Rand Fishkin: Q&A Session

Q&A Session: Rand Fishkin

Rand’s Q&A Session is happening on July 23rd, 2015 (1pm PT/4pm Est)

Rand Fishkin uses the ludicrous title, Wizard of Moz. He’s founder and former CEO of Moz, co-author of a pair of books on SEO, and co-founder of Inbound.org. Rand’s an unsaveable addict of all things content, search, & social on the web, from his multiple blogs to Twitter, Google+,Facebook, LinkedIn, and a shared Instagram account. In his miniscule spare time, he likes to galavant around the world with Geraldine and then read about it on her superbly enjoyable travel blog.
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Rand Fishkin – Moz founder – Transcript.

Rand Fishkin uses the ludicrous title, Wizard of Moz. He’s founder and former CEO of Moz, co-author of a pair of books on SEO, and co-founder of Inbound.org.


The Q&A Session with Rand was held on July 23rd, 2015.

Let me know what questions you’ve got!

First question. Is Roger the Robot on health insurance, and if so – where does he get serviced?

Thankfully, Roger’s construction makes traditional healthcare unnecessary. Our Moz engineers are his health plan.

Is my mozcon Roger made out of lead? He seems a bit heavy.

Pic? I strongly suspect lead was not involved, though…

Is there a hangout associated with this chat?

Not to my knowledge, but you’d have to ask an admin.

How do we become good at SEO like you? LOL

Well, I sucked at SEO for at least my first three years doing it, then was only mediocre for the next 3 years. Lots of practice, failing, experimenting, and finding what worked for my particular skills/passions was key.

How do you maintain unification of direction between marketing and product? Is there an individual at your company who takes ownership of that?

No – we don’t have someone specific who does it. We do have a part of our marketing team responsible primarily for “product marketing” and they manage the landing pages, signups, various promotions, ads, etc. on behalf of the product teams.

When I toured Moz, I found the same separation exists between the dev team and the marketing team as my agency. The developers all hang out together in the lower floor, and the marketing team is upstairs. Do you encounter culture issues with that kind of physical division? I.e. The dev floor is always a silent monastery of focus, whereas the marketing side is typically more loud and rambunctious. Two different cultures arise and consolidation between the two can be difficult for us. Reading Moz Glassdoor semi-indicates a similar problem, but interested in your take on that.

Yup – definitely different cultures across different teams, but I think that’s OK. I have a particular style I like, working with my team (the Big Data and Moz Explorer folks), and I appreciate that Moz lets us have our own approach. BTW – I don’t trust Glassdoor reviews at all. They don’t verify in any way, and we know several comments all came from one person. I also know plenty of folks who’ve had bad experiences interviewing with a company or as a customer who leave Glassdoor reviews as a way to get back at what they feel was unfair treatment. I trust them about as much as Yahoo! Answers.

How do you balance having the tech savviness of the Internet age and the facial hair of a vaudevillian?

I did get told by a woman at an ice cream shop that I “looked like someone who’d tie me to the railroad tracks” :-})

In the ways that SEO has been evolving (not necessarily adapting) where so many tactics, techniques and promotional methods have been caught in the cross fire (regardless of the color of hats) – what would you say is the most legitimate and long-term strategy a small business owner can do for their promotion? Bonus points if it’s not just “good content.”

“Good content” is a crap strategy IMO (it’s not even really strategic). I think the best strategy for long term SEO is to find the intersection between your unique strengths (what you can be best in the world at), what resonates with your audience and their influencers (don’t forget about influencers – they’re the ones that create the links/amplification/signals you need to rank), and what fits with search engines’ technical needs (keyword targeting, crawl friendliness, markup, rich snippets, etc.).

What were some of the key reasons (data, hypothesis) for the site refresh? What change has been most effective?

If you mean the most recent one where we updated the global navigation, the answer is that it’s actually had a negative impact on traffic, engagement, and tool usage. Some projects fail, that one did. We’ll be looking into another update in the future.

What are your thoughts around Google looking for an inhouse SEO? Did you ever see that coming?

Google’s hired literally hundreds of people to do SEO over the years (remember Google Japan caught buying links? Definitely an SEO there). It’s just they’venever publicly used the words in a job listing (always called it “product marketing” or “web marketing” or “growth”). IMO, it’s nothing to see really.

You blog and talk about depression quiet a lot around the Internet traps.Do you find that as entrepreneurs we tend to hide that feeling and not show for fear of a sign of weakness or something else?

Yes, sadly, I do see that. Entrepreneurs are supposed to show strength and confidence for their teams, their investors, their customers, and their future recruits. Depression and mental health issues in general are seen as a sign that you’re not capable to lead, so CEOs/founders hide it in order to keep their jobs. In my case, the sad truth was that depression did cost me my job. Perhaps in the future, as these things become more accepted, it will be something that garners empathy, support, and understanding. I certainly hope to help by being transparent about my experiences.

