Great product features are key to SEO traffic for large sites


published: (updated: October 28, 2019)
by
11 min well spent

The biggest SEO gains for large sites come from new or improved product features.

As Google gets better and better at providing the best result and understanding satisfaction at a deeper level, product value is something SEOs (and other Marketers) need to embrace – and increasingly drive.

In this article, I explain

  • which companies need to inform product development through SEO
  • how to get product features shipped as an SEO
  • the difference between optimization and innovation

Inventory-driven sites

Sites fall into one of two buckets: they’re either inventory or content-driven.

Inventory-driven sites have scalable and indexable page templates, either from UGC or product inventory, whereas content-driven sites generate organic traffic with content they create themselves. The difference is significant, yet underrated. Inventory-driven sites have publicly indexable inventory, which changes the rules for everything from product growth to the SEO strategy.

New product features are really only useful for large sites that scale with inventory, which I call “decentralized” in an article about internal linking and in one about finding the right SEO strategy for your business. For this article, I want to ignore content-driven sites and focus on the inventory-driven equivalent.

Let’s look at a couple of examples for inventory:

  • Spotify: albums, artists, songs
  • Netflix: movies, movie genres
  • Amazon/eBay: categories, sub-categories, products
  • Zapier/Slack: apps and integrations
  • Pinterest/Trello: boards and cards/pins
  • Airbnb/TripAdvisor/Expedia: cities, vacation themes
netflix.com in AHREFs
Notice how Netflix uses its movie and genre inventory to scale SEO

Inventory and how it’s displayed is a product feature, especially for marketplaces. The more artists Spotify hosts, the better its product. The more integrations Slack provides, the better its product. The more products you can find on Amazon, the better its product. And the easier it is to find all of those types of inventory, the better it scales for SEO.

You get the script.

Good SEOs always find a way to scale inventory, make it indexable, and optimize it. Slack has apps. Zapier has integrations. None of those are necessarily intuitive SEO levers but now that someone has done it, they seem obvious. The goal is to find keywords that can be targeted with new features and then optimize page templates to rank higher.

Good SEOs always find a way to scale inventory, make it indexable, and optimize it.

Summing this up: Indexable inventory and the way it’s displayed on a website is a product feature that can scale SEO.

Two challenges arise from that:

1.    Discovering new product features to grow SEO at scale

2.    Getting them shipped

Finding SEO product-feature opportunities

New SEO product features are page template enhancements that target certain keyword groups. SEOs have to identify these features and bring them to product teams.

You probably wonder if classic keyword research is enough to discover new opportunities.

It’s not.

SEO is not an approach product people usually take to inform new features. SEO quantifies customer needs because it’s based on search demand a.k.a. problems real people have. But product teams use different ways to inform new features: structured feedback, introspective discovery methods and (hopefully) customer empathy.

It’s something in between.

As such, SEO research – not classic keyword research – can be a very potent way to discover and develop new product features based on search volume.

I’ll cover how to sell them is covered in the next chapter, but let’s have a look at some methods to find that gold!

Competitors

If somebody already did it, you could do it better. All emotions aside, copying features from other sites actually happens a lot. Quite a lot! Whether you call it “copying” or “inspiration”, in the end, you want to look at what works and do it best. I don’t encourage it but I also don’t judge it.

To find something you can “get inspiration from”, you can simply punch your competitor into the content/keyword gap feature of tools like AHREFS or SEMrush and look for keywords you’re not ranking for. Then, you search for query patterns. That most fruitful findings often come from long-tail queries, so consider setting the word count to 4-5 minimum.

When I did that with Expedia and Tripadvisor (random example), I found that Expedia doesn’t rank for “{food} near me” terms. That makes sense because Expedia doesn’t provide restaurant reviews like Tripadvisor. However, from a pure SEO perspective, creating features to target such keywords would be an immense growth opportunity.

AHREFS content gap report for Expedia vs. Tripadvisor
AHREFS content gap report for Expedia vs. Tripadvisor

I also found out that Expedia might not target theme parks, which could be another strategic opportunity to go after.

SEMrush keyword gap with ranking position filters
SEMrush keyword gap with ranking position filters

Questions

A common opportunity is questions you could answer at scale, for example with an FAQ section on a page template. To find them, use your SEO tools of choice to filter your keywords for position > 30 and including question modifiers like “why, where, what, when, or how“.

AHREFS “organic keywords” report; filtered for position > 30 and including “why”
AHREFS “organic keywords” report; filtered for position > 30 and including “why”
SEMrush’s “organic research” report filtered for “how, what, where, why”
SEMrush’s “organic research” report filtered for “how, what, where, why”

Of course, that also works in Search Console. Just filter your queries for including a search query like “why”, sort after impressions and look at the position.

Search console performance report; filtered for queries including “why”

The relationship between impressions and position can also be a great indicator for high search volume keywords. A keyword that ranks on position 89 on average and has > 100 impressions probably has a ton of search volume.

At scale, looking at keywords you already rank poorly for can help you detect new opportunities you can target with a new product feature.

Long-tail keywords

Using the word count feature in SEO tools can help you identify long-tail opportunities to build product features for.

Long-tail queries are important for young and mature companies. Startups should consider them because there’s less competition, dinosaurs can find new growth opportunities because they add up to quite some volume if tackled at scale on top of shorthead keywords.

AHREFS organic keywords report; filtered for position > 30 and word count > 5
AHREFS organic keywords report; filtered for position > 30 and word count > 5
SEMrush word counts feature in the organic research report; filtered for position > 30 and word count > 5
SEMrush word counts feature in the organic research report; filtered for position > 30 and word count > 5

Look for jobs-to-be-done

The framework I found most helpful to discover new keywords and features is “jobs-to-be-done” by Clayton Christensen.

