In this exclusive chat with Rand Fishkin, we discuss his new venture, SparkToro, why he recently left the Moz board, his views on the future of SEO, the dominance of Google, evolution of social media platforms and more.

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Ecommerce Exchange Episode 9: Rand Fishkin of SparkToro and Moz On SEO, Google and Social Media

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Video Transcript

Matt: Hi, everyone. Welcome to another episode of "Ecommerce Exchange," the podcast where we discuss all things online retail and marketing. Today we're really, really pleased to have as our special guest, Rand Fishkin. Hi Rand.

Rand: Howdy, Matt, thank you for having me.

Matt: Thanks for coming on. And joining us today as well we've got Louis, our marketing director at EastSide Co. Louis.

Louis: Hi.

Matt: And Will, our head of SEO.

Will: Hi.

Matt: How's it going?

Louis: Real good. We've been speaking together all day, man. Me, you, and Will.

Matt: So, I think Rand probably doesn't need much of an introduction, but I will do one because that's traditional. So I've got some Fishkin facts for just anyone who's not familiar with who he is.

So Rand is an internationally renowned SEO legend, I would say. Are you happy with that moniker?

Rand: That sounds weird. Rand is a guy who internet marketing nerds know about because he appears on videos talking about SEO and web marketing.

Louis: We had this conversation just before you joined about the fact that we're all quite excited. And this, you know, for us, let's be honest, is a celebrity encounter. Well, especially for Will because, you know, he's specialized in SEO. So this is a little bit of a celebrity encounter.

Will: Absolutely. Well, not the first time with me. I'm so excited.

Louis: Yeah. I mean, Matt's having beer to settle his nerves. Will has been bouncing off the walls. I've been largely fine with it, Rand. You know...

Rand: I can tell. You seem nonplussed.

Louis: No, we're so pleased to have you. I mean, Moz, we've all used it for years and years. And you know, clearly, that's certainly a big part of your past. And, you know, we all read the book, "Lost and Founder." So hopefully, we'll talk a little bit around that. But I suppose you're just coming out of the tail-end of your, I suppose, what's the right words? Your finality of your relationship with Moz.

So, can you give us just a bit of an idea of, everyone knows how Moz was started, and what the purpose of that was, but you know, how you've kind of phased out from that and where you're moving into now?

Rand: Sure, yeah. So for folks who aren't familiar, Moz obviously, is an SEO software company, but it's a venture-backed company, which means that you know, initially my mom and I started it, but as it grew and raised money, Moz became, sort of, run and directed by a board of directors. And that board of directors is set by the documents that are signed and structured from over the course of the venture investments. And so Moz has two board seats that I own and control after my mom left. And then each of our outside investors controls a seat on the board, and we have an independent director. This is pretty common, pretty similar structure to a lot of places. Shopify, for example, I think has a seven-person board with, you know, some of their investors, some founders, and then independence, right?

And in Moz's case, you know, I wrote about this just last weekend, but I was finding over the last few years that due to, I think, some of the conflict in relationships that I had with the leadership team there and the CEO, I was not being an effective board member. And I don't think we were being a very effective board, frankly. I mean, I'm sure all of you have worked in environments where, you know, you have conflict with the people around you. You don't necessarily feel psychologically safe around them.

Louis: Certainly, that's the case with Matt and Will. Absolutely.

Rand: Yeah. Well, let's hope it's not the case between me and the three of you, you know, right? But, you know, people have this dynamic, sometimes, in their families. They don't wanna tell their, whatever, parents or their sibling or their spouse something, and it creates strife and conflict, right? And those feelings of mistrust, that feeling that you are not being listened to, or heard, or that even if you are being heard, your people aren't acting on your input. All those things just create a really negative environment. And that's the kind of situation that I had with Moz's board.

And so, in May of this year, the Reddit co-founder, Alexis Ohanian, who I think is now most famous for being married to Serena Williams. But Alexis Ohanian stepped down from the Reddit board and, you know, requested that the board replace him. And for some reason, like, it clicked in that moment to me like, Oh, I could do that. I could step down from my role, and, you know, I could urge Moz to, sort of, fill my seat. And so I had this conversation with the board, and they were very supportive. I sent them a list of, I don't remember, you know, 10 or 15 potential board members. And of the first three, they liked too. So, boom, we were able to make that happen really quickly.

So filling my seat on the board of directors at Moz from now on will be Asia Orangio, who you might be familiar with. She's not on e-commerce but she's a consultant in software as a service marketing space and runs DemandMaven, I think out of Atlanta. Very, very impressive, just incredibly smart. If anybody is in software as a service or a founder, I'd urge you to follow her.

And then filling the independent seat will be Tara Reed who ran apps without code. And Tara is so amazing. Like, I'm sure you guys remember, you know, five years ago, people were like, that'll never happen. You can't build a startup without being technical. Like, this codeless world is not real. And now, no code is huge. And Tara was like one of the first people to see it coming. And, you know, she's written about her sort of journey to making seven figures and like building this incredibly impressive business bootstrapped. Like no funding.

So I'm excited to have them on the board. And I'm very excited to get to focus on SparkToro, and you know, not deal with an environment where I don't feel valued.

Louis: Yeah, of course. You know, we understand Moz, you know, is always gonna be a part of what you do. And inevitably, whenever you come on these things, people are gonna mention Moz. I mean, I suppose there's lots and lots of situations, certainly in American tech startup world, Silicon Valley, tech startup world where founders are no longer part of the business.

