This post is part of Made @ HubSpot, an in-house line of thought leaders, where we draw lessons from experiments conducted by our own HubSpotters.
At the end of our three-part series, we have one final question (or two) to answer:
Does the surround sound strategy really work? And what results have we seen since we started?
The TL; DR answer is Yes. It works and we share our preliminary results in this article.
So if you wanted to use surround sound in 2021, we both thought (that’s Irina Nica and Alex Birkett) we’d end this short series with a handful of resources: the formula that HubSpot uses to measure progress, our proprietary surround soundtracker (also known as SERP Tracker) and a selection of results that will hopefully inspire your own business.
What is the surround sound strategy?
At HubSpot, “Surround Sound” is the name Alex Birkett gave to a content marketing approach that aims to make HubSpot products visible every time someone searches for a product-related keyword (e.g. “Best Help Desk Software ”or“ Best Live Chat Software ”). ).
The goal is for potential users to see HubSpot on all or most of the pages that rank in Google’s top results for those keywords. In the first two articles in the series, you will learn more about the surround sound effect and the scaling of the program at HubSpot.
Surround sound vs. SEO
A lot of people are confused here: The definition of surround sound is that the goal is to improve search engine visibility, but isn’t that what SEO does?
The answer is, surround sound includes SEO results, but it doesn’t stop there.
Here’s an example: Let’s say we want to increase our search engine visibility for the keyword “Free CRM”.
A first step would be to make sure that our own domain is well suited for that keyword. That is the “job” of the SEO function.
However, the visibility in SERP doesn’t stop there.
When potential customers look for a free CRM, they may not stop at the first few results. Instead, they click through various curated list suggestions that they find in search results.
Our product awareness goal is to ensure that HubSpot is visible in as many results as possible, especially on third-party domains. The level of SERP real estate that HubSpot is mentioned in (including owned and third-party domains) is what surround sound measures.
This is why we say that to measure surround sound results we need to measure our visibility in SERP for a given keyword or topic beyond SEO.
However, surround sound is not yet a “mainstream” tactic for product awareness. So there are no methods or tools to measure visibility in SERP beyond the rankings (as far as we’ve seen). Therefore, in order to scale our efforts, we had to build our own systems from scratch.
How HubSpot measures surround sound results
Let’s talk about scaling.
If HubSpot had just one high intent keyword in our portfolio (ex. “Best Marketing Automation Software”), it wouldn’t be crazy to measure our visibility manually.
Once a month, you can just open Google, search for “best marketing automation software,” and count how many of the top 20 sites mention HubSpot.
However, this clearly becomes a problem if you add more than one keyword. Imagine the frustration of doing this for 600+ keywords per month.
To make this strategy “scalable” (a phrase I don’t like, by the way, because he’s been armed by Curmudgeons who are all too easy to turn off interesting ideas by saying it isn’t scalable), we had to do a some things:
- Build custom tools and infrastructures to automate aspects of the strategy
- Let others know about the surround sound process and playbook
- Evangelize and encourage others to join the idea
The latter was the easiest; Once you get some results, others can easily grasp the meaning of an idea.
I’m going to focus on building custom tools here. First, let me explain the value of investing in custom tools, automation, and infrastructure as I can already feel the objections:
- “We don’t have the technical resources to create our own tools and automations!”
- “Won’t it cost us a lot of money and time creating custom tools?”
There is always a creative solution to addressing the first point. If you don’t have the in-house resources to code new tools, you can easily outsource them as long as you have good specs. Websites like Code Mentor or even Upwork are great for this. Additionally, it’s a great excuse for (mythical) non-technical marketers to build new skills.
Second, building tools to reduce marginal cost or effort in the long term increases the expected value of the program.
Lots of jargon in this sentence, so let me unwrap that with an example from the experiment.
Why invest in tools, automation and infrastructure?
Imagine that the expected value (the “predicted value of a variable calculated as the sum of all possible values times the probability of occurrence”) of an A / B test is $ 1,000.
