A Data-driven Study on “Alternative” Keywords for SaaS Companies

Georgios Chasiotis

Georgios Chasiotis

We all understand that SaaS is moving towards commoditization. This makes user acquisition more difficult and expensive—in most categories.

As B2B SaaS companies are finding it more challenging to compete on many different levels (e.g., organic search, brand recognition), they tend to target more and more “alternative” keywords as a way to capitalize on:

  1. The fact that there are companies with similar capabilities as theirs; and,
  2. The fact that there are people who are looking for alternatives to these companies.

Make no mistake that there has been an abuse of alternative pages by many SaaS companies.

We believe that this is a loophole that Google will do something about sooner or later.

After all, how unbiased can you be when suggesting your own solution as an alternative to another company?

However, until Google takes action, and regardless of whether users understand and/or care that the vast majority of these pages are biased, we wanted to dive deeper into what drives performance for these pages.

So, we analyzed 102 “alternative” keywords from SaaS companies like Mailchimp, Dropbox, Hootsuite, and Calendly, as well as the top 10 search results in Google for these keywords.

Here’s what we found.

Quick Summary

  1. 72.5% of “alternative” keywords have a keyword difficulty (KD) of 0-10, which means they’re still relatively easy to target and rank for.
  2. The dominant SERP features for these keywords are “People also ask”, “Sitelinks”, and “Featured Snippet”.
  3. 72.5% of “alternative” keywords have a Global Search Volume of less than 1000.
  4. More than half of the organic search results that rank for “alternative” keywords include the word “best” in their title tag.
  5. Half of the organic search results that rank for “alternative” keywords include a date (e.g., 2022) in their title tag.
  6. More than half of the organic search results that rank for “alternative” keywords include a number (e.g., 10) in their title tag.
  7. The average word count for alternative pages is 2,540 words.
  8. The average number of referring domains for alternative pages is 15.
  9. More than half of the organic search results that rank for “alternative” keywords rank for less than 50 keywords.
  10. Organic search results in the top 10 for “alternative” keywords are dominated by review sites like TrustRadius, GetApp, and Capterra.

1. The Vast Majority of “Alternative” Keywords Have a Low KD

As you can see below, 72.5% of “alternative” keywords have a keyword difficulty (KD) of 0-10.

This happens mainly because, by design, these pages don’t attract backlinks.

In other words, they’re not easy to link back to or promote as part of your content efforts.

The scope they serve is very specific: getting organic traffic and translating some of that traffic into conversions.

This means two things:

  1. Many “alternative” keywords are (still) relatively easy to target and rank for; and,
  2. You’ll have to find creative ways of acquiring backlinks for these pages.

Regarding the second point, we believe that a great way of acquiring backlinks for alternative pages is through guest posting.

The reason for that is that you essentially have more editorial control compared to other link-building tactics such as email outreach.

Ultimately, this can help you get things off the ground faster since, as we’ve seen, competition for these pages isn’t as fierce as software keywords for other keyword categories.

Key Takeaway: Try to acquire backlinks through guest posts on other websites.

2. The Dominant SERP Features Are “People also ask”, “Sitelinks”, and “Featured Snippet”

As you can see below, 85.3% of these keywords have the features “People also ask”, “Sitelinks”, and “Featured Snippet” inside them.

In general, the truth is that even if we don’t have as much control over SERP features, there are still some things we can do - specifically for the three SERP features that dominate organic search results in our study.

Starting with “People also ask”, you can include some semantically relevant questions people ask for the keyword you’re targeting and give short and precise answers without being promotional or including links to your content inside those answers.

When it comes to Sitelinks, there are generally two things you can do:

  1. Include a Table of Contents in your piece of content; and,
  2. Include internal jumplinks for people to jump to specific sections of the page.

We’ve seen that a combination of these tactics can work tremendously well when it comes to getting more real estate in the SERPs in the form of Sitelinks.

Last but not least, when it comes to Featured Snippets, specifically for this type of post, we’ve seen that “pushing” the answer to the ultimate question at the top of the post can really help improve performance. 

What is the ultimate question?

Well, what are the best alternatives to a specific solution?

To put this in perspective, let’s say that we’re targeting the keyword “Hootsuite alternatives”.

