We sat down with Rand Fishkin with the initial intention of writing a story called, “How Brafton uses MozTools,” but after an hour of speaking with him, we realized there was a much better story to be told- a story about the man and his company.

So rather than your standard Q&A, we’re going to tell a story about Rand and Moz.

Wine, Hawaiian shirts and scooters, oh my

“Hi! Welcome,” said a friendly woman holding a glass of red wine. It was, after all, well past noon. No judgment (I may or may not have had a few double IPAs whilst writing this piece – creative juices and all that).

Brafton Creative Manager Lauren Fox and I were led through hallways of open-air workstations and past scooter-riding techies whizzing by. The place was buzzing with energy, especially for a Thursday afternoon.

Then we saw the subject of our interview, wearing a crisp red Hawaiian shirt and having an animated and enthusiastic conversation with a colleague. He was Whiteboard Friday-ing, but without a camera rolling!

Is it possible that this “Rand Fishkin” is not a marketing “character” on my laptop, but a real person with an authentic passion for SEO nerdery?

We were led to his office where we waited to find out.

He walked in and gave us a high-spirited welcome, immediately putting us at ease. But he quickly realized he needed to change out of his tropical digs and into something a little more interview-worthy. Our timing perfectly coincided with a delivery of Whiteboard Friday shirts that he was giving a test drive. So he made a hilarious scene about the unlikelihood of someone starting an interview with a change of wardrobe, then he excused himself to doff his hibiscus threads.

When he returned sans tropical garb, we started the interview. I started with questions about my favorite tool: Keyword Explorer.

On Keyword Explorer, and how the hell the market still doesn’t know what ‘organic difficulty’ means

I explained to Rand my frustrations with trying to explain to clients and colleagues the difference between pay-per-click keyword competitiveness versus organic keyword competitiveness. These are two completely different animals, yet they are nearly always reported as the same.

Most tools only report on PPC competition scores, most notably Google AdWords. Not knowing any better, most search engine optimizers use these “competitive” metrics as tools for doing organic keyword research. I asked:

How is it possible the market has been so uninformed about organic keyword difficulty for so long?

Rand explained that it has been a slow, slowwwwww education process that has been years in the making. He explained that oftentimes SEOs’ first experience with keyword research starts with Google’s Keyword Planner Tool, and with it, Google’s PPC competition metrics. That becomes ingrained in the SEO.

At this point, it becomes a competition of branding for mindshare, and Google has the largest mindshare on the web. And it’s certainly not in their interest to over-explain that their figures apply only to PPC where they do make money rather than organic difficulty where they don’t make money.

Through Whiteboard Fridays and speaking events, Rand tries to correct this misunderstanding to help SEOs understand what it is they are actually researching and executing against.

On why they changed the terminology in Keyword Explorer

After using Keyword Explorer religiously since its release in May 2016, I thought I must be going crazy when I saw one of the metrics change from Potential to Priority. Was I seeing things or was this change for real?

Rand explained that after extensive A/B and user testing, they chose to switch the name because their research confirmed the majority of users were employing Keyword Explorer to whittle down very long lists of researched terms and prioritize those most aligned to their business goals.

The emphasis being: prioritization as the means to an end.

Additionally, they found there was confusion between Potential and their Opportunity metric, the latter of which indicates paid ad and SERP crowding.

Throwing “Potential” out the window and replacing it with “Priority” might have seemed like a bold move to the average user, but with this context, it reflects a healthy and thorough testing environment.

On the Top 5 tools a beginner SEO should have in their toolbox

There are so many SEO tools out there, ranging from doing a couple things well, to being a pure data visualization tool, to sucking completely. For a beginner SEO, it can be mind boggling to figure out where to start. Rand helped us break down the five key tools every SEO needs in their toolbox.

  1. Google Analytics: Analytics tools are the foundation to understanding search engine optimization. It’s impossible to truly quantify and understand the impact of SEO work without having a strong grasp of measuring results and behavior in analytics. Being a free tool, Google Analytics is a no-brainer.
  2. Search Console: Search Console provides a free solution to evaluate crawl data, search presence data, and the ability to disavow links on your site. Search Console is going to provide the most accurate webmaster data and insights you will find. And again, it’s free.
  3. Moz Pro or AHREFS Suite: Rand recommended having a centralized dashboard that gives an SEO visibility into their inbound link profile, a domain ranking metric and a keyword ranking tracker. Another critical aspect of these tools is that they allow for competitive research and analysis across keywords, link profiles, etc.
  4. An SEO Toolbar: Rand highlighted either SEOquake or Mozbar for SEOs to have handy for quick and dirty site and page evaluations.
  5. Buzzsumo: A surprising No. 5 on the list was Buzzsumo, for the purpose of understanding what topics the market and top influencers are talking about to help influence blog ideation. Also, Buzzsumo is a great tool for identifying potential linking partnerships.

On Rand’s favorite Moz Tool to develop

The answer to this conversation took an unexpectedly personal direction that elicited a wide range of emotions, and ultimately left us feeling like we had just watched Rocky take down Ivan Drago (am I aging myself here?).

Back in early 2014 Rand stepped down as CEO of Moz. He publicly admitted to having had a difficult personal year, and doubted his capabilities to fulfill the responsibilities expected of a successful CEO. Further, people speculated that maybe he was in over his head – a guy that was previously in the right place at the right time.