Did you build up a lot of connections in the first three years that helped with your success later on?

Yeah – I think that was certainly part of it. I got to network online (mostly in the old-school SEO forums and chatrooms) with a lot of smart, talented, helpful people in the SEO world, and that gave me a lot of things to try, things to avoid, and people to lean on. When I started going to conferences in person and meeting them in real life, it also helped with getting a network that helped me find clients (back in the day, we were a consulting business).

What’s the next tool being built by Moz?

I’m working on one called “Keyword Explorer” that’s all about keyword research – helping expose the long tail of terms & phrases people search for, applying the needed metrics, making the workflow of building keyword lists easy, etc. Should be launching around the end of this year or early 2016.

How do you find a good, legit SEO pro if your own knowledge is mediocre at best?

I’m happy to refer you to good folks. You can use https://moz.com/community/recommended (although there are plenty of good companies not on there, too – it’s a great list of folks, but not exhaustive), or just email me (rand@moz.com) with what you’re seeking and I’ll pass on some consultants or agencies that I know are quality.

How was it working with an outside conversion rate optimization agency?

I really liked working with Conversion Rate Experts (we did so twice for separate engagements). They have a great process and had seen so many other companies and landing pages and conversion mistakes – and they spent the time to get to know our audience/customers/model. Highly recommended. I also like Conversion.com – their founder was one of the guys who worked with us when he was at CRE.

You did a podcast re: anxiety and depression while you were running Moz. How did you feel while you were promoting Moz and building it in? Did you deal with impostor syndrome etc.?

Oh God yes. Every day. I never felt worthy to be a founder or a CEO. Always felt like a fraud. My brain is a scary, insecure place to live.

You should have your team add the Google Panda 4.2 on your Algorithm Change History page.

Already talked to Dr. Pete about it (he maintains that page). He doesn’t like to update it until we see confirmation (taking Google at their word has been dangerous). We’re hoping to see real evidence that the update has actually rolled out before we go adding things. So far, still looking for that.

What do you do to learn? I find mentors and subject experts are the easiest way for me to become a master at a subject.Interested to see how you master subjects you put your mind to.

I think everyone has different learning styles. For me, participating in the SEO community, blogging, experimenting on my own sites (and some client sites – oops!) were all big parts of my learning process. Being forced to teach SEO (presentations, blogging, WB Friday, etc.) has also been huge – no better way to learn, IMO, than having to teach something to others.

When you were a consulting business, how did you gain momentum to jump from (assuming) a small team to what you guys are now? Like if you thought of it as 80/20, what was key in fueling your growth?

Actually, we never got much momentum as a consulting business. We grew to ~7 people as a consultancy before Michelle Goldberg from Ignition reached out about funding the software/tools side of our business (in 2007, ~5 months after we first launched that project). We talked over the summer, she funded us that November, and we used the $1.1mm from that round to grow our software side of things. In 2009, we shut down consulting entirely.

What’s it like growing your company with more employees? Did you find that most employees actually paid for themselves in terms of either marketing, creating content, creating cool stuff that people actually liked and paid you more to have?

More employees is not always better. In fact, being quite honest, if I were to do another startup, I’d intentionally keep it very small in terms of number of people. The challenges of management, people conflict, groups forming that don’t assume good intent about others, tribal mentalities, politics, etc. are overwhelming and frustrating for me. Those kinds of problems don’t inspire me or bring me energy – they’re just a drain. Up to ~60 folks, we didn’t have many of those issues (or they were isolated and infrequent enough to be relatively easy to handle). From 60-160+, though, it was quite hard. It’s gotten way better, especially as we slowed the rate of new people joining the team (we went 60-120 in ~1yr and that sucked). In terms of paying for themselves, some roles do, others less so. A marketer adds value in the first 100 days. An engineer can take 100 days just to be a strong contributor, and then it’s 3-6 months before their projects are contributing business value, so you just need to plan and be aware.

I have no question, but you’re awesome. Thanks for your depth and honesty in your responses here.

Wow. Thank you!

Being a solid business now, do you miss the startup days and find yourself wanting to go back?

I do miss the startup days in some way, though, there are a lot of really nice things about being larger (salary, benefits, less panic when something’s wrong, bigger team to have your back/create redundancy, etc.). I think I miss the mid-stage startup (40-60 employees) days the most. That size felt really great to me.

Can you provide the Keyword Explorer link?

Ha! Yes – when it’s done. Right now, nothing exists.

Do you see SEOs jumping on the CRO bandwagon as a good thing?

