Many of today’s SaaS companies target niche industries, like legal operations or dentistry. For these “vertical SaaS” companies, much of the old content marketing playbook requires modification. Knowledge barriers are higher. There are fewer keywords to target, and those keywords have a fraction of the volume other industries enjoy.
But one company—SimpleLegal—has turned content marketing into a core growth channel by embracing the constraints of vertical SaaS, thanks in part to a single idea: treating their existing content with the same focus and care as new content. Through a systematic process of content refreshing, Animalz helped SimpleLegal increase traffic to their existing articles by an average of 515%.
The SEO Challenges of Vertical SaaS
Many software companies are “horizontal SaaS”: products that help with specific business functions—like marketing or accounting—but remain agnostic to the industries that they serve. HubSpot focuses solely on marketing features but targets companies in all industries, from SMB through to the enterprise; QuickBooks does the same with accounting.
But today, some SaaS companies choose to compete on a different dimension. Instead of targeting the broadest audience possible, these “vertical SaaS” companies narrow their focus to specific industries, often providing a range of generalized features—accounting, analytics, project management—but tailored to the idiosyncrasies of their target industry.
If horizontal SaaS could be characterized as niche features for broad audiences, vertical SaaS could be thought of as broad features for niche audiences.
SimpleLegal is an example of vertical SaaS. Their software platform transforms how in-house legal teams manage everything from operations to finance, vendors to matters. This increased specificity—working only with in-house legal teams—brings with it a unique set of SEO challenges.
In the same way that SimpleLegal has a smaller TAM (total addressable market) than other companies, their search TAM—the total range of relevant, industry-specific keywords available—is smaller. Keywords are harder to find and generally have less volume. These constraints mean that every keyword that SimpleLegal does rank for is especially valuable: once a ranking is achieved, the incentives to maintain that ranking are greater than for other companies.
But Kara Wen, Digital Marketing Specialist at SimpleLegal, sees a silver lining to these constraints: “We don’t have a lot of keywords to target … but that means we can focus on driving quality content to the keywords we have available. I see that as more of a benefit: we have high-quality, educational content out there.”
“We don’t have a lot of keywords to target … but that means we can focus on driving quality content to the keywords we have available.”
SimpleLegal has an ironclad approach to preserving (and improving) their traffic. Their systematic approach to content refreshing provides valuable lessons to any company looking to hold on to hard-earned traffic:
1. Deliberately Target Secondary Keywords
The performance of many search articles can be improved by deliberately targeting secondary keywords: relevant long-tail keyword variations that don’t warrant a standalone article. In isolation, these keywords rarely generate more than a handful of visitors per month, but in aggregate, they can add hundreds of monthly visits.
SimpleLegal’s article 34 top legal blogs to follow in 2021 is an example of this strategy in action. By deliberately targeting 10 secondary keywords, traffic climbed from 43 pageviews and 9 ranking keywords to 3,096 pageviews and over 1,000 ranking keywords:
By widening the focus of the article beyond the original topic—in-house legal blogs—to include other legal disciplines, SimpleLegal was able to target a suite of relevant secondary keywords and dramatically increase the search potential for the article:
Target Keywords - Before
Target Keywords - After
in house counsel blog (20MSV)
in house counsel blog (20MSV)
corporate law blog (40MSV)
criminal law blog (40MSV)
legal ethics blogs (30MSV)
litigation blogs (30MSV)
legal technology blogs (20MSV)
For any article refresh, these keyword variations can usually be found through three sources:
Incidental keyword rankings. Unintended keywords that the article currently ranks for in low positions (page two or beyond).
Rankings from competitor content. Relevant keywords that other articles on the same topic already rank for—something which Clearscope can analyze for the top 30 ranking articles for a given keyword.
Keyword research tools. Keywords derived from the “Matching terms,” “Related terms,” and “Search suggestions” reports in tools like Ahrefs.
For this exercise, subject matter expertise is crucial: the relevancy of these secondary keywords needs to be evaluated, and the precise relationship between each keyword needs to be understood (Is matter management a synonym or a subset of case management? Is the topic substantial enough to warrant its own article?).
According to Kara, the key to making this process work are writers that are “specifically dedicated to the company and to the industry that they’re writing for.” As she elaborates, “I’m really grateful to the Animalz team that is working with us. We don’t have to really worry about writing style and training … we can really focus on the content, and the research that’s being done for these pieces.”
