We spoke with entrepreneur and the king of SEO, Rand Fishkin, on content discovery, SEO, the impact of social on search, and what it takes to build a company in 2012.
Rand Fishkin is the CEO of SEO software company; SEOmoz. He co-authored the Art of SEO from O’Reilly Media, co-founded Inbound.org, and was named on PSBJ’s 40 Under 40 List and BusinessWeek’s 30 Best Tech Entrepreneurs Under 30. Rand is an addict of all things content & social on the web, from his multiple blogs to Twitter, Google+, Facebook, LinkedIn, FourSquare and even a bit of Pinterest. In his minuscule spare time, Rand enjoys the company of his amazing wife, whose serendipitous travel blog chronicles their journeys. He can be followed at @randfish.
Tell us about your story and how you got involved in SEO?
Originally I was doing web design and development and our clients needed traffic to their websites. We’d been contracting to SEO firms and weren’t having much luck there. So I took it upon myself to learn and practice. I started the SEOmoz blog and shared the discoveries I had. That eventually became a consulting business, which then became the software business where we are today.
What’s your mission at SEOmoz?
Our mission is to simplify the promotion of ideas on the web. That simply means that we think that the practice of web marketing and reaching people through digital media with your ideas is too complex. SEO is one of the channels we focus on, but we also help with content marketing, social media, community building and any other channels that can help deliver traffic on the web.
You’ve been open about the challenges in building your company. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs / startups who’re on their journey?
It’s a tough one for me to feel qualified to give advice on because I was never really there myself. That said, I think there is a tremendous amount of resources on the web to learn this practice and I would encourage folks to do that. I was just reading a great post the other day how the quality bar of investors of all kinds has been raised. In 2004, two guys, a PowerPoint deck and an idea is all you needed to raise money. In 2012, you need to show off the prototype, customer traction, emerging metrics, how your product is going viral etc. and then the investor may consider the investment. What’s great though is that you can get to that stage today with comparably little time and energy. What’s funny to me is that so many folks with the Silicon Valley mindset focus on the engineering, technology and development side and then get stymied and frustrated on the marketing side. Essentially, acquiring customers and spreading the word is often where the real challenge begins, and hopefully over time Moz can help people with that.
What have you learned when it comes to scaling a company?
Hiring is extremely important. It can be very dangerous to hire the wrong people, especially in a small company environment. Wrong people are not necessarily the people you might classically think of as wrong, ie, they aren’t great at their jobs, take a long time to learn or have some initial deficiencies. Those could be problems, but I wouldn’t worry about those as much as people who create a negative work environment, don’t have a culture match, or create disagreements among the team. Those are really the death-knell. Often when I see startups crumble, it’s very common that they’ve got people on the team who are not a great culture match. That is one of the lessons that we’ve learned.
I would say that capital is an interesting problem. Being over-capitalized can be a problem – a high-quality one, but still a problem. Being under-capitalized can be tough to recognize. Moz only raised $1.1M dollars, and has grown over the last five years to the point where we have nearly $20M in revenue – which is very exciting. I see a lot of people wanting to pursue the low capitalization route, but one of the things that capital does is it forces you to think bigger and think about the structure and goals that you might not otherwise consider. What I mean by that is that the board of directors and institutional investors who have seen these things many times serve as a forcing function on such things as reporting, metrics and the cleanliness around data, taxes, paper work etc. It’s funny because a lot of that seems like something that a startup doesn’t necessarily need to be good at – you’re doing a startup because you hate the formal business processes. But I can tell you that when it comes time for acquisition talks or getting to that next level, all those things become very critical.
What do early stage companies need to know about SEO?
Well when you’re starting a company, one of the most phenomenal ways to acquire customers at a low cost is to rank well for terms that people are already searching for. If there’s demand in the market for your product or demand for information, resources, or content, that would closely tie to your audience, then search is a phenomenal way to get visitor after visitor to your site without having to pay. That can be the difference between life and death for a startup. I would encourage those folks to make a serious commitment to understanding SEO and potentially putting a considerable amount of resources into it because it’s such a great channel for customer acquisition.
What impact is social having on search?
Social is a very different driver than search, but is hugely influential on search engines, both directly and indirectly. It makes people aware of content, which means they’re searching for it, which means that they’ll find you. It’s a great way to brand, earn links, mentions and press – all things that will help drive your SEO. Social is a phenomenal way to drive community, which is a powerful SEO driver as well. And then social, just for it’s own sake, can be a terrific potential traffic driver and brand builder. But, this really depends on your space. For example, if you’re in the chemical engineering field, being on Twitter may not help you much; whereas ranking well on Google may be a useful for you. On the other hand, if I’m trying to reach wealthy, suburban mothers between the ages of 30 – 50, Facebook is just great! You should be there and it’s a fantastic way to reach that demographic. So you really need to know your audience well.
What are your thoughts on Google+?
Integrating social is a logical progression for the engines. Given how much activity on the web is social, and how much content is being essentially endorsed through social signals rather than links, engines need to have a close line into that information and be able to use it in their ranking algorithms. Otherwise they risk becoming irrelevant.
Where do you think content discovery and SEO is heading over the next 2-5 years?
I certainly think we’ll see a bunch of things. There’ll be greater integration between search and social. On the marketing side there’ll be continued growth in the emerging popularity of content marketing among small businesses and large enterprises. I expect to see more software players taking off in the field. This is still like analytics was 7-8 years ago, or email marketing software was 10 years ago. It’s a field that’s ripe for innovative players and we certainly hope to be one of those. I also hope to see some growth in training, certification, and industry formalities that will help to create a better path to becoming a professional web marketer as well as more respect internally and externally among companies, clients, businesses and the rest of the web.