Moz’s Rand Fishkin on Why Licensing Content Is for Suckers, His Favorite Wizard, and the Future of SEO

By Joe Lazauskas February 17th, 2015

For over a decade, Moz has been the SEO bible for marketers, with Rand Fishkin playing the role of lead prophet. Moz started as a consulting company and then shifted to a software and analytics venture, but at its heart, Moz has always been a publisher—the trusted place thousands of people go to cut through the bullshit and find out whatever the hell Google is really up to.

At the center of it all is Fishkin, who’s built a uniquely personal relationship with the marketing community through thousands of blog posts, hundreds of White Board Friday videos, and some deeply intimate pieces, such as this fantastic essay about his year battling depression while running Moz. Content is the engine that drives Moz’s inbound marketing machine, but it’s also more than that. As Rand likes to say, it’s part of their DNA.

I spoke with “The Wizard of Moz” to find out more about how he built an audience of over 300,000 monthly readers, where SEO is headed in 2015, why licensing content doesn’t work, and, of course, who his favorite wizard is.

Moz has been making a really strong commitment to content marketing for the better part of a decade. Why has content continued to be such a priority for you?

I think there’s two things. One is it’s part of our DNA. We believe in sharing and being transparent in putting out there the things that we’ve learned. Then the second piece is just that it continues to show tremendous return on investment for us. We have a pretty thorough content team in-house. We have a small team of three folks who work on our content team. Then we also have people around the company who contribute on a semi-regular basis, myself included.

We’ve become a hub for content and tactical and strategical advice for our industry. That platform has meant that many other contributors of content from around the marketing world want to share their stuff on Moz. We got a lot of terrific donations of content and could get contributions as well.

What about your three-person in-house team? How is that structured?

Cyrus [Shepard] leads that team. He’s our head of content and SEO. Then Isla [McKetta] and Trevor [Klein] both report up to him and they work on editing, they work on content ideas, and on filling in gaps and holes. They work on the content schedule, with external writers and our internal folks to get stuff, and promotional marketing posts about stuff that Moz is launching.

You guys post at least one thing every day. Why do you think it’s valuable to offer your audience something new on a daily basis?

Actually, we are testing whether it is the case that it’s valuable.


It’s a habit that we’ve had since 2004, when I started the blog. It’s one of those things where I was writing every night. I think one of the big reasons that that worked so well in the pre-social-media era was because the Moz comments and the Moz blogs were like the Twitter or Facebook for our little communities.

We’d post every night and there was active conversation on topics the next day. I’m not sure that, within the era of social media and the era of content, that quantity is the best thing in the world versus quality. We’re actually going to try going down to two or three posts a week and going up to eight or nine post a week and seeing what effect those things have.

Do you feel like, with two to three posts a week, you could do higher quality stuff than you’re doing right now with daily posts?

Maybe. We’re not sure about that but we want to try it.

What key metrics will you look at to determine whether that experiment is successful?

We actually have this little system called One Metric at Moz that basically collects all of our metrics and looks at how content historically has performed over time in our funnel—how visitors who touched certain content or performed in our funnel and then we correlate all the metrics. We link those up so that we can basically assign a single metric score to any given piece of content. after its first seven or eight days of performance.

[Editor’s note: Read more about One Metric here. It’s really cool.]

How much of an advantage is it to have that owned audience and community that Moz has?

I think it’s almost indescribably huge. I think if we didn’t have it, we’d be constantly working on building it.

What are the key benefits that you’ve seen?

I think that a bunch of them include cost of traffic. That’s absolutely a big one. There’s the tangible and obvious benefits of having an audience that is pre-disposed through sharing and amplifying your content. Even just hitting the publish button means that thousand of visits are going to come your way, which is crazy but pretty awesome.

You will also have a barometer. I think with a lot of folks, when they publish content, it’s tough for them to tell whether they didn’t promote it well or whether the content didn’t resonate. For us, it’s pretty easy to know that if a content resonates, it will be promoted and shared and reach lots of people.

I think it also means that our content is perceived more authoritatively because of the community behind it and because of the track [record] and history we’ve built up in the market leadership. I think there’s a high standard that the content is held to—which can be a really tough thing when you have let folks down.

Over the last 10 years, how has your approach to content marketing changed?

I’m not sure that our fundamental underlying approach to content has changed much over time. I think we still taken it to a tune of, “Hey, we want to invest in content regularly. We want to share what we learned and know. We want to collect the best opinions from people, whoever they are and wherever they are in our industry, and share them.”

We want to try and help marketers first. That’s our underlying goal. Then if it so happens that they end up becoming customers of Moz, that’s great too, but that’s a side benefit. We really don’t think about content marketing as being part of our funnel. It’s part of our mission.

What are some of the key tactics you guys have used to grow your audience over the years?

Email is certainly big, most of all the Moz Top 10, which is our bi-weekly newsletter. So is investing in different kinds of media. Obviously video with Whiteboard Friday, but also illustrations and bigger interactive pieces, like “MozCast” and “The Google Algorithm Change History.”

Big content pieces like “The Beginner’s Guide to SEO” [have also helped]. I think it’s important to balance out between daily content and big content investments that take a person or a team months to work on. Social media has been huge for us over the last five, six years as well.

We still get a good amount of referral traffic from other people blogging and sharing our stuff on the web. SEO has been terrific.

Speaking of SEO, it seems like, as Google evolves quite rapidly, there’s a lot of misconceptions out there. What do you think is the biggest misconception right now about SEO?

So many misconceptions. One big one for sure is that all SEO is manipulative and evil, and if you intentionally invest in it, then you are doing something wrong or bad. I think one of the most visible holders of that opinion is Matt Mullenweg over at WordPress. He speak at conferences and if he hears the word SEO, he’s like, “Get off my stage. You’re evil!”