Some of the A / B tests fail, which means that you only “lose” during the trial period, others do nothing, and others win (and those who win do so at different levels). All in all, if you averaged those values, a given A / B test could be predicted to be worth $ 1,000.
Now imagine if every time you wanted to run an A / B test, you had to hire two engineers, a designer, and an analyst to not just set up the test from scratch (you don’t have a testing tool here), but you too need to do at least a month of research, wait two weeks for approval after submitting your hypothesis, and then do an average of four meetings with this crew.
What does it all cost? Over $ 1,000? Congratulations, the expected value of your A / B test is now negative.
On the other hand, what if you had a testing tool that made it easy to set up and analyze experiments (with trustworthy data), and imagine yourself prioritizing to focus only on high impact tests? Now you lower the upfront cost of each additional test (the marginal cost), which increases (only marginally) the expected value of each test. At the program level, you will now be rewarded for doing more testing because the expected value is positive and you have very low marginal costs. You’ve invested a little time in tools and automation, and you’ve dramatically increased the ROI of your program without improving your win rate.
That is exactly what we had to do to implement the surround sound strategy economically.
The effort of manually checking, measuring, and storing SERP visibility, as well as the manual costs of contacting and relationship management would forever outweigh the positive benefits of the placements we could get on a SERP. That is, unless we can reduce the cost of data collection and storage, as well as outreach and relationship management.
Enter: the SERP tracker
Now we have a functional tool that will do all of this for us! We call it the “SERP Tracker”.
Here is the aesthetically beautiful surface:
(For all the other nerds, it was written in R and hosted and served with Shiny. We use serpapi.com to get search results from Google, and we also use Bing’s API [free up to a certain number of credits]. I have an older version of the generic script available to view here – we’ve updated it many times since then, but this version will still work.)
I’ll show you how it works, but you can also watch this loom tutorial if you’d prefer a video:
Here is a quick tutorial on how to use the tool and what kind of data it can give you.
First you need to validate by entering a password. Since we use different APIs, we want to limit usage to the conversation of credits (again we are tracking 600+ keywords so this is a weighty undertaking).
Then you can enter any keyword (e.g. “Best Form Builder” or “Best Help Desk Software”).
You can then select a region and the number of search results you want to retrieve (up to 10 pages or 100 results).
Finally, you’ll need to enter the URL against which you want to check the search results.
In other words, if you wanted to search for the term “best live chat software”, you could type in “hubspot.com” or “drift.com” to see how many of the URLs rank for the search keyword “best” Live Chat Software “mention this url.
I have preset options for HubSpot URLs to check our product page, blog posts, or generic hubspot.com pages:
You can also enter a custom link by clicking “Other”.
This allows for competitor searches and custom HubSpot URLs, among other things (if you just want to see who mentions our Forms product page or who mentions Academy pages, for example – this is also a workaround to check affiliate links as this is used a lot are structured like “affiliatesite.com/ref/hubspot” so you can just type “Hubspot” in the url to search for these):
We use the SEMRush API to get the search volume for keywords. However, sometimes SEMRush has no values for search volume. In this case only an error message is issued:
If all information has been entered correctly, click “Submit” and the calculation will start. After some processing time, the following report will be generated:
You get a beautiful visual pie chart, loved by analysts and data visualizers around the world, showing how many ranking URLs have the link (and how many don’t). This shows that of the top 20 search results for the term “best live chat software”, our URL “hubspot.com” appears on two of them.
I also made it pull in keyword-level data (in the example above it shows “best live chat software” gets 390 searches per month). This helps to weigh the relative importance of a given keyword (i.e. if a keyword gets 10,000 searches per month, or 100, this is strategically important).
