Based in Toronto, Canada our host Alex Price joined Steve over a Zoom call to talk all things SEO for B2B SaaS companies and explore Steve’s approach to SEO along with how SEO works at FreshBooks. And of course any future trends within the world of SEO.
Steve also runs SEO Notebook, where he has quickly built a following thanks to his deep insights and observations from the world of SEO.
You can listen to the podcast below, or browse our previous episodes here.
Full episode transcript:
Hey Steve, thanks for joining me.
Hey, pleasure to be here,
I’m really looking forward to talking with you today about all of your background and experience and everything you’ve been working on. Cause, I know that we talked before and I’m really looking forward to hearing about the kind of in house experience of someone working SEO wise in a B2B tech company. So yeah. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background, what you’ve been doing, experience to date and we’ll go from there.
About Steve Toth
Yeah, sure. So, first of all, thanks for having me. Background sort of goes all the way back to 2011 and then when I started sort of learning about SEO. At the time I was in social media, but worked in an agency and just sat beside the SEO manager and pretty much decided that’s what I wanted to do. So fast forward like seven or eight years and spending that time, at various agencies, being Content Director, SEO Director, managed to land a pretty much my dream job at FreshBooks, which is a 350 person SaaS company in Toronto. It’s an invoicing software and accounting software and yeah, it’s been a great ride so far and just really, really enjoy working there.
Nice. So I know that you’ve got some kind of side projects too and you run an SEO notebook and tell me a little bit about that.
Yeah, so I had just been, looking for a project and it sort of actually just happened. I’d always been taking notes about what I read with SEO. I’m very, very involved in pretty much learning on a daily basis and I’d be Slack messaging myself, putting things in my notes app on my phone and it was pretty scattered and I didn’t really have a good place for all my information. So I figured like, I would ask, sort of the community what they did and then made a post on Facebook and just got a bunch of cool feedback and decided to try Evernote.
And then, thought it was fantastic, finally a place to like sort of catalog and tag all my info. Pretty much the next day I was like, it’d be cool if I sent out one page from my Evernote every week to an email list. I just bought the domain SEOnotebook.com that day. I sat on it for a couple months but finally decided to launch it in July of 2019. And within six months, grew to over 2000 subscribers. So it’s been pretty cool.
Nice. Awesome. So obviously all of our listeners are predominantly marketers in B2B tech companies, SaaS, tech enterprise, all kinds of B2B propositions within the technology world, but just so they can get a sense of how everything fits in. Tell us a little bit about in more detail, about FreshBooks and the products and I guess then a bit about your kind of day to day, the bigger kind of marketing picture and how SEO fits into that.
So FreshBooks is kind of a really unique company and just even from an SEO perspective, there’s like a couple of things that really drew me to the company back in like 2002, 2003. The CEO and the cofounders actually ran an SEO agency, which was pretty interesting to me. And just understanding that, they get it, that it was a hugely valuable channel and it was a channel that really catapulted the initial growth of the company. So, just knowing that was pretty interesting. And it’s an invoicing and accounting software designed for, primarily it was geared towards the small businesses, but we’ve retooled the product to make it, have more robust reporting features and, things like payroll integration. So I’m sort of graduating out of just being for the small business owner.
And then since I joined in spring 2018, we had a relatively small acquisition team. It was actually just, myself, my director and myself with SEO, my director and then paid search manager and then one affiliate person. So it wasn’t exactly like a large team by any stretch, but we’ve managed to grow up quite a bit in like the last a year and a half or so. And yeah, we’ve had amazing success just in the last year, in early 2019 going into 2020, we actually doubled our organic traffic and in the meantime we’ve been able to rank in the number one/two spot depending on the day for keywords as high as 246,000 searches per month. So it’s been pretty cool.
Those are pretty good results, hard to argue with that. But that’s really interesting that the founders ran an SEO agency because I think one of my questions was going to be around like, at what point does SEO become something that’s in house or how respected is it as a function within a marketing team? And I guess when the founders used to work as SEO, it’s like that kind of answers itself to some extent.
