’ showed 0-10 searches per month on Ahrefs but actually had ~70 pageviews per month, on average.
(These articles were just one piece of our overall strategy. You can learn more about how we scaled Circuit’s SEO traffic from 920 to 14,577 sessions in 6 months and were driving over 200 conversions per month with just our articles in this case study.)
This Twitter thread from Devesh walks through an example from our own site of our piece on SaaS content writing that’s getting significantly more organic traffic than is shown on Ahrefs (even if you account for additional keywords it may be ranking for):
Now, don’t get us wrong, if you find keywords that have both high buying-intent and decent search volume, of course you should go after them. However, the results are clear — if you’re skipping over keywords with high buying-intent because of low volume, you’re missing out on conversions (and in some cases, you’re missing out on the majority of conversions from organic search).
What to Do Instead
Target high buying-intent keywords — regardless of low search volume.
Of course, we still recommend prioritizing high buying-intent, high volume keywords when available. But, when you run out of those, we recommend prioritizing high buying-intent, low volume keywords over low buying-intent, high volume keywords.
An added benefit of high buying-intent, low volume keywords is that few people are targeting them, so they’re often easier to rank for.
Mistake #3: Going After Keywords Just Because Your Competitors Are
Another common strategy we’ve seen SEO agencies use is to make a list of all the keywords that their client’s competitors are ranking for or running paid ads for (e.g., Google ads, social media ads). Then, they go down the list and target every one of those keywords.
Looking at your competitors’ strategies can be a good approach for brainstorming new ideas, but actually going after all of those keywords is a huge waste of time and money because:
- A good online presence (lots of first page rankings) doesn’t necessarily mean those articles are bringing in conversions. Again, if the keyword lacks buying-intent, it’s unlikely you’ll see many conversions.
- What’s relevant for your competitors may not be relevant for you. For example, let’s say you offer scheduling software specifically for lawyers but you don’t offer any specialized features for HR. Let’s also say one of your main competitors is Calendly. If they go after “scheduling software for recruiting”, they may drive lots of valuable conversions from that keyword. However, if you targeted the same keyword, you will likely get significantly fewer conversions (if any).
What to Do Instead
Start with the other strategies we suggest below first. Then, when you hit a roadblock for coming up with good keyword ideas, look at what your competitors are doing.
Keep in mind that just because your competitor is targeting a keyword, doesn’t mean it’s a relevant keyword for you. If small businesses aren’t your target market, don’t target ‘X software for small businesses’.
This should only be used as a brainstorming tool and you should carefully consider whether each keyword is valuable to you (i.e., has buying-intent and is relevant to your product), and discard the ones that aren’t.
Mistake #4: Assuming You Can’t Compete with Big Name Competitors
We hear this regularly from clients, “[Insert big name organization] is ranking for this or that valuable keyword, so don’t waste your time targeting it — there’s no way we can compete.”
While it’s true that it may take longer to rank when you’re competing against well-known brand names and organizations, with the right SaaS SEO strategy, you have more than a fighting chance.
We’ve written at length about why companies with a new domain, few backlinks, or less public recognition can still rank for valuable keywords organically in our article on Underdog SEO. What it comes down to is that you need to (1) be more strategic in the keywords you target, and (2) craft individual pieces of content for the search intent of each keyword (covered below).
Here’s an example to illustrate this point:
One of our clients — Cognitive FX — specializes in post-concussion treatment, so their content is often competing against organizations like WebMD, Healthline, the CDC, and Mayo Clinic.
And yet, at the time of writing (2023) we’re ranking #1 for over 60 valuable keywords — against Mayo Clinic, the CDC, Very Well Health, the NIH, etc.
You can learn more about how our content is driving ~50% of all leads for Cognitive FX here.
If you avoid targeting keywords because some big name is already ranking, you’re letting them win and you’re missing out on customers.
What to Do Instead
Since it may take longer to rank higher than big name competitors, target these keywords right away. If you’re looking for faster results, add a few less competitive keywords (assuming they have high buying-intent) to the mix — but don’t ignore the competitive keywords.
How to Generate Keywords That Drive Conversions (Not Just Traffic)
Our keyword research process has three basic steps:
- Brainstorm potential keywords in three keyword frameworks.
- Analyze the search engine results page (SERP) to verify buying-intent.
- Plug each keyword into a keyword research tool to check volume and KD.
Let’s look at each of these in more detail.
Step #1. Brainstorm Keywords with Buying-Intent
Our foundational Pain Point SEO framework outlined the three types of keywords we go after that have buying-intent:
- Category Keywords
- Competitors and Alternatives
- Jobs to be Done
Let’s go over details and examples of these for SaaS, including some sub-categories that are important to consider.
As we described in Pain Point SEO, “Category Keywords” are simply queries where the searcher is literally looking for products in your category. Just think of all the ways your customers describe the product or product category you offer, such as “CRM software” or “marketing analytics tools”.
