The Tools Of Our Trade: An Interview With Rand Fishkin

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Synopsis — One suite of tools most often cited by SEO practitioners as useful, affordable, and innovative is that provided by SEOmoz. Likewise, its CEO and co-founder, Rand Fishkin, is one of the most visible practitioners in the industry and a shining example of how one can build a successful business by staying ahead of the curve and building a great team. Anyone with the kind of experience that Rand has is bound to have pearls of wisdom for anyone involved in an online business, and this interview does not disappoint. With some probing questions, the SMS staff delves into Rand’s favorite tools of the trade, his opinion of what the future holds for SEO, and lots of advice on which aspects of optimization are most important to businesses both new and established.

The complete interview follows …

The Tools Of Our Trade: An Interview With Rand Fishkin

SMS: Welcome, Rand. Let’s get started with a few questions about SEOmoz. How did the company get started and when/why did you decide to move into software development?

Rand: We started as a web design, development, and usability consultancy back in the late 1990s, then moved into SEO in the early 2000s. I started the SEOmoz blog as a way to share my findings (and frustrations) and, in 2005, we changed the business name to SEOmoz. In 2007, we launched the software subscription model as we realized consulting wasn’t a good way to scale the reach our brand had developed. In 2009, we saw that brand confusion and internal focus were problems, and sold our consulting business (which had been about 15% of revenue since 2007) to Distilled.

SMS: How many people at SEOmoz are focused on software development versus research and consulting?

Rand: We no longer do paid consulting, though we do dedicate time to a few nonprofits including SeeYourImpact, Seattle Children’s Hospital, and the United Nations. Our team of 33 folks all work on the software side of the business and are divided into four teams — operations/customer service, engineering (the largest of our teams with 12 members), product/design, and marketing.

SMS: Linkscape was the first major endeavor in software development by SEOmoz. What does Linkscape do and what innovative features does it have?

Rand: Linkscape is a web index, similar to those maintained by Google or Bing. However, unlike the indices of the major engines, ours is built to provide site owners and marketers with more information about their content and links and helps identify opportunities and potential problems on their domains. It serves a great variety of uses — powering everything from our SEO toolbar to Open Site Explorer to hundreds of other tools/apps from folks like Hubspot, Conductor, Ontolo, and Virante.

SMS: SEOmoz offers a wide range of SEO tools and even some social media marketing tools. Which are your top three personal favorites, and how can they help a part-time SEO?

Rand: Tough call indeed! One of my longtime favorites is our Keyword Difficulty Tool, which lets you quickly assess how challenging it might be to rank well for a particular term/phrase. My second is the Firefox Mozbar (I like the Chrome version too, but Chrome doesn’t let you do all the things Firefox does, yet). The toolbar lets me get important data about a site/page I’m browsing without having to visit any third-party tools or click “view source.” It’s a huge time-saver. Finally, the Moz web app, our most popular tool, crawls your site every week and messages any errors or missed opportunities, automatically checks keyword rankings in up to three engines, provides on-page optimization recommendations, and integrates with Google Analytics to show progress in traffic from your SEO efforts.

SMS: Do professional SEOs — or even marketers or small business owners working on SEO for their websites — really need SEO tools? If yes, why?

Rand: For professional SEOs, tools are essential. A pro needs to be able to know what pages/sites link to a particular URL or domain, how important those links are, and what they say (in the anchor text, page title, etc.). Professionals also need to identify errors or missed opportunities on the sites they work on, and manual visits to every page on a site again and again are simply impractical (and for large sites, wholly impossible). SEOs need tools to do keyword research, to identify link opportunities, to measure traffic, and for dozens (if not hundreds) of other tasks.

This doesn’t mean SEOmoz is the only option — free choices like Yahoo! Site Explorer and Google Webmaster Tools work for many folks. Competitors to SEOmoz are also available, such as Raven SEO or DIYSEO.For those who aren’t doing SEO full-time, the free tools and our “Learn SEO” resources on SEOmoz — most of which are entirely free — are good starting points. If/when you decide you need more data, flexibility, control, depth, and scale, that’s where we come in. :)

SMS: Within Open Site Explorer, one of the most important and popular metrics is Page/Domain Authority. Without giving away the “secret sauce,” can you explain how it is calculated for websites?

Rand: Absolutely! We take dozens of metrics calculated in our web index — things like mozRank (which imitates Google’s PageRank), mozTrust (which imitates TrustRank), number of links, number of linking root domains, etc., and use machine learning against thousands of Google’s top results to produce metrics that have the highest correlation with rankings. This means those scores will be the most reliable numbers you can use to predict how well a page/site might rank in Google’s results. We’ve done a video explaining this process more in-depth for one of our Whiteboard Friday blog posts (http://bit.ly/6XgQAR).

SMS: Citations are an important factor for local SEO. What tools does SEOmoz offer to help identify and build citations for websites?