Below that you will get a complete data table that contains the domain and URL of all pages that rank for this keyword, regardless of whether the link you checked against is included (TRUE or FALSE), the keyword you were looking for (only for reference and if you want to drag the data to Excel), the number of links included and the full link (if you have activated “hubspot.com” and the ranking page on “blog.hubspot.com/marketing / form-builder “references -tools”, it will get the full link url for you):
As mentioned above, it can also be used to check the links on other websites. This shows how many of the top 20 ranking sites for “Mailchimp alternatives” mention appsumo.com (which makes SendFox an email marketing tool):
And as mentioned above, you can choose the region. I currently have options for Germany, France, Spain, and Japan, although we can add more regions pretty easily. This will be incredible for international expansion (more on that later)
As a result, the database was only changed to a different region (ie if you select German, the ranks are displayed in google.de). This report shows how many links are displayed on hubspot.com on pages that are considered “marketing automation software” in Germany:
Next stage: automate the report for 600+ keywords using Google Data Studio and scripts
This data from the SERP tracker alone is valuable. You can quickly check the search results pages for product mentions, compare them to other websites, and even do a bulk check.
However, to really get your surround sound strategy going, it’s imperative to store and access data over a period of time to track results and identify gaps and opportunities.
To do this, we extract data from the SERP Tracker, transform and mix it and load it into BigQuery so that we can visualize it with Google Data Studio and create reports.
All of this is done automatically with an R script that runs once a month. It pulls all the SERP data for our list of keywords and stores the data in sheets (in the future we will write directly to BigQuery). BigQuery is connected to Sheets so we filter, cleanse, and blend the data with a quick SQL script. This is then connected to Data Studio, where all the filters are applied and we visualize our reports.
Our reports start with how we map our target keywords to features, products, and hubs. This database is also the source for the SERP tracker and the Google Data Studio reports, which we use to track progress and communicate with stakeholders.
First, we’ll use a bird’s eye view of all of our product hubs to understand overall progress and how each hub is doing against the others. If you’re familiar with HubSpot’s products, it’s no surprise that our sales and marketing hubs are leaders in surround sound visibility.
Our reports go one level deeper and we can see in a diagram how different functions (e.g. HubSpot Email Marketing versus HubSpot Forms) relate to each other.
We have function-specific dashboards for a more detailed analysis. In the following example we see how an isolated feature (HubSpot CMS) has evolved and how our visibility for the most important keywords related to this feature has changed.
1. Surround Sound: The first 6 months
The main thing to accept before starting any surround sound program is that you can never have full control over your visibility.
There are many factors that play a role in developing your visibility:
- Search engine updates cause the top 20 results to fluctuate (quite dramatically at times).
- The top 20 shows new content for the keywords that you are focusing on, that you might outperform, or whose results mention your brand
- Competitors and other third-party sites will appear in the top 20 results, but don’t mention your brand
Despite these challenges, the results we’ve seen in the first 6 months of our surround sound program show that you can change your visibility by working with other websites.
If you want to learn more about running a surround sound program, check out the previous article in this series.
The table below shows how HubSpot’s visibility in SERP has changed since April. Google’s core update in May 2020 dramatically changed the SERP landscape, causing many of the articles mentioning HubSpot to disappear from the top 20. After that, our visibility gradually increased as we built more partnerships (e.g. more websites joined our affiliate program).
If we just look at all of the pages that mention HubSpot, for the 600+ keywords we monitor for surround sound, roughly 50% of those are now being influenced by our surround sound program.
Conclusion: final thoughts
There is still a lot of work and opportunity for our product awareness program. The most important thing we’ve learned so far is that surround sound is a marathon, not a sprint.
It takes time and effort to build real partnerships, and because Brian Halligan always “adds value> extracts value”.
Having a strong brand name also helps a lot, at least when reaching out to a potential partner first. In fact, it’s fair to say that this advance would not have been possible in just 6 months if HubSpot had been a startup. It takes time to build a brand and get others to recommend it.
As with anything, there is no silver bullet solution. While we share many of our processes and tools, the way we create surround sound on HubSpot may not work exactly the same on other brands. The main thing we hope you will take away is: There’s another way of looking at your visibility in SERP that isn’t just SEO.
Have you considered adding surround sound to your content marketing and acquisition strategies in 2021?
Would you like to learn more about the strategy and execution of the surround sound strategy? Read parts one and two of this series.