I think what you talked about quite a lot in "Lost and Founder" was the much less tangible side of that, and the much more emotional side of going through a startup and some of your successes. And you were very, very open about some of the issues that you felt within the business.

I mean, does it feel like it's always gonna be something that is a part of you? You know, how does it feel to be outside of a business that you created?

Rand: Yeah, I mean, it is definitely a strange thing. I think that for many folks, you know, who start a business and run it for a few years and then leave, especially leave on sort of their own terms in the way that they expected, it doesn't feel particularly strange. I have lots of friends, for example, in the marketing agency world and they, you know, start an agency, run it for a while, one of their partners takes it over or someone buys it, whatever. Right? And I don't think that they feel particularly strange about that.

What's odd about Moz is, you know, it's a family business, right? I started it with my mom. My grandfather, Seymour was like a big part of Moz's very early days. Yeah, that was in "Lost and Founder" too, right? Like, he went with me to my first conferences and like helped me decipher the PageRank paper because I didn't know what the hell was going on. And, you know, this is the kind of thing that like today you're like, do you have to get the math of PageRank? Is that important? No. But you know, in 2002, we were sort of like, Oh, this feels important, we should understand this.

And, you know, the reality is that after, how long was I there for? Seventeen years. Yeah, you feel kind of attached. Right? That's basically the timeframe that parents have with their kids. Almost exactly. So yeah, there's a sense of attachment.

I think the last couple of years have been really good in terms of I have never been professionally happier. Like, I love the way Casey and I are building SparkToro. I love what the company does. It feels more in alignment with all the things that I wanna do, kind of, personally and professionally and for the world and for sort of the macroeconomic picture and for the marketing world, right? Like, not to disparage, Will, any of your work or the SEO world, but like, I love SEO, and I think it's really cool. I also think it is becoming increasingly clear to me that Google is taking more and more of the opportunity for themselves and they are being less and less of a good partner to publishers and creators and marketers in all sorts of ways. And I would like to at least contribute my professional efforts to a world where Google holds less power, not more. So that really fits with what I'm trying to do. That helps me kind of whatever it is, you know, get over the transition and get excited about the new work I'm doing.

Louis: I suppose a big part of Moz was transparency, right?

Rand: Yeah, absolutely. Which kind of came to, you know, in a way to bite us. I don't know if you guys watched this, but like, in the SEO world, there's sort of this weird thing where like you know things aren't true, but you don't talk about them publicly because Google's representatives don't like you talking about them. And you create conflict with them. And in order to like, whatever it is, get clients, or appear to be a good player in the world, you wanna take Google's side. It's a very strange industry in that front.

Louis: I suppose for you, or for Moz, or SEMrush, or Ahrefs, or any of these guys that are dealing maybe with Google on a much more direct or a much more kind of like, we're a partner, we're dependent on you for feeds, we're dependent on you for information and data. You know, there's obviously a huge conflict there in terms of, you know, you're obviously very, very transparent about what you do, and maybe that causes friction with Google. I mean, for us, I suppose, Will, you'll be able to talk around this a little bit more, but we're playing the game on very much the client-end of the scale, right? So we're using tools like Moz, and Ahrefs, and various other things. I mean, Will, how do you see it in terms of the landscape at the moment? And, you know, based on some of the stuff that Rand is talking about?

Will: Yeah, I think it's really interesting, Rand, to mention Google and its power. Because Matt and I were discussing, you know, your recent post about no click searches, and like, you know, the diminishing organic, you know, real estate on the search and how that has just transformed in the past, you know, five years. Mobile has become like a dominant force now. And, you know, the PPC ads just, you know, dominate the over the fold screen real estate. And then you bring up, obviously, nice panels, which, I mean, the organic listings have so much less visibility, and you can see the direction is going in now. And, you know, that is a challenge for, you know, websites. So how do you continue to grow organically when like the landscape is becoming a lot more challenging?

Louis: I mean, we find it as well, just to kind of add on that. And I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this because it leaks into, you know, the paid side, which, again, is fundamentally Google or Facebook, right? You know, we have situations where we, you know, say brand is gonna be a huge thing, right? So, we rank organically, position one for brand. But we have to make the decision because so much real estate is taken up. Do we still bid on that term and cannibalize organic, or do we not bid on the term because there should be conversions or traffic the client is getting for free, right? But Google owns both of those areas. So we don't really have a choice. I mean, what's your kind of thoughts on that?

Rand: It's the prisoner's dilemma, right? Google is essentially, you know, basically saying like, Oh, well, if you don't bid on your own brand name, your competitors will be able to bid and rank there. So you either pay us for traffic that you, obviously, should be getting an earning, right? Someone who types in your brand name intends to go to your website and learn about you, you know, 99% of the time, but we're gonna send you only 80% of those clicks or 70% of those clicks unless you pay us. And yeah, that's pretty frustrating.

Will, as far as brand goes, I think you're absolutely right that brand is the answer to how you combat and fight against Google's monopoly domination of web search and the fact that they are, you know, so powerful and influential in this field. And I think that the right thing to wanna do is to say... And we've been doing this a little bit with SparkToro, right? My goal is not to rank number one for audience intelligence, or for market research software, or for you know, any other particular term. In fact, I do very, very little SEO for SparkToro. My goal instead is get people searching for SparkToro, right? I'm not trying to rank. I'm trying to build the brand. And that is kind of a fundamentally different thing.

