Weave SEO into your marketplace right from the start – An interview with Michael Caldwell

Michael Caldwell shares his decades-long experience with marketplaces and SEO. Learn how to take both users and search engines into consideration when creating your website.

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Petworks founder Michael Caldwell and Sharetribe’s Head of Content Mira Muurinen discuss what sets marketplaces apart from other websites in terms of SEO. 

Petworks is a marketplace for pet-related services. But Michael’s marketplace experience goes as far back as the late 1990s when Michael founded GigMasters (now The Bash), a platform for musicians to find paying gigs. This means he built his first platform when marketplaces weren’t even called marketplaces yet. 

Michael shares what he has learned from his decades-long experience with both marketplaces and optimizing them for search engines, and why it’s important to bake SEO into your marketplace from the start. Learn about the opportunities and challenges of marketplace SEO, content-marketing your marketplace, and link-building in this special interview episode of the Marketplace Academy Podcast.

Our main takeaways from this interview:

  • To succeed with SEO, it needs to be woven into the DNA of the marketplace. Since marketplace SEO is its own thing entirely, strategies that work for other websites might not work the same for marketplaces – and vice versa.
  • As a strategy, SEO is very well suited for bootstrapped companies even though it’s definitely not free. You can spend endless hours on it, and it’s hard work that entails lots of research, testing, and trial and error. But it is accessible even for founders without a huge marketing budget.
  • Always think about the user when creating your key-word targeted content. You need to write natural copy with an SEO mindset. Never put words on a page solely for SEO.
  • Pay attention to the sites that link to your marketplace. Make sure the quality of your backlinks is high. In addition to never paying for links, another piece of advice Michael shares is to look into the sites that link to you and see if they are reputable. And disavow their links in Google Search Console, if they’re not.
  • Marketplaces have a unique opportunity to source their communities for content. Leverage your providers and tap into their expertise. Petworks has a blog with posts from pet service providers who list on the site. It’s a win-win situation. The pros get author credit and visibility; Petworks gets highly relevant, keyword-targeted content!

Listen to the full episode or find the transcript below to learn more! Or read Mira’s complete guide to marketplace SEO to learn more.

Episode transcript

[00:00:00] Katri: This is the Marketplace Academy podcast and we're back with another bonus SEO episode. My name is Katri and I'm your host. However, this episode I'm giving the floor to my amazing colleague, Mira, Sharetribe's SEO expert. This fall, Mira wrote an article series on marketplace SEO for Sharetribe's Marketplace Academy, and for it, she interviewed the people who know about the topic the most.

The guest in this episode is Michael Caldwell, an SEO expert and marketplace founder. Michael started his first marketplace GigMasters when the word marketplace was not even yet used in the context of online platforms. Currently, he is the founder of Petworks, a marketplace that connects pet parents with various pet service providers.

Michael shares his experience on how the SEO landscape has changed since he started, emphasizes the importance of baking SEO into your marketplace early on, and also which SEO tactics to avoid and what to invest in instead. There is some background noise in the recording, but I hope that does not take away from learning about SEO in this treasure trove of actionable advice on nailing your marketplace SEO. Michael has decades-long experience in marketplaces and search engine optimization. So if you're looking to learn about either you're in for a treat.

[00:01:25] Mira: Hi Michael, and welcome to the Marketplace Academy Podcast. 

[00:01:29] Michael: Thank you so much for having me and I'm really excited to be here today. 

[00:01:32] Mira: It's truly great to have you here to share your expertise because you've been working with marketplaces for quite some time now. So you founded GigMasters in the late nineties as a platform for helping musicians find paying gigs, and now you're the founder of Petworks, which is a marketplace that connects pet owners to various pet service providers. Could you share a little bit about your journey with marketplaces and what it was like to build GigMasters before the online marketplace boom? 

[00:02:01] Michael: Yeah. So first of all, back when we were building GigMasters, there wasn't even the term marketplace. So we didn't even think to ourselves, Oh, let's go ahead and let's build a marketplace. We were not even thinking about it in that way. I had studied music in college, and my other co-founders were musicians, and so we were really more thinking about how can we help musicians get booked for gigs. And what we found was that a lot of them, especially back then, while they were great at music, they were not as comfortable in the online world and maximizing the web to get the word out and connect with paying jobs.

So we just really decided to try and build something to help musicians. That was really all it was. And then it was only years later where this term marketplace came into vogue. There was literally a conversation where we were talking amongst ourselves. You know what I, I, I think what we're building here is called a marketplace.

