By Clare McDermott published January 9, 2015

The Wizard of Moz Talks SEO and Shares Tips for 2015


Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz, a leading inbound marketing software company, and host of the popular video series, Whiteboard Fridays, answers questions about what he wishes marketers understood about search, and tips for upping your game this year.

Marketers seem ambivalent about search these days. As Google focuses more and more on quality content, there’s a growing sense among marketers that search isn’t as important as it once was. What do you wish marketers understood about SEO, and what are their blind spots?

One of the key misunderstandings is the power search engines have to drive traffic. There’s a perception in the marketing world that Google is last year’s news. Social is hot and content is hot and native advertising is hot … and SEO isn’t all that exciting. It may be true that SEO has been around a long time, but it is still the most powerful earned, nonpaid source of traffic on the web. Google is sending out 10 times more traffic every day than Facebook does. There are six billion searches per day, each of those resulting in 1.5 to 2.5 visits on average. Those searchers are seeking something very different from social media audiences or email audiences in that they are looking for exactly the thing they’ve told the search engine. And if the searcher arrives on your website, the power to solve that person’s problem, convert, and expose the searcher to your work is exceptional. That’s the big one.

Due to a lack of knowledge, there’s underinvestment in SEO by content marketers to the detriment of their efforts.

What I also see from those who invest in content marketing is an addiction to the daily drive to add more and more content – mostly for the reason that if they don’t have something new, they can’t drive more traffic. SEO is a potentially huge solution to that problem. While social media and other sources of promotion fade after a few hours or days, search traffic continues on for months or years. Content marketers feel they have to constantly feed that fire in order to get traffic, and it’s a huge source of frustration for them.

Some marketers also misunderstand how keyword research and targeting works in concert with content. It’s a historical bias left over from the ’90s that says: In order to do good SEO, you have to do keyword stuffing and use a very keyword-focused strategy with content, as opposed to writing for users and simply using a few terms and phrases intelligently in the title, headline, and content to attract search engines.

Finally (and this is tangentially related to SEO), I see a lot of content marketers seeking viral content – one big content success – rather than investing in figuring out what serves their audience and influencers, and then serving those two groups with the right content. And, by the way, marketers seeking to serve the right content can be hugely helped by investing in keyword research.

Google is moving quickly to meet the needs of mobile devices. Can you help demystify some of the changes – particularly those that will affect content marketers?

Google is doing something interesting that a lot of marketers take as a negative, but it may be overall in the long term a net positive. Google is providing a lot of instant answers to queries – and many marketers are crying foul because they see it as stealing website traffic. If you do a search for NFL scores, ESPN comes up and comes up. But ahead of those two is a Google Universal One box that tallies up scores for the day. Google does that for all sorts of queries: weather, travel, hotel, flights. They even do it if you search, for example, for art museums in Boston. They’ll give you a list of museums tied to Google maps – and that will come in ahead of the individual museum websites.

A lot of brands are frustrated thinking Google is taking away their traffic opportunities.

My only counterpoint to that is: In these cases, Google is usually taking away traffic when a decision is already made or when there’s not a lot of opportunities to capture conversion-focused value from those visitors. And by offering the information up front, Google is promoting more and greater use of Google. You can see that in the mobile-search statistics, which just keep going up and to the right. Search is one of the most popular things we do on mobile devices, and certainly one of the most popular things we do on the mobile web. Google is doing a good job creating addictive behavior in searches such that the volume of queries keeps going up and up. As we all search more, Google is actually creating more potential and more value in the chunky middle and long tail of keyword demand – where Google is never going to serve instant answers and there are going to be more queries.

So yes, in the short term Google is taking away some of that traffic trying to get answers to mobile searchers as fast as possible and getting the searchers addicted to mobile search. But in the long term it creates a bigger pie for everyone, including marketers.

Can you give us some practical tips for marketers to kick off 2015?