It's weird because, in all the years of my SEO career, I was the opposite. Like, you know, I was very much a Hey, how do we get rankings? What are the keywords people are searching for? And I think it was in my later years that I started realizing, oh, gosh... I was helping, for example, a local startup here in Seattle called Crowd Cow. Crowd Cow works with small cattle ranchers, and you know, farmers all over the U.S., but pretty heavily here in the northwest, and they... Hopefully, you guys aren't vegan or vegetarian.

Louis: You know, as a vegan, I do usually bring it up within the first five minutes of any conversation. But you know what, if you're gonna talk about the needless slaughter of animals, I'm absolutely fine with that in this situation.

Rand: So these small ranchers are needlessly slaughtering animals when we could all be eating carrots and radishes. But despite this evil... I do, by the way, you know, this is a total aside, but whenever people have that conversation about like, Oh, well, what's something that's acceptable today that like 50 years from now we'll be looking back on as just evil, right? Like, we look back on people who were whatever, against interracial marriage, and we're like, oh, they're evil. Or we look back at people who are against, you know, gay marriage and we're like, oh, that was evil. I think people will in 50 years look back and just be like, those monsters. Like, they slaughtered animals by the billions.

Louis: And I think the ultimate aim is for people to look upon me as some, kind of, I don't know. I'm gonna say the wrong thing here. Some kind of leader of the revolution. And they'll say well, at least Louis is on the right side of...

Matt: You were gonna say Jesus.

Louis: No, I wasn't gonna say Jesus.

Rand: You're the Princess Leia. You're the Princess Leia.

Louis: That's a good one because she's fictional. There will be a small niche of people that will be very upset that I've said that. Now I see we've all got the vision of me in a metal bikini.

Rand: Yeah, that's how I was thinking about it.

So Crowd Cow, right, works with all these ranchers. And there is lots of what I would call latent demand, right? So people like myself who do eat animals and don't love factory farming, right? Like, you know for the quality of the meat that you get, for the ethical implications, for the environmental impact. So being able to order from small ranches is a really great thing. You guys know the e-commerce world, right? None of them have the infrastructure to, you know, go direct to consumer and handle the shipping and handle the marketing and get their websites ranking and blah, blah, blah, blah.

So Crowd Cow comes along and they start aggregating all these small ranchers all over the U.S. You can go and order you know, specialized kinds of meats. I can get the Brazilian picanha that I love, which, you know, that cut is like really unavailable in the U.S. All these cool things.

And Crowd Cow, you know, I was working with them, just kind of helping out some friends. It was the guys who started Urbanspoon here and we've been friends for a long time, and realizing like, oh, they rapidly built up more demand for the word Crowd Cow, you can see it in Google Trends, than there was demand for buy steak online or buy chicken online or buy pork online or, you know, whatever. Like all those things, Crowd Cows subsumed them. They became bigger than the sum of all the parts.

And I had this realization that that was such a genius way to go about marketing. That the efforts that they had put in, not by ignoring SEO, but by, sort of, making it a second-tier acquisition channel and making brand primary, they had earned themselves far more search traffic than they could have by ranking number one for a combination of every, you know, search term combined. So that is the goal of building a brand.

Louis: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And I suppose the question off the back of that is, how easy is that to do? You know, do you essentially have to choose, you know? I mean, it's not easy to...

Rand: How easy is that to do? Not easy. That is so, so difficult. That is incredibly difficult. But I mean, I think, you know, when you're doing that, SEO can be a driver, right? SEO can be a part of the way you build that flywheel to generate that brand. And, actually, you know, when I think about like how do brand and SEO work together, you use SEO and content, and you drift off of the success and the hopeful engagement, trust, loyalty, quality, recognition that you've build from the audience who views your content and appreciates it and starts to come to know who you are in order to generate brand. You know, that relies on things like UI and UX and content engagement and email marketing and building up email subscriptions to your content. Right?

And I think that there's a lot of brands who think about SEO still very, very surface-level, right? They're basically like, I wanna get traffic from search engines that will click, buy the product, you know, they'll add it to the cart. And then I wanna see that conversion. You know, Will, I want your team to report to me how many search clicks we got and how many of those turned into conversions. And, you know, that's what we expect from you. And I'm assuming, right, I recognize that e-site might be, you know, more sophisticated in this, but a lot of clients are not, right? A lot of folks in e-commerce space focus exclusively on that. And I think they need to be thinking longer-term about the brand building implications of what they do and how a non-converting search visit can still be incredibly valuable as long as it's building towards brand recognition, brand loyalty, trust, and hopefully, a return visit in the future.

Louis: So I think.. Sorry, Will, carry on.

Will: Yeah, obviously, I couldn't agree more. And I have this debate with clients all the time where they want us to really, you know, work on those transactional head terms. And we try and pull them towards the informational longtail terms, which essentially, to make your funnel wider at the top, you bring in more prospects into that conversion funnel, you know, let them see your brand, become aware of your brand. And then you know, you can push them towards that purchase journey. And yeah, it works for some time, again, you know, you create really good, relevant content, which isn't trying to, you know, convert them into a customer there and then, just getting aware of your brand, and getting to trust your brands, and then you get a benefit, you know, later down the line.

And I think, I can see how you've used that strategy for SparkToro because it's been around for a long time before it became actually the paid tool - is it two years now?