What I like about the framework is that it takes practical and emotional customer requirements into account. It considers how a customer thinks about a solution but also how the customer believes to be perceived while using the solution. All of that is part of SEO nowadays because experience has such a big impact on the choices users make when clicking on a result and how long they stay on the site.

The key outcome of using the JTBD framework is job statements. They consist of a verb, an object, and context like “research new software solutions at work”.

The step-by-step for JTBD is very simple:

  1. Identify the focus market (example: software buyers)
  2. Map all jobs out through brainstorming, user surveys, or keyword research
  3. Group the jobs
  4. Create job statements
  5. Prioritize opportunities depending on how well they’re served at the moment

The last part of shipping SEO-related product features is to actually get them shipped.

Sounds easy, but it’s not.

Getting SEO product features shipped

Ideas are nothing without (good) execution.

Ideas are nothing without (good) execution.

The key to execution is selling your ideas right. Part of selling well is knowing your audience and the language they speak. So, you need to learn “product speak” and workflows.

Products are most commonly built in the Agile framework. As the name gives away, it’s an embodiment of rapid iteration, testing, Minimum Viable Products (MVPs) and feedback.

Agile as a framework is either executed through Kanban or Scrum.

Kanban is structured through several tracks with different stages like Backlog, Scope, In Progress, In Review, and Done. A ticket moves through each stage. The speed at which it does depends on how many developers you have and how they split up the work.

Scrum follows two-week sprints with a planning and retro meeting. During Planning, you cover who does what and the specs. In the Retrospective, each item is reviewed and discussed. You can run the same recommendation through several sprints until it’s in an acceptable space, but the advantage of Scrum is that you can ship things fast and then improve them over multiple iterations. That’s pretty neat for SEO because you often need to recalibrate product features before you get them 100% right.

Mind you that even when you can sell well, you need to consider how SEO fits into the company from an organizational point of view. That has a big impact on how successful you can be.

Surviving and thriving with different integrations of SEO

SEO is less a “tangible” thing and much more a meta-layer we add on top of things like web development, design, or writing. You don’t just “do SEO” – you apply it to something. That’s why the success of SEOs depends on the execution of others.

You don’t just “do SEO” – you apply it to something. That’s why the success of SEOs depends on the execution of others.

Getting technical SEO right means to inform the product team based on organic traffic opportunities. There are three ways to do that, ranked by effectiveness.

  1. SEO is part of the product organization, which I wrote about at length in “Forging a fine-tuned SEO machine
  2. The product roadmap has a fixed SEO track
  3. Product teams and SEO have ongoing meetings and communication

The most successful companies at SEO I’ve seen have all integrated SEO into their product teams. I’m not talking about a product developer having read something about SEO. I mean full-time SEO positions in product or growth teams. The dream scenario is having direct reporting lines from developers to SEOs. It’s a good place to be in because your goals align with the product team’s goals, and you have developers at your hand. That’s option one.

Option two, a fixed SEO track on the product roadmap, means SEO is not really part of the product’s DNA, but you still get dedicated developer capacity to push features forward. The question is more how to best use the limited capacity you got.

To best play your cards here, you need to have a constant idea of what’s impactful versus what’s urgent. I find a stack ranked list of recommendations or SEO projects to be the right format because you can constantly shuffle priorities. Once you have the developer capacity defined, you can sort all items from highest impact to lowest. Whatever is above the line gets done, whatever is below the line is parked in the backlog.

The third option, having regular meetings and ongoing communication between product and SEO, is the weakest but most common. You basically have to convince product people and stakeholders to invest developer resources into your recommendations rather than others.

If you work in a company that’s driven by sales or in which SEO does not contribute in a significant way to bottom-line metrics ($$$), you’ll have a hard time getting asks prioritized. You’re then at the mercy of an abundance of developers or asks from other teams and that’s a tough spot to be in.

The best way to survive here is to a) educate the company in SEO in the hope that asks from other teams might contribute to your goals and are implemented in an SEO-friendly way, or b) convince someone in the company to fund your asks.

Evangelization of SEO (a) demands constant education and promotion of why SEO is important and how to do it. Convincing executives (b) is a question of how well you speak “money”, meaning how clearly you’re able to communicate that your goals align with revenue.

Optimization versus Innovation

The biggest impact on organic traffic at inventory-driven sites comes from shipping new features, such as page templates, categories, product details/information, and themes.

Search Engine Optimization has traditionally focused on optimization – surprise! But we have to shift our thinking from incremental improvements to stepwise growth.

Classic SEO consists of things like:

  • Improving meta-tags, performance, and internal linking
  • Building links
  • Controlling indexing
  • Internationalization/Localization

Classic SEO is optimization. SEO product features are innovation.

optimization versus innovation
The difference between optimization and innovation

Optimization is making something slightly better. It accumulates to linear growth. But innovation it’s different; it’s something new. The result is often rapid or stepwise growth. Both are important for companies and none should be ignored.

A good example is probably the iPhone, the most successful product ever to date. Coming up with the iPhone is innovation. It made Apple one of the most valuable companies in the world. Or iPods. Or a potentially new device (imagine Apple releases a glasses product).

Bringing out a new version of the iPhone is optimization. The camera. The touchscreen. The memory. Each component is optimized to a maximum. It linearly increases revenue over time.

Innovation is bringing out new product lines like AirPods or the HomePod. They open the door to new markets and revenue streams. SEOs need to add that perspective to their tool kits to be successful because product features and experience matter so much more for organic traffic.

Both, optimization and innovation are important, but we only talk about one of them. We need to optimize and innovate. SEO-driven product features are the key.

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