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randfishkin interview

Chase Reiner: All right, so we’re on air right now Rand.

Rand Fishkin: Awesome.

Chase Reiner: Yeah. The first question I have for you … I actually added a couple more questions, and if you don’t feel comfortable answering them, you don’t have to.

Rand Fishkin: Oh, no problem. I’ll answer anything and everything.

Chase Reiner: Okay, well, I won’t hold you to it if that’s not the case. My first question is how did you start out doing SEO because that’s something I don’t know about you.

Rand Fishkin: Yeah, sure. I started actually in web design and development back in the late 90s. I was doing that a little bit through high school and then into college. I dropped out of college in 2001 to start working with my mom, Jillian, who had a small business marketing consultancy. She was sort of an independent, solo entrepreneur and worked with a bunch of businesses in the Seattle area to make logos and letterheads, business cards, all that kind of stuff. Her clients started needing websites as well, and that’s what I was building.

A couple years into that, some of them needed SEO as well. We initially outsourced that, we subcontracted it to a few folks here in Seattle, and then we ended up not being able to afford the subcontracting anymore, so I had to do it myself. That’s when I began trolling the SEO forums at the time. Contributing, participating, you know, you can go back to like 2003, 2004, and just find every single SEO forum is filled with “randfish” asking weird questions. Then I started up SEO Moz the blog as a place to share my own ideas and what I was learning, and be able to point to bigger pieces of content.

Chase Reiner: In all those forums, were there links going back to all your sites too?

Rand Fishkin: I wish. I think I might have actually tried that a few times. Try like comment … Comment spamming, even back then, I realized I really didn’t like it. It wasn’t for me, and I was not good at it.

Chase Reiner: Right. Right on. Okay, so then there goes the question of Moz, how did that get started? Why did you decide to start Moz and how did you grow it?

Rand Fishkin: Yeah, I mean initially it was just the blog, and then as the blog became more prominent, that overtook the rest of our business as the way we were earning clients. We shut down the old consulting business, and started operating solely under Moz, called “SEO Moz” at the time, when it was Then in 2007, we had launched … Well we had built a few tools, just for ourselves to use for our clients, and we decided we wanted to make those public. I’m a big transparency guy. I hate having stuff that’s like, “Oh I have a secret sauce that you don’t know about.” We wanted to make all these tools public, but we couldn’t handle the volume of free users, so we figured, “Hey, we’ll just put up a little PayPal pay wall. You’ll have to subscribe, you pay us like $29, maybe it was $39 a month.”

It turns out we just announced that once on the blog, didn’t really talk about it a whole lot. I was actually going through the old blog posts yesterday, over the weekend because I’m writing a book now about this experience, and we didn’t promote it much at all. It turned out hundreds of people were just signing up for these tools, and that ended up becoming almost half our revenue stream by the middle of the year. At that point we said, “Wait a minute, we think we’re onto something here. Like let’s get serious about this software business,” and I think that’s really when Moz started to transition into a software as a service type company.


Chase Reiner: All right, next question. This is a question that I’ve been wondering for a while, and I think I’ve been asking you a lot of questions on your Whiteboard Friday‘s, or not asking you in particular but discussing with other people. One of the big things for me is staying on top of your SEO game, and I guess my first question, it’s going to be a three part question, but my first question is how do you stay on top of your game? Then the other two parts would be like how much time do you spend learning and how much time do you spend implementing to continue the learning?

Rand Fishkin: For me, I’m in a very lucky position. I think early on I had to spend a tremendous amount of time learning SEO and getting up to speed, but then once you sort of achieve prominence in the SEO blogging world, the nice thing is that I probably have ten emails every day that are not just asking me questions but furthering my knowledge. They’re sharing a, “Hey, I discovered this.” “Hey Rand, we saw this weird thing with this website.” I just got an email … Actually it was a Google+ notification last week from a research team in Germany that had done a bunch of amazing research into pagination styles and format. Stuff that I’ve never dug into, internal linking pagination and how that affects indexation on large, very large, enterprise size sites. They had done this phenomenal piece. When I found it I actually asked if I could share it around, because I thought it was so good.

It’s stuff like that, right? I sort of get kept up to speed automatically just by reading my feeds and my email and helping folks out. I probably am helping five to ten folks every day through Moz Q&A or through my personal email, and I think teaching is a phenomenal way to learn. If you’re trying to help someone else accomplish something, “I’m helping a startup here in Seattle or a non-profit or I’m helping a friend of mine.” Sometimes Geraldine, my wife lets me, I even help her with her travel blog. All of those things are points where I’m teaching, I’m helping with the implementation, but I’m also learning at the same time.

Chase Reiner: Okay.

