I’ve had the pleasure to discuss with Rand Fishkin about SEO and content marketing. I asked him the most frequent SEO questions we get from our community and his answers are gold for those who want more organic traffic.
Without any further ado, here’s my interview with Rand.
For those new to online marketing, could you introduce yourself and tell us how you got started with SEO and what do you do now?
Sure! I’m Rand Fishkin, co-founder of Moz (and Inbound.org), co-author on a pair of books about SEO and inbound marketing, frequent blogger, speaker, and, most importantly (and my favorite title), husband to the amazing Everywhereist.
It’s my mission in life to help make marketing more transparent and accessible, especially technical kinds of marketing around secretive things like how Google ranks pages, how social networks prioritize visibility, and how us humans decide what to share/amplify/engage-with.
Being the CEO and co-founder of the most popular SEO software company, what are the most common mistakes you’ve seen people make with SEO?
I’m actually no longer Moz’s CEO. ~18 months ago, I promoted our longtime COO, Sarah Bird, to that role and stepped into more of an individual contributor position. That said, I think I get to see even more SEO mistakes now than I did when I had more management/leadership duties 🙂
Some of the big ones:
- Investing in SEO as a one-time project, rather than an ongoing process. SEO is never done – it’s like social media marketing or brand building or content marketing. Treating it like a one-time exercise you do after launching your website is a recipe for getting outranked by the competition who consistently invests.
- Hiring the cheapest SEO (contract or in-house) you can find, getting frustrated with their lack of performance, and then giving up on the practice entirely. SEO is a challenging, advanced art and science. It requires a lot of technical knowledge combined with considerable creativity and empathy. SEOs need to work across teams, projects, and disciplines to get results, and the good ones command high salaries and high hourly rates. If you invest in bargain-basement service, you’ll get what you pay for.
- Creating lots of pages on a website to target very small variants of keyword terms and phrases – this technique used to exploit search engines’ poor language understanding/topic modeling algorithms many years ago, but has never been good for users and now isn’t good for SEO either, yet it persists.
- Creating multiple websites and linking them all together in the hopes that the links passed between the sites will boost their rankings. This also is a poor tactic that doesn’t work (it never really worked well) and may be considered spam/manipulation by the search engines.
- Failing to consider usability and user experience in concert with SEO – many folks complete a technical checklist of optimization tasks but don’t look holistically at whether the resulting pages or site serve visitors well or entice anyone to share/amplify the content. If you don’t delight searchers in addition to search engines, you’ll be outranked by someone who does.
A question we often get is: “How to get more good backlinks?” Do you have any tips for our readers? What backlinks are good and which ones they should avoid having?
There’s a good resource I put together here that should help – All Links are Not Created Equal. Links worth having are those that are editorially given and genuinely intend to endorse and send traffic to the resource/website to which they’re linking. My best tips are:
- Before you create content, have tangible people in mind that you believe will have a strong reason to care about what you’re creating and who will be likely to help amplify it, share it, and link to it. If you can’t answer the question “Who will share this and why?” don’t make the content. There’s no prize for hitting publish.
- Think about the most likely audiences that share/link to content in your field (or related fields) – sometimes these groups of influencers are fundamentally different from your customer audience and you need to target and serve them differently. To succeed with links, you need people who can link to you consuming your work and wanting to share it, so pay attention to the bloggers, the journalists, the website owners, the social media sharers, the resource guides, review websites, and every other kind of potential linker/influencer.
- Investigate who’s linking to your competition and why – and don’t limit yourself to just your direct competitors; look at the sites and pages that regularly show up in the same search results alongside your target keywords. If you can reverse engineer the patterns, you can often identify new link opportunities.
Many would love to know what SEO techniques you recommend using and what’s working best right now.
There’s no secret ingredient if that’s what you’re asking 🙂 The SEO techniques that work today and those that worked ten years ago aren’t very different (other than the continual closing of exploits and loopholes). That said, the fundamentals of SEO continue to grow in complexity and diversity – today there’s App SEO, instant answers, knowledge graph, personalization, mobile search, significant changes to local/maps SEO, and dozens of other nuances. SEO definitely isn’t as simple as “create good content,” or “make something people want,” but there’s also no single tactic or set of tactics that can skyrocket your rankings today but didn’t exist 2, 5, or 10 years ago.