While you should definitely go after those keywords (because they obviously have high buying-intent), the challenge with the super obvious category keywords is that they’re often highly competitive. This can make it more difficult to get content to rank. So we think you should get started on these early on to give them time to rank, but you’ll also need ideas for other keywords that fewer competitors are targeting.
The good news is that there are often more category keywords than appear on the surface. If you can go beyond the initial half a dozen terms for describing your product, you can probably find highly valuable keywords with lower competition.
For example, let’s say you offer CRM software for legal professionals. The first set of keywords may look something like this:
- CRM software for legal professionals
- Law CRM software
- Legal practice CRM software
Good, but fairly obvious keywords. Here are some ways you can expand that list:
- ‘Law’ variations
- Paralegal CRM software
- Attorney CRM software
- Lawyer CRM software
- ‘CRM’ variations
- Law client intake software
- Legal practice management software
- ‘Software’ variations
- Law CRM tool
- Legal client management program
- Attorney client information application
In this example, the software is limited to one industry/use case: legal firms. However, depending on your software, you may also have use case and industry specific variations:
- CRM software for small businesses
- CRM software for healthcare
- CRM software for freelancers
Sometimes these long-tail keywords have low volume, however, they also have very high buying-intent because the reader is trying to find a software to use — so don’t pass them up!
There are multiple ways to find these new keyword variations:
- Ask your customers (or talk to your salespeople and ask them what customers are saying).
- Find synonyms for each word.
- Type slowly in the search bar and see what suggestions Google makes in the dropdown menu.
- Look at Google’s related searches.
Comparisons and Alternatives Keywords
We often think of this as one category, but there are two types of keywords to consider:
- ‘[competitor name] + alternatives & competitors’ — These competitor keywords show the reader is already using a specific tool and wants to make a switch. Or, that they’re interested in a specific tool but want to know if there are other options. Either way, it’s a perfect opportunity for you to pitch your product to potential customers at the moment they’re looking to buy.
- ‘[competitor 1] vs. [competitor 2/your SaaS brand]’ — If you can find a keyword where your software is listed, those are the first keywords to tackle (the screenshot below shows our client, Smartlook, ranking #1 for ‘smartlook vs. hotjar’).
However, you can still go after keywords where your software isn’t one of the options listed. Simply add your software to the comparison (the screenshot below shows Smartlook ranking #3 for ‘hotjar vs fullstory’).
Jobs To Be Done Keywords
Finally, we have the largest set of buying-intent keywords: jobs to be done keywords. The keywords in this category describe the types of problems that your SaaS product solves (i.e., what pains were your customers experiencing before using your product?).
For example, manually tracking time-off requests is time-consuming, tedious, and prone to human error. So, let’s say you offer software that automates that process. In this case, a good keyword might be ‘how to automate time-off requests’.
Note how this is different from category keywords or competitor keywords in that the user isn’t explicitly searching for a software solution (yet). But they have a problem that your SaaS product clearly solves, and the query suggests there is intent to solve that problem, so there is buying-intent for your software as a possible solution.
You should also consider keywords that suggest the user is researching low-tech or manual ways to get a job done.
For example, many companies keep track of time-off requests on spreadsheets. If they’re frustrated with their current set up, they may look for a different version of what they already have (e.g., ‘time-off request spreadsheets’ or ‘tracking vacation with spreadsheets’) when they really need a different system altogether. By ranking for these terms, you can catch potential customers in the moment when they’re most frustrated by the problem you solve.
You can consider the problems that all of your customers share (like the example above), and pain points that are unique to certain industries or groups.
For example, many companies in the financial industry require employees to take a certain amount of time off during a certain part of the year so that their work can be audited. So, these potential customers may search ‘how to enforce mandatory time-off’.
For SaaS businesses, many of these keywords will automatically have buying-intent because the problem can’t be solved without a tool.
For example, ‘how to paint a deck’ doesn’t necessarily imply that the reader is looking to buy painting supplies — they could just be looking for techniques and tips. Whereas, ‘how to automate payroll’ can’t be done without software, so the need for a tool is implied.
After you exhaust category keywords and comparison/alternative keywords, there are plenty of JTBD keywords to explore.
If you’re interested in learning more, we wrote an entire article on Jobs to be Done Keywords.
Step #2. Verify Buying-Intent
As you may have guessed, we think this step is the most crucial piece of the process.
You should’ve already been thinking about buying-intent as you brainstormed keywords, but now it’s time to double check that searchers (and Google) interpret the keyword the same way you do.
To verify buying-intent, we briefly scan through the top ten Google results. The title of the post, headers within the article, and sometimes the websites that are ranking can all be indicators of buying-intent.
For example, let’s look at the Google results for the search query ‘mental health journaling’:
Looking at the titles and sources in the screenshot above, nothing indicates that the reader is looking to buy software. Instead, the reader appears to be doing research on the benefits of journaling for mental health and/or looking for tips on how to carry it out.
(Results that include encyclopedias and/or scholarly articles are often a giveaway that the reader is more interested in information than completing a transaction.)
