Rand & Wil Answer the Newbie's Questions: 'What is Content' by Our Favorite CEOs

My name is Charlotte, and I have been working in SEO for the past 2 years and still consider myself very new to the SEO world. When we were told that the CEO swap was really going to happen, I decided to put together 10 questions to ask Rand and Wil about a topic that really matters to me: content. In a very honest way, they both answered all my questions genuinely and helped me to understand how they envision content and its future in the SEO world. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.


Would you mind taking a few seconds to introduce yourself?

Rand: My name is Rand Fishkin. I’m normally the CEO and Founder of Moz based in Seattle, Washington. Moz is a software company that helps professional marketers track inbound channels such as organic search, social media and content. This week however, I’m the acting interim CEO of SEER Interactive.

Wil: Sure. I’m Wil Reynolds, the Founder of SEER Interactive.

Question #1 – SEO considerations apart, how would you define the term “content”?

Rand: Content is material. Its assets are accessible by others. That can mean internal, external content, it could mean visual, video or text assets. All of these things fit into the world of content. It’s a very broad term.

Wil: Content is information that people consume; that’s kind of like the broad basis for me.

Question #2 – When did you first think about content as a powerful element for SEO and the digital industry as a whole?

Rand: The first time I visited the Internet (smile) back in the late 1990’s. Before I ever got into SEO, I was building content and assets for these websites to help businesses tell their stories to consumers and customers. That is still what content does today.

Wil: I think the writing was on the wall that everybody knew you had to have content to show up in search engines. I think that content and writing content to show up on search has been around forever. But the concept of writing really quality content and understanding what an audience is looking for is really what kind of gets me excited. I’ve been kind of thinking that way for probably the last five years or so and how can we, as a company, not just get words on pages but get them there in a meaningful way.

Question #3 – What is the most important thing to take into account when talking about content to a client?

Rand: In my opinion, content needs to serve the brand’s narrative and the goal of messaging and marketing overall. If your messaging and marketing is primarily about brand awareness, your content serves a very different function than if it’s about customer acquisition or customer acquisition for a specific product or some other goal, raising money for a nonprofit. One of the things that has been interesting for us is that we’ve produced a lot of content and resources to attract candidates for employment, which is a very different purpose than attracting potential customers. And so, I think starting with: “What are my goals, why am I doing marketing, who am I trying to reach?” If you have the answers to those questions and you know why the brand exists and what the brand’s mission is and what their values are and what the goals of the brand are holistically, you know their mission and vision then you can execute with content. Otherwise, it’s very challenging.

Some of the pain points that I’ve noticed with businesses especially in the start-up world are that most of them face the challenge of connecting their content to a bigger context, to their brand story, to the goals of their marketing campaign. Many of them still have tremendous challenges of making their content accessible on multiple devices, accessible to search engines, visible to the types of people they are trying to reach. Which might mean not just being visible to Google and Bing, but may mean being visible on social media, through blogs, through content network, to the press, to PR outlets, being visible from a branding perspective so that people are sharing with each other on one-on-one types of context like email, or on content networks like YouTube or  Slideshare. I think that encompasses a lot of challenges that I still see. Tactical marketing without a strategic imperative is often pointless.

Wil: I guess for a lot of people when Panda and Penguin came, it was like “oh these tricks aren’t going to work anymore.” I’ve been hiring marketing people since 2006 because I knew this wasn’t going to work forever. SEER always had balanced a fine line. We don’t want our clients to lose right? So we saw a lot of people just buying directory links and doing low-quality spam and beating us out, but we always tried to do as little of it as possible and get the rankings that we needed and do as much content marketing as we could. Which is why I hired marketers and never tech people to do SEO, because I knew that at some point we were going to have to be able to make that switch and be able to help our clients.

Luckily we have people like Aichlee, who knows how to do both: she is a writer who loves tech and she can balance in and out. The real thing is… screw rankings, you know? I want to start writing things that achieve business objectives, so if we put together an asset that meets a need and it helps people take the next step in the funnel, that’s a bigger win in many ways than ranking for an individual keyword. That’s what we need to share with clients and help them understand about content and how SEER actually envision content creation for them.

Question #4 – Content has been a buzzword for quite some time now! What is the thing that people say about content and SEO that really upsets you? Why?

