11. Rand Fishkin, SparkToro, Lost and Founder Building Multimillion Dollar Businesses With The SEO Expert

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Rand Fishkin is the founder and CEO of SparkToro and the author of the brutally honest book, Lost and Founder, in which he details his journey in turning his startup idea into a $45 million dollar company.

Join us as Rand tells us about the business and life lessons hes learned while setting up two hugely successful companies, and why, for him, owning a multi-billion-dollar corporation isnt a measure of success. And well discuss the near-limitless marketing capabilities of SparkToro and why hes always so candid about his successes and failures.

Transcript

Chris Dreyer

Starting a new business is no easy task. In fact, in the U S nearly half of all new ventures fail within the first five years. But my guests today, didn’t just found one successful business, he went on to start another, and then he wrote a book about it to tell you how to do the same.

Rand Fishkin

Lot of folks probably know me from the company that I started and ran previously called Moz, before that SEO Moz , and that, that business was a strange and fascinating adventure. I think it taught me a ton of lessons about marketing and entrepreneurship and running a company and working with people. And a lot of those lessons came through very painful mistakes and unique experiences. And so my hope in writing Lost and Founder was to share this journey in such a way that both would be fun and interesting to read. But also that would resonate with other folks in the professional world in a way that they wouldn’t have to go through those same painful experiences to learn those lessons.

Chris Dreyer

My guest today is Rand Fishkin. Rand is the founder and CEO of SparkToro, a powerful tool that helps businesses find out who their customers are and what they want. He’s also the author of Lost and Founder, a book all about how to make a success of your startup based on the lesson he’s learned from his own triumphs and struggles. Join us as we discuss why he wrote his book? How law firm owners can use SparkToro to give them an edge on marketing. And what Rand‘s top tips are for better SEO. That’s coming up on The Rankings Podcast, the show where founders entrepreneurs and elite personal injury attorneys share their inspiring stories about what they did to get to the top and what keeps them there. I’m Chris Dreyer, stay with us. I asked Rand to take us back to the start and tell us a bit about those early days before he was heading a multi-million dollar company and how those experiences resulted in his book being hailed as one of the most honest reads of 2018.

Rand Fishkin

Yeah, so I was a college dropout who wanted to design websites and I started working with my mom, Gillian, and she had been running a small business marketing consultancy doing like business cards, letterhead logo, yellow page ads since 1981, she’d been running this business. 20 years in I joined and we actually struggled immensely. Had a, there was a story in there about debt collectors coming after me about, near bankruptcy about family dynamics regarding that stuff and challenges there. And then the, I think that painful experience really resulted in me being very transparent in the future cause we had so much pain around secrecy and deception and Keeping things from from each other. And I tried to share the experience too, of becoming CEO of Moz. We fundraised, we raised a venture round and in 2007 and switched to a software model from a consulting model . That had a lot of interesting challenges and opportunities. A tremendous amount of learning, I think, being a venture backed entrepreneur, upgraded a ton of my skills and knowledge, but also probably with the wrong move for the business as a whole. And I think it’s very rare that people are willing to speak about that publicly or authentically because , as several entrepreneur, friends and venture capitalist investors have noted to me since the book’s publication, you’re never going to get funded again.

Chris Dreyer

So that’s different from everything from an outside person’s look, that’s everything contrary to what I’ve been, what I’ve been told. When I hear go to Silicone Valley. Raise a lot of money and kind of jump right in. So I liked the different approach. I like the transparency and I, I definitely need to read the book because, being a business owner myself, there’s always those ideas, do I get more funding to accelerate growth? Do I… yeah I definitely want to read it and I think thanks for sharing.

Rand Fishkin

I could go into, so I think one of the things that, that lost and founder does is each chapter conceivably could be its own book. You know how a lot of business books, I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, Chris, we both, I can see your shelf. You can see mine. Like a lot of business books are the kind of thing where you could read the Wikipedia summary of the book. And it’s not as powerful. It’s not as resonant, but you get the idea like, you know what the book is about.

Chris Dreyer

Start with why.

