Our obsession with search dates back to the very early days of the web. Before smartphones and social media transformed our lives, allowing us to communicate and discover information in real-time from anywhere in the world through blazing-fast pocket computers, companies realized that the organization and dissemination of information in the digital sphere would become big business.
However, the early-comers to the so-called search-game have all-but vanished from the marketplace. The meteoric rise of search engines such as Alta Vista, and later on, Yahoo, were staggering, to say the least. But they were unable to keep up the momentum or retain that marketshare. In fact, ever since the release of a then-little-known search engine called Google, things have drastically changed in this virtual playing field.
When Google first opened its virtual doors in 1997, people flocked to it. At a time when many of the then-prominent search engines were relying primarily on hand-indexing data, Google instead leveraged powerful algorithms to categorize and catalog the world’s digital information based on a potent little formula called PageRank. Since then, much of the online-search marketshare has been skewed.
Today, most of the world’s search is undoubtedly conducted through Google’s search engine, accounting for roughly 89.44 percent of desktop searches as of the first quarter of 2016, a stranglehold that they’ve roughly maintained throughout the company’s existence. However, while many appreciate the prominence of Google, few understand the search engine’s intricacies.
While other organic search engines came before it, during it, and surely after it, Google’s highly-relevant searches gave quick and accurate results without all the muss and fuss of extraneous clutter. When searching on Google, it became known that results found on the first page of its search engine results pages (SERPs) were going to be the most relevant and useful in our quest for information. In fact, the search giant has built a colossal business on this very fundamental tenet.
Still, with the rise of Google, has also come the rise of confusion. Through obscurity in some of its practices, it’s had to shield many of the factors involved with ranking at the top of SERPs today. Not only due to the fact that the underlying foundation for an impartial organic-search system demands some obscurity to avoid gaming of the system, but also because of its desire to shield many of its inner-workings from potential competitors and rule-abusers.
But don’t blame Google entirely for that obscurity. It’s largely had no choice, especially recently. Its hands were tied due to the rise of unscrupulous individuals that learned how to bend and break Google’s many rules that helped to guarantee the most relevant search results, quickly jettisoning to the top of SERPs and reaping all the economic benefits that come with near-limitless free organic search traffic.
What started out as small groups wielding invaluable information, spawned into an illicit ‘Black Hat’ industry filled with sly and underhanded tactics meant to advance their own agendas. But Google didn’t lay down and play dead. It evolved and took action, instituting a slew of earth-shattering algorithm adjustments that went by names like Panda, Penguin, and subsequently, Hummingbird. All of this was meant to weed out the so-called spammers while increasing the overall quality and value proposition of the web.
And Google accomplished just that. Still, in its wake, it’s left an industry filled with misinformation and disinformation, with a number of so-called experts that spoon and dish out advice across an entire spectrum of mediums that stretches from blogs to social media, books, audiobooks and beyond.
Today, everyone knows the importance of organic search. They know the importance of being found organically in the top position of whatever search might be conducted. Its value is beyond measure. And, with so much competition vying for eyes amidst the same search traffic, an entire industry has been built atop this highly-lucrative field called search engine optimization (SEO).
The Rise of Moz.com
One man who witnessed both the birth and growth of this field firsthand is Rand Fishkin, a once-unknown Seattle-based entrepreneur who got his start in the web design business. In 2001, Fishkin was well aware of the importance of organic search, working to understand how to drive traffic through the variety of search engines at the time such as MSN Search, Yahoo!, Hotbot and of course, Google.
Not only did he quickly realize that being found on a search engine towards the top of any given SERP was extremely important, he new firsthand how desperately people were clamoring to rank at the top directly from his clientele. However, what he realized early on was that there was little in the way of knowledge in this field.
In the beginning, Fishkin did his best to uncover the right strategies to help his clients rank on Google’s newly-minted search. Largely unsuccessful at first, he turned to outside contractors and other local Seattle-based companies he could refer the search business to.
Eventually, as demand for SEO specialists and those in the know rose, so did the prices expected, forcing Fishkin to bring things in-house, something he had initially resisted. He was focused on designing beautiful, aesthetically pleasing websites that also seamlessly wed that form with function. Not on marketing.
But Fishkin had no choice. He began lurking in the online forums, asking questions and getting answers. After quite some time, not only did he become proficient in SEO, but he became an authority. He had built up so much material, data and analysis, that he could no longer turn to the forums. Ne needed another outlet for his information.
In November of 2004, after much internal wrangling, Fishkin decided to open the virtual doors to a blog called SEOmoz out of sheer frustration with the “opaque, secretive world of SEO and the lack of knowledge available on the web back in the early 2000’s.”
Yet, it was those early years that were wrought with much strife. The company struggled to make money where it could. Fishkin questioned his decisions to move into the SEO business, but kept at it, sharing relevant, high-quality information on a consistent basis. In fact, the SEOmoz blog was the precursor for the SEOmoz consulting business, which eventually transformed into today’s Moz software business.
But the early years were tough. Fishkin says that they were scrambling to find any possible way to make money. They had no strategy and no roadmap, and would say yes to almost anything that came along, “stumbling from consulting project to project.” However, it was the SEOmoz blog that ultimately took off, bringing in a regular stream of clients. Once that happened, he started to refine his vision, his message and the company’s focus.
