Intercom is a messaging platform that allows companies to communicate effectively with their customers. Their substantial content team is well-regarded in the SaaS and startup space.
When they first started out ten years ago, Intercom aimed to move away from classical help desks with ticket numbers, where the customer experience can be unengaged, impersonal, or simply frustrating. Following Drift’s “conversational marketing”, Intercom coined the term “conversational support” and took ownership of the space.
However, owning a space that nobody knows about has very little benefit, which is where SEO comes into play.
The company already had excellent content related to search terms like customer engagement and onboarding — thousands of articles, downloadables, ebooks, and print books — but there were search terms that still needed coverage. There was also a lot of legacy content and many motions for content without a formulated organic strategy.
Our challenge was to fill the gaps, reposition much of what they had, and work on a search and organic strategy around it, making sure that Intercom ranks and has authority in the customer support space.
When I started out in SEO in 2002, I thought I’d be a coder. But when it became a space for marketing people above all else, I shifted gears and became a marketer instead, finding that digital marketing was enthralling and rewarding.
All the while, SEO has remained the bedrock of my skill set. In almost every team I’ve worked with, many o them in B2B and SaaS, I’ve either owned or developed the SEO strategy.
There are two types of search terms to work with: broad terms and long-tail keywords. The goal was to rank for both types.
Broad terms, like ‘customer support’ or ‘customer feedback’, attract a lot of searches and a lot of content. For these, we needed to improve the vast banks of existing content we had (historical optimization).
We went through relevant search terms and checked our rankings. Then we worked to make the content rank top by adjusting or adding to it, always making sure it satisfied the search that brought it up.
Often we would combine two or three similar articles into one longer piece of pillar content, with added customer examples to help satisfy the search intent. We also linked to even deeper content in each piece — downloadable white papers, e-books, or similar related to customer support. This broad content has lots of direct competition, so it needs to be excellent.
While it’s hard to dominate broad searches, it’s easier to rank well and gain authority in a smaller area that you’re championing. That’s where long-tail keywords come in.
Long-tail keywords are less common and more focused, requiring you to zone in on the practical problems mid-market and enterprise customers are looking to solve.
Topics we covered included how the complexities of large companies might connect to customer support problems. We tackled specific issues like integrating Intercom with Salesforce CRM and organizing large customer support teams.
Although specific keywords attract fewer searches, they also have less content written for them. You’re therefore likely to rank based on the quality of your content. The hard part is getting that initial discovery traffic.
That’s why optimizing for broad searches is so important. You’d be surprised how often managers at big companies search “what is customer support?” or “how to build a customer feedback strategy”.
When targeting smaller businesses, it makes sense to go easier on the broader search terms because every employee is more likely to be an expert in their respective field. But if like Intercom, you’re targeting huge companies, baseline content is essential for organic search optimization.
Having access to extensive data is never a bad idea in the first place; it’s always good to know the bigger picture.
Moreover, I’m aware that for many clients, focusing on broad search terms is counterintuitive. I needed the right data to support my strategy.
So, I ran experiments to demonstrate the journey that high-value customers go through when they stumble across our content and the learning experience they have.
I showed the client that customers who might lead us to annualize hundreds of thousands of dollars — team leads with many juniors — start with an introductory blog post, only moving on to more sophisticated content afterward.
Intercom’s goal was to impact the customer support space with a more natural, engaging, and personal service, which they called “conversational support”. It was up to me to implement this in terms of SEO.
Intuitively, the next move would have been to replace every mention of “customer support” in our branding with “conversational support”, because we had stopped taking part in the former and were now providing the latter.
However, although smaller companies were quick to have a piece of the action, hardly anybody knew about this new space. So, this would have translated to nobody stumbling across our new content.
Instead, I pushed to forge a connection between the old term and the new one by referring to conversational support as a type of customer support or customer support software.
If the customer understood from our content that these three terms were interrelated, then so would Google, and vice versa.
Typically in SEO, you look at the traffic and let others worry about potential conversions. But I couldn’t do that here because, with an in-house organic search strategy, the end business metrics are key. That’s why working with both broad and specific search terms is so important.
Broad search terms have low intent: people searching for them are very unlikely to convert. This means that gaining enough traffic from them to generate significant leads is very expensive (if it’s even possible).
Specific search terms have high intent: people querying them are very likely to convert. But barely anyone is looking them up.
So, that established relationship between “conversational support” (niche) and “customer support” (very broad) came into play. It allowed people to find the latter easily, then switch to the former if interested.
Once people were reading the specific content, we were providing them lots of value while their intent was high, meaning there was plenty of opportunities to convert them.
There were many concrete and operational elements to the project. One example was tackling Google’s rich snippet results. Rich snippets are the extracts that Google highlights amongst the top-ranking search results. Typically, if your article connects to a rich snippet, you drive 20% more traffic.
We made any definitions featured in our content more prominent so that we might feature as rich snippets for terms like “customer support”, “customer feedback strategy”, and “product adoption”. This meant creating something called a ‘schema’ around them to help Google identify them more easily.
This is an example of companies being at the mercy of Google. Our snippets would disappear from one day to the next. So, I asked a content agency I’d been working with to verify my suspicions as to why this was happening, which they did. They also verified that, thankfully, my proposed solution made the snippets reappear. Within two weeks they were all back online, driving increased traffic.
We successfully shifted both the content we were producing and who we were producing it for within a 6 month period. Given Intercom’s extensive team and large banks of existing content, this was a significant achievement.
We entered and become relevant in the customer support space online. For the query “customer support”, Intercom ranked in the top 3 results and regularly beat the Customer Support Wikipedia article.
We also championed our own idea of what customer support should look like and made “conversational support” visible on the web.
Because SEO relies so heavily on metrics and data, our approach and the information we gained impacted further developments in the company. It gave everyone a better understanding of what content is best to produce, what keywords to look out for, and so on. It also raised awareness of the importance of these metrics.
I particularly like working with teams at the start of their journey. Imparting the knowledge I’ve accumulated about being open to experimentation, looking for growth, telling your story — that’s where I value my impact. Why waste all the trial and error of a long career in SEO when I can pass on the knowledge I’ve gained?
Today, the SEO space is about value creation and sharing content. Understanding the technical dynamics surrounding your work is as important as ever, but you’ll never grow something phenomenal with technical knowledge alone.