Skip to content

The SaaS Podcast

SaaS Growth: Unconventional Wisdom Leads to a $40 Million Startup – with Tim Soulo [205]

Tim Soulo - Ahrefs

SaaS Growth: Unconventional Wisdom Leads to a $40M Startup

Tim Soulo is the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) at Ahrefs.com, a SaaS startup that provides SEO tools to help grow your search traffic, research your competitors and monitor your market niche.

In 2015, Tim joined a SaaS startup as head of marketing. The company had spent several years building their blog, but it still wasn't generating much traffic or leads.

Tim decided that publishing higher-quality content regularly on their blog was going to be one of his top priorities. But after a year he still had little to show in terms of traffic and leads.

Eventually, Tim figured out the problem. They were creating high-quality content, but they weren't optimizing it for SEO. They weren't doing keyword research or doing on-page optimization.

Now that's not uncommon. A lot of companies make that mistake. But the startup that Tim worked for was in the business of SEO and their product helped their customers to grow search traffic! So it was pretty crazy that they weren't thinking about SEO on their own blog!

Once he figured out the problem, Tim made a simple change – he started by doing keyword research to find out what people were searching for and then focused on creating the best content around those keywords.

And in a couple of years, their blog traffic grew from 15,000 to over 250,000 monthly visitors and has become one of the biggest drivers of new customers and revenue growth.

But the real story here is about a SaaS startup that's incredibly product focused and breaks a lot of rules and conventional wisdom about marketing and growth.

For example, they don't have a target customer or persona. They don't do growth hacks. They don't use analytics software or track conversion rates. They don't even do proper' SEO.

They focus on building a great product and educating people on how to use that product through their blog. And that approach is working — they're bootstrapped and doing over $40M ARR.

It's a great story. I hope it'll inspire you to think differently about your business and give you some insights to grow faster by ignoring conventional wisdom and trying something new.

I hope you enjoy it.

Transcript

Read Full Transcript

Omer Khan [0:11]
Welcome to another episode of The SaaS Podcast. I'm your host Omer Khan. And this is the show where I interview proven founders and industry experts who share their stories, strategies and insights to help you build, launch and grow your SaaS business. In this episode, I talked to Tim Soulo, the head of marketing at Ahrefs.com, a SaaS startup that provides tools to help grow your search traffic, research your competitors and monitor your market niche. In 2015, Tim joined a SaaS startup as head of marketing. The company had spent several years building that blog, but it still wasn't generating much traffic or leads. So Tim decided that publishing higher quality content regularly on their blog was going to be one of his top priorities.

Omer Khan [1:49]
And in a couple of years, the blog traffic grew from 15,000 to over 250,000 monthly visitors and has become one of the biggest trouble drivers of new customers and revenue growth. But the real story here is about a SaaS startup that's incredibly product focused and breaks a lot of rules and conventional wisdom about marketing and growth. For example, they don't have a target customer or persona. They don't do growth hacks. They don't use analytics software or track conversion rates. They don't even do proper SEO, they focused on building a great product and educating people on how to use that product through their blog. And that approach is working their bootstrapped and currently doing over $40 million a year. It's a great story. I hope it'll inspire you to think differently about your business and give you some insights to grow faster by maybe ignoring conventional wisdom and trying something new. So I hope you enjoy it.

Omer Khan [2:55]
Before we get started. There were a couple of things I want to tell you about. Firstly, I've created a great resource for you. The SaaS Toolkit which will tell you about the 21 essential tools that every SaaS business needs. You can get a free copy of the toolkit by going to theSaaSpodcast.com. Secondly, if you need help building, launching and growing your SaaS business, and then check out SaaS Club Plus private membership, and community for new and early stage SaaS founders Plus is designed to help you get the insights and support and motivation you need to succeed with your SaaS business. We have a growing community of SaaS founders from around the world. Enrollment for plus is currently open, so now is your chance to join and become a part of our community. You'll get instant access to our content library, monthly live masterminds and Q and A sessions access to a private community forum and I've introduced a new benefit that you can now get private coaching from me as part of your monthly membership for a ridiculously low price. Once all the spots are taken. I'll be raising the membership price itself. Don't miss out on this deal. You can join today by going to SaaSclub.co. That's SaaSclub.co. All right, let's get on with the interview.

Omer Khan [4:11]
Tim, welcome to the show.

Tim Soulo [4:12]
Thanks a lot for having me Omer. I'm super excited that you was I was able to persuade you to get me on the show.

Omer Khan [4:20]
Now, where are you right now?

Tim Soulo [4:22]
Right now I'm in our office in Singapore. This is our head office and I'm sitting in a smaller room that they have for podcasting and webinars.

Omer Khan [4:30]
Okay, so let's start by getting inside your head a little bit. I like to ask my guests if they have a favorite quote, something that inspires and motivates them. Like, do you have something you can share with us?

Tim Soulo [4:41]
Yeah, I think one of my favorite quotes actually, I tried to have a favorite quote every year that kind of shapes what I do. And this year the quote I have on my kind of New Year's resolution list is what you do every day matters more than what you're trying to accomplish. Also, there are some variations I've heard a variation that today is every day, which basically means the same. But yeah, I really like that quote, it makes you think about what you're doing today a lot and makes you not waste your your days.

Omer Khan [5:15]
Yeah, no, I love that I had something along the similar lines a couple of days ago where somebody was just talking about the present moment. And they said, all you have is the present moment. There's nothing else in your life when you think about it. And so how are you going to use it? Tell us about Ahrefs. Who's it for? What problem are you solving, you know what the product does. But before we get into that, like, tell me about the name like where does that name come from?

Tim Soulo [5:41]
The name comes from our CEO and founder his name is Dmitry he's from Ukraine as well as myself, which is where my accent is coming from. So when he had an idea of launching that tool, basically he started from a tool that would crawl the entire web and collect but between websites so that when you put any website URL, you can see everyone from all around the web who is linking to it, which is quite useful in many situations. So when they asked him about how the name came to me, he said that initially, he wanted to like he wanted to launch the tool as fast as possible as as soon as he had the kind of the working prototype on his hands. And he tried to register links.com or backlinks, I think links.com not backlinks, and it wasn't available, or there was some, like hostile involved to like purchase it from from other people. So he checked atraps.com, he comes from the HTML tag for a link, Ahrefs equals blah, blah, blah, and then plural, plural version would be Ahrefs and this is what he registered. And this is how the company came to be.

