Web Masters Episode #69: Rand Fishkin


Moz - SEO Software for Smarter Marketing

Rand Fishkin:

I have no idea how to build a sales team nor how a sales-driven organization can possibly be predictable. To my mind, that’s completely random, right? Some salesperson is performing great, they leave your company, you’re screwed, right? The sales environment changes. I don’t know the spam filters in Gmail ramp up and now your sales emails aren’t getting to people, you’re out, it’s all over. So I don’t know how sales organizations build any sort of reliability.

The nice thing about an inbound marketing flywheel is it’s not like all of a sudden one day people are going to decide to stop searching. Chances are good they will continue to search and they’ll continue to be exposed to content and they’ll continue to go to their Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn feeds and they’ll continue to get the emails that they subscribe to, the newsletters.

To my mind, an inbound marketing flywheel is incredibly consistent, right? We could predict 12 months out what the traffic was going to be with minor fluctuations. I don’t think we’re ever surprised in a direction more than 10% of fluctuation. It was massively consistent and conversion rates consistent, you how many people get to their website, you know how many people sign up for an email subscription, you know how many people subscribe to the blog or Whiteboard Friday, you know how many of those get to the pricing page, you know how many people from the pricing page get to the conversion point, put in their credit card, you know how many people complete their free trial. So you’ve just got a very, very predictable structure. After a few years, those percents are very dialed in. You can make efforts to improve segments in that funnel, but the trains run on time.

Aaron Dinin:

The predictability of inbound customer acquisition, that’s what our guest was just talking about. It’s one side of the debate in terms of what is perhaps the biggest question entrepreneurs face in terms of developing a customer acquisition process, should they pursue an outbound strategy or an inbound strategy? Whether you already have a preference or even if you don’t know the difference, not to worry, we’ll cover it all in this episode of Web Masters and we’ll do it alongside Rand Fishkin. He was for a time one of the world’s leading experts on search engine optimization, SEO, and he founded and led the world’s best known SEO company MOZ. Are you ready to hear the story? Let’s get dialed in.

[INTRO]

Aaron Dinin:

Hey, there, welcome to Web Masters. This is the podcast that’s going to hopefully help you become a better entrepreneur by sharing stories, tips, tricks, and advice from some of the Internet’s most impactful innovators. I am your host. You have probably figured that out already. My name is Aaron Dinin. I’m a serial entrepreneur and I teach entrepreneurship at Duke University. On this episode, we’ve got Rand Fishkin joining us, which if you’ve done any SEO work that stands for search engine optimization, you’ve surely heard of either him or his company, MOZ. I’ve got to tell you. When I graduated college, I was an English major, I didn’t really have a job, but I could write. So I paid rent those first few months after college by doing lots of small SEO copywriting gigs. And I spent a lot of time on Rand’s blog and the MOZ website, figuring out what to do. So I’m really excited I got to speak with Rand. I’m looking forward to sharing his story with all of you, but first I want to make sure I tell you about another company that’s been incredibly valuable to me. It’s this podcast sponsor.

Web Masters is being brought to you thanks in part to the generous support of our partner and sponsor Latona’s. Latona’s is a boutique mergers and acquisitions broker. They help people buy and sell cash flow positive internet businesses and digital assets. That includes things like content websites, especially ones with great SEO. It also things like eCommerce stores, SaaS apps, Amazon FBAs, domain portfolios, or any other type of online work from home/work from anywhere internet business. If you are currently running one of those and thinking of selling it, take a few minutes to connect with Latona’s. They can answer any questions you have about the process and when the time is run right, they’re also going to be the best people to help you get it sold for a great price. Ultimately, if you are hoping to buy an internet business, be sure to head on over to the Latona’s website, they’ve got tons of listings for businesses ready to be bought right now and new ones being added all the time, check it out, maybe find the business of your dream. It’s sitting right there at latonas.com, L-A-T-O-N-A-S.com.

