🎙️ Episode #12

Educational Marketing, AI, and SEO in 2024: Rand Fishkin Unleashes the Strategies You Need

Rand Fishkin - search engine optimization (SEO) and educational marketing guru

Show Notes

Rand Fishkin is a digital marketing heavyweight and an instantly recognizable name in the world of search engine optimization (SEO) and educational marketing. Rand wears many hats (or crowns) including tech entrepreneur, creator, author, and co-founder of two successful startups.

He is arguably best known for co-founding Moz (a $45 million/year business) and serving as CEO until stepping down in 2014. He went on to co-found SparkToro in 2018 and — in the same year — authored and released Lost and Founder, his painfully honest, personal memoir chronicling the trials and tribulations of his startup journey. 

In this episode, Rand shares lessons learned from his journey and discusses topical matters for entrepreneurs in 2024:

  • How he went from starting a blog to building a product
  • What is educational marketing, and how you can invest in it
  • If B2B companies should even be on TikTok
  • How long you should invest in SEO
  • The traits technical founders should look for when hiring a marketer

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Thanks to Rand for joining us and providing such valuable advice about search engine optimization and educational marketing. Join us next week with one of the most prominent figures in the tech world and a bonafide pioneer of remote working, co-founder of WordPress and CEO of Automattic, Matt Mullenweg. He shares his insights/advice on how founders can navigate the pitfalls of global distribution to build a winning distributed company.

plugin.fm is brought to you by Freemius, your all-in-one payments, subscriptions, and taxes platform for selling software, plugins, themes, and SaaS. If you enjoyed this episode, head over to plugin.fm to check out previous episodes.

Episode Contributors:

Rand Fishkin — Guest

Patrick Rauland — Host

Vova Feldman — Content quality control

Scott Murcott — Content research and preparation

Zee Hazan — Audio and video quality control

Emiliano Pioli — Audio and video editing


Chapters & Episode Notes

00:00 – Intro

1:36 – The Evolution of Moz: From Blog to SaaS Giant

6:17 – Exploring Hyper-Niche Media Experiences: Tapping into Underserved Markets

8:05 – The Journey of Educational Marketing: From Accidental Beginnings to Lasting Impact

12:10 – The Long Game of Marketing: Investing in Growth Beyond Short-Term Results

16-57 – The Power of Educational Content: Building Trust in Marketing

20:00 – Navigating the Entertainment vs. Educational Divide: TikTok & Marketing Strategy Insights

28:15 – The Secrets Behind SEO Success: Unique Perspectives, User Data, and Google’s Algorithm

36:30 – PR: The Uncharted Territory in Digital Marketing Strategy

42:47 – Leveraging Agencies and Consultants: The Key to PR Success for Software Founders

46:59 – AI in SEO: Enhancing Efficiency or Exaggerated Expectations?

50:55 – Finding Your Perfect Marketer: The Key Trait and Where to Look

53:03 – Outro

Transcript

Rand: Our work has been cited in Congress by the President, by the Department of Justice, but we get less than 50 visits a month from Google.

Patrick: I have a digital marketing heavyweight with me. He’s a Founder, Creator, author, one of the leading voices in educational marketing and search engine optimization—Rand Fishkin.

Rand: This is exactly how I invest in marketing. I take things that I believe in based on my knowledge and experience, knowing that many of them will be fruitless. But the ones that work will work so well that they’ll be a better investment than putting a bunch of dollars into SEO or PPC or, you know, Facebook ads or whatever. I don’t think saying, “Hey, our audience is on Tik Tok,” is correct. That’s not where relevant conversations around the problem that you solve are taking place.

Patrick: In today’s episode, we’re going to cover his journey from starting a blog to building a product and what traits a technical founder can look for when hiring a marketer for their team.

Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of plugin.fm. If you’ve ever dipped your toes into SEO, you will definitely recognize the name Rand Fishkin.

Rand is probably best known for co-founding Moz, a $45 million a year business, and serving as CEO until stepping down in 2014. In 2018, he co-founded SparkToro, and in the same year, he put pen to paper and released “Lost and Founder,” a painfully honest personal memoir that documents the trials and tribulations of his startup journey. Welcome, Rand, to the show.

Rand: Thanks for having me, Patrick. Good to be here.

Patrick: I think I want to start with a little bit of history, and then we’ll get to some of the modern present-day stuff. But what was the evolution of Moz because that’s where I first heard about you?

Rand: Yeah, it started as a blog, turned into a consultancy first, and then a software company. And then, very soon after starting in software, raised around venture capital and grew quite quickly for a long time. And then kind of plateaued. For anybody who’s sort of interested in that whole, you know, long history, some of which is very interesting and some of which is very, I would say, uncomfortable and painful, and the kind of thing that most people don’t write about. That was my goal with “Lost and Founder,” right, with the book was to shed some light on those very uncomfortable, I would say, embarrassing and also common mistakes.

Patrick: How long was that in between blog, consultancy, agency, SaaS?

Rand: I think it was a blog for about a year before it started generating client interest, which we then began serving inside the company. We were, before that, a web design agency, and then we did consulting from about 2003 to… I think we completely cut off the business at the end of ’08. But you know, I want to be clear here, right? For example, I was guest lecturing at the University of Washington, which is right down the street for me yesterday and realizing that I don’t think any of my experiences are hyper-relevant, especially the, like, “Well, how did you turn this into that?” I don’t know how much hyper-relevance there is to modern-day entrepreneurs or founders or even teams because the environment was so different, right?

