Rand Fishkin: SEO, Mentors & What Pisses Him Off

Posted in Interviews, SEO

randRand Fishkin is a singular personality and, to those in the SEO industry,  needs little  introduction.  Having “started playing” with Microsoft FrontPage WYSIWYG web page software in 1993 as a high school student, he’s grown SEOmoz to take its place amongst the most recognized brands in search.

Rand worked his way to thought-leadership by classic pathways: hard work,  experimentation, speaking engagements at early Danny Sullivan/Chris Sherman SearchEngineStrategies conferences, tackling ambitious data-driven research projects, ahead of the times tool-making, endless sharing, participation and blogging.

We first became aware of his work while researching aimClear’s business model build-out in 2006.  I couldn’t believe anybody was willing to give such incredible information away.  We still carry DNA sewn into aimClear’s agency model as a result.

He remains a lightening rod for some and sage to many. Typecast Rand Fishkin however you like, to our mind there are few individuals who have given as much, as tirelessly to our community. I’ve had the pleasure sharing several conference stages with Rand, interacted in other ways and happy to offer you a snapshot of what it’s like to spend time with him talking search and life.

[Marty] There’s been a lot of talk these days about whether SEO should focus on optimizing pages for search engines or users. Some like Shari Thurow assert that we should build pages for users which will “force” search engines to figure out better ways to index content. Others range from hard core crap-ass SEOs who don’t care about users. Most or us are  somewhere in the healthy-in-between.  How do you think about this matter?

[Rand] Oddly enough, I think I’d argue that it’s actually a complete non-issue and something that’s been hyped too much. I actually take full responsibility for that – my blog post on the subject had a title that was too aggressive and I saw a lot of responses around the web that didn’t read the content, just skimmed the title and wrote an opposing viewpoint. What I argued is that building for users is the priority and the primary goal of all websites. However, once you’ve designed an excellent site for your audience, to presume that search engines will simply visit and judge you on the great user experience you’ve made is folly. Search engines aren’t human – they can’t appreciate and enjoy the site or content in the same way users can. They’re naive about crawling certain kinds of paths humans can follow, they judge quality not on its own, but by the quantity and quality of links that point to a page.

“In short, you need to build and optimize with both users and search engines in mind and, honestly, over the last few years, it’s gotten pretty easy to find a solution to nearly every SEO problem that’s great for users and good for engines, too. Hence, I think it’s a non-debate.”

[Marty] As Google prepares to withdraw the only (crappy) non-personalized public display of their possible algorithmic regard for any given page, PageRank (conjecture), what are your thoughts on the importance and evolution of open-rank tools like SEOmoz LinkScape? What place will such APIs have in SEO’s future?

[Rand] Regardless of what happens with PageRank, our goals for mozRank and all the metrics we calculate inside Linkscape are to make them as valuable for SEOs trying to solve problems as possible. mozRank today is a great metric for comparing against PageRank to help determine penalties or see areas where link juice can be obtained (or needs to be).

In the future, we’re also working towards these kinds of uber-metrics (described in Ben’s latest blog post on correlation and ranking models) that are actually highly predictive of Google’s rankings. PageRank is neither of these things – Google doesn’t particularly want it to be overly valuable or prescriptive for SEO, and many people inside Google would like to drop it altogether. My feeling is that regardless of what happens with PageRank, our goals remain the same – to produce a set of metrics that add tons of value to the SEO process.

[Marty] Change in our industry has been beautifully tumultuous over the years. Things were so easy back in the day :). What timeless values, strategies and tactics have remained the same. What differences matter the most?

[Rand] Content that appeals to those who control the web’s link graph (bloggers, journalists, site builders, social media participants, etc.) has been very successful in the past and continues to succeed through visibility in both search engines and the evolution of the social web.

On the tactical front, classic on-page/on-site SEO hasn’t changed much in the last 7 years. Keyword research + good targeting combined with accessible site architecture, canonicalization and unique content has been the prescription for a long time now. Link building has changed a bit – classic manual link building is not nearly as effective or scalable as newer, more popular tactics like content licensing, social media marketing, viral content development/promotion, etc.

[Marty] Who are your mentors, in search, in life and why? How did they make a difference to your personal and professional evolution?

I’d certainly have to start with Gillian, my Mom and business partner, who kicked off my entrepreneurial adventure. Over the last few years, I’ve been blessed with a number of amazing mentors, though, from Kelly Smith and Michelle Goldberg (who sit on SEOmoz’s board of directors) to Dharmesh Shah of Hubspot and Nirav Tolia from Fanbase. In search, there have been amazing people like Danny Sullivan, Greg Boser, Anne Kennedy and Seth Besmertnik (and hundreds more). All of these people have encouraged me, enabled me to grow and taught me valuable lessons that I’m applying to the business every day.