Omer Khan [6:56]
Got it. So Ah, so basically, it's the a tag in HTML and Ahref is the attribute.

Tim Soulo [7:01]
Yeah.

Omer Khan [7:02]
That's, that's basically, you know, for people who aren't familiar, that's how we generate links or, you know, and for the purposes of SEO, we figure out what the backlinks are. So. Okay, that's great. Thanks for setting the context. Now. I want to know why. Why is it Ahrefs, but you guys call it just Hrefs?

Tim Soulo [7:21]
This is a great question. This is a game the preference of our founder, actually in in Ukraine and drop in, like in large part of Ukraine, we speak Russian and I my native is Russian logic cranial. But in Ukraine, I used to call it Ahrefs. So it's like entirely different pronunciation. So when they joined the team, when they came to Singapore office Dmitry told me that the way he wants everyone to pronounce it is Ahrefs. So this is basically his preference. But I think we failed to make people around the world to pronounce it our way. Because everyone just pronounce it pronounces it as it is convenient for them. And we don't have a problem with it to be honest, but within our company, and within our marketing within our videos, we call it we pronounce it Ahrefs.

Omer Khan [8:11]
Tell us about who's your target customer? And what problem are you helping themselves.

Tim Soulo [8:18]
Okay, so I'm going to give you a really awful answer as a marketer. Because usually, when you read those marketing books, they will tell you that you should have customer profiles, you should, you should figure out who exactly is your customer, everyone than anyone cannot be your customer. But I think that's exactly our case, as Chief Marketing Officer of Ahrefs. I do think that anyone who has a website and this looking to get traffic from Google is looking to rank well, in Google, they need a chef so we don't have any, like, super specific customer profile. And to be honest, in four years, working the trips, I talked to a lot of our customers to some of them via Skype to some of them on the events. And they realize that, yeah, we do have all sorts of customers we have, SEO professionals who work at the agencies we have in house marketers who work on different in different companies. And we also have interpreters and like one person businesses, who basically have, for example, a blog about cooking, and they want to rank their articles in Google. So they're using Ahrefs. So our customers are totally diverse. And like I said, anyone who has a website online, and who's looking to get traffic from Google, who is looking to get their website found in Google is is our potential customer.

Omer Khan [9:44]
You guys are breaking a lot of rules. Yes, we're going to talk about some of those. But all the the general advice we here and try to follow, there's a lot of them. You guys are just ignoring them.

Tim Soulo [9:59]
Yeah,

Omer Khan [10:01]
Right. But it's, it's working. Like, where are you guys in terms of revenue. I know, this is a

Tim Soulo [10:09]
Yeah, this is a this is a tricky topic, but because our founder shared it on Twitter last year, I think five or four months ago, something we raise, he shared that we are over 40 million in annual recurring revenue with a team of 45 people. So that's almost 1 million average revenue per employee, which is quite cool. I think

Omer Khan [10:35]
That's awesome. You guys are as of last year anyway, we're doing over $3 million in monthly recurring revenue.

Tim Soulo [10:44]
Yeah, something along the lines. Yeah.

Omer Khan [10:46]
Okay. And we can talk even though you don't talk about revenue, we're talking about that because Dmitry tweeted it. So yeah,

Tim Soulo [10:52]
Yeah, put that out there.

Omer Khan [10:55]
Yeah. Okay. So we, we, we kind of talked about the product at what I want to focus on this conversation is your blog and what you guys have done to turn that into a pretty important channel for generating new users and customers. And I know that some years ago, the team had to blog and it had been there for a while, but it wasn't doing a huge amount from the numbers that I remember. We talked about you getting about 15,000 visitors a month?

Tim Soulo [11:38]
Yes. from Google,

Omer Khan [11:40]
From Google. Yeah, It wasn't growing. And these days, you're getting closer to 250,000 visitors a month from Google?

Omer Khan [11:51]
That's a huge increase.

Tim Soulo [11:53]
Yes.

Omer Khan [11:53]
From where you work. So we want to try to tell that story and what you guys did to sort of to turn that around and turn that into an important growth channel. So let's, and I know you joined the team back in 2015, right? Yeah. So and the blog had been around for quite some time before that, right?

Tim Soulo [12:13]
Yeah, like at least two or maybe even three years before he joined.

Omer Khan [12:17]
Tell me a little bit about from what you understand what was going on with the blog before you arrived?

Tim Soulo [12:22]
Okay. First of all, let me share some some story with the listeners. Because the story of our blog is how we persuaded you to get me on the show, because your show is about interviewing founders. And I'm not a founder, I'm just the chief marketing officer. But I've listened to the podcast episode about the blog of Groove HQ, which I, I was following this blog, this blog for quite a while. And it was an amazing episode. So if any one of your listeners didn't listen to that episode, I do recommend to, to go back and find the type of that and listen to it, because it's very interesting. And they have a different approach to blogging than we do. And there are I managed to persuade you to talk about our blog, because we have an entirely different story. So yeah, in terms of a shares blog, yeah, I, of course, don't really know what was happening there before I joined like, what was the thought process, what was the strategy, etc, etc. So I will tell you what I saw when they joined.