So, I would not, for example, many folks have said to me, “Oh, I would love to take this product that my consulting business is developing and turn that into, we would like to become a more scalable software product business.” And my response is always, you could have an amazing product. You probably don’t, just statistically speaking. Like, most products are not that great. But even if you do, that won’t actually help. And nor necessarily will your consultancy because consulting clients came to you because they need and want consulting work. Moving them over to software, I have, I have seen probably 500 companies in the marketing space attempt it, and I would say one or two have had mild success, but almost none have done it the way Moz did. And I think that was frankly because Moz was not good at consulting. I did not like consulting. I never built a big consulting business. Our consulting business was pretty bad. But because we were great at audience building for the perfect customers of our software, the software business scaled quickly off the success of the blog. So, if you were to tell me I have the attention and awareness and emails and subscription and buy-in of this audience who this product is right for, that’s a far greater asset for success rather than I have a consulting business that serves this group.

Patrick: Perfect, because I think you’re right. If you have an audience, you can almost sell anything. I feel like audience building might even be the harder part than building a product.

Rand: Yeah, I mean, especially, I think audience building in a B2B niche is ludicrously challenging. It’s really, really hard to earn attention, awareness, trust, and retain it. Especially with a specific group of people. I think that audience building more broadly around, you know, if you go on Twitter and you endorse Elon Musk’s view that slavery is not that bad, you can get an audience. You can. It’s, I would argue, not a good audience to have. I wouldn’t want to interact with those people. And I would also argue it’s not monetizable or it’s very challenging to monetize. And so there’s a lot of, I think, misconception that we’re in this golden age of social media attention when, in fact, I think that was more like seven or eight years ago. And right now, if we’re in any kind of golden age, I would argue that there are lots of underserved niches for what I would call kind of a high-quality hyper-niche media experience.

Patrick: What is a high-quality hyper-niche media experience? Just unpack that for me.

Rand: Yeah, yeah. So, you start a newsletter and blog website, YouTube video series, podcast all around helping new chemical engineers get their first job in the industry.

Patrick: Wow, hyper-niche.

Rand: Hyper-niche, there are a million of those hyper-niches. Many of them are underserved by what I’d call the Creator economy, which tends to center around a few topics at the top. You know, whatever video game streamer, Instagram-style influencer, fashion, makeup artist influencer, hustle bro, sort of manosphere stuff, right? Like there’s a few niches that are very, very saturated with content creators and media experiences, and then there are millions of smaller niches that are underserved. Compare this, for example, with SEO where every hyper-niche space is oversaturated. Even the “hey, we help new chemical engineers get their first job” — all the SEO keywords around that have 50 big companies that are competing for those terms and phrases and have already gone after them because keyword research is a well-understood thing, and tools like Moz, Semrush, and AHRefs exist that help people do that. And all those businesses have entered all those spaces; they’re already way oversaturated by big brands against whom you will almost certainly never compete in SEO, at least not at scale. But the social media experience, the YouTube channel, the podcast, the email newsletter, lots of opportunities there still.

Patrick: Well, let’s transition because I want to talk about what I’m going to call educational marketing. And I think of my, I think one of my best examples is you were so helpful for me, Rand. It was my, I think it was my first job out of college, and I came across your content about SEO. I was a very beginner web developer, and you had these Whiteboard Fridays where you would explain a concept. I think the things were already drawn on the board, but you’d like point them out and draw some little arrows connecting them. And it was just very helpful. They were about 20 minutes, I’d say, 20 minutes long, but they would go so deep and they would go so in-depth, and I would trust you so much more than someone else. So, let me ask you, is educational marketing still a thing, and I guess what led you to start that? Let’s start with that.

Rand: Yes, educational marketing is still a thing. What led me to start it? It was accidental, like most things in my career, in my early career anyway. So, I think one of our consultants on our team got a video camera for something else so he could film something else. I can’t remember what it was, but at one point during the day, we were trying to help a client with a thing. He had a question about this particular kind of redirect, so I grabbed our whiteboard off the wall and started diagramming it for him. He was like, “Wait, wait, wait. I’m going to grab the new camera, and we’ll video it.” You know, this is like 2006. It’s not quite pre-YouTube, but it’s before we were using it anyway. We decided we’re just going to put it on the blog and see if it worked. It did not. It did not go well. The first two years that we produced the series that eventually became called Whiteboard Friday, it was always our lowest-performing blog post of the week. But it took only 20 minutes to film. So instead of going home at night and having a 2-hour, 3-hour writing because usually what I do is from like 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. every night, I was writing a blog post, which I don’t recommend, by the way. That was not a great way to build a brand. I thought I was hustle browning it, but it was not. Not actually a very good way to go about it. I should have been writing like one really good thing every week and getting more sleep and being a better leader and manager and thinker, but, you know, I was young. But the Whiteboard Friday series saved me from having to do that on Thursday night. So, I loved it, and it was great to have somebody else put up the post, and you know, all I had to do was stand in front of the whiteboard and film the thing. Yeah, that eventually became a series that took off because I got better at standing in front of whiteboards and diagramming things and explaining things to people. By the time it caught on, it was probably two years and, you know, 104 episodes in.