Yeah. Like, I mean it was, it was actually kind of interesting because when we started having like really, really good success at FreshBooks, especially like 2019 was just like a crazy year for organic. We outpaced our entire 2018 trials in about 140 days. So we were like, well above our targets and I had a conversation with the VP operations and one of the founders, he just said like, this is our first significant SEO growth and like four or five years. So pretty cool to be a part of that for sure.
Nice. Yeah. And so in terms of structure and like who else is working on SEO? Obviously I see it kind of now touches so much stuff. Technical content, I guess like an outreach link building PR element potentially too. Like what does the SEO team specifically look like and how much help have you got from colleagues?
Yeah, so we’ve grown to about two people internally now. So it’s myself who’s orchestrating strategy within the function. And then we have another SEO manager who’s more focused on technical implementation. And within the organisation we’ve had a number of different partners for a while we had an agency out of San Francisco that was helping us. But to be honest, we weren’t very satisfied with the relationship there.
I won’t name the agency obviously, but just the sort of week to week calls and the level of service was just like sort of lacking. And we had been recommended to this agency by our Vice President of Marketing. So it was kind of a touchy situation in terms of like, can we let them go and whatnot. But enough time went by where we were able to make a case for the fact that we could do better without them. And then, conversely, when we didn’t have them, it was really, I took it upon myself to sort of go out into the community and start talking to, some of the SEOs in space that I really admire and bringing, highly specialized people on board to work on like very specific projects for us. So we went from working with one agency in 2018 to working with upwards of like 15 different experts just working on very narrow fields within our campaigns.
Interesting. And when you say narrow field, like what kinds of things?
like for example, technical link building on page optimization, stuff like that.
Nice. Okay, cool. And that’s interesting. I think as with many things with a client-agency relationship is very much about the relationships or was it from, what you said that it sounded like it was more about the relationship and the communication rather than necessarily like the quality of the work or was that a bit of both?
Well, I mean I don’t want to get into too many specifics just out of respect, but like there were some recommendations actually like right before I started working at FreshBooks, there were some recommendations that were made that were pretty detrimental to the performance for a good long while. So it didn’t exactly start off on a great foot. And yeah, we just felt like, we looked at the invoice and said, who else could we be doing with this budget? And just put it to a lot better use in sort of like Q2 and onwards in 2019.
Point at which an SEO specialist is introduced into a B2B SaaS marketing team
Makes sense. So I guess we kind of have to remove, to some extent, the bias of your founders having an SEO background who naturally are probably somewhat SEO inclined. But thinking about how the specialist SEO role fits into scaling a SaaS product like FreshBooks. How does that work and despite the favour towards SEO with that background, do you think there was a certain point or moment or was it to do with just the nature of the product? Like what was the driver behind them on a tangible basis? Really saying, okay, we recognize the need for specialist in house SEO and I guess linked to that, was it at a certain point in the journey and certain size and scale?
Well, as much as I can remember, there’s always been some type of SEO function within the company. I know that there was definitely a lag period before they hired me where the previous SEO manager had left. And they took about four or five months to define the replacement. And so there’s, the company has definitely been able to get by without someone at the helm of SEO and taking that budget that would have been for SEO and putting that towards other channels. So that, that definitely did happen. But I don’t think it was ever an option not to be actively recruiting for a role. And I know we have some other questions about SaaS too, but I mentioned like scaling a product SaaS has been a lot of fun to work on.
You know, my background is typically in lead gen. So when you work at an agency and you’re generating leads for a client, like it’s the information source that you have sort of stops. Once that person fills out the form, right? We wouldn’t get the clean known, the quality of a lead or what that lead actually translated into like a sale for the client. But with SaaS it’s so amazing because you generate that free trial and then you can tell, what is the trial to paid rate of that free trial and then further on down the road.
Once you get that person, that cohort of people who sign up within a month to mature you get to see, what type of package they choose, whether they add, different like we have a function for adding teams and other people into FreshBooks so that you can kind of like all work together. Particularly seeing like, the sort of, eventually we can, look at like what is the LTV or what is the value of that customer.
Nice. I think that’s awesome that you can, you’re basically taking it right down to the revenue line, right? Like I think in a world where particularly anything to do with B2B marketing attribution is not always super easy. And particularly I guess if clients are working with SEO agencies, a lot of agencies might just be interested in measuring traffic or measuring rankings for a set of keywords. And kind of after that, the onward journey and how many leads are of a certain quality and the revenue and everything else, they kind of don’t get too involved in. So it sounds quite refreshing for you to be able to kind of follow your work all the way down to real world impact of revenue.
