Teardown: The Secret Behind Shopify’s Unparalleled SEO Growth

January 26, 2022

Valued at $174 billion and one of the world’s favorite ecommerce platforms, Shopify needs little introduction.

In the first three months of 2021, Shopify grew its revenue by almost 110%.

One of the secrets behind its rapid growth? A content strategy with a specific focus, tightly linked to its brand positioning — making entrepreneurship easy.

As a popular ecommerce platform with all the tools needed to start, grow and run a retail business, Shopify helps anyone with an idea get up and running in a short amount of time.

And its dedication to helping young businesses and entrepreneurs has paid off. It has a 23% market share in the US, and 1.75 million merchants sell on its platform. And between June 2020 and October 2021, merchants doubled Shopify platform sales from $200 billion to $400 billion.

So, what exactly brings in all these new customers — and retains the old ones?

First off, let’s set the scene.

Every month, Shopify gets 3.5 million organic monthly visitors via Google and ranks for more than 1.1 million keywords.

Screenshot/Ahrefs

After a bunch of number-crunching and research, we’ve broken that down into three critical content strategy pillars:

  1. Free tools
  2. Useful content
  3. User-friendly plugins

These three pillars support Shopify’s raison d’être: letting everyone start a business online.

We’ll dive into why and how below — as well as how you can replicate these three strategies in your own business.

1. Build free tools aimed at your customers’ needs

The very best content starts with a single truth: your target customers’ exact needs. Get this understanding right, and you’ll have a library of content that people actively search, use, and share.

To do this, though, you need to delve deeper than demographics and job titles. It’s cliche but it’s key: walk in your customers’ shoes. Here are some of our best, tried-and-tested ways to get this information:

  • Speak to your customers and targets, and ask them detailed questions about their goals and stumbling blocks.
  • Carry out research from your customer’s perspective. Start with industry publications (where you’ll often get info straight from the horse’s mouth). And don’t be afraid to dig into relevant Subreddits and Quora boards.
  • Analyze keywords and search phrases. Figure out what people are searching for, and build your strategy around this. (And remember to check out the niche, long-tail stuff too. It’s often more effective, especially if you’re in a competitive market.)

Shopify did exactly this.

It understood the steps an individual takes when setting up a retail business — after all, Shopify grew out of an entrepreneurial ecommerce store — and highlighted the biggest challenges. Then it developed free tools to help people overcome them.

This is known as engineering as marketing. Instead of reading a how-to guide or following a video tutorial, potential customers can solve their problems instantly. By building free tools, products, or services, businesses add value — and build that brand trust.

The best examples of engineering as marketing don’t require an account, have a low barrier to entry and complement the brand’s product or service.

So, not only do these tools generate more backlinks — as people link to genuinely useful stuff — but they help move prospects through the funnel.

Now, every month, Shopify’s free tools bring in more than 450,000 organic visitors through Google.

Here are some of the top performers:

Screenshot/Ahrefs

Let’s take a closer look at the most effective tools

First up are Shopify’s name generators — both for business names and domain names.

Because let’s face it, if you’re an entrepreneur champing at the bit to launch an idea, you don’t want to spend weeks thinking up a name. But this isn’t just a theory: it’s backed up by the numbers: every month, almost 300,000 people search for related keywords.

Google search/Screenshot

Shopify’s generators rank highly in the SERPs — and this converts into visitors.

For example, here’s the keyword breakdown for the Business Name Generator:

  • ‘Name generator’ gets 26,500 visitors from 223,000 monthly searches.
  • ‘Business name generator’ gets 25,000 visitors from 76,000 monthly searches.
  • ‘Name generator business’ gets 5,400 visitors from 5,700 monthly searches.
  • ‘Brand name generator’ gets 2,700 visitors from 11,000 monthly searches.

This strategy has been so successful that the name generator and business name generator keywords are two of Shopify’s main sources of organic traffic.

Screenshot/Ahrefs

While the Domain Name Generator doesn’t draw in quite as much traffic — though still impressive at 19,000 organic monthly visitors — it serves another purpose. People who need a domain name are a step closer to launching a website, which makes them more likely to need Shopify’s platform. This tool helps Shopify move people down the funnel, in a helpful, indirect way.