Rand Fishkin: As far as time goes, boy. [crosstalk 00:06:54] maybe a good quarter of my day, on average, is spent teaching, learning, implementing, reading, amplifying, right, like some combination of those things. It’s usually 30-45 minutes in the morning before I walk to work, and sometimes another five or ten meetings here in between meetings at work, and then most of it is really like between 10 PM and 2 AM, like when I have that quiet down time.

Chase Reiner: Like you were saying earlier, you’re kind of in the ideal position. What would you maybe recommend to somebody who’s working a 40 hour work week, who’s the average SEO. How much time should they be spending or teaching?

Rand Fishkin: One of the things that I think is a terrific idea is to find something else that you’re passionate about outside of the pure SEO world, and start your own website on it. You don’t need it to make money, although you can if you want. You’re just trying to learn and implement and test things out and have some fun and play around. I think most of the best SEOs that we all know out there are folks who do a lot of testing, who run their own website, sometimes several of them. I remember Cyrus Shepard right, who was the head of SEO at Moz for a long time, he had a bunch of sites on the side. In fact, he decided to leave Moz so that he and his wife could both work full time on that portfolio of websites that he kind of built up on the side, and I think that’s awesome. More power to him. I miss him dearly, I hope he maybe comes back someday but not because his sites failed.

Chase Reiner: Right on. There was something that you mentioned in a blab the other day with Robert [O’haver 00:08:44], I actually asked you a question and it was about what would you recommend to somebody who’s really passionate about SEO. I don’t know if you remember it, you probably get tons of questions all the time. You said, “To become really specialized in a certain part of SEO.” What would you consider yourself specialized in? Like a lot of things or what do you target?

Rand Fishkin: I think for me my particular specialization is probably on the software and data side of SEO, and that’s just because of my experience at Moz and how much my personal success and Moz’s success depends on us being really good at building software and data and tools. I think that’s probably an area of specialization that not a ton of folks in our field have. There’s a good handful: John Henshaw from Raven obviously, Dixon Jones from Majestic, and his partner Alex, and Nick Crew from SEM Rush. There’s probably two dozen scaled up software companies in SEO, so it’s a fairly specialized skill. Yeah, that’s something I really enjoy too. I love sitting down with the big data team and saying, “How do we make our crawl more representative of Google’s crawl,” and, “How do we improve the machine learning system that works on the page authority algorithm so that page authority becomes more representative and better correlated with Google’s metrics or Google’s rankings?”

That kind of stuff I get super excited about. I’m not super technical. I can’t actually sit down in Java or C++ and start [inaudible 00:10:22] on Mozscape and helping out that way, but on the product side that’s one of my big passions.

Chase Reiner: Whiteboard Friday’s. How do you come up with them all the time? I mean, one of the struggles for me, not just for the podcast but also for the blogging, I was doing a lot of blogging previous to getting hired to where I’m at right now, and one of the challenges for me was coming up with new ideas all the time. There’s always so many people in the SEO world talking about the same thing, and it seems like you’re always coming out with new things that it’s like, “Oh, that’s not something I usually hear about.”

Rand Fishkin: Yeah, for me it is … I obviously pay attention, like you do, to the mainstream news. Whatever I’m seeing covered on search engine land and search engine round table and all that kind of stuff. I also have this, I don’t know what it is, like a sixth sense over the years. If I find something that pops up that looks really interesting. For example, that study that I mentioned on pagination and internal links on large sites, I’ll go, “Wait, that’s new and unique, and that’s interesting.” I would say most of the whiteboard Friday ideas I get are from eureka types of moments like that where I stumble across something, it seems really fascinating and interesting to me, I haven’t seen it covered a ton, and so I’ll turn that into just a short email that I send to the guys who film whiteboard Friday, that’s Elijah and Michael.

Then, you know, we get together in the room and we look at the emails that I might have sent them in the last couple weeks, and we go, “All right, let’s do that one, let’s do that one.” Then I write them up on the board and we film them.

Chase Reiner: Nice. Do you feel like your drawing has improved over the …

Rand Fishkin: Yes, yes I do. I think I started out with some pretty pathetic and amateur drawing skills, and I’m now up to the level of maybe intermediate. I’m definitely not a quality artist. I’ve seen some folks come in who can whiteboard things up, and it just looks gorgeous, stunning. In fact, Geraldine can do that, my wife can do that. She’s like this amazing artist, but I cannot. I have to stick to my little stick figures looking at their little web pages, but it works. It works.

Chase Reiner: We got an interesting question from one of my coworkers for you. They wanted to know what SEO tools do you wish existed, and why don’t they exist yet? You can think about this.

