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9 SaaS Marketing Strategies for Sustainable Growth

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9 SaaS Marketing Strategies for Sustainable Growth

Sustainable growth for a SaaS company is about creating long-term value that is a) profitable and b) able to be maintained over time without compromising the brand’s reputation. In other words, by building growth, you’re building a foundation for more growth as you go.

We’ll talk about nine marketing strategies that are perfect for achieving and maintaining sustainable growth.

1. Build for product-market fit 

Product-market fit (PMF) is when a business has confirmed signals that its product can satisfy an existing demand in a market with high potential.

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The usual sign of achieving PMF is when people are willing to buy the product (even if it’s not perfect yet), actively use it, and recommend it to others.

This is a sustainable strategy because it allows you to make sure you’re building something meaningful that will actually get paying users.

PMF automatically makes your messaging more effective. You’re promoting a product people want. And you already know who you’re talking to, so your marketing dollars are better spent. 

Conversely, if none of your marketing efforts seem to work, the problem may be the product and not how creative or well funded your campaigns are. 

You can find SaaS companies with product-market fit all around. These will be companies that still offer the same kind of products that made them profitable: Slack, Atlassian, Shopify, etc. 

How it works

The general idea is to ship a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and iterate on it based on real user input until you see that people actively use it and recommend it. 

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There are five steps in the process: 

  1. Formulate the value hypothesis: Why is a customer likely to buy your product? 
  2. Specify the features of your MVP: The right quantity and quality of features needed to verify the value hypothesis. 
  3. Build your MVP: There are many ways to present your product to your audience; you don’t necessarily need to develop a fully functional product.
  4. Test the MVP with real users: In other words, get feedback. 
  5. Learn from your users and iterate: Some ideas will need more work, while some are probably destined to fail. Gather your data and make the decision. 

When you achieve PMF, it will be time to scale your company and marketing efforts. 

2. Offer free trials or free tools 

This strategy doesn’t need an introduction. We’ve all used product trials and free tools. That said, this strategy can be looked at from different angles. What’s important from a marketing perspective are these three benefits:

  1. Reduced friction – This means there are fewer objections to trying your product. 
  2. Time to experience the value of the product and get hooked – Reading about a product on a landing page is not the same as experiencing it. Your potential customers will likely expect the possibility to put their hands on the product before they buy. 
  3. Direct marketing channel – You can ask users to sign up for a newsletter or send them messages concerning the product. 

For instance, HubSpot carves out parts of the platform for free usage (e.g., CRM, CMS). It does this, as it explains, to increase the force of its marketing flywheel. Or in other words, to propel its entire business model. 

Article about why HubSpot offers free products

How it works

Start by weighing the pros and cons of free and freemium products. 

Pros Cons
Less friction with getting people to use your product. Harder to manage expectations. People may expect to get more things for free.
Bigger user base. More server load and possibly more queries to support.
Works well with growth loops (more on that later). Offering something for free may reduce its perceived value.
Direct marketing channel to signed-up users (content distribution and upselling).
More feedback.

Getting users in front of free products is only part of the job. The harder part is getting them to upgrade. 

First off, you need to set the right expectations—you won’t convert all of them. For the ones that are “convertible,” here are some tactics you can use:

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  • Never stop improving customer satisfaction. What your product does and how it does it is absolutely fundamental.
  • Educate users about the product. Use blog posts, videos, or quick in-app tips. 
  • Offer limited access to all newly developed features. For instance, you can allow everyone to use each new feature for five days for free. 
  • Provide excellent customer service. 
  • Offer flexible payment options. 

When looking for ideas for free products that will generate traffic, try a keyword research tool like Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer. You can:

  1. Enter features of your product.
  2. Go to the Matching terms report.
  3. Use the Include filter with keyword modifiers pointing to tools, for example: “tool, check, checker, finder, analyzer, builder, free.” Set to “Any word.”
Keyword research for free tool ideas

To illustrate, our free website traffic checker tool generates an estimated 33.4K organic visits each month from ranking for keywords like “website traffic checker” or even “website traffic.”

Organic traffic to a free tool
Organic keywords captured by a free tool

3. Leverage SEO in content marketing

Content marketing is the process of creating and distributing content to attract and retain customers. 

If you add search engine optimization to the equation, you get a framework for creating content relevant to your business and the reader. You also get a built-in distribution engine that generates almost free traffic. 