So before we get too deep into the story of this episode’s guest, Rand Fishkin, let’s set up the two core approaches to customer acquisition, inbound versus outbound. Inbound marketing is when you create content that attracts people to you and your company. Think of it kind of like how a flower has pretty colors to attract bees that come along and then help the plant pollinate and grow. That flower is attracting its “customers” inbound. A company doing the same thing might create great educational articles or videos or infographics about a specific topic it knows its potential customers are interested in. Some portion of those people attracted to the content will hopefully also want the company’s product and boom, customer acquisition.

Conversely, outbound marketing means finding the contact info for people who seem like they’d be good potential customers and then contacting them directly to tell them about your product. We’ve all been on the receiving ends of those types of contacts, whether via email or phone or a LinkedIn message. A lot of times it gets called spam, but whatever. Is one type of strategy better than the other? You’re going to get a different answer really depending who you ask and what type of business you are building. Personally, I’m not going to weigh in here, instead, we’re going to listen to the story of a man who was for a time one of the most prominent thought leaders about inbound marketing via search engine optimization. Along the way, we’re going to get some insights about customer acquisition and a lot of insights about the challenges of running companies. To kick things off, here’s Rand explaining search engine optimization and its relation to the company he founded, MOZ.

Rand Fishkin:

Almost everyone who uses the internet has heard of Google. Google started as one of several different search engines that you could use in the early days of search engines. This is 1999 to about 2003, 2004. The operations of search engines were extremely secretive. There was a small industry of people who helped websites rank for certain keywords and search terms, but they were perceived by the marketing world and the business world at large as spammers and scammers, the same way you get an email today that’s like, earn passive income with NFTs, that was SEO of the late ’90s, early 2000s. And there was a dearth of information about how search engines operated and how someone could if they built a website or if they put their products online, actually rank in Google, Yahoo, MSN Search, Ask Jeeves, AltaVista, all these kinds of places.

Google eventually through some nefarious and some technological means managed to win the search engine competition battle and become the monopoly in the space. And with the rise of Google over ’05 to 2015, information on how search engines worked and how to do what’s called search engine optimization, essentially getting your website to the top of Google, that became very, very interesting to a lot of people, became part of a standard marketing practice. And MOZ was for many of those years one of if not the most popular destination for people to learn about how search engines worked, learn about search engine optimization, build that into their marketing practices. And for a number of years, MOZ was also the leader in SEO software.

Aaron Dinin:

Could you maybe explain what MOZ does and what SEO software is since I’m guessing lots of people might have trouble envisioning what something like that would look like?

Rand Fishkin:

Yeah. So let’s see. It depends on the timeframe we’re talking about. So first off, just to be clear, I haven’t been at MOZ for four years. I’m no longer in the SEO field. And so the way that you do things today could very well be quite different from how it was four or five years ago. I keep up through the grapevine and through my network a little bit with SEO. So I don’t think it’s changed all that massively. However, I just want to be clear that, oh, Rand Fishkin, he knows a lot about SEO. No, no. He used to know a lot about SEO.

And so yeah, just making sure if you’re following my advice today, you could find holes in it very much. But historically, the concept, the things that you had to do, you still have to do many of these are things like researching what keywords people type into Google so that you know what kinds of content to create for your audience and then looking at how the content you create performs for your visitors and improving it and then looking at the competition and seeing who’s ahead of you and by how much and what they’re doing differently than what you’re doing, learning more about why certain things get amplified on the web, get talked about and linked to and referenced, how brands are built online. These are kind of broad areas, but they all have very tactical implementations that you can if you are talented make a dent in.

In terms of software, MOZ historically did things like tracked your keyword rankings. Okay. You rank here for this keyword and you rank there for that keyword and you’ve gone up for this and down for that and you’re getting more traffic here for this one and less traffic for this one. And so maybe that’s a search supply and demand problem that not as many people are searching for this month as they were last month, all that kind of stuff. Then it would crawl your website.

So every, I think, month and then it was every week, MOZ would crawl your website, this is the software version, would crawl your website and would find errors and issues, oh, you have this page that’s broken, oh, you have this link that’s not pointing anywhere anymore, oh, you have this image that’s not loading, you told us you were trying to target this keyword, it was important to you, we couldn’t find a page that uses that keyword in the title element. Those kinds of things and many, many more.