Rand: Sadly, we’ve not yet focused our software on local SEO, though I suspect it will be in the system before the year is out. That said, I do highly recommend the Whitespark/Ontolo local citation finder as a good option.

Thinking on this, I suppose our Link Intersect tool could actually be quite useful here as well — it’s not specifically local-focused, but if you plug in sites ranking in Google Maps/Places, it will find some good link plus citation opportunities.

SMS: How much do you think social network links count in a website backlink profile? Do your link tools monitor and evaluate such links?

Rand: We’ve actually been measuring correlations of Facebook shares and Twitter tweets with rankings, and preliminary data shows both as being quite high. Right now, these features aren’t integrated in the web app, but we have a product on the horizon for Fall of this year that will get both into everyone’s campaigns. For now, Blogscape lets you monitor what’s being said about your brand or others (or who’s linking) and pulls in some data from powerful/popular Twitter accounts and Facebook feeds.

SMS:  Given the current SERP layout and results in Google, do you feel that checking ranking is a futile effort at this point?

Rand: It’s definitely not the primary KPI it once was, but although I’m not personally the biggest fan, many of our members have convinced me it has some very solid applications. A couple of posts we’ve done on this topic are at http://bit.ly/b6nr and http://bit.ly/43pQxU.

SMS: I have been hearing that tweets and Facebook “likes” will become the new trust signal for search engines? What is your opinion on this? Does your Domain mozTrust ranking take this into account?

Rand: Today, none of our metrics use Twitter/Facebook data directly (though our metrics will show links we find via those services). My opinion, however, is that Facebook shares in particular, because they’re such a purposeful endorsement, have an impact on trustworthiness. Tweets and likes are probably also used, but both are more casual actions, at least for many social users.

SMS: How have link values changed (and how you calculate them) with the rollout of Google’s recently launched algorithm update to squelch content farms? Have you seen (or do you foresee seeing) any secondary effects with websites that used content farms for backlinks?

Rand: We actually did a big analysis of the Panda/Farmer update (found at http://bit.ly/gyqeS0) and determined that it seemed unlikely that links were involved or affected much. Google appears to have rewarded/punished sites based primarily on usage/user data features and factors (and admitted as much in their later interview with Wired magazine).

SMS: Why do you think there were so many losers from the Farmer update who apparently did not do anything against Google’s guidelines? It seems that in most major Google updates, some innocents get whacked. What are some factors contributing to losing traffic from the update?

Rand: Again, I’d probably refer you to our blog post on the topic, but some major losers appear to be those who were aggressive with ad placement, offered poor user experience, had tough-to-consume content block layouts and text, and used “thin content” on many of their pages.

SMS: Site architecture is often discussed as a factor in SEO. How would you define successful site architecture? What tools are available to evaluate a website’s information architecture?

Rand: A great site architecture makes it easy for humans and bots to find and access content. That means a shallow link structure where pages are as few clicks away from the home page (and one another) as possible, and all of the steps in the navigation process are simple and direct.

Unfortunately, there’s no great tool for automated analysis that I’m aware of, though much great usability and user testing software exists, and visitor analytics data should be the backbone of these types of analyses.

SMS: Link acquisition continues s to be large factor in ranking well. What are the top three ways to acquire great links without saying the words “creating great content”?

Rand: Hah! Well, I suppose you could spam… (kidding!). Three techniques that I particularly like:

1.  Plug in a few sites in your space/niche that are similar to your site (they don’t have to be direct competitors) to our Link Intersect tool. You’ll almost always find a few dozen to a few hundred opportunities to get a link from a blog, a directory, a resource list, or the like.

2.  Contribute answers on Q&A sites like Quora, StackExchange, Facebook Answers, or even Yahoo! Answers. Be authentic, but refer back to your site’s resources on the topics where you have interesting/useful data, research, analysis, or commentary. If you don’t have any of that stuff on your site, SEO and inbound marketing might not be for you.  J

3.  Sponsor some academic research. Not only can you have a great repository of cool data from which to make great content, but you’ll often get awesome links from conferences, citations in the published paper, the university conducting the work, etc. Those are some pretty awesome links.

I’d also suggest checking out the link building section from our blog, where there are literally thousands of techniques to read about.

SMS: How much of a factor do you feel site speed is in the overall Google algorithm?

Rand: When Google announced it, they said it was a very small factor used in less than 1% of queries. I still believe that’s probably the case, when measured directly, but I do think site speed is great for user experience and usability, which Google’s now making more important following the Panda/Farmer update. Plus, it’s great for users and conversion rate, so why wouldn’t you optimize it?

SMS: Rand, thank you so much for agreeing to discuss some of the current issues in the industry and the specifics of some of the industry tools you like the most. We’ll look forward to seeing what new and exciting things SEOmoz comes out with as the year progresses.

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