It was really funny, um, so of course nowadays marketplaces are a permanent and vital part of the startup landscape. But I can assure you back then it wasn't a term that was as pervasive. 

[00:03:14] Mira: And how soon did SEO come along as a growth strategy for GigMasters? How did you realize that SEO could be a growth lever? 

[00:03:21] Michael: Yeah, so it was not something that we thought about right away. Marketplaces deal with this chicken and the egg situation, where do I focus on getting the supply side first or the demand side? And so anyway, back when we were first starting GigMasters, we knew we just needed to get musicians onto the platform.

And then that was gonna be step one. And so we didn't think about SEO at that point. We were merely just trying to get musicians on. We would send out lots of emails. We started, we were New York based initially. And so we would go into New York City and we would go to clubs and hand out paper flyers to try to spread the word about GigMasters.

We would go to music festivals upstate New York and throughout the northeast. And so initially we were focused on just acquiring musicians to the platform. Once we felt like, Okay, we have a decent amount, now we have to get these musicians contacted for gigs, right? That's why we exist. And it was at that point where we started discovering and testing out some of the early SEO concepts. And the other thing that I will add is we were bootstrapped in those early years actually for most of GigMasters we were bootstrapped. And so when you don't have the luxury of a huge marketing budget, you have to get very scrappy and SEO is really, in my opinion, very well suited for a bootstrapped company because it's certainly not free, you spend hours and hours of time on it, but it's something that you can do without a huge marketing budget you can use just hard work and a lot of research and a lot of testing and trial and error, and you can really find great success in it. 

[00:05:07] Mira: Yeah. Um, speaking of trial and error, what would you say were the most important lessons you learned from building GigMasters that you then adopted with Petworks?

[00:05:16] Michael: Obviously the SEO landscape has evolved greatly since we first started GigMasters. So there are certainly things that we did back in those early days that are just not as important, they're not as effective anymore. For example, keyword density, right? Like we would look at our page titles, and we would run tests to make sure that, how many times are we repeating the same word.

I'm just giving like a simple example, and there's many more like that. So certainly some of the strategies have changed, but some of the core principles, many of the core principles of SEO have actually remained the same, they're just described differently. And obviously mobile is more important and we can get into more details, uh, site performance, things like that.

But I think the biggest, broadest lesson that I've learned is just SEO, especially for a marketplace. It's something that needs to be woven into the DNA of the company. It's not something you can do at arm's length. It's not always easy to hire, let's say, a local SEO company to do marketplace SEO. I really believe marketplace SEO is its own thing, and the lesson I've learned is just you really gotta commit to SEO, it's gotta be part, like I said, of the DNA of the company. 

[00:06:34] Mira: Yes. Yeah, that's very true. SEO changed so much that there's probably also been like some things that used to work really well and then suddenly stopped working or even got you penalized from Google. Have you made some mistakes that you could share with us, that we could learn from?

[00:06:51] Michael: Yeah, I would like to think about them as A/B tests rather than mistakes, right? 

[00:06:56] Mira: Ah, good. Yes. Perfect. 

[00:06:57] Michael: So things [inaudible], things that we've tried, um, but anything that would not make sense to the user. Words on the page that you put just for the purposes of SEO and they don't read well for the user. I think those are kinds of things that we were trying in some of the earlier days and we evolved past that, you know. I think some of the mistakes we made back then were writing what you could call SEO copy. And instead, I think what we've learned over the years is, no, no, no, you need to write natural copy with an SEO mindset, and there's an important distinction there. And so I think that would be the biggest lesson is just don't just put words on a page solely for SEO.

I think it has to really make sense for the user as they're reading your page. Otherwise, you're going to lose them. 

[00:07:47] Mira: That is really an important lesson. That's an easy enough mistake to make. Sometimes it feels like the SEO community often talks about like right to users and not search engines, and then they come with this list of so many things that you need to take into account. Start over-optimizing for SEO and just forget that somebody, human actually, has to enjoy reading what you write. 

[00:08:07] Michael: Yeah, I think we talked about that alot. And there are some people that will say, just think about the user and don't even think about SEO. That would be like one end of the spectrum. And then of course, the other end of the spectrum where it's like doing every trick in the book for SEO.

And so we, we've tried to find the right balance in the middle. We don't use tricks. But we always do think about SEO in everything we do. So we're aggressive in the sense that it's a part of everything we do, it's always part of our strategy. But we try to state in the middle of that spectrum if that makes sense.