SEO is one of the most sustainable marketing strategies because it generates passive traffic that accumulates over time and can generate traffic even years after. To put it differently, SEO results are continuous—and you don’t get that with all marketing strategies. 

SEO results are continuous, while PPC results can be turned on and off

Our blog is an example of such a strategy. It brings an estimated 628K organic visits each month, worth around $860K in ad money, through regular publishing of SEO content. 

Organic traffic to Ahrefs' blog

How it works

SEO is generally worth it if at least one of these is true:

  1. People are searching for what you sell or do.
  2. People are searching for solutions to problems your business helps to solve. 
  3. You can give a better solution than the conventional one people are searching for.

In any case, the core of this strategy is to find relevant keywords with traffic potential. The right keywords can connect you with your target audience and create an opportunity to pitch your product. And if you’re not ranking for these keywords, your competitors will. 

The process of finding the right keywords for your website is called keyword research. Here’s a quick rundown: 

  1. Go to Keywords Explorer
  2. Enter industry-related seed keywords, e.g., “seo, digital marketing, keyword, backlink”
  3. See keyword ideas in the Matching terms report 
  4. Use the filters to refine results if needed (e.g., look only for low-competition keywords or keywords with a certain minimum traffic potential)
Keyword research, a quick rundown

Other elements of the SEO process are building a sound technical foundation, creating optimized content, and building links. You can learn how to start with the entire process in our beginner’s guide to SEO

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4. Build a community around the product 

A user community can help your SaaS product in a number of ways:

  • It helps to make the product better through feedback. 
  • It helps to spread word of mouth about the product even if the community is exclusive. 
  • It offers added value to the user—they can learn from others in the community and network. 

Building a user community is a sustainable strategy because it leverages existing customers and can help facilitate long-term engagement with the product. 

A famous example of a community with a price tag on it is Behance, acquired by Adobe for $150M. It generates over 10M search visits each month and allows the parent company to bring the design community very close to its product. 

Organic traffic to behance.net
Adobe's branding on Behance is unmissable
Adobe’s branding on Behance is unmissable.

How it works 

In a nutshell: create a place where people can meet online, build a constant presence there, and animate the community (feature launches, discussions, polls, etc.).

For example, at Ahrefs, we offer access to our exclusive community, Ahrefs Insider, with every subscription. All we needed to start it was a regular community feature on Facebook. Now it gathers a total of 17K registered users. 

Ahrefs Insider pitch

5. Go after earned media 

Earned media is publicity gained organically from promotional efforts, like press coverage, social media mentions, and search engine rankings.

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Earned media is a sustainable form of marketing for these reasons: 

  • It’s cheaper in the long run compared to advertising (sometimes even free). 
  • It’s long lasting.
  • It earns your brand awareness and credibility. 

Here’s an example that checks all three boxes. A while ago, we published a data study showing that 90.63% of content gets no traffic from Google. This article was mentioned by multiple reputable websites, including NY Times, Forbes, and main SEO blogs. All of that coverage gave us free brand exposure and backlinks. 

Ahrefs mentions in a Forbes article

How it works 

Earned traffic covers a wide range of marketing tactics, so there’s no silver bullet here. Besides SEO content, which we already touched on, the tactics that are repeatable and will probably have the most impact over time are:

When vetting which site to pitch your product, story, or quote to, you can use Ahrefs’ SEO Toolbar. For instance, say you’re looking for websites that review SaaS products like yours. Just search for your competitors’ reviews in Google and look at the metrics to see which sites can send you stronger links and considerable traffic.

SEO metrics, via Ahrefs' SEO Toolbar
Sites with low DR are unlikely to boost your SEO. This site has 0 organic traffic, so you probably won’t be getting much referral traffic from it.

6. Use multi-channel marketing

Multi-channel marketing is basically about interacting with your audience using different marketing channels: social media, search, podcasts, email, etc.

Using multi-channel marketing will have the following advantages:

  • A broader reach.
  • Channels can work to support each other. For example, social media can help you to get links to websites and boost your SEO.
  • You create convenience for your audience to interact with the brand. 
  • There’s less risk, thanks to diversification. 

The idea behind this strategy is that your audience is likely scattered across various websites and social media platforms. So even if one marketing channel works exceptionally well, you probably shouldn’t drop all other channels. 

