Expert Interview: The Future of SEO in 2017 and Beyond with Rand Fishkin
Pyrite Technologies recently had the pleasure of speaking with one of the biggest names in the SEO business, Rand Fishkin. At MozCon 2016, we were able to speak to the Founder, former CEO and current ‘Wizard of Moz’ about the SEO practices of the past, present and of course, the future! He had a lot to say about how search engine optimization is looked at today, how websites are ranked today, and how they might be ranked tomorrow.
Read on to find out his views on the future of SEO and why we need to look at the user a lot more closely than we did before. Apart from busting myths about metrics like PageRank, Domain Authority and the usual suspects, he also talks about the complex and often indescribable interlinks between ranking factors which finally determine where a website shows up on the search results. He also talks about what he thinks will become the norm for optimization in the coming few years, and how website design, content, links and everything related will need to revolve around users.
SATISH: So hello, everyone. I’m Satish. As you know, I’m from Pyrite and this year, even this year, I’m making the most of 2016. So last year was a memorable experience, I shared everything with you. So I’m here with the man himself, Rand Fishkin. So… The questions which you have been asking me from the past, like, two months, they’ll all be resolved now. Rand, hi.
RAND: Hi. Good to be here.
SATISH: My friends have really [been] waiting for you to say hi.
RAND: Hi. Thrilled to be here.
SATISH: Yes. So a lot of people have been asking, like, how can we become the next Rand Fishkin?
RAND: Oh my god. Geez. I don’t know if I would recommend anyone to try that. My life is weird and strange. You should be the next you.
SATISH: Oh, yeah. So, I mean like, if you observe the Indian culture, so there is not even one tool from Indian, in the community, which can help people in SEO. So majority of the Indian companies and the agencies and the people who do SEO freelancers or consultants think SEO is more about link building and more _____ of _____, more about on-page and they depend on a couple of tools and that’s it, that is what SEO is what they know. So, typically, if you see the evolvement of SEO from the last year to this year, it has been a major change. So most of us don’t understand this. So how do you think that people can come out of the situation and start thinking big?
RAND: Yeah.. I think, part of it.. You know, part of it is folks not necessarily keeping up with where the industry is going but part of it is also Google’s responsibility. It has a lot of markets. I’m not a hundred percent sure, I don’t know India very well, but I know many Eastern-European markets, many Mid-East markets, African markets.. Google is not the same as it is here in the United States or in the UK or in Western Europe or even South America, like, Google is just less sophisticated. They’re more like they were 10, 12 years ago where.. You know. A few links, right on page, the right key you’re targeting can get you to more.. Get you great rankings. So I think it’s.. Part of that is up to Google to start doing a great job of taking algorithms they’ve built here, the machine learning and deep learning, the panda and penguin, the hummingbird… All these things, and evolving them and expanding them to other markets in intelligent ways. And then, look. SEO’s pursuer Google is going. Right? So we’re gonna follow, we’re gonna follow where they lead. I think if you’re doing SEO today in the US, in the UK, in Western Europe, in all parts of South America, yeah, you have to be way ahead of that. And I hope that catches up in the rest of the world, too.
SATISH: This pretty much talks about another question, but people have asked me that they have been into the industry from the past, like, five years, six years, and they never had a website. So the same line of company could have the website which is at five days older, and we followed all the bad practices like link building and all, but he’s still ranked #1. And this guy has the best content, the best link building and the best everything, but he doesn’t even show up on the page once. So why does Google still trying for like, bad sites and bad quality, like in one of the quality factors, we see in the bad side, is it the domain age, or?
RAND: Yes, so I think this is one of the challenges and in trench competitor.. Even if, let’s say we look at it in trench competitor, and they launched ten years ago, five years ago. They have, you know, 50,000 links to their site.
RAND: And we look and we see a lot of bad links. Google might not be counting any of those. They might only be counting the good ones and it turns out, out of those 50,000 bad links, they have 5,000 that are really pretty good.
RAND: That could be the case. It is also the case that, over time, Google has built up some associations with this domain. They’ve seen the name mentioned in lots of places, they’ve seen lots of visitors go to the site and have positive interactions and engagements on the site, the site’s converting people, right? It’s making some people happy. Maybe the content isn’t the best in the world, but Google’s seen, they built up that trust and history with Google over time. So it’s not like Google looks at this site and says, “Oh, you’re five years older, we’re gonna rank you higher”, but they might look at the site and say, “We have five years of experience of you satisfying searchers. You new website, we have no idea whether you’re gonna satisfy searchers. We’re gonna test you out a little bit, and maybe it looks like you do okay and we’ll put you in results for a little bit but you need to prove to us that you’re gonna do a great job of satisfying searchers, giving them what they want. You also have to prove to us that you’re gonna build great links over time, editorially given links. This old site has, you know, 5,000 good links that we, Google, think are great. Maybe the rest of the links are crap but we’re not counting those. We’re counting the 5,000.”
