It’s Kind of an Empathy Thing – Interview with Rand Fishkin

26 Minute Read | Interviews

An exemplar of the virtues of transparency in an often opaque and closed industry, Moz’s Rand Fishkin is well-known and much loved for his openness, honesty and sincerity.

Above and beyond being a great guy, a snappy dresser and enviably legible when it comes to groundbreaking writing on anything vertical, Rand’s known for his curiousity and breadth of knowledge on technical SEO, on page SEO, linkbuilding, content, keyword research and all things inbound marketing.

Rand Fishkin

Woj: Welcome Rand – did we miss anything?

Rand: No, no. That’s perfect. I’m also an expert in how to blow dry your moustache. So if you know more about that, let me know.

Woj: Will do. So thanks to putting on another great show this year. I went to MozCon. It’s my fourth one. It’s worth every cent. Quite a few Canadian speakers making jokes this year, actually, about Americans migrating post election results.

Rand: Sounds about right.

Woj: What are your few thoughts on the future of your nation?

Rand: Well, I mean, the United States is an odd place, I think. You know, tragically, we have a history rooted in racism and conflict and that is a really tough thing to get over, I think, for a lot of folks who have been part of the majority in the United States for a long time. They feel like equality is actually oppression. And feelings are not facts but it doesn’t make them any less real, right, or make them less real to have to deal with in the political world. And that’s… I think you’re feeling that more keenly in this election probably than at any other time, at least in my lifetime, in the U.S.

Woj: Yeah.

Rand: I mean, the U.S. has a lot of things to recommend it. Tremendously amazing people, remarkable innovation. But it also has a very laissez-faire sort of attitude to a lot of things and a very religiously informed attitude to a lot of things. And some of those make many common sense moves really hard, you know, from a political or a “get things done” standpoint. So I don’t know, I’m not actually sure if I’m optimistic about the future of the United States long term. I think I’m very optimistic about the future of about 30% to 35% of the United States who have really benefited from, you know, the economic and social games of the last decade or two. But there’s a lot of folks who have a really tough time. And all of them absolutely have the right to vote and they can take us back to some weird places.

Woj: I find it crazy that it’s not compulsory to vote in the U.S.

Rand: Yes, and it’s very frustrating. It’s also an odd thing that one of the primary political tactics, historically, recently, has been only used by one party but in longer term has been used by both parties and that is vote suppression. And there’s a lot of things that you can do to limit people’s access to the polls and to voting. I don’t know if you’re aware but you actually have to vote on weekdays here and you have to actually go to a place or if you have a low income job that won’t let you get off work, chances are good you won’t be able to make it to the polls and vote.

And a few states have a vote by mail. Washington, the state that I live in and where MozCon was held, is one of those. And we see, you know, 70%, 75% turnout versus a lot of states with 40% turnout.

Woj: Wow, that’s really… that’s really interesting.

Rand: In the United States politics are very, very strange and unfortunately the United States, because of its economic and military impact, influences a lot of the rest of the world, too. And yet many of you folks don’t get a say, don’t get to vote. And that sucks.

It’s not exactly fair that this sort of global influence is only selected by a tiny proportion of the people that it impacts.

Woj: So when we caught up last time, you mentioned that you were hoping to shave your moustache as soon as Moz became profitable.

With this news lately of Moz reshaping, will we be seeing the top lip in the near future and how do you see the future of Moz?

Rand: Moz, which I’m very happy about, is returning to its SEO roots. I’m gonna be focused on SEO for the foreseeable future rather than trying to be broader in and around marketing and releasing products in the world’s social and content and other forms of marketing. So that excites me a lot. I really like being focused. I like having fewer products and fewer channels. But, you know, that being said, I think the move is not without its risks, right? We’re gonna have to execute well. We’re gonna have to rely on the fact that SEO keeps growing as it has the last few years.

I think we sort of took our eye off that ball and now we need to be best in class around all the functions we provide.

Woj: Totally.

Rand: Yeah, I feel relatively good about that. But it’s not without its risks. As to the moustache, I suspect sometime between December and March will be profitable again and I’ll be able to shave this darn thing off. That’ll be real nice.

Woj: It sounds like you’re looking forward to it.

Rand: Oh, my God. I can’t even… Like, it’s just…

Woj: It must be a…

Rand: It looks fun sometimes but the maintenance is a pain in the ass. You know, you have to wash it regularly but then every time you wash it, it sort of doesn’t hold its shape very well. It’s terrifyingly bushy when it’s humid out. There’s just all sorts of problems.