Rand Fishkin

Right books basically watch the five minute video version and get 95% of the value from, from start with why. But that’s true for tons and tons of business books, they basically take one idea, turn it into a book. And then that puts you on the speaking circuit, et cetera, et cetera. Lost and Founder is the opposite of that. I I did not want to have a singular idea that, could really be summarized in a few paragraphs. Lost Lawson founder is basically a long series of many of those. Uniquely wrapped into the different stories of this journey. And as a result, there’s a lot in there about, building a team how to think about that, how to potentially avoid some of the pitfalls of team management and team building if that’s something you don’t necessarily want to do . How to structure internal communications, right? We learned a ton of painful lessons around that stuff. Trying to scale up from, five people to 200 people. What that might look like, how to run processes and procedures, how to build a more structured environment, whether to build a more structured environment. Is that the right thing to do? Do you want to truly entrepreneurial culture, all that kind of stuff. Diversity and inclusion. Work and some of the bias that we experienced and certainly contributed to and evolving thoughts over time, right? Not just in terms of the cultural conversation around that, but in terms of the actual, the business impact as well, and the, the foolish mistakes that we made on that front. Yeah. So just all over the place.

Chris Dreyer

So there’s tons of business lessons, sharing the mistakes, what you learned. I can’t think of the exact saying it’s something like. Learning from other’s mistakes. You’re smart. I can’t remember the exact, but it’s learning from others.

Rand Fishkin

Yeah. Yeah. If can do, and it’s such a cheat code, like it will really accelerate your ability to avoid painful mistakes and make great decisions. If you can learn from other people’s experiences rather than exclusively your own. And I think, I’m someone who. Tries to do that now, but obviously, for a lot of my career especially because I think I got lucky in a ton of ways, right? Like college drop out, but, had a privileged background, like my, my parents paid for most of my college. And I dropped out of college before it became really expensive. Like I was able to pay for my last two semesters at the university of Washington working a $4 and $75 an hour job at a retail shop and that’s just not possible anymore. And I yeah…

Chris Dreyer

I would push back to you a little there. I would push, I said I from an outside observer would push back. I have seen over many years the consistency. Of your growth the whiteboard Fridays, the just consistent education you’re putting out to the community. That’s a lot of work. That’s a grind and it’s obviously that you enjoy doing that type of work. And it comes through.

Rand Fishkin

Getting lucky there too, right? If I had been teaching, I don’t know, dental marketing via Whiteboard, would that have gone great? But SEO, especially in the, 2003 to 2016 era. Oh my God. That was just a crazy growth ramp for that industry. Getting lucky with hitting that timing hitting a group of people who actually cared and paid attention, wanted that content in those kinds of ways, being one of the first people to do video content like that. I think if I had come in five years after video content had been popular, it would have been a different story. So there’s definitely lessons to learn there. Like I think. I think people who are picking up podcasting now in the last few years, super smart, five years from now, it’s going to be so hard to build a podcast. And right now Oh, you might be in that golden age, where you’re hitting the growth ramp.

Chris Dreyer

Yeah. It’s going to be more saturated in the future, so it’s gonna be harder to stand out. You’ve got to create. It’s gotta be more entertaining, more specific to an audience. So before we jump into SparkToro, and I really want to talk a lot about SparkToro, I’m really excited about this. I would be remiss if I didn’t ask the world’s leading SEO expert and SEO related question. All right. So I’m going to do…

Rand Fishkin

…I’m a couple of years out from SEO but I’ll take the title anyway. Sure.

Chris Dreyer

Pareto principle what, are the 80 20 actions that drive the most impact when it comes to search engine optimization? Super broad question, but I just kinda want to know what’s your thought here?