How it works

Here are some ideas on how to find the best marketing channels for your business: 

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  • You can see where your competitors promote. 
  • Do keyword research to estimate organic traffic for relevant keywords (we discussed it in point #3).
  • Use audience research tools like SparkToro. Below, you can see a screenshot showing what kind of data about your audience the tool can provide.
Sample data from SparkToro

Furthermore, using multiple marketing channels allows you to distribute content more effectively. You can: 

  • Repurpose content into other formats and platforms.
  • Build an audience to distribute content directly (for example, grow your email list).
  • Promote the content via ads or sponsored newsletters.
  • Syndicate articles to other websites. 

Here’s an example. Our thoughts on using ChatGPT for SEO were used in a YouTube video, on our blog, and on social media. While there may be some overlap between these audiences, they are definitely not identical. So by using the multi-channel approach, we were able to get more eyes on our content. 

Article header from Ahrefs' blog

7. Develop a growth loop 

A growth loop is a system where new user input creates an output that drives product demand. 

To illustrate, here’s how Notion used a product feature to activate and retain users (courtesy of Foundation). 

Notion's growth loop

Growth loops are a stellar example of a sustainable marketing strategy because the whole model creates a loop. The more you grow, the more users you get, and so the more you grow. 

Furthermore, this strategy gives your marketing budget more “power” since each dollar invested in acquiring a user is also invested in the users generated via the loop. 

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How it works

The simplest (but super effective) form of a growth loop is making your product outstanding. When your customers love the product and recommend it to others, you start growing on word of mouth—you acquire users you spent nothing to get. 

How word of mouth works
Example: A user subscribing to Ahrefs based on a recommendation from a friend.

In some types of products, it’s possible to go beyond word of mouth and create a typical growth loop. It all depends on your product and your creativity. Here are a couple of levers you can pull:

  • Make it easier for users to share their work publicly like Adobe with Behance 
  • Devise a referral program like Dropbox
  • Create a marketplace for apps like Atlassian or WordPress 
  • Release an API like OpenAI
  • Encourage user-generated content like G2 
  • Allow for free product usage after creating a free account like Figma or Loom 
  • Allow users to invite others to their workspaces like Slack or Miro 

8. Offer more to expand revenue

Revenue expansion is the additional revenue you get from your existing customers through upselling, cross-selling, and add-ons. 

It’s a strategy that has proven to work for decades in multiple industries. For instance, this is why when you order a regular pizza, you’re offered to get a bigger one, get a drink with it, or add some extra ingredients. 

And here’s an example from the SaaS world. When subscribing to HubSpot, you’re offered to upgrade by increasing the limit of contacts and also to purchase add-ons.

HubSpot offering upselling and add-ons

According to a correlation study published by ProfitWell, SaaS subscription-based companies should aim for 20% to 30% expansion revenue in their overall revenue in order to succeed. 

Expansion revenue study from ProfitWell

You’ve probably heard that it’s better to retain a customer than to get a new one. That old business adage still holds true. According to this 2016 survey, SaaS companies spend an average of $1.16 to earn $1 on new annual contract value but only $0.27 on upsells and $0.20 on plan expansions. 

How it works

If you offer additional value to your satisfied customers, there’s a good chance those customers will be happy to buy more from you. Here are some ideas for creating value for revenue expansion:

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  • Offer premium features on higher plans
  • Offer a per-seat model to cater to both small and large companies
  • Add a custom/enterprise tier for the most demanding customers
  • Offer priority support

For example, when design tool UXPin developed a way to design with production-ready components, it decided to offer that as a premium version of the product with an almost 80% higher price tag than the UXPin Standard version. 

Achieving expansion revenue by offering a premium product

But how to know when and if your customers are willing to expand? Here are some signals: 

  • Customers often reach their usage limit. 
  • Customers express interest in additional features or higher tiers.
  • Your competitors offer a successful expansion system. 
  • You’ve got an awesome idea for a premium feature.

9. Do growth marketing (not growth hacking)

Growth marketing is the process of increasing a company’s revenue by applying an experiment-driven and integrated approach to all stages of attracting customers.

To understand this type of marketing better, let’s compare it to traditional marketing and growth hacking (the close variant I don’t recommend). 

A chart of the differences between traditional marketing, growth marketing, and growth hacking

While the obvious solution for more sales is getting more visitors, this is not always the best one. If the product lacks competitive features and if there are obstacles on the path to purchase, money spent on getting more people through the door will always lead to low conversion and high churn. This is where growth marketing comes in. 