Patrick: I had no idea that it was two years of, let’s call it, two years of struggle before it sort of got that traction and got noticed. And that’s probably when I found it.

Rand: Same is true of the blog, by the way, right? The first, I bet the first three years of what became the SEO’s blog, no one heard of it, no one knew about it, nobody was visiting. It took a long time. I mean, we’re talking about a 22-21 year old kid, yeah, right, who’s writing about SEO in the early days. I mean, it was a rising tide that helped lift our ship, obviously, with Google’s growth. But also, you know, if you go back, and I think most of those old posts are now gone, but it was not quality stuff. It wasn’t useful, it wasn’t interesting, it didn’t hold your attention, it wasn’t well-written. It took a long time for me to get good at writing, at educational content, at filming videos, at speaking on camera.

Patrick: Many businesses expect marketing results in 3 to 6 months. Coming up later, Rand will tell you how many years, yes, years, it could take for your SEO strategy to pay off.

Okay, so I need to jump into a couple of these things that are just fascinating to me. So two years is a long time. I just wrapped up a six-month contract with a client doing some SEO work for them, and they expected—I don’t want to say the moon, but they had very high expectations about what I could get done in 6 months. It’s funny that you’ll talk to people like yourself, and it’s like, “Oh, we didn’t see success until 2 years in.” Like, how? So, if I’m a business, how do you know what is good enough to invest in for two years before seeing that traction, before seeing that hockey stick growth in terms of audience or traffic or whatever you’re looking at? Like, how do you know? Because you can’t water a plant for two years and then go, “Oh, I guess it’s never going to grow.” Or you want to do that as little as possible. So, how do you know what was the right thing to invest in?

Rand: Yeah, so I believe very much in making investments in something that you get better at over time rather than only investing in things that produce provable ROI in the very short term. And I would say six months is an extremely short-term marketing investment. If you talk to brand marketers at most big brands, I always love the story of Lego. I think 15 years before the Lego movie came out, they said, “This is the direction we’re going in.” It’s multigenerational thinking rather than short-termism. And I would argue that’s a wonderful way to think about building a brand and having success. I think that the compound interest of brand is a real effect, and so too is the compound interest of sustained investment. So if you like doing something and you can feel yourself getting better at it, I would argue you should invest more in those things, especially as an individual, than you do in, “Hey, I did this thing yesterday, and today I see this result from it.” If human existence has not taught you yet that things that are short-term tend not to go so well and things that are long-term do, yeah, I don’t know where at.

Patrick: Really interesting. Is there one other thing—I’m sorry, this is only question two, but you’re sparking so many ideas here. You said something about it only took 20 minutes to make, and so that’s part of the reason you kept doing those. Is there some sort of lesson about if you can do something quickly, it’s just kind of worth doing, even if it’s not showing results for two years, right? Twenty minutes a week seems, when you think about your work week of 40 hours or probably more if you’re a founder, but 40 hours for the average employee seems a pretty small investment.

Rand: I think there’s some part of that, right? Especially, so it tends to be often the case that the things that you invest in that you enjoy doing and that bring you energy are the ones that will pay off in the long run too, right? You will get better at those things. If it’s 20 minutes of an absolute slog, and you hate every minute, and you just feel terrible at the end of it, I wouldn’t make that investment. I don’t care what it is. I don’t care how optimal it is for your sort of business success, with the exception of, you know, you got to pay your taxes or fill out the right forms, all that kind of crap. But yeah, I would generally steer folks toward doing things that bring them energy. I think there is some time optimization around it. For example, I now film these five-minute whiteboards for Spark Toro. Each one takes me 90 minutes to 2 hours because instead of having a team that can take care of it, I can’t just go into the whiteboard room, stand against the whiteboard, camera person clicks on, gives me the action, I do my 20 minutes, and I’m done. Like, nope, I gotta drag the whiteboard over here, I gotta set up the camera with the reflection and all the lighting. I gotta get the transcript ready and polished up. At the end of it, I have to upload it to Wistia. SparkToro is only a team of three people, right? So, it’s a whole long intense process. It’s way more work than when I did it at Moz, but it’s also, you know, it’s a choice. Right? Like I don’t want to have an office, I don’t want to pay for that, I don’t want to have a big team. I want to keep it small, and, you know, it brings me energy. It obviously resonates with people. I think it fits a little better with the attention span of modern marketers than the 20-minute Whiteboard Fridays did.

Patrick: Very cool, love hearing all this. All right, so the next question is about building trust, which I think educational marketing is just so good at. For me, in my brain, marketing is about awareness, trust, and conversions. Those are sort of the three things that as a marketer, I want to think about, and educational marketing seems to just crush it when it comes to trust. Like, you can do SEO, let’s say, and you can get someone to your site, but rarely does a blog post convince me to trust you. Whereas, like, especially like a video or a podcast, they’re just more, I don’t want to say intimate, but something about that medium is so much more trusting. But it just seems so hard to measure brand awareness and trust, right? Like, I can show a boss or a manager conversions, I can show them traffic, but I can’t show them trust, and I can’t show them authority on a topic, something like that. Is there still room for educational content because it builds trust but it’s generally longer? Is there still room for that long-form educational content?