On the other hand, if we look at the results for ‘mental health journaling app’, we see Google’s summary of apps to choose from and titles that indicate you’ll get a list of journaling apps. This gives you an opportunity to pitch your product alongside the others — i.e., there’s buying-intent.
If the keyword doesn’t have buying-intent, discard it or set it aside for a later date after you’ve exhausted all high buying-intent keywords. In the above example, perhaps some people searching “mental health journaling” are open to buying an app, but it’s likely to be far less than people literally searching for an app.
Tip: If a keyword ends up being too TOTF, you often just need to add some version of ‘software’, ‘tool’, etc. to change it into a keyword with buying-intent (e.g., “helpdesk” vs “helpdesk software”).
Step #3: Check Volume and Keyword Difficulty
Finally, you can take volume and keyword difficulty (KD) into consideration.
KD is something any keyword tool such as Semrush, Google’s Keyword Planner, or Moz Keyword Explorer lists next to keywords. This is a custom metric created by SEO tools to neatly summarize the relative backlink profile strength of the posts ranking for a given keyword today. The idea is that if a bunch of really strong domains are ranking, it’s going to be harder for you to rank.
Most marketers prioritize keywords by volume and then by KD (and then sometimes by buying-intent). Their idea being that they want lots of traffic and want it quickly (i.e., they want high rankings with the least amount of time and effort possible).
We’ve already explained in detail above why we think you should prioritize buying-intent over volume. Next, we’ll explain why KD is our last consideration.
If you’re going after high buying-intent keywords, you’re competing for keywords that you already have topical authority on. (Topical authority is the concept of Google’s algorithm weighing whether a site is authoritative on a given topic.) In our experience trying to rank for hundreds of keywords, topical authority has a bigger impact on how easily you’ll be able to rank for a given keyword than KD.
For example, if you’re a time tracking SaaS tool, and all of your content is about time tracking and links pointing to your site are about time tracking, it’ll be a lot easier to rank for time tracking keywords than for, say, dog toys. That’s an exaggerated example, but it’s useful to illustrate why topical authority is factored in by Google.
More realistic high volume keywords that a time tracking SaaS company may go after are terms like “productivity tips”, “payroll tools”, and “invoicing clients”. All of these are loosely related to time tracking, but you’re not going to have as much topical authority for these keywords as, say, “time tracking app”.
So, again, if you’re prioritizing high buying-intent keywords, you’re also prioritizing the keywords that you have topical authority on — which will make it easier to rank. That’s why we suggest finding high buying-intent keywords first (before worrying too much about volume or KD).
Once you have a solid list of high buying-intent keywords, you can start prioritizing that list by volume and KD.
Whether to Prioritize High Volume or Low KD Keywords
While high search volume, low KD is the ideal, these keywords aren’t always easy to find. You’ll often have to make a decision between keywords with higher search volume and higher KD vs. lower search volume and lower KD. Whether you prioritize high volume or low KD is up to you — there are pros and cons for both options.
Keywords with high search volume and high KD may take longer to rank but they will also likely drive more conversions in the long run.
Keywords with low volume and low KD will likely be easier to rank for — which could give you some quick conversions while you’re waiting for other keywords to rank — but may not drive as many conversions overall. That said, they will drive conversions, so you should absolutely include these in your strategy.
We like to start with a mix of keywords that includes each of the keyword categories mentioned above, keywords with high search volume, and keywords with low KD. This lets us diversify our efforts, which increases the chances of early, sustainable success.
Next Steps: Turning Keywords Into Content That Converts
A common on-page SEO strategy is to sprinkle keywords throughout existing pages on your SaaS website, however, that method is flawed and rarely helps you rank for specific keywords.
We’ve written in detail about how Google’s algorithm can differentiate between content that loosely relates to the topic and content that specifically addresses the search term. What it comes down to is that you have a very slim chance (if any) of ranking unless the entire page matches the intent of the search query.
Here are some articles to help you boost your SEO efforts and get started on creating unique content that ranks:
- “Mirage Content” Is the Reason Your Company Blog Isn’t Generating Leads
- The Specificity Strategy: How to Turn Generic Posts Into Stand Out Content
- Why Your Content Needs “Originality Nuggets” to Be Effective
How to Work With Us or Learn More
- Work with our agency: If you want to hire us to create and execute an SEO strategy by identifying your best keywords, creating content that is laser-focused on ranking and driving conversions, and link building to improve your ranking positions, learn more about working with us here.
- Join our team: If you’re a content marketer or writer who wants to do content marketing in this way, we’d love to have you apply for our team.
- Learn our methods in our content marketing course: Individuals looking to learn our agency’s content strategy and become better marketers, consultants, or business owners can join our private course and community, taught via case studies, and presented in both written and video content formats. We include several details and examples not found on this blog. Our course is also built into a community, so people ask questions, start discussions, and share their work in the lesson pages themselves, and we, along with other members, give feedback. Learn more here.