Rand: Yeah, yeah. So we spent basically the first 18 months, you know, Casey was doing R&D, and I'm doing brand marketing.

Louis: And of course, I suppose the big thing that you've taken away from Moz is that you are now run Fishkin, you know, you are a brand in essence.

Rand: Yeah, like my social following came with me, but I was sort of building the website, right, and domain authority, and like all the ranking signals, that stuff, you know, is still relatively challenging, right? I can no longer do what I did at Moz and sort of publish a blog post and expect it to rank in the top five for whatever keyword phrase I put out there. And so, to be honest, like a huge part of my marketing intuition and effort has gone toward what I think is now termed digital PR. You know, essentially using other people's platforms to build up brand affinity, to acquire traffic, to get, you know, links, to get sort of content place, to get, you know, rankings for words and phrases. And, you know, those include everything from people with powerful YouTube channels to folks like yourself with podcasts to, you know, doing webinars and online events. Will, you probably know. Like, you know, for the last few years doing lots of in-person events. Obviously, that ended in February. But yeah...

Matt: I think Will might have an interesting story about how he came by a copy of your book, actually, Rand.

Rand: Oh, no kidding.

Matt: Yeah. This is Matt laying Will on the line here. Come on Will. Tell the story.

Will: I was at BrightonSEO a few years ago. And ofter the main stage, at the front, there was like a table with a sheet on it. And they pulled the sheet off. And it was your book, about 100 copies. And he said, "Just come and get them." So there was a stampede from the stage. Everyone just shot [inaudible 00:31:10] these books. And obviously, there was far more people than books. And it got quite heated, but...

Louis: No, Will is being polite here. He treated it like it was Black Friday at Walmart. And he was fighting people for the book.

Rand: I mean, this is not my understanding, right? My understanding of British culture is that people stand in very well-organized lines, and they call them queues. And they really enjoy these queues. And if people step out of the queue, you know, they give the worst thing that you can give in the United Kingdom, which is a stern glare.

Louis: Yes. But what you've misunderstood, Rand is the effect that you've had on the British people. And I tell you, you know, it's for your own safety that I think the next visit you have to an SEO conference, bring your entourage with you. The whole the full Jay Z-kind of security because there's gonna be people that will chase you.

Rand: I have to say that I have not gotten that. But I do remember that I spent, I think it was almost two and a half hours signing books in a line at BrightonSEO. You know, there was just like tons and tons of people, and the next day, I had no voice at all because I'd just been talking to people all the time.

Louis: So, I think what's interesting about what you've just talked about, and what we often talk to our clients about is, especially in e-commerce, everyone thinks very, very short term. I think, in marketing in general, everyone's like, yeah, we really like the long term stuff, but what we need right now is leads or what we need right now is sales or whatever that is. They need all that short term thing. And then they never quite get around to the long-term thinking.

The other thing they do is they don't think strategically, right? So SEO is one tactic in a whole range of different tactics that you just talked about, that go into building a brand, rather than just a short term sale. Right? So, you know, we always talk to people about SEO is a single tactic. And it's a long-term tactic. You know, we think of it in 3, 6, and 12-month terms. And there's various other things that we do for people to drive, you know, short term results and all those other things kind of lead in together.

I suppose one of the interesting things as you kind of move into SparkToro, and what you've created there is that you're starting to build that strategic view, I suppose. It's still a tactic within the kind of whole mix. So it's pretty worth you talking through, we've all kind of been into SparkToro and built various lists and done various things in there. But it'd be really great for people to get an understanding of what the tool does and, you know, the purpose of it. You've talked about taking, you know, power away from bigger platforms and putting it back in the hands of a user essentially, but how is it doing that?

Rand: Right, yeah. So yeah, you hit the nail on the head, right? It is a lot of agencies using SparkToro. And in-house marketers, I think we're about 60%, agency consultant and 40% in-house. Marketers mostly using it to understand more about where their audiences go online. You know, what websites they visit, what YouTube channels they subscribe to, what podcasts they listen to, what social accounts they follow, and on which channels, and then being able to use that data to go reach their audiences in places where they already engage, whether that is for, you know, sort of brand building purposes or PR purposes or direct SEO, right, trying to rank with content that sits on someone else's site. The classic like barnacle SEO strategy or trying to get a link, right, to come back to your site. Trying to get, you know, an advertising sponsorship, right?

In fact, one of the most impressive uses I saw really creative, I had never thought of it before, was someone, a couple of weeks ago emailed me and was like, "Oh, I run a podcast. And I looked up our social accounts, and I saw which brands our visitors, the people who engage with us also follow. And then I went and pitched them and I used the SparkToro data. Like I screenshotted it, sent those to those folks and said, Hey, you should sponsor our podcast. And I got two sponsors.' I was like, Oh, that's amazing. Like genius. You know, that's like the inverse of how I think about it. But totally smart. Right?

And so basically, SparkToro is a search for an audience and instantly find what they read, watch, listen to, follow, engage with.

Louis: Right. And how did you discover all of these platforms? Where I come from, we're trying to solve a problem, or there is a gap in the market or whatever that is. You know, what was the thing that made you say, why does this not exist?

Rand: Yeah. I mean, the weirdest part is marketers had been trying to get this data or doing work to get this data since at least the 1950s. Right?

Louis: Right.