And it would surface those for you on a monthly or weekly basis. There was a link index. So MOZ would essentially attempt to crawl the entire web the same way Google does, not quite as fast, and then build an index of everybody who links to everybody so that you could search and say, oh, I want to know all the links that point to my competitor and see which ones I can get from my site. Links I think are still relatively important to that, but they used to be incredibly important. They used to be 80%, 90% of Google’s algorithm was based on who links to who and how much and what links say and where do they point and all that kind of stuff.

So that’s lots of details. But the concept there is essentially that as we were doing consulting, we were learning all of these things that our clients needed on a regular basis. And many of them were far more practical to provide programmatically through software and tools than to provide as a consultant in reports and tactical lists of things they needed to change, hence the existence of MOZ.

Aaron Dinin:

How’d you decide to start that company? What got you involved and/or interested in SEO in the first place?

Rand Fishkin:

Short story there is just that I was building websites. We had promised our clients that we would build a website and then do marketing for them. We’d subcontracted the work to professional SEO folks, but we couldn’t afford to pay our SEO subcontractors. So the work felt to me to learn that practice and do it for our clients so that we could hopefully get paid. It was not a fun time, very, very stressful and very, very meager. I’m quite lucky, even though I was earning next to nothing, my girlfriend who’s now my wife, Geraldine, was paying our rent and all our bills. And so she was really my first investor helping us through those very meager years.

Aaron Dinin:

Geraldine, by the way, Rand’s wife is Geraldine DeRuiter. She’s a prominent author and the person behind the popular Everywhereist blog. To Rand’s credit, he’s very aware that she might be cooler than him or as Rand puts it.

Rand Fishkin:

I am the house husband of award-winning author, Geraldine DeRuiter, and also I’m creating a video game with her. And then I have a day job in startup and tech stuff.

Aaron Dinin:

If you haven’t checked out, Geraldine’s work before, you really should. It’s quite good. But for now, we’ll go ahead and put Rand back in the spotlight since he’s been a prominent voice on the internet for a long time too, even if he didn’t necessarily see the Internet’s potential or properly understand all its implications early on.

Rand Fishkin:

I don’t think highly of myself enough to believe that a young teenager early 20 something me saw that the real promise of the internet, I was excited about it, I had high hopes. I’m someone who hook, line and sinker swallowed the early BS around, oh, this is going to make democracy better because everyone has the same opportunity to be well informed and this is going to revolutionize education because all the right information will be available at anyone’s fingertips all over the world and that we’re going to see war and conflict disappear because people will be connected online and they won’t want to fight each other anymore. Yeah. Obviously those are not the things that happened, but I certainly was excited about and believed in all of those things in the early days of the web.

Aaron Dinin:

So how did you first get into computers and the web professionally?

Rand Fishkin:

My first dive into actual programming and working with computers was early ’90s when I joined bulletin board systems, this was the pre-internet internet where you could dial into your friends machine and several people could dial into the friends machine and then you could play online games together or have chats, not that dissimilar to Discord today. And that evolved to me having a desire to engage with the actual web. My mom had been running a small business marketing consultancy for a long, long time since 1981, helping local businesses in the Seattle area with like letterhead, logo, business cards, yellow page ads, that sort of thing. And in the late ’90s, her clients started needing websites and I really wanted to build websites. So I started doing some of that work while I was in college and then dropped out of college in 2001 and joined her full time doing that. And that business was extremely unsuccessful. We went deeply into debt, but eventually started the blog that became SEO MOZ, and then MOZ the software company.

Aaron Dinin:

At what point did you realize or recognize you had stumbled onto an opportunity to build this somewhat new type of company, an SEO software company?

