Meet Dan Morris, Executive Vice President, North America

  1. Why did you decide to come to dotmailer?

The top three reasons were People, Product and Opportunity. I met the people who make up our business and heard their stories from the past 18 years, learned about the platform and market leading status they had built in the UK, and saw that I could add value with my U.S. high growth business experience. I’ve been working with marketers, entrepreneurs and business owners for years across a series of different roles, and saw that I could apply what I’d learned from that and the start-up space to dotmailer’s U.S. operation. dotmailer has had clients in the U.S. for 12 years and we’re positioned to grow the user base of our powerful and easy-to-use platform significantly. I knew I could make a difference here, and what closed the deal for me was the people.  Every single person I’ve met is deeply committed to the business, to the success of our customers and to making our solution simple and efficient.  We’re a great group of passionate people and I’m proud to have joined the dotfamily.

Dan Morris, dotmailer’s EVP for North America in the new NYC office

      1. Tell us a bit about your new role

dotmailer has been in business and in this space for more than 18 years. We were a web agency, then a Systems Integrator, and we got into the email business that way, ultimately building the dotmailer platform thousands of people use daily. This means we know this space better than anyone and we have the perfect solutions to align closely with our customers and the solutions flexible enough to grow with them.  My role is to take all that experience and the platform and grow our U.S. presence. My early focus has been on identifying the right team to execute our growth plans. We want to be the market leader in the U.S. in the next three years – just like we’ve done in the UK –  so getting the right people in the right spots was critical.  We quickly assessed the skills of the U.S. team and made changes that were necessary in order to provide the right focus on customer success. Next, we set out to completely rebuild dotmailer’s commercial approach in the U.S.  We simplified our offers to three bundles, so that pricing and what’s included in those bundles is transparent to our customers.  We’ve heard great things about this already from clients and partners. We’re also increasing our resources on customer success and support.  We’re intensely focused on ease of on-boarding, ease of use and speed of use.  We consistently hear how easy and smooth a process it is to use dotmailer’s tools.  That’s key for us – when you buy a dotmailer solution, we want to onboard you quickly and make sure you have all of your questions answered right away so that you can move right into using it.  Customers are raving about this, so we know it’s working well.

  1. What early accomplishments are you most proud of from your dotmailer time so far?

I’ve been at dotmailer for eight months now and I’m really proud of all we’ve accomplished together.  We spent a lot of time assessing where we needed to restructure and where we needed to invest.  We made the changes we needed, invested in our partner program, localized tech support, customer on-boarding and added customer success team members.  We have the right people in the right roles and it’s making a difference.  We have a commercial approach that is clear with the complete transparency that we wanted to provide our customers.  We’ve got a more customer-focused approach and we’re on-boarding customers quickly so they’re up and running faster.  We have happier customers than ever before and that’s the key to everything we do.

  1. You’ve moved the U.S. team to a new office. Can you tell us why and a bit about the new space?

I thought it was very important to create a NY office space that was tied to branding and other offices around the world, and also had its own NY energy and culture for our team here – to foster collaboration and to have some fun.  It was also important for us that we had a flexible space where we could welcome customers, partners and resellers, and also hold classes and dotUniversity training sessions. I’m really grateful to the team who worked on the space because it really reflects our team and what we care about.   At any given time, you’ll see a training session happening, the team collaborating, a customer dropping in to ask a few questions or a partner dropping in to work from here.  We love our new, NYC space.

We had a spectacular reception this week to celebrate the opening of this office with customers, partners and the dotmailer leadership team in attendance. Please take a look at the photos from our event on Facebook.

Guests and the team at dotmailer's new NYC office warming party

Guests and the team at dotmailer’s new NYC office warming party

  1. What did you learn from your days in the start-up space that you’re applying at dotmailer?

The start-up space is a great place to learn. You have to know where every dollar is going and coming from, so every choice you make needs to be backed up with a business case for that investment.  You try lots of different things to see if they’ll work and you’re ready to turn those tactics up or down quickly based on an assessment of the results. You also learn things don’t have to stay the way they are, and can change if you make them change. You always listen and learn – to customers, partners, industry veterans, advisors, etc. to better understand what’s working and not working.  dotmailer has been in business for 18 years now, and so there are so many great contributors across the business who know how things have worked and yet are always keen to keep improving.  I am constantly in listening and learning mode so that I can understand all of the unique perspectives our team brings and what we need to act on.

  1. What are your plans for the U.S. and the sales function there?

On our path to being the market leader in the U.S., I’m focused on three things going forward: 1 – I want our customers to be truly happy.  It’s already a big focus in the dotmailer organization – and we’re working hard to understand their challenges and goals so we can take product and service to the next level. 2 – Creating an even more robust program around partners, resellers and further building out our channel partners to continuously improve sales and customer service programs. We recently launched a certification program to ensure partners have all the training and resources they need to support our mutual customers.  3 – We have an aggressive growth plan for the U.S. and I’m very focused on making sure our team is well trained, and that we remain thoughtful and measured as we take the steps to grow.  We want to always keep an eye on what we’re known for – tools that are powerful and simple to use – and make sure everything else we offer remains accessible and valuable as we execute our growth plans.

  1. What are the most common questions that you get when speaking to a prospective customer?

The questions we usually get are around price, service level and flexibility.  How much does dotmailer cost?  How well are you going to look after my business?  How will you integrate into my existing stack and then my plans for future growth? We now have three transparent bundle options with specifics around what’s included published right on our website.  We have introduced a customer success team that’s focused only on taking great care of our customers and we’re hearing stories every day that tells me this is working.  And we have all of the tools to support our customers as they grow and to also integrate into their existing stacks – often integrating so well that you can use dotmailer from within Magento, Salesforce or Dynamics, for example.

  1. Can you tell us about the dotmailer differentiators you highlight when speaking to prospective customers that seem to really resonate?

In addition to the ones above – ease of use, speed of use and the ability to scale with you. With dotmailer’s tiered program, you can start with a lighter level of functionality and grow into more advanced functionality as you need it. The platform itself is so easy to use that most marketers are able to build campaigns in minutes that would have taken hours on other platforms. Our customer success team is also with you all the way if ever you want or need help.  We’ve built a very powerful platform and we have a fantastic team to help you with personalized service as an extended part of your team and we’re ready to grow with you.

  1. How much time is your team on the road vs. in the office? Any road warrior tips to share?

I’ve spent a lot of time on the road, one year I attended 22 tradeshows! Top tip when flying is to be willing to give up your seat for families or groups once you’re at the airport gate, as you’ll often be rewarded with a better seat for helping the airline make the family or group happy. Win win! Since joining dotmailer, I’m focused on being in office and present for the team and customers as much as possible. I can usually be found in our new, NYC office where I spend a lot of time with our team, in customer meetings, in trainings and other hosted events, sales conversations or marketing meetings. I’m here to help the team, clients and partners to succeed, and will always do my best to say yes! Once our prospective customers see how quickly and efficiently they can execute tasks with dotmailer solutions vs. their existing solutions, it’s a no-brainer for them.  I love seeing and hearing their reactions.

  1. Tell us a bit about yourself – favorite sports team, favorite food, guilty pleasure, favorite band, favorite vacation spot?

I’m originally from Yorkshire in England, and grew up just outside York. I moved to the U.S. about seven years ago to join a very fast growing startup, we took it from 5 to well over 300 people which was a fantastic experience. I moved to NYC almost two years ago, and I love exploring this great city.  There’s so much to see and do.  Outside of dotmailer, my passion is cars, and I also enjoy skeet shooting, almost all types of music, and I love to travel – my goal is to get to India, Thailand, Australia and Japan in the near future.

Want to find out more about the dotfamily? Check out our recent post about Darren Hockley, Global Head of Support.

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Pinpoint vs. Floodlight Content and Keyword Research Strategies – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

When we’re doing keyword research and targeting, we have a choice to make: Are we targeting broader keywords with multiple potential searcher intents, or are we targeting very narrow keywords where it’s pretty clear what the searchers were looking for? Those different approaches, it turns out, apply to content creation and site architecture, as well. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand illustrates that connection.

Pinpoint vs Floodlight Content and Keyword Research Strategy Whiteboard

For reference, here are stills of this week’s whiteboards. Click on it to open a high resolution image in a new tab!

Video Transcription

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re going to chat about pinpoint versus floodlight tactics for content targeting, content strategy, and keyword research, keyword targeting strategy. This is also called the shotgun versus sniper approach, but I’m not a big gun fan. So I’m going to stick with my floodlight versus pinpoint, plus, you know, for the opening shot we don’t have a whole lot of weaponry here at Moz, but we do have lighting.

