The backstage of SEO PowerSuite:
What it's like to build software used by 2,000,000+ SEOs
For 12 years, we've been building tools with hundreds of thousands of amazing users worldwide. Last month, that number reached two million. Here's how it all started, what it looks like behind the curtains, and why we're more passionate about it now than ever.
Here's a first: this is not a post by an entrepreneur for entrepreneurs (or at the very least, I'm not writing it with this intention in mind). This is a post for SEO PowerSuite users who use our tools every day, an attempt to give you an idea of how it started and what really happens at the back end (in either sense). This is a post for people who've never used or heard about SEO PowerSuite, too; people who're interested — for whatever twisted reason — in what it's like to build SEO software, and be building it for over 12 years, non-stop.
It took me over a month to put this post together, writing it and deleting the whole thing, and starting all over again. As I'm editing its final version, I'm the most nervous I've been through the process. I have no idea if you'll find this story interesting, or useful, or intriguing; whether you'll think it's too detailed, or not detailed enough; I'm not sure you'll even want to read it in the first place. But for some ineffable reason, I feel it is important to tell it: from what (I think) may have been the tiny first trigger to the entire SEO PowerSuite thing back when I was 15, to how all the dots connected, and all the way through to what keeps us going today.
How SEO PowerSuite started out: the story
Now I look back on it, it's amazing how our story shaped the beliefs we now stick to in everything we do, though it was far from clear at the time. These beliefs are by no means universal rules that can equally apply to every business; but they are the things that made SEO PowerSuite the product it is today, perhaps in even more ways than we ourselves realize.
If you choose to, I guess, you can think about it as a Silicon Valley garage startup story — only, there was no "Silicon Valley", "garage", or "startup" in it. This is a story that started in a rental 6,000 miles away from the Bay Area back in 2001, when "startup" wasn't really a word.
But the foundation for it may well have been laid 5 years prior to that, as I was soldering RAM into my computer, a 15-year-old who wanted to play a video game that wouldn't start unless you knew how to hold a soldering iron (the thing on the picture above, in case you were wondering).
I got obsessed with computers the very second I saw one, but that iron was what really made me understand — and get excited about — how they work on the inside. Back then, you didn't go and upgrade your computer (or God forbid, get a new one) when it couldn't handle a program you wanted to start. You either got to terms with the idea of never starting it (in the foreseeable future, that is), or took the risk of upgrading it yourself. If you went with the latter, inevitably, you got things wrong a few dozen of times; but if you were determined enough to keep trying, you would eventually get it right, with a sense of achievement and an unexpected understanding that the alien, complicated beast in front of you — the Computer — was built by humans in a very comprehensible way. Suddenly, every cord, and every electron inside every cord, made sense and fell into place.
Now, let me take you all the way to 2001; specifically, the night when my friend Viktar (the unsuspecting future co-founder of SEO PowerSuite), another friend of ours, and I are building a website in our rented apartment, super thrilled about this new idea we just had. I met Viktar through work; we both had part-time jobs as developers at an outsourcing software company, while we were still in college. On this particular night, out of boredom and sheer undergraduate recklessness, we thought we'd quit our jobs and start our own offshore software company. A couple of hours later, we'd put up this super simple site where we called ourselves an "offshore software development & outsourcing company" which "helps SMBs build robust, powerful software solutions to keep them one step ahead of the competition" (haha, I know). A tiny little problem ensued — we had no plan of how we'd get visitors to the site.
We knew nothing about marketing, spoke little to no English, and had hardly any funds to even consider advertising. So how do we get a lot of customers to our site for free? Eureka — we've got to rank high on Google (no big deal, right?) and they'll come by thousands.
Nah, getting a site show up on Google turned out to be an entire field of science (termed CEO or SEO or something) which involved a whole load of work, most importantly — at that time — link building. In the competitive niche we got ourselves into, it meant thousands of links — not something you can do manually over a short time span. We needed a tool to automate and simplify at least part of the work. But we're programmers, right? A couple of nights later, we had the tool. Call it an alpha version of LinkAssistant: a super simple app that let us build links, mostly through submitting our site to link directories (a legit, perhaps most effective SEO practice at the time), and our rankings started climbing up. But then, before the offshore development thing started to bring money, we run out of the savings we had.
We needed something to live off of. We could have gotten part-time jobs again had we been really passionate about the "offshore software development" thing, but it turned out we weren't. Very quickly, the three of us got busy with our graduation exams, found decent full-time jobs, and drifted apart.