A great example of growth-oriented thinking is LinkedIn’s Reconnect Flow. It’s a nickname for the early onboarding process where new users were asked questions about their personal experiences and offered connections to existing LinkedIn users based on that. This simple tactic engaged both new and old users. 

Another interesting growth tactic LinkedIn used in the early days was encouraging users to import their email contacts (not a common thing back then). It was enough for 7% of new users to import their contacts to increase the overall number of invitations to 30%.

How it works

The idea behind growth marketing is based on the scientific method: propose hypotheses and validate them through experimentation. In marketing, it’s known as the growth hacking cycle. 

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A chart of the growth hacking cycle

The whole cycle starts by gathering data on the buyer’s journey. Next is generating ideas on how to improve and then testing those ideas (for example through A/B testing). 

It may seem like an obvious way to do marketing. But it’s not always that easy: Some tests may be hard to perform, and discipline is required. Also, it’s always faster (but not better) to go with your gut. 

An important part of the growth mindset is the ability to analytically break down big problems into smaller pieces. This approach allows for setting more achievable goals. 

For instance, a goal to increase sales is too vague because sales rely on many factors and not all of them are controllable. Instead, growth marketers may want to discover what “moves the needle.” Depending on the product, this may be encouraging the user to perform specific actions in the product or gearing pricing and communication toward a new audience. 

Final thoughts 

Sustainable growth doesn’t rely only on the strategies or tactics you choose. You need to give them time to work out the returns. You also need to experiment with them to see what works best for you. 

There’s a great talk by Rand Fishkin on the concept of the flywheel in marketing; how the first push is the hardest, but it builds momentum that makes things easier in the long run. Sustainable growth strategies are just like that. As you build more value into your product and your brand, you gain momentum that acts as a multiplier for every new thing you do. 

Got questions or comments? Ping me on Twitter or Mastodon.

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How We Built A Strong $10 Million Agency: A Proven Framework

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How We Built A Strong $10 Million Agency: A Proven Framework

Building a successful agency can be a daunting task in today’s ever-evolving space. Do you know the secrets to succeeding with yours?

Watch this informative, on-demand webinar, where link building expert Jon Ball reveals the closely guarded secrets that have propelled Page One Power to become a highly successful $10 million agency.

You’ll learn:

  • The foundational principles on which to build your business to succeed.
  • The importance of delegation, market positioning, and staffing.
  • More proven lessons learned from 14 years of experience.

With Jon, we’ll provide you with actionable insights that you can use to take your business to the next level, using foundational principles that have contributed to Page One Power’s success.

If you’re looking to establish yourself as a successful entrepreneur or grow your agency in the constantly evolving world of SEO, this webinar is for you.

Learn the secrets of establishing a thriving agency in an increasingly competitive SEO space.

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View the slides below or check out the full webinar for all the details.

Join Us For Our Next Webinar!

How An Enterprise Digital PR Firm Earns 100’s Of Links In 30 Days

Join us as we explore how to scale the very time-consuming and complicated process of earning links from digital PR, with proven case studies showing how you can earn hundreds of links in 30 days.

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SEO Woe or a Load of Baloney?

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SEO Woe or a Load of Baloney?

Toxic backlinks are links that some SEO tools say could hurt your website’s Google rankings. The implication is that you should disavow them to keep your site safe.

But there’s some disagreement and confusion among SEOs as to whether “toxic” links are actually a thing and what, if anything, you should do about them. 

If you believe Google’s John Mueller, they’re not: 

Yet, according to my poll, the majority (just!) of SEOs think they are: 

So… what’s the deal here? Are toxic backlinks actually a thing? Are they hurting your site? And if so, what should you be doing about them? 

Before we can answer those questions, we need to understand the terminology… 

Every website has some spammy backlinks that just don’t make sense. But that doesn’t necessarily make them manipulative or “toxic.”

For example, here are a couple of obviously spammy links to our site: 

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Example of spammy links, via Ahrefs' Site ExplorerExample of spammy links, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

We didn’t build or buy either of these, so they’re not “manipulative” by definition. They’re just low-quality links we’ve attracted over time because the internet is rife with spammers. 

If you study Google’s link spam documentation carefully, you’ll see that, in theory, these aren’t the kind of spammy links they have a problem with. They warn only against the ill effects of spam links intended to manipulate rankings. 