2. Fill “Gaps” in Your Content (Even if There Aren’t Keywords to Back You Up)
SimpleLegal’s refresh process goes beyond keyword volume: the team believes in the importance of remedying “gaps” in existing content, even when there are no keywords to validate the process. These gaps often take one of three forms:
Missing information. Reviewing existing content can surface key information that’s missing from the top-ranking articles. Refreshes are an opportunity to make your content comprehensive (we like the MECE framework)—and offer information that other articles don’t.
Data and social proof. SimpleLegal dedicates a portion of each refresh to sourcing new data (crucial for an audience of research-savvy legal professionals) and incorporating social proof to validate their recommendations—the real, lived experiences of their customers.
Changing trends. Wherever it makes sense, the team incorporates relevant legal trends into historical articles. As Kara shares, this is often done to preempt a potential decline in traffic: “There are trends that come and go … if you don’t account for them, something can happen to your traffic.”
The team improved the performance of 4 in-house tools every legal team needs (with data-backed examples) from 128 monthly pageviews to 658 by including quotes from customers exploring how each featured tool had improved their workflow: the difference between “A document management system helps you keep documents organized” and the more specific and credible “A document management system helped Faegre Drinker legal services decrease workspace clutter by 95%.”
What is legal operations? was expanded from a simple definition article to include greater historical context and recent data—the evolution of the legal ops function over time, and research showing the number of legal ops professionals in the average legal team. These updates helped boost monthly pageviews from 256 to 1,013 post-refresh.
These qualitative improvements play an indirect role in improving search performance—better reader experience means better on-page engagement and a greater likelihood that visitors will engage with SimpleLegal content in future SERPs—but can also have a direct impact.
Keyword volume is an imperfect metric. Keyword research tools struggle to accurately estimate volume for long-tail keyword variations, meaning that many “zero volume” keywords will still generate a handful of real-world visits. Nor is keyword volume static: keywords that have no volume today may generate visitors in the future (something we refer to as keyword volatility). By updating content to reflect changing trends, SimpleLegal’s content is positioned to rank for new keywords as they appear.
By using quality and comprehensiveness as the main determinants of their refresh strategy—and not keyword volume alone—SimpleLegal is able to rank for keyword opportunities that are often invisible to keyword research tools. They update content with readers, not search engines, in mind—and are rewarded with better search performance as a result.
3. Repromote Like It’s a New Article
Content refreshing is designed primarily to increase organic search traffic—but Kara and the SimpleLegal team go further, using newly updated articles to generate traffic and engagement from extra channels. Every updated article is put through a repromotion process, and as Kara explains, “it’s about the same as our new content [promotion] process.”
That typically means:
Organic social: Newly updated articles are promoted through SimpleLegal’s LinkedIn and Twitter accounts. Though not the team’s biggest traffic source, “it’s pretty steady when it comes to engagement,” and this engagement creates fuel for future refreshes: “I look at Organic Social a lot to see what [trends] people are talking about.”
Owned email: Refreshed articles are shared through the company’s monthly content roundup emails.
Paid social: Updated content eventually makes its way to the paid social team.
This process is made possible by the previous steps in their refresh process. By filling “gaps” and expanding articles with secondary keywords, every updated article contains enough new information to warrant extensive repromotion—and the feedback from readers highlights trends and further information to build into the next refresh.
Once the one-off repromotion is complete, the updated article is integrated into the team’s ongoing campaigns and used to support the launch of new content and product updates. Kara shares, “It’s not like the promotions ever stop—[updated articles] always get integrated within our other campaigns.”
“It’s not like the promotions ever stop—[updated articles] always get integrated within our other campaigns.”
“Content Refreshing Is a Powerful Tool”
As Kara concludes, “content refreshing is a very powerful tool—when used strategically.” For SimpleLegal, that means treating content refreshing as an ongoing, consistent process that most articles in their library are likely to cycle through at some point. While most companies chase an endless cycle of new rankings and content at the expense of older articles that gradually atrophy and lose traffic, SimpleLegal knows that every article is the best it can be.
As a vertical SaaS company, content refreshing has been crucial for SimpleLegal to grow its search presence. But as content marketing becomes more competitive and uncontested keyword opportunities grow rarer, the strategies used by SimpleLegal—targeting secondary keywords, filling content “gaps,” and repromoting updated content—become crucial to all companies.