Tim Soulo [13:20]
And what I saw is that we didn't have any, like, content marketers. So we had as Ahrefs was 15, 15 person when I joined. So right now it's 45. But when it was 15, so you can tell that everyone was doing a lot more than than their title says. And basically, one of the ladies in our support department was also in charge of a blog. So she was posting some news roundup, she was like finding some interesting stories from the SEO industry and creating around the particle to post them. She was also working with the freelance writers in the SEO niche, who would basically approach her like, I want to write an article about this, I want to write articles about that she kind of vetted them and some articles and she published those articles and paid money to do this freelance writers. So we think at the time Ahrefs was working with two or three freelance writers, and, and they also accepted guest contributions from pretty much any SEO person, from anyone familiar with SEO, who wanted to write for our blog and contribute equality article. But I feel that the problem was that this lady like she, she was working in Ahrefs support department. So she understood the tools Well, she had the knowledge of SEO, but she wasn't really a content marketer. So she didn't have any specific strategy of how to use the blog to drive customers to our business. Because the point of blog is still grow your business if the blog is not growing your business, you shouldn't waste time blogging. So what I realized when I when I joined the Ahrefs and looked at their blogging strategy. And basically blogging was my I had the most knowledge and marketing about blogging because up to that point in my career, I was mostly in charge of different blogs. So I realized that and I was reading most blog I was reading Backlinko or, and a lot of other marketing and this year was and I realized that the content that was published on Ahrefs blog wasn't as good as the content that was published by these other guys. So we knew I had to turn it around. And the first thing I knew is that they have to publish better content. So the first thing I did is that I cancel the contract of all those freelancers that were writing articles for us. I said, Okay, guys, I'm sorry. But we no longer need your services. I think these guys are still mad at me to this day. But I I'm pretty sure that was the right move. Because letting them go was much easier for me than persuading them that they should now work like five times more for the same amount of money or like change their processes or whatever. And they started, I started writing articles myself and investing a ton of effort into each article. And they also started looking for people who would actually work on an article with me. So I tried to proactively reach out, I wasn't waiting for people to come and add comments suggest us to publish their article on our blog, I was proactively reaching out to people who I saw publishing awesome articles in our space. And they was asking them, can you write an article about these for our blog? And if they said, Yes, I was telling them, Okay, can we start with an outline? Can I work with you to make the article whether to make the tailor that article tour audience. So I mean, I didn't just ask people for articles and publish them as is, I actually tried to work with them and try to create the content my way. So I think this was, this was one of the things that I knew I should be doing, because like you said, we went from 15,000 visitors per month from Google, to over 250,000 visitors per month from Google. But it didn't happen in a month. It didn't even happen in a year, it happened to the course of four years. And I have to say that first year, publishing great content decent really helped me much. So yeah, I let go, those guys who are writing for us before that, I tried to work with people who I respected. And I tried to invite authorities to our blog and write articles together with them. But still, that didn't quite grow our traffic for one simple reason. And I feel really stupid at as stupid and embarrassed to share it. But I didn't focus on SEO, I didn't focus on making our articles ranking Google I was I was focused on producing great content, I was focused on producing something that people in our industry want to read, I was focused on producing something valuable, something actual actionable, something will return something with like images, screenshots, etc, etc. But it didn't think about, about the fact that these articles should be ranking in Google so that people who are looking for these kinds of issues, so problems would find our blog, and we would basically talk to these people, we are our articles.

Omer Khan [18:37]
So firstly, thank you, for your honesty on sharing that. And, you know, you and I talked about this before as well. And I was saying, wait a minute, you guys are in the business of helping people with SEO, and you weren't thinking about SEO with your own blog,

Tim Soulo [18:53]
This is a disconnect.

Omer Khan [18:54]
But also, that's why I kind of instantly knew this was going to be a great interview. Because, you know, you're, you're such a open book, and kind of willing to lay it all out there. And I think that's, that's really how we learn. And we get better. And I really appreciate, you know, you be willing to talk about all this stuff now. So that was good. So I think in many ways, like Google was, you know, we keep hearing from Google, right? Well, don't optimize or think about algorithms, think about writing great content for humans and all of this stuff. And you were doing exactly that. But that wasn't enough, right? But it took you some time to sort of really figure out that it wasn't working like you were hoping what what else was going on in that in that first year? Because from from what you told me, that was really, you know, you came in and said, Okay, I'm going to turn around the blog, I'm going to find these guys. And for the next year, it's still didn't make much of a difference. So what what other things did you try that that didn't work? Yeah, well, like I said,

Tim Soulo [19:59]
I feel stupid for sharing this because we didn't focus on SEO, like you said, Everyone knows that you have to publish great content, because if you write bad content, why would you put it out? And why would you put your name on something bad, right. So I knew for sure that our content has to be great. But somehow I was missing the fact that we should optimize it for Google that and, and when I say optimize it for Google, I say that we need to write about topics that people are searching for, because you can produce the greatest article in the world about something that no one is searching for in Google. So this is crucial. And today, like, it is so simple, it is like, it is so straightforward. But when they open a lot of I, as a marketer, of a SaaS company, of course, when I see a new Saas, I would go like, and explore what they're doing, what's the traffic where the traffic is coming from, who's linking to them, etc, etc. And so often when they open their blogs, almost every time actually, when I open their blogs, I instantly see just by the most recent articles that they are not targeting what people are potentially searching for in Google. So they might share some of their like company updates. They might share some inspiration pieces. But when you check when you use any keyword tool, you can even use Google Google Keyword Planner, which is a free tool where you where you can plug any keyword or search query and it will show you how many times people search for it per month. So what I see on those blogs on for SaaS companies is that the content that they're publishing, even if the content is great, it is not tailored to the actual searches that people are making in Google. So you shouldn't start your your content ideas from what you want to write about. You should start ideation of your content from what people are searching for. So this was the I think people don't moment for our content marketing and blogging strategy where we scratched all the ideas of what we wanted to write about and when we started doing proper keyword research, figuring out what are the key words? What are the questions that people are asking for looking to improve their SEO like things like link building, things like SEO audit, things like how to get traffic from Google things like how to optimize my title tags, etc, etc, etc. So everything related to improving the SEO of your website and getting more traffic from Google, whenever a lot of people were searching for it, we had to make an article about this. And as soon as we started again, I cannot say as soon as we started doing this, because it took quite some time, some time for us to build the so called authority and to get links from other websites. But yeah, we started to only write content about the things that people are searching for in Google, because then we have a better chance of getting traffic from Google. So this was the first thing and this is what I recommend anyone who is working on content marketing and blogging, don't just write about things that you want to write about go the use any keyword research to actually I wouldn't, I would not plug our tool. So just Google for like keyword research tools, peak anyone you like, and do some keyword research, figure out what people are searching for in relation to your business around your business. So this was the first thing that we did. And I think in the first year, we only see we only saw slow growth because you have to accumulate enough content and enough links for Google to start kind of loving and trusting your research and ranking all the articles better. So yeah, that was the first thing should I go to the second one?