Google uses links as an important factor in determining the relevancy of web pages. Any links that are intended to manipulate rankings in Google Search results may be considered link spam. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site. 

Here are the examples Google gives of these manipulative links: 

What Google says are manipulative linksWhat Google says are manipulative links

As for “toxic backlinks,” this is just a term made up by certain SEO tools to describe backlinks they think could hurt your rankings based on several so-called “markers.”

Key takeaway

  • Spammy links are low-quality links that every site attracts through no fault of their own. 
  • Manipulative links are links built or bought solely to improve Google rankings. 
  • Toxic links are links that certain SEO tools say could hurt your website’s rankings. 

If you asked this question before September 2016, the answer would have likely been “yes.”

So what changed? 

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Penguin 4.0.

With this algorithm update, Google switched from demoting pages to a system that tries to ignore bad links.

Penguin is now more granular. Penguin now devalues spam by adjusting ranking based on spam signals, rather than affecting ranking of the whole site. 

Since then, Google’s stance has been that you can ignore spammy backlinks. 

If you’re seeing individual links that pop up and you say, “oh this looks like a spammer dropped the link” or whatever, I would completely ignore those. […] because these spammy links happen to every website and Google’s system has seen them so many times over the years that we’re very good at just ignoring them. 

John MuellerJohn Mueller

But is this true? Is Google really as good at ignoring low-level spam as we’re made to believe? 

Judging by my colleague Chris’s recent poll on LinkedIn, a good chunk of SEOs (38%) don’t think so, as they’re still disavowing them. 

Most SEOs either disavow or do nothing about spammy backlinksMost SEOs either disavow or do nothing about spammy backlinks

Does that mean they’re right to do so? Not necessarily. It just means they don’t fully trust Google that they won’t do any harm. They’re being careful. 

Personally, the person I trust most to answer this question in 2024 is Dr. Marie Haynes. I don’t think anyone’s done more research into this than her. She’s spent well over a decade working to understand Google’s search algorithms and auditing link profiles on behalf of business owners. 

Now, the interesting part of that statement (and why I actually trust her!) is the obvious conflict of interest. Until fairly recently, she made her living selling link audit and disavow file creation services—and for a pretty hefty sum at that! 

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Pricing from Marie's link audit services page in March 2023Pricing from Marie's link audit services page in March 2023
Pricing from Marie’s link audit services page in March 2023

Clearly, it would be good news for Marie if Google were still terrible at ignoring spammy backlinks because she could sell more link audits! 

Yet, these days, she no longer appears to offer such services. In fact, she’s actually been warning folks against the need to disavow low-quality, spammy backlinks for a few years. 

Here’s a quote from a 2022 blog post of hers:

While there is no harm in disavowing low quality spammy links, it likely does not help improve rankings. We believe that Google’s algorithms are already ignoring these links. […]. When we do see improvements these days after disavowing, it is always in sites where we have disavowed links that were purposely made for SEO and very little else. 

Marie HaynesMarie Haynes

It’s clear that Marie is being cautious with her words here. But overall, her opinion after digging into this for many years seems to be that, yes, Google is now pretty good at ignoring most low-quality spammy links. 

Does that mean they’re perfect? No. But it does mean that worrying about obvious low-quality link spam is probably a waste of time for most people.

If you’re buying or building the types of links that Google class as “link spam” then, yes, they can absolutely hurt your rankings.

But before you panic about that link exchange you did with your best friend’s wife’s brother, Google is likely looking for patterns of manipulation here. In other words, manipulative link profiles rather than manipulative individual links: 

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Danny Richman, founder of Richman SEO Training, agrees: 

Here’s a bit more context from Danny: 

As for Marie Haynes, she echoes a similar sentiment in this post. She states that manual actions aside, she would only recommend a client disavow links if they have “a very large number of links that [they] feel the webspam team would consider to be ‘manipulative.’ ”

In these cases, Google often slaps the worst offenders with an unnatural links manual action. If you get one of those, that’s Google telling you, “Hey… you’re being demoted in search because we think you’ve been trying to game the system with manipulative links.” 

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But this doesn’t have to happen for manipulative links to be a problem. It’s possible for Google to algorithmically demote a site if they detect a large volume of spammy and manipulative links, at least according to John Mueller.