That's where the story could have ended, had I not met Viktar again, a couple of years later, when we literally bumped into each other at another company where we were to work together on a project.
In a sentimental tribute to the past, we dusted off the then-nameless LinkAssistant and started polishing it up on nights and weekends. We liked how it turned out, so just for the fun of it, we uploaded the final version to the Web — a free minimal value product we thought could help other people like us do SEO in a hassle-free way.
To our surprise, it went off like hotcakes. We didn't exactly understand why, but now we look back on it, it makes sense. There was one surprising competitive advantage we didn't know we had: we hadn't bothered to do a tiniest bit of market research. Years later, we learnt there had already been apps like LinkAssistant on the market, and had we known about them, we might have been tempted to copy what they did and how they worked. Instead, we had no idea there were existing solutions and algorithms to be used. So we had to build our own thing, from scratch. As it turned out, LinkAssistant's unique algorithms were more effective in accelerating a site's growth in SERPs than the other tools at the time.
Belief #1: Build something that's unique and 10x better than the alternatives.
I know, it's a bit of a cliche, but let me dwell on it. Very few businesses find or invent a completely new, previously non-existent niche. Most of us do something that a lot of other companies are already doing, and it may be tempting to copy and polish up existing options — only, there are too many people who are doing it already. It's hard to compete in a market if your UVP is "a little better than the rest, maybe". But doing the same old thing in a completely new way — as long as that makes your product better and substantially more efficient — is something that will unfailingly get noticed.
Once we had a few hundreds of downloads without investing any effort into promoting the tool, we felt it must be bringing some value to the users. How about we make it even better and attach a price tag to it, but still keep the free version so users can try it out? To our surprise, people started paying for it.
Shortly, the same story repeated itself in a very funny way.
With the relative success we had with LinkAssistant, we ditched our jobs again and thought the tool would do even better if we built a separate site for it. So we got ourselves a domain name, link-assistant.com (rings a bell?), put up a site with a few pages on it, and took it live. We used LinkAssistant to promote the site about LinkAssistant. It started growing in search like crazy, and we got traffic coming in. Organic search was the only source of visitors for us, and we kept growing. At this point, we felt like we needed a way to track and amplify that progress.
So yeah, we sat down and built a very early version of Rank Tracker. We liked how it turned out. We uploaded it to that LinkAssistant site. People started downloading it. And paying for it.
But at some point, we hit a bit of a dead end. We kept building links religiously, but there were a few competitors who kept ranking better than us. We didn't get it, but one thing we knew was that it still had to do with links.
What if we built a tool that lets you "spy" on the links of your best ranking competitors so you can get links from those sites, too, and outrank everyone in the SERPs? That’s what the first version of SEO SpyGlass did for us.
It should work just as well for other sites, right? How about we offer it as a free download and see?
It was funny: we built tools to promote the site where we promoted the tools we used to promote the site... You get the idea.
Belief #2: Create something that anyone can use.
We did not realize it right away, but it turned out we were lucky enough to have the exact same problem as our future customers: we needed tools to grow our site's search rankings and traffic, tools that are easy to use, affordable and comprehensive. With time, of course, we got more SEO-savvy, and so did part of our audience. But throughout that process, we never forgot what we were looking for when we were starting out: a simple, effective way to get our site to search engine’s top, which would save us the time and effort on doing the same things manually. Since then, we've built a ton of advanced features on top of the early version of SEO PowerSuite, but we never let those features go against the toolkit's simplicity of use.
Our downloads kept growing, and we started getting lots of useful feedback from users. There was no way we could keep doing this ourselves. We hired our 3rd developer, Viktar's acquaintance, who's on the team to this day. He quit a well-paid job in a comfy office at one of the biggest IT companies in the country to work in a rental with 2 guys with a twinkle in the eye and nothing to promise (why he did that remains a mystery to me to this day).
By that point, things started happening real fast.
What if Rank Tracker could do some in-depth keyword research? How about we build a site auditing tool that would crawl your site, detect all tech and SEO issues on it, and tell you how to fix them?
We hired our first marketing specialist (someone to whom I still attribute much of SEO PowerSuite's success). Rented a tiny office.
How about a module for WebSite Auditor that would let users analyze and optimize landing pages? An algorithm for LinkAssistant to determine link quality? An inbuilt email module for outreach?
