SaaS Companies and their Websites

With many options in Web technologies, the SaaS community has its favorites

A new analysis shows the average software as a service (SaaS) company website is programmed in PHP and runs on servers hosted by Amazon Web Services. It displays Google Fonts, gives data to Google Analytics, and obtains enhancements from jQuery. When the company is using a content management system, it uses WordPress.

These are among the findings of a June 2015 analysis of more than 900 SaaS websites, painting a picture of the Web technology landscape used by industry leaders that includes 1475 tools.

Background

When launching a marketing team, a top priority is messaging — the way a company presents itself to the public. As a team grows, so must its offerings and thus the capabilities of the company website.

While developing a plan to scale the FiscalNote website, the first step was to research the content management system (CMS) options used by other SaaS companies. The results surprised some in our organization.

I’m not sure what’s more shocking — that Google Analytics is so ubiquitous, or that 20% of these websites weren’t using it.

Now, as our team is poised to grow from two to seven in the very near future, we’re assessing all the options to be a data-driven department within the company. What better way to start this than to do an analysis of the tech stacks of other SaaS companies. This analysis was done separate from my responsibilities to FiscalNote.

Methodology

AngelList is a social network to connect startups, their employees, and investors. It contains over more than 500,000 company profiles. Many of these companies are not strictly technology companies; but those labeling themselves “software as a service” are fundamentally focused on the technology they are creating.

As part of this study, I wasn’t interested in the technology of a company’s product — only their public-facing website. FiscalNote’s products, for example, use the Ruby on Rails framework and the Ember.js library for structure. As we make the move to WordPress on our corporate website, neither of these technologies would be found there.

To generate a list of qualified SaaS websites, I used the AngelList API for companies tagged “SaaS.” The initial query returned 6,887 companies. But anyone can create a company profile on AngelList. The analysis only included companies with more than 10 employees — leaving 973 total SaaS websites.

The technical capabilities of these sites were assessed using the BuiltWith API. This service assesses signals to determine whether a technology or service is present on a website.

Workflow and analysis

Content Management Systems

SaaS companies using a CMS are overwhelmingly choosing the open source WordPress as a platform.

In the analysis, 486 websites had an identifiable CMS running. Of these, 396 (81.5%) were running a version of WordPress. Second most was the young company Squarespace with 23 installs. Of course, some companies opt to host a separate blog on a subdomain (Ex: http://blog.socialtables.com/). These subdomains are considered separate websites by BuiltWith and search engines, potentially having a negative impact on SEO.

81% of SaaS websites running a content management system utilize WordPress.

At the time of this study, the most recent version of WordPress was 4.2. Only 80 (20.2%) of the 396 installs were running the most recent version, while 153 total (38.6%) were on 4.0 or newer.

Analytics

Analytical tools can be broken into a handful of categories: user analysis, optimization, and conversions.

Google tracking code was found on 779 of the 973 SaaS sites (80.2%), leading all user analysis components. Other search engine companies saw far lower use: Bing with 16 implementations, Yahoo Web Analytics with five. The second most-used user behavior tracking platform was CrazyEgg (105), which monitors where users click on a page. As for other visitor tracking tools, Chartbeat was only found on 12 of these SaaS sites, while Omniture was found on six.

For optimization, 185 sites were found to use Optimizely while 166 were using New Relic. These tools are used to monitor performance and run A/B tests, among other things.

To track marketing and conversions, Hubspot led platforms with 159 websites. Additionally, Marketo (86), Kissmetrics (67) and Pardot (53) — a SalesForce product — served as tools to track the behavior, interests, and contact information of potential customers.

In total, these SaaS websites used an average of five metric-tracking services, with some using as many as 19. A total of 172 unique products were detected on these websites. One hundred sixty sites (16.4%) used no form of analytics at all.

Front-end technology

JavaScript

jQuery may be the most ubiquitous technology used on SaaS company websites. This JavaScript library was found on 812 sites (83.5%); 278 of these used Google Hosted Libraries to load the jQuery file.

A variety of jQuery extensions were also found — 54 in total. The most frequent of these was jQuery UI (192), an interface extension maintained by the parent organization. Form, Masonry and Easing were all installed on over 100 websites.

The specific version of jQuery could be identified on 367 of the sites using the tool. Of these, only 21 were using a version of jQuery 2.0 (5.7%). Version 1.11.1 was found on 59 sites, while 1.7.1 was found on 58. The next most-used javascript tools were implemented to address the browsing experience on legacy Internet Explorer versions. html5shiv (443 sites) and Modernizr (428) are two approaches for allowing current programming standards to be used without breaking a site in old browsers.

12.3% of SaaS websites use no recognized external JavaScript library.

The most popular JavaScript frameworks were as follows: Backbone (62 sites), Angular (55), Handlebars (19), Ember (2). A lookup of Node.js on BuiltWith returned no results, leading me to believe the site could not detect it at the time of this research.

In total, 206 different JavaScript tools were found on these sites. This is certainly far too many to list here; but some favorites of this writer include: Waypoints (50 sites), D3.js (9) and Highcharts (8). The sites on average had nearly nine javascript tools with as many as 30, yet 120 sites returned no JavaScript tools at all.

Widgets

The most common additional add-on feature for SaaS websites was a font library. The Google Font API was used by 567 sites, while Typekit was found on 142. These sites provide an array of typefaces, allowing a company to pick which to load on a website. For icon fonts, Font Awesome was on 280 sites and Twemoji was on 212.