Rand: There are plenty of things that I don’t like to hear. One of my big trigger words that I frequently hear is… well, actually two things: infographics and guest posting. So it’s not that they are bad things fundamentally or inherently, it’s the way they’ve been used and abused. I’ll start with infographic; infographics are often thought of as, “hey we need links because links will give us rankings so let’s build an infographic that we can pitch to websites that will put it on there and they’ll embed it and link back to us they won’t have any choice.” Well, uuh… great! That’s just…an awful tactic that is completely non-strategic as opposed to: “let me go on the other side of that equation, we have a message that we are trying to share and that message can be told visually, through data and illustration perhaps through video. Let’s create visual assets that help to tell the story in a way that is more compelling and far easier to understand especially for visual learners and then let’s share it with the right kinds of people and the community and let’s see what kinds of feedback that we get.” That’s a great way to do a visual asset strategy as opposed to “let’s do some infographics for link building.” (Great whiteboard Friday about Infographics).

The same thing is true on guest posting though. When folks say: “Oh let’s do some guest posts, we need some links” I just want to slap my forehead. However if they say: “Hey there are audiences outside of our website that we want to reach. We know that people read these other sites pages and if we had access to that audience we could help our message reach them. How do we find something that is useful, interesting and engaging that this audience will want to read and that editors will want to promote? Now let’s find the content that’s gonna meet both of those needs and produce that and we have a guest post, you know or a guest contribution.” That works great! But usually guest posts are Blhurhhh!

Wil: I think that there is too much of “I need an article that’s 500 words, how cheaply can I get it done etc…” This still happens in the SEO industry. I doubt people are coming from a “how can I add value” perspective. They mostly think, “what’s the minimum viable product I have to put out, that is not complete garbage but that’s a couple steps above garbage.” Instead of thinking “how can I produce something amazing,” they want to create something good enough to not be filtered but that they would probably never send to anyone.

It’s like guest posting or press releases. It’s not like they are bad, but if the client you are working for has nothing really newsworthy and you do a press release just to match your monthly link building goals, you are in the wrong! That thinking never even sunk in with some people because they were SEOs who thought, “I need ten links this month and I’m going to find ways to obtain them however it is.” To be honest, that’s still something that pisses me off about SEO and content in that you still have people taking the cheap and easy way out instead of really trying to produce something great.

Question #5 – How is your content team integrated at Moz/SEER? Do they intervene and share their wisdom on a case per case basis or are they always part of the process?

Rand: Moz is a software company, but we do have a content team that is essentially inside of our marketing team. They are a very integral and integrated part of how we do marketing. Moz acquires customers primarily through inbound channels, search, social, content, email, referring links, those kinds of things. About 85% of our customers are acquired purely from organic or inbound channels, 15% are through paid channels. Content is essentially the basis, if you imagine our marketing processes being a pyramid, content is at the basis of all of this.

The only way to have success in social is because we have content to share. The way that we have success in SEO is because we have content that performs and ranks well and attracts people. The only reason why our email marketing is working is because we have a newsletter that people want to read with content that people care about. The reason that we have referring links because it points to resources we have developed and created. So our content team is a critical part of the marketing process and they touch nearly everything that is produced on the site from the user generated content to the big content projects like the Google Algorithm History or the Beginners Guide to SEO, Mozcasts, Google Algorithm monitoring or the search ranking factors. Then they are part of the natural day to day stuff like the blog.

Wil: The content team intervenes more on a case-by-case basis, even though I wish it wasn’t that way. Because the content team is relatively new at SEER, we are still figuring out how to integrate them in the whole process. The one thing we may be missing a little bit is strategy. We need to be integrated so that I don’t have to be the one that catches content creation without any strong thoughts behind it. We need to be thinking at a higher level from a strategic standpoint, earlier on in the process. SEER is probably 15 to 20% of the way there from how I would like to see content work within our company.

We have been hiring a lot of people with a writing and journalism background, so that when they come to SEER they have a real understanding of the written world and they don’t need someone to do as much with them. David would be a great example! He founded a writing nonprofit, he was not a search guy but he knows how to write and to me I’d rather make my bet on somebody who knows how to write, engage, and connect than someone who knows every little search trick in the book.

Question #6 – What would you say SEO’s and marketers are sometimes forgetting when it comes to advertising and reaching out to an audience?