For a chance of getting the Featured Snippet, we’d have to start our piece of content like this:

Some of the best alternatives to Hootsuite for social media management are Buffer, SocialPilot, CoSchedule, Sendible, AgoraPulse, SproutSocial, and Later. 

In this post, we’re going to…

Giving the answer right away, you have a higher chance of getting that Featured Snippet and getting better results overall.

Key Takeaway: Try to optimize your content for the SERP features that dominate search results for “alternative” keywords.

3. 72.5% Have a Global Search Volume of Less than 1000

As you can see below, 72.5% of “alternative” keywords have a Global Search Volume of less than 1000.

This isn’t actually something we can do much about.

The only thing that we could say here is that in several cases, keyword data providers like Ahrefs don’t report on “alternative” keywords that have a relatively low search volume.

This is primarily because they calculate a keyword’s volume based on averages and thus can’t predict or accurately report the demand for an “alternative” keyword based on a real-time event.

To put this into perspective, let’s assume that the leader in your category recently changed their pricing, and part of that change included increasing their prices.

As you can imagine, that would “push” many of the tool’s current customers to seek alternative solutions.

As demand increases, Google needs more content to satisfy that demand.

This isn’t something that SEO software will report since they report averages.

Last but not least, let’s not forget that a company’s brand recognition increases over time. 

This means that a brand with no “alternative” keyword reported by SEO software like Ahrefs may as well have some searches and will most likely grow in demand as time passes.

So, you can target it even if the search potential doesn’t look as promising, and capitalize on the fact that competition for that keyword is low. Always make sure you’re maintaining your brand integrity, though.

Key Takeaway: Target zero volume “alternative” keywords or “alternative” keywords from promising and up-and-coming competitors.

4. Including the Word “Best” in the Title Tag Can Help Rankings

As you can see below, 55.5% of the organic search results that rank for “alternative” keywords include the word “best” in their title tag.

Of course, we can’t say that there’s a strong correlation between including the word “best” and getting higher rankings.

We can say, though, that from the search engine user’s standpoint, clicking on a result that includes the “best alternative solutions” makes more sense.

The only expectation here is when you target an “alternative” keyword through a landing page where you’re the only solution recommended (which, in general, isn’t something we’d recommend).

In this case, you can’t make claims such as presenting yourself as the “best” alternative, as Google has their own opinion on whether you’re indeed the best alternative to that solution.

These (landing) pages can work in several cases, but we recommend against them.

Key Takeaway: Don’t include the word “best” in the title tag if you’re targeting an “alternative” keyword through a landing page, but include it if you’re creating a list post.

5. Including a Date in the Title Tag Can Help Rankings

As you can see below, 51.8% of the organic search results that rank for “alternative” keywords include a date (e.g., 2022) in their title tag.

This makes sense if we consider that search engine users who are commercially investigating are looking for the most recent articles.

Thus, our recommendation here would be to include the current year in the title tag.

You should only pay attention to making sure that all meta elements (title tag, meta description) and on-page elements (e.g., H1 Heading, disclaimer) are aligned.

This means that you can’t have the current year in your title tag (e.g., 2022) when you haven’t updated a page since 2019.

This will create a misalignment between what brought people to your page and what they see once they land on your page.

Key Takeaway: Include the current year in your title tag.

6. Including a Number in the Title Tag Can Help Rankings

As you can see below, 62.2% of the organic search results that rank for “alternative” keywords include a number in their title tag.

This is a strong indication of the fact that search engine users who are searching for “alternative” keywords are actually looking for more than one solution.  

Of course, including a number (e.g., the number of alternatives you reviewed) is one thing, but trying to maximize that by including as many solutions as possible is another, and isn’t generally recommended.

For example, what’s the point of including 30 alternatives?

According to our study, this doesn’t guarantee that your page will perform better.

In general, try to not overdo it with your list items so that search engine users who see your result won’t feel intimidated by it.

Key Takeaway: Include a number (e.g., the number of alternatives you’re featuring) in your title tag.

7. The Average Word Count for Alternative Pages is 2,540

As you can see below, the average word count for alternative pages is 2,540 words.

More specifically, we can see that a staggering 72.8% of the top 10 organic search results have between 1001 and 5000 words.

Of course, we all know and understand that averages aren’t perfect numbers.

However, we believe that the above numbers draw a somehow clear picture.