Omer Khan [23:39]
Well, yeah, a couple of questions. So when you talk about optimizing for people, what people are searching for, and keyword research, there are a couple of different factors involved here. And I want to make sure that we talked briefly about that. And the obvious one is, what are specific keywords that people are typing in, in Google and searching for because that gives you a list of keywords that you should be optimizing your content for. But then there's also the other factor of things like, how competitive is that keyword? And what are the the chances of me being able to rank well enough for that if, you know, the top 10 links are from companies which have huge websites, or they're from Wikipedia and the New York Times and etc, etc. So how important is the competitive factor of keyword, something that people should be considering?

Tim Soulo [24:47]
Those are amazing questions. And first of all, I'd like to stress on the word optimize, because when we're talking about content, not the entire website, but the you're talking about the actual content, I don't really like the word optimized here. Because I think if you when you mentioned the word optimize, people start thinking about like, all the bells and whistles that are involved into, like changing your page in order for Google to like it. Here at Ahrefs blog, we don't really optimize our content in any way at all. So all we do, for example, I would go to a keyword research tool, of course, we use ours and then we'll figure out that a lot of people are searching for SEO audit. And there are a lot of searches related to it SEO audit, how to perform SEO audit, how to do a show that quickly, tools for SEO audit, blah, blah, blah. There are a lot of ways to ask Google about performing an SEO audit. So we would write an article about SEO audit and what's important, we wouldn't care about optimizing our article in any way we don't think about optimization, all we think about is how to create the best article about SEO audit and how to make sure that people who learned from Google searching for like how to perform an SEO audit on our article will immediately realize that it has the answers they need, will stay on that article and will read the article today. And that's what we do. We don't really think about how many times we should put the keyword SEO audit into our article, or we don't think about like, how our articles should, how fast our articles should load compared to the articles of our competitors, etc, etc. Of course, everyone understands that your website should load fast, right? So this is kind of a prerequisite. And of course, everyone understands that if you're writing an article about SEO audit, you should have SEO audit in the title of the article. Because you cannot write an article how I fixed my car yesterday with the title, how we fix my car yesterday, and then all of a sudden talk about SEO audit. So all right. My point is that when you have a topic that you want to cover, your know that people are searching for the topic. And when you write a detailed article about the topic, there is no way this article wouldn't be optimized. There's absolutely no way. So we don't we don't think about optimization, we just research what people are looking for in Google and create articles about it. So I really don't like the word optimize here. Because in our case, we don't really optimize our content. We just try to create something that people want to read. And the second thing that you've asked about is kind of keyword difficulty or keyword competition, or how hard it would be for me to outrank everyone who's already their ranking at the top of Google for the for the things that I want to rank for. And one of the best things one of the best ways to understand your chances to rank there is to look at how many backlinks from other websites each of the top ranking articles for your desired search query has, if you are if you go to the search results for again, let's continue with SEO audit. If you Google for SEO audit, there would be a bunch of articles there and you can use any backlink checker tool to see how many backlinks they have. And if you see that they have like hundreds of backlinks. And if you look at your own articles, and you realize that you struggled to get even 10 websites to link to your article, then you have trouble of ranking for this kind of thing. If you if you search for something that you want to rank for. And you see that articles that rank their have like two or three backlinks each. And you're confident that you have enough like blogger friends, or you have enough of your audience who will link to you to generate like five plus links that it means that you will quite easily rank for this kind of keyword. But then again, they want to I want to stop here and tell you about something else. The fact that keyword has high competition. The fact that people who are pages that rank for that keyword has accumulated a lot of backlinks and are hard to track it doesn't mean that you should give up on that keyword. And there's an interesting strategy that we use here at a trips I even if the keyword is super competitive. And in our space, actually, we are in the SEO space. So we're going against like, one of the best SEOs since the world right, because right, yeah, we're creating content about a soul which is created by people who know a lot about SEO. So a lot of the keywords that we are targeting are extremely competitive. And the articles were around for years and years and they have accumulated the tone of backlinks so it is hard to track them. But we still publish articles on the topic. We still promoted articles, we still try to get backlinks to this, our articles and these articles don't rank they don't get get to the top of Google, they don't get the search traffic that we were hoping them to get. So what do we do, we let those articles sit for a while, like for half a year, maybe a year. And then we go back and rewrite an article again from scratch with all the newest information with all the newest examples with building us steps, case studies, etc, etc. And then we will publish the article again as new not even as new. But like it is a new article written from scratch, and we will promote it again, we will send it to our audience again, we will put some money into Facebook ads. Again, we will reach out to bloggers in our space to show them this article. And then the article because we are not changing the URL. We are preserving all the backlinks that we had to the article before. But we are writing a brand new piece that is super up to date, super new, super awesome. And it gets new backlinks so it climbs higher up and rankings. And sometimes it takes us three or four updates. So like I said, it didn't take us a year to build our blog from 15,000 visitors per per month from Google to 250,000. It took us four years, which means quite a few articles that we wrote, we didn't nail them from the first goal. We have to we had to update it three or four times. And we have to replace promoted to everyone three or four times before they were these articles accumulated enough backlinks to rank high in Google. So I think this is important to understand. A lot of the times if the competition is fierce, you won't be able to just easily outrank them by publishing one article and generating just a few backlinks to that article.

Omer Khan [31:20]
Okay, so that's that's really that's a really great tactic that is thanks for sharing that. So what I got was you don't optimize for SEO in the traditional sense that way, we here apart from you know, keyword in the headline when you use like, tools to check how well a page is optimized, it might tell you things like you don't have the keyword in the first paragraph of your article, or the density of the key word is pretty low on this page, because you're not mentioning it enough times. So you don't do any of that stuff. You're primarily saying, we go and do keyword research to figure out the topics that people are interested in searching for. And then we go and write the best possible content we can create for that topic.