A photo posted by Geraldine (@theeverywhereist) on

Woj: So how is life these days compared to when we caught up a couple of years ago? Obviously, you’ve been focusing more, being involved on the product and not having to take the helm of the company so much. Have you personally kind of felt a lot more freedom to, you know…

Rand: I would say that was true, probably true, until July, August when we did the layoffs and when the company asked me to contribute a lot more on both the product side and the marketing side. And so now I have much more of a, I guess, strategic leadership if not management leadership role. And that had meant that… I mean, I have not had a day free from, you know, less than four, five hours of work, including weekends or holidays or whatever, in many months. And it’s definitely a much more intense amount of work than I was doing, say, at the beginning of this year.

I sort of thought that Moz needed me less and it ended up that Moz needs me more again now. So I’m trying to do my best to contribute there.

Woj: Well, I guess it’s hard. I mean, you’ve been a founder and to a certain extent you’ve paved a pathway. And you’ve got tremendous insight into how it’s all been established. And, you know, you’re probably going to be the constant whereas people change and move around…

How important is focusing on search moving forward for Moz?

Rand: I think it’s gonna be pretty important. You know, Keyword Explorer was a pretty good example of that where we held back on launching until we had gotten some substantive feature sets out. And even then, I think if we’d waited a couple more months and launched with some of the even more powerful features, it would have been an even bigger splash.

But I think that we have an obligation to continue to roll things out at that quality bar at least.

I suspect if we regressed and we started releasing stuff that is just, you know, crappy again folks will trust us even less and that’s a real danger to the health of the company.

So, yes, definitely gonna keep pushing and leaning on folks to release less minimum and more exceptional products here. But, you know, be smart about it, too, right? So we might be able to do more iteration inside of products after they’re released and do more smaller iterative releases inside products that already exist that move them closer to best in class, I think.

And games are a good example of that where it’s sort of like, “Oh, let’s release SERP features”, “Hey, let’s release, you know, more granular rank tracking data”, “Hey, let’s release better crawl and better insight”, “Let’s release better on-page optimization scoring” And, you know, those kinds of features, related topics right there, they’re very small. I even call them MVPs if they have lived on their own. But they’re part of this big product and so the big product can clearly stand on its own and serve many customers very well. And then you sort of iterate and add on to that.

So I think that might be another way that we can do those faster, shorter term releases.

Woj: Yeah, they’re awesome, by the way. We love those features.

Rand: Thanks, man.

Is Moz going to adapt any machine or deep learning in any of its tools?

Rand: Right now we use ML in Open Site Explorer and then MozScape for Page Authority and Domain Authority scoring. And we also use it for spam score. Although, I think we’re gonna have to retrain that model. But we will probably be doing the same thing with on-page optimisation. Related Topics does that a little where it essentially does an extraction of content from the pages that already rank for a keyword to try and learn what terms and phrases Google associates with a given topic. That’s already in Moz Pro.

But I think the machine learning aspect of that will then use those plus all the other on-page factors to get a really good sense of what the most optimal page looks like and see which factors correlate best to high rankings in terms of on-page features and then making recommendations for folks on those.

So that could be a machine learning as either a one-time thing that we update regularly or an on-demand, like, let’s see if we can take an input of all the pages that you are trying to rank for in your sector with your website against your competitors and try to learn an algorithm or a system that works best just for you in your rankings.

Woj: That’s interesting because every SERP is different.

Rand: Yeah, every SERP is different. The challenge for me is: I don’t know how to think about this batch, right?

So my understanding with RankBrain is Google’s essentially saying, when we do query interpretation in that query interpretation time, we’re gonna figure out which signals to move up and which signals to move down, right?

So maybe for this query, links are not as important and content‘s really important. Maybe for this other query, engagement’s really important. Freshness is important. Links are important, but the content’s less important, you know.

So I think they’re going to that kind of fluctuation which could mean that an ML model that is more based against and biased toward your particular search results makes the most sense. At same time, maybe that is a dumb way to play it because you might be caring about a lot of different search results where Google is using a lot of different factors. And so those correlation techniques, those ML techniques are not very helpful because you’re only getting a small sample of each different type of query where Google is, you know, using various elements of the algorithm in different proportions. And so you’re averaging a bunch of stuff together in ways that you shouldn’t be.

So we’re just gonna have to spend a lot of time not just trying stuff that… or not just releasing stuff but building it and re-learning against it. And we test with it and only after we see good results do we release it. Otherwise, we could be giving some very bad advice, right?