Rand: I think that often times marketers don’t have a lot of empathy for their targets. We know that we are trying to attract potential customers but we don’t put ourselves in their shoes, we don’t think or operate the same way that they do. We think “oh if I interrupt them enough times with enough messages they’ll remember my brand. So therefore we are going to do this TV ad buy and this radio and this billboard and this pop over ad and this pop under and this spammy email; that will be our 7 marketing touches and they’ll remember our brand and they’ll know who we are …”  As opposed to, let me imagine myself as a customer: “Is a billboard really what is going to sell me on the value proposition of your company, is that how I want to remember you and how you want to be remembered to me? God NO! Well shit… then why are we doing it?”

That empathetic connection is missing and the CEO swap that Wil and I are doing is all about empathy. I want to live literally in Wil’s house, in his shoes, with his dog (laugh), coming to his office and be in the shoes of someone who uses Moz and knows us and is in our community and is a customer. And I think Wil’s gets to go to live the life of someone who leads a software creation team. So, I’m very passionate about empathy.

Wil: So I’m thinking about two different things and that’s why I love when SEO and Marketers work together. Marketers don’t do any keyword research, so they don’t think about “how can I determine what this audience wants, what keyword they search for, what ranks and all that…” SEOs think that way too much! That’s the reason why I’ve always hired marketers because I felt that I could train on SEO but I can’t train marketing thinking; at least I think it’s harder.

For me, SEO has probably come at it without the “does it add value to an audience” which marketers always consider, but then marketers do not take into account the “what are we going to do with this asset when it launches or what kind of keywords do we use.” They are just thinking: “Do it, slap it on the billboard and we are done!” So, I think somewhere in the middle is the right place where content lives.

Question #7 – What is your biggest content-related success with Moz or SEER? Failure?

Rand: I think our biggest content successes has been Whiteboard Friday and Whiteboard Friday did not start out tremendously successfully. In fact, it used to be the case that the average Whiteboard Friday post was less read, less consumed and less visible than nearly all of our other blog content. Over the last 3-4 years it has really switched around to where Whiteboard Friday is almost leading the pack and I think that’s the value of creating an expectation and fulfilling them on a regular basis and delivering something that has value to people with consistency.

WBF’s true value comes from the fact that it’s a familiar format with a familiar face, every week at the same time. The interaction that happens between the audience and the white board presenter which is 80% of the time that’s me. I think the human connection that’s formed through video is something that’s very powerful that a lot of SEO folks and web marketers in general don’t realize the effect of because we are used to text content and visual content. Plus we are used to saying “oh TV, that’s something of the past.” But video has been incredibly powerful, so that’s a big success for us.

Wil: Our biggest success (as much as I wish I’d like to say was a client one) was our RCS infographic. It got 800 to 1,000 linking root domains on major sites and got about 525,000 views in 16 months, so it’s pretty effin’ big! In terms of failure though… OMG, where do I start? The amount of things that SEER has failed on, that list is very long. The people we hired were more about SEO than content marketing so everything they thought about was about scale rather than connecting content with an audience. We’ve built some really bad infographics for example, nobody shared them, nobody cared about them, they didn’t go anywhere because they weren’t done by people who were thinking “if we don’t get links out of it we can totally put them on infographic directory sites.”

For example, when I send out a tweet of something I want to promote, I might sit there for a minute and think how can I get the right amount of letters in when other people may be just click the retweet button. There is a craft in the design aesthetic that traditional SEOs don’t always respect. Making sure that in your thought process your objective is to bring value to the people that are going to consume your asset is essential. The only objective is to succeed in connecting with an audience.

Question #8 – What would be 3 pieces of advice you would give to smaller businesses who want to create quality content?

Rand: I think one key is to understand what already exists in your market, what’s being done very well and conversely what has yet to be produced that is valuable,  interesting, and needed by your audience. The second thing that I would say is be careful not to get too mired in the idea that your customers and people you are trying to have as customers are your only audience because they are not. Remember that with content marketing you are trying to influence anyone and everyone who potentially touches and influences your target market.

So let’s say for example that I’m a hardware wholesaler and I’m trying to reach primarily hardware retailers, like local hardware retailers. So I say “well, I don’t want to produce this guide or this visual asset or videos because it doesn’t really appeal to my core audience.” Okay but does it appeal to their customers, or the people that influence them, or the publications that they read, or the social accounts that they might follow? Because if it does it’s probably worth doing and so I think we forget that the true circle of people that we are trying to reach with content, we make it out to be a much narrow audience than it truly is.