So let’s talk through this at first. You’re going through and doing some keyword research. You’re trying to figure out which terms and phrases to target. You might look down a list like this.

Well, maybe, I’m using an example here around antique science equipment. So you see these various terms and phrases. You’ve got your volume numbers. You probably have lots of other columns. Hopefully, you’ve watched the Whiteboard Friday on how to do keyword research like it’s 2015 and not 2010.

So you know you have all these other columns to choose from, but I’m simplifying here for the purpose of this experiment. So you might choose some of these different terms. Now, they’re going to have different kinds of tactics and a different strategic approach, depending on the breadth and depth of the topic that you’re targeting. That’s going to determine what types of content you want to create and where you place it in your information architecture. So I’ll show you what I mean.

The floodlight approach

For antique science equipment, this is a relatively broad phrase. I’m going to do my floodlight analysis on this, and floodlight analysis is basically saying like, “Okay, are there multiple potential searcher intents?” Yeah, absolutely. That’s a fairly broad phase. People could be looking to transact around it. They might be looking for research information, historical information, different types of scientific equipment that they’re looking for.

<img src="http://d1avok0lzls2w.cloudfront.net/uploads/blog/55b15fc96679b8.73854740.jpg" rel="box-shadow: 0 0 10px 0 #999; border-radius: 20px;"

Are there four or more approximately unique keyword terms and phrases to target? Well, absolutely, in fact, there’s probably more than that. So antique science equipment, antique scientific equipment, 18th century scientific equipment, all these different terms and phrases that you might explore there.

Is this a broad content topic with many potential subtopics? Again, yes is the answer to this. Are we talking about generally larger search volume? Again, yes, this is going to have a much larger search volume than some of the narrower terms and phrases. That’s not always the case, but it is here.

The pinpoint approach

For pinpoint analysis, we kind of go the opposite direction. So we might look at a term like antique test tubes, which is a very specific kind of search, and that has a clear single searcher intent or maybe two. Someone might be looking for actually purchasing one of those, or they might be looking to research them and see what kinds there are. Not a ton of additional intents behind that. One to three unique keywords, yeah, probably. It’s pretty specific. Antique test tubes, maybe 19th century test tubes, maybe old science test tubes, but you’re talking about a limited set of keywords that you’re targeting. It’s a narrow content topic, typically smaller search volume.

<img src="http://d1avok0lzls2w.cloudfront.net/uploads/blog/55b160069eb6b1.12473448.jpg" rel="box-shadow: 0 0 10px 0 #999; border-radius: 20px;"

Now, these are going to feed into your IA, your information architecture, and your site structure in this way. So floodlight content generally sits higher up. It’s the category or the subcategory, those broad topic terms and phrases. Those are going to turn into those broad topic category pages. Then you might have multiple, narrower subtopics. So we could go into lab equipment versus astronomical equipment versus chemistry equipment, and then we’d get into those individual pinpoints from the pinpoint analysis.

How do I decide which approach is best for my keywords?

Why are we doing this? Well, generally speaking, if you can take your terms and phrases and categorize them like this and then target them differently, you’re going to provide a better, more logical user experience. Someone who searches for antique scientific equipment, they’re going to really expect to see that category and then to be able to drill down into things. So you’re providing them the experience they predict, the one that they want, the one that they expect.

It’s better for topic modeling analysis and for all of the algorithms around things like Hummingbird, where Google looks at: Are you using the types of terms and phrases, do you have the type of architecture that we expect to find for this keyword?

It’s better for search intent targeting, because the searcher intent is going to be fulfilled if you provide the multiple paths versus the narrow focus. It’s easier keyword targeting for you. You’re going to be able to know, “Hey, I need to target a lot of different terms and phrases and variations in floodlight and one very specific one in pinpoint.”

There’s usually higher searcher satisfaction, which means you get lower bounce rate. You get more engagement. You usually get a higher conversion rate. So it’s good for all those things.

For example…

I’ll actually create pages for each of antique scientific equipment and antique test tubes to illustrate this. So I’ve got two different types of pages here. One is my antique scientific equipment page.

<img src="http://d1avok0lzls2w.cloudfront.net/uploads/blog/55b161fa871e32.54731215.jpg" rel="box-shadow: 0 0 10px 0 #999; border-radius: 20px;"

This is that floodlight, shotgun approach, and what we’re doing here is going to be very different from a pinpoint approach. It’s looking at like, okay, you’ve landed on antique scientific equipment. Now, where do you want to go? What do you want to specifically explore? So we’re going to have a little bit of content specifically about this topic, and how robust that is depends on the type of topic and the type of site you are.

If this is an e-commerce site or a site that’s showing information about various antiques, well maybe we don’t need very much content here. You can see the filtration that we’ve got is going to be pretty broad. So I can go into different centuries. I can go into chemistry, astronomy, physics. Maybe I have a safe for kids type of stuff if you want to buy your kids antique lab equipment, which you might be. Who knows? Maybe you’re awesome and your kids are too. Then different types of stuff at a very broad level. So I can go to microscopes or test tubes, lab searches.

This is great because it’s got broad intent foci, serving many different kinds of searchers with the same page because we don’t know exactly what they want. It’s got multiple keyword targets so that we can go after broad phrases like antique or old or historical or 13th, 14th, whatever century, science and scientific equipment ,materials, labs, etc., etc., etc. This is a broad page that could reach any and all of those. Then there’s lots of navigational and refinement options once you get there.

Total opposite of pinpoint content.

<img src="http://d1avok0lzls2w.cloudfront.net/uploads/blog/55b1622740f0b5.73477500.jpg" rel="box-shadow: 0 0 10px 0 #999; border-radius: 20px;"

Pinpoint content, like this antique test tubes page, we’re still going to have some filtration options, but one of the important things to note is note how these are links that take you deeper. Depending on how deep the search volume goes in terms of the types of queries that people are performing, you might want to make a specific page for 17th century antique test tubes. You might not, and if you don’t want to do that, you can have these be filters that are simply clickable and change the content of the page here, narrowing the options rather than creating completely separate pages.

So if there’s no search volume for these different things and you don’t think you need to separately target them, go ahead and just make them filters on the data that already appears on this page or the results that are already in here as opposed to links that are going to take you deeper into specific content and create a new page, a new experience.

You can also see I’ve got my individual content here. I probably would go ahead and add some content specifically to this page that is just unique here and that describes antique test tubes and the things that your searchers need. They might want to know things about price. They might want to know things about make and model. They might want to know things about what they were used for. Great. You can have that information broadly, and then individual pieces of content that someone might dig into.

This is narrower intent foci obviously, serving maybe one or two searcher intents. This is really talking about targeting maybe one to two separate keywords. So antique test tubes, maybe lab tubes or test tube sets, but not much beyond that.

Ten we’re going to have fewer navigational paths, fewer distractions. We want to keep the searcher. Because we know their intent, we want to guide them along the path that we know they probably want to take and that we want them to take.

So when you’re considering your content, choose wisely between shotgun/floodlight approach or sniper/pinpoint approach. Your searchers will be better served. You’ll probably rank better. You’ll be more likely to earn links and amplification. You’re going to be more successful.

Looking forward to the comments, and we’ll see you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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Why We Can’t Do Keyword Research Like It’s 2010 – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

Keyword Research is a very different field than it was just five years ago, and if we don’t keep up with the times we might end up doing more harm than good. From the research itself to the selection and targeting process, in today’s Whiteboard Friday Rand explains what has changed and what we all need to do to conduct effective keyword research today.

For reference, here’s a still of this week’s whiteboard. Click on it to open a high resolution image in a new tab!

What do we need to change to keep up with the changing world of keyword research?

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re going to chat a little bit about keyword research, why it’s changed from the last five, six years and what we need to do differently now that things have changed. So I want to talk about changing up not just the research but also the selection and targeting process.

There are three big areas that I’ll cover here. There’s lots more in-depth stuff, but I think we should start with these three.

1) The Adwords keyword tool hides data!

This is where almost all of us in the SEO world start and oftentimes end with our keyword research. We go to AdWords Keyword Tool, what used to be the external keyword tool and now is inside AdWords Ad Planner. We go inside that tool, and we look at the volume that’s reported and we sort of record that as, well, it’s not good, but it’s the best we’re going to do.

However, I think there are a few things to consider here. First off, that tool is hiding data. What I mean by that is not that they’re not telling the truth, but they’re not telling the whole truth. They’re not telling nothing but the truth, because those rounded off numbers that you always see, you know that those are inaccurate. Anytime you’ve bought keywords, you’ve seen that the impression count never matches the count that you see in the AdWords tool. It’s not usually massively off, but it’s often off by a good degree, and the only thing it’s great for is telling relative volume from one from another.