Woj: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Rand: I feel a little shady if we’re like, “Oh, yeah, we analysed your 20 search results and then we built this ML model. And, oh, by the way, we just averaged a bunch of queries that all use different elements of the algorithm.” And so you’re just getting this bundle of junk and selling it as recommendations instead of providing something high quality.

Woj: And I can imagine a lot of people would take that and go, “Oh, this applies to every vertical?”

Rand: Right, right.

Woj: Or, “This correlates with everything.” So, yeah.

Rand: Yup, yup. You gotta be stupid or careful and pay a lot of attention to not just what correlates and where machine learning can take us from a predictive standpoint, but also to recognise that you’re gonna need a large quantity of data and a lot of True in the search results tests to confirm any hypothesis or any suggestions. So related topics was a good example of that, right?

So we’re tracking all these topics. But we could see that by taking a page that was targeting keyword and adding related topics to it, it just ranked better. Like, you know, it was pretty one-to-one. Okay, you take the topics that Google already says are on the pages that rank well. Great, fantastic. Put those on your page and, like, you tend to move up in the rankings. And at the very least, you’re definitely not moving down. So we’re not giving bad advice. We can feel confident about releasing that feature. But it’s a tough thing.

The last thing we would want to do is give people bad advice.

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Woj: Absolutely. So what’s up with the inbound marketing movement? I consider myself an inbound marketer or the T-level marketer that you’ve described previously, but it seems like it’s not taking off away that a lot of people had envisioned and people are still specialising in individual arenas?

Rand: I think you’ve nailed it exactly. I think there’s a lot of folks who don’t think of themselves as inbound marketers even if they focus on one or two channels or specialisations that fit into the inbound marketing world. And then I think there’s also a lot of folks who say they’re inbound marketers but even in saying that say, “But my specialties are this channel or this channel or this tactic or this specialisation.” And I think that’s totally fine and legitimate and reasonable.

There is so much competition in each of these channels that it seems obvious in hindsight why you would specialise and why you wouldn’t just have generalists who work on every single aspect.

We get caught up in the language and in the idea of a shared digital marketer who concentrated on non-paid channels, becoming something that a lot of small and medium businesses would use when, in fact, what ends up happening is a lot of small and medium businesses hire for the one or two channels that they care most deeply about and contract out a lot of the rest or just don’t focus on them. And that is also the case for consultants and agencies. They specialise and then they outsource or they subcontract or they refer for non specialisations.

Woj: It’s like marketing automation, as well. Unless you have the workflows and everything ready to be connected to each other, you can’t kind of just go for every channel.

Rand: Right, right. Well, in marketing automation, in a lot of ways, you can do all the elements of the automation that are below the acquisition channel and that’s often owned by a specific email marketer. But this one is… You know, social media marketers, there’s social folks who are focused purely on engaging in social conversations. There’s folks who are focused on social listening. There’s folks who are focused on brand building. There’s folks who are focused on traffic driving from social, from getting value for SEO from social and, like, all these different things.

It’s just like SEO, right? And I think the same is true in content marketers, people who are content strategists and then content developers and folks who focus on B2B leads from content, folks who focus on brand building through content, who focus on native advertising, there are like all these millions different things.

Woj: Okay, so I’d like to get a bit personal, if that’s okay.

Rand: Sure.

Woj: On the podcast with Jerry Colonna, you talked about depression and the loop. How important is this as a topic to discuss, get out there? Because it seems that it’s a subject that’s not often discussed yet there are entrepreneurial suicides happening.

What exactly is the loop and how did it consume you and how did you eventually break out of it?

Rand: I think a lot of people have a different description or a noun that they use to describe it. But for a lot of folks who are suffering from mental and emotional issues of all different kinds, there is this facet of the process wherein you get kind of trapped in your own mind cycle where you build things up – a problem – and it overwhelms your thoughts and often pulls you away from doing critical bodily care and emotional care types of things, right? Like maintaining your relationships and thinking positively about yourself and about the future and getting good sleep and good exercise and, you know, self-maintenance and all those kinds of things.

And as a result, you almost get a reverse of the flywheel concept where every bad thing you’re doing to not take care of yourself builds upon the despondence and the frustration and the anxiety or depression or whatever it is that you’re feeling, and your situation gets worse and worse.