Rand Fishkin:

Yeah. There’s no one big point. It’s a very slow steady build from, I think ’03 is when I started the blog, ’04, we started to get some client inquiries around it, ’05, we got a little bit of media and press that we thought was going to be big, but ended up not being very big, but I published this thing called the Beginner’s Guide to SEO that did very well and attracted more folks. And then over ’06 and ’07, we got more and more clients, I started speaking at conferences and events. So it’s kind of a boulder slowly gathering speed as it rolls downhill. And that process ended up being a transition for the business.

Over those years, we recognized, hey, the old web design and the old standard marketing consultancy business, that’s not working for us. And there’s lots of demand for this new SEO thing, let’s go where the money is, let’s go where the clients are. And that also luckily ended up being where a lot of my passion was. I had and continue to have a lot of, I would say frustration, maybe even anger at how secretive the search engines are and how much misinformation and disinformation Google puts out. I think they believe it’s because they’re susceptible to spam and manipulation if they share exactly how they work. And I disagree, I think security through obscurity is a proven false concept.

Aaron Dinin:

And you mentioned before, one of the challenges of SEO is that it’s such a constantly moving target and nobody really knows what’s right and wrong. Could you talk a bit more about that? Could you talk about how SEO evolved during your time in the industry? I realize it’s a big question, but maybe the highlights are possible.

Rand Fishkin:

I assume it’s not particularly useful to know which algorithmic ranking inputs were popular in 2006, but not in 2009. That kind of history I think is pretty boring and useless. But suffice it to say, Google continues to make advancements. They change the interface that searchers interact with, right? If you take a screenshot of Google results today and you compare it to two years ago and four years ago and eight years ago and 10 years ago, it looks radically different. I think I saw in my Twitter feed that they did a big overhaul of how local and map results look just yesterday. This stuff is changing all the time. And because these things change, the ranking inputs change, the rest of the web changes, your competitors are constantly trying to make progress, you are constantly trying to make progress, how searchers interact with search engines with Google changes, how Google presents data changes. And so over time, it’s a radical amount of change.

I did a study a couple years ago looking at what percent of people who perform a search in Google, any search anywhere around the world, end up clicking on a result. And 10 years ago, that answer would’ve been 80%, maybe even 90%. Google’s whole goal was to get you to click on something in Google’s results because that meant that they had solved the searcher problem. If you click and you don’t come back to Google and choose a different result or change your search, that’s a good sign. That means that whatever you clicked on solve the problem, Google must have done a good job for you, Google’s happy.

Then of course, Google from an economic standpoint realized that like, oh no, in order to grow faster, we need to keep people on Google. We need to become what AOL was in 1997 and keep people in our ecosystem. And to do that, we are going to start modifying the results so that more and more instant answers and rich answers are right in the results and we’ll scrape them from everybody else’s sites, put them and present them as Google’s own and not give any attribution and link. And that will make sure that people stay on Google itself. And this is true if you search for what films an actor was in. It’s very convenient as a searcher, it’s horrifying if you’re a media property covering the movie industry, right?

And so when I looked at this two years ago, it was two thirds of all searches end without a click. Google has become much more of a Google benefiting service and much less of an internet traffic driving service. There’s still a big internet traffic driving service, there’s still a ton of SEO work out there. The one third of searches that still result in a click are still incredibly valuable. It’s just a very different landscape. So this stuff changes radically all the time.

Aaron Dinin:

It actually reminds me of my conversation on this podcast with Peter Sunde, who founded The Pirate Bay, it’s the big torrent search engine. And he was lamenting how he basically went to jail for pointing people in the direction of places where they could download other people’s content, whereas Google flat out steals other people’s content and doesn’t seem to get in any trouble at all.

Rand Fishkin:

The big lesson of capitalism is you should be a billionaire. If you want to get away with, you should be a billionaire or a billion dollar plus company. That is how to make sure that you avoid all consequence.

Aaron Dinin:

Sounds like a great idea. Any advice on how to become a billionaire?

Rand Fishkin:

Ooh. Advice on how to be a billionaire, no, I don’t have any advice for you. I don’t even think billionaires should exist. I’m definitely on the socialist camp side of things. I think that after you hit 999 million, the government should send you a medal and it’s like, congratulations, you won capitalism. And then all the rest of your earnings basically go to programs that benefit other people. I promise you won’t need $1 after 999 million. So you won’t even notice.