[00:08:42] Mira: It does. So you said that SEO should become part of the DNA of the marketplace. That's definitely a big investment, a big commitment to make. Are there marketplaces that you think that wouldn't benefit from SEO? 

[00:08:53] Michael: Okay, so that's an interesting question. Boy, it would be hard to think of an example of one where SEO wouldn't play any sort of role. I suppose if you're an app, a mobile app only marketplace with a minimal web footprint, perhaps SEO would be less important for you, although I would argue you're probably missing out on opportunities to acquire customers on the web that you could drive to the app. So that one, I would say that's a difficult question. I can't think of too many examples where SEO couldn't provide at least some, if not a lot of value. 

[00:09:28] Mira: So if I've built a marketplace and now it's time for me to start investing in growth. How should I evaluate? Is SEO worth it? Should I now start investing big on SEO? 

[00:09:38] Michael: When is it time to start investing in SEO? I mean, when you reach the point when you really focus on the demand side of the marketplace. In other words, like in our case, when it was GigMasters, we were bringing on musicians. With Petworks, we're bringing on pet care providers. Then when you're focusing on the other side, which is bringing consumers to the platform, at that moment, you really have to start thinking about, Okay, how am I gonna make that investment in SEO?

You have to assess the team that you have. Do we have the right expertise? We can get into this later, certainly, but I would highly encourage any founding team to make sure that they've got a strong technical founder who is open to spending some of their cycles building up their expertise in technical SEO.

It's something that not all technical people are interested in SEO. There's some developers that would rather not even think about it, but you wanna make sure that whether it's a founder, or whether it's programmers that you're hiring. They need to understand how important SEO is to you as a company and so when they're writing code, it needs to be well-organized and clean. And so there's technical ways that you can evaluate code and whether or not it's SEO friendly or not. And those are important things. So as you're building the team, you need to keep that in mind. 

[00:10:57] Mira: Would technical SEO be the key reason why you're saying that marketplace SEO is its own thing, or is technical SEO the biggest challenge?

[00:11:05] Michael: Yes, I think technical SEO is certainly one big reason because when you've built a marketplace, much of your site is dynamic, and so you might have pages that are repeated across different categories or locations, and so it's different from a small site that might have some static content. The way in which you implement SEO improvements or calls a marketplace, just implementing them is harder than with a more content-driven website.

Although those have their challenges as well, which I'm sure your audience is probably familiar with. But I think the second big challenge with marketplace SEO is, at least for us, it was the scope of what we were trying to optimize for. I mean, I'll go back to GigMasters again, we started with a certain amount of categories, right?

Bands and DJs and string quartets. But then as time went on, we realized we needed to create more categories, more specific categories, reggae bands, and mariachi bands, and acoustic guitarists. And before you know it, you have 40, 50 categories that you're wanting to optimize for. And we would try to hire local SEO companies or experts and they would become quickly overwhelmed with the scope of what we were trying to optimize, they're not used to it. Like if you hire somebody who maybe they've done work for one restaurant or a doctor's office and they maybe have 10 total keywords that they're optimizing for, and it's a lot of static content, that's a whole different ballgame from a marketplace where you're optimizing across 50, maybe a hundred, maybe more categories or products.

And then multiplied by multiple locations. So in our case, we were throughout the US and so we were trying to optimize for searches like Reggae Band Boston and DJ Houston, and its own thing, so you have to approach SEO in a macro way, and that's why I always talk about marketplace SEO as being its own thing.

And even though we were a small company in terms of number of employees and revenue, what we were trying to undertake from an SEO point of view was big. And so we quickly realized that this wasn't something necessarily that we could just hire like a local SEO group to do for us. We had to bake that into, like I said, the DNA of the company.

This had to become a core expertise and very much the same with Petworks. We knew from the beginning that this was gonna be something that, fortunately, we had a playbook to follow from the first time around with some modifications, but we knew that this was something that needed to be a core capability for the company.

[00:13:57] Mira: It sounds like this also relates to marketplace site structure and just the mere size of the website. Yeah. We talked a little bit about this with Mike van der Heijden, who was the CEO of Portal Ventures, and he said that one of the biggest challenges marketplaces have is that the site just easily becomes very broad and with lots of categories and sub-subcategories and lots of user-generated content.

Did you pay attention to site structure from an SEO point of view? 