Rand Fishkin

So I, I think there’s a bunch of different ways to answer that and many reasonable ones, but I think if you are someone who’s trying to figure out, how do I rank number one for a keyword or a set of keywords in Google today? My sense is that the classic rankings factors of, I get more links with better anchor texts than my competition and I’m on a higher authority domain, and I am putting out more content and the content as well, optimized with sort of keywords and related phrases, all that kind of stuff. Much of it. While still best practice, I would urge you to do it. Don’t. Don’t, not invest in it, but you will often find that you can get all of those factors, and still be beaten by someone who does three things that many SEOs who focus on the tactical technical details don’t do. And that is number one, build a brand that people prefer, right? If I see your brand versus five other brands in the search results, which one do I trust the most? Which one am I most likely to think, oh, they probably have. I’ve heard of them. I know them. I like them. I trust them. I’m going to click them even if they’re the fifth result instead of the first one. So I think that’s one of the huge things, right? It sucks that to be a great SEO, you need to be a great brand builder, but that’s the reality we’re living in. Second, I think that solving the searcher’s query in the way that gets the fewest number of people who do visit your page, um, unsatisfied with their search result in any way is a huge win. And so historically, you can think of a simple example like this, Chris, I’m sure you’ve seen these all the time. Remember five years ago, six years ago, seven years ago. When a lot of times in the search results, you’d see like a landing page that promised you the thing you wanted. If you filled out some information, right? Think of like webinar landing pages or white papers, a white page landing page. And they were like, great. Especially in B2B, this was common, right? Okay, you want to get this unique data or our PDF, download, fill out this stuff. And they tend with a few exceptions. They tend not to rank so well anymore because they don’t immediately instantly answer the searchers issue. And that is a cheat code, like being able to solve the searcher’s problem faster, better, more consistently, more comprehensively than anyone else. Such that no one ever clicks the back button and chooses a different Google result. Huge third one. And this is the secret tip. This is my if you want to rank number one in Google, you don’t have to do anything else, but this I’m serious be owned by the Alphabet Corporation. It doesn’t matter how crappy your results are. If you’re owned by Alphabet, Google will rank you number one. It’s like the old Wikipedia ranks, number one for everything. Google ranks, number one in front of everything.

Chris Dreyer

Yeah. So I completely agree first, the brand statement. That’s going to help you when they’re looking at those signals, the click through rates are going to be there. So that’s a great signal. Answering consumer intent. I think we could even talk, we could talk a long time about just intent in general. I think even the placement of your information on the page is important. If you answer the intent. First the other thing and I, without going down too far, rabbit hole is I think one of the reasons, and this is just the theory guys where, we’re just talking here that longer content ranks better is because it answers multiple versions of intent. So if the query is shorter, then it could potentially have multiple versions of intent. So anyways…

Rand Fishkin

Right. No I’m completely with you, right? I think I don’t think it’s actually length of content that Google is looking for. I think it’s just correlation that oftentimes long form content or content that answers many questions means that people don’t go back and look for something else because they didn’t get their problems solved. So if you can do that in a short form way, you’ll probably do even better. But the thing is people struggle with that. I also think it’s true that user experience and UI, right? Visual, UI, and UX, they create a trust sort of signal with your users. You land on something that looks like it’s from 1998. Yeah, that looks a little sketchy. I’m going to you click the back button pretty quick here, my friends . It’s got a bunch of ad overlays and like nasty pop-ups and stuff. I’m going to click that back button. Oh, this looks clean. This looks trustworthy. It looks like something I’ve visited before. It has that sense of authority to it. I’m going to trust it. I’m going to stay on it. I’m going to be more likely to share it more likely to link to it, more likely to cite it. All those things.

Chris Dreyer

A hundred percent agree, a hundred percent agree. Alongside author and SEO wizard, Rand has another feather in his cap as a marketing insights expert. His latest tools, SparkToro, is helping marketers and businesses get the insights they need to make sure their ads are reaching the right crowds. I wanted to find out exactly what SparkToro does and how it could help someone to find the best places to reach their market.

Rand Fishkin

Yeah. So really what we are trying to help people solve is this thorny market research problem of figuring out where and to whom and to what your audience pays attention. If you don’t want to throw thousands or millions of dollars at Facebook and Google’s duopoly of advertising, and instead you would like to go direct, right? I want to find the websites where the audience, I want to reach hangs out. I want to find the podcasts they listen to. I want to find what they read. I want to find that YouTube channels they subscribe to and the social accounts, they follow all that stuff. All that data is hidden behind the scenes. Facebook knows it. Google knows it, but they’re not going to tell you, they’re going to let you advertise against it. SparkToro is there to say, hey, we want to make that information available to any marketer so that you can go do whatever kind of marketing tactics you want to do, whether that’s. Hey, let me go pitch this podcaster to see if we can be a guest, get a guest spot on there, or let’s go do a sponsorship or let’s put some advertising against this YouTube channel programmatically or directly. Let’s, do a featured a spot in there. Let’s sponsor an episode. Let’s whatever it is, like your marketing tactics are your own and you’ll know what’s effective. We’re here to solve that intelligence problem.