Yeah. It’s tremendously satisfying and it’s awesome to sort of have that information at your disposal because we understand, like we have hundreds of pages for SEO and just one kind of important thing to know like that not a lot of people would really realize. But in a SaaS company like ours, SEO is not necessarily going to touch every page of the website. Like it’s not like we’ve got this massive website that is more measured on, how many people come to our homepage and stuff like that. We’re measured against very specific pages. So looking at those pages we can see how many trials they generate. And then down the line, like I said, once the customer has matured, we can see who has upgraded and what type of customer they’ve become. So, that also informs our decisions to then create new content along similar lines and avoid the content that doesn’t necessarily translate into a high value customer.
SEO at FreshBooks
Yeah. Nice. I guess this wasn’t one of the questions I kind of put on our list before, but without, I appreciate you’ve got competitors and it’s a complex market base. But like if you had to wrap up like how you do SEO at FreshBooks, is it a bit of everything? Is it everything we would expect in some of the content technical and you’re basically just covering everything off or would you say that there’s a particular thing that is the focus of the overall SEO strategy? I guess at a top level?
Yeah. You know, for us it’s really about using data and testing. I would say kind of sticking to certain ranking factors, performing different tests to help inform the decisions that we make on our key pages. You know, CRO is another thing that we like to pay attention to. Like I don’t want to basically give away our secrets. I give away a lot of interesting stuff in my SEOnotebook. But it’s not like, it’s not really FreshBooks related. Interested more in what my philosophy is and sort of what I do. You can check it out there, but yeah, I think just on a high level it’s satisfying that searcher intent, testing a lot on page and off-page. In terms of what moves the needle. Maybe isolating a smaller page to run tests on for example. And then if that’s successful rolling it out. You could also do similar things with your paid search in terms of conversion and even things like how your listing looks on the search engine results page on Google. Learning from paid search. Like learning from your paid search activity and then applying that knowledge through to your organic, like what types of CTAs to use and stuff on the search.
Nice. Yeah. Cause I guess you’re probably getting data faster and at more volume by turning on the tap on pay channels and then you can take that and feed it back into, into SEO.
Yeah. Initially, we were getting like a lot of volume. We have a page around invoice templates that is extremely high volume and we learned a lot from our paid search spend on that. But we’ve actually been able to, like hit number one. Sometimes it’s number two. I’m hoping by the time people listen to this, we’re still up. But yeah, taking a lot of those learnings from paid and applying them to organic, especially from a conversion standpoint is hugely beneficial.
How is SEO different for a SaaS company?
Yeah, I think that’s a really interesting tip. I guess I wanted to explore how we think SEO is really different, if it is at all, for a SaaS company specifically, like obviously pretty much every company that’s got any kind of digital acquisition is considering SEO in some form. But would you say there’s ways in which doing SEO for SaaS companies is unique or different?
Yeah, I mean, if you can identify an opportunity, like something within your SaaS product, whatever you do, like for us, like that would be invoicing. And you can take something, an element that people find really useful about your product and create a lesser free version of it, like an invoice template, you can draw in and a lot of people to at least try that template and yeah, many people will just download the template and that’s it. But a certain number of people will opt to try your product, which is obviously going to be a much better solution. So if you can really look hard at your product and say like, ‘What is like one thing that we could sort of pull out of here and offer some type of free version of?’ and hopefully the search volume is as good on that. You can definitely create some interesting landing pages and we’re starting to do that outside of the invoice template now. With some different templates and tools. So that would be my tip for SaaS.
Nice. So I guess the modern kind of SEO mix, there’s a whole lot of things which we’ve already touched on. I guess you already explained that you’ve got someone that works with you on some of the more technical elements of SEO. You’re kind of overseeing the strategy, but it sounds like it’s a pretty content driven approach I think as a lot of SEO is these days. But how do you split that kind of content, technical and potentially some outreach type stuff if there is any of that happening?
