If being famous in an industry lent itself to the potential for ego-related character flaws, the only visible one Rand Fishkin seems to have is a fondness for irreverent shoe color. (Those yellow Puma’s are one part identification strategy, one part marketing gimmick via signature style, and at least two parts insulting to the eyes.) At least that’s the impression you get after hearing him speak and meeting for a short chat. If you’re looking for a snap judgement, the guy comes off as amiable and gentle-natured. But he becomes animated when he’s excited, and his enthusiasm is infectious. With a bit of facial scruff and dressed in jeans, flannel shirt and those painfully yellow tennis shoes, Rand Fishkin doesn’t look the part of your typical suit, but he can certainly command a stage and engage an audience. The audience in this case was in danger of bailing…a beer or two in, and most of them were ready for a break from work and some weekend revelry, but once he started talking, the crowd was intrigued, weekend or not.
For an entrepreneur, he’s got the usual impressive accomplishments list: He’s “The Wizard of Moz” which is clever-speak for being the founder and CEO and of SEOmoz, one of the web’s more successful companies. He’s also a book author, and he frequently lands himself on those top young professionals lists. While his personal salary may be under debate, SEOmoz, a company Fishkin said is going to do~$20mm in revenue this year, and raised $18mm in April of 2012, giving it a $75mm pre-money/$93mm post-money valuation.and is steadily growing. That’s not bad for a company with fewer than 100 employees headed by a just-shy-of-graduating college dropout.
But that’s not what’s most interesting about him.
What is fascinating about him, (and what makes him so ingenious or so infuriating, depending on who you are and how you look at it) is his penchant for large-scale online experimentation. He’s an inventor, a thinker, and where most marketers would die to bask in the glory of his online sphere of influence, he uses his social “powers” to figure stuff out. Say, if he’s interested in the way Google+ might affect page rank, he’ll Tweet to his 73,000-plus followers to +1 a specific web page, for example. And they do.
No one else really does this, or manages to harness the power of thousands of online hands working together to tackle a question that needs answers–at least on this scale. It’s the Rand Fishkin brand of crowdsourcing SEO. It may not have the prestigious veneer of a science lab, but his massive online experiments represent a neo form of research.
So, where does he get the ideas?
Fshkin said that this process of creating, then testing these concepts is partly internal. For instance, “I might want to test how a new platform works or whether a certain action will have a reaction based on how an algorithm appears to be functioning,” Fishkin said. “Other times, it’s ideas I get from interacting directly or indirectly with the marketing community on and offline. I’ve had plenty of requests via email or at an event that have resulted in an interesting test.”
You might make the mistake of assuming that the experts in a given field wouldn’t be interested in breaking down the basics of a system. But, the opposite is true. The pros have an intense desire and curiosity to theorize, then test their theories, which is what sets them apart. They’re thinkers, and that mental power is devoted to figuring out, pushing envelopes, and taking risks to see what happens. They’re like the grown up version of the kid who couldn’t resist finding out what happens to your tongue when you risk licking a frozen piece of metal. Much like Google’s Matt Cutts, who has said that he goes to craft fairs or other events with his wife and will write down the names of the vendors and then Google them to see what happens, the system is one that gets tinkered with and tested.
In one instance, Fishkin called for negative SEO attacks to his personal blog, and 40,000+ suspicious backlinks later, he “was still ranking well.”
He issued another riskier, potentially financially costly, challenge to use negative SEO to bring down SEOmoz. When interviewed by Chris Crum he explained, “SEOmoz gets–20 percent of its traffic from non-branded Google searches, so worst case, we’d see a 20-25 percent hit for a few days or a few weeks…That’s survivable and it’s worth the price to uncover whether the practice is a problem. Our core values (TAGFEE) dictate that this is precisely the kind of area where we’d be willing to take some pain in order to prevent harm to others.”
In many ways this “bring it on” attitude is like a semi-high stakes game of online Russian Roulette with your own company website. But that doesn’t seem to bother him, since more recently, he agreed to a hijack attempt. With so much at stake, it would be easy to assume that he’s using this collective creativity for personal gain, but it isn’t that simple. He’s out for the collective good, too, but the experiments and company values still pose something of a risk.
“Yeah, certainly,” Fishkin said. “We’ve had plenty of times when transparency cost us customers, or when generosity cost us dollars that we could scarcely afford. But in general, the good has far outweighed the bad.”