Ideas kept flowing in. We hired a web developer. A customer support specialist. Got a bigger office.
What if we put it all in one package so people can manage all of their SEO tasks in one place?
Belief #3: Build a solution that’s truly all-in-one.
We started LinkAssistant when link building was about the only SEO practice out there. As both our knowledge in SEO and the industry itself evolved, we started building other tools and features to keep up. The first version of every tool we built was built for ourselves — two friends starting a small business, looking for a single way to manage our increasingly complex Internet Marketing tasks. The last thing we wanted back then was a bunch of SEO services that we'd need to use (and pay for) separately — and my bet is, that's still the case with most of SEOs today. I've heard a lot of people say that it’s better to build a product that's extremely good at one thing — and that's perfect advice if you're just starting out. But with time, you find that expanding your focus is an incredibly powerful growth technique, provided that you keep improving on your micro focuses in the meantime.
Why we keep doing it: connecting the dots
To put it short, we're doing it for the fun, and we're doing it because we believe in it deeply. We're also doing it because the dots mysteriously connected (soldering iron, crazy "offshore software company" idea, accidental encounters, our ignorance about market research, etc.) and let us build a product we like, a product we use religiously (and exclusively) ourselves, and shape the beliefs we now stick to — though not always consciously — in everything we do. Here's how those beliefs translate into the way we build SEO PowerSuite today.
1) We try to build software that offers unique value to users.
From LinkAssistant's first algorithms, much of what we do for SEO PowerSuite remains unique. It's infinitely simpler to build a product that is a dashboard for a dozen of integrated services, bringing them all to one: throw together a bunch of APIs, and call it a new, revolutionary product. The problem isn't only that there's already a dozen of products that are equally revolutionary; but that the open source, third party services they are built upon are very rarely good enough if you dig a little below the surface.
Weirdly, you don't hear the issue of the accuracy of ranking checks brought up a lot, but it can be a huge problem with many tools, especially if you're after geo-specific rankings (which most of the time, you would be). To fetch localized rankings, the tools I know of mostly use a "near" parameter in the URL (which fetches the results that are, as the name suggests, near the specified location, often in a bigger city nearby, and far from the SERPs an actual searcher would see), or the "uule" get-parameter (which generally returns more accurate rankings, but only works for a limited set of locations, mostly the bigger cities). If you do local SEO, you know that searchers located a block away from each other can be getting completely different Google SERPs, so getting results broadly relevant to your target city or area is better than nothing — but often misleading. In Rank Tracker, we use the GPS coordinates for any custom location you put in, letting you be as specific as the location’s exact address — and, your can set up as many of those target locations as you wish.
We're now working on something we code-named the "anti-ban solution" in all SEO PowerSuite apps, with its first version due to be released next week. This may well be the biggest, most complex release we've had in years. If you work with numerous sites and big data sets in your SEO jobs, you know you'd sometimes need to deal with captchas (or, worse, temporary IP blocks) from Google and other search engines. You can work around this if you set up delays in-between your checks — but that also means the checks are going to take more time (not something you can always afford). The solution we are cooking will have the queries run on our own servers (pretty much like they do in web-based services), each under a unique IP. With over 3 million ranking checks we'll need to process every day, it's going to be bigger than anything we've done so far — and we're as excited about it as we are nervous :)
WebSite Auditor is the only tool that, to my knowledge, lets you edit your site's pages in live view and get comprehensive, real-time optimization advice and on-page scores. The unique part about this is that it looks at the page with search engines' eyes, evaluating every page element and the entire page structure. If you have a CMS-powered site and use a plugin to do a similar thing, it'll only analyze the part of the page where your main content goes — but because it won't consider the rest of the page (the parts Google calls supplementary content: navigation, widgets, footers, etc.), you might actually end up doing more harm than good.
The Keyword Difficulty formula in Rank Tracker uses 14 separate metrics to evaluate every top ranking competitor for every keyword. It took us a few months to come up with that formula — and most of that time we spent on research, analyzing thousands of SERPs and the features of every top ranking page to figure out the factors Google uses to identify the quality and relevance of the results. These 14 metrics are then compared to the features of each result on page 1 (that's about 140 factors total for every single keyword) — and all of that happens in under a minute.