Yeah, so we have a wonderful content team at FreshBooks and we collaborate a lot with them. It’s not to say that they have the bandwidth to write all of our pages, but we’ve definitely worked together on finding and managing writers for different projects, overseeing things and working together. So there is quite a heavy emphasis on content within SEO as you can imagine. In terms of outreach and stuff like that. Little bit more guarded about, how we do that kind of stuff. But yeah, I’ll just say, I don’t think that you can really rank for difficult keywords without links.
Yeah, fair enough. I think that’s probably one of the most debated elements maybe of SEO these days and particularly maybe within the B2B field. How important are links? So I think that’s an interesting view.
Yeah. I mean I’d even take that to the degree where even though you have an authoritative domain, you still need links to that page to make it, compete with the rest of the people who are buying for those spots.
Getting buy-in from colleagues on SEO
Yeah. Nice. So my next question was going to be, is it hard to get buy-in from colleagues? Like is it hard work getting other teams behind SEO? When you go over to your colleagues in the content team and they’re like, ‘Oh no, it’s Steve talking about SEO again’. Like do you have those situations or actually given that, again, with the founders, being SEO by background is actually a pretty respected discipline. And I assume you’ve got the numbers and you can kind of prove the value of your work now. Right? So everybody kind of recognizes how important it is.
Yeah, I mean, I would love to say that what you just mentioned is going to be the truth in every case, but it’s definitely challenging sometimes because, the founders, yes they did start an SEO company, but they’re also executives now, and they’re not close to the strategies at all. They pretty much trust that we know what we’re doing. So, getting the buy in initially, I know a lot of like designers for example, it would be kind of a little bit hesitant because we like to put a lot of text on the page just to try to appeal to all searcher intent. So there’s, sometimes you have to balance things there. So when sometimes like, yeah, that’s not gonna be like the sexiest project if we have to incorporate 1500 words into this page.
But we try to draw compromise and try to work together on those things. So, yeah, it is challenging sometimes, but I think it’s more about the professional relationships you have with your colleagues. And sometimes, when you run into a large marketing department like we have at FreshBooks, like 50 people, those designers or UX people or the web developers, they’re servicing different parts of the org too, right? So it’s not that they don’t want to work on your stuff, it’s just that they’ve got other stakeholders who they’re accountable to. So sometimes we do have to extend that work to some agencies, to help build landing pages and help design stuff even though that’s not ideal.
Makes sense. We’ve talked a bit already about how you’re following what you do through to lifetime value and revenue and you can keep quite a close eye on the impact of your work to the overall growth of the business. But I guess if you had any tips for people who are either starting to grow an internal SEO function or are starting to work with an agency and there may be a small marketing team of one or two people and they’re more generalist, what are the things that people should really be looking at in terms of how they review the impact of the SEO work and really which numbers matter ranging from the bottom revenue and acquiring new customers to the top of just kind of ranking at a certain point or traffic volume and everything in between.
Yeah, so I think you’re gonna like this answer and maybe the listeners as well. Like at FreshBooks, I can’t go into super detail, but like, I’ll just say this. That if your SEO isn’t allowing you to spend more on paid search because the blended customer acquisition cost isn’t lowered by SEO, then you’re kind of doing it wrong.
You know, when a CMO, reports their CAC, their Customer Acquisition Costs, they’re not reporting that to the board or could the CEO by channel, right? It’s going to be totally blended. And, what we’ve managed to do at FreshBooks because SEO has done so well and historically our cost per trial and cost per acquisition is so low, it ends up offsetting higher spend channels. Right? So the fact that, we’ve been able to like rank, so highly for really high volume keywords and get the conversions and get the customers that way, it’s actually enabled us to be more aggressive in channels that are getting more and more expensive. So I don’t just look at SEO as ‘Hey like it’s a great channel for you to get customers.’ It’s actually a great channel to bring down your overall blended customer acquisition costs and really allow you to compete and spend more in paid.
That’s really interesting cause I think a lot of smaller startups, scale-up are spending a lot on paid channels and they’re kind of waiting for SEO to build up, and their reliance on paid channels comes down as SEO starts to build, which is kind of what you’ve described, right? Your, your blended CAC actually comes down when, when SEO makes the right impact.