[Marty] In your opinion, to what extent will search engines underemphasis the Internet’s link graph in favor of the social graph? What multi-channel buzz monitoring API tools (like PostRank) do you believe in. Do you think buzz tracking tools, which may define future-authority, can be gamed?

[Rand] Funny you should mention PostRank :-) We’re actually doing some correlation and data modeling stuff with them right now, and should have the results of that soon (which I’m fascinated to see). I certainly think the engines are looking at how to use social graph and buzz signals to improve their results, but I think it’s still up in the air about how much value those may add (and how easy they are to game/hard it is to find the signal amongst the noise). The link graph, in my mind, still has many years of life left in it, though I do believe social signals (like the Twitter integration Google/Bing both just completed) will also make their way into the discovery + ranking systems.

[Marty] Speaking of gaming search engines, coming  up day 3 at Search Engine Strategies Chicago you’ll be speaking on the “Black Hat, White Hat: Does it Really Matter Anymore?” panel. Moderated by Frank Watson, you’ll be joined on the stage by David Naylor, Matthew Bailey, and Todd Friesen. This represents quite a clever, heavyweight and diverse panel. Can you give us any insight regarding what you’ll discuss?

[Rand] Even I’m not privvy to what’s going to be discussed! I suspect we’ll cover the distinctions between black and white hat and where/how those practices can impact businesses, individuals and consultancies that engage in them. Hopefully some fine blogger will cover the session ;)

[Marty] What is the most gratifying part of your work? What pisses you off the most? :)

[Rand] The best part of work is when a new tool or product we’ve made launches and I see people across the industry start adopting it as part of their SEO process. A lot of the tools inside Labs have been like that lately, and I’m always humbled and amazed to see so many people using our toolbar (though, with the analyze page button, it really is a big time saver).

The part that pisses me off worst is probably constraints that restrict production and execution of great ideas. SEOmoz is a startup which means limited resources and budget. As we grow, there’s more and more to maintain and that takes time away from new projects, which means development takes a long time. Producing quality software is more challenging and time-consuming then I ever imagined – it’s tough not to get emotional when you find out that “promised” deadline is slipping another 6 weeks. Still – we’ve got an amazing stuff that’s done some really remarkable things; I guess as a founder, I’m never supposed to be satisfied with the status quo :-)

  • Cory Howell

    Kudos Marty for getting Rand to open up a bit about his past, current workings and frustrations (shared by all I think). I’m glad to see the emphasis is still on providing a mix of both user & bot targeted SEO strategies, because a site would be lost without either.

    The recent correlation and ranking models analysis is quite intriguing, so I’m definitely looking forward to the additional data research that Rand mentions re: PostRank, etc. Wish I could attend SES in Chicago, but will be passing this round.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @Cory Howel: We’re glad you enjoyed. Sorry you won’t be able to make the conference as well.

  • Dharmesh Shah

    Great interview.

    One of the great things about Rand is that I learn more from him than he does from me, and yet he still calls me a mentor.

    Marty: I was hoping to meet you in person at SMX East a little while ago. Saw you at the show, but I’m shy and you looked awfully busy. Hopefully next time.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @Dharmesh Shah: I’ll be at PubCon and SES Chicago. Also, I get to NYC a lot. Let’s make a point of having a chat and brew of some sort. Thanks for commenting here and please to (get closer to) meeting you. :)

  • David Blizzard

    Nice interview. One thing I have noticed about Rand is he talks to people in his posts and offers solutions. There is a growing trend with “top” SEO bloggers where they put down web designers. Rather than a post about “what I hate about web designers” or “why web developers suck” you expect Rand to say “20 things web designers can do to make web sites better”. It’s a good formula that helps get those coveted invites to speaking engagements. Nobody wants to invite the guy or gal that is constantly trying to remind people why they are better than the rest.

  • Charlie

    I´ve met Rand a couple of years ago in the SMX Madrid and saw him again at the last SMX Advance edition in Seattle, USA.

    His presentations are really good, and personally what I really like is the way he focus the search engine optimization. He doesn’t talk about the “best 10 tips to have search engine visibility”… he shows his real experiences from live.

    It was a good interview. Thanks for sharing.

  • Jeffrey Smith

    Marty Great Questions…Rand, great interview.

    Hopefully I will get a chance to meet you both at SES Chicago, since Chicago is our base. See you there.

  • Shari Thurow

    Hi Marty-

    I wish you did not make this statement:

    > Some like Shari Thurow assert that we should build pages for users
    > which will “force” search engines to figure out better ways to index
    > content.