SATISH: Okay. It’s not the best ones.
RAND: Yeah. In a lot of cases, you know, when you see a bad-looking linked profile, what we miss is that there’s a lot of good links sprinkled in there and Google might be ignoring the bad links. Right? They might be saying, “Hey, we’re not gonna penalize you for these links, which we don’t know you went out and got, maybe someone else pointed them to you, maybe they just appeared, but we’re ignoring those, we’re treating these links, these good links, as the ranking factor.”
SATISH: Okay. Even if the SEO, I mean the on-page issue is not really good, they’ll still be lost in, things like, you know, bumping a lot of keywords in the meta title, description, and.. But still, you know surprisingly they are #1. So maybe, you know, say the site is one year old, or maybe they both started at the same place, but, especially in India and Pakistan, these Asian countries, once—I mean, no one knows why Google is ranking a particular site.
SATISH: I mean the UX is really bad, they use spring colors, yellow colors, they use, like, many different colors in the website, the navigation is not good, not mobile-responsive, but none of the sites is ineffective. So… And also, people are very afraid to bring new links to beat all the customers, thinking that they can’t, you know, they’ll get penalized.
SATISH: So what do you think is the best practice [for] all of this?
RAND: So I think there’s a few things going on. One, which Google has talked about, which is in some spaces, in some industries and some countries, there are only bad websites.
RAND: Right? Everybody is a bad website, everybody has bad links, everybody has, you know, bad navigation, poor responsive design, all these things. And so, if you wanna stand out, you’ve gotta not only build that great site, build that content that’s vastly better than everyone else, and you need to earn those links. I don’t think link building is a bad thing. Link building can be a good thing if you’re getting it from the right places.
RAND: It’s just hard to do—It’s really hard to do. A lot of people fall back on bad practices, right, they are spammy and sketchy. This is, no doubt, like, for a long time in the SEO world, people have had this attitude of “why does that person who clearly has a bad website ranking from me?” and the answer is always complex. Alright? It’s not just links, it’s not just content, it’s not just UI and UX, it’s not just searcher satisfaction, it’s not just, you know, the build-up of rank signals over years—It’s all those things and the interplay between those things. And you can’t just look at one competitor and go, “crappy site, shouldn’t rank, Google’s penal—You know, Google’s ranking bad stuff so I shouldn’t even try, or I should do bad stuff, too.” That’s not logical.
SATISH: Okay. You know pretty much, I think that this answered the question, so people are saying, like, what are the most important KPIs to rank my SEO? Because few of the KPIs which they think they should measure are domain authority, page authority, the number of backlinks, the spam score, the trust flow, the citation flow. So they made a list of, like, twenty things where they can tackle or, like, deliver on a month-on-month basis, so that they can [see] the decline, or that there is an improvement. They see the improvement. But they are really unable to understand which factor is letting them rank in this all, in the KPIs. So if I were, like, to pick the top five KPIs to rank an SEO, what [are] they usually? Is it domain authority, domain age, what exactly?
RAND: Yes, so I think domain authority is a reasonable proxy, so is page authority, they’re reasonable proxies for sort of link strength. So, too, are link caps, those are also reasonable proxies. However, you can’t just rely on the number or the count, right, because you gotta be looking at the actual profile. I think there’s another two KPIs, three maybe, that I’d say are extremely important. Absolutely critical and very few link builders measure them, but they are a huge part of why we might rank or not. One is the time on site from visits that come from Google. Another is the pages per visit from traffic that comes from Google. And then bounce rate of the people that come from Google. Those three will tell you about engagement, and engagement is very well correlated with searcher satisfaction. If you see that a lot of people search for something, click on your result, and you’re only ranking, you know, #7 or 8 or 9. But if people are still gonna click you and come to your site, it will quickly bounce back to the search result and they choose someone else, that tells Google, “don’t rank your website anymore”. Even if you have great links. Even if you think you have great content. If people aren’t hitting your query, you know, searching for your queries, hitting your site and then bouncing back to Google and choosing someone else, Google thinks that means you have not satisfied the searcher. And if they see that lots of people are doing that to you and very few people are doing that to your competition, they’re gonna push you down and push them up. Despite the links, despite the content, whatever other ranking guide, that is just how it will be. It takes a long time, right? It’s a slow process. Google’s trying to measure thousands of real searchers, you know, you can’t gain this with bots, but that is, I think, a KPI that everyone should be showing to their clients because that’s the way you say, “Hey, we got you a lot of links, we got you some rankings, but you know what? You are not satisfying the searcher. You’ve got to make sure that the experience they get once they land on your site is the best one. And that experience doesn’t just mean, you know, content; it means the navigation, the user interface, it means the graphic design, it means completing all the different steps.. It means not just trying to push your product onto someone, but actually serving their interest first.
