Technically, SEO is just one discipline of growth hacking.
I know, it’s not as sexy as viral content or social ads. It’s a little like Seth Rogen in “Neighbors”, compared to Zac Efron.
But I think SEO provides solutions to some common problems in Growth Hacking that are often overlooked. Let me explain what I mean.
Stock price is a good definition of the value of a company. Long-term growth of stock price is one indicator for the success of a company.
Coca Cola: went public in 1919 and shows some pretty good growth over the last three decades, probably without the help of growth hacking.
Amazon: had its IPO in 1997 and started to really take off in the last 7 years. Was growth hacking involved? To some degree, yes.
Facebook: went public in 2012 and grew ever since in value. FB is a poster child for growth hacking.
All three companies are in different industries (yet) and have a different history of growth, but one thing these companies are doing is to not pursue short-term success for the sacrifice of long-term growth. This, after my mind, is encapsulated deeply into (whitehat) SEO.
There are some factors, which are vital for long-term success:
- Cost efficiency
In the following paragraphs, I want to explain how SEO supports them and how they challenge Growth Hacking.
First, SEO is very cost effective.
The cost you spend on SEO is engineering opportunity cost: “what were your engineerings doing if they wouldn’t work on SEO?”. If you run ads you might get a good ROI, but once you stop spending money, the traffic stops coming in. SEO doesn’t work that way. Once you set it up, it constantly brings in traffic.
It provides a guaranteed ROI, even when you stop spending resources. Especially when you’re on a tight budget, which is the case for 99% of all start-ups, this comes in handy.
Second, SEO can bring in exponential ROI.
That feature is brought to you by: Hummingbird. The algorithm allows one page to rank for hundreds or even thousands of keywords at the same time!
Check out the “Things to do in San Francisco” page on AirBNB.
On Searchmetrics, a SEO platform, you can see that it ranks for almost 400 keywords.
It ranks for semantically related keywords, such as “what to do in san francisco”, “san francisco attractions” and “san francisco activities”. That’s Google’s Hummingbird algorithm at work right there: “rank things, not strings.” Translated, it means pages can rank for topics now, not only one keyword.
Imagine the traffic Airbnb gets from just that one page.
Third, SEO doesn’t fall victim of “tactic fatigue”.
A lot of tactics in the Growth Hacking world burn out. Why is that? Because tactics are being copied over and over. I see that especially with smaller sites / brands who don’t have a dedicated growth hacker.
The exceptions to that rule are the companies that develop that tactic. The dilemma: once the tactic has been discovered, it’s usually copied until users are so burned out from it that it actually hurts businesses. We refer to that as “tactic fatigue”, coined by Brian Balfour.
*Agent Smith Voice* Guess what other animals exploit until “burn out”, besides humans? A virus! Look at the similarity of the graphs.
SEO, by definition, cannot fall into tactic fatigue for two reasons:
1) It’s a principle, not a method! You don’t just “do” SEO once and are done with it. You do it continuously, you have to refine it and it needs to be supported by many parts of the company.
2) It’s part of pull marketing, not push marketing! SEO is inbound, meaning there has to be a demand for it before you can satisfy it. You cannot create demand with SEO (maybe if you’re really smart about it). Therefore, there is no fatigue. People cannot get tired of something they seek.
Fourth, SEO doesn’t burn users like ads and emails (can) do.
I have to say that I think that Email marketing and Ads can work very well, but in 99% of the cases aren’t well done. That’s why I say that these channels often burn users: annoying them until they unsubscribe or bounce. One killer is missing personalization, another is overload.
Not only the emails themselves are responsible for burning users out, also the sign-up process:
- Forms within a webpage
- Slide ins
- Lightbox popovers
- Full page takeovers
- SumoMe Welcome Mat
Those things work for a short amount of time and they have their place in a marketing stack, but they are not drivers for long-term growth.
The same goes for ads and “banner blindness”. People’s bullshit detectors are so fine tuned nowadays that your ad has to be either very deceiving or so good people are willing to click it. Make not mistake, there are still cohorts out there that are not blind for ads and click them, but those are dying out.