- Despite being a desktop solution, SEO PowerSuite has a network of a few hundred servers. Those servers manage a spectrum of tasks, from running the never-ending search engine tests to storing our users' projects and reports online. That's right: we have our own cloud storage service, SEO PowerSuite Cloud, which lets users collaborate on projects, access their data from anywhere, and share that data with colleagues and clients in a single click.
2) We try to create SEO software anyone can use.
The frustration we felt when we unknowingly got ourselves into SEO 15 years ago is what got us started, and interestingly, it keeps us motivated to this day. We try to create apps that anyone — from a small business owner who’s never done SEO before (like Viktar and I back then) to a large digital marketing agency with hundreds of clients — can use straight out of the box. That implies keeping it simple, intuitive to use, affordable, and rich with pro-level features at the same time.
When you build a product for businesses of all sizes, your pricing is the first thing that needs to reflect that. Back in our rental, we didn't have a lot of money to put into SEO. And while there's no way that I know of to create a wholesome tool that's both fully featured and free, we keep SEO PowerSuite about 3 times less expensive than other SEO tools on the market.
One thing we came to realize in SEO PowerSuite's early days is that every client's needs are different. Charging for the amount of data you're allowed to work with goes totally against this idea. What if you need fewer projects and more keywords? Fewer keywords but more backlinks? Deeper SERP scan depth? More frequent ranking checks? With SEO PowerSuite, we aren't setting any limits of this kind: everything, from the number of sites you can optimize to how often you check your rankings, is unlimited.
- SEO PowerSuite's reports are incredibly customizable. Though the reports are not something that every our user needs, they are the toolkit's central component for SEO consultants and agencies. In total, we spent about 12 man-years on building and improving SEO PowerSuite's reports, with a single objective in mind: we want our users to have full control over reporting, from picking the data sets and time period you are reporting on, to painting the report in your brand's colors, to scheduling report delivery in whatever method suits you best.
3) We’re building software that’s truly all-in-one (not just for the sound of it).
We started as a bunch of college students that had neither wish nor time to use a dozen of tools for SEO. With SEO PowerSuite, we try to make the undoubtedly complex SEO process not only simpler, but also happening in one place. Whatever business you are in, I bet you aren't thrilled by the idea of switching between numerous applications and endlessly importing and exporting your data. Like many software companies, we started with one thing we did well; but over 12 years of SEO PowerSuite's official history, it grew into an entire field of science.
A few years ago, we built our own crawler and link index, WebMeUp. We stupidly don't market the index enough, but it's a pretty impressive and up-to-date database with 10 to 15 billion web pages crawled daily (that's more than Ahrefs, Majestic, and Open Site Explorer together). In terms of its overall size, the index is only climbing up to Ahrefs and Majestic (though it's twice as big as OSE already), but in terms of freshness and accuracy, it's already uniquely powerful. WebMeUp is integrated into SEO PowerSuite's SEO SpyGlass, so all our users can get unlimited access to it within SEO SpyGlass, for free.
We support about 400 search engines in total. That includes Google, Bing, and Yahoo for every country, as well as the local search engines a lot of countries have. Along with that, we work with keywords and sites in literally any language, so we've got users from all over the globe: smaller businesses doing local SEO in their home town, and international companies like Nestle, Amazon, and Cisco running global SEO campaigns.
- There aren't a lot of keyword grouping tools on the market — perhaps because semantic search and topic targeting is still a relatively new concept. In Rank Tracker, the keyword research module uses machine learning algorithms (something our dev team has been working exclusively for a few months on) to identify relevance of any given term to a particular topic. As a result, instead of individual keyword suggestions, you get a list of groups of related terms to target — a much more effective strategy in the age of Hummingbird and RankBrain, both SEO and user experience.
Your turn: ask me anything
All in all, it's been an utterly incredible journey so far. A tiny detail: it would never have been possible without our users.
Thanks to all of you — and especially to those who've been with us from the start — for being on board, sharing your feedback, inspiring some of the most brilliant features we've released, and being part of the amazing community we're proud to call our users.
The story above pretty much sums up what I thought you might want to know about SEO PowerSuite — but I bet I still missed a lot of the things you'd find interesting, useful, or important. Feel free to ask me anything in the comments — from software-related questions to literally everything else — and I'll do my best to give you the most detailed and honest answers I can. And if you could tell me about your SEO PowerSuite experience firsthand and share your personal SEO PowerSuite story below, that's going to be the best(estest) present for our belated 2-million anniversary! :)