Rand: You go back to the Mad Men era, like our job as marketers and ad agencies right before us, they were basically trying to figure out, okay, who's the audience for this product? And where can I go and reach them? Right? And so, if you have the first part of that answered, okay, I know that the audience for whatever, this product that I offer online tends to be gardeners and landscape architects, and you know, people in that world. All right, so I'm looking for professional gardeners and landscape architects, and I wanna find what they pay attention to. And if you don't already know the field, you know, you could spend a few years in it, and you sort of get a sense for what's popular and not popular. But even then, right, you might be like, Well, I think this publication reaches most of them, but I guess I wouldn't be surprised to find out that there's two other publications that I've heard of that are even bigger, and, you know, they reach different parts of the market, whatever it is. That job is incredibly frustrating.

And what we saw is a lot of brands paying market research firms, literally tens of thousands of dollars to go survey their audiences, right? So they'd use something like Google surveys, or SurveyMonkey, or Typeform, right? And they try and, you know, maybe like take a big email list, get them to fill it out. That way, they've designed the survey in all these ways. And then they'd ask questions, which, you know, I'm sure you guys know, there's good questions asked in surveys, like there's great data you can get from them. And then there's really bad data you can get.

So you ask somebody like, whatever it is, on a scale of 0 to 10, you know, how likely would you be to recommend the product? A pretty good survey question. You ask somebody, what podcasts do you listen to? You're gonna get crap data, right? They'll probably be like, the two or three most popular podcasts or the ones they listened to most recently, but they won't necessarily... Like it's just not a great way to go. You ask them, Hey, what websites do you visit to learn more about gardening and landscaping? You know, you're just not gonna get great data from that.

So early on in SparkToro's journey, we saw a couple of firms do a really smart thing, where they took a list of their customers' email addresses. And they ran them through Clearbit or FullContact to get all the social URLs that were associated with those email addresses. You know, here's whatever it is, right? Will, here's your Twitter, here's your LinkedIn, here's your Facebook page, here's your, I don't know, Reddit account, here's your YouTube, whatever it is. And then they had like their engineering team build a crawler to go crawl all those social profiles and then aggregate the data together and look at the overlap in what they, you know, followed or shared or link to or replied to, or whatever it was engaged with. Which, you know, that's like six, nine months of engineering, data aggregation, blah, blah, blah, all this work. But they got awesome results. They'd be like, boom. You know, here we go. Twenty-four percent of our customers follow this website, 22% follow this website, 19% follow this other website. All the way down to like 3%, 4%.

All right, let's go put our ad dollars against those. Let's go take those sites and plug them into the Facebook audience as interests. And now we can advertise more intelligently against them. Okay, let's go pitch, you know, all the podcasts that are associated with these publications and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

Super smart methodology. But Casey and I were like, holy, like, come on, are you kidding me? You probably spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in terms of engineering time and effort to get one data dump, like, let's build that for the whole web and make it you know, whatever it is, 150 bucks a month, and you can run, you know, tons of searches.

And so that's kind of what we did. SparkToro does a pretty darn good job in English language countries right now. So like, you know, Australia, UK, Ireland, U.S., Canada. And hopefully, in the years to come, we'll be expanding into other languages. But it's nice, right? Because it's nice to be able to be aligned on what how we help people with how I sort of feel about marketing these days and brand building and being able to identify these opportunities to reach your customers and potential customers outside of just throw money at Google and Facebook.

Louis: Yeah, I mean, I jumped in and, you know, created a list of, you know, I think what I'm saying, I was aware of the platform for a long time after reading "Lost and Founder," and, you know, following it from there, but I only really jumped in prior to this. And was surprised by how quickly, and honestly, even knowing what it does, you know, surprised by the time I got in there, how quickly it was for me to kind of produce a list of people that were directly within the niche that I was dealing with, right? It's more convenient than I expected it to be.

Rand: Yeah, very convenient. I think for a lot of like content marketers, in particular, right? You're a content marketer, you put out a new blog post. And, you know, a lot of times, like I blog semi-regularly. And when I do that, I wanna find 5 or 10 people who are likely to really appreciate the piece that I'm publishing and have some sort of, you know, relatively sizable audience who will go post it to LinkedIn or share it on Twitter or put it on their Facebook page or, you know, whatever it is, right? Talk about it on their podcast, etc.

And if you're regularly producing content, SparkToro is pretty good for this to be able to be like, Oh, okay. I was hoping Rob Walling who runs MicroConf. And he had a big survey for SAS founders. They launched I think, last week. And I was like, Oh, hey, Rob, you know, you're asking me to share the piece. Here's the like 15 other people that SAS founders follow on Twitter? Let's get them to tweet it too. Right? And Rob was like, "Oh, sweet. I'm gonna email all of them." Right? Like, there you go. Now he's got, whatever, 1500 respondents to his to a survey versus 200.

Louis: Yeah. And the great thing for me in that was just the tiny little piece of functionality that you could easily miss if you don't watch the intro video, but it's the hidden gems piece, right?

Rand: Oh, yeah.

Louis: When we talk about influencer marketing and that kind of thing. And it's an area that we're very kind of wary of, or we're very careful to tread in those waters. But it's a hidden gem where you're not your million followers. You know, we're much more interested in those micro-influencers who have really great engagement, right?