If we see a very strong pattern [of spammy links] there, then it can happen that our algorithms say well, we really have kind of lost trust with this website and at the moment based on the bigger picture on the web, we kind of need to be more on almost a conservative side when it comes to to understanding this website’s content and ranking it in the search results. And then you can see kind of a drop in the visibility there. 

John MuellerJohn Mueller

Either way, the point remains: it’s patterns of manipulation that are likely to hurt rankings. There’s very little chance that you need to worry about the odd potentially dodgy link here and there. 

While it might be tempting to use an SEO tool that finds “toxic backlinks” for you, I’d seriously urge you to reconsider. Trusting these can do more harm than good. Way more. 

Just look at this unfortunate Redditor’s reply to John Mueller: 

Someone on Reddit's traffic tanked 60% after disavowing "toxic" backlinks in one SEO toolSomeone on Reddit's traffic tanked 60% after disavowing "toxic" backlinks in one SEO tool
A 60% drop in traffic! That’s no joke! 

Even if this is an extreme case, worrying about these links likely only wastes time because, according to Marie Haynes, they’re rarely truly toxic: 

I find that the truly toxic links…the ones that could have the potential to harm your site algorithmically (although you’d have to really overdo it, as I’ll describe below), are rarely returned by an SEO tool. 

Marie HaynesMarie Haynes

Sam McRoberts, CEO of VUVU Marketing, seems to agree: 

So… how do you find truly toxic backlinks that are likely to be hurting your site? 

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The truth? You might not even need to look for them. If you haven’t built or bought links that Google considers link spam at any reasonable scale, chances are you’re good. 

If you’re not confident about that, do a manual backlink audit with a tool like Ahrefs’ Site Explorer.

The Anchors report is a good starting point if you’ve never done this. It shows you the words and phrases people use when linking to you. If they look unnatural or over-optimized (lots of exact matches of keywords you’re trying to rank for), that could be a sign you have paid or other links intended to manipulate rankings. 

Example of keyword-rich anchors, which are often a sign of paid backlinksExample of keyword-rich anchors, which are often a sign of paid backlinks

If things look fishy there, use the Backlinks report to dig deeper and check the context of those links. It’s usually quite easy to spot paid and unnatural ones. 

The Backlinks report in Ahrefs' Site Explorer showing the context of the backlinkThe Backlinks report in Ahrefs' Site Explorer showing the context of the backlink

Just remember that you’re looking for patterns of unnatural links, not just one or two. 

WARNING

If you’re not 100% sure what you’re looking for when doing a backlink audit, hire someone who knows what they’re doing. You need to be confident that the links are truly “toxic.”

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If you have a manual action for unnatural links or a bunch of what you believe to be truly toxic backlinks, yes. Google’s advice is to disavow them (assuming you can’t get the links removed). 

You should disavow backlinks only if: 

You have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, 

AND

The links have caused a manual action, or likely will cause a manual action, on your site. 

Marie Haynes advises the same: 

There are two situations where we will recommend to our clients a thorough link audit followed by filing a disavow: 

  1. The site has a manual action for unnatural links in GSC. 
  2. The site has a very large number of links that we feel the webspam team would consider to be “manipulative”.
Marie HaynesMarie Haynes

If you just have a bunch of spammy backlinks that most sites naturally attract or the odd paid backlink, probably not. Google probably ignores most, if not all, of these links, so disavowing them is likely a waste of time. 

While there is no harm in disavowing these links other than the time spent analyzing them, there is likely no benefit either. 

Marie HaynesMarie Haynes

But what about negative SEO?

Being the victim of a negative SEO attack is indeed the possible exception here. This is when a competitor sends a load of spammy or toxic backlinks your way to try to get your site penalized. 

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Google remains adamant that it basically never works, but it really comes down to what you believe. 

[I’ve] looked at hundreds of supposed cases of negative SEO, but none have actually been the real reason a website was hurt. […] While it’s easier to blame negative SEO, typically the culprit of a traffic drop is something else you don’t know about–perhaps an algorithm update or an issue with their website. 

Gary IllyesGary Illyes

If you see a traffic drop after an influx of backlinks in Site Explorer, I’d say that it’s at least worth a bit more investigation. 

Site with traffic drop coinciding with an influx of backlinksSite with traffic drop coinciding with an influx of backlinks
This site experienced a traffic drop coinciding with an influx of referring domains. Maybe there’s benefit to disavowing here… and maybe it’s something else!