Really, this “let’s see what happens” form of experimentation is Fishkin’s way of reverse engineering what Google and the search engines do, and figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Besides that they’re fun to watch and likely more fun to take part in. What keeps his followers engaged is that they are all part of the experiment. Then, too, he doesn’t just keep the results to himself, since he’s an information/tool sharer, so everyone gets something out of the experience.
For all of the potential (say to medical researchers, for instance) that this type of guerrilla experimentation has, neither Fishkin or SEOmoz have any formal in-house experiments, research or science labs planned, but he didn’t rule it out.
“Maybe, but [it's] unlikely,” he said. “These results aren’t nearly as scientific as we’d like. To get closer to an unbiased experiment requires studying more natural and less forced types of interactions (at least, most of the time).“ He’s also quick to point out that he isn’t the first person to “leverage a social following to test how systems work” and he said he started out small. ”Early SEO forums did this all the time, but thanks to the growth of platforms like Twitter and Google+, it’s much easier today” he said. “One of my favorites is asking a large audience in person to perform an action and [to] then show the results at the end of a presentation–that’s really fun.”
If you’re looking for a psychological perspective, one recent tweet might be explanation: “One of my favorite things in the world: People who make others feel wanted and loved. I want to be more like them.” It would seem that if there were an Oprah Winfrey of online marketing running around saying, “You get a car!” then, Fishkin is the guy handing out white boxes tied with red ribbons that contain the keys to a prize. He’s a believer, and that rare sort of “giver takes all” mentality isn’t just a nice saying on the company home page, and it’s a value set that is as much an asset as it is a possible hurdle. Arguably, it’s why many of his site tools are free. He co-founded Inbound to help out marketers, and his gift to online marketers, SEOs and link builders is Open Site Explorer and the MozBar.
“We created TAGFEE together many years ago, and those values have stuck with us throughout our growth over the past five years, ” he said. “The source probably has to do with our fundamental beliefs about how we want the world to be–and I’m sure in no small part is culturally related to upbringing, popular culture, media, and certainly the important people in our lives.”
For all his success and consideration, Fishkin, like most of the world’s most interesting characters, isn’t immune to the occasional misstep or stirring up controversy. For instance, he’s changed his views on link building as often as a presidential nominee might change views on a tricky policy. During Link Love 2012, he gave an entire presentation, including slides entitled, “F%$#! Link Building.” More recently, he’s said that link building, despite being what he called too “time-consuming” and “really not what Google intended for site owners to be doing” is experiencing what he calls a “rebirth.”
In addition to his experimentation, entrepreneurial world view, and general niceness, Fishkin is a strong, if not one of the strongest, online marketers out there. He’d have to be or SEOmoz wouldn’t be in the top 500 websites…in the world. His vision for online marketing and company branding is one that makes sense (see his slides share on CRO below) and he’s quick to share what he’s learned.
In another interesting blend of personality, he’s as confident as he is humble, since he shares his “lessons learned” as readily as he does his balls-y predictions for the future of the web, i.e., check out “8 Predictions For SEO In 2012″. He also doesn’t hold still much, since being at the helm of the company means he always to be ready to move forward. Although there are projects in the works, he’s not giving details–yet.
“We’re working pretty heavily on a large update to our core product that’s been in the works for some time,” he said. “We’re also planning a few more acquisitions of external companies, and we’re excited about a new tool that’s launching in December–can’t say more on that quite yet.”
One of those classic movers and shakers, Fishkin has the chops to grow his company into a mega corporation. Granted, he’d probably do so with its “start-up culture” as intact as possible. While not everyone may like him or his tactics, no one can say that he hasn’t created an online environment that’s full of tools that are is useful for web users at large.
It would seem that the future of Fishkin and SEOmoz is rich with the potential of a man with a vision…one that he’s ready and willing to test.
Author’s Note: After Rand Fishkin spoke at SEOinBoi last month, true to character, he was patient enough to endure additional discussion afterwards, despite a waiting dinner party, and continued pestering with questions. Many thanks to Rand for the interview, insight and patience. It was very much appreciated.
[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://pageonepower.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/430031_3485059449445_1841286648_n.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]As editor and social media manager, Kaisja Clark oversees online content development, social media, marketing, branding, public relations, and serves as a writer and editor for various company and client publications. She welcomes comments and questions, life advice and cookies. Connect with Clark via email at kclark.pageonepower@gmail dot com, Twitter or Google+. [/author_info] [/author]