Rand: Yeah, I mean, I think in SEO world, right, this is like how a lot of great link building is done. Is you find those sort of small, but passionate, influential websites and site owners, whatever it is, bloggers, journalists, news sources, communities, you know, industry publications, and then if you have a good pitch, or if, you know, you can pitch a good op-ed or a guest piece or, you know, you have something that's highly relevant for them, you can do really well, right? You can get those, whatever, response rates at 10%, 20%, 30% instead of 1%, 0.1% for, you know, a lot of the link builders, like the link building at scale businesses I know out there when I interviewed those agencies. I was like, wait, you get 1 response in 1000 and you think that's pretty good? That's horrifying.

Louis: Yeah, it's definitely a volume game. Again, unless you're kind of set up to do that specific thing at scale, you know, it can be quite difficult.

So what does the SEO landscape look like to you now? I mean, in terms of where you think it's at now versus where you think it's gonna be.

Rand: Yeah, so the pandemic has made the SEO landscape a little bit different than I think where it was going previous to that, right? So we see kind of, you know, two factors going on there. One is there is far more internet use as people are in quarantine and sort of locked down. And even people who aren't in quarantine are more generally at home, more generally worried about going out. And so the internet is just seeing more use, Google is seeing more use, there's more search.

And in addition to more use, there's less mobile and more desktop. You know, as you guys know, desktop is where more conversions happen, it's where more click-through rate happens. Right? So the sort of last five years, six years, like you're talking about, well, of the declining click-through rate, right? And, you know, Google pushing stuff down in organic, that is shifting a little bit, right? This year has been sort of an outlier in that we're seeing a reversal of that trend, right? More people searching desktop, and as a result, click-through rate, on average, and in total, rising and more total internet use. So more of that rising.

In particular, you know, places that had not adopted e-commerce and web purchasing behavior have in the last nine months. Like, I mean, very frankly, there's not many better places to be in this economy than in e-commerce, you know, in helping businesses get into e-commerce right now. So you can see and feel that trend in all sorts of ways.

How will that change as you know, potentially, vaccines are available and, you know, whatever governments and the medical community learn how to deal with coronavirus? I can't say, right? I don't know what that looks like. If we returned to sort of a true situation like we had two years ago or a year ago, in the next year or two, does that trend switch around again? Or is this a period where, you know, such a huge part of the world has adopted e-commerce, has adopted internet habits, that we won't see that switch around again, that, you know, it's gonna stay high?

I look at, for example, Italy. I don't know if you've seen the stats on Italy, but like Italian consumers were like the last, you know, they just did not adopt e-commerce. They were like, no, I will not buy, whatever, my pasta and my wine online. Like, I'm going to the store, right? And this year has changed that. Like, this has been the year when Italians have finally adopted web commerce and delivery. You can see Amazon has grown huge there. You can see a bunch of producers and new stores.

Yeah, it could be that that remains the case for a long time. So I think there's never been more opportunity in SEO. And also, if I were a brand, I would work hard on not being exclusively reliant on it. And I would work hard on exactly what you talked about. That double-pronged approach to SEO. The short term like, yes, let's rank for some keywords that send us some traffic that converts, and let's rank for a lot of things that bring us traffic that's likely to, you know, learn about our brand, become loyal to us, subscribe to our content, and be future customers.

Louis: Yeah. I think people are starting to see now, and based on what you were just saying is, you know, we always talk in marketing about don't build your house on rented land. And, you know, for a long time, I think we thought of Google search as not being that. That's becoming much clearer that it absolutely is now. You know, lots of people built their business on Facebook with organic reach, and Facebook did the same thing and just tanked that. So you start paying for it. And it seems like it's going in the same way. But I was saying the other day, I remember the kind of start of Facebook, and, you know, probably of that generation just where I moved from MySpace to Facebook and did that, but I can't imagine Facebook not existing and Instagram, and I can't imagine Google not existing, and I can't imagine them not having the power that they do.

You know, do you think that's even a consideration? Or you know, do you think that's ever gonna be a situation where those guys don't hold significant power? Or are we talking decades for that to change?

Rand: Let's see. I think Facebook is right now up against a big challenge in terms of its brand perception. Like, Facebook has a strong network effect, but I don't know that there is a more hated brand that we all use regularly.

Louis: Like the bank.

Rand: You know, I have my problems with Google but I believe Google is a net positive for the world, right? You know, they're a company and an organization that in many ways, I love their products, I use many of their products, and also, I'm a strong critic of their products and their practices. And I think those things go well together. Facebook, on the other hand, it is tough to find a redeeming attribute of that company at all, right? It's very difficult to look at them and say, Oh, yeah, you know, you do a lot of good things for the world. I think, you know, you see that in their employment, you are feeling that in their media relations, you're feeling that in sort of the world of politics, where, you know, Republicans and Democrats in the United States, for those who aren't familiar, those are our two major political parties, they agree on almost nothing, right? There's a very, very high degree of tension between these parties in the U.S. But they both agree that Facebook is bad and should be regulated. That's a bad place for Facebook to be.

So I think very frankly that the next couple of years will really have a...we'll see whether Facebook can survive the terrible brand perception that it's built up and the sort of you know, I think most almost every consumer who uses it is like, I feel bad about using it. I don't like the company. I wish I used it less. I'm only on there because, you know, whatever it is. My group, my friends are on there, that's where I see baby pictures of my kids. That kind of stuff.

Yeah, it's that sort of a dilemma thing, isn't it?