SATISH: Yes. This is really a factor which people would love to measure because usually, for clients, it’s only about, you know, a proper metrics. Like, you know, some clients even still ask for the page rank, so I think that’s why the clients should also understand that these are the mechanics. So definitely the ____ would make sure to demonstrate, like, these are the mechanics which you need to track in your– in XU process. So one important question that people have is, like, you know, in India pretty much, some people use only two tools. Like the Google Analytics and the Google Webmaster tools.
SATISH: And hardly they will use the Google KPI—I mean, the Keyword Planner, because you know, these three are the most _____ ones. So if anyone wants to start an SEO career… So this is an important question which people have been asking. To establish a career and which tools will help me promote the entire part of the SEO?
RAND: I think part of it is tools can’t teach you the process of SEO. It helps make some tasks faster and more automated, they help provide data that you might not be able to get in other places, but tools are not the process by which you learn. Learning SEO is a process of building a website, creating content and resources that serve searchers, targeting those search terms and phrases, pushing up the rankings through the links and through the service that you provide, and building real relationships online through social media, press and PR, outreach and all these kinds of things. And then, from there, I think it’s about saying, “I have this problem”. Right? “Whatever the problem is, is there a great tool that will help me solve it?” So if you know there’s something on a regular basis that you need help with, identifying competitive links, right? You gotta go to Ahrefs or Majestic or Moz. Right? Those are your basic three sources for links. If you have a problem with your site crawl and Google search console or whatnot’s your tools, is it providing enough data? Well, you know you’ve got Screaming Frog or you’ve got the Moz Crawl or you’ve got Onpage.org or tools like this. If you have a keyword research challenge and you go to keyword cleaners and trim everything. “I know I need to get more”, you can go to keywordtool.io, you can go to Keyword Explorer, you could go to Samrock, right? You get more keyword ideas. So it’s not about saying the tool will teach you, it’s about learning the SEO process and then saying, “What is the problem I have? Now, what are the tools that could solve that and is it worthwhile and is the data gathered?”
SATISH: Okay. That’s perfect. And also, like, how do people make their SEO career? So, like, what [does] the proper SEO career do? Like, you know, what do you recommend people to get a _____ because as today, I was talking to Pete, so he was saying machine learning and _____; these are the next upcoming things in Google. But typically, we don’t really know, you know, where exactly we can learn them. So people who are just growing in SEO, if they learn this kind of stuff, it will really change the whole game plan in India, so…
RAND: Yeah.. I mean, the degree of which you have to learn machine learning or deep learning or those kinds of things, you should know about them, you should understand what they mean and how they operate, but you don’t need to actually learn to, you know, program in C++ and, you know, use Tensorflow, right, which is Google’s machine learning model that you can download. But I would strongly suggest anyone who wants to learn SEO to build your own website about something you’re passionate about, not the online marketing space, not a website about marketing. A website about, I don’t know: if you love pasta, build a pasta website; if you love sunglasses, build a sunglasses website; if you love fashion, build a fashion website. Right? Build something around your passion, make it a project that has nothing to do with commerce. You’re just—You’re not trying to convince anyone to buy anything; you are merely trying to build a great resource on the web and then get it ranked. I think that learning process is a phenomenal way to get into SEO, right? To build your own stuff from the ground up.
SATISH: Yeah. That’s really interesting and one question which people wanted to ask is.. Google is trying to restrict as much data as possible, like, initially first the keywords which they have not given access to, not even the Keyword Planner is showing you the exact results, it’s saying, like, you have to have at least $100. So where are we leaning in this?
RAND: I mean, I think Google has been taking information away from SEOs for a long, long time and sometimes they give it back, right? So they took away the link command, but then they came out with Google Webmaster tools, now Google Search console. Right? And then they’ve been taking some data out of there, some data out of Keyword Planner, some data out of Google Search, you know, so it ebbs and flows. But I think that reality is that it’s up to folks like us, right, at Moz and folks who are building tools for software engineers to go and find ways to get that data back and to provide it back to marketers who need it. I feel like that is a big part of our obligation is to say, “Hey, SEO community! We’re supposed to build great software, we’re gonna go out and find these data sources for you.” You know, and that’s what we’ve been doing with things like Picstream data, Keyword Explorer and stuff like that.