Rand: Yeah, absolutely, there is. It depends on your sector and niche. I think going back to what you were saying earlier, though, about the provable nature of attribution, my belief is the more direct attribution is provable, or you think it is, the more people will invest in that space, and the more competitive it will be, and the more difficult it will be to stand out. The less provable a space is, right, the more you have to rely on instinct and trust and sort of correlated metrics. Like, look, our branded search volume for our brand name is growing, or look, our conversion rate is rising even though we haven’t done anything to optimize for conversion. That’s a signal of brand strength, right? Like, our email open rates have been rising, our, you know, whatever it is. Our brand awareness has been rising, measured by the survey we run every two years of how many people in our industry know who we are compared to competitors. All those kinds of things, you can kind of measure them, but you can’t prove attribution. You can’t be like, well, we were on these six podcasts; those podcasts drove that brand awareness increase and conversion. No, right? But those types of investments, those types of marketing investments are incredibly powerful because very few people believe that they work. So very few people invest in them, so they’re extremely uncompetitive. And so when you make those investments, you tend to get outsized rewards. And here’s the kicker: I would argue, this is exactly how I invest in marketing. I take things that I believe in based on my knowledge and experience, and sort of, I know my audience is there, and then I make a bunch of those investments, knowing that many of them will be fruitless, but the ones that work will work so well that they’ll be a better investment than putting a bunch of dollars and energy into SEO or PPC or, you know, Facebook ads or whatever.

Patrick: Super interesting. I love hearing this. Okay, so modern-day, we now have TikTok, right? Very short videos, but also I think TikTok is much more entertainment-focused rather than educational-focused.

Rand: Whenever people bring up TikTok in an ecommerce or a marketing sense, I’m always like, that’s not it. Like, you never talk about Netflix, right? I don’t hear people say, “Hey, what is your Netflix, Prime Video, and Hulu strategy?” You know, nobody says that to marketers, and I think TikTok should be treated the same way. With very, very rare exceptions, TikTok is an entertainment platform, and you should treat it as such. But anyway, that’s getting way too in-depth on the marketing front. To look at TikTok and say, “Oh, this type of thing works.” I think it’s okay to take inspiration from that, to say, “Hey, this kind of content that has this format and style is working.” Someone sent me a video that they did. It was a podcast I was on, actually. That podcast creator took a vertical view video, put my horizontal interview. They took maybe 90 seconds from that video or 60 seconds from that video, then they captioned it and spliced it in with a bunch of pop culture and memes and all this and graphics and stuff, and they made a, I would call it, TikTok-style video that performed very, very well on LinkedIn and on threads and on Instagram. Maybe they uploaded it to TikTok as well. I don’t know. I think that’s a great way to take inspiration from, “Hey, here’s what’s working in the entertainment sphere.” I don’t think saying, “Hey, our audience is on TikTok” is correct. Your audience is also on Netflix, your audience is also going to Starbucks, your audience is also using the United States highway system. And yet, I’m serious, right? And yet, you don’t say, “Hey, what’s our strategy to be in those places?” Because that’s not where relevant conversations around the problem that you solve are taking place, and neither is TikTok in 95% of situations.

Patrick: I like the phrase “relevant conversations,” right? Because I used to be on TikTok quite a bit. I’ve since cut it out of my life because I realized it was hours a day, and that’s just, I don’t have the time. But before that, I would see the occasional thing that related to marketing or SEO or something with WordPress, and I didn’t really appreciate them because I was not in the mood for that.

Rand: No, that’s not what you’re there for. You go to LinkedIn for that. Maybe you’ll go to Twitter for that. Maybe you go to threads for that. Yeah, maybe you might even go to Instagram for some of that stuff. I see some of the B2B stuff bleeding over to Instagram, and plenty of like B2C commerce stuff happens on Instagram. But TikTok is like, just let me see people doing dumb stuff with their cat.

Patrick: Yes, and we want more of that. Okay, let me go to the next question here. So I want to get into SEO because I think that’s a little bit more business-focused, a little bit more B2B. You started doing SEO a long time ago, and I feel like SEO was much easier a while ago. Since then, all the tricks have sort of been coming out—keyword research, secondary keywords, and all this stuff have been coming out. There are all these big sites that have been around for a while, and it just seems really hard to do for new businesses. And we have the people who are listening to the show are generally smaller software companies. So for a newer business, is SEO too competitive for businesses starting out? Is it, here’s my perspective, let me know where I’m wrong here: it’s worth writing up a blog post about this new feature, what you did. Maybe you get a little bit of traffic, but I wouldn’t expect it. It’s more of a lucky shot, a lucky break than a strategy that’s going to bring in business next month. Is that right?

Rand: Yeah, absolutely. So if you are a newer business, if you’re a small or medium business, even SaaS companies, I know plenty of SaaS companies that have been around five plus years, six plus years, and have thousands of pieces of content that they’ve tried to get ranking on Google. Google’s preference for long-standing, like 10 plus year long-standing brands, and those brands’ investments in nearly every keyword in nearly every space, like we talked about, is so complete that the opportunity in SEO is extremely limited in most sectors and niches. That being said, if you are one of the world’s top 5% SEO practitioners or SEO teams, and you believe that your audience tends to be more present in Google searches than anywhere else, especially early on in the funnel when they’re in the discovery phase, not brand selection phase, right? They’re just learning about your practice, just learning about the space, and they’re spending tons of time in Google, and that educational problem-solving content is core to how your audience behaves online, maybe SEO is still one of your primary tactics and channels. For almost everyone else, I would argue that you should treat SEO as something that you invest in but that you don’t expect returns from for five to 10 years until your brand, absolutely.