As Gary said above, something else could be to blame—but you never know. There’s always a chance that Google’s algorithms rule it was you who built or bought those backlinks to try to manipulate rankings and penalize you for it. 

If you just found a bunch of so-called “toxic backlinks” in an SEO tool, probably not. Again, most of these are probably just link spam Google already ignores. 

Here’s yet another quote from Marie Haynes backing this up: 

While there is probably no harm in disavowing [links reported as toxic in SEO tools], you are not likely to see any improvement as a result. Disavowing is meant for sites trying to remove a manual action and for those who have been actively building links for the purpose of improving rankings. 

Marie HaynesMarie Haynes

There’s also the risk that you could end up disavowing links that are actually helping you… 

Patrick showed further evidence that this can absolutely happen when he experimented with disavowing links to the Ahrefs blog. Traffic dipped, then went back up after he removed the disavow. 

The impact of disavowing links to the Ahrefs blogThe impact of disavowing links to the Ahrefs blog

Final thoughts

“Toxic backlinks” is a term made up by certain SEO tools to scare you. That’s not to say bad links can’t hurt your site. They absolutely can. But fortunately for most site owners, it’s rarely a problem worth worrying all that much about. 

Got questions? Disagree? Ping me on Twitter X.

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On-Page SEO Checklist for 2024: A Comprehensive Guide

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On-Page SEO Checklist 2024

On-Page SEO Checklist 2024

Want to make your pages rank high on Google? You won’t be able to do that if you don’t know where or how to start your on-page SEO — and with each Google update, this pillar of SEO gets more and more complicated. To keep you updated with the best and most relevant practices when it comes to this aspect of your website, I have prepared an on-page SEO checklist for 2024. 

On-Page SEO Factors

On-page SEO, in simple terms, is all the ways you can optimize your website take place on your website. Tweaking certain elements of your pages can enable them to climb very quickly up the ranks when done right. These elements include essentially everything you can see on your webpage, like its title tags, headers, and images.

Webmaster’s Note: This is part two of our SEO checklist series. Part one covers our technical SEO checklist, so go back if you haven’t seen that yet. I also do deep dives into other aspects of on-page SEO in other articles, like the best content strategy for SEO, how to hack on-page factors, and ways to dominate niche keywords in your industry.

1. Identify Your Target Keyword

This is where any SEO effort should start. Identify which basic keywords you would like each page to rank for. From there, you can expand into common phrases, questions, and related words people use to find pages like yours through keyword research. 

Key Aspects of Keyword Optimization:

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  • Keyword Research: Identifying the right keywords that your target audience is searching for.
  • Keyword Placement: Sensibly incorporating keywords in titles, headings, the first paragraph, and throughout the content.
  • Searcher Intent: Catering to why someone is performing a search, whether it’s to find information, make a purchase, etc.

Effective keyword optimization allows you to create pages that best meet user intent. This boosts your chances of ranking highly for your chosen keywords. 

Using a Keyword Research Tool for On-Page SEOUsing a Keyword Research Tool for On-Page SEO

I have longer guides on the types of keywords you should look at, and another on how to do keyword research you can follow for this step.

2. High-Quality Content Creation

Quality content is the keystone of on-page SEO. It is, after all, fundamental to the selling point of Google — which is that it is the go-to place to find answers to your questions. It’s why Google pushes Helpful Content Updates every so often.

So, your content must meet Google’s standards of quality in order to make it to the top. To do that, your content must be authoritative, valuable to the reader, and deliver on the promises made by your meta tags and headings.

What Constitutes Quality Content:

  • Originality: Your content must be unique and offer fresh insights.
  • Relevancy: It should align with your target user’s intent and be updated regularly.
  • Engagement: Content must encourage users to spend time on your site and interact with your offerings.

Creating content that exceeds user expectations can dramatically bolster your SEO as it can directly affect user engagement metrics and boost the credibility of your site. 

Webmaster’s Note: Beyond making sure all new content is high-quality, however, is ensuring all of your existing content is also up to par. I’ll be covering that in part four of this series, so keep an eye out for that. 

3. URL Structure

URLs are not only a ranking factor but also enhance the user experience when structured logically. 