When did SEOs ever jump off that bandwagon? I remember SEO and CRO having strong overlap 10 years ago, and it’s continued to grow as far as I can see. Granted, more specialization in certain types of agencies or certain internal silos do happen, but the two work pretty darn well together.

What are the favorite new content marketing ecommerce sites you found after people replied to this tweet? https://twitter.com/randfish/status/624004764754317312

I’m going to dig through that list tonight or tomorrow, but looked like a bunch of good ones in there.

Any last words for a site that is about to bounce on a 10+ year old domain? I have tried working with a half dozen different agencies and have played the disavow, duplicate, content marketing game to no avail. I just can’t rank for anything that’s not “Branded” even though WMT shows me as 100% relevant on my main kw’s and is indexing the site with no issues or manual penalties. Anyone have any real way to find proof in whether you really have an algorithmic filter or not?

I’d talk to Marie Haynes or Alan Bleiweiss – those two are masters of being able to spot and often reverse engineer penalty issues. Sha Menz is good, too. Happy to make intros if you want to email me (rand@moz.com).

You still ranking for dog snuggies?

Nope. Don’t think I do anymore. Funny that spammers could make me rank, but couldn’t bring down my site with the negative SEO they promised.

Same guys who ranked you for dog snuggies are the same guys who wanted to neg SEO you?

They hung out in the same forums/groups. Whether it was exactly the same people is hard to know for certain but I think there was definitely some overlap.

Really enjoying this AMA! 2-part question (sorry to be greedy!). #1 – What would you say is the book that you’ve gifted or recommended the most to fellow Mozzers (fiction or non-fiction)? and #2 – If you were to start Moz again from scratch tomorrow, what’s the biggest thing you think that you might do differently?

#1: The Billionaire Who Wasn’t #2: 3 things – keep it smaller, keep it more focused on just helping with SEO before trying to expand, offer annual-only subscriptions not month-to-month

At what point did Moz decide to start aggregating and analyzing data for the tool side of the business and gear away from consulting? Why was that decision made?

We started doing it in early 2007 just on a lark (we’d built internal tools for our own use and decided to make them public so others could check them out for small fee – I think $29/month initially). When Michelle from Ignition reached out and we started talking about funding and building a VC-backed business, that’s when we got more serious about the tools/subscription side of things. Michelle (and Kelly Smith from Curious Office, who also participated in that first funding round) were big catalysts for expanding my thinking about what a software business could be.

I really enjoyed your Mozcon deck https://www.slideshare.net/randfish/onsite-seo-in-2015-an-elegant-weapon-for-a-more-civilized-marketer Why not have Mozalyticssetup to track the key metrics you point out in the deck. Would be very cool and unique to other offerings. Just a thought.

Oh, believe me, I have nudged and nudged. We’ll see what the teams can do about getting those in.

At what point when you were scaling up staffing levels did you begin to feel less like a startup; or have you reached that point? Moz is at ~100 employees, correct? We scaled up from ~15 employees to ~100 over the course of years 2 through 4. Something about the speed of scaling makes me feel like I’m still part of a startup. What differentiates a startup vs a “mature” company? Staffing levels, amount of time the company has existed, both, something else?

I’ve never felt like we’re not a startup, even though there are very different company/culture feels at 5/10/50/100/150. Moz is ~160 today and it still feels like a startup (struggling to grow, to build stuff, trying to find the “rocket ship,” working with investors and potential investors, hiring startup-style people, etc.). I think a startup is a startup by virtue of the growth it’s forced to achieve in order to meet expectations, not by raw size. Google still felt like a “startup” in 2004 with 1,000+ employees. It isn’t until you have that “exit” (a sale or IPO) as a company that you go from startup-mode to another mode, IMO.

What was the one area of SEO that took you the longest to master? And what steps did you take to master it? Also, thanks for doing this AMA!

Some forms of technical SEO, particularly with regards to how code is done on a site (e.g. Google’s indexing of AJAX/javascript-heavy content) has been a challenge for me, especially because I don’t have a technical background (I barely wrote some crappy PHP sites in the early 2000s, but haven’t touched code since).

What’s one area you would launch a startup in if you weren’t doing Moz?

Honestly, I kind of want to do something outside raw tech/software, maybe in the food space. I registered PastaScience.com recently… May someday do something there. I love sites like SeriousEats.com.

I’ve always been curious, how do you evaluate/choose companies to add to your recommended companies list?

