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Interview With Rand Fishkin – the Great Wizard of Moz

10 June 2015 Tim Fehraydinov
Time to read: 17 minutes Too busy to read? Too busy? 2 comments
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Here comes another great interview from Texterra. Today we have a great interviewee with us, It’s Rand Fishkin – the wizard of MOZ. Rand kindly agreed to talk to me on Skype about all things SEO (both black and white hats), content marketing, MOZ, TAGFEE, the dark side of Google and two types of algorithms every great marketer must nail.

Listen to the audio or read the transcript below which is full of useful links and other stuff. Let’s get started!

Tim: Hi Rand, how’s it going? Could you introduce yourself to our readers?

Rand: It’s a beautiful day! Sure. My name is Rand Fishkin, I’m the co-founder of MOZ, which is a software startup based in Seattle, Washington, in the far North-West of the United States. We help marketers in businesses with SEO through our software product.

Rand Fishkin – the wizard of Moz

Tim: Talking about SEO, let’s jump right into the first question. Here in Russia, SEO is still mostly black hat. It’s all about buying links, manipulating them and so on. How would you convince SEO guys to stop spamming and start working on improving the overall value of their websites?

Rand: I think it’s very tough. This is an area where (with Google as well) it took a lot of time for marketers and SEOs to change their mindset about how to operate, and I think the big catalyst was Google itself changing. So I think, you know, Google in Russia and Yandex start to change their algorithms, start to filter out manipulative links and become more focused on white hat kinds of strategies, there’s just no great incentive to do that. The one reason I would say is that it does help you future-proof your website. You might be buying some links today and having good success with them.

But if you’re not focused on also using the ranking that you’re earning to get great links that all will help you in the future to improve the quality of the content of your website – to make it stickier, to make more people want to come back to you, to hopefully make people want to share your work on social media, to make journalists and press want to link to you – you’re kind of wasting the opportunity that you’ve purchased through your links, right? Even if you want to play that game as long as Yandex and Google Russian are accepting spam, then do both!

Tim: That sounds pretty convincing. I hope people will turn to white hat strategies in light of what you said. Well, Yandex – it’s the most popular search engine here in Russia. One year age they stopped counting backlinks as a ranking factor. Still, most black hat, evil and bad SEO things happen around them. What do you think – will Google ever do the same? I mean will they stop counting backlinks as a ranking factor, and what could replace them?

Rand: I think it’s pretty unlikely in the next three to five years that we would see Google changing in this way. In the past Google has already been testing an algorithm that didn’t use links. They didn’t like the results of that test. I think they still find a lot of value in links. To be honest, I think they’re doing a pretty good job filtering out manipulative links, at least in most sectors – not in all of them and not in all countries. I think it’s taking a lot longer in places like Russia, Eastern Europe, China, parts of Asia and parts of Mid East.

But Google is making progress, and they may know how to do that. I think they want to keep using links. They just want to eliminate manipulative links. That being said, I think if we’re talking about other ranking factors that are on the rise, there’s actually a pretty big set of those. One of the big ones that we’ve been seeing and feeling quite a bit is user and usage data.

That means engagement on websites, which means pogo-sticking – clicking on a search result and then clicking immediately back, suggesting that the searcher is unhappy with that result; long clicks which Google described in a pattern recently, and that’s essentially a searcher engaging with a piece of content, that they found in the search results, for much longer time. There is a lot of user and usage data factors. I think clickstream is probably one that we’re going to see more of.

Pogo-sticking is a big deal

Tim: Is black hat always a bad thing? Do you think that there might be some cases when a black hat tactic is OK?

Rand: No, I don’t think it’s always bad. I mean that a lot of black hat activity is merely testing the boundaries of an algorithm. As long as you’re not doing anything illegal or anything that’s hurting anyone, I don’t really think black hat is a bad thing. I think it’s more of a risky thing. You can be risky because you can potentially hurt your website or your client’s website.

White hat may not be as effective in the very short term and may take a lot of work and time to build up, but it also builds traffic through many channels, which gives you diversity, which means that you’re not entirely relying upon Google as your only traffic source. It builds mitigation against future risk.