Rand Fishkin: Yeah, I have thought about this a lot. I think one of the ones that I’m most passionate about, that I wish existed, I wish you could see the webs click data, anonymized of course, but the way that you can see link data. For example, if I go to [inaudible 00:13:26] or Majestic or open site explorer for Moz, I can see here’s a bunch of links that point to this page, here’s a bunch of links that point to this page, and I can filter and sort those. How amazing would it be to do the same thing with user and click data? I want to know how many people searched this term yesterday, or searched in the last 30 days. Then I want to know what percentage of them clicked on position one, two, three, four, five, and how that differs from the average position click.

Then I’d like to see, once they made it to this website, how far down did they go? What was the average time on site? That sort of competitive data for web analytics. That would be mind-blowingly awesome. I think there are a few companies out there that have and sell click stream type of data. Moz has been buying some click stream data for our keyword research tool, so that we can have more accurate volume scores and more accurate opportunity scores and that kind of stuff, but it’s … That is a massive undertaking. You need this incredible score of data, then you need to be able to slice and dice it a million ways, but how awesome would it be to say, “Huh, I wonder if this is a good keyword,” and then being able to see here’s how many people search for it, from which regions, and here’s which sites they clicked on and here’s whether they made it to conversion. That would be heaven.

Chase Reiner: It seems like Jumpshot’s trying to get a little bit of a hang on that, but it’s still a little far off.

Rand Fishkin: Yeah, Jumpshot and Similarweb, I think are the two that have a shot at building something like that for right now, and we’ll see. I mean, I think that click level data is just essential to the competitive environment that we’re in, and I’d love to see those, one of those or both of those folks take off and compete with each other and get better and better. That’d be cool.

Chase Reiner: Yeah, it would.

Future of Moz. Speaking of tools, anything in the works that you want to talk about?

Rand Fishkin: You must have read my mind. Yeah, so next week … Is it next week? It’s either next week or the week after, we are launching keyword explorer, which I’ve tweeted about a few times. I’ve put up a little gallery of some screenshots on my public Facebook page yesterday, and it is … I think it’s going to be good when it launches, and I think within a few months of launch, thanks to lots of feedback and input, it’s going to be great. The exciting thing is I’ve been working with this small team of engineers and designers for the last almost exactly 12 months on this project, and it’s awesome. They’ve got sort of the next six months just sitting there, waiting for people to say, “I also want this. I also want that. I wish you would do this,” and the data back end of it is pretty incredible.

You know Russ Jones, who was formerly at Virante, and he has been instrumental, he and [Doctor Pete 00:16:26] both, have been instrumental in creating these high quality metrics that you just can’t get anywhere else. I mentioned the click stream data, which means that you can get a true estimate of click through rate opportunity on any given search result, depending on the features that Google’s put in there. You can get much more accurate volume scores. They’re bigger ranges, but 95% of the time, the volume, the true volume falls within those, as opposed to the weird numbers that Adwords spits back that are just bizarre sometimes.

I’m pretty psyched about that. I think it’s going to be an interesting one for sure. I haven’t launched a product where I got to work with the product team since probably the very early years of my CEO tenure, so it’s kind of fun to get back in the weeds and get to do that kind of work again.

Chase Reiner: Cool. All right Rand, so I think my last question is do you have any mentors and where do you learn most your stuff from? Other than your emails.

Rand Fishkin: Well I will say … So one of my greatest mentors in the last years have been my investors. Initially, we were totally amateur hour when we started SEO Moz and started doing software stuff. When Michelle Goldberg from [inaudible 00:17:46] came in, she was just phenomenal. She has this cool, calm, very sophisticated but very empathetic way of sharing information with us, telling us kind of, “Okay, here’s how we want to structure this, and here’s how we can maximize this. Here’s people you should talk to to learn more about churn and about lifetime value and about all the [sass 00:18:12] metrics, and here’s people you can talk to to learn more about credit card processing.” Just a lot of sophistication and advancement, and that happened again with Brad Feld from [inaudible 00:18:23] who’s been phenomenal.

Another big mentor of mine is Darmish Shah from Hub Spot. In 2007, when we were thinking about raising money, he reached out via email. We had a couple long phone calls, and then he’s been … I don’t know, it just feels like a brother to me ever since. He just sort of sends along information and it’s like, “Oh yeah, you should do this, you should try that. This would be good for you.” I don’t know what I did to deserve such awesome people in my life, but it’s been pretty amazing.

Chase Reiner: It’s probably because you attract like personalities, right?

Rand Fishkin: Well, I hope so. I mean I hope I’ve helped someone as much as Darmish has helped me.

Chase Reiner: You’ve definitely helped me a lot.

Rand Fishkin: I’m thrilled to hear it. That’s great.

Chase Reiner: Well, that’s pretty much all I’ve got Rand.

Rand Fishkin: Awesome. Thank you for having me man, that was really fun.

Chase Reiner: I really appreciate you coming on here man.

Rand Fishkin: Yeah, you bet. All right, take care of yourselves.

Chase Reiner: All right, you too man.

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