Matt: Yeah. And talking about the evolution of those platforms. I've become obsessed with the upcoming U.S. election, with my eyes popping out of my head every day since about April. I don't know what is gonna happen in the next two weeks, but obviously, there was a lot of controversy in the 2016 election and the part that social media played in that. But we've noticed, kind of, a difference in behavior in the past couple of months, you know, with tweets being removed and flagged and posts being removed and stuff.

I was interested in how that factored into the evolution of the platforms and you know, the arguments around censorship and when the platform's become publishers and that kind of thing. I guess that plays into that.

Rand: I mean, it's very, very complex, right? You could see yesterday, the FCC, Ajit Pai, who I think is an evil SOB and just terrible for the world. I mean, he's anti-net neutrality. Like nobody, except the greediest billionaires are anti-net neutrality. Like, net neutrality is a public good. I don't care if you're the most conservative, the most liberal person in the world. Like, you want net neutrality. But not Ajit Pai. And so, you know, the FCC yesterday talked about how there was this special code that the Senate passed, I think in the late '90s called Section 230, which gives essentially immunity from lawsuits, and you can't be held liable for the content that is published on your platform if it was published by, you know, users, right? If you and I go to Twitter and we post something that is libelous about Will and Louis, like they can sue us if they can figure out who we are, but they can't sue Twitter. Right? And that is very different from, for example, "The New York Times" or the "Wall Street Journal" or the "Guardian," publishing a piece by us saying, Louis and will are terrible guys, you know. Or whatever it is. We accuse them...

Louis: I'm getting the message here, Rand. I understand.

Rand: I don't know. They've been sabotaging our efforts to get small ranchers to send meat around the world. And, you know, the "Guardian" or "The New York Times" can be held liable for that content. And so, the interesting thing here is, you know, there's questions about will Section 230 be held up as law long term, you know, will the Supreme Court uphold it? What if Donald Trump's new nominee gets in? You know, she's a very, very strange person. We've never had somebody like that on the Supreme Court previously.

Matt: She's strange, isn't she? And she sounds like a 10-year old girl as well. I don't know what's going on with her voice.

Matt: She's just a very odd one. I mean, in terms of like, you know, as part of this, sort of, pseudo offshoot of Catholicism cults religion thing where you're sort of subservient to your husband, and, yeah, and then all sorts of other strange behaviors, and has no opinion on climate change and isn't familiar with it. Like, just really weird. But in any case, right, there's like all these questions in the political sphere around that. And then I think there's also a lot of questions around whether these platforms themselves will be, I don't know, bullied or made nervous into changing their policies around what they do. Right?

So I think the 2016 election is a great example where, you know, there was this hacked and leaked email information about Hillary Clinton, which ended up being nothing but like the salaciousness of the idea of hacked emails, you know, and, you know, the issue essentially became the insecurity of Clinton's home email server. And like, I don't know how that makes you not eligible to be president. But regardless, that became a big, big issue at the very end of the 2016 election. And now the platform's are sort of like, oh, maybe we should limit the spread of hacked and leaked content.

And so was it yesterday, the day before, there was like a big, "The New York Post" was finding this story, very unconfirmed, right? New York Post is a tabloid publisher here in the US. And yeah, there was all these questions about like, well, Twitter, limited people from being able to share that post, Facebook limited the spread of it, YouTube semi-limited the spread of that information. There's been limits on conspiracy theories like the QAnon folks. This is the one where Hillary Clinton and Tom Hanks and Bill Gates run a pizza dungeon, and then they like drink the blood of children. And Donald Trump is like gonna expose them in some sort of weird civil war. Yeah. But that's a very popular conspiracy theory, oddly enough. And I think, if I understand correctly, there's lizard people involved also.

Louis: We've had lizard people here for years.

Matt: Yeah. The Queen is a lizard, isn't she?

Louis: Apparently. Yeah. Yeah.

Rand: The Queen is involved.

Matt: Yeah, yeah. She's the Queen of Lizards.

Rand: And Colonel Sanders from Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Louis: Yeah, he's evil for lots of other reasons.

Rand: But so right, like, you know, the question is, do these platforms have a responsibility, societally, and then legally, to limit the spread of misinformation? And, you know, I think for a lot of folks, this is gonna be, or for a lot of reasons, this will determine a bunch of their future relative influence.

So, one of the things that's interesting to imagine is a future in which they are held liable for the content that's posted to them and so they become much more like mainstream media actors, 10, 15, 20 years ago, where they publish only reliable information. And then the question is, does that make it such that people no longer consume this sort of misinformation, disinformation because it doesn't have the viral spread capacity, or do all these little communities pop up all over the web? You know, your, whatever 8chan hosted in Russia and like, you know, blah, blah, blah, blah, right? All that kind of stuff. And I don't know the answer to that. I think it could be the case that...

Louis: Around truth verse, you know, objective truth. Like, you know, versus...

Rand: All signs of that.

Louis: You know, well no, I mean it in terms of there is, you know, who a person is on Instagram is not who they are. Like, you know, is somebody renting out a grounded airliner to sit on it like they're in a private jet and pretend they're living that life. Is that...?

Rand: You guys saw that, right?

Louis: Yeah. You're always flying. You're always on that jet, Rand.

Rand: And it was the weirdest thing. They were asking, what was it? Like, it was a survey of influencers and they were like, oh, what are your marketing goals? Or what are your, like, biggest goals for the next year? And like some 20%-odd of influencers said their biggest goal was to be photographed in a private plane. I had this like, what? Why? Who cares? What does that do for you? It's so strange.