Wil: For small businesses I would start by thinking about the fact that there is no cost to caring. If you deeply care about your customers and their experience you will inevitably have the opportunity to produce great content. I’d also say to get used to writing, I’m not a great writer at all but I had to get stuff out there. The world isn’t if you build it they will come so you have to start writing somewhere. The first things that I wrote were garbage, disgusting and horrible but I’ve gotten better over time. My advice would be to just do it start writing and get better at it.

Another thing that I would add is that there’s usually more value sitting under your nose than you think. So for example, I’m advising a guy who works at woodworking shop. He did a post on Moz, which is one of the highest value post and all he did was to look one of my video and started to ask himself about the extra scrap wood that he has sitting around in his shop. So this guy isn’t an SEO, he is a woodworker and he came up with the idea of take all the wood scrap and take it down to the woodshop in the different high schools, bring people from his company to teach kids how to work with wood. Guess what? He got on the news because of that and I’m talking here about a super super small family business. People need to realize that everything is content and that’s the “caring more than the next guy” part where you can get great things out of it.

Question #9 – Where do you see SEO and content going in the future?

Rand: I think when it comes to all of the inbound marketing channels content, community, search, social, email, links, brand mention, branding, conversion rate optimization all of these things are going to become more and more integrated. It’s gonna become nearly impossible to separate them and perform them separately in silos and have success. That’s because search engine themselves are getting so much more sophisticated about the metrics they are considering in their ranking algorithms. I think it’s because the world of content is becoming flooded with production and with individual pieces of content, and therefore standing out from that crowd is much harder unless you are already building a social audience as well as a community.

It’s the same story with social; you can’t just be someone who shares. You also have to be the producer, the thought leader. To be successful in branding you need to touch in all the channels. It’s all becoming one thing and that’s why I like to use the term inbound marketing because I don’t want to describe seven different channels that have all these interconnected bits every time I want to say, search, social, community, etc.

Wil: I think the easy answer would be that people need to produce more content and that’s a given. I’m going to take another approach. I believe that we are going to see a resurgence of jobs where people have typically been ignored in the digital economy. Look at newspapers for example and see how often they are cutting journalists or photographers and teaching their journalists how to take pictures on their iPhones… which is happening, I’m not kidding. I feel like SEOs have kind of crapped on PR people for years and now they are like, damn we need to connect with audiences, who knows how to do that? PR people! Then it’s like “well, oh I used to write very bad content very inexpensively but now I want to try to write quality content! Who knows how to do that? Journalists!”

In my mind, photographers, journalists, PR people – all of which when clients started to invest tons of money in search and internet marketing have been sort of ignored for all those years. These jobs are going to come back with a major resurgence and these people are going to end up either as freelancers or inside of search companies. The big bet should be on them. Google wants to reward people who know how to: take great pictures, write, and engage audiences.

Bonus question: How did you like your week at Moz/SEER? Best Memory? Favorite moment?

Rand: Oh my gosh… My favorite moment um…. Well I was actually in a client meeting, one of SEER’s clients came to the office and we were in a big meeting, talking about different things you guys had achieved. The results from SEER were just amazing to see and the client was clearly super impressed and really excited. I brought Coltrane to the meeting, she was lying there in the meeting, I’m petting her while explaining multi-channel and multi touch attribution to this client and I just thought: “Yea, Client work is pretty awesome! Wil’s life is not that bad.”

Wil: I loved my week at Moz. The best thing is that I felt at home, their team is so kind, nice and so caring that it felt like I was around you all. I wrote about something that could make Moz an even better tool set than it already is. My belief is that Moz should become a competitive analysis tool that teaches you when other people are doing amazing content. I don’t really care that Moz tells me where I rank anymore, because Rand and Cyrus have been all over the world saying that they see correlations between things that get social share and rankings. What I want Moz tools to do is to show me when competitors are writing amazing content, building their audience, and connecting with their community better. In the long term if you are producing great content, building an audience and connecting with your community, you can leverage those things to get links whenever you want.

My best memory was accepting an award for Moz in front of hundreds of people as the CEO of Moz and being like: “I’m not the CEO of Moz, I’m kind of doing the CEO swap thing so… Congrats!” It was pretty funny.