Yeah. I mean like SaaS companies will usually operate on a CAC to LTV ratio. You know, I can’t say what ours is, but like let’s say hypothetically it’s like 50 to one. So you’d be pretty conservative but sometimes they bring that down even lower. So you’re willing to spend some times one quarter of let’s say your average lifetime value to acquire a customer. So that’s just like, usually what SaaS companies go by in terms of how much they’re willing to spend per each customer acquisition. And if a channel like SEO, which is going to be traditionally like the least expensive and it’s still a high intent channel is bringing in that super low CAC, then you can afford to spend more to acquire each customer in paid channels cause you’re looking at that overall blended at the end of the day.
Yeah. I love that. I think that’s a really healthy way of looking at it. Are there, I’m not sure what kind of markets FreshBooks operates in right now, but did you spend a lot of time on like technical parts of SEO when it comes to international and different languages and that kind of thing? Or is it all relatively straightforward at the moment?
Actually we are just planning to launch a UK version of our website, so that’s pretty exciting stuff. And yeah, there will be more of that I’m sure in the year to come.
Tools & MarTech for SEO
Okay, nice. I guess this is probably a question which you get asked a lot, but tools and tech obviously the MarTech ecosystem has no shortage of ever growing list of tools. SEO also have you got a ‘go to’ tool? What are the things that you work with the most when you’re doing SEO?
Yeah, for me, like on the strategy side, like I am a huge Ahrefs fan boy. I love that tool. Like I, every time I use it I’m just like, wow, this is a money making tool. It’s awesome. You know, everything from its content capabilities to obviously links are a huge part of Ahrefs analyzing, how potentially links from different sites could affect your site. Looking at what kind of links are causing competitors to improve their rankings, obviously what type of links to avoid.
This is just hugely beneficial to me. And it’s a tool that I’m in every day. And then there’s another tool that I like, which is called Cora. It’s a SEO tool, lab.com and what it is, it’s an on-page tool that measures like over 500 different on-page factors with your SEO and basically looks at like which factors correlate highly with first page results and then basically tells you you should focus more on those factors than others. And I just found that that was a really useful tool in building a lot of our key pages.
Cool. Makes sense. Yeah. I felt like I was a big Ahrefs guy. Then I kind of moved over to SEMrush and I’m not sure why or I think that’s just, for me it was just like the user experience. And I think I just found it easier to display information. I can’t put my finger on it, when you just can’t quite explain why you prefer something. Have you used both of you kind of compared the two?
I have used, I mean SEMrush does have like certain um, bad bits, but I think no tool is complete and it just, in terms of what I use more on my day to day, it’s a Ahrefs and it’s also one of those kinds of things where it’s like, I actually use a Mac and a PC, but I’m sure lots of people are like I’m, I just never using a Mac because I just know where all my stuff is on my PC kind of thing.
Yeah, that makes sense. So obviously we mentioned at the start that you’re working on SEO Notebook, which is kind of your, I guess where you’re building a following of people that are really interested in your perspectives on SEO. Is that like a big time consumer? Is it tricky to do alongside FreshBooks work?
SEO Notebook is actually not that hard to do. I initially thought that, Hey, ‘ve got so many ideas in the bank that like endnotes just like then I built up over those few months prior to launch that I had lots of Facebook saves that I was going through and just noting all that kind of stuff. Cause I’m a big believer in Facebook groups for SEO, SEO signals lab being probably my favorite. I’m mmod there as well. But I thought that I would be drawing upon this resource of knowledge that I had, but it seems like every week I would get excited about something new and really scrap all the old stuff that I had and always like what was something new from week to week. So that’s pretty much how it’s been even though I have something like 90 notes in the queue.
So yeah, it’s not too crazy. Maybe like an hour and a half a week to publish the email. But yeah. And then the other half of that is like just the freelance work that I’m doing within my time. You know, I’m a dad to a four year old daughter. She goes to bed at 7.30 and then, most nights I’m working on client work. It’s just, ever since we started having really good success on FreshBooks, I’m pretty active on LinkedIn, if anyone wants to add me there, please do. Steve Toth, T O, T, H , it’s just, it’s sort of drawn a lot of interest and I’ve been able to work with some pretty big companies, actually ones that, like have venture capital funding and stuff like that, which is pretty cool because they have healthy budgets to try cool experiments with. So they’ve been pretty accommodating, by the fact that like I still have the job at FreshBooks, but I really, I really enjoy it. So it’s not exactly like it’s a huge drain on me. But it does occupy a fair bit of my time at the moment.