Aaron Dinin:

999 million even seems very generous of you. So I guess while we’re on the subjects of millionaires and billionaires, for MOZ, you did take venture capital, right? So what was that like? And how was MOZ’s growth trajectory in terms of being a venture style company?

Rand Fishkin:

So I raised $1.1 million in 2007. That’s when I became CEO and when it formally became MOZ the software company, as opposed to the consulting and marketing service. And then MOZ grew relatively dramatically and quickly over the next seven years. I think the largest MOZ got was maybe a couple years after I stepped down as CEO, so around 2016, ’17, revenue was around 50 million a year. We had raised another $19 million, $18 million and probably about 3 million visitors every month. So a reasonably large web property in the B2B software space, but not a Reddit or Instagram or anything like that.

Aaron Dinin:

That’s definitely a decent sized company. Could you talk about how you grew it? I want to assume/hope it was mostly through SEO and content marketing, right?

Rand Fishkin:

You’re absolutely right. So I in the early days of MOZ blogged five nights a week, I had a very popular video series called Whiteboard Friday that helped drive a lot of traffic. A lot of folks know me from that video series. I also did a lot of speaking at conferences and events and content creation of all kinds. Eventually built up a team of other folks who became influential in the field of SEO in their own right. And that content and SEO marketing flywheel became the engine for growth for the company.

So essentially, you would hear about MOZ somewhere or see me speak at a conference or event, or maybe you’d stumble across something on SlideShare or Reddit or Twitter or LinkedIn or Facebook, or just searching the web, you’re looking for statistics and oh, MOZ has published a nice graph with those stats and I find it in my Google image search and I put it in my slide deck for my presentation. Oh, okay. This comes from MOZ. And then I see them in my results later and I go to the site. And you can imagine, lots of people started visiting the website. Many of them subscribed to the blog and to the video series and to our webinars. And then many of those became customers at one point or another when they needed SEO software to scale up their search marketing efforts.

Aaron Dinin:

So you built this great company, thought leader in the space, what was it like growing from just a small consulting business into a large venture backed company? Those are two very different jobs to be running a small consulting business versus CEO of a company turning out millions in revenue.

Rand Fishkin:

Yep. I think I was a fine CEO up to around 50, 75 people. And then I think the complexities of politics and management that come with a larger company are not suited for my skillset or my emotional wellbeing. And for folks who want to read Lost and Founder, long story, blah, blah, blah, depression, stepping down as CEO, challenges with new leadership and then eventually leaving the company. But yeah, I think that transition for me was a challenging one, but certainly a great learning experience and hopefully something that I’m able to apply in a more thoughtful and salient and emotionally well-managed way.

Aaron Dinin:

You maybe heard Rand reference reading something called Lost and Founder. That’s actually the book he wrote about among other things his experiences running MOZ. For a bit of context, the subtitle of the book is A Painfully Honest Field Guide to the Startup World. As you can probably imagine, it gets pretty explicit about the challenges entrepreneurs face and how to deal with them as well as maybe how not to. If you’ve got time, I’d encourage you to check it out. I did, however, ask Rand if he wouldn’t mind giving us an abbreviated version of how his time at MOZ ended and he graciously summed it up

Rand Fishkin:

In 2013 and into 2014, I had a relatively severe problematic case of depression. A lot of executives and people at the team told me that my mental and emotional state was really a negative drag on the rest of the company, which I think it absolutely was. And I talked to my board of directors about stepping down from the CEO role and promoting our longtime chief operating officer to the CEO role. And we decided to make that change in 2014. That first year went okay, not fantastic, but went okay. I certainly struggled with a lot of the decisions that were being made and became more severe in 2015 and ’16. MOZ did a big round of layoffs in 2016, the new CEO had raised a little bit more money and invested in a whole bunch of other projects. And then I stayed with the company until 2018. And basically there was a big nasty legal battle and lots of emotional and friendship breakups. And in February of 2018, negotiation for departure had been settled.