Chris Dreyer

I love the idea, this, the concept of this, from a marketing component. Many businesses, niche down. And one of the, one of the reasons why they niche down is to maximize their advertising initiatives, right? So I only want X customer, so I’m this niche, I can find them. And it’s this unintended side effect. So I saw the example was your co-founder Casey, correct? I saw the the co-founder Casey example you used on the website. So I’m going to give you a hypothetical situation here.

Rand Fishkin

Sure, Sure

Chris Dreyer

Let’s call this made-up person, Chris.

Rand Fishkin

Yep.

Chris Dreyer

And Chris wanted to land a marketing contract for a personal injury attorney in Los Angeles.

Rand Fishkin

Okay.

Chris Dreyer

How would Chris use SparkToro to help him make better advertising decisions?

Rand Fishkin

Sure. So if you know that your audience is attorneys in Los Angeles and more specifically personal injury attorneys , you might reasonably do one of two or three things in SparkToro, just at a high level to find those, the first one would be, hey, let me go into SparkToro and it’s basically got, it’s got five ways of searching. Those are, people, my audience frequently talks about X or Y or Z. My audience uses these words in their profile, like in their bio and follows the social account follows the website uses the hashtag. But let’s talk about the use of the words in their profile. I can do the search right now. Okay. Use these words in their profile. Personal. Injury is that how they tend to describe themselves?

Chris Dreyer

Yeah.

Rand Fishkin

So like they’ll have that in their LinkedIn bio or their Facebook page profile or whatever it is and is located in Los Angeles, greater Los Angeles area. Okay, great. So here we go. So they they tend to follow accounts like the ABA journal, no surprise, right? 32% of the personal injury attorneys in Los Angeles follow one or more of the social or web accounts of the American Bar Association, journal. Lawyers.com. Bloomberg law. So news.bloomberglaw.com. That might be a great place to advertise. There’s a podcast and legal website called abovethelaw.com, which I assume is based on the judge Dredd saying? That’s awesome. “I’m above the law .” The wall street journal has their legal news website. Lawyerist.com. ADA news. Consumer Attorneys of California, blah, blah, blah. Like, you can go down this list, there’s hundreds. I think there’s 250 plus accounts on here followed by, somewhere between five and 30% of this audience. And, you just select the ones you want and you add them to your list and then you go do whatever kind of marketing you want to do the same story on websites. We have a bunch of websites that these people visit. We have a bunch of podcasts they listen to. If you’re trying to figure out like, how do I reach personal injury attorneys in Los Angeles? That’s a pain in the butt problem to have. But SparkToro can bam tell you in six seconds.

Chris Dreyer

That’s amazing. And that just maximizes your advertising efforts and it gets you in front of the right audience.

Rand Fishkin

It’s great for one of the problems we keep seeing is a lot of folks who are like on the agency side, for example. They’ll have a client who says Oh, we want to do, we want to spend a million dollars of budget on this marketing tactic. And that, that marketing tactic is probably done. Like really? You want to do a full-page Wall Street Journal ad, are you sure? Our CEO reads the Wall Street Journal and he really thinks both… It’s almost always and it’s okay, now you have evidence. Now your marketing team can go, hey! Look, 6% of your audience. Reads the Wall Street Journal, 30% of the audience. You say, you want to reach reads this other, niche website. Maybe we should go invest here instead?

Chris Dreyer

Rand spoke about what SparkToro could do from a marketing perspective, but I had to find out whether it had any SEO applications and how law firm owners could take advantage of that as well.

Rand Fishkin

So SparkToro is not intentionally an SEO tool that being said. Many people who do SEO also care about finding sources for, a guest editorial or a link building or those kinds of things. And SparkToro can be very handy for that. I would say it’s a much broader tool, right? It’s around market research and audience intelligence, but certainly, if you’re on the SEO side, one of our big customer use cases early on has been content marketers, right? So they’re creating content and then they need to find people who will help amplify that. So it’s great. I published this piece of content on my site. It’s not very useful unless I can get a few powerful accounts to tweet it out and share it on their LinkedIn and put it on their Facebook pages and maybe even, publish something on their Instagram about it, or covered on their YouTube channel or talk about, get a guest appearance on their podcast, get an invitation from that. And if you can do those things, that’s awesome. It’s far smarter. We’ve found for those content marketers to basically, in their ideation phase, to do the research of figuring out, hey, we want to do a big data survey about how Corona virus is impacting the legal field, right? Especially since lawyers have to go to court and courts are often like, there’s all these weird challenges around the physical locality of blah, blah, blah. So we’re going to survey professional attorneys in the United States that we’re going to publish that. Who writes about legal news? Who writes about lawyers and attorneys? Who can we go pitch? Great. Let’s go find legal journalists, right? Someone who says I am a journalist and I write about the law or legal issues or whatever it is in the United States, America. Boom. Here’s a big list. Okay, cool. Let’s go see what they’ve covered. Ah, I see that they’re really interested in this particular topic. Let’s make sure to include that in the survey. So we can go pitch them with the content when we publish it. And, you get to understand your audience a lot better.