Yeah. I can imagine. But hey, it’s good. When you’re passionate about something and you can work on something, it doesn’t feel like work, then it’s a pretty nice place to be, I think so. Yeah. I think a lot of people would envy you. So it would be wrong of me not to finish this podcast with the big, where’s SEO heading? Question trends. Looking ahead, we’re 2020 now. I think I feel like the SEO world more than some is just so full of I guess because of lots of the uncertainty in basically the whole industry existing on second guessing what Google is going to do next. There’s so much rumor and so much debate and I guess that’s quite a healthy thing overall, but yeah, I thought I’d just throw out the question and see where you think SEO is heading broadly in this year and beyond.
Future of SEO
Well, in my mind I’m debating about making a sarcastic remark about how important search is going to take over, but I hear a lot of people talking about that, but I’m going to totally avoid that one. And then the other sort of answer that a lot of people give right now is that stuff is going to stay the same. And I don’t necessarily disagree with that. You know, I’d say like usually with SEO, a good like 80% to 90% of things that have worked in the past are always going to work. Like a good user experience, links, strong content that satisfies the intent, good site structure and stuff like that. So most things that worked still continue to work. But there is a big change potentially coming on March 1st. So I think it was around September, Google announced the no follow attribute, which it introduced back in 2000 early two thousands to combat blog spam story.
No follow links
So no follow links. Basically there’s followed links which pass page rank and then there’s no follow links, which technically do not. You know, Google introduced this no follow attribute because people were spamming links on blogs and sort of manipulating the search results. So that was a good solution back in during that time. And like the early to mid two thousands but over time a lot of large websites like newspapers and even other SaaS companies like Shopify have, now no longer followed all external links. And what that’s done is really taken away a lot of the valuable link data that Google wants. So it’s actually like Google kind of shot themselves in the foot with this. So they announced that on March 1st the no follow will no longer be a directive but be a hint.
So we might see, links from sites like Shopify or national newspapers and stuff like that start to weigh more heavily in search results, which I think is a very good thing because the traditional thinking behind no following all your links is that you’re going to sort of preserve your authority and you’re not going to bleed authority to other pages. But I think that’s wrong in the end. And I think Google realizes that, they’ve created this problem for themselves, so they’re going to go try to reverse that to some degree. So it’ll be really interesting to see how that plays out.
Yeah, it’d be super interesting. I mean it’s like how much are they going to allow that to be a big boost, right. I guess it’s kind of the question I imagine so many sites have some pretty big no follow links sometimes. So we could see some sites having a real boost. But I guess it’s like what proportion of your links are no follow versus follow. And so when this change happens, like how much of a boost will you see?
Well, we do know that, Google does, despite what they say, there are no follow links that do pass some page rank. It’s been tested and proven. But, I don’t, I currently don’t think that it’s, the amount that it will be, um, post March 1st, 2020. So yeah, we’ll just have to see. I mean, I think it’s a good thing. You know, it’s kind of a shame when you see a clear endorsement of a website, yet the link is no follow. There’s really no reason for that. And Google at the same time are going to have to try and obviously not let blog comments and not let these sort of web 2.0 spammy stuff that certain people do influence the search results. So it’s really up to them, how they tweak that algorithm to effectively count the ones that should have been counted and still ignore the ones that are, a bit spammy.
Yeah. Makes sense. Well that’s to say there’ll be some interesting times. Listen Steve, it’s been super interesting talking to you. I think one of my most insightful and more like specialists deep inside of subjects podcast. We’re going as I’ve done, so it’s been super interesting. I think for anybody that’s even remotely working around SEO in terms of their roles, they’ll find a lot of the stuff you’ve said really, really interesting. So I’m super grateful for you taking the time to join and share your thoughts and yeah, hopefully talk to you again at some point in the future.
Yeah. Thanks so much. If anyone wants to just reach out to me on LinkedIn. If you want to talk about SEO, if you have a question, just yeah, just seek me out or you can catch me at seonotebook.com. So Really appreciate the time today, Alex.
Thanks to you. Take care.
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