[00:14:21] Michael: Yes, most definitely. So with GigMasters, it evolved gradually as we were learning with Petworks, I had an opportunity to start with a clean slate and say, how do we wanna do this with all, everything we've learned? So before we did anything with regard to SEO, I just, on a piece of paper, I sketched out the hierarchy of the site that I wanted. So starting with the homepage, because of course that is in most cases the most powerful page that you have with regard to SEO. And then you wanna decide, okay, off of the homepage, what is the next level of importance? And so you really have to create this hierarchy knowing that you can't have, this is gonna sound obvious, but you can't have every page on your site linked to from your home page, you have to make these decisions like which pages are gonna be one click from the home page, which pages are gonna be two clicks and three clicks. Once you go deeper than three clicks, it may not see the light of day unless you're a very powerful domain.

So first thing I did on a piece of paper, sketched out the hierarchy that I wanted on-site structure. Discussed it with my co-founders. We talked it through to make sure that we were on board with it, but that was where we started. It's so important to get that right from the beginning because it's really hard to just change your site structure later.

If you change the URLs or if you change the way things link, you have to make sure that there's 3-0-1 redirects in place and there's just a lot of work going into changing, so you wanna do your best to get it as close to right out of the gate as possible. 

[00:15:58] Mira: About, uh, site structure. If I can ask like a really concrete question, like for most marketplaces, what would the basic hierarchy look like? Is it the homepage and then category pages and then listing pages, underneath? Or is it more complicated than that? 

[00:16:11] Michael: It probably depends on each marketplace's specific situation. Generally speaking, I like to do homepage then categories, and then I like to do a location-based level of the hierarchy and then the listing. So it's basically homepage, categories, location, and listing.

There's an SEO person that I worked with for many years who I discussed these things with frequently, and he's sometimes argued that you might want to do location first and then category. So there's a little bit of a debate there, but I don't think there's one just definitively right answer. But generally, I do, yeah, homepage, category, location, and then listing. 

[00:16:56] Mira: I guess that depends also on how your specific audience, like searches for services, say for a marketplace like Thumbtack, people would search by location, usually like, plumbers near me or hairdressers in Idaho. 

[00:17:08] Michael: Yes. That's right. And we, on a much, much smaller scale, we have similar searches that are done for our platform.

You know, when you create this site structure though, you might be left with very thin pages and so, we are mindful of that. This is definitely something I've learned from GigMasters. If you spin up a new category and now suddenly you're multiplying that across, let's say 50 states, 250 cities, you can't possibly have enough providers in every single of those locations for that category because it's new. 

So a lot of programming work has gone into how pages render when it's like a new category, and you haven't yet reached that threshold of providers in that category. You might not have any locations initially, right? It might be for certain categories that are new to you. It might just go homepage, category and then write to listings, and then only when you reach a certain threshold then reintroduce the location hierarchy for that particular category. So it gets complicated. I mean, hours and hours of work go into this stuff, but you definitely wanna avoid a situation where you have now just spawned like 500 new pages that have nothing on them because I promise you, you will pay a price for that. It will not be good. So you really do need to avoid pages that where the content is either nonexistent or very thin.

[00:18:35] Mira: So you're referring to this like thin content or duplicate content issue that Google doesn't look favorably upon? 

[00:18:42] Michael: That's absolutely correct, yes, a hundred percent. 

[00:18:45] Mira: Then you told me before we started this, this discussion that you have some tactics at Petworks for maximizing the SEO value of user-generated listing content. Could you tell me a bit more about that? 

[00:18:56] Michael: Yeah, so the pet professionals that list with us, they create their own listings. It's thanks to Sharetribe's platform. That part of it was built for us, which was amazing. So from day one, pet pros could come to our platform. They could create an account and they create their listings. So that was great. 

And those listings, it's opportunity for SEO, it's rich content, it's original content provided by these pet care providers. And so, what we've done is to try to work with the pet providers to encourage them to write more content on their listings. And actually, if forget SEO for a second, it helps them, you know, create a richer listing that's gonna help get them hired because it's gonna be more compelling.

So what happens is sometimes, The pet pros, they're so excited to get their account created that they just, they might write just one or two sentences for the listing description, and maybe they think that they'll come back to it later. Maybe they think that, Oh, I'll just eventually bring people to my own website, so I don't really have to write very much.

So what we do is when they sign up with us, we reach out to them and we say, Look, thanks for joining, we were reviewing your listing as we do with all the pet pros, and we'd like to work with you to help improve your listing. The length of the description and even the listing title, there's ways that they can put themselves in a favorable position by making sure they mention like the category that they're in and things like that.

