A Q&A with Rand Fishkin on SEO and Digital Marketing Best Practices

Rand Fishkin

Rand Fishkin is a visionary digital marketing and SEO leader. He is the co-founder and CEO of SparkToro, providing audience intelligence that helps companies do better marketing by understanding the publications, events and sources that influence customers. He is also the author of the best-selling book, Lost and Founder: A Painfully Honest Field Guide to the Startup World, which tells of his journey as the founder and former CEO of Moz.

In this interview, Fishkin talks about the challenges of local search optimization, the importance of understanding where your customers are and how to create an authentic brand promise.

Follow Rand Fishkin on Twitter for valuable digital marketing tips: https://twitter.com/randfish

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What are companies not doing right now when it comes to marketing?

One problem is that in the initial stages of developing a marketing strategy, almost every company identifies which are the right customers and which are not the right customers. Here’s where our right customers spend time and engage. Here’s who they pay attention to. Here’s what publications they read. Let’s go target them.

Weirdly, I find that as companies mature, they almost never go back and do that process again, even though they recognize that their markets are very dynamic. The audience dynamics and makeup change over the course of even a few years, but they rarely ever go back to basics and ask, “Who’s my audience? Who is the wrong audience? Where does my audience spend time and hang out? Who do they pay attention to? What publications do they read? What resonates with them and doesn’t? What types of stories should I be telling them?

Avoiding that process hurts marketing efforts that could otherwise be successful. You spend a bunch of wasted effort; you target the wrong people with the wrong messages in the wrong places. You’re working many times harder than you should be without that understanding of your customers.

A ton of your budget is wasted, and your cost of customer acquisition is vastly higher than it should be.

What does that mean for investing in SEO?

In the past, classic marketers might wrinkle their noses and scowl at you if you brought up SEO because they felt it was a scam and manipulative. There’s been a massive shift in just a few years. Two things happened in the last four or five years that made SEO incredibly more difficult.

First, people stopped thinking SEO is a scam, started investing in it, putting significant budgets against it and hiring talent. You have this huge influx of talent and massively more competition. Search is leveling off in terms of its growth, meaning the number of searches that are performed on Google in the United States right now is growing at a much slower pace. But there are 10, 20, probably 100 times more competitors than there were ten years ago. It’s now incredibly difficult to reach a ranking position.

The same thing’s true with content creation, which is something very few people were doing ten years ago. Almost everyone is it doing today. As a result, standing out from the crowd is tremendously more difficult.

These forces are combining with the second problem. Google is leveraging the information that they crawl from the rest of the web to create their own instant answers to searcher queries. For companies, their biggest and most dangerous competitor is Google. The primary reason is that Google will no longer be able to get the growth that Wall Street demands by selling more and more ads. They’re going to need to disintermediate other industries. They’ve begun with things like jobs, events, hotels and flights. Google has asked why they should send traffic to someone else when they can just serve that need right on their own website.

Google is driving a lot more traffic away from other websites and to Google-owned properties, the most notable of which is Google Maps. Virtually every local search now pulls up a list of local results that if clicked do not take you to a business website. They take you to a Google-created website that scrapes data from the business’ website and from other websites that talk about that business or from data that the business owner has directly put into Google. You might say that’s a great consumer experience and delivers what a consumer wants. It only screws one person — the business owner.

How do you get found in today’s day and age via local search marketing with a limited marketing budget?

It’s going to depend on each different sector, which has its own functionalities and opportunities. If you’re a restaurant, Google does a good job providing consumers with direct information about hours, directions and menu. The struggle is that Google will not help you stand out at all. You will look like everyone else. In fact, when people search for your restaurant, Google may offer ads for other restaurants, and your competitors may be technically ranking above you through advertising. That’s tough. You’re going to have to invest in paid ads for your brand for customers (who are already looking for you) to find you, which is a tough pill to swallow.

The biggest problem is how to differentiate. Search is becoming less and less of a great channel to stand out. In the past, if you could get people to your website from Google search, you could retarget them, you could own the experience, capture an email address and get people to sign up for specials. You could differentiate yourself vastly better. That is the part where I would spend my marketing dollars right now — where can I advertise and use content to drive clicks directly to my site.

I would also invest significantly in retention marketing — my product, my team, my restaurant experiences to get people coming back and to get them raving about me. I’d try to turn a smaller group of people into loyal customers rather than trying to capture a larger market share via search rankings.

Are there tools or approaches you’d suggest for maximizing the impact of marketing spend?