We shouldn’t overdo it when it comes to word count, and, at the same time, we shouldn’t be lazy and create pages that don’t go in-depth when it comes to the alternatives we’re featuring.

The number 2,540 shouldn’t be treated as a benchmark but rather as a general guide as to what’s considered normal for alternative pages.

Key Takeaway: Try to create the best and most comprehensive resource out there without overdoing it on content length and word count.

8. The Vast Majority of Alternative Pages Don’t Have Backlinks

As you can see below, 66.7% of the organic search results that rank for “alternative” keywords have links from less than 10 referring domains.

Is that an opportunity?

Well, it could be depending on how you see it.

As we explained earlier, it’s difficult to get links back to these pages because, let’s face it, no one wants to link back to alternative pages.

However, as discussed earlier, a shortcut here could be guest posts for which you have more editorial control over the final draft.

It’s recommended that you use guest posts as a way to include links back to your most important alternative pages.

Key Takeaway: Try to acquire backlinks through guest posts on other websites.

9. Half of the Alternative Pages Rank for Less Than 50 Keywords

As you can see below, 54.5% of the organic search results that rank for “alternative” keywords rank for less than 50 keywords.

On a practical level, this doesn’t mean much for you.

It doesn’t even mean that you shouldn’t go after these keywords.

What’s important here is not the number of keywords but the quality and relevance of the traffic they bring to your website.

The only thing that we’d like to point out here is that, especially as a brand grows, there will be several variations of the main term (which includes the modifier “alternatives”).

 Let’s take the keyword “ClickUp alternatives” as an example:

  • clickup alternative
  • alternatives to clickup
  • clickup competitors
  • apps like clickup
  • sites like clickup

Regardless of the variations of the main term, you should always target the plural form that includes the “alternatives” modifier.

If you do a good enough job getting visibility for it, you’ll be able to get visibility for most of the variations of the term.

Key Takeaway: Target the keyword that includes the “alternatives” modifier and always go after the plural form of the keyword.

10. Search Results Are Dominated by Reviews Sites

As you can see below, organic search results in the top 10 for “alternative” keywords are dominated by review sites like TrustRadius, GetApp, and Capterra.

On a very practical level, this means that review sites are becoming an increasingly important part of the customer journey when it comes to SaaS.

As a SaaS business, you should try to enhance your presence on these websites and be presented as the best alternative for the “alternative” keywords you’re interested in.

This is important for another reason.

Since Google is a search engine that works with semantic associations, it has to associate an entity (e.g., your business), to a specific set of queries.

In our case, it has to associate you in a way that when search engine users are searching for “product alternatives”, you pop up as a prominent alternative due to the associations that Google has made about your business and the query that the search engine is trying to satisfy.

A great way to do that is by building up a strong presence on reviews sites, which helps Google form associations between different entities (businesses) and establish connections inside Google’s Knowledge Base.

Key Takeaway: Try to bolster a strong presence on reviews sites. Getting visibility for the keywords you’re interested in through your own assets (e.g., website) isn’t enough.

Conclusion

There are many questions surrounding “alternative” keywords.

Do they work? What’s the best way to target them? Should you target them in the first place? Can they have a negative impact on your brand integrity?

All these questions could be answered in a future blog post or a webinar.

For now, we tried to understand what drives rankings for these pages so that you can prepare yourself for success.

As long as we all try to advance the conversation around content marketing and SEO for software companies, try and fail, experiment, and find new ways to drive growth, we believe that more and more companies will experience the value of organic search as an integral part of their growth journey.

We hope that the findings of our study will help you understand organic search a bit better and bring you a step closer to understanding what it takes to drive organic growth for your company.

Data Source & Access to Data

For the metrics KD, Global Search Volume, Referring Domains, and Keywords, our data provider was Ahrefs. Distribution of SERP features is also something that we got from Ahrefs. For the word count, our data provider was Screaming Frog.

By no means are SEO metrics provided by SEO software such as Ahrefs perfect; you should always take them with a grain of salt.

At the same time, results on the search engine result pages (SERPs) change constantly. This means that we’ll try to repeat our study on a regular basis and update our data to make sure that we provide you with the most up-to-date information.

At this link, you can access the dataset we created and used for this study. For proprietary reasons, anyone with access to this link can only view the sheet.