And the longer you’re in it and the harsher it is, the harder the cycle is to break. It’s not too dissimilar from… although, in concept, at least…although certainly, physiologically, it’s different from addiction, right, addiction kinds of behaviours where you…

Woj: Sure.

Rand: The more you do the thing, the more you crave the thing, the more that takes over every other aspect of your life. And the more you need the thing to escape the fact that your life is dominated by this addiction, etc., etc.

Woj: Yup. And you’ve mentioned in posts that when you encounter conflict that you often disengage?

Rand: Yeah.

Woj: How do you plan to engage more or perhaps you use the disengagement to your advantage?

Rand: If only that were the case. The tough part for me is when there’s disagreement. I do a thing that I think a lot of us do, although it’s not healthy and we all know it, which is if I don’t get my way I disengage. So it’s not the conflict or the disagreement itself. It’s the “I was not listened to,” or whatever, right, that kind of mentality. And that is super childish. It is so immature. And yet, you know, I can identify it in myself and I feel myself fighting it. I don’t have a good answer for you, you know.

Woj: Okay.

Rand: Grow the fuck up, right? Like come on, man. Just be an adult human being. Suck it up. You’re not always going to get your way.

You need to commit and work hard, even if you disagree fundamentally. And, I don’t know. That’s just something I gotta learn to do. It’s either that or… Yeah.

Woj: We all have our inner child and it’s something that we learn to manage. And it’s just one of those things. It is what it is.

Rand: Yeah, it’s so frustrating, right, because it’s something that obviously, obviously, every… Every person I ever hire, you know, when I was CEO, I was a manager and that kind of thing, every person I ever worked with, I asked them to do exactly that, to engage in conflict thoughtfully and even when they disagree to continue supporting and putting their hard work behind it. And like, come on, man. If you’re gonna ask, you better deliver.

Woj: Yeah, but that’s easier said than done, you know. It’s one of those things.

So another topic very close to your heart seems to be transparency. You’ve even described it as an addiction on a couple of occasions.

Rand: Yeah.

Woj: Why is transparency so important for you and where did your transparency addiction come from?

Rand: I think it came from a childhood and an early adulthood where there was a lot of non-transparency. That was like, family side and sort of growing up side of things and also early career. Especially with hiding debt and just hiding the fact that you were very, very unsuccessful but still trying to pitch clients in our early days of existing. Like we were these folks who could help them out and… That experience made me want to be extremely transparent so that there would be no skeletons in the closet.

And then over time, I think it’s also grown into an addiction because I have seen and felt the benefits of it. And this might be my own selection bias or exposure bias. But I feel like in every world, in the political world and the science or STEM world, in the world of startups in technology and entrepreneurship, in the worlds of marketing, any time you see opacity or secretiveness, there’s almost always something bad behind it, right? Or it has bad results. Even if there’s nothing at all bad behind it, there’s always bad results.

And on the flip side, when you are transparent, the harsh criticisms that you expect turn into words of kindness and praise a lot of the time because you were out in front with it and you didn’t try and hide what was going on.

It’s created a plenty of conflict, especially recently, man. It’s probably the most transparency challenged time I’ve had in my professional career at Moz, certainly since we got funded. Not fun, but hopefully still the right thing to do and definitely the only way I know how to live.

Woj: Makes sense.

Yours and Moz’s transparency is highly valued in our industry, but have you ever felt like it was too much?

You previously said, “Transparency for me is a reaction. It’s a rejection of the things I hated to having to deal with in my past and a value that I cling to. So I hopefully won’t have those same issues in the future. It’s an obsession that makes me more critical than it’s probably fair to individuals and organizations who fail to be transparent.” Uh-hmm. Google.

Rand: They’re not the only ones. Yeah

My politics are pretty clear, I’m a relatively passionate and ardent supporter of progressive politics in the United States. But I’m deeply critical of the Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, for her secretiveness. I think she’s been shooting herself in the foot for a long time by being very secretive. I understand the motivations behind it. Like I totally get it. Just like I understand Google’s, right? I understand why Google is very secretive. They had scares and have continued to have them with spam and manipulation. I think there’s a deep culture inside the company of fear about being gamed and manipulated. You know, I see this in all sorts of business and technology world. Uber is a very secretive company about a lot of their operations. I understand why that is, too.

I just don’t agree.

Many of these problems would be solved through transparency and wouldn’t even exist if you had transparency. And I believe, you know, Google in particular, if Google were much more transparent about how things work they would see more people trying to game but they would also see a tremendous number of contributions by all of the rest of us trying to stop them, trying to help Google rather than going, “Oh, shit. There’s nothing we can do. You’ve given us no tools to assist you.” But you make that more transparent and that becomes open.