So that user-generated content, we love it because it's the heartbeat of the marketplace, of course. But it's just such an SEO magnet. And so we run reports every day where we look for those pet pro listings that have, let's say, less than 150 characters. And we'll go in and we'll review those and we'll reach out to the pet pros, and sometimes they'll let us edit it and improve them, you know, improve the listings on their behalf with their approval.

And they think it's great. They feel like they're getting concierge-level service. And it's a win-win for us, it helps improve the overall strength of not only their listing, but just of our domain as a whole. Another thing that we did is we built a listing strength meter. So as they're typing their listing description, once they reach certain thresholds of description, length, just length. I mean, we're not doing anything more sophisticated right now yet with the quality of what they're writing, but just the length of it.

So just encouraging them to write a little bit more so they start out red, and then as they type more, it's yellow, and then they want to, You know how it is you wanna get to green. We noticed after we implemented that feature that we would run the reports, you know, average length of description and that started to grow and more work to be done on that.

Certainly we have plans to get a lot more sophisticated on that front, but that was just a simple example of leveraging that user-generated content to help maximize SEO. But of course also helping the users themselves, which is key. 

[00:21:44] Mira: Yeah, exactly. This is, again, like you said, SEO isn't just an isolated gimmick that you employ on top of everything else that you do, but this is helping your providers succeed and thereby also helping your platform grow.

You mentioned already that Petworks, it's built on the source available version of Sharetribe Go, right? 

[00:22:03] Michael: Yes, that's right. We started on the regular version and then we decided to move to this current version so that we could really make a number of customizations to the platform that suited our needs.

[00:22:17] Mira: Yeah, yeah. Was there customizations that you did in particular to impact SEO? 

[00:22:22] Michael: Yeah. Oh, definitely. We felt like we needed to be able to make more On-page optimizations on a category-by-category basis, location-based. We wanted to be able to have certain patterns for page titles, H1 tags, meta descriptions that just weren't available to us out of the box.

And I wanted it to be done vis-à-vis the administrative screen of Sharetribe, where you can go in and make adjustments. We made customizations in that admin screen so that like when you created a new category, you could make SEO-specific optimizations right there through that category admin page for not only the category page but for the location pages that are related to that category.

We created variables that you could use for category and city and state and all that good stuff. I knew that we were going to be constantly testing new formats for page titles and H1 tags, and we weren't gonna wanna have programmers go in every single time and make code changes. So I wanted it to be able to be done in the admin screen, so my non-technical co-founder could, you know, I could show him how to do it and he could go in there and do it on his own and test things out just through the admin screen without having to make code changes. There's a number of other ones we made, but I think that was probably the most significant change that we made. 

[00:23:48] Mira: Mm. So to be able to control some SEO-specific optimizations from the admin panel. 

[00:23:55] Michael: Yes. 

[00:23:55] Mira: And not have to do that through code. 

[00:23:57] Michael: Correct. 

[00:23:58] Mira: Yeah, that makes sense. I'll pass this on to our product development department. Speaking of still technical SEO, what tools would you recommend for somebody getting started with technical SEO? 

[00:24:09] Michael: Yes. Okay. So just a couple come to mind right away. I think the good news is probably the most important one is a hundred percent free. It's Google Search Console, right? So I know most people will know about Google Analytics. Great. And that's super important as well. But Google Search Console, you just wanna make sure, like day one, you get that set up, get your site verified, and then after a couple days, Google Search Console is going to be providing you a wealth of information.

Some of which has gotten extremely technical. So the core web vitals that it's now providing, I consider myself to be very technical, but some of the stuff in there now is really page layout shift, right? Like they wanna have the best user experience and they don't want a user to experience things shifting around.

I would say Google Search Console is probably your most important: free but highly technical, you're gonna maybe need some help understanding exactly what's in there. I think the second one, the second most important tool, a little bit more expensive is Semrush. I really love that platform because it provides you with actionable recommendations.

You know how it, you'll sign up for a piece of software and they'll provide you with a ton of data and it's like: Okay, great, but what do I do with that information? And I found like with Semrush, you can schedule regular audits, SEO audits of the site, and that will literally, email you and say, We've got a recommendation for you to make, and you go in there and it just describes, here's what we think you should do.

A lot of times it's like, Oh yeah, you know what? That is a great idea. I didn't think of that. So I really like Semrush. It is expensive. Even with Pet Works, honestly, there's times where I have to pause it because our expenses are too high. It's, I'm like, All right, I gotta pause Semrush for a little while, but I'm gonna reactivate it later. But I would say those are the two, my two most important tools that I use. 

