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How To Get The Equivalent Of $100K in PPC Ads For Free

Posted by scanlin

This post was originally in YouMoz, and was promoted to the main blog because it provides great value and interest to our community. The author's views are entirely his or her own and may not reflect the views of SEOmoz, Inc.

We launched our site in July 2010. By the end of 2011 we ranked on page one organic results for 108 relevant phrases. During 2011 we went from four phrases in the top three results to 44 phrases in the top three. Here are the SEO tactics we used to get the equivalent of $100K in PPC ads in 2011 for free.

Starting in early 2009, we took 18 months to build a subscription-based information service for investors. Half way through that process we started thinking about marketing and joined SEOmoz to learn about SEO. (First and foremost, thanks to the SEOMoz team and community for educating us on how to do SEO, as we were total novices!) Based on what we learned we made changes to our site architecture, URL naming conventions, image naming conventions, and content strategy before we launched.

Because we are a self-funded startup we knew we wouldn't have a big (or any, really) PPC budget. In our sector (financial services) many of the phrases we wanted are $10/click because we are bidding against well funded competitors (online brokers mostly). Given our conversion rates and lifetime customer value we can't make money by buying visitors at $10/click. We had to rely on organic traffic and SEO.

SEO Results

We made solid progress with our SEO in 2011. We are analytical types and like to graph the number of phrases we have in Top 3 and Page 1 organic results each week.

For Page 1 results we went from 14 phrases at the beginning of 2011 to 108 phrases at the end of 2011:

For Top 3 organic rankings in 2011 we went from four at the start of the year to 44 at the end of the year:

The impact of these ranking improvements was significant. We quadrupled our Google referred organic traffic during the year. At the start of the year we were getting 2000 visitors per month from Google organic visits. By the end of 2011 we were getting 8000 visitors per month from Google organic visits:

For us, this increase in organic search traffic helped us grow our business nicely during 2011.

Over $100,000 Of PPC Ads Equivalent

We wanted to know how much that organic traffic was worth to us in terms of equivalent PPC ad spend. So we went to the Google Keyword Tool and looked up the Exact Match estimated CPC for each phrase where we ranked. Then we multiplied that number by the actual visits we received for that Exact Match phrase.

For example, we rank for "call option" which has an estimated CPC (for Exact Match) of $13.66. We got 286 clicks from that phrase in 2011, which would have cost us 286 x $13.66 or $3907 if we had purchased those clicks via PPC. Do that same exercise for all of the phrases that sent us organic traffic during 2011 and you get a number in excess of $100,000. Those are visits we got for free because of our SEO. (Did I mention how much we appreciate our training from SEOmoz yet?)

Cool. So How Did You Get Those Rankings?

Ah, yes. The secret sauce. Because we are grateful to the community here, we are going to share our tactics. None of this is rocket science or breaking new ground. But rather than vague assurances, we can say for certain these tactics worked for us.

On-page optimization. We created an Excel file and mapped our site so we knew which phrase was mapped to which URL. We limited ourselves to one phrase per URL (okay, maybe two phrases if one was the plural of the other). Then we used the Report Card feature of the On Page tools here until we got an 'A' grade for every phrase/URL pair. We did this for about 200 phrases we care about. Yes, it took a while (a little bit of time each day spread over six months).

Internal linking. If a blog article on one concept mentions a concept we have another blog article for then we make sure the first points to the second with appropriate anchor text. We also interlink our Tutorial with our Blog. We actually repeat this process about once every 90 days, so to make sure that older content is referring to newer content (and vice versa) as we add more content pages.

New content. We add at least one page of unique content per week to the site (300-500 words written by us and relevant to our audience). We have a list of phrases we'd like to rank for that we don't currently rank for and tend to create content around one of those phrases each week.

Link building. We build deep links to every page. For some pages, optimized for long tail phrases, it only takes 1 or 2 links with appropriate anchor text to get a decent ranking. But for most of our phrases it requires many more links than that. We wrote a ton of guest blog articles and article marketing articles (non-spun, non-spammy) and posted them on themed (investment related) blogs and sites. An example is this guest post on a PR5 site.

BLU. Blogger Link Up is a free email list where people post requests for articles every day (there are a few of these kinds of sites). If you write something they will give you a link back. Before spending time creating new content for someone else we always check their traffic stats and look at their site. If their site is spammy looking then forget it. But many of them are quality, well-curated sites that will provide a decent link in exchange for quality content.

HARO. If you aren't using HARO you should be. It stands for Help A Reporter Out. You sign up (free) and then get a daily email from journalists looking for sources on articles. If you are relevant to the article they are working on and offer them some expert answers or content they may cite you in their article (and give you a link back). Major publications use HARO and we have successfully gotten links on sites like American Express's OpenForum (PR6 site) through this process. It's not the same as having an expensive PR firm, but it will give you at least some access to the same kind of publications a PR firm would.

Press releases. Never underestimate the links you will get if you issue a press release. We use PRWeb but there are others. Make sure the release is SEO optimized (put in a few links to deep pages on your site). Seems like no matter what you issue at PRWeb there are dozens of sites that will republish your release, creating dozens of new links. Yes, you have to pay for the releases. Do it a couple times a year, minimum.

Forum participation. This does not mean posting spam in forums. This means find where your audience hangs out and provide meaningful participation. After you've established yourself as credible (posted a certain number of non-spam postings) then most forums will let you have a do-follow link in your signature line for each post. Yes, it takes time to read and participate in the forums. You will not only get some link love (for the bots) but eventually but you will also get human visitors who just like what you're saying in the forums and come check you out.

YouTube videos. We weren't sure about this one until we did it, but it's totally worth it. Create a channel on YouTube (which will get you one do-follow link from a PR9 site) and post some videos. We saw a noticeable increase in rankings once we did this. We think that PR9 link really helped.

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+: Set up profiles and every time you write a blog entry post it to these outlets.

You Had Better Like To Write

The bottom line is we spend a ton of time writing. Writing for our own site, writing guest blogs and articles for other sites, writing to answer HARO requests, answering questions in forums, etc. We probably spend half our time on new content creation and writing in general. Yes, you can outsource the writing but (1) it costs money, and (2) much of what you get back won't be of high enough quality to use (at least, within our financial niche that has been our experience). Better to write it yourself.

We've definitely come to realize that SEO is not a sprint; it's a marathon. Even though we made good progress in 2011 we have another hundred phrases we want to rank for in 2012. That's over eight per month. Time to get back to writing!

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