SATISH: Okay. So another question from the high-rank community people, so, I mean, who are very much experienced in SEO and who have been following you, Moz and a lot of stuff in the SEO are asking one question. Like, how did Rand build a community like Moz and, I mean, how did they create such a beautiful culture in the company which no one can ever be able to build that, like, you know.. They talk about _____, they talk about Facebook, but you don’t evidently see that. But when you come to conferences like this, you can see that the culture is, like, too much involved in the people, they don’t hesitate to help others, they are always looking for someone to help. So where did this actually start? Because the community and all, even I was tweeting about it.
RAND: Yeah, yeah.. No, it is a wonderful thing, I agree with you. I think… Something special happened, you know, many, many years ago when my mom, Gillian, and I started Moz. We, you know, we had this desire to help people, we’d been so frustrated ourselves. And, to be quite honest, it wasn’t just us, right, there’s a lot of wonderful people in the SEO community who love helping others and I think Moz just became a place that many of them gravitated towards. You know, you could see this in other communities, early communities in the SEO world. Danny Sullivan is someone who loves helping people, right? And he started Search Engine Watch and then the SES conference series, now Search Engine Land and the SMX conference series, and you know, I think that that ethos of helping people, of wanting to do more than just make money, right? Of wanting us to be a community and a place where we all wanted to work, not just a place where we can make money working. I think that was the genesis of it, and people feel that, right? And then, you know, you have lots of people who don’t care about that stuff, and they don’t come to Moz and they don’t interact and that’s fine, they do their own thing. Great! No problem! Right? Like, it’s not for you, you shouldn’t be here, but then we’ve… Once you’ve started to build something like that, other people who were like-minded, who care about those same things, have those same values, they’re gonna come to the community. And I think that’s a lesson for marketers and for entrepreneurs of all kinds. If there’s something you’re passionate about and you build it and you put it out there, you start to amplify it, you will find like-minded people who come to that community and join in. And it can be a really beautiful thing.
SATISH: Yeah, even the online— You know, the communities, like, if you look at Inbound, so I’m not sure how much you’re involved in Inbound—
RAND: Not so much anymore, but I still visit, yeah.
SATISH: Yeah, but we can feel the essence of, you know, helping each other, it is building up pretty much—
RAND: Yeah. Dharmesh and I, right, we have that same philosophy, that was, you know, that was something that I think we shared from the very start of our relationship, so when we wanted to build Inbound.org, right, we said, “Hey, we wanna have a community like this for marketers, you know, where we can bring news up or we can help people”. And so people found it and they stuck around. Yeah, it’s the same sort of thing.
SATISH: Okay. So, one final question. If there is anything, if you wanted to recommend people to start working on, because this is the next game planner, so what [would] that be?
RAND: Yeah, I think the next big thing to be working on—We talked about it a little bit, but it is.. It’s really how you satisfy the searchers’ query and I would think about two things. There’s an explicit portion of satisfying a query. So if I search for, you know, best microphones. Right? If I search for best microphones, I clearly want a list and I want some criteria where you judge the microphones, I want reviews. But there’s also another thing which is I’m probably also interested in prices. And then I’m going to be interested in where to buy it. And then I’m going to be interested in what devices I can use it with. And then I’m going to be interested in which cords and which bugs go with which ones. And that’s the implicit part of the query. I’m not explicitly saying, “Show me different microphone cord types”. I’m just saying best microphones, but I—A great website is gonna go beyond serving my explicit intent, and they’re gonna serve my implicit intent as well. That is what I think, when it comes to creating content and earning links, serving both of those is magic. And that’s something I’d ______ to check out.
SATISH: I’d really like to congratulate you on the MozCon in 2016—
RAND: Thank you.
SATISH: And it’s been great to be in this 2016 MozCon, too. One thing which I feel like every time it gets better and better, like, you know, it gets better and better, and the audience and, you know, everything. Like, from A to Z, everything gets better and better. So we’ll catch you again next year?
RAND: I look forward to it.
RAND: Right. Can’t wait.
SATISH: Yeah, thanks.
So, there you have it, insights about the search engine optimization business from the Wizard of Moz himself, Rand Fishkin! Do let us know what you thought about the interview and if you have any questions, through the comments section below. Stay tuned to the Pyrite Technologies blog for more insights, trends, interviews and know-how from the digital marketing world!