Patrick: Five to 10 years?

Rand: I’ll give you an example. Okay, so I started SparkToro February 1 of 2018. We have published a couple of thousand pieces of content, just the three of us, mostly myself and Amanda, right. Casey publishes almost nothing. Many of those pieces have done extraordinarily well on the social web. Much of our research and work and opinion pieces have gotten me invitations to hundreds of podcasts and video series, you know, to speak at conferences and events. Our work has been cited in Congress by the President, by the Department of Justice. Our work has been in the case against Google, for example. Our clickstream research has been cited. Our work on dark social was cited when Elon tried to pull out of Twitter. The Twitter deal, he cited our work on Twitter’s bot problem. Like, we have achieved a great deal of attention and awareness and success, and we get outside of our branded search terms less than 50 visits a month from Google. We don’t rank for anything, and if you were to generally ask around, you would hear that supposedly I am one of the world’s top SEOs. Right? So, here’s what I would say: we have not made a big, significant intentional effort in short-term SEO, trying to rank for a bunch of keywords, all that kind of stuff. But Google’s preference is to brands that have been around for a long time, that have already established a ton of authority, that write things in a very particular way. Essentially, focusing on solving the searcher problem rather than being interesting and useful. Useful is the wrong adjective, but rather than being interesting and subscription and amplification-worthy. Right? So, those are the two differences – there, sort of like, this content helped me solve this problem I was searching for, and there’s this content that was so interesting. I want to share it with all my friends, include it in my newsletter, invite the author on my show to my conference. Those are two different things. It used to be that the Venn diagram of those two things overlapped quite a bit, and they have moved far away from each other over the last 10 years. So, knowing all of that, you decide whether SEO is right for your business or not. I can’t tell you whether it is. I’m going to say in most cases, it is not the default right decision that it was in 2012 or 2005. Right?

Patrick: So here’s, I have a rule of thumb now because I’ve done some SEO projects recently, and my rule of thumb is if you don’t have either a super unique point of view that sort of goes against the grain in some way or you don’t have some sort of proprietary data that you’re collecting yourself and you’re distributing, it’s really hard to do well in SEO because you don’t have anything unique. And then we’re going to talk about AI in a second, but AI can respin anything you write and put it on a bigger website, and there’s problems and challenges. Is that also maybe a good rule of thumb, if you don’t have something unique to share, a unique piece of data or a really unique perspective, that SEO is just going to be really hard again?

Rand: It’s interesting that you say those two things because I don’t think of those as what has success in SEO. Like if you go and look at the search results, you will see a lot of sameness. You will not see unique perspectives or unique data. You will see the same people parroting the same points over and over again on brand websites that you recognize that have been in Google for 10 plus years. I would much rather see that interesting content in Google, but it does not exist, and Google’s algorithm updates for the last 5 years have suggested that their leadership believes they should not invest in showing that stuff in search results. The conspiracy theorists might argue that it’s to get more paid clicks, and I think the other reasonable explanation is, well, you and I might prefer that stuff, but the average searcher doesn’t. That’s not what delights the average searcher, right? They want old reliable, standard stuff from brand names they recognize, boring-ass, you know, “solve my search problem” content, which, you know, that’s fine if Google goes in that direction. I kind of hope that they keep going in that direction and someone innovates on top of them and outcompetes them. Yeah, but in social media, in content distribution outside of Google, that’s where your two points, in my opinion, are so critical—unique data or unique opinion, especially B2B.

Patrick: Yeah, very cool. All right, I have one very technical SEO question here that I snuck in, and it’s actually about what you said about sameness. So with the job I did recently, we started, I think we used Surfer SEO, and we looked up secondary keywords. Just for listeners because we haven’t talked about SEO before, secondary—let’s see if I can get this right, Rand—secondary keywords are like all the other websites that talk about this topic tend to mention these 50, 100, 200.

Rand: When I was in SEO, we didn’t use that term at the time, but yes, words and phrases are essentially tokens, similar to what a large language model in AI does, right? Tokens that you would find in high quantities and in proximity to the documents that rank for a particular query.

Patrick: And by changing all the secondary keywords, so the post is, let’s say, 95% the same. I just changed a couple of generic words to specialized niche jargon almost, and we went from not ranking on Google to, like, position 19, and I was shocked at how effective it was. But I also felt like it was merging; it was bringing all blog posts closer together, like there was less difference. Is that, so here’s my conspiracy theory, is Google gonna have to change it at some point because I do feel like the top 10 results are pretty often kind of similar to each other?

