Acquisition Channel of the Week: SEO (with a twist)

I've analyzed all 490 Indie Hackers interviews and identified 34 acquisition channels that work consistently for founders (see Zero to Users for more details). As I read the interviews, I noticed SEO was mentioned a lot… but there was a twist.

Most of the people who were successful with SEO used other acquisition channels first. They didn't start with SEO right from the get-go. This was a pretty interesting observation.

Take Snipcart ($100K/mo), for example. It's a software that allows people to add a shipping cart to a website. Snipcart had initial success getting users via integrations and winning a "site of the day" award on a pretty popular website awards site. Here's what happened later:

In time, we realized our shaky, well-intentioned blogging was driving more and more organic traffic and even a few direct conversions. Especially our platform-specific e-commerce tutorials. So we decided to really own that channel.

As I continued reading more interviews, I noticed more founders saying pretty much the same. Take Instapainting ($32K/mo), a photo-to-painting service. When asked what was the most crucial thing that helped them succeed, here's what Chris (the founder) said:

For me, SEO. I think it took about 5–6 months for me to realize that the business was primarily sustained from SEO traffic.

Today Instapainting is earning about $400,000 of revenue per year. This is up from the first year, which was only about $89-$90k in revenue. The main driver of the increase is improved SEO from content marketing.

Chris also mentioned getting on the front page of Reddit, HackerNews, and being featured on TechCrunch, which in no doubt, resulted in increased search traffic over time.

I've also encountered examples where founders were explicit about getting started/succeeding with SEO right away (I'll cover this next week, subscribe to the series to get notified). But they were way less (29) vs. founders who started & succeeded with something else, and then slowly moved to SEO (84).

I did further analysis to identify the other* acquisition channels used by the founders who were successful with SEO (at a later stage) and found some interesting insights:

  • Number #2 (with 19 mentions) was Google Ads (AdWords). This made sense, because in most cases, a) SEO takes time b) Even if you rank, how do you know if those keywords are going to convert? This is where AdWords comes in handy. You can run some small experiments; see if these keywords convert; if they do, make a plan for the long-term game of SEO.

  • Number #1 (with 21 mentions) was ProductHunt and number #4 (with 11 mentions) was press. These are acquisition channels that boost your SEO indirectly. I've seen examples where people got on the front page of Product Hunt & have been picked up by press publications. That has given them valuable backlinks, and Google uses backlinks as one of the main signals to rank websites.

To conclude: SEO is an acquisition channel that will probably take the most time to work. Plus, you're not going to know if it's going to work for you until you start getting traffic. There are 2 ways to mitigate this: a) Buy ads for those keywords & see if they convert (and plan for SEO if they do) b) Focus on acquisition channels that (besides bringing you new users), also indirectly boost your SEO (like press outreach, being on websites where you're likely to be picked up by the press, and so on.)

Like this post? Get my insights on different acquisition channels every week:

  1. 7

    "SEO is an acquisition channel that will probably take the most time to work". That's true, but it will bring the highest long-term success to your project. Thank you for sharing Darko!

    1. 1

      Thanks, did you guys have any SEO success (or still waiting for results)?

      1. 2

        Yeah, almost 60% of our website's traffic is organic, in a very competitive niche - innovation and brand strategy. It took us a year and a half, but it was worth it.

        1. 2

          That's great. How long would you say it began working/what did you put into it? We try to publish say, 1 blog post per week. At a couple months in, it doesn't feel like it's done much... but maybe we need to ramp that way up or wait way longer?

  2. 3

    It’s worth adding, that SEO is a channel in which money spent are more an investment rather than pure spent (in opposite to any other, not owned medium like ads or external sponsored content)

    And it’s obvious — it takes time to collect the fruits from the SEO investment.