Aaron Dinin:

I mean, you’re certainly not the first founder I’ve heard from who struggled significantly in that role. A lot of people think founding a successful startup means flying everywhere on private jets and stuff like that.

Rand Fishkin:

I’ve never been on a private jet.

Aaron Dinin:

See, that’s exactly what I mean. That’s just it. Could you actually talk a bit about your perspective on some of the challenges founders face when they hit more of a true CEO role?

Rand Fishkin:

Let’s see. If I had to guess, I would say that in order to justify the ludicrous wealth that these executives often enjoy and the power that they wield over many other people, they attempt to present a life that is much more difficult than it really is. I think that the hardest working, most struggling as CEO is not having nearly the challenge of maintenance staff at Duke University who has to clean things up every day and worries about paying their bills next week. I think it’s a [inaudible 00:27:51] and I think that the common refrain from folks who are in the lower and middle income earning brackets is that I think they’re starting to be an awareness that this hustle culture life and this false presentation of how hard it is and how lonely you are and how difficult it is to make decisions that affect people’s lives and those kinds of things is not completely untrue, but does not deserve the sympathy that it is presented for. There’s a lot of misdirection going on there to throw people off the scent of wealth inequality.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay. So that’s interesting. So your point is that there’s no rule that says you have to be an entrepreneur or a CEO. It’s a choice the person is making.

Rand Fishkin:

The only thing preventing 2014 Rand Fishkin from solving 2014 Rand Fishkin’s CEO problems was Rand Fishkin. There’s nobody else standing in the way. I was the CEO, I could make the decisions, I could determine, oh, this part of the team is where we got to make these changes. And maybe that involves hard decisions like letting people go who I like and trust and think highly of, but who are not well suited for a role. Maybe it means revisiting my past decisions around how the company is structured and what we do and how we do it and admitting a lot of wrongdoing and fixing those things. Maybe some of that work is hard, right? But by hard work, we mean you have to send an email.

Rand Fishkin:

Let’s be real about what we’re talking about here. What is the really challenging thing that you have to do to fix the company culture? Well, I’m going to have to email the CTO and tell him that I want things done in a different way and we’re going to have a meeting about it. And I’ll probably have to meet with the directors there and maybe we’ll have to make a change in leadership. And that means emailing the head of HR and saying, we got to put out a job rack. Man, my days are just so difficult.

Rand Fishkin:

Look, I understand that reconceptualizing things inside your brain after you’ve already made decisions that you think were the right ones, that’s a hard thing. Human beings hate to admit that they’re wrong, they’re very bad at it. I get it. But is this the same difficulty as the tens of thousands of people who have to travel from Nicaragua to Mexico to the United States to try and start a better life? No. Stop putting yourself in the I work so hard, things are so difficult for me, I’m so alone. Let’s just be real about your problems can be fixed with some emails and some meetings.

Aaron Dinin:

Rand makes some interesting points here about founders specifically and maybe entrepreneurs more broadly. Yes, it’s difficult work, but as Rand points out, the difficulty is relative. And maybe that’s helpful perspective to have if you ever find yourself in a position like Rand was in. It certainly seems like something Rand wishes he’d been more aware of and thoughtful about during his time running MOZ.

Rand Fishkin:

A lot of my mental and emotional state around problems in the business and problems with myself and all of that could have been solved with the willpower to make changes, right? And the decision, I think the recognition that I had made mistakes in the past and the things that I was doing were not the right way to do things and that I had to modify those ways of working and running a company. And I feel a lot of regret around that. I think I made a mistake in stepping down as CEO. I should have sucked it up and done the work myself rather than passing the buck. And that’s a hard lesson, but thankfully life is longer than companies are. And so got a chance to do it again.

Aaron Dinin:

I can certainly see that when I look back at how I ran some of my companies and working 80, 90 hours a week, running myself into the ground, pushing my team in all sorts of extreme ways. And for what really? I definitely regret some of the decisions I’ve made as a founder. And as you said, hopefully can learn from them and not necessarily make the same mistakes again. But that’s part of the learning process, isn’t it?