But because AdWords hides data essentially by saying like, “Hey, you’re going to type in . . .” Let’s say I’m going to type in “college tuition,” and Google knows that a lot of people search for how to reduce college tuition, but that doesn’t come up in the suggestions because it’s not a commercial term, or they don’t think that an advertiser who bids on that is going to do particularly well and so they don’t show it in there. I’m giving an example. They might indeed show that one.

But because that data is hidden, we need to go deeper. We need to go beyond and look at things like Google Suggest and related searches, which are down at the bottom. We need to start conducting customer interviews and staff interviews, which hopefully has always been part of your brainstorming process but really needs to be now. Then you can apply that to AdWords. You can apply that to suggest and related.

The beautiful thing is once you get these tools from places like visiting forums or communities, discussion boards and seeing what terms and phrases people are using, you can collect all this stuff up, plug it back into AdWords, and now they will tell you how much volume they’ve got. So you take that how to lower college tuition term, you plug it into AdWords, they will show you a number, a non-zero number. They were just hiding it in the suggestions because they thought, “Hey, you probably don’t want to bid on that. That won’t bring you a good ROI.” So you’ve got to be careful with that, especially when it comes to SEO kinds of keyword research.

2) Building separate pages for each term or phrase doesn’t make sense

It used to be the case that we built separate pages for every single term and phrase that was in there, because we wanted to have the maximum keyword targeting that we could. So it didn’t matter to us that college scholarship and university scholarships were essentially people looking for exactly the same thing, just using different terminology. We would make one page for one and one page for the other. That’s not the case anymore.

Today, we need to group by the same searcher intent. If two searchers are searching for two different terms or phrases but both of them have exactly the same intent, they want the same information, they’re looking for the same answers, their query is going to be resolved by the same content, we want one page to serve those, and that’s changed up a little bit of how we’ve done keyword research and how we do selection and targeting as well.

3) Build your keyword consideration and prioritization spreadsheet with the right metrics

Everybody’s got an Excel version of this, because I think there’s just no awesome tool out there that everyone loves yet that kind of solves this problem for us, and Excel is very, very flexible. So we go into Excel, we put in our keyword, the volume, and then a lot of times we almost stop there. We did keyword volume and then like value to the business and then we prioritize.

What are all these new columns you’re showing me, Rand? Well, here I think is how sophisticated, modern SEOs that I’m seeing in the more advanced agencies, the more advanced in-house practitioners, this is what I’m seeing them add to the keyword process.

Difficulty

A lot of folks have done this, but difficulty helps us say, “Hey, this has a lot of volume, but it’s going to be tremendously hard to rank.”

The difficulty score that Moz uses and attempts to calculate is a weighted average of the top 10 domain authorities. It also uses page authority, so it’s kind of a weighted stack out of the two. If you’re seeing very, very challenging pages, very challenging domains to get in there, it’s going to be super hard to rank against them. The difficulty is high. For all of these ones it’s going to be high because college and university terms are just incredibly lucrative.

That difficulty can help bias you against chasing after terms and phrases for which you are very unlikely to rank for at least early on. If you feel like, “Hey, I already have a powerful domain. I can rank for everything I want. I am the thousand pound gorilla in my space,” great. Go after the difficulty of your choice, but this helps prioritize.

Opportunity

This is actually very rarely used, but I think sophisticated marketers are using it extremely intelligently. Essentially what they’re saying is, “Hey, if you look at a set of search results, sometimes there are two or three ads at the top instead of just the ones on the sidebar, and that’s biasing some of the click-through rate curve.” Sometimes there’s an instant answer or a Knowledge Graph or a news box or images or video, or all these kinds of things that search results can be marked up with, that are not just the classic 10 web results. Unfortunately, if you’re building a spreadsheet like this and treating every single search result like it’s just 10 blue links, well you’re going to lose out. You’re missing the potential opportunity and the opportunity cost that comes with ads at the top or all of these kinds of features that will bias the click-through rate curve.

So what I’ve seen some really smart marketers do is essentially build some kind of a framework to say, “Hey, you know what? When we see that there’s a top ad and an instant answer, we’re saying the opportunity if I was ranking number 1 is not 10 out of 10. I don’t expect to get whatever the average traffic for the number 1 position is. I expect to get something considerably less than that. Maybe something around 60% of that, because of this instant answer and these top ads.” So I’m going to mark this opportunity as a 6 out of 10.

There are 2 top ads here, so I’m giving this a 7 out of 10. This has two top ads and then it has a news block below the first position. So again, I’m going to reduce that click-through rate. I think that’s going down to a 6 out of 10.

You can get more and less scientific and specific with this. Click-through rate curves are imperfect by nature because we truly can’t measure exactly how those things change. However, I think smart marketers can make some good assumptions from general click-through rate data, which there are several resources out there on that to build a model like this and then include it in their keyword research.

This does mean that you have to run a query for every keyword you’re thinking about, but you should be doing that anyway. You want to get a good look at who’s ranking in those search results and what kind of content they’re building . If you’re running a keyword difficulty tool, you are already getting something like that.

Business value

This is a classic one. Business value is essentially saying, “What’s it worth to us if visitors come through with this search term?” You can get that from bidding through AdWords. That’s the most sort of scientific, mathematically sound way to get it. Then, of course, you can also get it through your own intuition. It’s better to start with your intuition than nothing if you don’t already have AdWords data or you haven’t started bidding, and then you can refine your sort of estimate over time as you see search visitors visit the pages that are ranking, as you potentially buy those ads, and those kinds of things.

You can get more sophisticated around this. I think a 10 point scale is just fine. You could also use a one, two, or three there, that’s also fine.

Requirements or Options

Then I don’t exactly know what to call this column. I can’t remember the person who’ve showed me theirs that had it in there. I think they called it Optional Data or Additional SERPs Data, but I’m going to call it Requirements or Options. Requirements because this is essentially saying, “Hey, if I want to rank in these search results, am I seeing that the top two or three are all video? Oh, they’re all video. They’re all coming from YouTube. If I want to be in there, I’ve got to be video.”

Or something like, “Hey, I’m seeing that most of the top results have been produced or updated in the last six months. Google appears to be biasing to very fresh information here.” So, for example, if I were searching for “university scholarships Cambridge 2015,” well, guess what? Google probably wants to bias to show results that have been either from the official page on Cambridge’s website or articles from this year about getting into that university and the scholarships that are available or offered. I saw those in two of these search results, both the college and university scholarships had a significant number of the SERPs where a fresh bump appeared to be required. You can see that a lot because the date will be shown ahead of the description, and the date will be very fresh, sometime in the last six months or a year.

Prioritization

Then finally I can build my prioritization. So based on all the data I had here, I essentially said, “Hey, you know what? These are not 1 and 2. This is actually 1A and 1B, because these are the same concepts. I’m going to build a single page to target both of those keyword phrases.” I think that makes good sense. Someone who is looking for college scholarships, university scholarships, same intent.

I am giving it a slight prioritization, 1A versus 1B, and the reason I do this is because I always have one keyword phrase that I’m leaning on a little more heavily. Because Google isn’t perfect around this, the search results will be a little different. I want to bias to one versus the other. In this case, my title tag, since I more targeting university over college, I might say something like college and university scholarships so that university and scholarships are nicely together, near the front of the title, that kind of thing. Then 1B, 2, 3.

This is kind of the way that modern SEOs are building a more sophisticated process with better data, more inclusive data that helps them select the right kinds of keywords and prioritize to the right ones. I’m sure you guys have built some awesome stuff. The Moz community is filled with very advanced marketers, probably plenty of you who’ve done even more than this.

I look forward to hearing from you in the comments. I would love to chat more about this topic, and we’ll see you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

Sign up for The Moz Top 10, a semimonthly mailer updating you on the top ten hottest pieces of SEO news, tips, and rad links uncovered by the Moz team. Think of it as your exclusive digest of stuff you don’t have time to hunt down but want to read!

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Simple Steps for Conducting Creative Content Research

Posted by Hannah_Smith

Most frequently, the content we create at Distilled is designed to attract press coverage, social shares, and exposure (and links) on sites our clients’ target audience reads. That’s a tall order.

Over the years we’ve had our hits and misses, and through this we’ve recognised the value of learning about what makes a piece of content successful. Coming up with a great idea is difficult, and it can be tough to figure out where to begin. Today, rather than leaping headlong into brainstorming sessions, we start with creative content research.

What is creative content research?