    So in general, there is always a pattern:

    • in an early stage everyone looks for “traffic boosters” like paid ads
    • in mature phase, after market-fit is settled, organic traffic is something that drives the most stable and convenient growth
    1. 2

      Good point. SEO is like investing in mutual funds in terms of dynamics...you'll prob get your investment back after years. AdWords is like investing in the stock market , you may win fast, but also lose fast.

      UPDATE: When I was comparing stock vs. mutual funds, I meant in terms of the time it takes to see changes in your overall portfolio. Wasn’t trying to make a full analogy in terms of all aspects like owning vs. renting etc :)

      1. 2

        Not really. Spending 100€ on AdWords — what do you own? Nothing other than a boost in traffic. Spending money on SEO content is like investing money in the product development. No matter what, in the end you own the marketing medium just as you do with the product.

        And in the consumer driven market, the owning and controlling the content (medium) always pays back in a long term game.

        From my experience, no matter which paid channel you choose, ROI in SEO is at least 3-4 times higher.

        1. 1

          Agreed, but the price to "own" something on the web is getting more and more expensive. I think it's best to have a balance between paid/SEO. The real answer often lies between the 2 extremes (1 extreme = all paid, 2nd extreme = own everything, no paid).

          1. 3

            Same with paid channels right. To compete, in a more and more crowded market you have to put higher bids.

            A success, of course, lies in a mixture, but as I said, there is a clear pattern. In a long term game, SEO — because of its nature — is always the most effective channel.

      2. 0

        Sorry but don't love the mutual fund analogy. With new channels and tactics you're testing, YES you are building a "portfolio of bets", but the feedback loops and decision cycles are much much shorter. In SEO, if I make a change on page and don't see any movement for 6 weeks on the SERP position, it's time to switch gears and try something different. You need both the long game (to your point) and also to stay on top of the day to day.

        1. 1

          Sure, that was my point as well. Correct me if wrong, but with mutual/index funds you tend to have a wide portfolio of “safe” companies that, together, do not have much change in the short run, but slowly but steadily grow in the long run. Isn’t that the dynamics of search traffic as well? You have a bunch of content pieces, some flop, some do well, but overall they grow the site traffic slowly and steadily in the long run.

          I get your point about switching gears. The truth is, though, you can never “switch gears” 100% with SEO (umless you make your site non-indexable). Almost every acq. channel you succeed with indirectly helps with SEO in one way or another. This is why you see founders saying things like “we activated conversion/attribution tracking after X months, was surprised to see SEO traffic (something they didn’t pay any attention to) converting”.

          I get your point btw, seems I wasn’t clear on how exactly I‘m trying to map the mutual funds analogy to SEO (updated the original post). Thanks for pointing that out!

          1. 1

            Almost correct. :)
            Yes, re - wide portfolio. But no, re - "safe" as a generalization. There are varying portfolio strategies... also you're now saying index funds, which is something completely different, because mutual funds are actively managed whereas index funds are 100% rule-based.

            Re - switching gears - as you pointed out in your research, there are many tactics you can try within SEO. Not going to call myself an expert... I think the point for IHers is that you should be testing different tactics and see what works, based on the variety of variables unique to your product, audience, positioning, SERP competitors, etc.

            As a practical example - make a simple change to a title tag. It could be something like adding "[Update 2020]" to that page's title tag, or removing a less relevant word, or adding "[FREE TEMPLATE]". Wait 6 weeks and see that it does nothing. Try again with a different change. It jumps 2 or 3 spots in the SERP. Run a link building campaign to boost that page's authority. Wait 6 weeks. It does nothing. Score a major link from a .edu or high DA site, it jumps another few spots.

            This is where this gets really fun, and I'd love to see more IHers approaching growth marketing the way the approach product (visionary + highly detail oriented + highly strategic)... because the way to grow isn't ever just "X" or just "Y". It's trying A + B + C + D... etc. and watching some take off.

        2. 1

          Of course! You cannot put everything on one card.