Tim: By the way, what is the most popular black hat technique used in the USA?

Rand: Oh gosh, I think it is still going to be link manipulation, just like it is in Russia. Google in the US has gotten so sophisticated at catching manipulative links, and, really, in the US they are better than they are anywhere else at doing that, but the manipulation of links is really taking to a lot of private link networks, a lot of foreign websites.

A lot of black hats honestly are starting their manipulative, black hat websites in other countries, where it’s easier to spam from. So, a lot of the US’ most popular spam is exporting spam.

Tim: Link manipulations in the USA are not as widespread as they previously were, but some businesses still use them, and they do work. They research those links, they improve something, they fix this or that. In the end, such links appear to be not so bad. Is it true?

Rand: Yeah, I have seen a few examples of businesses who are getting manipulative links and still having ranking success. There was one case actually last week where a site is doing that kind of manipulative link buying via email.

They are essentially encouraging all of their users and customers to link back to them, and they have a points program where you can earn, and they’ll actually pay you money. It’s kind of a distributive link buying system. It’s not nearly as direct as most forms of spam.

Unfortunately, that company is actually co-owned by Google themselves. It’s a little sketchy on that front. So yes, those kinds of things do still happen. There’s still some link buying and link manipulation. Google tends to crack down on it fairly quickly, and it’s pretty high risk, so it’ll work for 3 or 4 months, sometimes even 6 months, but then the website will get penalised or banned.

Image source is here. Photoshop work by Sam Hudgins
Image source is here. Photoshop work by Sam Hudgins

Tim: Thanks! Let’s stop talking about black hat and let’s turn our attention to the white hat. Content marketing rules the game. But will it rule till the end of our days? Most folks say that yes, it will. But what if content will kill content marketing itself? As marketers produce so much content, are they killing it?

Rand: I think you’re right on with that. I think what is happening is that the popularity and arise of content marketing is killing off the value of mediocre content, and I think it’s starting to kill off the value of even good content.

Until you get to truly superb stuff – you know, stuff that you and I would look at and go ‘wow, that’s amazing! I need to show everybody that!’ – the value of content below that bar is losing its credibility and its worth on the Internet, and therefore the bar just keeps getting set higher and higher. That’s going to be a long-term challenge for a lot of brands and a lot of marketers.

Tim: So, how do we avoid this problem? I mean if people continue producing content like content farms, then soon everyone will be disappointed with content marketing’s results.

Rand: I think we have to look back at the history of a lot of other media. If you go back 50 years ago and look at what television was producing – the quality of the TV-shows 50 years ago… no one would watch that on TV today. I think it’s going to be the same kind of thing.

As a media progresses and gets higher and higher in quality, the technology gets better, the folks’ experience who are making those TV-programs, or movies, or magazines, or newspapers, or whatever it is – they’re getting better and better at their jobs. We are going to have to be the same way TV producers and writers were. If you fast-forward 50 years ahead in the world of content creation, we’re going to look back at what we’re making now and go, ‘ah, that was terrible’.

Tim: Talking about really great content, what is the importance of Whiteboard Fridays? How did you come up with the idea of making such videos? Do they help MOZ in terms of branding?

Rand: Yeah, I think that Whiteboard Fridays are incredibly powerful. They are not just a branding tool first, but also a great education tool and a great way of reaching out to our audience. And to be honest, it was a complete accident. I was explaining a concept around 301 redirects to a co-worker of mine, and I was using a whiteboard. He grabbed his camera that we’d ordered recently and said: ‘let me film this, we’ll put it on the blog and see how it goes’.

That started the series, and it’s really taken off from there. But Whiteboard Friday is great not just because it’s good content, but I think because the format has progressed so much. Now we have a full video room for Whiteboard Friday, and sort of a sound studio, so the quality is much higher than it was four or five years ago.

Tim: I’ve seen your old videos. The quality was really bad :D

Rand: They look like Skype videos! But we’ve also had a lot of success because of the media itself. You know, there’s not a lot of video content in the SEO world, and we’re one of the few producers out there.