Creative content research enables you to answer the questions:

“What are websites publishing, and what are people sharing?”

From this, you’ll then have a clearer view on what might be successful for your client.

A few years ago this required quite an amount of work to figure out. Today, happily, it’s much quicker and easier. In this post I’ll share the process and tools we use.

Whoa there… Why do I need to do this?

I think that the value in this sort of activity lies in a couple of directions:

a) You can learn a lot by deconstructing the success of others…

I’ve been taking stuff apart to try to figure out how it works for about as long as I can remember, so applying this process to content research felt pretty natural to me. Perhaps more importantly though, I think that deconstructing content is actually easier when it isn’t your own. You’re not involved, invested, or in love with the piece so viewing it objectively and learning from it is much easier.

b) Your research will give you a clear overview of the competitive landscape…

As soon as a company elects to start creating content, they gain a whole raft of new competitors. In addition to their commercial competitors (i.e. those who offer similar products or services), the company also gains content competitors. For example, if you’re a sports betting company and plan to create content related to the sports events that you’re offering betting markets on; then you’re competing not just with other betting companies, but every other publisher who creates content about these events. That means major news outlets, sports news site, fan sites, etc. To make matters even more complicated, it’s likely that you’ll actually be seeking coverage from those same content competitors. As such, you need to understand what’s already being created in the space before creating content of your own.

c) You’re giving yourself the data to create a more compelling pitch…

At some point you’re going to need to pitch your ideas to your client (or your boss if you’re working in-house). At Distilled, we’ve found that getting ideas signed off can be really tough. Ultimately, a great idea is worthless if we can’t persuade our client to give us the green light. This research can be used to make a more compelling case to your client and get those ideas signed off. (Incidentally, if getting ideas signed off is proving to be an issue you might find this framework for pitching creative ideas useful).

Where to start

Good ideas start with a good brief, however it can be tough to pin clients down to get answers to a long list of questions.

As a minimum you’ll need to know the following:

  • Who are they looking to target?
    • Age, sex, demographic
    • What’s their core focus? What do they care about? What problems are they looking to solve?
    • Who influences them?
    • What else are they interested in?
    • Where do they shop and which brands do they buy?
    • What do they read?
    • What do they watch on TV?
    • Where do they spend their time online?
  • Where do they want to get coverage?
    • We typically ask our clients to give us a wishlist of 10 or so sites they’d love to get coverage on
  • Which topics are they comfortable covering?
    • This question is often the toughest, particularly if a client hasn’t created content specifically for links and shares before. Often clients are uncomfortable about drifting too far away from their core business—for example, if they sell insurance, they’ll typically say that they really want to create a piece of content about insurance. Whilst this is understandable from the clients’ perspective it can severely limit their chances of success. It’s definitely worth offering up a gentle challenge at this stage—I’ll often cite Red Bull, who are a great example of a company who create content based on what their consumers love, not what they sell (i.e. Red Bull sell soft drinks, but create content about extreme sports because that’s the sort of content their audience love to consume). It’s worth planting this idea early, but don’t get dragged into a fierce debate at this stage—you’ll be able to make a far more compelling argument once you’ve done your research and are pitching concrete ideas.

Processes, useful tools and sites

Now you have your brief, it’s time to begin your research.

Given that we’re looking to uncover “what websites are publishing and what’s being shared,” It won’t surprise you to learn that I pay particular attention to pieces of content and the coverage they receive. For each piece that I think is interesting I’ll note down the following:

  • The title/headline
  • A link to the coverage (and to the original piece if applicable)
  • How many social shares the coverage earned (and the original piece earned)
  • The number of linking root domains the original piece earned
  • Some notes about the piece itself: why it’s interesting, why I think it got shares/coverage
  • Any gaps in the content, whether or not it’s been executed well
  • How we might do something similar (if applicable)

Whilst I’m doing this I’ll also make a note of specific sites I see being frequently shared (I tend to check these out separately later on), any interesting bits of research (particularly if I think there might be an opportunity to do something different with the data), interesting threads on forums etc.

When it comes to kicking off your research, you can start wherever you like, but I’d recommend that you cover off each of the areas below:

What does your target audience share?

Whilst this activity might not uncover specific pieces of successful content, it’s a great way of getting a clearer understanding of your target audience, and getting a handle on the sites they read and the topics which interest them.

  • Review social profiles / feeds
    • If the company you’re working for has a Facebook page, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find some people who’ve liked the company page and have a public profile. It’s even easier on Twitter where most profiles are public. Whilst this won’t give you quantitative data, it does put a human face to your audience data and gives you a feel for what these people care about and share. In addition to uncovering specific pieces of content, this can also provide inspiration in terms of other sites you might want to investigate further and ideas for topics you might want to explore.
  • Demographics Pro
    • This service infers demographic data from your clients’ Twitter followers. I find it particularly useful if the client doesn’t know too much about their audience. In addition to demographic data, you get a breakdown of professions, interests, brand affiliations, and the other Twitter accounts they follow and who they’re most influenced by. This is a paid-for service, but there are pay-as-you-go options in addition to pay monthly plans.

Finding successful pieces of content on specific sites

If you’ve a list of sites you know your target audience read, and/or you know your client wants to get coverage on, there are a bunch of ways you can uncover interesting content:

  • Using your link research tool of choice (e.g. Open Site Explorer, Majestic, ahrefs) you can run a domain level report to see which pages have attracted the most links. This can also be useful if you want to check out commercial competitors to see which pieces of content they’ve created have attracted the most links.
  • There are also tools which enable you to uncover the most shared content on individual sites. You can use Buzzsumo to run content analysis reports on individual domains which provide data on average social shares per post, social shares by network, and social shares by content type.
  • If you just want to see the most shared content for a given domain you can run a simple search on Buzzsumo using the domain; and there’s also the option to refine by topic. For example a search like [guardian.com big data] will return the most shared content on the Guardian related to big data. You can also run similar reports using ahrefs’ Content Explorer tool.

Both Buzzsumo and ahrefs are paid tools, but both offer free trials. If you need to explore the most shared content without using a paid tool, there are other alternatives. Check out Social Crawlytics which will crawl domains and return social share data, or alternatively, you can crawl a site (or section of a site) and then run the URLs through SharedCount‘s bulk upload feature.

Finding successful pieces of content by topic

When searching by topic, I find it best to begin with a broad search and then drill down into more specific areas. For example, if I had a client in the financial services space, I’d start out looking at a broad topic like “money” rather than shooting straight to topics like loans or credit cards.

As mentioned above, both Buzzsumo and ahrefs allow you to search for the most shared content by topic and both offer advanced search options.

Further inspiration

There are also several sites I like to look at for inspiration. Whilst these sites don’t give you a great steer on whether or not a particular piece of content was actually successful, with a little digging you can quickly find the original source and pull link and social share data:

  • Visually has a community area where users can upload creative content. You can search by topic to uncover examples.
  • TrendHunter have a searchable archive of creative ideas, they feature products, creative campaigns, marketing campaigns, advertising and more. It’s best to keep your searches broad if you’re looking at this site.
  • Check out Niice (a moodboard app) which also has a searchable archive of handpicked design inspiration.
  • Searching Pinterest can allow you to unearth some interesting bits and pieces as can Google image searches and regular Google searches around particular topics.
  • Reviewing relevant sections of discussion sites like Quora can provide insight into what people are asking about particular topics which may spark a creative idea.

Moving from data to insight

By this point you’ve (hopefully) got a long list of content examples. Whilst this is a great start, effectively what you’ve got here is just data, now you need to convert this to insight.

Remember, we’re trying to answer the questions: “What are websites publishing, and what are people sharing?”

Ordinarily as I go through the creative content research process, I start to see patterns or themes emerge. For example, across a variety of topics areas you’ll see that the most shared content tends to be news. Whilst this is good to know, it’s not necessarily something that’s going to be particularly actionable. You’ll need to dig a little deeper—what else (aside from news) is given coverage? Can you split those things into categories or themes?

This is tough to explain in the abstract, so let me give you an example. We’d identified a set of music sites (e.g. Rolling Stone, NME, CoS, Stereogum, Pitchfork) as target publishers for a client.

Here’s a summary of what I concluded following my research:

The most-shared content on these music publications is news: album launches, new singles, videos of performances etc. As such, if we can work a news hook into whatever we create, this could positively influence our chances of gaining coverage.

Aside from news, the content which gains traction tends to fall into one of the following categories:

Earlier in this post I mentioned that it can be particularly tough to create content which attracts coverage and shares if clients feel strongly that they want to do something directly related to their product or service. The example I gave at the outset was a client who sold insurance and was really keen to create something about insurance. You’re now in a great position to win an argument with data, as thanks to your research you’ll be able to cite several pieces of insurance-related content which have struggled to gain traction. But it’s not all bad news as you’ll also be able to cite other topics which are relevant to the client’s target audience and stand a better chance of gaining coverage and shares.