Since then, this once-struggling blog that was largely unknown to the world, has become an SEO empire. It’s not only the prowess of the Moz blog itself. Today, Fishkin’s SEO empire has grown into a massive software business with three primary products – Moz Pro, a subscription that includes tools like Keyword Explorer and the Open Site Explorer, primarily designed for professional SEOs. Moz Local – which helps local businesses manage and maintain their local profile and maps listings. And the Moz API, for individuals who want programmatic access to their data.
In September 2007, the company took a $1.1 million injection of capital in a Series A funding round from Ignition Partners and Curious Office. In September 2010, SEOmoz was ranked #334 on the Inc. 500 list, and in April 2011, Seattle Met named SEOmoz as one of the “Best Places to Work … and Play” in Seattle.
Since then, much has transpired. In May 2012, the Foundry Group led a Series B round of $18 million into the company, allowing it to expand wildly to now over 155 employees. Today, the Moz site gets nearly 3 million visitors per month. There are 23,000+ Moz Pro customers, 14,000+ Moz Local accounts, and in 2016, the company is projected to do more than $40 million in revenue. That’s a big leap for a once-struggling blog.
However, while Fishkin’s success shows how far persistence and true belief in yourself can go, his attitude remains entirely humble. While he’s no longer in the CEO position, which was handed to long-time CEO, Sarah Bird, in 2013, he still feels entirely responsible, not only to the investors in Moz, but also to the employees as well. It was never about wanting to get rich; rather it was always about wanting to add a lot of value to the world.
In fact, he’s so humble, he tells me that “I’m not sure I’d call Moz a ‘success,’ at least not yet. We’ve raised venture capital, and that means returning money to our investors, hopefully at a very high multiple. It’s a very tall task, but I believe one that’s possible – just an incredibly hard thing to do.”
Fishkin’s Top SEO Advice
As someone who’s achieved monumental success in the SEO business, I asked Fishkin what his top 3 SEO tips would be for newcomers. Considering that organic search traffic is the holy grail of online marketing, able to drive near-limitless amounts of visitors to any person’s site when done right, many simply want to know how to do it. Here’s what he had to say:
First – don’t jump in and start doing things you think are helping your SEO until you’ve invested some serious time in learning, and hopefully have done some work with experienced professionals (even a little mentoring can go a long way). SEO seems straightforward, but is often anything but.
For example, you might hear that Google ranks websites that have more links, and thus go out and buy links from sites that offer to sell them, only to discover that Google penalizes sites that buy links. Or you might hear that targeting keywords is important and thus create lots of very similar pages on your site to target each different permutation of a keyword, only to discover that this type of thin content with little variation can hurt your site’s ability to perform. Or you might hear about a tag like re=canonical that lets you tell the search engines to treat multiple pages as if they’re one, and add them to all the pages on your site in order to redirect search rankings to your most important page, only to find that kills your site’s overall SEO.
This is a nuanced, complex field, and if you leap before you look, oftentimes you’ll end up in a very tough situation.
Second – before you ever create content, ask yourself, “who will help amplify this, and why?” If you don’t have a great, specific answer to that question, reconsider whether you should create it at all. Content that doesn’t earn links, shares, email forwards, word-of-mouth, press, etc. probably won’t stand out, won’t rank, and won’t be worth your energy to build.
Third – Don’t assume SEO works right away. It’s the total opposite of advertising. It requires a large, upfront investment of creativity, technical investments, and elbow grease, and the returns will initially be small or nonexistent. It’s only after months or years that SEO begins producing great value, but when it does, it can dwarf the ROI you get from paid investments. The high upfront costs and challenges are what keep the field thin enough to make standing out a true competitive advantage.
When asked about the potential pitfalls for people in the SEO realm, this is what he had to say:
Almost everything in SEO that sounds too good to be true (cheap links, instant rankings, guaranteed success, etc) is.
There is nothing an SEO professional should ever do that they shouldn’t be able to clearly, easily explain to you. Don’t hire someone who “can’t share the secret sauce.” There are no secrets in SEO – it’s just like any other marketing practice, and takes hard, consistent work, but work that’s logical and straightforward.
Never, ever, host on a free web-host or a free subdomain host (like mysite.blogspot.com or mysite.wordpress.com), and don’t use Facebook or Yelp or anyone else’s website as your primary home on the web. Register a real domain, set up a CMS (WordPress is great as a CMS, but Squarespace, Wix, and others can be solid choices too), set up your own hosting, and own your space.
What Does The Future Hold For Fishkin’s Moz?
There’s little in the way of stopping Fishkin’s Moz now. Out of a sheer desire to add an immense amount of value and transparency to the field, the company has become the leading authority in SEO today. If anyone at all is interested in SEO, it’s clear that turning to Moz is the best bet, both for educational resources and for tools to assist you along in your journey.
But Fishkin plays down his success. Largely concerned about paying back his investors and ensuring his staff are well paid and cared for, he simply wants to continue adding value to the world and hopes to help the millions upon millions of people that are continually turning to SEO year after year in an effort to boost their visibility on the web.