  3. 2

    Imagine being #1 on Product Hunt every single day. Now multiply that by 100. That's the power of being rank 1 on Google.

  4. 2

    Great insight :) Thanks for the article. We have used content marketing to grow multiple SaaS, blogs and services. It's powerful and have a compound return.
    Recently I have started my content marketing automation platform https://postpace.com which helps completes hours of the topic research process in 2 minutes. Feel free to try.

  5. 2

    SEO is the best long term investment anyone doing business online can make. And getting this sweet organic traffic is like having a 6-pack, so you better go to the SEO Gym few time per week, NOW :)))

    1. 1

      Wait. What's having a 6-pack like? 🤔🤨

      1. 2

        I don't know, today I rather spent the effort on SEO than my 6-pack :))
        What's "like" is more the effort required... 😎

  6. 2

    It's kind of crazy that SEO has been around for two decades, and it's still a really big deal in growth marketing.

    I'm still seeing plenty of "land grab opportunities, aka garbage content sitting at the top of SERP just waiting to be overtaken by more educational, faster, friendlier pages.

    With one founder I'm working with, his site saw a 4-month ramp 0 to >6k monthly organic uniques on finance-related buy intent terms. All from long tail pages built on rails.

    1. 1

      Interesting. I'm sure this is the case, but it surely depends on the niche? I find some completely impenetrable and others surprisingly 'open'. Which tools do you use? I've used longtail pro but don't enjoy the layout I find it surprisingly hard to navigate so am looking for a new one.

      1. 1

        100% agree - re - depends on niche (and namely, keyword difficulty)

        Re - tools - I've been a happy ahrefs user for years (tad pricey at $99/mo if bootstrapping and seo isn't core channel, but otherwise couldn't be happier).

        But my land grab comment was more based on just googling. fwiw here's an example of what I mean https://www.linkedin.com/posts/etan-efrati_seo-digitalmarketing-searchengineoptimization-activity-6734534979516272640-snDa

        1. 1

          Yeah I like ahrefs always used on someone else's dime but probably going to start using it!

          1. 1

            This is supposed to be a good (inexpensive) one https://keywordseverywhere.com/

    2. 1

      Maybe these are also partnership opportunities up for grabs...these people are making some passive income and would be open to a better monetization (i.e. affiliate) deal with your SaaS.

      1. 1

        I wish I had a SaaS that did this. I'm working on some productized services for individualized tactics, but there's no magic button.

        1. 1

          Aff marketing also works for productized services.

  7. 1

    Pushing all digital channels paid/social/content ecosystem will assist in your SEO visibility as long as you onsite optimization is good. Drip links as you grow and hopefully your content will attain links naturally.

  8. 1

    Yes, you will need to get the word out first, so people will search your brand on google

    So while doing paid ads, start working on your organic rankings, blogging is one of the great ways to attract traffic and gain some popularity

  9. 1

    Gary Vaynerchuk spoke of niche topic keyword blogging. Does anyone have tips?
    Like different flavors of ice crème about a topic. Specific to micro segments of your target market. Targeting content to the micro segment.

    1. 1

      I think it makes sense in some cases, and others you have to ask yourself if all of those topics really deserve their own blog post. If you Google different phrases, do you see totally separate search results? If they're all similar, then Google probably knows that people want more of the 'parent' keyword.

      1. 1

        When you study your target market segment and those personas, each can have a different pain point or intent. Or maybe a variation of. When a user is searching they think about their situation. It may not be the parent search phrase. The original point is; the competition for ranking is less.

  10. 1

    Can someone speak to lessons learned with "topic clusters". Should the linking be like a sun with planets? Or more like a ontology? Does the links need to be from other domains?

  11. 1

    This week we were working on "topic clusters". Can anyone give us tips?

  12. 1

    How can a new Q&A platform beat/rank equally to Quora in SEO?