Rand: I mean, so here is, you know, I don’t know if you’ve listened to the case against Google that’s being prosecuted by the Department of Justice right now, but it’s fascinating, right? Because they will interview engineers and former engineers and Google leadership and then outside experts as well. They talk to them about, like, hey, where does Google get its special sauce? And one of the biggest things, which I believe an engineer very reticently testified to, but thank God the DOJ can still compel people to tell the truth apparently, was that Google’s big secret weapon is user data. So what Google does is study and have very sophisticated algorithms around what do people click on, what do they click the back button on, what do they choose next, what satisfies their query at the end, what do they not like. Oh, you searched for chemical engineering jobs in Seattle, and once you reach this website, your journey tends to be over; you don’t tend to return to Google and continue that journey. Therefore, that website is doing a great job of solving your problem, the searcher’s problem. That training data from the last 25 years is what gives Google such an edge over Bing or DuckDuckGo or anybody else in the field because they have trillions of searches across all of humanity, every language, every possible niche you could imagine. So, you know, this sameness problem, I think, absolutely. Everyone gravitates towards doing the thing that looks like it’s working in the search results until those no longer solve searchers’ problems. And then you will see Google start to introduce—you can even see this sometimes in certain niches—where Google will put a piece of content from a site that you rarely ever see, put a piece of very new content up. They’re testing to see if it flies. They’re essentially like, “Oh, you get this, you know, I would call it like short-term little rankings boost because Google is going to see if this piece of content does a better job solving the searcher’s problems than everything else. And if it out-earns in terms of clicks and engagement and sort of, you know, all the other success metrics, the things that Google is looking for, then they’ll rank it on a consistent basis, and the website might perform better and blah, blah, blah. And if it doesn’t, to the back of the surface it goes.” So, you know, this—I found this testimony quite fascinating in terms of how Google functions, and I think it’s a thing that many SEOs have surmised for a long time and guessed about. But, you know, to sort of see it brought to the American public with not a lot of publicity, unfortunately. Yeah, I think weirdly, the case against—what was the crypto fund that collapsed? The Sam Bank thing.

Patrick: FTX.

Rand: Yeah, like that case gets an incredible amount of, you know, press headlines, but the Google case, which I would argue affects 10,000 times more people, yeah, doesn’t. And I think it’s just because it’s not sexy enough, like it hasn’t, you know, caught on with the PR.

Patrick: Or we can double down on conspiracy theory and Google’s burying it.

Rand: Google did, you know, Google did lobby the judge very hard to keep all of the testimony quiet. And their argument was, I thought it was fascinating, right? What they said is to the judge, they said, “All of this case should be secret, all of it should be behind closed doors. We shouldn’t be required to disclose anything. Anything that the Department of Justice is trying to release is clickbait.” And clickbait is a really interesting choice of terms because what it suggests is there’s lots of public interest in it, right? Google is essentially arguing because this is very interesting to people and a lot of people would click on it and want to check it out, you judge should hide it from the American public.

Patrick: That is, I haven’t thought of clickbait as general interest, that is a pretty interesting argument.

Rand: That’s what it is, it’s like, “I want to click on it, like, show that thing to me.” It’s clickbait, right?

Patrick: It’s a weird argument.

Rand: Yeah, super weird argument to say because this is interesting you should hide it.

Patrick: Coming up later in this interview, Rand blew me away by recommending that new businesses skip SEO and instead try PR, as in public relations, and I foolishly thought that means submitting press releases. But Rand corrected me and explained the whole process. You are not going to want to miss this. 

SEO ties so neatly into software companies, right? A lot of these soft, like you’re, you’re going to write about your new features anyway. So that way, it sort of ties in SEO with your writing about new features and compelling reasons why someone should use your product. And I think that’s why so many businesses try SEO. If you’re an online business, you’re remote, you don’t have a brick and mortar, you can’t put a sign in the window, you can’t put a sign, you can’t put a billboard up a block away from your store, you can’t do any of that. When you’re a software company B, and I’m a little reluctant to bring up social, but besides social and SEO, are there other marketing channels that just sort of mesh well with digital remote businesses?

Rand: Oh, absolutely. I mean, so I would argue that the most underinvested one that has the highest promise and highest return is PR. PR might be producing interesting research that, you know, publications that your audience reads would be likely to cover and then forming connections with the people who write for or own or are the gatekeepers of those publications. I’m using publications to refer to LinkedIn accounts and Threads accounts and YouTube channels and podcasts and traditional media and niche media and an industry event and people who speak at conferences, like all of that stuff, doing things that are likely to earn their attention or directly pitching them to say, “Hey, you should cover this thing that we’re doing. Hey, can I show you this thing that we’re doing?” Relationship building with them, that is all PR, and I would argue it is ludicrously effective. Very few people are good at it. Most people are scared of it. They don’t invest in it, and that makes it an even better investment because these publications and gatekeepers already own the audience whose attention you’re trying to earn. You’re not going to Google and saying, “Well, I have no idea who’s searching for this keyword, but I hope it’s the right audience that’s searching for this keyword. Then I’m going to try and rank against these impossible-to-rank-against people, and after I do great SEO work, I’m going to move from position 100 to position 19, which still gets no clicks.” One mention by the right source of influence can be absolutely incredible, totally game-changing. I can see it in our stats all the time. I will go on 10 podcasts, and one of them will pop. Absolutely pop. And that podcast, I will see in our analytics data the day it’s released, and the next day, and the third day, that whole week that it comes out, boom, you know, suddenly we’re like 20% more branded search traffic than usual, 15% more signups than usual, tons of people trying the free account, and then over the course of the next six or nine months, people will find that podcast, and it lifts it up.

Patrick: Yeah, fantastic. I love that idea because I rarely hear that. What is the hardest part of that PR strategy? Is it, and to me, I’m thinking of getting some sort of special, I don’t know why, just I’m obsessed with special data today, but some sort of like thing that you’ve done your own research on this thing, you’ve studied it, and you want people to mention it in their podcasts, their YouTube videos, etc. Is it the data, like coming up with unique insights? Is it pitching people? Is it performance on a medium like this? What is the hardest part of that?