Tim Soulo [32:10]
Yeah, exactly. We are I know there are a lot of those on page SEO scoring tools where you plug your page and that gives you your on page SEO score. And actually, our customers are asking us Ahrefs to release this kind of on page scoring tools. But at the moment, we don't really believe in it. And we're not using any of these tools ourselves. And we were having a lot of success. But I tell you what, if you plug any of our articles into this on page two, and like provided on page still be the keyword that you want to rank for. I'm pretty sure that will score quite highly because we naturally use the keyword in all the places where you want to use it because like you just mentioned using keyword in the first paragraph of text, I'm sure we do this quite often because the the copywriting technique that we use is we use the intro of our article to pitch what's coming to persuade people they have to read. So we don't start from some arbitrary thing like, let me tell you a story, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. We actually say like something along these lines, you're about to read an article about SEO audit, where you're going to learn five tactics. Here's the list of tactics, tactics, number one tactic number two, this article is actionable, full of examples, we have three case studies, etc. Now go read the whole piece. So by doing that, we were actually kind of executive on some of the best practices. But no, we're not using any own pages are scoring tools. And we don't kind of, quote unquote, optimize our pages in a traditional sense.

Omer Khan [33:42]
Now, you also mentioned the importance of links as being a key factor in how different pages get ranked in Google. And you mentioned a few of these tactics a little earlier. But what does the typically once you've published a new blog post, what is the promotion sort of checklist look like for you guys?

Tim Soulo [34:05]
Yeah, so the checklist is quite simple. First of all, you have to let your entire audience know about the newly published article. And today, this is super hard to do, actually. Because even in even via email, you're no longer in control if people are reading your emails or not. Because Google will put you to promotions folder, Google will put you to spam folder, etc, etc, you will compete with like tons of other newsletters. So I mean, if you have, let's say, 50,000 people on your email list, it doesn't mean that if you email them, your new article 50,000 people will even open that email. As far as they know, open open rates are rarely above 30%. So what I'm trying to say is that when you're promoting your content to your own audience, you have to use all the tools and all the mediums and all the platforms to reach them. For us. We have Twitter account where we share our article to people who follow us on Twitter, we have, of course, email subscribers, we have LinkedIn in following we have Facebook group. So we reaching people on all these sources. We also use Facebook ads. And we actually retarget people who visited our blog with we actually paid to, to reach people who already know about us, because otherwise, like everyone knows that Facebook is paid to play. And finally, because I wasn't satisfied with all these ways to reach our audience, I actually persuaded the product team that within our product, we should add a bell, kind of like in Facebook, where you go to Facebook, and there's a bell with updates and the chosen 123 updates. So we have implemented the same implemented as similar bell. And once people go to do there Ahrefs tool now they see updates from us, and they can choose if they want to check this article, or if they just want to market as read. So yeah, we also have in app notifications within our size to actually to to give more exposure to our content.

Omer Khan [36:10]
The other thing that you you talks about, and you mentioned this at the start, when we start talking about the blog was that you felt that the blog posts needed to be higher quality, they needed to be much better content. So when you guys are going through and trying to come up with a new blog post, let's say you hadn't written about SEO audit, and you you sort of look through the numbers and you say, hey, there's a bunch of people searching for SEO audit, we should write a blog post about that, what's the criteria that you use to determine if you're going to create the best possible content however you define that?

Tim Soulo [36:54]
Yeah, so the best way to know if you're creating the best possible content is to have industry expertise. So in our case, we are writing content about SEO and we also have an SEO tool and we're doing so for ourselves. So we're simply sharing a lot of our own knowledge now. And also when we feel that we lack knowledge, which often happens with like more technical SEO topics. We reach out to experts in the SEO industry, we interview them we kind of do what journalists do because whenever journalists are writing articles or even books about a certain subject they cannot know everything about the subject just like in their head by default they have to do research they have to study they have to talk to people and they have to kind of curate the best possible advice the best possible ideas within their piece of content so we try to act not like copywriters or or maybe copywriters is the wrong word, rewriters, let's say rewriters, we don't just try to read every article that's already there and create our own similar piece. Based on what we learned from these articles. We try to dig as deep as we can, in any topic. And what's what's also super important is that whenever we give an actionable advice, whenever we tell people that they should be doing something, we try to always do this ourselves first. So for example, there is a famous strategy of getting backlinks which is called the broken link building. This is when you discover pages that are no longer existing, you find everyone who's linking to those pages that no longer exists, and you reach out to them, asking them to update their broken link and link to you. So when we were when we were writing articles about broken link building, we didn't just give people in advice. Okay, so this is how you find this page is, this is how you reach out to people, this is the kind of email you should send them. We actually did that with some of our broken links, we try that we got results. And we honestly told people, okay, so our success rate was like, I think two or 3%, so out of 100 emails, we were able to get two or three backlinks. So we, we were like, completely honest, and we did an experiment, then we showed people so I think this also makes great content, because we don't just share our opinion, we actually try to executive things we try to, we try to try things we try things actually. And then we write about it, we write the actual results. And I think people love us for this because of how like hands on and knees deep we are with the things that you write about.

Omer Khan [39:40]
Got it. Okay. So so far, we've talks about SEO less not about optimization, but using that as well as a research tools. Yes. Secondly, the importance of writing much better content, and then the things you do to to promote that content. Yeah, and you shared a great technique for how you can keep going back in and updating existing articles as a way to keep generating more interest and getting more backlinks etc. Dating Andrew promoting as well, right. And the The other thing that we've, we, you and I have talked about is that a lot of blogs, you know, that they, they kind of focus on sort of lead generation or lead nurturing, or getting email addresses to get blog updates and things like that. You guys don't do any of that either. Do you?

Tim Soulo [40:40]
Yeah, we don't.

Omer Khan [40:41]
So what do you do?