Avoiding the pitfalls

There are potential pitfalls when it comes to creative content research in that it’s easy to leap to erroneous conclusions. Here’s some things to watch out for:

Make sure you’re identifying outliers…

When seeking out successful pieces of content you need to be certain that what you’re looking at is actually an outlier. For example, the average post on BuzzFeed gets over 30k social shares. As such, that post you found with just 10k shares is not an outlier. It’s done significantly worse than average. It’s therefore not the best post to be holding up as a fabulous example of what to create to get shares.

Don’t get distracted by formats…

Pay more attention to the idea than the format. For example, the folks at Mashable, kindly covered an infographic about Instagram which we created for a client. However, the takeaway here is not that Instagram infographics get coverage on Mashable. Mashable didn’t cover this because we created an infographic. They covered the piece because it told a story in a compelling and unusual way.

You probably shouldn’t create a listicle…

This point is related to the point above. In my experience, unless you’re a publisher with a huge, engaged social following, that listicle of yours is unlikely to gain traction. Listicles on huge publisher sites get shares, listicles on client sites typically don’t. This is doubly important if you’re also seeking coverage, as listicles on clients sites don’t typically get links or coverage on other sites.

How we use the research to inform our ideation process

At Distilled, we typically take a creative brief and complete creative content research and then move into the ideation process. A summary of the research is included within the creative brief, and this, along with a copy of the full creative content research is shared with the team.

The research acts as inspiration and direction and is particularly useful in terms of identifying potential topics to explore but doesn’t mean team members don’t still do further research of their own.

This process by no means acts as a silver bullet, but it definitely helps us come up with ideas.


Thanks for sticking with me to the end!

I’d love to hear more about your creative content research processes and any tips you have for finding inspirational content. Do let me know via the comments.

Image credits: Research, typing, audience, inspiration, kitteh.

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How to Combat 5 of the SEO World’s Most Infuriating Problems – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

These days, most of us have learned that spammy techniques aren’t the way to go, and we have a solid sense for the things we should be doing to rank higher, and ahead of our often spammier competitors. Sometimes, maddeningly, it just doesn’t work. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand talks about five things that can infuriate SEOs with the best of intentions, why those problems exist, and what we can do about them.

For reference, here’s a still of this week’s whiteboard. Click on it to open a high resolution image in a new tab!

What SEO problems make you angry?

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re chatting about some of the most infuriating things in the SEO world, specifically five problems that I think plague a lot of folks and some of the ways that we can combat and address those.

I’m going to start with one of the things that really infuriates a lot of new folks to the field, especially folks who are building new and emerging sites and are doing SEO on them. You have all of these best practices list. You might look at a web developer’s cheat sheet or sort of a guide to on-page and on-site SEO. You go, “Hey, I’m doing it. I’ve got my clean URLs, my good, unique content, my solid keyword targeting, schema markup, useful internal links, my XML sitemap, and my fast load speed. I’m mobile friendly, and I don’t have manipulative links.”

Great. “Where are my results? What benefit am I getting from doing all these things, because I don’t see one?” I took a site that was not particularly SEO friendly, maybe it’s a new site, one I just launched or an emerging site, one that’s sort of slowly growing but not yet a power player. I do all this right stuff, and I don’t get SEO results.

This makes a lot of people stop investing in SEO, stop believing in SEO, and stop wanting to do it. I can understand where you’re coming from. The challenge is not one of you’ve done something wrong. It’s that this stuff, all of these things that you do right, especially things that you do right on your own site or from a best practices perspective, they don’t increase rankings. They don’t. That’s not what they’re designed to do.

1) Following best practices often does nothing for new and emerging sites

This stuff, all of these best practices are designed to protect you from potential problems. They’re designed to make sure that your site is properly optimized so that you can perform to the highest degree that you are able. But this is not actually rank boosting stuff unfortunately. That is very frustrating for many folks. So following a best practices list, the idea is not, “Hey, I’m going to grow my rankings by doing this.”

On the flip side, many folks do these things on larger, more well-established sites, sites that have a lot of ranking signals already in place. They’re bigger brands, they have lots of links to them, and they have lots of users and usage engagement signals. You fix this stuff. You fix stuff that’s already broken, and boom, rankings pop up. Things are going well, and more of your pages are indexed. You’re getting more search traffic, and it feels great. This is a challenge, on our part, of understanding what this stuff does, not a challenge on the search engine’s part of not ranking us properly for having done all of these right things.

2) My competition seems to be ranking on the back of spammy or manipulative links

What’s going on? I thought Google had introduced all these algorithms to kind of shut this stuff down. This seems very frustrating. How are they pulling this off? I look at their link profile, and I see a bunch of the directories, Web 2.0 sites — I love that the spam world decided that that’s Web 2.0 sites — article sites, private blog networks, and do follow blogs.

You look at this stuff and you go, “What is this junk? It’s terrible. Why isn’t Google penalizing them for this?” The answer, the right way to think about this and to come at this is: Are these really the reason that they rank? I think we need to ask ourselves that question.

One thing that we don’t know, that we can never know, is: Have these links been disavowed by our competitor here?

I’ve got my HulksIncredibleStore.com and their evil competitor Hulk-tastrophe.com. Hulk-tastrophe has got all of these terrible links, but maybe they disavowed those links and you would have no idea. Maybe they didn’t build those links. Perhaps those links came in from some other place. They are not responsible. Google is not treating them as responsible for it. They’re not actually what’s helping them.

If they are helping, and it’s possible they are, there are still instances where we’ve seen spam propping up sites. No doubt about it.

I think the next logical question is: Are you willing to loose your site or brand? What we don’t see anymore is we almost never see sites like this, who are ranking on the back of these things and have generally less legitimate and good links, ranking for two or three or four years. You can see it for a few months, maybe even a year, but this stuff is getting hit hard and getting hit frequently. So unless you’re willing to loose your site, pursuing their links is probably not a strategy.

Then what other signals, that you might not be considering potentially links, but also non-linking signals, could be helping them rank? I think a lot of us get blinded in the SEO world by link signals, and we forget to look at things like: Do they have a phenomenal user experience? Are they growing their brand? Are they doing offline kinds of things that are influencing online? Are they gaining engagement from other channels that’s then influencing their SEO? Do they have things coming in that I can’t see? If you don’t ask those questions, you can’t really learn from your competitors, and you just feel the frustration.

3) I have no visibility or understanding of why my rankings go up vs down

On my HulksIncredibleStore.com, I’ve got my infinite stretch shorts, which I don’t know why he never wears — he should really buy those — my soothing herbal tea, and my anger management books. I look at my rankings and they kind of jump up all the time, jump all over the place all the time. Actually, this is pretty normal. I think we’ve done some analyses here, and the average page one search results shift is 1.5 or 2 position changes daily. That’s sort of the MozCast dataset, if I’m recalling correctly. That means that, over the course of a week, it’s not uncommon or unnatural for you to be bouncing around four, five, or six positions up, down, and those kind of things.

I think we should understand what can be behind these things. That’s a very simple list. You made changes, Google made changes, your competitors made changes, or searcher behavior has changed in terms of volume, in terms of what they were engaging with, what they’re clicking on, what their intent behind searches are. Maybe there was just a new movie that came out and in one of the scenes Hulk talks about soothing herbal tea. So now people are searching for very different things than they were before. They want to see the scene. They’re looking for the YouTube video clip and those kind of things. Suddenly Hulk’s soothing herbal tea is no longer directing as well to your site.

So changes like these things can happen. We can’t understand all of them. I think what’s up to us to determine is the degree of analysis and action that’s actually going to provide a return on investment. Looking at these day over day or week over week and throwing up our hands and getting frustrated probably provides very little return on investment. Looking over the long term and saying, “Hey, over the last 6 months, we can observe 26 weeks of ranking change data, and we can see that in aggregate we are now ranking higher and for more keywords than we were previously, and so we’re going to continue pursuing this strategy. This is the set of keywords that we’ve fallen most on, and here are the factors that we’ve identified that are consistent across that group.” I think looking at rankings in aggregate can give us some real positive ROI. Looking at one or two, one week or the next week probably very little ROI.

4) I cannot influence or affect change in my organization because I cannot accurately quantify, predict, or control SEO

That’s true, especially with things like keyword not provided and certainly with the inaccuracy of data that’s provided to us through Google’s Keyword Planner inside of AdWords, for example, and the fact that no one can really control SEO, not fully anyway.