There’s another strategic direction you can take when it comes to creating tools. Instead of focusing on topics that are likely to convert — like Shopify’s domain name generator — build something that adds value without directly linking to your business.

A perfect example is Shopify’s image resizer tool.

Screenshot/Shopify

Here, the Shopify team wins (and retains) customers by solving an annoying problem. By adding value like this, Shopify does three things.

  1. Shows its experience in ecommerce: it understands how critical high-quality imagery is for potential buyers.
  2. Builds brand trust: people appreciate the tool and associate this with Shopify.
  3. Raises the quality of its merchants’ sites, which eventually increases the number of sales made through its platform. (One of the brand’s key metrics.)

And this approach works.

The resizer tool ranks for more than 4,000 keywords (including ranking ninth for the super competitive term ‘image resizer’), and it drives 22,000 monthly organic visitors via Google alone.

Our last example — and again, another approach — is Burst Shopify, a library of free stock images.

Shopify Burst/Screenshot

Knowing how competitive the target keywords are, the Shopify team built a separate subdomain to launch the library on.

Burst gets more than 279,000 organic monthly visitors through Google. And it ranks on Google’s first page for competitive terms like:

  • royalty free images
  • stock images
  • free pictures to use

It serves another purpose too: it gets the Shopify brand in front of more people — rather than those just searching for ecommerce-related questions and needs. Shopify stays top of mind among people that are not necessarily merchants, increasing brand recognition and furthering trust among potential customers.

How to use engineering as marketing in your business

  • Deep-dive into what your customers need to know. Get specific with their challenges — there’s a reason why ‘business name generator’ is more successful than ‘branding’.
  • Pick the challenges and needs that align with your business strategically. Yep, you might want to create content that solves issues outside of your product or service area but prioritize the most relevant.
  • Mimic your buyer’s journey. Create tools that suggest a visitor is ready to take the next step. (Consider the Shopify example: while loads of people will use the stock image finder, not all of them are using it to run a business. Someone who’s searching for a domain name generator is much closer to taking that step — and is more likely to need Shopify’s platform.)
  • Do it well. There’s no point going into this half-heartedly. Set aside a decent budget to build your first few tools.

2. Create sharable and linkable content

Providing useful tools is one way of developing a strong backlink profile: people will always share them. But there’s no denying these pieces of content are expensive to build. And if you’re marketing on a budget, creating a full library of tools might be a pipedream. (To start with, anyway.)

A time- and cost-effective way to replicate this is by creating written and visual content. Take the same approach as above — understand what your audience wants to solve — but share the answer in a blog post, infographic, or guide.

Before we go further, let’s quickly explain the difference between sharable and linkable content. It can get confusing because a content piece can tick both boxes. The distinction revolves around the type of value provided.

Shareable content creates brand recognition and drives social engagement —  resulting in more publicity and exposure. Think memes, motivational blogs, or quick how-to videos. On the other hand, linkable content asserts topic authority. It’s a resource rather than an entertaining piece of content. Think infographics, case studies, and industry reports.

The e-commerce behemoth has a ton of sharable and linkable content.

You only need to look at its 230 million backlinks to see how much people use, share, and link to it. In fact, one of Shopify’s top traffic drivers is a blog post about motivational quotes. The key phrase ‘motivational quotes’ has around 618,000 monthly searches — and more than 133,000 organic visitors land on the blog post every month.

Screenshot/Shopify

The impact of Shopify’s blog on its SEO success can’t be understated. Three of the platform’s top pages are blog posts:

Top pages/Ahrefs

But the trick here isn’t just honing in on what people want to know, solve, and learn. And it’s not just about analyzing key phrases and search queries.

Shopify goes one step further and creates content that people will reference.

Let’s take one of the top pages as an example. Shopify’s post, The 13 Best Free Video Editing Software for 2022, has around 11,600 backlinks and attracts around 125,000 monthly organic visitors.

And it’s easy to see why. The piece is detailed, references a ton of different products, and is informative enough for people to trust as a source.