“The problem, as we saw it, was that the incentives driving the creation and spread of content were not serving the people consuming it or creating it — or society as a whole. As I wrote at the time, 'The current system causes increasing amounts of misinformation…and pressure to put out more content more cheaply — depth, originality, or quality be damned. It’s unsustainable and unsatisfying for producers and consumers alike….We need a new model.’"
This is also proven by the rise of ad blockers.
People are tired of current ad formats. SEO, as already said, is offering people a choice they can make when they want. That often leads to more qualified traffic, depending on the step in the customer journey.
The element of choice is important when it comes to SEO. As Gary Vaynerchuk and Seth Godin so often trumpet into the world: the modern currency is attention!
“Smart advertisers, though, are realizing that they have to make content that people decide is worth watching. Some have become very good indeed at making media that’s so entertaining that we not only want to watch it, but spread it.”
Fifth, SEO doesn’t provide the risk of harming businesses.*
*Except for when it’s done wrong. A good example of that is rap genius. The company tried to game search engines by asking their community for backlinks. In return, Google punished their site by keeping it out of their search results pages (SERPs), until the tactic was “reversed”.
Some brands used growth hacks to find themselves in legally risky waters.
One example of that is glide, a video chatting app.
After braggingly stating to not spend any effort or money on user acquisition, their rapid success in the app store was quickly clouded by users complaining about the auto invites that went out to everyone in their address book. Without consent.
“However, some of that “viral” growth may be manufactured, even if not directly paid for. App Store reviews are filled with users who had unwittingly spam-vited everyone in their address book to Glide. The app, by default, checks all your contacts which you then need to uncheck if you don’t want to send out invites to everyone. Plus, the pre-written message the app uses is something along the lines of “I’ve got something to show you on Glide,” making it sound like there’s content waiting – not just an invite to use the app. (You can edit this message, but that may have gone unnoticed.)"
The spammy tactic becomes especially apparent when you compare Glide’s international vs US rankings in the app store. This was pointed out by Ouriel Ohayon from Appsfire.
No international rankings look very suspicious.
Similar tactics were followed by brands like Circle. But also big shots used tactics that are at least morally questionable to set their growth on fire. For example:
Reddit created tons of fake accounts* to spur the illusion of an existing community to new users #fakeittillyoumakeit. Steve Huffman, the creator of Reddit, said it himself in a Udacity video.
*(By the way, this tactic is very popular amongst dating networks)
PayPal created a lot of fake demand on eBay to push sellers to accept it as payment methods.
Apparently, YouTube wasn’t so quick to delete pirated content from its platform in its very early days, because it knew that it was way more convenient to stream it than to download it from BitTorrent.
UBER massively sabotaged Lyft by ordering rides with burn phones and credit cards and then canceling them.
And let’s not forget about AirBNB, which used Craigslist to find listings for houses that were up for rent and messaged them to ask if they wanted to list them on AirBNB instead. AirBNB is now worth ~13 billion dollars.
One reason Growth Hacking has risen at all is the ever growing pressure from taking VC’s money, who in exchange expect phenomenal growth rates. I am not criticizing VC money or anything of the game. It’s what enabled us to start fantastic companies that in return allow us to advance our lives to a level we’ve never seen before. Anyway, some “Growth Hacks” are borderline illegal or morally questionable.
Playing with the border of legality and pushy tactics can very well kill your company.
I like to compare the balance of “pushiness” and sustainability of growth tactics to the concept of “technical debt”.
Ward Cunningham* invented the “Wiki”. He also coined the term “technical debt”, which is the price you have to pay when taking shortcuts in programming - with interest.
*(Funnily, he also said that “Wikis are probably something that no one would pay money for”. Nowadays Wikipedia is the largest website in the world, but constantly begging its users for money… )
Technical debt is caused by too much time pressure…
…and results in compound cost in the long-term. If you are too pushy it’s not payable anymore.
Pressure usually comes from managers who want to finish a project earlier or bigger than originally planned.
The same applies to growth hacking: VCs set “ambitious” goals in exchange for money. That creates pressure that’s then passed on to the person in charge of growth. The start-up then goes ahead and does everything it can to reach these goals, in some cases ruthlessly.
SEO is a way to facilitate growth but not accrue too much “growth hacking debt” that drives you into bankruptcy.
In the next essay, I will focus on how SEO can be leveraged for Growth Hacking.