Another interesting and odd one is that SEO will take care of itself—that if I publish unique content, then the search engines will rank it. Nothing could be further from the truth. SEO is a process: the way things earn attention, how they are amplified; who amplifies them; how they earn links; whether they’re targeted at things that people actually search for. Whether they solve those search queries is the user experience you provide.

I think there’s still a lot of [misguided] belief around quantity over quality. The vast vast majority of links and shares and amplification signals of all kinds are going to only the top five or 10 percent of content that gets put out. There’s not a whole lot of value in writing a decent blog post anymore. [There’s not a lot of value] unless you can be pretty extraordinary.

Ask [this]: If they’re searching for an answer to a question, would they rather reach your piece of content than anything else on the Internet right now?

Unless the answer is a slam dunk, “Yes, this is 10 times better than anything else out there,” I’m not necessarily sure it’s worth publishing.

What advice would you give brands who are stuck publishing a lot of mediocre content?

Prior to deciding you’re going to publish on a topic or coming up with an idea, I would go research everything that’s out there and make sure I have the ability to say that this piece is better than this other piece, and here’s why.

Then I need to be impartial, and just passionate enough to apply that same logic to my own work. That can be done by looking at what ranks in search engines. You can also see what’s been shared in a particular topic or niche with BuzzSumo.

I think both of those processes can help you. I’d also probably urge you to get some harsh internal critique. Find some harsh critics who can bring their judgment to bear on your work. Get them to take a look at what you’ve done.

A lot of brands are still looking for an easy way out when it comes to SEO and content marketing by simply licensing content from other publishers—like the AP, Forbes, and The New York Times—to populate their blog. Do you think that has any value?

I think certain forms of re-publishing content can add value for certain publishers and media outlets, but it’s very rare.

If you’re a small or mid-sized website and you’re licensing content from the AP and the Times, you’re probably sunk. That’s not going to do much for what you’re building. That’s not going to do much for your SEO. You may be getting some stragglers of traffic when Google accidentally thinks you’re the original source, but yeah, that’s not a great model.

On the other hand, I see folks like Slate and Salon and The Washington Post and this fantastic blog post that was written by this author in this smaller space. That can be awesome. They have a huge megaphone and they can amplify a great piece of work that maybe has only been seen by a very, very small niche community.

So licensing works for big media companies, but not for brands.

Yeah, unfortunately. I think some brands are pretty smart about this. Some brands do say, “Hey, we’ve been building an audience with content. We have an audience, we found this great niche thing, we asked this person to contribute a unique piece for us—or we got their permission to republish it—and we shared it with our audience and that helped our credibility.”

That can work, but if you’re licensing from the AP, I don’t get it. I have not seen that work.

What do you think is going to change in SEO this year? What does 2015 hold?

I think we’re seeing a few big trends ongoing. One certainly is dark traffic and loss of data. More and more search referrals are coming through without a referral strain, which is very frustrating because it means a lot of your search traffic is being reported as direct. The search traffic that is coming, through, 95 percent of it is coming without a keyword referral, so you don’t know what people searched for.

I don’t think technology has caught up to this yet. We don’t have something out there where analytics are getting predictive about saying, “Hey, this is why we think the search traffic landed on this page; it probably came with this keyword.” You see some SEOs technologies doing that, but not web analytics technologies.

I think we’re going to keep seeing trends of growth in mobile search and flatter growth in desktop search, which is okay, and we have still an insane metric ton of desktop search going on. Mobile is growing much faster and I think that is putting different requirements on publishers of all kinds—especially in terms of the formatting of content, and what the content is intended to accomplish. Because your conversion rates on mobile are just [bad]—for anything other than the most simple transactions with brands you’ve already transacted with, mobile is not a transaction-heavy device. We’re all going to have to make changes there.

With conversions so difficult on mobile, how should brands approach change?

I think what you’re trying to convert people to is familiarity, trust, or a relationship with your brand. Hopefully maybe some social sharing, maybe an email address if you’re very lucky, but not “Fill out this 10-field form” or “Go through this three-step transaction process.”

You guys are really honest and transparent talking about your successes and your failures and your challenges as a company. It’s really rare. What benefits does that bring?

I think it has both benefits and drawbacks. We don’t do that because we believe it will make us more successful or because we believe it has a high return on investment. We do that because that’s who we are. That’s what we believe in. That’s what we wish other companies and organizations and governments and people of all kinds and sizes and shapes would do. It’s not a business requirement; it’s a values judgement.

Nonetheless, it seems to work. It feels like all those type of pieces get an incredible amount of comments and engagement from your audience. It seems to resonate.

Yeah, I think they do. I would say that they have benefits and drawbacks. When we’re growing and Moz is looking really good—when even if we struggle to raise capital, our customer keep us going and we have a terrific year —I don’t think it’s anything but positive. It tells a great story.

But over the last year and a half, we’ve grown at a much much slower rate than the prior six years. We’ve encountered hardships and launched some buggy software and spent months fixing it and those kind of things. [So] I think being transparent maybe has had its drawbacks too.

People love an underdog with a story, but they don’t necessarily love a company that became a market leaders and then stumbled. I think it doesn’t matter. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the right thing for us.

Do you think content marketing is going to continue to grow in importance or is it the flavor of the day?

We’ve been doing content marketing since the dawn of the Internet and way before that. We just didn’t call it content marketing. I think SEOs called it linkbait for a while and they certainly did lots of that. I’m not sure what the Guinness Brewery Corporation called The Guinness Book of World Records, but that was certainly content marketing.

I think it will continue to be with us for a long time because great content is a great way to earn attention and awareness and trust, and to get people to engage with your brand and spread your message.

Final question: Who is your favorite wizard?

Well, probably Gandalf. He’s awesome.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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