Tim Soulo [40:43]
Yeah. So this is another important thing and other important pivotal point of when we realize that our blog is going to become our second biggest source of customers. And I'm only saying second biggest source of customers. Because I do believe that our biggest source of customers is the word of mouth that the actual product generates. Because if your product doesn't work, if your product sucks, then like no marketing will save you. And I believe that the success of our company is not so much in marketing and blogging that we're doing, but in the actual product. So yeah, within our content, we actually pitch our product. So that's interesting. Apart from researching what people search for in Google and creating articles along these lines, we also have the so called business potential that we kind of invented here in Ahrefs, marketing department. And we basically scores the content ideas that we have in our spreadsheet on a scale from zero to three, were three means that your product is an absolutely irreplaceable solution for whatever people are searching for. For example, if you want to do SEO audit, and your product is the only tool in the world that does SEO audit, you just hit the jackpot because our they're reading your article and realizing that you have a product, the only one in the world that does SEO audit, people are like, super likely to buy it and convert business potential of to means that your product is not like essential for achieving what they want, they can use some other solutions, but still your your product is super useful for that. And they, they, if they sign up for it, they will save a lot of time, money, resources, etc. etc. etc. Business potential of one means that you can only mention your product kind of in passing, it is kind of relevant to what people are reading about, but they're not doing they're not going to convert. I can give you an example if you have an article about losing belly fat for example. And you're you're you're offering all sorts of fitness advice, etc, etc, etc. But you're selling kettle bells. And as far as my fitness knowledge goes, I don't think you can use kettlebell to lose belly fat. Maybe I'm wrong. But if you mentioned that, like you sell kettle bells, in an article about Belly Fat people are unlikely to buy it. But still it is relevant to the article. So in our in our theory, it is business potential of one and business potential of zero is if if the topic that you're writing about has no chance of plugging, even mentioning your product there. So yeah, we only tried to focus on topics with business potential two and three where we can heavily plug our product and we within an article we can show people how to use it.

Tim Soulo [43:51]
So back to the question of why we're not converting people into quote unquote leads or why you're not collecting email addresses and our blog the other day one of the members of our marketing department asked me why we don't have any pop ups on our blog or slide and form so why we are not using the so called lead magnets like here's the PDF with like 10 Best SEO Practices of 2019 that you can implement today, give me your email and I will send it to you, why we're not doing that. So think about it. People searched in Google for for an issue they have with SEO, and they landed on our our article. And because we we wrote an article with business with high business potential, we have a lot of plugs on off our tool there of our product there, which basically makes our article and sales page which is super tailored for what for the problem that people were having. So basically, they're about to read a sales page that will show them how to solve their problem with our product. Now, why would they interrupt their experience of reading our sales page that is so awesomely tailored to what they were searching for with with some lead magnet? And why would they want to ask for their email, and then send them some nurturing sequence or whatever, when they are at this point one, they want to solve a certain issue and they have the solution for them right now. I don't need to get their email. I don't need to send them any follow up things. Just Just let them read the article and just let them convert. And there's a fun story. I got a message on LinkedIn the other day the guy asked me he was a fellow marketer, and he said, I was following a travel book for quite a while. I love your content. But as a fellow marketer, I have a question for you. I don't think you ever tried to grab my email address. I don't so any like content upgrades or lead magnets or pop up forms. Why is that? So what I did, I copied his name from LinkedIn. I went to our intercom which is basically our CRM I searched for his name I found his Ahrefs account I copied his email address from his Ahrefs account and paste it back to our LinkedIn conversation and he says okay now I get it so you converted me directly into Ahrefs customer instead of converting me to your email list so that's our strategy

Omer Khan [45:56]
Yeah yeah, I love that and so it kind of it if somebody was searching for they wanted to know more about backlinks right. So I just tried this while you were talking about if somebody searches for backlink checker Yes, one of your articles come up actually number one in a search results and that makes sense because you offer that functionality and so you know you can kind of explain to people Hey, you know, this is kind of what it is and how you do it and the call to action as well use a trust now and do it

Tim Soulo [46:31]
There's there's actually a super interesting story about backlink checker because we didn't target the the search query that the right tone of people for searching for backlink checker or how do we check my backlinks and all sorts of stuff. So the search traffic potential is enormous. But we didn't try to target it with a blog article. This time we had the so called feature page. So whenever you create a website for your product or sauce, you have dedicated pages for different features that you have. And we had that kind of page for backlink checker. So here at Ahrefs we have a backlink checker to it does this and that we have the biggest database of backlinks, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And here's the call to action button, sign up for a trial. And as we discussed, we try to perfectly optimize that page. So we try to use all the relevant words there. We tried to make it load fast to try to use images there, optimize the images, optimize, optimize l tags, optimize our title, meta description, everything. And that feature page was ranking number eight, I think so nomad. We also like we published a ton of guest articles on other industry blogs linking to the page. So we also got a ton of links to the page. It wasn't like growing more than position number eight, and Google. So what we realized is that the pages that were ranking at the top of Google for the search term back in checker and for all the other related search queries, free tools. So whenever people clicked on our search result, they saw basically a landing page explaining that we have this feature and the button to sign up for our trial, which actually costs $7. So no one was like, eager to do that just by visiting our landing page and other search results, they give you a free tool. So instead of telling you what the tool does, they actually gave you an input and the button. So you plug your website URL, you click the Go button, and you instantly dig into your backlinks. So I came to me three. And they said, Dmitry, we I think we need to release a free backlink checker as well, because we will never rank for this keyword. And we're missing on tons and tons of traffic. So what we did on that page on that feature page where we were where we were describing that we have a backlink checker, we didn't change any texts, we didn't change any images, we didn't really optimize that page in any way. All we need is changed the free trial button the call to action button to an input form where you can plug your URL and button try for free. So basically, we replaced just the bottom with the forum and created a free tool immediately. Like you said, We are number one, that page is generating tons of traffic, it ranks for everything related to check in your backlinks exploring your rankings, etc, etc. And we're all tracking all these other free tools with no chance for them to outrank us back. So the the important takeaway of this story is searcher intent. So Google is pretty good at figuring out if people are satisfied with the search result they get. So when they click on your search result, they are likely to open a few other pages in tabs as well. And if they see that your page is lacking, in comparison to other pages that they have opened, they will just close it and stay on other pages. And somehow Google can see that. And our story with backlink checker is a nice illustration of that. So if your article is not ranking, you should better go to the search results and look at the articles that are ranking and compare your article or your page or your tool compared to what you see there. Because it might be that people are more satisfied with their search result compared to your search results.