Chris Dreyer

That’s an amazing example. I also think from our previous conversation, just understanding your avatar and the information that they are interested in, you could incorporate that into your content that goes on your site too.

Rand Fishkin

Right? That’s exactly right. Yep. You can get a much better sense of any describable group of people through SparkToro, and then apply that to your content, your outreach, your targeting, your advertising, your sponsorships, your partnerships, et cetera.

Chris Dreyer

Amazing. So you wrote the book Lost and Founder. You have a ton of experience in the SEO industry with Moz, with SparkToro. I’ve got to ask you about your professional development who are some of your mentors or your favorite books that you referenced in your journey?

Rand Fishkin

Yeah. Gosh, I got to say recently there is, there’s a book. I absolutely love it’s by two women Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy. And they wrote a book called No Hard Feelings, which is just awesome, awesome book. I think as far as books that helped me think about how to work with people better, whether it’s, customers or people on my team. That is just a phenomenal … I can’t recommend it enough. And their their Twitter and Instagram accounts are delightful too. They publish a lot of little like mini web comics about work that really resonate with me. So, highly recommend them. Bo Burlingham’s Small Giants. I know it’s been around a while.

Chris Dreyer

I’ve read that one.

Rand Fishkin

Yeah. But this, it speaks to my soul and what I want to build as a business owner. I really don’t love big companies, big organizations. Growth for the sake of growth, which I know is a Silicon Valley sort of mantra. But I I find the prospect of having a small team with a profitable, sustainable, long lasting business something that I can work at for decades. And that is wonderful for its employees. Wonderful for its customers. Wonderful for the world. That is so much more impactful. That’s so much more exciting to me than what I focused on for, all of my twenties and thirties, which was essentially, I need to build a company that IPOs and returns billions of dollars to its investors. That does not really excite me anymore.

Chris Dreyer

And the lean and mean team. You can iterate more quickly. There’s not as many, things you get to jump over. And so one final question Rand, what questions or stories did we not talk about that you feel would be important?

Rand Fishkin

Oh, yeah. I think, I think it it really depends on the audience. Like one of the things that I have been discussing on a lot of, recent conversations obviously is the economic environment that we’re going into. And yeah, and that, that is a really scary . The. Reality is 22 million Americans already out of work in the last four weeks. That’s probably going to continue to grow. We are likely to see unemployment at or above levels, not seen since the great depression. I don’t know. I don’t know if you wander around your town, but like the last couple of trips I’ve taken into downtown Seattle or into a Ballard, my neighborhood, it’s just, it’s just boarded up windows. And and those businesses are not coming back for a long time. And that’s truly heartbreaking. I think, I think we have to think as individuals, especially as business owners, as privileged members of society, who have, the potential to weather this storm much better because we’re in the digital world and we can work from home effectively and all those kinds of things. I think we need to think pretty hard about the world that we want to build and contribute to in the future. And we have to think, many of us are stressing about just how to survive the next six to 12 months. So I think that’s one of the, maybe one of the topics we didn’t cover that is interesting to a lot of folks.

Chris Dreyer

There was so much amazing advice there from Rand. We could have filled an entire episode with just as advice on SEO. But I think his ideas on developing a strong brand within your website to build trust with your audience is particularly important, especially in the highly competitive PI market. You’ve been listening to The Rankings Podcast. I’m Chris Dreyer. A huge thank you to today’s guest Rand Fishkin for joining us. You can find all of the links from today’s conversation in the show notes. And we want to hear from you. Did you get any insights on where to focus your marketing efforts? Drop us a review and share your thoughts. Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next time.

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