Tim: One more famous thing about MOZ is TAGFEE. What is the impact of TAGFEE on MOZ’s productivity? Do you think that every business needs to be TAGFEE?

Rand: No, I don’t think that every business needs to be TAGFEE. I think, honestly, every business should establish their own core values. You should decide and determine what’s important to you. What you believe in more than just making money, and you should write those things down. You should hire people who also believe in those things, and you should build your company culture and company values around the things that matter to you.

Those things may not be transparency and generosity – maybe something totally different, and that’s just fine. My view on core values is that they have helped us build a kind of a workplace that we want to work in, they’ve helped us hire the right kinds of people. They’ve also helped us to make hard decisions, because we have that framework around our values for what we want to do and how we want to do it. I encourage every business to get core values but not necessarily TAGFEE.

Rogerbot – the mascot of Moz – approves TAGFEE. Learn more about TAGFEE here
Rogerbot – the mascot of Moz – approves TAGFEE. Learn more about TAGFEE here

Tim: How do you organize your work at MOZ? What is your daily routine? How would you describe a typical day at MOZ in just two or three sentences?

Rand: Well, MOZ has 155 people now, split into many small teams. I would say that a typical work day depends completely on which team you’re on. Teams tend to have their own processes and systems for getting things accomplished, so if you are on one particular engineering team, then you might do things differently from another engineering team.

There are shared forms of communication, and there is a shared set of company processes for how we determine what we’re going to work on in next order, in next month. We use a modified version of Agile, and we’re pretty reliant on things like Slack, and on Gyro for tickets, and on Trello boards for getting projects completed. Beyond that, it’s pretty diverse across the team.

Tim: Let’s talk about MOZ Pro. How often do you get customers who lack competence or experience? Because I’ve seen you saying that sometimes customers just expect MOZ to “do SEO for them”. Have you ever got – you know – a wave of negativity or hate from customers who just don’t get the idea of MOZ Pro?

Rand: I think that this is actually one of the things that the free trial is really good for. For the first 30 days, as a lot of these inexperienced folks just expect us to do their SEO for them, when they sign up, they’ll pretty quickly figure out that ‘hey, this software is not doing my SEO for me. It’s just giving me analytics, recommendations, and then I have to do the work’. They can turn that off before they start paying.

We have had a few instances where a customer who signed up has become very angry about how something works or doesn’t work. Sometimes that’s totally our fault, because rankings are not updated on time, or the MOZ index didn’t update, or we had some downtime – that kind of stuff. But generally, the free trial is pretty good at avoiding that system.

Going back to your first question around how often do people who don’t really know what SEO is sign up – literally every single day, Tim. It’s crazy. There’s a lot of people who find MOZ, who sign up for an account, and they are just not qualified. Our help team tries to nurture them such as suggesting: ‘hey, why don’t you check The Beginner’s Guide to SEO and read the blog for a while, and in a few months if you want to do SEO professionally – great, MOZ can be good for you’.

We are trying to encourage folks who are not professional SEOs to go learn those skills before they sign up for MOZ. It’s just not a product for an amateur or someone totally new to the practice.

Tim: So, there are not too many haters, right?

Rand: Thankfully, not.

Tim: What are you currently working on? What plans do you have? Should we be anticipating something cool from MOZ in the near future?

Rand: Yes, a few things are coming out in just next few months. I think one of the first big ones is going to be MOZ Local launching in the UK, so it will start serving businesses in the United Kingdom.

There’s a new product called MOZ Content, which is designed specifically for content marketers to measure their content success against their competitors – see where they are performing, where they are missing out, what content is working best with their audience, across which media… One of the products that I’m working on is a keyword research and exploration tool. That’s something that our software lacked, and we’re finally making up for it, which I’m excited about. That’s probably coming out in November-December.

Tim: Do you have any plans to translate MOZ into other languages? For example, into Russian?