Rand: Oh, man, I mean, I think that the hardest part is different for every different person. For some people, it’s what do I actually pitch to them. For some people, it’s who do I actually pitch who has access to my audience. For some people, it is the pitch process itself that’s so uncomfortable and unnerving for them, and they just feel like, you know, they’re, whatever, like, “I’m a CEO; I can’t be pitching people my thing.” And then it’s like, man, what do you think a CEO does? No offense, but seriously. And I would say all of those are difficult. None of the process is easy or simple or straightforward, and I suspect one of the reasons it is completely underinvested in is it’s not formulaic. SEO is very formulaic, right? If you’re a programmer, you sort of understand, like, “I make this content that solves the searcher problem, and then I target these keywords, and then I optimize it in these ways, and I make it accessible in these ways, and I distribute it in these ways.” And PR is not like that. PR is, who’s my audience? It’s these people. What do they pay attention to? Okay, great. It took some effort in itself, right? That, I mean, that’s why SparkToro, that’s the whole thing that we solve, try and help with. And then it’s now, what could I do with them or for them that would get them to feature me in front of their audience? And answering that question, who will amplify this and why, very, very difficult. And then going through the actual process of reaching out and saying, “Hey, let’s do it.” You know, this could be co-marketing partnerships, right? Like I’m doing a thing with Typeform right now. In fact, I’m way behind on it, and I feel terrible. It’s been sitting on my plate for like two weeks where we’re building a template for an audience research survey. Like, what does an audience research survey look like? So I’m building a template one in B2B and one in B2C. And then I’m working with their team to do a webinar series to promote it. And, you know, it’s good for them, right? Like, it gets people aware of Typeform; that’s great. And it’s great for us. Typeform’s audience is probably a hundred times bigger than SparkToro’s, so wonderful. Right? We’ll get in front of a few of the right people, and also, sort of, we’ll get people thinking about audience research generally. But it was intentional. It’s an intentional thing. Like, both of us are going to benefit from it. Hopefully, it’ll help her out with her audience development efforts. But, man, you know, that is not a formula. I can’t write that down and tell you, “Okay, you want to do PR? It’s like this.”

Patrick: Yeah, okay, so we have a lot of, and I say a lot of our audience are coders. They’re people who generally have discovered some sort of problem. They’ve written their own software solution and now they sell it. I would say they either hire a marketer or they partner with a marketer to help them sell their goods. Let’s say they want to try this PR strategy. Is that like hiring an agency because I have something in my brain that says that an agency is better for a totally brand new process to you? Or is it like, you, again, I guess if you know a rockstar, hire the rockstar. But do you just, how do you hire for that and who do you bring on?

Rand: Yeah, I would use an agency, absolutely, agency or consultant, right? So, for example, you know, Amanda, our VP of Marketing, worked at a number of agencies over the years. And she also was, like, a food writer for the LA Times and has done a lot of very interesting careers. But when she came on board with SparkToro, one of the big things that she brought to the table was this practice of, I don’t want to call it influencer marketing, but I’ll call it sources of influence marketing, okay, right? Because it’s not, you know, it’s not the shirtless dude who takes off, you know, poses with your product on the beach for 500 bucks. But that process worked really well, and she’s out on parental leave right now. So she just had her second kid, and we hired Brandon Hufford, who’s like a, you know, well-known marketer in the space of sources of influence and audience research, all that kind of stuff. And he has been for the last two months helping us out with a bunch of that distribution and getting in front of people. This is what he does, right? He helps lots of businesses do this. We liked him a bunch. Amanda liked him. So he’s like our interim, you know, head of marketing. And yeah, I love using consultants and agencies. I’m surprised so many SaaS founders are against it. I think it’s so weird because those people, we use them for everything, right? Those people are experts in their field. They don’t just deal with your company, so they have lots of insight. Like, they’re essentially, when they’re doing the work, all the decades of work that they did before they came to you, they were learning how to do the thing for you. Yeah, and so now the fact that, you know, you’re going to pay them whatever, 250 bucks an hour or something, like, awesome, because you’re getting, you know, 10x effort and 10x returns. Also, if they’re not working out, you stop paying. The contract’s over. If you need to let go of an employee, oh, heartbreaking. Yeah, it’s so heart-wrenching. So anyway, I love agencies and consultants. I don’t get the hate against them. It’s so weird to me. I do worry one of the things that I see a lot in the marketing world is, oh, we worked with an agency before. It was terrible. Agencies are terrible. And then, you know, if you drill into that, it’s like, well, what did you do? Well, we went on Fiverr. We found this agency in this place. We struggled to communicate because there was a language difference and a time zone difference and, you know, communication style differences. We struggled to get the quality of work that we wanted. They were very inexpensive. But then, you know, we kept trying to get results and couldn’t. And I kind of have this, like, you know, what, you kind of got what you deserve there, right? Like, you did not optimize for the best quality experience. And that’s not to say geography is not a limiting factor there, right? You can work with absolutely outstanding people in any geography, and you can work with absolutely terrible people in your hometown. Like, I don’t have that bias, but I do think that if you optimize for cost and then you make the assumption that all people who fit into that service category are bad, you know, imagine going to, like, Denny’s, you have your first cup of coffee, and you’re like, oh, this is terrible. Then you all coffee is bad. Weird, like, that’s a weird choice, right?

Patrick: It’s a weird choice. I do know people who have hired developers on Fiverr and regretted the experience.