    I never said that or wrote that statement. Nor did I mean to imply that statement. If that is what you believe I meant by previous statements? That is fine. That is your interpretation. But I wish you would write that it is your interpretation instead of attributing something to me that I never said or wrote.

    This sort of occurrence happens a lot. C’est la vie. :-)

    IMHO, Web search engine companies have gone down the wrong path — actually more than one wrong path. A bunch of techie boys and another bunch of SEO techie boys trying to outdo each other. (Sorry ladies, I hope we all know and, unfortunately, accept that the technical part of this industry is predominantly male.) I am watching search results get worse and worse. I’ve been observing and testing search results for years.

    But do you think the Google/Bing/[fill in the blank] “gods” will ever admit that, just maybe, they are so deep into their way of doing and analyzing things that they are blind to better ways? Like tunnel vision, I suppose. And that search engine “gods” should ask for outside, far more objective, opinions?

    I don’t think that will happen any time soon. Maybe it’s analogous to the proverbial male asking for directions….

    I don’t want to take away from Rand’s interview. Just wanted to make my point of view clear.

    Thanks.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @Shari Thurow: I’m glad you stopped by. At SMX East I live blogged the Page Rank Sculpting Revisited session for SEORoundTable. You’ll find the coverage here:
    http://www.seroundtable.com/archives/020814.html

    I’d be interested to go back to videos that might have been made to re-listen to what you said. My perception was that you felt that we should build pages for users and it was the search engines’ job to figure out how to index them. I couldn’t believe it. Regardless of what you said, I heard “force.” In Barry’s coverage, please have a look at entries for 9:48 AM & 9:50 AM. I was staring right at you, and doing my level best to communicate the meaning of what you were saying. I promise I was.

    “Interpretations” are subjective things. As a professional when I’m speaking I’m always concerned that I’m not communicating what I truly mean. No matter what I say, what people percieve is what matters. Maybe it was your tone.

    Sadly, I’ve learned never to underestimate the ability of (even smart people) to not understand what I say. If I one person hears something, then it’s possible others did too. It’s even possible that I did not say exactly what I meant. So far as any of this goes, I’m open-minded including to learn that I heard you “say it exactly as you meant” and I “misunderstood.” I’m sure you’re open-minded too as to the words you used.

    I remember thinking, “wow, Flash is great for users and not perfect for search engines. Does this give us permission to code UIs all in Flash and then its Google’s job to figure it out or screw em’?”

    If I misunderstood you, I apologize and am glad you set the record straight here. Way ta’ go! I’m gonna’ ask Danny Sullivan for the videos of the session, especially where you interacted with Rand Fishkin. The videos will tell the tale and I’m happy to be corrected or have my in-room-blogging perceptions validated. Either way, it’s great to host a conversation with you here so thanks.

  • Internet Strategist @GrowMap

    I am amazed that no one had shared this great interview on StumbleUpon yet (I just did). Marty, perhaps Shari would agree to an interview where you can clarify what she meant. One thing I miss in professional style blogs that we use in friendlier types like mine is direct links to someone’s Web site. I would have loved to click on over and see what she has been up to lately at the site she chooses to link.

    I would like to make another post request of you or any other SEO who blogs. Put yourselves in the shoes of a business owner or blogger who is not an SEO. What they most need to know is how to benchmark where they are now so they can determine whether they need to hire an SEO, learn to do it themselves, etc. If you give them that starting point you could then offer them paid solutions.

    Perhaps this already exists or some of you already do this. Could someone point me at related links? You can find me as @GrowMap in Social Networks and at GrowMap.com. (I assume Marty doesn’t mind my offering where to answer me since I suspect it would be best if anyone wishes to answer that they not leave links in his comments – better to leave them in mine. If I’m wrong mea culpa – feel free to edit my comment.) Thank you.

  • Nick @ Brick Marketing

    I think it is important to have a site that utilizes both user experience and ranking methods. What good are rankings if your site is so poorly structured that nothing converts?

  • Bill

    Enjoyed the interview post. Comment exchange is quite informative as well. I appreciate the thoughtfulness, and whether or not you’re right or wrong, I appreciate how Marty handled being challenged. It does seem that Shari’s provocations have some merit (with regard to who’s behind the engines). Is there a place for a particularly non-male algo ? I’d read a post about that.

  • David

    Marty great interview, but would be great if Rand expanded more about what pisses him off, because he is always far too positive at times and far too helpful.

    Rand knows more than most some of the stupid things we do in our industry because clients demand it…

    My agency also has worked to take some of the SEOmoz DNA into my business around sharing and education. But without the resources of SEOmoz, I often advise suppliers and fellow consultants to join SEOmoz if they want to learn more about a particular topic because there is just not enough time in the day.