Eli Schwartz

Within Growth circles there is this idea of “product led growth” which upends the whole premise of  marketing a product to promote adoption and instead focuses on getting a great product into the hands of users who become the marketing agents.

In this paradigm, users of the product will the love it so much that they will share it with others in the company and/or their social circles. There may be innate triggers within the product that encourage sharing and thereby force the hands of the original user to share with their networks.

Notable recent examples of companies that were incredibly successful at this are Slack, Dropbox and Zoom which become more useful for individual users as it is adopted within a group. Each of these companies deprioritized traditional marketing and instead focused on building an amazing product that users would just have to share with their networks. This idea has worked amazingly well as each of these companies grew themselves exponentially without spending any substantial funds on early marketing.

When product led growth is successful, the company will have acquired a large segment of users to learn from and then build marketing strategies around. The company can learn what caused the product to be adopted by other teams within a company – naturally and then use marketing to encourage this adoption process to be more deliberate.

SEO led product

I am a proponent of using the same approach for SEO efforts. Too often, SEO efforts begin too simply with just a group of keywords. These keywords are developed by the marketing team or founders based on their own knowledge of the product. These keywords become the stems of keyword research input into any keyword research tool and the output is ideas of related keywords.

This new longer keyword research list becomes the seed for content ideas that will be written and posted on the website. The keyword list becomes a sort of checklist and content road map which doesn’t change much based on actual performance or real time metrics.

Keyword research and SEO efforts don’t end with just a content plan, but it also is incorporated into the product. The very names of the products are determined by keyword research on what a user would be most likely to insert into Google as a query in search of a product. On many occasions using keyword research for this purpose can be very inadequate especially when demand is low or not yet existent for the product, but still it is forced to suffice.

The downside to SEO in this process is that there’s no room for a user feedback loop and much of the content creation is all too manual. Content intended to match keywords is written in somewhat long form and the full library will only scale as fast as the content producers can write. The greatest gap in this approach is that the SEO strategy is laser focused on specific keywords and an expectation of generating a high position on just those keywords. Ranking on targeted keywords, aside from the vanity aspect, is aspirational and may never even be achieved.

Product led SEO

Flipping this script to product led SEO, instead of using SEO to market the product – the product becomes the SEO driver. Many of the most successful websites on the Internet have achieved their organic dominance through this approach. Rather than relying on keywords and content as the bedrock of their SEO efforts, they used a scaled approach which relied more on product and engineering than marketing. Amazon, TripAdvisor, Zillow and even Wikipedia are great examples of product led SEO, but there are thousands of others.

For each of these four companies, before they developed and propagated their product on the Internet there wasn’t even keyword research for them to rely on.

  • Amazon focused on building a great architecture to support a well-indexed site even before the idea of SEO existed. Their site has grown into the SEO magnet it is today by scaling that initial iteration of a well developed product that fit with SEO principles. Had they relied on keyword research to launch the site in the early days of the Internet, they may have over-prioritized the adult keywords that were so popular at that time to the detriment of book ecommerce that no one was yet searching.

  • TripAdvisor didn’t start by creating a “blog” of reviews of the most popular hotels with the most search volume. Instead they built an architecture that could scale and host reviews for every property in the entire world. It may have taken years before they outranked the individual travel blogs and sites that ranked highly on search for the most popular properties, but their reward is that today they rank in the top five of results for every hotel in the world.

  • Zillow didn’t focus all of their SEO efforts on trying to rank for the popular keywords in their space which may have been words like “home value” or “online realtor.” Instead they poured their efforts into building a colossal site which has a page for every single address in the United States. At the time, that may have seemed like a foolish approach as a) no one looked for specific addresses b) they would be competing with Google maps or even Mapquest which was still a thing. Looking at their footprint now where they are visible for every address in the country, they could not have made a better bet.

  • Wikipedia didn’t set out to be the online encyclopedia for what most people were looking for; rather, they set out to be an encyclopedia of everything. Early in their process, having an entry for everything might have seemed like an absolute impossibility. They disregarded the naysayers and built the product that could continuously scale into a repository of everything in every language. There are gaps in their knowledge base and there probably always will be, but they have been undeniably successful at achieving the goal.

Scaling product led SEO

Just like product led growth, the feedback loop drives future iteration of the product. Knowing what resonated on search with both search engines and users will dictate the future roadmap of improvements and adjacent products.

Amazon does not need to make the same SEO leap of faith as they enter new categories as they can be very confident that they will get organic traffic on anything they launch. TripAdvisor’s success in hotel reviews gave them a playbook on how to launch attractions and things to do products. Zillow’s dominance in address search opened up the pathway to organic visibility in the mortgage vertical which had always been one of the most competitive categories on the web.

The twenty year winner

With the clarity of hindsight, product led SEO will always be the clear winner, but it is undoubtedly challenging to envision the success you might see from this approach when first starting an SEO effort. It is my opinion, that there can be a product led SEO angle in every vertical and niche.

Aside from the likely monumental work by engineering teams to build a product that will eventually become an SEO juggernaut, you will need a great degree of patience and even faith. At the outset it will not be clear that there will be demand for the eventual product but remember there was no data that supported the eventual SEO goals of Amazon, TripAdvisor and Zillow either. The best selling point for product led SEO is that after companies are successful with their product first efforts they will eventually also dominate organic results for the most coveted category keywords too.