One product seen often on SaaS websites is a customer chat or help desk feature. The top products used include Olark (93 sites), SnapEngage (42), Intercom (29), LiveChat (21), and UserVoice (16).

Regarding social media, 116 websites used some form of Facebook share — whether that be a Like Button, Like Box or “Sharer.” For Twitter, 118 sites used one or a combination of the Twitter Tweet, Follow or Timeline embed features. The Google +1 button was on 42 sites; LinkedIn Share was on 29.

Responsive CSS

Approximately three-quarters of SaaS sites use media queries in their CSS for responsive websites; 725 use either max-width or min-width — or both. A variety of other media queries are found as well.

Additionally, the viewport meta tag was found on 751 sites (77%). This tag tells a mobile device how to display a Web page. The combination of this meta tag and media queries are fundamental to the approach of responsive web design, detailed in a 2010 “A List Apart” article.

Rich Media

Over a third of the surveyed SaaS websites included some form of video software. In total, 365 sites had at least one platform featured. Three stood out above the rest as the most common: YouTube (145 sites) and Vimeo (94) allow video embedding with free accounts while Wistia (91) is marketed for business video.

Several additional open source video technologies were found, allowing programmers to customize video players. Mediaelement.js (47 sites) and VideoJS (30) led this category. Only nine sites used any other tool for video.

Additionally, 106 sites included a mapping tool — nearly all of which were Google Maps. Two sites used MapBox and one used Leaflet.

Ad technologies

For companies with a focus on selling a product, it may be surprising that 87 (8.9%) of these SaaS sites had 10 or more advertising technologies installed — with as many as 41.

Closer analysis, however, indicates that many of these technologies are being used for marketing purposes. Nearly half of these sites (48%) use DoubleClick.net, a subsidiary of Google that allows advertisers to manage campaigns and connect with ad networks.

Only 179 sites (18.3%) use the complementary Google Remarketing. Remarketing products show ads to users on other sites after they’ve visited one of these SaaS sites.

Other popular ad networks include AppNexus (214 sites) and AdRoll (202). The Facebook Exchange is used on 144 sites, while Twitter Ads is on 182.

Server-side technology

Framework

A framework could only be identified on 681 sites; the brunt of those — 510 sites — include programming in PHP. The leading CMS for these SaaS websites — WordPress, found on 396 sites — runs on PHP, affecting this high number.

The next most frequent framework was Ruby on Rails, with 98 sites. ASP.NET (55 sites) and J2EE (47) are other notables. A few Node.js frameworks were also used. Express.js is used on 22 sites and another open source javascript project, Meteor.js, was found on three sites.

Hosting

BuiltWith identified hosting providers on 835 sites. The most popular of these was Amazon Web Services (AWS), running 408 sites — 48.9% of researched SaaS companies. AWS users choose a primary region for their hosting; these can be set to choose servers closest to their clients. The Virginia region was used by 144 sites, California by 38 and Oregon by 37. These three represent all of the regions in the United States. Twenty-five had a presence in Ireland; many others are located all over the world.

Other hosting providers included Rackspace (92 sites), Linode (91), Cloudflare (55), and GoDaddy (51).

Content Delivery Networks

A CDN, or content delivery network, distributes Web traffic over a series of geographically convenient servers. The benefit of this is that users will access servers closer to them, minimizing the distance data would need to travel and speeding up latency (see latency in action here). It also lessens the load on the main server.

BuiltWith identified 111 (11.4%) of these SaaS companies as running a verified CDN; that is, according to the BuiltWith definition:

Verified CDNs are content delivery networks that are being used by the website as hosting services for their own content. … A content delivery network provides several features, firstly it allows a website to remove load from its web server by moving ancillary files onto another server for them to process, theoretically speeding up the website. Secondly a CDN is normally geographically dispersed to provide a regionally local copy of your data to the recipient.

The verified CDN used most by these SaaS websites is Amazon CloudFront with 75, followed by Akamai with 15.

The most used CDN for any content on a website is again Amazon CloudFront — active on 362 websites — again followed by Akamai (166 sites).

Other CDNs identified by BuiltWith are intended for specific libraries. Three hundred seventy five sites use the Google AJAX Libraries API to dynamically load a selection of JavaScript libraries from a Google CDN, while 61 were using the Open Source Software CDN for its selection of libraries.

The Bootstrap.js CDN is used on 162 sites, while Vimeo, jQuery, and Twitter content are also often delivered via their own CDNs.

Conclusion

While this analysis confirmed the prevalence of many industry-leading technologies, it was surprising to find how under-used others were. Additionally, in the age of data, I’m not sure what’s more shocking — that Google Analytics is so ubiquitous, or that 20% of these websites weren’t using it.

Still, this analysis was not meant to confirm one technology’s superiority to another, only to determine which were most pervasive. Surely in the months to follow, new companies will be launched that will vie for the attention of developers. In the long run, performance of technology will outweigh any buzz they might receive.

Future studies

Later this month I’ll also be writing an analysis of tech trends among newspaper websites and state legislature websites. With both, I’ll be drawing comparisons to this report to learn how these non-technical industries differ from these leaders in Web programming.


Special thanks to Andrew and Gary at BuiltWith for giving me access to their API in order to conduct this analysis.