Rand: And then they think all developers are bad.

Patrick: Wild. So I did want to ask you, and I saved this question for the end because I didn’t know if we’d have time to talk about AI and SEO. I guess, first of all, what are your thoughts on AI SEO, and also I want to know, do you use AI tools in your day-to-day?

Rand: Let’s see, okay, first thing first, specifically for SEO, I think that there are some use cases where AI can help with tasks in the SEO world. I’ve seen some of my friends and colleagues from my former life in that field share specific tactics like, “Hey, remember when we had to manually apply this tag in these ways to thousands of rows? Well, now I have this, you know, I can plug a large language model into my Google Sheets, and it’ll do it for me. Great, fantastic timesaving, sounds awesome, I love it. It’s similar to a programming use case, fine.” If you tell me, “Hey, AI is going to write my blog post, and we’re going to publish that, and that’s how we’re going to write 10,000 posts every month,” you know that’s not going to work. I know that’s not going to work, we all know that’s not—I don’t have to tell you, all right, we all know what we think of that. I have never seen AI do the two things that you noted that are necessary to do well in the social sphere, which have a unique perspective, present unique data. It cannot do it because the way large language models work is to predict tokens that come after other tokens. So you’re only going to get out what’s already been put in, right? The other thing that I think a lot of people ask about with AI and SEO is, should I let Google bot and others crawl my site, index my stuff, and add it to their large language models? And the answer is most of the time, probably yes, because your presence in those language models will determine whether your token, your brand name, and your ideas, and your product names, and service names and all that is stuff that the language model would be likely to include in the future. The other thing it certainly suggests is if lots of influential sources in your industry, whenever they talk about your topic, can mention your brand, you’re going to do well in a search engine that is based on large language models in the future. PR, I’m coming back to PR, right? Be present in the places where Google is crawling and indexing that stuff. My suspicion is brand mentions are going to be the new links, right? The way links used to be with SEO, your brand mention next to the words and phrases that people look for, that’s going to be a big part of the future of SEO. Do I use it in my day-to-day? No. Do I use it on occasion for special projects? Yes. Did a big analysis project with a bunch of clickstream data and needed stuff categorized in certain ways and was like, “Oh my God, I don’t want to spend, you know, hours and days going through this manual categorization.” So great, plug in the ChatGPT 3.5 for Google Sheets, and hey, you know, here’s the prompt, column, and then it spits out the output at the end. Great, manually hand-check the first 100, and 95 of them were accurate. Good enough. Yes. 

Patrick: Yes, I get that. I definitely find it’s so useful for me for data processing and like removing weird HTML breaks and stuff from and words like that.

Rand: I mean, I think what’s great about AI is it can be a good tool to save a bunch of busy work. Yes, that’s a wonderful way to use it. If you are using it for creation rather than just sort of ideation, especially in content, I would argue you’re almost certainly going to encounter problems.

Patrick: Got it. All right, I know you’re super short on time, so I have a quick one here, and this will be the last one. So a lot of people who are listening to this do partner with marketers (50:55). What would be a key trait of someone that if you’re the coder, what would you want to look for in a marketer, and also where would you maybe find that magical person?

Rand: Let’s see. So, I think that one of the traits that almost all of the best marketers share is deep empathy. They are able to put themselves in the shoes of your audience or your customer, and they are good at researching that group of people and their behaviors and their likes and dislikes and the messages that resonate with them and why they work and what doesn’t work and those kinds of things, and then explain it back to you. I think one of the challenges that I’ve often seen from, I’m going to call it, like the prototypical or stereotypical engineering mindset is often things should be relatively straightforward in their formulas, right? X plus Y equals Z. So explain to me what X and Y are in marketing and how I will get outcome Z. And if you bring that mindset to the conversation, you’re in big trouble because that is not how human brains work. I will simply mention the field of politics. If you believe X plus Y equals Z in human brains, politics does not function, right? Like that’s not how any of it works. The oversimplification of human attention spans, conversion behaviors, brand building, positioning – this is an art and a science, and it leans heavily on the art, I’m sorry to say. And if you cannot get your head around a space in which art is – I say art in terms of the artistic mindset – if you can’t get your head around that, then I’m not sure I would make those investments. Just do it yourself and struggle along, but you know you’re gonna need to do some of the things that you can’t explain why it works simply.

Patrick: Got it. Well, Rand, this has been very educational. I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. You have changed my mind about some things, and we’ve gone on a delightful assortment of tangents that have all been very inspiring to me, so thank you.

Rand: Oh, my pleasure, Patrick. Thank you for having me.

Patrick: Perfect, and thanks to our listeners for tuning in. If you enjoyed this episode, hit like and subscribe so that we can carry on enticing influential and awesome guests like Rand to join us and share the remarkable journeys with you. If you’re on the plugin.fm website, be sure to subscribe for early bird access to our future content, and trust me, you’re going to want to get a heads up for who’s coming on the rest of the season. Or just share the episode on your social media accounts so we can get the word out there and help fellow entrepreneurs on their journeys too. plugin.fm is brought to you by Freemius, your all-in-one payments, subscriptions, and taxes platform for selling software, plugins, themes, and software as a service. If you’re struggling to grow your software revenue, send a note to [email protected] to get free advice from Freemius monetization experts. My name is Patrick Rauland, and thank you for listening to plugin.fm.

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