The Tools of Our Trade: An Interview With Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz

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Synopsis – For our Summer 2011 issue (which focused on SEM tools), we asked Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz to answer some questions about SEOmoz and share some advice on the tools that are available to help search engine marketers make the most of their websites and to rank as high as possible on Google and other search engines. Rand responded with some very insightful answers to our questions in this not-to-be-missed interview.

The entire interview follows:

The Tools of Our Trade: An Interview With Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz

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 to be a 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.

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.

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, thanks 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.

About the Author

Rand Fishkin in the founder and CEO of SEOmoz.org, a Seattle-based search marketing firm. Rand's also the blogger behind the SEOmoz website and a frequent speaker at search conferences. He dropped out of the University of Washington's School of Business in 2001 to pursue his entrepreneurial passion.

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