Rand Fishkin:

That’s the benefit. It’s a very strange world absolutely. I think the other thing that comes from both our experiences on that front and probably many more is you say things like, “Oh, I’m going to have to work 80, 90 hours a week.” I don’t mean to call you out, but I disagree. I don’t think you do. I think you absolutely could have worked 30 or 35 hours a week and made changes to the structure of what you did and how you did it. And so could I. And we probably would have slept better and felt better and been happier and healthier and made better decisions.

Rand Fishkin:

And what the hell is the CEO’s job except make the best decision possible. So when I hear, oh, I was working 80, 90 hours a week and I wasn’t sleeping, I say, you were failing at your job. You were not working hard. You were working dumb, you were making bad decisions because you would burn yourself out and you were probably burning out lots of people on your team who also had to make good decisions. And your job was not carry a box from a truck into a warehouse. And you can maximize that by the number of hours you work. That’s not your job. Your job is make the best decisions possible. And you cannot do that if you are working 80 hours a week.

Aaron Dinin:

I often find myself telling the entrepreneurs and the students I advise something similar, I refer to them as lazy. And they get offended because of course they think I mean they don’t work hard. And it’s really the opposite. I’m using the term lazy to describe the fact that they’re not being critical about the choices they’re making and they’re just consistently doing, doing, doing without really thinking.

Rand Fishkin:

I think this is actually this is a cultural and linguistic problem that essentially the American entrepreneurial culture has demonized laziness and worshiped number of hours worked. And so work is its own reward. The more you’re working, the more praise you deserve, the more empathy and sympathy you deserve, the more you’re a good person because you work many hours and very hard and you do whatever difficult and important things. And that whole construct is demonstrably false. It’s a bunch of BS and we just haven’t stared at ourselves in the mirror long enough to get rid of it. I think you can very easily dispose of that whole construct and realize that many people working fewer hours can accomplish more and better and more thoughtful and more economically impactful and environmentally friendly and culturally and society beneficial things than a few monopoly dominating a space. And yeah, we have some very messed up priorities. And it’s weird to me that the not of this construct is taking so long to unravel because it feels very clear.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay. So it’s probably worth pausing a moment here to note, you might agree with Rand or disagree with him. There’s no right or wrong answer here, but I definitely think his perspective is interesting to consider. In my experience, the entrepreneurial world seems to value and glorify an endless devotion to work. If you’re not working, you are losing, you are failing, you’re costing yourself and your company money and opportunity. Is that true? I’m not so sure. I know sometimes I look back at my career and wonder if maybe outcomes would’ve been different if I’d prioritized my time differently.

Aaron Dinin:

And I know a lot of entrepreneurs I speak with have expressed similar views, but I also realize when you’re in the thick of things, it can be hard to see and to be fair, maybe the right decisions were and are being made. Who really knows? The point is it’s always good and important to question the decisions we make as entrepreneurs and founders, even if we think we’re making the right ones, it’s how we learn, how we improve and ultimately how we accomplish our goals, which usually involve helping people solve their problems. And whatever might be said about what did or didn’t go right in Rand’s story, he certainly helped lots of people become better at marketing themselves and their businesses.

Rand Fishkin:

I am very happy that MOZ helped so many hundreds of thousands, millions of people to do better marketing, to help their businesses rank in search results and learn how to do those things and build companies and agencies and eCommerce businesses and B2B businesses that were successful because they were able to build an effective marketing practice and flywheel of their own. That makes me feel really good. I had a very crappy end to my experience at that company. And the day that I left, I published a blog post that’s on the web, you can check it out, but over the next two weeks, I had literally thousands, multiple thousands of comments and emails and LinkedIn messages and tweets and just every kind of thing from people all over the planet just telling me how much their careers and work and success in life that they felt it was owed to the things they had learned and done thanks to MOZ. That was a lot more rewarding than anything. It was a lot rewarding than the financial side of it too. So I feel proud of that. I hope to be able to do that again.