You get up in front of your team, your board, your manager, your client and you say, “Hey, if we don’t do these things, traffic will suffer,” and they go, “Well, you can’t be sure about that, and you can’t perfectly predict it. Last time you told us something, something else happened. So because the data is imperfect, we’d rather spend money on channels that we can perfectly predict, that we can very effectively quantify, and that we can very effectively control.” That is understandable. I think that businesses have a lot of risk aversion naturally, and so wanting to spend time and energy and effort in areas that you can control feels a lot safer.

Some ways to get around this are, first off, know your audience. If you know who you’re talking to in the room, you can often determine the things that will move the needle for them. For example, I find that many managers, many boards, many executives are much more influenced by competitive pressures than they are by, “We won’t do as well as we did before, or we’re loosing out on this potential opportunity.” Saying that is less powerful than saying, “This competitor, who I know we care about and we track ourselves against, is capturing this traffic and here’s how they’re doing it.”

Show multiple scenarios. Many of the SEO presentations that I see and have seen and still see from consultants and from in-house folks come with kind of a single, “Hey, here’s what we predict will happen if we do this or what we predict will happen if we don’t do this.” You’ve got to show multiple scenarios, especially when you know you have error bars because you can’t accurately quantify and predict. You need to show ranges.

So instead of this, I want to see: What happens if we do it a little bit? What happens if we really overinvest? What happens if Google makes a much bigger change on this particular factor than we expect or our competitors do a much bigger investment than we expect? How might those change the numbers?

Then I really do like bringing case studies, especially if you’re a consultant, but even in-house there are so many case studies in SEO on the Web today, you can almost always find someone who’s analogous or nearly analogous and show some of their data, some of the results that they’ve seen. Places like SEMrush, a tool that offers competitive intelligence around rankings, can be great for that. You can show, hey, this media site in our sector made these changes. Look at the delta of keywords they were ranking for versus R over the next six months. Correlation is not causation, but that can be a powerful influencer showing those kind of things.

Then last, but not least, any time you’re going to get up like this and present to a group around these topics, if you very possibly can, try to talk one-on-one with the participants before the meeting actually happens. I have found it almost universally the case that when you get into a group setting, if you haven’t had the discussions beforehand about like, “What are your concerns? What do you think is not valid about this data? Hey, I want to run this by you and get your thoughts before we go to the meeting.” If you don’t do that ahead of time, people can gang up and pile on. One person says, “Hey, I don’t think this is right,” and everybody in the room kind of looks around and goes, “Yeah, I also don’t think that’s right.” Then it just turns into warfare and conflict that you don’t want or need. If you address those things beforehand, then you can include the data, the presentations, and the “I don’t know the answer to this and I know this is important to so and so” in that presentation or in that discussion. It can be hugely helpful. Big difference between winning and losing with that.

5) Google is biasing to big brands. It feels hopeless to compete against them

A lot of people are feeling this hopelessness, hopelessness in SEO about competing against them. I get that pain. In fact, I’ve felt that very strongly for a long time in the SEO world, and I think the trend has only increased. This comes from all sorts of stuff. Brands now have the little dropdown next to their search result listing. There are these brand and entity connections. As Google is using answers and knowledge graph more and more, it’s feeling like those entities are having a bigger influence on where things rank and where they’re visible and where they’re pulling from.

User and usage behavior signals on the rise means that big brands, who have more of those signals, tend to perform better. Brands in the knowledge graph, brands growing links without any effort, they’re just growing links because they’re brands and people point to them naturally. Well, that is all really tough and can be very frustrating.

I think you have a few choices on the table. First off, you can choose to compete with brands where they can’t or won’t. So this is areas like we’re going after these keywords that we know these big brands are not chasing. We’re going after social channels or people on social media that we know big brands aren’t. We’re going after user generated content because they have all these corporate requirements and they won’t invest in that stuff. We’re going after content that they refuse to pursue for one reason or another. That can be very effective.

You better be building, growing, and leveraging your competitive advantage. Whenever you build an organization, you’ve got to say, “Hey, here’s who is out there. This is why we are uniquely better or a uniquely better choice for this set of customers than these other ones.” If you can leverage that, you can generally find opportunities to compete and even to win against big brands. But those things have to become obvious, they have to become well-known, and you need to essentially build some of your brand around those advantages, or they’re not going to give you help in search. That includes media, that includes content, that includes any sort of press and PR you’re doing. That includes how you do your own messaging, all of these things.

(C) You can choose to serve a market or a customer that they don’t or won’t. That can be a powerful way to go about search, because usually search is bifurcated by the customer type. There will be slightly different forms of search queries that are entered by different kinds of customers, and you can pursue one of those that isn’t pursued by the competition.

Last, but not least, I think for everyone in SEO we all realize we’re going to have to become brands ourselves. That means building the signals that are typically associated with brands — authority, recognition from an industry, recognition from a customer set, awareness of our brand even before a search has happened. I talked about this in a previous Whiteboard Friday, but I think because of these things, SEO is becoming a channel that you benefit from as you grow your brand rather than the channel you use to initially build your brand.

All right, everyone. Hope these have been helpful in combating some of these infuriating, frustrating problems and that we’ll see some great comments from you guys. I hope to participate in those as well, and we’ll catch you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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How Much Has Link Building Changed in Recent Years?

Posted by Paddy_Moogan

I get asked this question a lot. It’s mainly asked by people who are considering buying my link building book and want to know whether it’s still up to date. This is understandable given that the first edition was published in February 2013 and our industry has a deserved reputation for always changing.

I find myself giving the same answer, even though I’ve been asked it probably dozens of times in the last two years—”not that much”. I don’t think this is solely due to the book itself standing the test of time, although I’ll happily take a bit of credit for that 🙂 I think it’s more a sign of our industry as a whole not changing as much as we’d like to think.

I started to question myself and if I was right and honestly, it’s one of the reasons it has taken me over two years to release the second edition of the book.

So I posed this question to a group of friends not so long ago, some via email and some via a Facebook group. I was expecting to be called out by many of them because my position was that in reality, it hasn’t actually changed that much. The thing is, many of them agreed and the conversations ended with a pretty long thread with lots of insights. In this post, I’d like to share some of them, share what my position is and talk about what actually has changed.

My personal view

Link building hasn’t changed as much we think it has.

The core principles of link building haven’t changed. The signals around link building have changed, but mainly around new machine learning developments that have indirectly affected what we do. One thing that has definitely changed is the mindset of SEOs (and now clients) towards link building.

I think the last big change to link building came in April 2012 when Penguin rolled out. This genuinely did change our industry and put to bed a few techniques that should never have worked so well in the first place.

Since then, we’ve seen some things change, but the core principles haven’t changed if you want to build a business that will be around for years to come and not run the risk of being hit by a link related Google update. For me, these principles are quite simple:

  • You need to deserve links – either an asset you create or your product
  • You need to put this asset in front of a relevant audience who have the ability to share it
  • You need consistency – one new asset every year is unlikely to cut it
  • Anything that scales is at risk

For me, the move towards user data driving search results + machine learning has been the biggest change we’ve seen in recent years and it’s still going.

Let’s dive a bit deeper into all of this and I’ll talk about how this relates to link building.

The typical mindset for building links has changed

I think that most SEOs are coming round to the idea that you can’t get away with building low quality links any more, not if you want to build a sustainable, long-term business. Spammy link building still works in the short-term and I think it always will, but it’s much harder than it used to be to sustain websites that are built on spam. The approach is more “churn and burn” and spammers are happy to churn through lots of domains and just make a small profit on each one before moving onto another.

For everyone else, it’s all about the long-term and not putting client websites at risk.

This has led to many SEOs embracing different forms of link building and generally starting to use content as an asset when it comes to attracting links. A big part of me feels that it was actually Penguin in 2012 that drove the rise of content marketing amongst SEOs, but that’s a post for another day…! For today though, this goes some way towards explain the trend we see below.

Slowly but surely, I’m seeing clients come to my company already knowing that low quality link building isn’t what they want. It’s taken a few years after Penguin for it to filter down to client / business owner level, but it’s definitely happening. This is a good thing but unfortunately, the main reason for this is that most of them have been burnt in the past by SEO companies who have built low quality links without giving thought to building good quality ones too.

I have no doubt that it’s this change in mindset which has led to trends like this:

The thing is, I don’t think this was by choice.

Let’s be honest. A lot of us used the kind of link building tactics that Google no longer like because they worked. I don’t think many SEOs were under the illusion that it was genuinely high quality stuff, but it worked and it was far less risky to do than it is today. Unless you were super-spammy, the low-quality links just worked.

