SEMrush had turned down multiple offers of from investors before they finally caved and took in $40mn in April 2018 from a group of VC investors led by Greycroft, e.ventures and Siguler Guff. Even then the Boston-based competitive intelligence and end-to-end analytics platform for digital marketing professionals didn't really need the money, but were more interested in the strategic partnerships the deal brought.
“We were already a profitable company and didn't really need the money,” says Eugene Levin, SEMrush’s chief strategy officer.
The company was set up in 2008 in the midst of the global financial crisis by CEO and co-founder Oleg Shchegolev, whose vision was to create a resource for marketers to help them promote their sites and reach their customers beyond the simple search engine optimisation that has been the industry default for many years.
Dmitry Melnikov, Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer (left) Oleg Shchegolev, co-founder and CEO (right)
Hockey stick growth
Levin is of Belarusian origin and a VC investor that came across SEMrush several years prior to joining the team and began courting them, without much luck to begin with.
“It was one of the best companies I’d ever seen with revenues of over $50mn a year at the time,” Levin told bne in an exclusive interview.
Today SEMrush caters to the likes of Booking.com, eBay and BNP Paribas to name a few customers who use the software to improve reader insights, analytics and reach. SEMrush works with one in four of the Fortune 500 companies as well as seven out of ten of the top advertisers. Since the company raised $40mn its growth has accelerated dramatically.
Business is rapidly going online so online visibility has become the key to any e-commerce venture. It used to be a question of getting search engine optimisation (SEO) right, but as with everything to do with the internet these days simply filling in a few key words and phrases in the boxes at the bottom of the publication form is not enough.
Keywords and channels
Getting keywords is still important of course, but what SEMrush is attempting to do is turn the black art of choosing those words and phrases into a science. And the service SEMrush offers doesn't limit itself to making a page more visible to Google, but also offers ways to promote content across social media like YouTube, Twitter and the gamut of social media sites as well.
“It used to be a channel play. You only needed to concentrate on your SEO, but things have changed. Now you have to think about all the distribution channels – Google and all the social media platforms. You need to be visible in all those places.”
Google black box
One of the ways SEMrush has done this is to crawl the net looking for content and links and then analyses all this data in the quite similar way as Google. The keywords it offers up to its clients are thus not guesses but recommendations based on similar methodology to what Google uses.
Google now accounts for more than 50% of referral traffic sent to digital publishers, according to the web analytics firm Parse.ly, compared to 27% from the second-biggest referrer, Facebook. Together, Google and Facebook control about 56% of the US digital ad market, according to eMarketer; competitors like Amazon and Snap, Inc. each have less than 5% of the market.
“We probably have the second most extensive crawler after Google in terms of crawling intensity,” says Levin. “Its bigger than some of the other search engines like Bing. Google is a black box with content going in and search results coming out. What we do is shine some light on what happens in between.”
SEMrush uses a “freemium” model. What that means is that there is a very basic and limited free version of some of the features, but where SEMrush makes its money is from happy punters upgrading to the premium service (starting at $99 / month) to unlock more features and better quality recommendations.
“We wanted to make these tools available to marketers. For small sites looking to improve their ranking in a search result and maybe the free version is all they will ever need. But for the bigger companies maintaining their ranking is important.”
SEO is becoming more sophisticated. After signing up to SEMrush, the software crawls your own site and analyses it. Then for any given page it offers recommendations of key words and phrases that will promote traffic.
“At the end of the day it is up to the owner of the site to decide what they want to do. We don't do that for them,” says Levin. “the publisher still needs to do the heavy lifting.”
The default choice for most websites is to gain as many views as possible. To do that there are a few keywords that have the broadest reach that you could use. However, these words means content competes with a very large number of other sites and many sites will get lost in the mosh as a result.
An alternative is SEMrush will offer other keywords that are not quite as popular but have a lot less competition, but focus on a narrower audience. If that audience happens to be one the publisher is particularly interested in then using those keywords might be a better choice: the audience it brings in may be smaller, but it is better defined and consequently may be easier to monetise.
Putting keywords in the right place is also important. The title of a page is an obvious place to place a keyword. And there are still those SEO boxes to fill out at the bottom of the publishing form. But placing keyword phrases in the body of the text is also useful. For this SEMrush offers a text editor that looks at your content and suggests changes to make sentences and paragraphs more visible to the Google bots.
Keywords is only one of the aspects of the SEMrush service and it is already being used by some of the big names in the publishing business to boost their public profile, including the likes of Forbes and Newsweek.
Another aspect of promoting content is getting links. This can be done internally (adding links to your own content) or externally (getting other sites to link to your articles) via “backlinks.” Today SEMrush has one of the largest backlink indices in the world. And SEMrush helps a publisher build up both.
“The company was bootstrapped from the beginning, but we decided to take in some extra money so that we could be comfortable with experimenting,” says Levin. “And we wanted to work with these people as they were going to be useful for the business.”
Levin says that one of the issues for the development of the company was being able to attract top talent and to do that the company needs to look like a classic tech company.
While the founders Melnikov and Shchegolev are from Eastern Europe, and St Petersburg remains a major hub for the development team, SEMrush remains a US company. St Petersburg is important as there is more development talent available there simply as the competition for talent is less. Today SEMrush is headquartered in Boston with additional offices in in Philadelphia, Dallas, Czech Republic, Cyprus and St Petersburg.
“There are very good people in St Petersburg,” says Levin. “And it is a very good place to live and work. Developers from St Petersburg are regular winners of the programming Olympics and can compete with engineers from the US, Israel and other countries.”