Thanks for taking the time to share your knowledge with us today Rand. Most people involved in search engine optimization have heard of you and your company, SEOmoz, which provides a wealth of information, tools and resources for search engine optimization professionals. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started in SEO?
I started doing SEO in 2002/2003 as part of some web development and marketing contracts. I struggled with it personally, contracted some professional SEOs, didn’t have much success and so, dove into it headfirst. I’d spend hours reading forums, posting replies, testing changes and tweaks, building and re-building pages and conducting manual link building (the most horrifying task known to SEOs). In 2004, I started the SEOmoz blog as a place to post research, findings and get feedback from other SEOs in the community. Over time, it grew to a very popular site and we transitioned into more of a formal SEO consulting business and then, in 2007, to a subscription service for SEO tools, guides and community.
Your company has developed a lot of specialized tools for SEO professionals. Your latest tool, Linkscape, had generated a lot of controversy among webmasters. Without all of the facts, it’s easy to misinterpret motives, so what would you like people to know or understand about this tool?
I didn’t realize there was still any controversy?! When we launched last October, a few blog posts took exception with the fact that we may pull from multiple sources if one of our access paths is blocked. In that way, we employ slightly more aggressive crawler tactics than some (though all of our crawl sources obey robots.txt). There’s a good interview I did with Eric Enge from StoneTemple on this topic.
Linkscape is really three things – it’s an index of the WWW, built in the same fashion the major search engines build their indices. It’s also a set of metrics that we apply to pages and sites, much in the same way search engines do. And, finally, it’s a web-based tool that allows access in to the wealth of data the web’s link graph can provide. We’ve got a free API that exposes many of our metrics for those who’d like to apply them, a number of suggestions about how to use Linkscape for your SEO campaigns and a set of educational resources for those who’d like to learn more.
Is there anything unexpected that you’ve learned with Linkscape that you don’t think you could have learned though another method? What actionable information could someone expect to learn by using it?
We’ve learned so many things, I doubt I could possibly list them all here. I actually recently gave the keynote address at SMX Munich and turned it into a blog post titled Lessons Learned Building an Index of the WWW. There’s a ton of actionable information, from gaining insight into the metrics that best predict trustworthiness and search rankings success (vs.spam) to discovering the biggest hurdles the engines deal with around web crawling and indexation (hint: canonicalize everything yourself, because it’s really, really hard and not always worthwhile for the engines to do it for you).
In terms of actionable data from using the web tools, I’ll let some others speak for themselves – Top Pages on Domain Kicks Ass; Using Linkscape to Troll for Terrific Link Prospects; Find and Measure Links Better with Linkscape.
What are the three most important tools that your company has developed, and are there any tools developed by anyone else that you think SEO professionals should be using?
In terms of other tools I recommend, there’s a lot in my Firefox sidebar, but here’s a sample of some favorites:
- Dave Naylor’s Keyword Density Tool (even though keyword density is a completely useless metric, this tool does lots of great on-page analysis stuff)
- SEO Browser from Ian McAnerin (which lets you see page content the way the engines do)
- Scott Hendison’s SEO Automatic (a great tool that does SEO analysis on a page level)
You’ve built a solid community around a highly-targeted niche. Do you have any advice for someone trying to accomplish the same thing in their industry? How about potential challenges or mistakes to look out for?
I have lots of advice, but I’m not sure how good all of it is. Compared to my SEO experience, where I’ve gotten to watch lots of projects – successes and failures – and can speak from a position of great authority, community building is something I’ve only done once – with SEOmoz. How relevant, accurate, or prescriptive these might be is not backed by data, unfortunately. However, that caveat out of the way, here goes:
- The strength of the product/tools/content is the biggest part of what you do. You must deliver something (in your writing or your software or whatever it is that the community’s built around) that’s useful, relevant and easily consumable. I’ve found that the closer we get to those three attributes, the better we perform, and the further away we get, the worse we do. What’s interesting is that there are lots of other good attributes and positive adjectives that don’t always get results. For instance, you’d think that “interesting,” “advanced,” “brilliant” and “non-obvious” would all be part of that list, but actually, they seem to matter far less than the big three – useful, relevant, and easily consumable.
- Build personal relationships outside the community and bring them in. As we built SEOmoz, I attended lots of conferences (and still do). I speak a lot, network a lot, comment on other blogs, forums and sites (or, at least, I used to). That marketing/networking brought in people who were interesting, interested and felt a personal connection that helped them become big participants in our community. Without that hard work, I’m not sure we’d have the brand we do today.
- Promote your supporters and community members. Even though it may seem strange, getting mentioned or linked-to by a small blog can have a serious impact. People watch the sites that send them traffic, watch their brand name in searches on Google, Twitter, BlogSearch, etc. When you can call out people you like/respect and provide them with that positive mention, they’re going to be far more likely to mention you as well.
- Don’t just tell; show. The illustrations and diagrams on the SEOmoz blog have been one of the most popular things we do. People constantly use them in presentations, on their own sites, in chats with their clients, etc. and reference us when they do it. If you can build that same value with multimedia, images, charts, even raw data or surveys, you’ll become a source for information, rather than just a voice in a crowd.
- Keep at it. Let’s face it – when I started blogging, I sucked. If you go back and read my posts from 2004 or 2005, they’re really not that valuable or interesting. Over time, though, I got better, I saw what worked and what didn’t and what the audience actually appreciated. Now, when I craft something, I have a very good idea of what the audience wants/needs and I can provide it. That doesn’t come through raw talent; it’s about turning the flywheel again and again, stumbling, failing and still trying.
Hopefully that advice will help others, too.
A lot of proven SEO experts have made speculations about organic search and the changes that may be coming. With the data that you have access to and your first-hand experience, can you share any major shifts that you think we should expect to see in the next 6-12 months?
I can certainly speculate on things I think we’ll see in the algorithm over the next couple of years, but 6 months is a pretty short time frame. The big things I’d be thinking about are:
- Can signals from social media help eliminate spam or do they make the field even noisier? I’m not sure the data is yet reliable enough for search engines to capture in a meaningful, productive way.
- Will usage data – everything from click-through-rates to time on site to sharing metrics – that engines monitor through their other applications (toolbars, Gmail/Hotmail/Yahoo! mail, free wifi, analytics, etc.) make their way into the algos in bigger ways? If so, this speaks to adding more effort into user experience (not that most websites needed another excuse to do that, but still).
- Right now, it seems that anchor text is still being abused for rankings in many cases. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a slow shift (or a big shift) towards concentration on trust, authority, domain diversity and other more reputable elements in the link analysis algorithms. Although, at the same time, it wouldn’t shock me if the engines stayed the course, either – users are pretty darn happy with the results.
- More vertical results will make their way in. The engines have been testing and using things like local/image/news/etc. mixed into the web results for a while now, and I think those tests have shown that users like them and use them – I certainly expect more on this front.
- Better mobile user experiences, but not particularly customized. I think the “web” is fracturing in the iPhone as the app store becomes its own platform. This seems to me to be a real potential threat to Google’s dominance long term. If a mobile device like the iPhone becomes a primary interface (particuarly around the rest of the world, where mobile web usage is much more popular than in the US), the app store (or a platform like it) could become more of a destination for “doing things” on the web than Google (or at least a strong competitor). Then all of us SEOs will have to start doing App Store Optimization (ASO) :-)