Fast forward to a post-Penguin world, things are far more risky. For me, it’s because of this that we see the trends like the above. As an industry, we had the easiest link building methods taken away from us and we’re left with fewer options. One of the main options is content marketing which, if you do it right, can lead to good quality links and importantly, the types of links you won’t be removing in the future. Get it wrong and you’ll lose budget and lose the trust if your boss or client in the power of content when it comes to link building.

There are still plenty of other methods to build links and sometimes we can forget this. Just look at this epic list from Jon Cooper. Even with this many tactics still available to us, it’s hard work. Way harder than it used to be.

My summary here is that as an industry, our mindset has shifted but it certainly wasn’t a voluntary shift. If the tactics that Penguin targeted still worked today, we’d still be using them.

A few other opinions…

I definitely think too many people want the next easy win. As someone surfing the edge of what Google is bringing our way, here’s my general take—SEO, in broad strokes, is changing a lot, *but* any given change is more and more niche and impacts fewer people. What we’re seeing isn’t radical, sweeping changes that impact everyone, but a sort of modularization of SEO, where we each have to be aware of what impacts our given industries, verticals, etc.”

Dr. Pete

 

I don’t feel that techniques for acquiring links have changed that much. You can either earn them through content and outreach or you can just buy them. What has changed is the awareness of “link building” outside of the SEO community. This makes link building / content marketing much harder when pitching to journalists and even more difficult when pitching to bloggers.

“Link building has to be more integrated with other channels and struggles to work in its own environment unless supported by brand, PR and social. Having other channels supporting your link development efforts also creates greater search signals and more opportunity to reach a bigger audience which will drive a greater ROI.

Carl Hendy

 

SEO has grown up in terms of more mature staff and SEOs becoming more ingrained into businesses so there is a smarter (less pressure) approach. At the same time, SEO has become more integrated into marketing and has made marketing teams and decision makers more intelligent in strategies and not pushing for the quick win. I’m also seeing that companies who used to rely on SEO and building links have gone through IPOs and the need to build 1000s of links per quarter has rightly reduced.

Danny Denhard

Signals that surround link building have changed

There is no question about this one in my mind. I actually wrote about this last year in my previous blog post where I talked about signals such as anchor text and deep links changing over time.

Many of the people I asked felt the same, here are some quotes from them, split out by the types of signal.

Domain level link metrics

I think domain level links have become increasingly important compared with page level factors, i.e. you can get a whole site ranking well off the back of one insanely strong page, even with sub-optimal PageRank flow from that page to the rest of the site.

Phil Nottingham

I’d agree with Phil here and this is what I was getting at in my previous post on how I feel “deep links” will matter less over time. It’s not just about domain level links here, it’s just as much about the additional signals available for Google to use (more on that later).

Anchor text

I’ve never liked anchor text as a link signal. I mean, who actually uses exact match commercial keywords as anchor text on the web?

SEOs. 🙂

Sure there will be natural links like this, but honestly, I struggle with the idea that it took Google so long to start turning down the dial on commercial anchor text as a ranking signal. They are starting to turn it down though, slowly but surely. Don’t get me wrong, it still matters and it still works. But like pure link spam, the barrier is a lot more lower now in terms what of constitutes too much.

Rand feels that they matter more than we’d expect and I’d mostly agree with this statement:

Exact match anchor text links still have more power than you’d expect—I think Google still hasn’t perfectly sorted what is “brand” or “branded query” from generics (i.e. they want to start ranking a new startup like meldhome.com for “Meld” if the site/brand gets popular, but they can’t quite tell the difference between that and https://moz.com/learn/seo/redirection getting a few manipulative links that say “redirect”)

Rand Fishkin

What I do struggle with though, is that Google still haven’t figured this out and that short-term, commercial anchor text spam is still so effective. Even for a short burst of time.

I don’t think link building as a concept has changed loads—but I think links as a signal have, mainly because of filters and penalties but I don’t see anywhere near the same level of impact from coverage anymore, even against 18 months ago.

Paul Rogers

New signals have been introduced

It isn’t just about established signals changing though, there are new signals too and I personally feel that this is where we’ve seen the most change in Google algorithms in recent years—going all the way back to Panda in 2011.

With Panda, we saw a new level of machine learning where it almost felt like Google had found a way of incorporating human reaction / feelings into their algorithms. They could then run this against a website and answer questions like the ones included in this post. Things such as:

  • “Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?”
  • “Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?”
  • “Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?”

It is a touch scary that Google was able to run machine learning against answers to questions like this and write an algorithm to predict the answers for any given page on the web. They have though and this was four years ago now.

Since then, they’ve made various moves to utilize machine learning and AI to build out new products and improve their search results. For me, this was one of the biggest and went pretty unnoticed by our industry. Well, until Hummingbird came along I feel pretty sure that we have Ray Kurzweil to thank for at least some of that.

There seems to be more weight on theme/topic related to sites, though it’s hard to tell if this is mostly link based or more user/usage data based. Google is doing a good job of ranking sites and pages that don’t earn the most links but do provide the most relevant/best answer. I have a feeling they use some combination of signals to say “people who perform searches like this seem to eventually wind up on this website—let’s rank it.” One of my favorite examples is the Audubon Society ranking for all sorts of birding-related searches with very poor keyword targeting, not great links, etc. I think user behavior patterns are stronger in the algo than they’ve ever been.

– Rand Fishkin

Leading on from what Rand has said, it’s becoming more and more common to see search results that just don’t make sense if you look at the link metrics—but are a good result.

For me, the move towards user data driving search results + machine learning advanced has been the biggest change we’ve seen in recent years and it’s still going.

Edit: since drafting this post, Tom Anthony released this excellent blog post on his views on the future of search and the shift to data-driven results. I’d recommend reading that as it approaches this whole area from a different perspective and I feel that an off-shoot of what Tom is talking about is the impact on link building.

You may be asking at this point, what does machine learning have to do with link building?

Everything. Because as strong as links are as a ranking signal, Google want more signals and user signals are far, far harder to manipulate than established link signals. Yes it can be done—I’ve seen it happen. There have even been a few public tests done. But it’s very hard to scale and I’d venture a guess that only the top 1% of spammers are capable of doing it, let alone maintaining it for a long period of time. When I think about the process for manipulation here, I actually think we go a step beyond spammers towards hackers and more cut and dry illegal activity.

For link building, this means that traditional methods of manipulating signals are going to become less and less effective as these user signals become stronger. For us as link builders, it means we can’t keep searching for that silver bullet or the next method of scaling link building just for an easy win. The fact is that scalable link building is always going to be at risk from penalization from Google—I don’t really want to live a life where I’m always worried about my clients being hit by the next update. Even if Google doesn’t catch up with a certain method, machine learning and user data mean that these methods may naturally become less effective and cost efficient over time.

There are of course other things such as social signals that have come into play. I certainly don’t feel like these are a strong ranking factor yet, but with deals like this one between Google and Twitter being signed, I wouldn’t be surprised if that ever-growing dataset is used at some point in organic results. The one advantage that Twitter has over Google is it’s breaking news freshness. Twitter is still way quicker at breaking news than Google is—140 characters in a tweet is far quicker than Google News! Google know this which is why I feel they’ve pulled this partnership back into existence after a couple of years apart.

There is another important point to remember here and it’s nicely summarised by Dr. Pete:

At the same time, as new signals are introduced, these are layers not replacements. People hear social signals or user signals or authorship and want it to be the link-killer, because they already fucked up link-building, but these are just layers on top of on-page and links and all of the other layers. As each layer is added, it can verify the layers that came before it and what you need isn’t the magic signal but a combination of signals that generally matches what Google expects to see from real, strong entities. So, links still matter, but they matter in concert with other things, which basically means it’s getting more complicated and, frankly, a bit harder. Of course, on one wants to hear that.”

– Dr. Pete

The core principles have not changed

This is the crux of everything for me. With all the changes listed above, the key is that the core principles around link building haven’t changed. I could even argue that Penguin didn’t change the core principles because the techniques that Penguin targeted should never have worked in the first place. I won’t argue this too much though because even Google advised website owners to build directory links at one time.

You need an asset

You need to give someone a reason to link to you. Many won’t do it out of the goodness of their heart! One of the most effective ways to do this is to develop a content asset and use this as your reason to make people care. Once you’ve made someone care, they’re more likely to share the content or link to it from somewhere.

You need to promote that asset to the right audience

I really dislike the stance that some marketers take when it comes to content promotion—build great content and links will come.