    1. 1

      This will be difficult as Quora already ranking is pulling in a TON of backlinks for them. If you can get more users than them, or more users within one vertical, own those search results, then expand to other verticals, you can win. Just start in something niche and expand outward.

  13. 1

    Thanks for this. I agree SEO can take time, but in the past I've been ranked pretty fast on LT keywords - think two/three weeks. These days it seems to be a bit longer, I'm not sure it's to do with the niche as it's still medium competitiveness (same as the ones I had success with ranking quickly a few years back). When it comes to Google AdWords you'd probably have to invest quite a bit to get a true sense of conversion 'power' in terms of statistical significance etc. How long have you spent on this in terms of time and has your budget been relatively large? I'm thinking of giving it a go so any tips would be useful (if you've time :)

  14. 1

    As somebody who works professionally in SEO, and mostly with SaaS and software companies, I can tell you that the last paragraph is SPOT ON (as is the rest of this post). Great writeup @zerotousers

  15. 1

    What about content marketing? @zerotousers do you have e post for that.
    Truth be told SEO has been a priority for us, but can’t do it without content.

    1. 1

      There is no SEO without content.

    2. 1

      Plan to do a report for that as well.

  16. 1

    Actually depending on the strategy, the seo can be relatively fast, but if it is a long-term strategy. The best result is usually a cross platform strategy based on attracting referral traffic from twitter, youtube or instagram. If you combine this with an inbound content strategy that includes general keywords such as long-tail keywords, it is most likely that your customer acquisition will increase exponentially in the coming months.

    1. 1

      What's the fastest time it took you to start getting consistent SEO traffic?

      1. 1

        One month, but as everything depends on many factors including the budget (purchase of links, campaigns to send social traffic, etc.).

  17. 1

    Nice read. Another SEO channel (tip) not mentioned is adding Schema.org JSON to your website header for whatever your site is offering. Schemas make your site easier to scrape by Google, Pinterest etc. and allow for Rich Tiles in search results

    I'm building GetRecipeCart.com and programmatically generate a Recipe Schema on the fly for 17,000 recipes, 6,000 recipe collections etc. We've had 600% growth this month in page views, in part due to Thanksgiving and a viral m

    1. 1

      Really interesting tip. Mind if I connect with you to learn a little more?

    2. 1

      I wouldn't call it a channel, but a strategy. Good tip though. Was the 600% growth due to search traffic?

      1. 1

        Yup, I didn't mean to write "channel". Mainly yes.

  18. 1

    Nice post! I like the approach of first run Google Ads for a while in order to test keyword that can be used for content. Quick way to validate, like it.

    1. 1

      Yep. Are you guys targeting SEO as one of the potential acquisition channels?

  19. 1

    Nice article and very cool insights, how long did it take to write it?

    1. 2

      240 hours if you count the research :D Which part did you like the most?

      1. 1

        Actually, I can't pick just one part, I loved the whole article!

        I appreciate the unique insights ✌️

  20. 1

    Exactly what I needed to read!
    Thanks Darko!

  21. 1

    Nice write up, thanks

  22. 1

    Cool article. What are the other acquisition channels that indirectly contribute to search traffic?

    1. 2

      Press/asking ppl to include you to articles that already rank (in exchange for an affiliate fee, for eg)/sites that journalists monitor like HackerNews/ProductHunt/any-niche-specific sites like DesignerNews

      1. 1

        Makes sense, thanks. Maybe you can make a report on acquisition channels that resulted in press mentions.

        1. 2

          I think I can do that, will prob take me some time but it's possible.

          1. 1

            Would love to see this. In my experience, cold pitching press has had a low time / ROI return. Agree on PH/HN being better. But the problem is it isn't continuous. P.S. any data on appropriate affiliate fee or % to offer?

  23. 0

    I think the channels about android apps and games is very good for more traffic from se. like apkpure, https://alandroidnet.com

    1. 1

      This is more into using existing app stores, which is another acq. channel.

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