I really respect that in sort of all fields and I think it’s just a general good. I’m not saying that all the time it is always the best and right thing to do. But I think in the long term, it’s a value that has tremendous benefit.

Woj: Definitely. How important is it to be kind to others?

Rand: In the order of operations of Moz’s values, empathy is the only thing that sits above transparency. And there’s often a lot of tough trade-offs. The blog post that I wrote recently about Moz’s return to SEO and about the layoffs that we had was significantly… the first version of it was entirely thrown out and completely rewritten because it prioritised transparency over empathy and kindness. So for me that’s a very, very important thing. But it’s also something I struggle with when it comes into conflict with transparency. It really is. I would say that order of operations is one of the hardest things for me personally and professionally.

Woj: Sure. How are we doing for time?

Rand: Yeah, I need to run in a couple of minutes. But if you have a couple of questions…

Woj: Okay, cool, cool.

Rand: Lightning round or something.

What’s one of the biggest takeaways from your CEO swap with Wil Reynolds?

Rand: I think the biggest one is I got a really great sense of what it was like to be in a sizeable agency again and to see how client relations and how distribution of labour works, the challenges of maintaining customers and doing sales.

A photo posted by Geraldine (@theeverywhereist) on

That’s a complex answer but to simplify it, I would say I gained a tremendous amount more empathy about the complexities of running an agency and the challenges that an agency faces which I never had at Moz because the biggest we ever were when we were a consulting agency was six or seven people.

Woj: Yep. I interviewed Wil at MozCon as well, so that was a lot of fun and that’s gonna come out soon.

Is Inbox Zero a good practice and why is it part of your daily routine?

Rand: I don’t know if it’s good practice, actually. I was reading a lot of CEOs, a lot of folks who have very stressful demands on their time because of Inbox Zero. They delete or ignore a lot of their email.

It’s just an empathy thing. I remember when I was early stages of my career in the SEO field and I would email influential folks and then I’d never hear anything back from them. I mean, on occasion I’ll occasionally email someone and just never get a reply. And I hate it, you know. I just despise it and so I wanna make sure that I’m not that person. And so if you send me, I would say, a well-formed, reasonable request that looks like a real conversation I will always try and reply to those. And so that’s my goal around the Inbox Zero. It’s kind of an empathy thing.

Woj: Yeah, cool. How is work on your book progressing and can you talk about that for a minute and go through what your vision is and what it contains and when we can see it?

Rand: So in December 31st, I’m supposed to turn in a finished rough draft which can be a very, very rough draft. But I have 5 chapters out of 16 done. So I am sweating it. Especially with the changes to Moz, I was making reasonably good progress into July. And then the last two months Moz has eaten up all my time. So I don’t know. I don’t know what’s gonna happen for sure.

I will say that the book is focused on transparency, on telling some of Moz’s stories, but not as much as it was previously. So it’s less a story of Moz and more a number of important lessons learned that are very different from what you’re going to hear in the rest of the entrepreneurship world.

Oftentimes, my advice is entirely contrary to classic things, EVP versus MVP being a good example. And then lots of examples of those from Moz and other places.

Woj: Nice. So finally, what impact do you want to make in the world? What lasting legacy do you want to leave behind?

Rand: I hope it’s two things. I hope that SEO is more understandable and accessible to anyone who wants to learn it or practice it. And I hope that with TAGFEE people recognise the contributions those values can make to a system overall. To make it more equitable and to make the world a better place. But also that I hope that if Moz can have success, I think TAGFEE can achieve much greater amplification as a set of values that other businesses and other entrepreneurs will consider, which is a lot of stress. That’s a lot of stress on Moz, right?

Woj: Yeah.

Rand: It’s like, succeed or the values that I care about will not receive the recognition and amplification that they deserve. But, you know, that’s how it is. It’s a laboratory.

Woj: Hey, you’ve built an amazing community off the back of that. So it’s something you should be proud of.

Rand: Thanks, man.

Woj: I really appreciate your time, Rand, and all the work you do for the industry.

Rand: You bet, dude. Great to see you Woj.

A photo posted by Geraldine (@theeverywhereist) on

For more, read our earlier interview with Rand, How Authentic Wizardry Nudged Moz to the Top, posted just days before he published his personal and pivotal A Long, Ugly Year of Depression That’s Finally Fading.

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