No. Sorry but for the vast majority of us, that’s simply not true. The exceptions are people that sky dive from space or have huge existing audiences to leverage.

You simply have to spend time promoting your content or your asset for it to get shares and links. It is hard work and sometimes you can spend a long time on it and get little return, but it’s important to keep working at until you’re at a point where you have two things:

  • A big enough audience where you can almost guarantee at least some traffic to your new content along with some shares
  • Enough strong relationships with relevant websites who you can speak to when new content is published and stand a good chance of them linking to it

Getting to this point is hard—but that’s kind of the point. There are various hacks you can use along the way but it will take time to get right.

You need consistency

Leading on from the previous point. It takes time and hard work to get links to your content—the types of links that stand the test of time and you’re not going to be removing in 12 months time anyway! This means that you need to keep pushing content out and getting better each and every time. This isn’t to say you should just churn content out for the sake of it, far from it. I am saying that with each piece of content you create, you will learn to do at least one thing better the next time. Try to give yourself the leverage to do this.

Anything scalable is at risk

Scalable link building is exactly what Google has been trying to crack down on for the last few years. Penguin was the biggest move and hit some of the most scalable tactics we had at our disposal. When you scale something, you often lose some level of quality, which is exactly what Google doesn’t want when it comes to links. If you’re still relying on tactics that could fall into the scalable category, I think you need to be very careful and just look at the trend in the types of links Google has been penalizing to understand why.

The part Google plays in this

To finish up, I want to briefly talk about the part that Google plays in all of this and shaping the future they want for the web.

I’ve always tried to steer clear of arguments involving the idea that Google is actively pushing FUD into the community. I’ve preferred to concentrate more on things I can actually influence and change with my clients rather than what Google is telling us all to do.

However, for the purposes of this post, I want to talk about it.

General paranoia has increased. My bet is there are some companies out there carrying out zero specific linkbuilding activity through worry.

Dan Barker

Dan’s point is a very fair one and just a day or two after reading this in an email, I came across a page related to a client’s target audience that said:

“We are not publishing guest posts on SITE NAME any more. All previous guest posts are now deleted. For more information, see www.mattcutts.com/blog/guest-blogging/“.

I’ve reworded this as to not reveal the name of the site, but you get the point.

This is silly. Honestly, so silly. They are a good site, publish good content, and had good editorial standards. Yet they have ignored all of their own policies, hard work, and objectives to follow a blog post from Matt. I’m 100% confident that it wasn’t sites like this one that Matt was talking about in this blog post.

This is, of course, from the publishers’ angle rather than the link builders’ angle, but it does go to show the effect that statements from Google can have. Google know this so it does make sense for them to push out messages that make their jobs easier and suit their own objectives—why wouldn’t they? In a similar way, what did they do when they were struggling to classify at scale which links are bad vs. good and they didn’t have a big enough web spam team? They got us to do it for them 🙂

I’m mostly joking here, but you see the point.

The most recent infamous mobilegeddon update, discussed here by Dr. Pete is another example of Google pushing out messages that ultimately scared a lot of people into action. Although to be fair, I think that despite the apparent small impact so far, the broad message from Google is a very serious one.

Because of this, I think we need to remember that Google does have their own agenda and many shareholders to keep happy. I’m not in the camp of believing everything that Google puts out is FUD, but I’m much more sensitive and questioning of the messages now than I’ve ever been.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your feedback and thoughts in the comments.

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Moz’s 2014 Annual Report

Posted by SarahBird

Moz has a tradition of sharing its financials (check out 2012 and 2013 for funzies). It’s an important part of TAGFEE.

Why do we do it? Moz gets its strength from the community of marketers and entrepreneurs that support it. We celebrated 10 years of our community last October. In some ways, the purpose of this report is to give you an inside look into our company. It’s one of many lenses that tell the story of Moz.

Yep. I know. It’s April. I’m not proud. Better late than never, right?

I had a very long and extensive version of this post planned, something closer to last year’s extravaganza. I finally had to admit to myself that I was letting the perfect become the enemy of the good (or at least the done). There was no way I could capture an entire year’s worth of ups and downs—along with supporting data—in a single blog post.

Without further ado, here’s the meat-and-potatoes 2014 Year In Review (and here’s an infographic with more statistics for your viewing pleasure!):

Moz ended 2014 with $31.3 million in revenue. About $30 million was recurring revenue (mostly from subscriptions to Moz Pro and the API).

Here’s a breakdown of all our major revenue sources:

Compared to previous years, 2014 was a much slower growth year. We knew very early that it was going to be a tough year because we started Q1 with negative growth. We worked very hard and successfully shifted the momentum back to increasingly positive quarterly growth rates. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished so far. We still have a long ways to go to meet our potential, but we’re on the path.

In subscription businesses, If you start the year with negative or even slow growth it is very hard to have meaningful annual growth. All things being equal, you’re better off having a bad quarter in Q4 than Q1. If you get a new customer in Q1, you usually earn revenue from that customer all year. If you get a new customer in Q4, it will barely make a dent in that year, although it should set you up nicely for the following year.

We exited 2014 on a good flight path, which bodes well for 2015. We slammed right into some nasty billing system challenges in Q1 2015, but still managed to grow revenue 6.5%. Mad props to the team for shifting momentum last year and for digging into the billing system challenges we’re experiencing now.

We were very successful in becoming more efficient and managing costs in 2014. Our Cost of Revenue (COR), the cost of producing what we sell, fell by 30% to $8.2 million. These savings drove our gross profit margin up from 63% in 2013 to 74%.

Our operating profit increased by 30%. Here’s a breakdown of our major expenses (both operating expenses and COR):

Total operating expenses (which don’t include COR) clocked in at about $29.9 million this year.

The efficiency gains positively impacted EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization) by pushing it up 50% year over year. In 2013, EBITDA was -$4.5 million. We improved it to -$2.1 million in 2014. We’re a VC-backed startup, so this was a planned loss.

One of the most dramatic indicators of our improved efficiency in 2014 is the substantial decline in our consumption of cash.

In 2014, we spent $1.5 million in cash. This was a planned burn, and is actually very impressive for a startup. In fact, we are intentionally increasing our burn, so we don’t expect EBITDA and cash burn to look as good in 2015! Hopefully, though, you will see that revenue growth rate increase.

Let’s check in on some other Moz KPIs:

At the end of 2014, we reported a little over 27,000 Pro users. When billing system issues hit in Q1 2015, we discovered some weird under- and over-reporting, so the number of subscribers was adjusted down by about ~450 after we scrubbed a bunch of inactive accounts out of the database. We expect accounts to stabilize and be more reliable now that we’ve fixed those issues.

We launched Moz Local about a year ago. I’m amazed and thrilled that we were able to end the year managing 27,000 locations for a range of customers. We just recently took our baby steps into the UK, and we’ve got a bunch of great additional features planned. What an incredible launch year!

We published over 300 posts combined on the Moz Blog and YouMoz. Nearly 20,000 people left comments. Well done, team!

Our content and social efforts are paying off with a 26% year-over-year increase in organic search traffic.

We continue to see good growth across many of our off-site communities, too:

The team grew to 149 people last year. We’re at ~37% women, which is nowhere near where I want it to be. We have a long way to go before the team reflects the diversity of the communities around us.

Our paid, paid vacation perk is very popular with Mozzers, and why wouldn’t it be? Everyone gets $3,000/year to use toward their vacations. In 2014, we spent over $420,000 to help our Mozzers take a break and get connected with matters most.

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Also, we’re hiring! You’ll have my undying gratitude if you send me your best software engineers. Help us, help you. 😉

Last, but certainly not least, Mozzers continue to be generous (the ‘G’ in TAGFEE) and donate to the charities of their choice. In 2014, Mozzers donated $48k, and Moz added another $72k to increase the impact of their gifts. Combining those two figures, we donated $120k to causes our team members are passionate about. That’s an average of $805 per employee!

Mozzers are optimists with initiative. I think that’s why they are so generous with their time and money to folks in need. They believe the world can be a better place if we act to change it.

That’s a wrap on 2014! A year with many ups and downs. Fortunately, Mozzers don’t quit when things get hard. They embrace TAGFEE and lean into the challenge.

Revenue is growing again. We’re still operating very efficiently, and TAGFEE is strong. We’re heads-down executing on some big projects that customers have been clamoring for. Thank you for sticking with us, and for inspiring us to make marketing better every day.

Sign up for The Moz Top 10, a semimonthly mailer updating you on the top ten hottest pieces of SEO news, tips, and rad links uncovered by the Moz team. Think of it as your exclusive digest of stuff you don’t have time to hunt down but want to read!

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