The darkÂ art of search engine optimization could be next in line for software-powered automation â€” potentially putting hundreds of thousands of â€˜SEO consultantsâ€™ out of a job.
At least thatâ€™s the scenario sketched by RankScience, a YC-backed startup just graduating fromÂ acceleratorâ€™sÂ winter 2017 program, whose software-as-a-serviceÂ automates the process of running thousands of A/B tests in order toÂ identify which changes will improve the Google ranking of customer webpages in organic search results.
â€œUltimately thatâ€™s who we do see ourselves replacing,â€ says founder Ryan Bednar of the humble human SEO consultant who spends their days eyeballing scores of dashboards to try to identify beneficial tweaks. But whose days of gainful employment could be numbered ifÂ manual analyticsÂ can be overtaken by automation.
â€œIt is an industry that I think we can disrupt,â€ he continues. â€œHumans are tweaking and measuring and changing, and software is really where things are going â€” and we think this is the start of that.â€
So the pitch is:Â goodbye SEO dashboards and specialized in-house staff; and hello subscriptionÂ software forÂ automated testing andÂ continuously optimized web pages. RankScienceÂ claims anÂ average boost to organic search traffic of 37 per cent within three months, arguing such gains areÂ a substantial step up from the competitionÂ â€” albeit it only hasÂ â€œa couple of dozenâ€ customers at this point.
While Bednar says the SEO automation testing approach works well for â€œall sorts of different sitesâ€, he flags particular benefits for ecommerce sites, marketplaces, directories, QA pages â€” â€œanything where companies have lots of pagesâ€.
â€œOur software identifies areas of opportunity and things that companies should be testing based on where theyâ€™re ranking now, what theyâ€™re competitors are doing, and what opportunities we see. And also this data that we have from across our network â€” things that we see that are working elsewhere on similar sites.â€
The SaaS platform soft-launched in May last year, and the team has not yet done any active marketing.Â Most of theÂ customers thus far are US-based but it does have some as far afield as Taiwan.
RankScienceâ€™s methodÂ requires customers to route their web traffic throughÂ itsÂ CDN in order thatÂ it can run thousands of concurrent split tests on their behalf, although it describes theÂ set up for this asÂ very easy; â€œtwo minutesâ€ and a simple â€œone-line code changeâ€, is the claim.
It also claimsÂ itâ€™sÂ doing things differently vs most of the startup competition in the SEO space because itâ€™s not just doing analytics; itâ€™s also automating making the changes too â€” taking a further piece of search optimizationÂ hassle out of its customersâ€™ hands (assuming, of course, theyâ€™re comfortable relinquishing a little control over how their online content is structured, though it sends weekly reports about changes to keepÂ customers in the loop).
The â€œmost similarâ€Â competitor Bednar can be coaxed toÂ name is BloomReach, which does ecommerce SEO for Fortune 500 companies, but he adds: â€œAs far as I know, our continuous, automated split testing software is something theyâ€™re not doing. They donâ€™t have a CDN, they do hosting for companies, so I think what weâ€™re doing is differentiated from what theyâ€™re doing.â€
Bednar says the idea for automating search engineÂ optimizationÂ cameÂ from his â€œprevious lifeâ€ as an SEO consultant. â€œI realized my main advantage, related to other consultants, was that I was a programmer, and so companies could add me to GitHub, and instead of just sending them PDFs with recommended changes I could actually execute the changes myselfâ€¦ Our CDN is an attempt to productize that,â€ he tells TechCrunch.
â€œAlmost all of the other SEO software products are analytics tools. They give you insights into how youâ€™re doing with rankings, or they maybe make recommendations around things that you should change,â€ he adds.
â€œOur product is the only piece of SEO software that actually does work for you. So instead of creating tasks for engineers or product managers, our software actually handles the work for you, and executes for you. Because weâ€™re a CDN â€” we can actually make changes to your pages. And other products canâ€™t.â€
RankScience not only carries outÂ A/B tests for its customers, it also identifies which SEO experiments to run â€” although at this point itâ€™s not yet fully automated that part of its process. So it remains to be seen how they can scale that, and what impact fewerÂ â€œhuman inputsâ€, as Bednar puts it, willÂ have on the results it can deliver for customers.
â€œFor customers itâ€™s 100 per cent completely automated. On our end itâ€™s mostly software with some human inputs,â€ he says of the product at this point.Â â€œWhen a company comes on board we do interview them to learn about things they care about etc, so there are some human inputs as well. But the rest is software.
â€œWe identify what to change and the larger our network gets the more powerful the data we have becomes because we know whatâ€™s working on other sites across our network â€” and so we have a good idea of what SEO experiments companies should be running.â€
Bednar emphasizes its SEOÂ methods are bona fide â€˜White Hatâ€™. So there are no dubious techniques being deployed in a bidÂ to boost search visibility; itâ€™s entirelyÂ compliant with Googleâ€™s best practices, he says, describing himself asÂ â€œtotally confidentâ€ the approach wonâ€™t get a customerâ€™s websiteÂ penalized by Google for trying to game itsÂ algorithm.
As a consequence ofÂ looping traffic through RankScienceâ€™s CDN there is a very small amount ofÂ latency involved in the process â€” â€œtypically around 16ms of latency or lessâ€ â€” minimal on accountÂ of how many websites are now hosted on Amazon Web Servicesâ€™ cloud service platform, according to Bednar.
â€œThe reason itâ€™s so fast is that most companies now are on AWS and we spin up our CDNs in the same region as companiesâ€™ origin web serverâ€™s on AWS. Thatâ€™s one of the reasons that this couldâ€™ve never been built before. Now everyoneâ€™s basically in the same data center â€” AWS enables this speed.â€
And if customersÂ are using other cloud service platforms â€” say Google Cloud or Microsoft Azure â€” heÂ says RankScience can just â€œspin up our CDNs in the same regionâ€, so the latency will neverÂ exceed 16m/s regardless of the platform a customer is using.
The team of five has raised a small pre-seed round from friends and the founders own money. Their next step on graduating from YC will be raising a seed.
â€œWeâ€™re totally focused on scaling right now. Weâ€™ve spent this last year focusing on product, and validating a lot of our hypothesis. The past six months weâ€™ve just been trying to add more customers, learn more about how this works for different sites and how people are using this. So weâ€™re just totally focusing on scaling at this point, and improving the product,â€ he adds.