There’s a semi-secret process (which goes against our usual rules around transparency, but I think you’ll empathize with why). Basically, we have a group of industry contributors (most of them outside of Moz, a few inside) who can nominate folks. Then, every 3-6 months, we put up all the nominees to a vote. If enough folks say “yes, I know their work and trust them,” and no one says “I had a bad experience,” then we include them on the list. This is a very selective process, but it does bring about diversity as it’s not just me or Mozzers nominating/voting (in fact, we’re less than 10% of the group). We keep the names of the people who nominate/vote secret so as to insure there’s no manipulation or bribery.

How do you stay motivated?

Motivation has never been much of a challenge for me (although during my depressed mindset period, it definitely was a weird kind of motivation – almost like running on momentum without any new energy going in). I get motivated a lot by wanting to make the secretive transparent (e.g. Google’s ranking systems, FB’s news feed, why people convert or don’t, etc.), and by people who’ve told me I can’t or shouldn’t do something.

If you were to conquer the internet with webcomics or other very silly graphical content, how would you do it? Just consistently put out resonating content to a highly-targeted core audience (while not forgetting the influencers) or something else? Any thoughts – even one sentence – from you would mean a lot to me! And thanks for doing this!

I’d try to find the intersection of a field or group of people who have passion about a topic and are likely to help share/amplify that content, then use my graphic/visual/comic skills to help illustrate it. For example, I think WaitButWhy has done a wonderful job with that in the science world.

How do you go about finding these digital unicorns (as they call them), that understand cro/dev and marketing/psychology and won’t leave the business in 1-3 years?

I don’t think they’re necessarily unicorns, and I also think you can build a great team of folks with various skills (like “T-Shaped” Marketers: https://moz.com/rand/the-t-shaped-web-marketer/) to complement one another and create the magic that comes from great SEO+Content+Community+Social+CRO.

Yeah, I understand your t-shaped markets approach but then who leads the team, or do they lead themselves?

I think great people managers don’t actually need to necessarily be experts in the field themselves. We have some terrific managers on our marketing team who aren’t the hardcore individual contributor experts, but who recognize the problems, see the big picture, and can help inspire/coach/mentor/grow individual contributors. I’m actually very passionate about having separate progress tracks for both kinds of folks: https://moz.com/rand/if-management-is-the-only-way-up-were-all-fd/

You’re awesome for doing this. Do you have SEO groupies?

Umm… I don’t think I have any groupies… I have lots of wonderful people in my professional life who’ve also become friends of varying degrees, though. I think our world – web marketing, SEO, etc. – has some of the most down-to-earth, kind-hearted, generous people in it, and I feel really lucky to have entered this industry.

Was really expecting some girl offering anything for a backlink. But that’s a great answer.

Uhh… I’m not actually famous (or particularly good-looking), and I’m very public about my marriage to Geraldine, too. Those things, I think, have combined to mean I’ve never encountered that type of awkward scenario, thankfully.

Do you feel that the SEO and SEM community are keeping up with the increasingly heavy focus on mobile? Do you feel that the move to mobile leaves SMBs behind?

Yeah, I think the shift to mobile has been really hard on SMBs and VSBs (Very Small Businesses). Having to worry about providing a great mobile experience is so hard when you can barely get the resources/time/expertise to just get a decent website up and managed. Unfortunately, like a lot of American society, it feels like the benefits and advantages keep accruing to the folks at the top and making it harder for folks at the smaller scale/bottom rungs.

I was about to register a pasta domain last week. Good thing I didn’t, I couldn’t compete. If you wanna trade homemade pasta recipes hit me up.

Thanks! Might do that. First thing I need to do is buy every kind of dried pasta available and taste test which is best. I couldn’t find a single good resource on that topic on the web (at least, nothing comprehensive that I trusted).

You went through a tough time… I did too. I was making 350k+ one year stuff just crapped out and I was in my bed for 2 months +…

I hear you. Sometimes it’s not about the success or the money but about how we feel doing it. Being American puts a lot of focus on the financial side exclusively, but I don’t think that captures the real picture of what makes people happy, unhappy, or emotionally/mentally healthy.

How do you strike a balance between work and life? The amount of stuff you get through just seems insane.

I don’t really have a true balance, but I have gotten better. I take a few real vacations, I have one night a week where I don’t work after 7pm, and these days, I have a great team to back me up on a ton of the work I do.

Will local ever become a straightforward practice?

I don’t think anything in SEO will ever become truly straightforward. Too many edge cases. Too many different companies. Too many different types of businesses. Too many marketing platforms. Plus side – great job security for those in our field.

Final question – How do I get the chance to buy you a beer!? Seriously – thanks a lot for doing this AMA. You’re an inspiring fellow.

Come to an event I’m speaking at – Searchlove San Diego is a great one.

Probably a good time to wrap things up. Thanks so much for hosting me, all. Great questions and discussions. If I or Moz can ever be helpful to you, don’t hesitate to ask.

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