Omer Khan [50:15]
That's really interesting. Now, the other thing I remember talking to you about was I was trying to, you know, we were having this conversation about the blog and figuring out how things were performing and sort of what sort of conversion rates that you are getting from, you know, different parts of the blog, or I asked you what the data is telling you. And What did you tell me?

Tim Soulo [50:39]
Yeah, I told you that we are not tracking anything related to how blog converts and all that stuff.

Omer Khan [50:46]
You don't use Google Analytics, you don't use any other analytics tool?

Tim Soulo [50:51]
Well, it happened when the GDPR crisis occurred. So everyone, every business, every website was removing all sorts of tracking from their websites. And our CEO said that we need to remove all those, like tracking scripts, Google Analytics included, so that we won't have any problems with GDPR and stuff. And then like, after a few months, when we updated our terms of service, blah, blah, blah, wouldn't be realized how other people will go about it and re implemented their Google Analytics. I went to meet her and said, Can we have Google Analytics back? And he said, like, why do you need it, whether we're going to look for there. And I was like, to be honest, I don't know. And I realized that I was only going to Google Analytics to check check our traffic numbers, which actually didn't mean anything. Because as I've just explained, we only care about traffic from Google, we only care about people who are coming to our website from search, looking for very specific problems, because we have very specific answers for them. And we can pitch our software and convert these people into our customers. So I didn't care about the traffic that we were getting from Twitter, because they knew that this traffic wouldn't convert as well. I didn't care about the the direct traffic or referral traffic that we were getting. Because like, I realized that the number of traffic that I would see in Google Analytics on all other sources, but Google and for Google, we still use Google Search console so I do know perfectly how are our blog performs in Google, I do care about that a lot. But for other sources, I realized that knowing the number for example, if if Twitter is sending us 3% of follower traffic, or 10% of follower traffic that will change my my marketing strategy and my content marketing strategy in any way, similarly with blog signups with people who sign up for our software, because they've read articles and our blog, I know that they sign up, because I just told you a story of how a guy on LinkedIn messaged me. And he was our customers are already and they get a lot of messages like this. When I talk to people in the conference, as they say that they converted to Ahrefs from reading our blog, I get emails that thank me for creating content on Ahrefs blog, which made them sign up. And also we have like, when, when you register a service account, we also ask you like, pretty standard question like, Where did you learn about the shares? How did you find us and other people just say, Google or your blog, or anything along those lines, like the vast majority of people say that. So we do know that our strategy works in Google Analytics. Yeah, I can set up conversion tracking, and they can get the exact the kind of exact number of how many leads the blog is bringing us. But what would they change, I realize that if we measure that number, that wouldn't change my strategy. Because they know that our strategy works, because for the past four years will be we were growing plus 60% year over year, and they think that trend is going to continue. So we know our strategy is works, I know our product works, works and measuring these things, doesn't change anything for me. And other than that, I also don't believe that the so called customer journey is as straightforward as like searching for something in Google landing on our blog reading a single article signing up for our software, I'm pretty sure it doesn't happen like that. And then pretty sure we need a couple more touch points with with these people. Because we have a paid trial, we actually asked for $7 for people to get in and look around. So you won't pay $7 unless you have some kind of trust in the tool. And then unless you have to, unless you know how to use it. Our articles do a great deal of explanation of like these like the copywriter say the first time when your customers use your product isn't there isn't their heads. So we do a great job with our articles of making people use our product in their heads. But I don't think that it is enough. I also think that people will go to read it. People will go to other communities, people will go to Twitter, people will ask their friends, like which tools you're using was the best tool for a cell, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, people will go to conferences, and listen to what the the speakers are saying. And they think because of multiple touch points, where they hear about Ahrefs, and also knowing how to use us because they they read our blog, then they convert. So I don't think the conversion is that straightforward. us to to trust, the number that Google Analytics will show me if we try to track how many customers we get from our blog,

Omer Khan [55:27]
You know, I just had a list of things that I'd written down. And and so we have, you have no clear target customer, you don't optimize content for SEO. You don't, You don't capture leads.

Tim Soulo [55:43]
Yes.

Omer Khan [55:45]
And you don't use Google Analytics, there must be some marketers listening to this are horrified at what you do it but it's working. I mean, you guys are doing, you know, at least as of last year, 40 million, yeah, dollars a year.

Tim Soulo [55:58]
Let me also say that most like the I 80% of success of your company actually depends on your product. So for us at Ahrefs, we are a product first company and this is why we also don't have any any growth hacks. This is why in my marketing department I don't have a developer so I have so many ideas of the marketing things that we could work on have like different plugins we could release etc, etc, etc. But Dmitry is not giving me my dedicated developer person who would work with me on different marketing related tasks. Because we realized that we'd rather spend the time of our developers on perfecting the actual tool and making sure that our tool is the best in the industry. And making sure that when people sign up for trials of three, four different tools, and because it's so easy to like, some tools have free trials, our trials, $7, which is also affordable, you can try at different tools before you make a decision of which tool you want to use own words, and we realize that major part of our success is the actual product that we're building. So I think we are able to get away with ignoring so many marketing things, because our product is awesome. So we don't need to care about lead nurturing, and conversion, because within the article that I'm writing the use cases of our tool that I'm suggesting to people are so unique and compelling that we don't have to use more persuasion, we don't have to onboard them to our email list and persuade them further. Because right there, they can see, they can realize I never saw a tool that would let me do that. I want to try the tool right now. So I think a large part of our success is the actual product.

Omer Khan [57:47]
So quickly to tell me about the pricing, because a lot of similar tools or a lot of SaaS companies might just say, give you a free trial, a 30 day trial for free, you can take a credit card, and then they charge start charging after that period, you guys are not doing 30 days, you're doing seven days, you're not doing a free trial, you're charging $7, what's the what's the reasoning behind that.