Snippet from Shopify's article

Essentially, the Shopify team has done all the hard work. So other content teams wanting to write about video editing software can create a lighter, shorter article — and link back to this.

Here’s another great example: a post on 370+ Top and Trending Instagram Hashtags to Increase Likes and Follows. Providing this kind of research-heavy (but analysis-light) content is an easy way to get referenced. Just think about how many people write articles about this — but don’t have the time (or inclination) to gather the data behind it.

How to create referenceable, shareable content:

  • Start with your personal work and brainstorm the most pressing needs, queries, and challenges.
  • Combine this with your data analysis: what are people searching for? What keywords can you target? (Be realistic here: if you’re going after competitive, high-volume terms, you might not have much luck to start with.)
  • Create a blog strategy that combines user needs with SEO targets. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. You need to post regularly and consistently, so set a cadence that fits with your workload.
  • Explore the references you can offer. Proprietary research is great but often time-consuming and expensive. (However, collating all existing research into one article is incredibly helpful, likely to be referenced, and way quicker to deliver.) Spend some time researching the source material your target audience uses, and see what aligns with your strategy.

3. Shopify API: Create app ecosystems

Source: Company public filings/Rick Simmonds

Now here’s where Shopify’s commitment to its customers gets really interesting.

As well as creating free tools and a ton of content, the ecommerce platform also has a Shopify developer and app program.

Entrepreneurs and businesses can make plugins and also use ones from other organizations on Shopify stores and elsewhere. It’s an eCommerce API/A paradise.

Shopify knows its average customer will sell through channels like Pinterest, TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram. So by letting these companies generate plugins, Shopify makes it easy for its customers to sell to their customers.

But this has another benefit too. It means Shopify can capture high-volume branded search terms. And just look how well this works.

The Shopify App Store has around 4.7 million backlinks, attracts more than 590,000 organic visitors every month, and ranks for 359,000 organic keywords.

Screenshot/Shopify

So, what’s the secret behind Shopify developer program?

A landing page is automatically generated when people download a plugin or create one with Shopify’s API. This page is optimized to the hilt, containing:

  • An H1 headline with the plugin’s name (often that high-volume, branded keyword).
  • A summary and a full description of the plugin.
  • A video explainer.
  • Customer reviews.
Shopify app store/screenshot

The results speak for themselves. Just take a look at the App Store’s top-performing pages:

Ahrefs/Shopify top pages

Shopify’s able to rank for some seriously competitive branded keywords, and attract visitors who may not be users yet — but who sell, operate, or market using one of the companies with a plugin.

The Shopify App Store ranks:

  • Second for the keyword ‘printify’.
  • Thirteenth for the keyword ‘tiktok’.
  • Eighth for the keyword ‘pinterest’.

By helping to well-trusted companies, Shopify can reach potential customers — and build additional brand awareness and trust.

How to replicate this in your business:

Now, this is a bit niche. And it won’t be relevant for every type of business. But if you run a SaaS company, try this method out. Just remember: this is a joint venture between marketing and product dev teams, so working together is key.

  • Identify the brands that need your apps and API documentation. Aim to solve your user’s customer problems.
  • Create a standardized process to optimize each integration’s landing page: follow the same template and provide the same information.
  • Know which high-volume, branded keywords you’re going after — and bake this into the page template.
  • Decide who will write the pages — is it you, or the integration company?
Shopify Meme

A concrete foundation of customer-centricity

So, there we have it.

Shopify’s content strategy is so tightly entwined with its brand positioning — making entrepreneurship easy — it’s no wonder it became the largest e-commerce provider in history. Every single tool and content piece rolls up Shopify’s core message. Even Shopify’s decision to localize its website it yet again removing barriers and helping people get going as quickly as possible.

So, what’s next for you and your business?

Start by taking a look at your brand positioning and the content you’re creating.

  • How aligned are they?
  • How evident is your mission in your content?
  • How customer-centric is your content — and how much lean towards navel-gazing?

Analyze what you’ve done and what you’re planning, and take it from there.

Yep, it might mean taking a few steps back, but it’s worth it. Because when your positioning and content strategy sits on a concrete foundation of customer understanding, you can’t go wrong.

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