Many marketers are failing right now to properly connect and measure ROI from various channels. For example, social media is a channel that very rarely figures in the last click before conversion (or often even in the full conversion path if you’re tracking 90 days of activity in Google Analytics or whatever you might be using). That being said, you can look at the contribution of social channels to your overall traffic, returning traffic, and loyal traffic, then look at your funnel and see how social media and content marketing are often broadening the very top of the funnel. They affect how people discover you, get branded by you, and first come to know you. For the next three, six, or nine months, those people will often turn into conversions or amplifiers … but, unfortunately, we don’t have great ways of measuring that directly.

Due to the measurement challenge, a lot of C-suite executives – including CMOs – are biased toward channels that are the most measurable rather than the ones that are most serendipitous and hard to measure. The thing that sucks about that is those easy-to-measure channels get quickly clogged up with competition. Everyone’s going to put dollars toward the ones that are easy to measure and obvious … and they will become very expensive, high cost-of-acquisition channels. The ones that are hard to measure and serendipitous (sitting mostly at top of the funnel) will have low competition and much less noise. A lot of people won’t put dollars toward them – which means there’s a tremendous opportunity in those channels. Unfortunately, people focus on what they can measure. I would urge intelligent marketers to bias the other way and be a little serendipitous.

Second, I am seeing a huge amount of investment in content marketing and that’s exciting, but I think the pendulum has swung too far to quantity over quality. Very few companies approve projects that are expensive and interactive – projects that require designers, developers, and content creators to work together. Marketers are more biased toward, “Hey, let’s get up a blog post every day.”

We are all so overwhelmed with how much content is being produced and broadcast. Only the very special stuff stands out. I’d like to encourage and urge folks not to chase that one viral hit but to invest in quality over quantity. And to consider that publishing every day or every week may not be a very good goal. Attracting the right kind of customer, potential customer, and evangelist should be your focus … and finding the content and time frame that accomplishes that.

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bi-monthly magazine.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/CCO

Author: Clare McDermott

Clare McDermott is the co-founder and head of strategy at Mantis Research. Follow her @clare_mcd.

Other posts by Clare McDermott

  • ronellsmith


    Thanks for adding some sage advice. I’d like to chime in on two points you made, one regarding Google/search and the other pertaining to content production:

    + Today, even smaller brands are much more willing to dabble in paid media and social media marketing. It’s as though they’re attempting to get around the need to focus on organic search. However, these same business owners end up kicking themselves months later, when they realize organic search is too important to be ignored and should never play second fiddle as a marketing channel. Shiny and new doesn’t mean best for you/your business.

    + Content creation is the albatross holding back content marketing, in my opinion. I have yet to sit down with a prospect and have him or her not ask, “How many times a week should we blog?” or “How do we match [our main competitors’] content output?” To my mind, these are never the right questions, and they spell certain disaster when they are the first questions. In many ways, however, brands are taking their cues from marketers, who’ve sold them on the need to do something often (e.g., create content) before they ever learn to do it well.

    We need to step back and ask ourselves some very important questions instead of diving into creating content and adding to the glut we already have. It won’t be easy, but it is necessary.


    • Robert Gibb

      I agree with you, Ronell.

      Like Rand said: “Very few companies approve projects that are expensive and interactive – projects that require designers, developers, and content creators to work together.”

      Where I work (an Internet tech company), we’re fortunate to have a graphic designer, developer, and content marketer on the marketing team to create some badass content.

      For other companies this may not be so easy, I understand. To which I say: Freelancers. There are more freelancers than ever today for content creation efforts. You just need someone smart within the organization to give them direction.

      • aboer

        Right! Ideally, not just any freelancers, since while freelancers may understand how to create great content, they may not understand your customers. Ideally you should use content creators who not only understand how to write for search and social, but can also move a targeted audience to your site…certain individuals can become custom publishers of one…bringing content, audience, and engagement, all in one package.

    • Rand Fishkin

      Totally agreed Ronnell, and well put. I was being interviewed for a university research project yesterday and was asked whether all companies should invest in content creation/content marketing. My answer is a resounding no. Unless you believe content is a strength, and that you can produce work that is in the top 1-5% of what’s available in your field on the web, I’d stick to other tactics. There are plenty of ways to skin the marketing cat – we should always encourage people to play to their strengths, not just jump on board the latest trend.