Probably the best thing that you can do is to better understand your customers, their sources of influence and what resonates with them. Then put the dollars to work maximizing the ROI from the channels and specific sources that customers pay attention to. Look at the messages, stories and experiences that they care about.

Should companies measure ROI across different channels?

It can be useful, but can lead you off track significantly. Some channels, especially advertising channels, are superb at flawless attribution. For every banner ad you run, you know every time someone saw it and whether any of those people later made it to your website.

Contrast that with an event sponsorship or podcast appearance. What was the result of that work? We can’t really track it, so we don’t know. So companies say, ‘Let’s not do that anymore.’ It’s difficult or impossible to prove to management. You can’t show it on a spreadsheet.

You’ve got to be careful about making assumptions comparing a perfectly trackable channel versus a hard-to-track channel versus an impossible-to-track channel.

Let’s talk a little bit about the role of influencers today. Where do we stand and where are we going?

Five years ago, influencer marketing was about finding the sources that influenced my audience and doing relevant marketing and advertising in those places. I think that is a technique that will stand the test of time. Today, though, when you say ‘influencer marketing,’ most people think that means you pay $500 to a person on Instagram to pose with a product. That tactic has limited appeal, and while it is has grown quickly over the last few years, I think it’s going to plateau — potentially even have negative ramifications and fall off a cliff at some point in the future.

What do you think has had the most significant impact in building your own reputation as a thought leader in the industry? Was it the books? The Whiteboard Friday videos you did at Moz? Something else?

It’s hard to overstate the value of video. Those Whiteboard Friday videos had an outsized effect on people compared to text or audio content. This person was explaining how to get link building right or building a B2B campaign. There’s just something unique about them. It’s the closest thing I’ve found to in-person contact.

So you feel those videos got your personal brand out there and also helped educate people in a way that was not selling services?

Yes. I’ve had many of Moz’s competitors tell me that Whiteboard Friday was, in fact, a huge boon to them, as well, because a market that is vastly more educated about what they need, and what they need to do is a ripe field of millions of customers. I feel very good about that. Not everyone would be thrilled that they were building up customer bases for their competitors. But I think it had a positive impact on the industry as a whole and helped it grow.

Tell us about your new venture – SparkToro.

I knew I wanted to build another software company that would help marketers — but outside of SEO. I struggled with the fundamental question of which publications and people do my audience pay attention to.

If you are trying to reach plumbers in Canada or science fiction authors in New York or interior designers on the West Coast of the United States, unless you are willing to put in weeks of effort and often large-scale surveys, figuring that out is difficult. The more I did it with companies, especially early-stage companies trying to learn more about their audiences, the more I found it to be an expensive, time-consuming process.

I saw people searching Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube manually. They’d look at lists that were often years old or only reflected the opinion of one editor.

Ideally, you could go to a search engine and type in ‘interior designers’ and ‘West Coast’ and get a list of the publications and people that are most read, most followed and most amplified by interior designers. That data exists on the web. It’s difficult to access, crawl and index, but it should be available. The fact that it wasn’t really frustrated me. That’s what we’re trying to build.

We’re calling this field audience intelligence. Fundamentally, the idea is to be able to see the social accounts that my audience follows, the events that they attend, the podcasts they listen to, the YouTube channels they watch, the publications and blogs and online magazines or news sources that they read.

That information is fundamental to being able to do effective targeting. We’re hoping to provide a competitive advantage for people who take the time to figure that out.

We want to be the best in the world at providing that intelligence. Each business will have its own strategy and tactics once they know their audiences. So if your audience is paying attention to a lot of podcasts, invest in podcast advertising, try to be a guest on those podcasts, or try and introduce yourself to these podcasts hosts at events.

Classic influencer marketing tries to connect you with certain Instagrammers or YouTube personalities. We don’t want to be that. We want to be full-scale, high-quality, trustworthy audience intelligence that is also very easy to consume, even if you’re not savvy about using media intelligence database tools.

What are things brands should be doing to optimize their online reputation?

I think intelligence and online reputation are very much two sides of the same coin. Audience intelligence is telling you where your audience is paying attention. Online reputation is the practice of going out and optimizing your presence across those channels for both visibility and perception.

One of the most important things a brand can do is to have a brand promise. When you see our logo or colors, when you hear our name, when you think of us, you should think of these associated traits. Hopefully, that promise is something that tells a great story and resonates with your audience.

A brand promise needs to speak to customer objections and emotions, not just features and benefits. Online reputation is the practice of making sure that your brand promise is being told wherever your customers are, in a consistent manner. It doesn’t have to be exactly the same in every channel, but it should always come back to that same story, that same brand promise. I think that the companies that do that well tend to win their market.

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