[00:25:57] Mira: Yeah, and the thing with the dedicated SEO tools like Semrush or Moz or Ahrefs, is that they're really expensive, but then they're the full toolset that you need. So also for your keyword research or competitor analysis, they're really great for that as well.

Which was my segue into, um, talking a little bit about keyword research and creating a keyword strategy for a marketplace. How did you go about that, either for GigMasters or Petworks? 

[00:26:24] Michael: Okay, so I would say two things on that. First of all, I'll say division of duties, right? So SEO is now so broad that you almost need to have one person that focuses on technical SEO and then another person that focuses on things like keyword research and link building, more of the external facing parts of SEO. GigMasters and now Petworks, my co-founder, it's the same guy. I focus more on the technical SEO and he focuses more on the keyword and stuff like that. So having two people to focus on SEO because it's so broad is important. It's a little bit unrealistic to think. Oh yeah, I have my one SEO person for a whole marketplace.

They're gonna be responsible for all aspects of it, and it's just not realistic anymore because just technical SEO alone will keep somebody quite busy. So that's the first point that I'll make there. But with regard to keyword research, again, this is something that's unique about marketplaces, where it can be overwhelming to try and manage all these keywords.

It be can paralyzingly overwhelming to the point where you just don't even know where to begin. So the key is to just pick 10, 10 of your most important keywords and start with that. Don't get overwhelmed with the fact that like, Yeah, but I've got like 500 that I wanna optimize for. That's the challenge of a marketplace.

But you gotta start somewhere, 10, 20 keywords. Find a tool that you can use, that you're gonna monitor your ranking positions or check 'em yourself, but just start with like a small subset and work on optimizing those. And again, it's not just keyword density, it's natural language, it's using the right synonyms, it's writing copy that makes sense to users.

But I think the biggest piece of advice I would say is don't get overwhelmed. Just start with a finite amount, 10 or 20 keywords, and then build out from there. And then a year from now, or two years from now, you might be amazed that now you have a system in place where you're able to monitor a hundred or 200 keywords. Because you started small and you built out from there, and then you really have something. You really have something quite amazing. 

[00:28:35] Mira: Did you have any trouble determining whether to focus on demand-side keywords or supply-side keywords, or was it clear from the get-go that SEO works for the demand side?

[00:28:44] Michael: We have always focused our SEO efforts more on the demand. But what's interesting about it is that it actually, and this is something we discovered that we weren't expecting as we did this it, it actually can indirectly help the supply side because in our case, I'll use Petworks as an example. The pet pros that are either evaluating Petworks, to see if it's worth joining or maybe they're just doing their own keyword searches when they see your marketplace showing up on the first page of Google search results, they say to themselves, Ah, okay, I can leverage their SEO strength by becoming part of their marketplace. And that's our whole premise with Petworks, these people are such experts. I'm now talking about the suppliers. They're so devoted to the animals and helping the care of the animals and what we call pet parents.

They're not necessarily wanting to spend their time studying core web vitals of SEO and Google Search Console. And so anyway, my point back to your original question is even though we focused primarily on the demand side, the supply side is watching, and so if you are showing SEO capabilities and strength, that will attract suppliers to your platform. 

[00:30:08] Mira: Yeah, that, that makes perfect sense. And also like goes back to what you said about optimizing listing content, that it's, you can communicate that to your providers like, Hey, we're doing this for SEO so that our site is stronger so that we appear in these searches and that you get this organic traffic to your listings.

[00:30:23] Michael: Yes. And when you reach a certain amount of SEO strength and the suppliers start to see that, that's when you'll eventually be able to convince them that it's worth paying to be on there. Not initially, you have to go a long time, usually without earning really any revenue from them, because you know, you haven't shown them anything.

But now when they start to see, Oh, okay, by listing on Petworks, I'm getting greater visibility, I can see that they're showing up on the search, first page of search. Now they have a higher willingness to pay, not everybody, a lot of people still want everything to be free, which I do myself, but it starts to then it can drive monetization for your marketplace.

So that's when you reach that point, you realize all the hours that you put in, all the work for SEO, it can start to pay off as, you can really start to build a real business with revenue as a result of that deal work that you've done. 

[00:31:14] Mira: Yeah, that is, that is super inspiring. Your recommendation was to start small with keywords. Focus on a small subset, and not be overwhelmed by 500 keywords that you want to rank for.