    • Andreas

      “these are never the right questions” but mostly the first questions, I think when you do something, than you have to do it right. That doesn’t mean you have to do it daily x-times – you have to do it as good as you can, so often you can deliver that work in that “as good as you can” attitude.

  • Robert Gibb

    I agree with your second point, Ronell.

    Like Rand said: “Very few companies approve projects that are expensive and interactive – projects that require designers, developers, and content creators to work together.”

    Where I work (an Internet tech company), we’re fortunate to have a graphic designer, developer, and content marketer on the marketing team to create some badass content.

    For other companies this may not be so easy, I understand. To which I say: Freelancers. There are more freelancers than ever today for content creation efforts. You just need someone smart within the organization to give them direction.

  • aboer

    Rand is the clearest thinker I know in the space. I agree completely with this piece — although I think the last part doesn’t really give a very good prescription to the quality/quantity dilemma.

    I thought I’d offer a different way of thinking about the problem.

    Lets say there are actually three different audiences for a given piece of content that are earned and unpaid, 1) humans who consume your content, 2) social network algorithms, and 3) search engine spiders.

    What HUMANS (your audience) wants:
    Humans prefer very special, highly produced stuff that shows significant effort and thought. Takes enormous effort and really can only be created infrequently for most companies.
    Winner: Quality, not quantity.

    Social is like Procrustes’ bed….either too little or too much always ends up badly. Facebook/YouTube prefers regular and *recent* engagement with an audience. But too frequent engagement reduces overall engagement with any particular piece which then lowers overall engagement scores.
    Winner: Quality AND Quantity but not too much quantity.

    Search is an educated gamble. You are buying lottery tickets by guessing/researching the words you hope your customers care about. You will improve your chances of winning with 1) more tickets in a given lottery, and 2) entering more lotteries. Quantity has to be a key part of a search strategy.
    Winner: Quantity, then Quality

    So how do you win across all three audiences?

    I’d recommend creating high quality content for Search ONLY for the keywords that are likely to show a very strong INTENT TO BUY…ie. the Mid Funnel content.
    While you might win the search lottery for things that don’t have to do with your business, but those visitors are unlikely to convert into customers.

    For attention focused top of funnel content, ignore search. Focus on Social distribution and Human consumption — and delighting your audience.

    • Rand Fishkin

      Hey Aboer – I like the way you construct the demands of the different targets, but I kind of disagree that search engines will benefit quantity over quality. In fact, I’ve observed just the opposite. Google’s entire Panda algorithm is designed to penalize thin or low-quality content and it even penalizes good sites that have lots of quality content if they’re also producing a lot of bad stuff. Just yesterday, in fact, an SEO emailed me asking about why his content wasn’t being indexed. After looking at some examples, it was clear that his methodology favored quantity over quality, and Google had determined those pages weren’t worthy of being in their index. Hence, I’m going to say that today, for all the platforms and all the people, quality > quantity.

      • aboer

        Appreciate the feedback. I’ll certainly concede the point on search. It is actually great that Google has figured out how to defeat the “mullet strategy” of mixing good and bad content.

        But I don’t know that social platforms have reached the same maturity as google. This eye opening video by Game Theory convinces me that social networks still value quantity. And smart folks like Jay Baer are advocating for a volume play on social…a shotgun over a rifle, etc…At the same time, not sure it matters, since it feels like the social networks are moving towards the idea that content distribution by brands will be paid media, not earned media.

        Of course, the real question for marketers (and my clients) isn’t which is better, quality or quantity? The real questions are “how much content should we be producing” and “how good/expensive does it need to be?”

        Our current strategy for search is a pretty limited and tactical one: for each product or service, we have influencers create three or four search focused, engaging pieces with a focus on the keywords that will be linked to a customer’s intent to buy. The influencers promote that content, and then we retarget to that content with display ads when a reader leaves our site. And other than that, we don’t worry about Google.

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