Louis: It is very odd. And I've crossed it off my list now. So.

Rand: A good one. A good one.

Louis: One of the things that's interesting, we talked a bit about Facebook, and Will, correct me if I'm wrong here. Google now, you know, if you go on to Google search, you and I set a Google search at the same time, and we type in Donald Trump is, for example, the autocomplete for the both of us is gonna be very, very different, potentially. Because I know you're a big fan of Trump, Will. And the search results themselves are gonna be very different. Right? That's correct.

Will: Yeah, I think, obviously, if it is localized, the device you're on. I'm not sure how much search history actually affects the search results anymore, but definitely affects the autocomplete. But I know the autocomplete is also, I think it was a post yesterday by Danny Sullivan at Google where he talked about this. And, you know, he uses obviously, machine learning to look at, you know, searches from people trying to predict, you know, what thinks you're looking for. So I think there's a lot of like machine learning that goes into the autocomplete?

Louis: I mean, does that concern you guys in terms of there's been a few people that have put, you know, machine learning bots or AI bots out there, and they've become very, very racist very, very quickly. Because of the internet. Surely that is a concern of everyone and of Google? I mean, my question was gonna be around, is Google just creating an echo chamber by which, you know, for you guys, for example, Republicans just become more and more republican, and, you know, liberals become more and more liberal? You know, is that what Google is doing? Is it creating an echo chamber for people? And does it have a responsibility to be a bit more objective?

Rand: Yeah, I mean, I think this is the challenge anytime you have algorithms that optimize for engagement and virality. Right? So you get more polarization and more extremism, because extreme content, you know, whether you believe in sort of this, you know, liberal-conservative spectrum, which I personally don't. Like, I think the spectrum goes in all different directions. I think it's far more than two-dimensional. But, you know, extremist content does very well in an algorithmic engagement way because no matter whether you believe it, or don't believe it, it is salacious and interesting and weird and hard to comprehend, and therefore, earns eyeballs and clicks in sharing and, you know, outrage and all those kinds of things. And because it is high emotion, high contentiousness content, it's gonna do well on the web.

And so, you know, this is one of the temptations, right, and the challenges that we all have as content creators and as marketers. I know, for example, I can guarantee you that, you know, if I put out a blog post, and the blog post title is Q4 data on search click-through rates in Google. It'll do okay. Right? People will read it. It'll get some. If I put out a blog post that says less than half of all Google searches now result in a click. Boom, right? Top of Hacker News. Everybody's talking about it. You know, people are quoting it in Congress like, dah, dah, dah.

Now, what's my responsibility? Right? It's my responsibility to make that content less salacious and clickbaity? Not quite clickbaity, but click-enticing. I think that's right at the, sort of, edge of, well, it's true, it's factual. It's a sexier way to, sort of, write the same title. I know it's gonna earn more engagement. And I think that's good marketing. But if I step just over that line into the sort of whatever, Google's monopoly now violates American law, and here's the proof. That's definitely clickbaity and probably crossing that line of accuracy into opinion and blah, blah, blah. So I think this is a tough thing for publishers and marketers to make those decisions about where they draw the line.

And it's also tough for the platforms to decide, how do we build up machine learning systems that, potentially, optimize for healthy engagement instead of all engagement?

Louis: Yeah. And I think...

Will: On this subject round, on machine learning. And, obviously, yeah, RankBrain and, you know, that's the big things in SEO now. And earlier, you mentioned that at SparkToro, you don't do SEO, you know, you created a great product, great content, and you let it do its own thing. So, do you sort of think SEO is moving towards a direction where you don't need to optimize your site, you know, RankBrain, but as long as you create good, authentic, honest content, is that almost going to be enough to rank?

Rand: I don't think so. No. I think there will always be a lot of value in learning what people search for and then understanding the intent behind those searches, and serving that intent with content, and then optimizing, you know, sort of technical and content things on websites, and optimizing the distribution path and opportunities. I cannot see a future, Will, where Google can figure all that stuff out on its own. And I also can't see a future where if you create content without first thinking about the searcher, what they've searched for, and their intent behind it, and what problems they wanna solve, you're not gonna end up like, you will, you'll end up accidentally ranking for a few things, and most of the things you won't, right? So I think there will always be value in making those investments. I don't see SEO going anywhere. It is gonna be around for a very long time. You know, I've been around long enough to hear a million people, you know, predict the death of SEO? I don't believe it one bit.

Louis: They're still predicting the death of email every six months or so.

Rand: Oh, my God. Email gets 25% open rates still? Like on average.

You guys, I apologize. I have got to run to another call in a couple of minutes.

Louis: No, listen, thank you so much for your time.

Matt: Apologies for taking so much of your time.

Rand: Yeah, no. My pleasure. I could talk to you guys all night. This is like getting together at the pub. And I feel like I just wanna, you know, go back to Brighton and hop into a little dark bar and grab a seat and shoot the shit all evening. But oh, well. All right.

Louis: Listen, thank you so much. We'll let you know when this goes out. And we'll obviously pick all the out-of-context lines that you've put in there and use them...

Rand: Perfect. Awesome.

Louis: Yeah, we'll promote it on our site, but we'd love it if you could share it with the guys on your end. Very much appreciated. And hopefully, we'll get to speak again at some point soon.

Rand: I look forward to it. Thanks and all the best.

Louis: Thanks a lot, Rand. Bye-bye.

Rand: Take care again.

Together: Bye.