[00:31:23] Michael: Right.

[00:31:24] Mira: But what if I have the opposite problem? What if I don't know how to start with. Where do I start finding keywords? Could you share like a really practical example? Your keyword research process? 

[00:31:34] Michael: Yeah. Tools like Google Analytics and Google Search Console. As you're becoming more familiar with those tools, let's say you're just starting out, you have to see how people are finding your site.

It's really interesting, right? The search section of Google Analytics where if your site has any kind of search capabilities like Sharetribe, provide you your marketplace, and Google is smart enough to know that "q=" is a search parameter. You start to see, wow, people are finding my site and searching for these keywords within the platform, and I now am starting to learn the vocabulary of my marketplace, right?

I'm starting to see how people either are finding me externally or once they arrive at my homepage, what they're searching for internally. Those two things together can start to inform you as to what are the most important keywords. So that's step one is, learn what people themselves are typing. That's probably the most important.

But then step two of that is now do a little bit extra keyword research to know like alternative keywords that maybe you're not realizing are also important. I think for example with Petworks, pet training is a big part of pet care, right? You get a new puppy, very rambunctious. You wanna hire a pet trainer.

So that's an important, that's one of the category, big categories on Petworks. We discovered that like people are searching for puppy training and dog training, and we realized that we were just thinking pet everything and to expand the vocabulary of our keywords and make sure we're using all variants of these category names: Pet Trainer versus Training, Dog Trainer versus Dog Training. Making sure that like we're incorporating these keywords in various places on category pages, encouraging, like back to user generating content are the listing descriptions using a nice mix of these keywords. Again, it's a big undertaking. But anytime you launch either a new marketplace or a new category within a marketplace. There's this learning curve where you're starting to become like a mini expert in that particular category, and you're starting to learn the lingo, the language, the vocabulary of that category, and then you just gotta make sure that your site is covering that.

And there's times where you may say, You know what? I got it wrong the first time. Like even just the main name of the category, I was too broad. I was not thinking what users are typing. And so maybe you have to change the category names and make sure any old URLs are redirecting to new URLs. There's a lot of work involved in that, but it's definitely a process as you're spinning up either the marketplace as a whole or a new category to kind of like, again, learn that vocabulary.

[00:34:14] Mira: Yeah, that's really great at advice. A fourth category that I will discuss in my marketplace SEO article series will be link building. Has active link building played a big role in your SEO efforts? 

[00:34:25] Michael: Yes. When I talk about things that have not necessarily changed very much with SEO principles. I think when site A links to site B, that's a vote of confidence for site B, and so you wanna be site B. But how we've gone about it, I think has changed. We definitely avoid, I guess I'll start with some of the things not to do, you know. Don't buy links as tempting as it might be, we don't do that. And we're also mindful of like nonreputable sites that are linking to us. Google has a whole process where you can disavow links from sites that are of not a good reputation because that will actually hurt you and some Rush has a really great way of letting you know that they've found these sites that are linking to you, that are of poor reputation, so you disavowed. 

So anyway, let's get the negative stuff out of the way. Things to avoid. With regard to, yeah, our overall link-building strategy, we try to get with Petworks and we employed the same technique with GigMasters when a pet pro signs up and creates this great listing and we vet each pet care provider that signs up and once we feel like we've approved them for our platform, this is, uh, a link building technique that we've used.

We provide them with a snippet of HTML and a Petworks-approved badge that they can place on their website, and that links back to their Petworks listings. It's like a very nice looking badge that looks great on their own website and it helps build a link back to pet work. So that's just like one link-building strategy that we've had success with because, for example, with Petworks, we have over 5,000 pet care providers on the platform.

So even if a small percentage of those pet pros provide a link back to us from their website, it really helps in a really like organic way, to build your links. The second link-building strategy that we employ is that the pet pros, again, this is back to user-generated content again. We have an articles section, a blog section of our site.

And it's all articles that the pet pros that list with us, they contribute those articles. They have a bio and they have author credit. We let them link back to their own website. So it's like a big benefit for them. We share it out on our social media. So let's say a pet pro writes an article about pet nutrition and we publish it on our platform, we share it out to, you know, our social media community.

And then in that particular pet pro, they might wanna share it also. And so then you start to build links back to this content. I'd like to think about it as a win-win because the pet pro is gaining visibility, right? Like they get to share their expertise, their point of view. Maybe it drives some traffic back to their main website.

But then it's also helpful for us as far as like building up those number of backlinks that exist. 