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Features of an Effective URL Structure:

  • Concise and Descriptive: A URL should be concise and explain your page content. No stop words.
  • Keyword Inclusion: A relevant keyword can enhance a URL’s performance.
  • Use Hyphens instead of Underscores: Conventional use dictates using hyphens to separate words.

A clear URL helps users and search engines make sense of the page’s content before they even reach it.

Here’s an example of a bad URL slug. 

Example of Bad URL StructureExample of Bad URL Structure

And here’s an example of a good, optimized one.

Example of Good URL StructureExample of Good URL Structure

4. Title Tag and Headings

I find that certain practices for these two elements give the most benefit to a page’s SEO. 

Best Practices for Title Tag and Heading Optimization:

  • Use a Keyword-First Approach: Place keywords first in your title tag, as uninterrupted by stop-words as possible.
  • Keep it Simple: Title tags should be concise to ensure the entire tag is displayed on the SERPs.
  • Same Keyword, Different Phrasing: Use the same keyword in your title tag and heading 1. However, use different phrasing or wording for each. 
  • Insert Related Keywords: Do this for your heading 2, 3, and so on, where it makes sense.
  • Avoid Duplicates: Use different title tags and headings for every unique page.

4. Meta Tags Enhancement

Meta tags, such as the meta description, serve as a brief pitch to users on search engine results pages. Other meta tags, like your image alt text and links, provide important context to both the user and crawlbot.

Tips for Enhanced Meta Tags:

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  • Compelling Copy: Write title tags and meta descriptions that accurately summarize the page content and entice clicks.
  • Keyword Usage: Try to insert target keywords and/or related keywords effectively in your meta descriptions, and within the limit.
  • Uniqueness: Each page should have unique meta tags. 
  • Be Descriptive: Your image alt text should not only include a related keyword but should also adequately describe what is seen on the image. 
  • Add internal and external links: Semantic search means Google can use the links in your pages to gain a better understanding of its content. Always add relevant internal links, and only include external links from trusted websites. 
  • Use Noindex Robots Meta Tag: Add this to prevent any pages with thin content, or pages with little value and no intent from appearing in the SERPs.
  • Use rel=”canonical” Link Tag: Use this for any duplicate pages you have on your website. Doing this can help you control which version of the page gets indexed and ranks for your targeted keywords. 
  • Set your Open Graph Meta Tags: This will let you optimize how your pages look when they’re shared on social media.
  • Set your Viewport Meta Tag: This configures how your pages are scaled and displayed on different devices and platforms, which is important for user experience (more on that later). 

To get the most out of your SEO, don’t neglect this part of your on-page SEO checklist. The small tweaks here can add up to the big picture. 

Well-crafted meta tags have the potential to increase click-through rates, boost your visibility on organic search and image search, enhance user experience, and also distribute link equity throughout your pages. All these contribute to how well your page ranks. 

5. Internal Linking

Internal linking spreads link equity throughout your site and can help search engines discover new pages. Always link back to pillar content, or other high-value content on your website. 

Benefits of Strategic Internal Linking:

  • Navigation: They guide users through other relevant pages on your website.
  • Page Authority: Anchor text can help to convey what the linked-to page is about, which can aid in ranking for those terms.
  • User Time on Site: Providing relevant links can keep users engaged on your site for longer periods.

Good internal linking can significantly increase your engagement rates and contribute to building a robust site architecture. I have a separate post on how to build topical authority through internal linking you can check out.

6. User Experience (UX)

User experience affects on-page SEO because search engines favor websites that provide a positive user experience.

UX Factors to Consider in Your Website Design:

  • Mobile-Friendliness: The site must perform well across all devices — but especially on mobile-view, as most users use Google through their phones.
  • Ease of Use: The site should be navigable and logical in its layout. Navigation bars and other menus should be intuitive and prioritize the most important pages of your website.
  • Page Speed: Pages should load quickly to reduce bounce rates. Follow this guide to site speed optimization for this point.

As UX becomes an even more important ranking factor, I find it is necessary to add to this on-page SEO checklist. Sites that deliver a high-quality user experience will dominate search engine results pages.

Key Takeaway

Mastering this pillar of SEO is crucial for achieving high rankings on Google, and staying updated with evolving best practices is essential. But with every update, what works best changes. 

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My 2024 on-page SEO checklist provides basically the most up-to-date practices for the elements on your website. Follow it, and you should be able to boost your website’s authority, credibility, and long-term SEO performance.

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