Aaron Dinin:

It’s interesting. You note being proud of helping thousands of people become better marketers via SEO, because I was speaking with Fuzzy Mauldin. He’s the person who created the search engine Lycos and he had some very choice words about SEO. Here, I’ll give you his quote. He said when I spoke with him, “If I feel like I will burn in hell, it would be because I helped create the industry called search engine optimization. This is nothing more than thousands and thousands of people who try to trick search engines into showing people something they want instead of what the person wants. And every one of these people is an agent of Satan. And the fact that I gave them a job irks me to no end.” Any thoughts on that?

Rand Fishkin:

I mean, I have terrible news for him. He did not create the world of marketing. Marketing has existed since, I mean, I’m pretty sure that Moses had to convince all the rest of us Jews that the tablets that he got from the mountain were really from God. And he did that through marketing with varying degrees of success for varying different populations. But creating search engine optimization, man, that’s very impressive. I think that the existence of people who attempt to get their products and services and blog posts and content in front of other people because it’s in their interests, that is a natural outcropping of humanity’s desire to show people their work. And it’s obviously a natural outcropping of capitalism and marketing and advertising has been around forever. And if Lycos invented that, then I invented eyebrows.

Aaron Dinin:

You invented eyebrows? That’s crazy.

Rand Fishkin:

I am the one who made Eugene Levy popular and that’s what invented eyebrows.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay. But finally, to end on a more serious note, one last question for you. What do you think about the current world of search that we live in now, a world dominated by basically one company?

Rand Fishkin:

Let’s see. From a macro economist point of view, monopolies are almost always a terrible thing. There’s some exception for the natural monopolies, but my feeling is that Google is extremely useful if you are a searcher who cares nothing for the impact that their changes and evolution have on the rest of the business and publishing world. And if you do care about wealth inequality and distribution of resources and equality of opportunity, Google’s monopoly is a very bad thing. The innovation there has, in my opinion, stagnated quite a bit. They’re essentially looking to build their walled garden at this point and protect any entry points and amazing projects that they invested in like Google Fiber, where they were going to get high speed internet to all these municipalities. They essentially stopped doing that, shut that whole program down. It’s a real tragedy to see Google pull back on that.

They made innovative health and energy investments years ago, they pulled back on those almost entirely and stopped trying that’s equally tragic. And now essentially, it’s how do we protect ourself from Apple’s third-party cookie problem? And how do we get more ad dollars from everyone? And how do we make sure no one ever leaves Google’s website and gets all their answers here and that people are pissed when they have to click on somebody else’s website and send any business to anyone that’s not Google. That’s a tragedy of the commons and we are all complicit in their dominance.

Aaron Dinin:

We are all complicit in Google’s dominance. And that dominance has stagnated innovation. Interesting thoughts from the man who spent a huge chunk of his career leading the charge to leverage Google as a marketing in customer acquisition machine. Of all the people outside Google who might know and understand the company’s impacts both good and bad, I suppose Rand Fishkin is definitely a voice worth listening to. I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing it and hearing his perspectives on SEO, customer acquisition, and more broadly on running startups. If you did and you want more, well, he’s got lots more to say. He tweets often about marketing, tech and startups. He’s @randfish. You also really should consider checking out his book, Lost and Founder, to get more of his honest thoughts about building companies.

You can also get more thoughts about building startups in general by making sure you’re subscribed to Web Masters wherever you listen to your favorite podcast and be sure to follow us on Twitter too. We are @WebMastersPod. You can also find me, I’m @AaronDinin. That’s A-A-R-O-N D-I-N-I-N. And check out my website for articles, newsletters, e-courses, et cetera. It’s aarondinin.com.

Thank you to our audio engineer, Ryan Higgs, for his help pulling together this episode. And thanks to our sponsor Latona’s for their support. If you’re interested in buying or selling in internet business, be sure to check out latonas.com.

Thanks for listening. We’ll be back soon with a new episode of Web Masters. Keep on the lookout for that. And yeah, I guess for now, it’s time for me to sign off.