SEO is a long slog and an ongoing investment. It’s about recognizing what people are searching for, having deep empathy for searchers and potential influencers/amplifiers, creating content that’s search-accessible, searcher-and-keyword optimized, likely to be shared, and takes advantage of the many options for markup and standing out that search engines offer (images, news, video, rich snippets, etc). The key ingredients for organic traffic will probably disappoint you:
- Understanding your audience’s needs and wants (both conscious and unconscious)
- Creating content that appeals to them more so than anything else in the search results
- Building a brand that people know, trust, and love (and want to visit more than anything else in search results)
- Matching the keywords and content you target to the way people search and what they search for
- Crafting a user experience that’s pleasurable to consume on any device at any speed
- Being novel with your approach in such a way that you stand out from the crowd
- Leveraging the many opportunities available for various forms of media and content in search
I’m guessing what you want to hear is “put this tag in your header and you’ll boost traffic 5%” or “use this one weird trick to get more traffic from Google,” but, just like with weight loss or learning programming or growing a business, there’s no such thing as easy tricks.
How important is content marketing for SEO? Do you think guest blogging is still worth it?
You can’t do SEO without content – it’s never been possible and still isn’t today. Thus, I’d say content marketing is absolutely essential to SEO, but that’s nothing new.
Yes, I think guest blogging is still worth it, but it depends on why and how you’re doing it. If you’re investing in guest blogging by trying to get as many articles of low quality on as many sites as possible of questionable value because you heard that diversity of links will get you higher rankings, you’re fooling yourself and probably hurting your SEO in the long run (lots and lots of sites have been penalized for spammy guest blogging). However, if you’ve identified a website and community that reaches your target audience and you have something powerful, interesting, and unique to share with them, and are guest blogging to reach that community, go for it!
Moz recently introduced the Spam Score. How is the community using this metric so far? What’s the feedback?
We’ve heard a number of good points of feedback, including:
- It’s much more useful once folks understand exactly how it works and what it can and can’t do (i.e. it’s a set of Yes/No factors that, when combined, are well-correlated with sites Google has penalized/banned. The higher the count, the greater the liklihood, but plenty of sites with high spam scores are not ncessarily spam).
- Folks wish our index covered a larger range of sites and pages so that Spam Score would be broader in its potential application
- There’s a desire for more factors to be included so that we can get more accurate and comprehensive with the score
It’s going to take significant effort, but we’re hopeful that in the long term, we can tackle all of these.
How do you determine if a backlink is good or bad? What metrics do you look for when analyzing the quality of a website?
I look at whether the website generally has high quality content, is well-maintained, has a passionate, editorially-minded staff/operator, and links out to other high-quality stuff. Metrics like Spam Score, Domain Authority, and MozTrust can also be helpful, but a quick manual review of the site is still important.
Link building often has a bad reputation. How do you see link building 5 years from now?
I think it will continue to trend the way it’s been going the last 5 years – toward editorially given, unasked-for links that are intended as real endorsements of the site/content/organization/
Have you ever dealt with a Google penalty that was impossible to remove?
Impossible? No. But I did deal with some very frustrating ones back in my consulting days (and I’ve helped connect a number of tough cases with good consultants in the last few years). The worst part, in my opinion, is the lack of transparency on Google’s part about exactly what’s wrong, why, how to fix it, and when they might take action if it is fixed. Those factors combine for a massively frustrating experience for penalized site owners.
What Google penalty do you find to be the most complicated to recover from?
Link penalties are often the most frustrating because it’s so hard to control the links that point to you, and so many links can be viewed as manipulative depending on whom from Google is reviewing it (there’s not great consistency in what one reviewer will consider spam vs. another). I will give Google credit for being surprisingly good at penalizing the sites who’ve done the spammy link acquisition themselves vs. those that simply happened to have spam pointing at them through no intention or effort on their part. I don’t know all the things that go into that analysis, but it’s pretty darn accurate.