Rand: Right now we do not have plans to translate or internationalise, but I think that in the next few years that’s going to be something that’s on our radar. We’ve gotten a lot of requests for many languages – Spanish, Portuguese, particularly for Brazilian, German, Russian. I think it’s something we going to put on our radar in next few years.

Tim: That would be great! Well, let’s move on. Is there an SEO or marketing question that you wouldn’t like to answer or you don’t want to answer?

Rand: Huh. You know, the only one that I can think of that makes me uncomfortable, and it’s not that I won’t answer, but I think it’s around my feelings about Google today. Whether I think Google is living up to their own core values, doing no evil, being a force for good in all the things that they do. That’s a hard question to answer. I have a lot of friends who work at Google, I have a lot of people who I admire at Google, but I think that there are some serious challenges that the company is facing in terms of living up to who they should be, who they want to be. That’s been frustrating to see over the last five, six, seven years, because I think that the promise of Google, when I started in this industry, was something really special, and I’m scared that they’ve lost that.

Google, please stop it

Tim: So, you are thinking that Google does some things wrong?

Rand: Yes, I think they are not living up to the values that they say they want to embody in a lot of cases. Not always. They do a lot of wonderful work too, but I think that when it comes to a lot of things that they do there’s a serious lack of transparency, and because of that, it’s really hard to understand their motivation sometimes beyond profit and money.

It feels like they’re willing to treat a lot of businesses and organizations unfairly and to manipulate the way their products work for their own benefit and not necessarily for customers’ benefit. Those things worry me. I would like to see them re-devote themselves to their values. I hope they’ll do.

Tim: I think I understand what you’re talking about. Well, who are your biggest influencers?

Rand: There are a couple of folks who’ve been really influential for me over the years. One is our first investor from Ignition Partners – that’s Michelle Goldberg. Michelle is a very patient, thoughtful, empathetic and really kind person and a great investor. She thinks about the long-term, she doesn’t get impatient or rushed. She has a lot of experience, so she’s seeing the ups and downs of many businesses and has a great perspective. That perspective is something that I’m always trying to achieve as well. I think it can be really hard as an entrepreneur to see the big picture.

Another great influencer of mine is Dharmesh Shah, who is one of the co-founders of HubSpot and my co-founder of Dharmesh is an incredibly talented programmer, marketer and builder of products overall. He’s also just a really great person and human being. For many years he was making late night calls with me, talking about how HubSpot was doing things, how MOZ was doing things, what we were seeing in the market.

Tim: I know that you and your wife Geraldine travel a lot. Do you plan to visit Russia someday?

Rand: Oh my gosh, yeah! I would love to go. I don’t know if I told you this, Tim, but my best friend, when I was growing up, is Russian. I used to hang out with him, his mom and his grandfather who all lived together. His grandfather worked at Microsoft in the 1980s-1990s. He was actually one of the early programmers on Windows. I learned a little bit of Russian, which I’ve now almost all but forgotten, but I learned to love Russian food and culture, so I’d love to visit someday.

Tim: We could grab some beer and smack a bunch of Russian SEO bastards!

Rand: *Laughing* I would rather hear their stories. I just want to, you know, buy them some drinks and hear their stories, hear what they’re doing and how, whether they’re having success. I think that would be fascinating.

Tim: What is your final message to marketers and SEOs?

Rand: The way I think about marketing for the future is that we have a duty as SEOs to understand two algorithms, because both of those algorithms are going to be strongly influential in future:

  1. Search engine algorithms – how Google, or Yandex, or other search engines rank web pages.
  2. How human beings process content and decide whether they want to engage with it, want to share it and want to evangelise about it.

I think both of these algorithms are critical for a great marketer to understand. If you can tap into both of them – you’re going to have an extraordinary opportunity over your competitors.

Tim: That’s a great point! Thanks for your time, Rand. Goodbye!

Rand: Thanks, Tim. Goodbye and take care!

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Автор: Tim Fehraydinov
Marketer at Texterra. Before entering the world of online marketing, he had been working for a long time as a black hat SEO copywriter and hadn’t even known about the white side – content marketing. Tim loves to communicate with colleagues from all over the world and discuss the latest news in online marketing.
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