[00:37:16] Mira: Yeah. I love those both examples because they leverage what's unique about marketplace businesses, is the user community, so it's not marketplace SEO isn't this own thing only because marketplaces have their own specific technical issues, but also because there are these massive opportunities also for SEO in this very unique business model.

[00:37:34] Michael: That's right. 

[00:37:36] Mira: Well, you already mentioned that don't buy links. Are there any other link-building strategies that you would recommend Marketplace founders to avoid. 

[00:37:43] Michael: Yeah, definitely. Don't waste your money trying to buy your way into link building. There's no quick overnight like, Oh, I'll just buy my way into it.

This is a process that takes time and it takes, you know, a commitment on your part to like invest in building content that people will link back to. I remember when we launched Petworks, again, thanks to Sharetribe, we were able to spin up the marketplace itself quickly. So that was great, but no backlinks.

And I thought to myself, Oh, you know, with GigMasters over so many years, we built up this amazing amount of backlinks, and now with Petworks, like I'm starting at zero again and it's like, Oh boy, is there any way I can just skip and speed it up and like press a button and suddenly I'm gonna have backlinks and no. The answer is no, there's no way. 

So you start at zero and then you get one and you should celebrate that. And then you have 10 backlinks and you should celebrate that. And then you get, eventually you get to a hundred backlinks and you'll celebrate that. And then down the road, maybe a couple years later, you'll have 5,000 backlinks and somebody will ask you how you did it and you'll say, Oh yeah, it was easy, but you just realize that you spent a lot of time building that, and there are no shortcuts.

[00:38:56] Mira: Yeah, so just build natural links through natural relationships with your providers and with your community.

[00:39:02] Michael: Yeah, I think your providers are probably your best source, in my opinion. 

[00:39:06] Mira: This has been such a fantastic discussion. I've learned so much. I wish every Sharetribe Marketplace founder could have an hour with you to talk about SEO.

[00:39:15] Michael: Thank you so much. And I will say that I'm just such a fan of Sharetribe and when you reached out to me to do this, I was thrilled. As I talked about with GigMasters, there was no Sharetribe and we had to build everything from scratch. And when I was doing Petworks and I found Sharetribe, I was just blown away and I'm like so thankful that you guys exist and you're providing this way for just the everyday person that doesn't have a hundred million dollars in funding to be able to create a marketplace and find their niche. And I just think it's the greatest thing. So again, thanks for creating such a great platform. 

[00:39:49] Mira: Thank you. That is super lovely to hear. To conclude, any final words of wisdom? If you could share like one bit of advice for a marketplace founder who is just starting out and looking into SEO as a growth strategy, what would your piece of advice be? 

[00:40:03] Michael: Yeah, I think overall I would say SEO has gotten very technical as it's become more sophisticated, and so just spend the time finding that technical person to help you on SEO, and they need to understand that marketplace SEO is really, it's it's own thing.

And so I would say spend that time, talk to a lot of people, ideally, find somebody who has done any kind of marketplace SEO. Do they know what core web vitals are and some of those more technical terms and just find that technical partner. I think that's really important in today's environment because yeah, Google has gotten more sophisticated in how it's judging your pages, and so you need to be able to understand and make those improvements. So just build that right team from the get-go. 

[00:40:54] Mira: Yeah, that's very well. Finally, would you like to share where people can find you and where they can find Petworks? 

[00:41:01] Michael: Yeah, so petworks.com. We are based right now just in the US but hopefully over time we'll expand in into other countries. We have 40, 50 categories of pet care.

We call them pet parents, not pet owners, because people, they really more than ever before, they're treating their pets like kids. And so we have categories that you can't find anywhere else. You can hire a consultation with a pet nutritionist to make sure your pet has the right diet. And we're not just dogs, not just cats. We recognize people have all kinds of pets and yeah, definitely check us out, petworks.com. 

[00:41:39] Mira: Anything else that you feel like you'd like to add to what we discussed previously to any previous point? 

[00:41:44] Michael: I'll just say building a marketplace. It's not a sprint, it's a marathon. Just be prepared for a long and hopefully rewarding journey. It's not gonna happen overnight, but just stick with it and you'll be amazed with what you can accomplish over time.

[00:42:02] Katri: Check out Mira's article series, The Complete Guide to Marketplace SEO in Marketplace Academy at sharetribe.com/academy. Our academy is your number one go-to source for marketplace knowledge out there. And make sure to subscribe to this podcast to get our best articles and future bonus episodes in podcast form.

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