Tim Soulo [58:14]
The reasoning behind that is because Ahrefs is the kind of tool where you can get a ton of value pretty much in three hours. So for example, if you're working on a new website, or you need to work on an SEO strategy for your client, you only need to use Ahrefs for three, maybe four hours to research everything, you need to get all the data, you need to then work with your customer for the next six months, or eight months, or even a year. So we mean people with when we had free trial, they were simply signing up for a free trial, they were exporting all the information they need. They were doing all the competitive research they need. They were doing all the content research, they need all the keywords research they need, they were exporting all the backlinks and they simply close their free trial. And they worked with all the information that they got for free. And they got ton of value from it without like sharing part of the money they get for their work with us. So we realized that we have to charge for our trial because of how much value you can get from not even seven days that we have trial for seven days. But I'm really I really think that we should probably show the need for even three days. Because Yeah, you can get tons of value just three hours of using interest. So we thought that it's kind of unfair, that people are signing up for trials, they're using our tools, they're using our data, and they get enough information to work for months, and months and months. And they're not paying us even, like even $7 for it. So that was the thinking process process.

Omer Khan [59:52]
Love that. All right, we should wrap up. This has been a great conversation. And, you know, thank you for, for just sharing and being so transparent with everything that you guys are doing. And I just love the way that you guys think so differently. And, and in many ways of breaking the rules in terms of you know, how to how to do marketing and drive growth. That's awesome. Yeah, let's let's jump into the lightning round. I want to ask you seven quickfire questions and just try to answer them as quickly as you can. You're ready. Yeah.

Tim Soulo [1:00:27]
Okay. So what's the best piece of business advice you've ever received? I think I received it from our CEO and founder Dmitry because when I joined the trails and asked about kind of my KPIs as a marketer like what what he will look for when evaluating my work. He said, it is the error of the company and the number of paying customers that we have. So we think that focus that he he focused me on looking at those numbers over traffic or leads or etc. And they think this is why I tried to make our marketing so efficient, so focused on the business value. So we think that was the best business advice I ever received. as a marketer, look at the error and the number of paying customers and don't and ignore all other like marketing metrics.

Omer Khan [1:01:14]
What book would you recommend to our audience and why?

Tim Soulo [1:01:17]
To be honest, anything by Ryan Holliday. So one of the latest books I've read from him is Perennial Seller. And as a marketer, I thoroughly enjoyed that book. But I've read quite a few of his other books, and they just purchased his most recent. So anything by Ryan Holliday, I do recommend it.

Omer Khan [1:01:36]
What's one attribute or characteristic in your mind of a successful entrepreneur?

Tim Soulo [1:01:42]
Oh, I am guilty of not following successful entrepreneurs that much to be honest.

Omer Khan [1:01:48]
Well, you work with one.

Tim Soulo [1:01:50]
Yeah, well, yeah, I have one. So

Omer Khan [1:01:54]
All right, let's move on. What's your favorite personal productivity tool or habit?

Tim Soulo [1:01:59]
The personal productivity, the the best productivity tips I can give is first use Pomodoro whenever you need to accomplish something big, you feel reluctant to hop on this test, because it's so big, and like overwhelming. So just like hit Pomodoro timer and try to work on it for just 25 minutes. So these did incredible things for me in terms of creating in terms of taking over big projects. And the second thing is that schedule stuff on your on your calendar. So if there's something important that you need to be working on, put it on your calendar, assign some some dedicate time for for it and turn off everything else and and work on it during the time. So, yeah. Use Pomodoro and use your calendar to schedule things to make time for important things.

Omer Khan [1:02:49]
What's a new or crazy business idea you'd love to pursue? If you had the time?

Tim Soulo [1:02:54]
Yeah, I would probably try releasing more kind of those freemium tools, the kind of the can trigger tool and see how it would work in our business. But at the same time, we were kind of worried that if we give out too much functionality for free people might not end up signing up for the actual tool.

Omer Khan [1:03:11]
Yeah. What's an interesting or fun fact about you that most people don't know,

Tim Soulo [1:03:16]
I think most people don't know that. I was doing martial arts for four years. Not not on a pro level. But But he has still. And another fact that most people don't know is that back in school, I was super good with mathematics, physics and all that stuff. I was participating in competitions. But now I barely like touch any numbers, and they barely know how to use Excel. And they barely remember any math formulas.

Omer Khan [1:03:43]
And finally, what is one of your most important passions outside of your work?

Tim Soulo [1:03:48]
Well, that's interesting, because work occupies the majority of my time. My, my work is my life was so so to say. But I think reading is my passion. So I like to read even though I read See, I still read books about business marketing, biographies and all the stuff. I think reading books is my passion. Yeah,

Omer Khan [1:04:08]
Thank you, my friend. It's been a pleasure. If people want to find out more about Ahrefs, they can go to ahrefs.com. That's A-H-R-E-F-S.com will include a link in there into that in the show notes as well. And if people want to get in touch with you, what's the best way for them to do that

Tim Soulo [1:04:26]
Twitter and just just search for Tim Soulo on Twitter. I'm quite active and responsive. So if people have any questions after the episode, or if they have any interesting takeaways to eat them, tag me and they'll be happy to see them.

Omer Khan [1:04:39]
Thanks again, Tim. And I wish you all the best and have a great day in Singapore. Thanks a lot for having me. I hope that was interesting to your listeners.

Omer Khan [1:04:49]
Thanks for listening. I really hope you enjoyed this interview. You can get to the show notes as usual by going to theSaaSpodcast.com where you'll find a summary.

Omer Khan [1:05:00]
This episode and a link to all the resources we discussed. If you enjoyed the episode, then head over to iTunes and subscribe to the podcast. And if you're in a good mood, consider leaving a rating and review to show your support for the show. If you're not already in iTunes, just go to theSaaSpodcast.com and click the iTunes button. Thanks for listening. Until next time, take care.

Book Recommendation

The Show Notes

Omer Khan

Hi, I'm Omer, the founder of SaaS Club and host of The SaaS Podcast. I help early stage founders and entrepreneurs to build, launch and grow successful SaaS businesses. Join me on this journey.