Rand’s true skillset has always been firmly rooted in developing tools and evangelizing SEO.

He explained that Moz’s intention has and always will be to make SEO accessible to everyone, not just the most technically minded people. This is reflected in the simplicity of Moz’s tools and Rand’s zest and talent for breaking down complex topics into easily-digestible insights.

After this difficult time, Rand returned to his roots with the intention of creating something truly revolutionary and helpful to the world of SEO.

He intended to overhaul the Keyword Difficulty Tool and relaunch it as a comprehensive keyword research tool. He assembled a makeshift team of all the employees he could recruit from various other Moz projects and teams – people equally ambitious and passionate, but certainly a hodgepodge of skillsets and backgrounds.

Rand and his band of engineers went on to build one of the most comprehensive keyword research tools available, introducing a revised keyword difficulty algorithm, a SERP crowding metric and a subjective keyword prioritization slider.

Rand and his team came storming back into town in a major way, proving that his past successes were no fluke.

On Open Site Explorer

I wanted to know about the history of Open Site Explorer because I remember it being one of the very first SEO tools I latched on to years ago and it’s still part of my regular day-to-day tool lineup. So, I asked Rand about its beginning and how it’s stuck around for so long. What I got was a great reflection on just how much the industry has changed in under a decade.

Open Site Explorer launched in 2008 and was named primarily for its ranking opportunity against Yahoo! Site Explorer, which had been around for a number of years. It was predicted the Yahoo Site Explorer wouldn’t stick around and Moz saw an opening, grabbing a name for their tool that would take over SERPs if ever the day came that the Yahoo! tool bit the dust.

Their bet paid off. Yahoo! Site Explorer did shut down, and Open Site Explorer filled the gap.

But this was not before the release of these tools caused significant outrage with SEOs back in the day.

Before either site explorer tool existed, spammy link-building and black-hat SEO tactics were all the rage and not yet on Google’s radar. These tools unveiled sites’ linking profiles and virtually leveled the playing field. They changed the game.

Open Site Explorer has remained a valuable tool for link-building and outreach, domain authority management and link opportunity discovery, and it’s still a staple for many SEOs.

Keep your eyes peeled for a name change, though! Rand hinted that as the memory of Yahoo! Site Explorer fades evermore into the aether of SEO tools past, so too does the connection to its name and relevance in today’s landscape. In short, no one gets the connection anymore.

We can’t wait to see how they rebrand it!

On advising someone on creating their own SEO tool

Moz has become a behemoth in the SEO tool industry and I just had to ask: How did they achieve this level of success? I wanted to know what their biggest challenges were and what they would recommend to companies looking to create their own tools.

As Rand explained it, the tools business is not a very scalable one unless you become mainstream and everyone starts using your tool. And it’s extremely difficult to get to that level.

  1. You need an audience large enough to market your tool to.
  2. You need enough users from that audience to actively engage with your tool long enough to do thorough and effective user testing.
  3. Maybe this should have been first on the list: You need to build a good tool.

So, was that the magic formula for Moz or did they just get lucky?

A little bit of both.

Moz started out as an SEO consulting company and built a formidable audience through blogging and content marketing. When the time came to expand their offerings to SEO tools for the industry, to make “SEO as accessible as possible,” their audience was already there.

And it certainly didn’t hurt that the tools they built were (are) good (great).

On SEO tools that should be getting more love

Going into that meeting I was determined to find out if there was a tool that wasn’t getting as much love as it should. There is always the kid on the kickball court who can really mash, but never gets the chance to bat cleanup. I wanted to know what tool wasn’t getting its five minutes in the spotlight.

Rand emphatically responded, “Fresh Web Explorer!”

Whether it’s the tool’s strange name, or lack of understanding of how the tools works, it remains a diamond in the rough, getting zero love from his audience.

Rand explained that you can use the tool to set up alerts for any mention of a keyword phrase of your choice. FWE will crawl blogs, RSS feeds, forums, and news sites for your brand name or any keyword of interest so that you can identify linking opportunities when someone mentions your brand but doesn’t drop you a link. You can also get an idea of what influencers are talking about on specific topics, and whether there is enough interest to warrant writing up an article.

In short, Fresh Web Explorer helps you keep your ear to the ground and provides invaluable opportunity to build linking partnerships.

On Domain Authority

The term “Domain Authority” has become a ubiquitous phrase in the SEO world, hanging on the lips of even the least-savvy digital marketing minds.

Domain Authority has taken over as the authoritative benchmark for measuring the relative strength of a domain. I wondered, “Was that what Moz intended?”

Rand explained that Domain Authority was never intended to be a metric that would replace, or even compete with PageRank. MozRank, on the other hand, was intended to directly compete with PageRank.

The intention of Domain Authority was to build a model that would predictably estimate how Google ranks individual domains.

Rand wanted to build an algorithm that would tell someone how likely they are to rank ahead of a competitor targeting the same keyword. Who is stronger, and why?

The success of this model can be attributed to a couple things:

  1. The simplicity of the metric and what it means.
  2. Its accuracy.

I speculate that it has resonated so well with people because of how easy it is to rank one domain versus another, and our competitive nature is fueled by looking at the scoreboard.

On how Rand sees keyword research evolving in the future

Moz has been at the forefront of reporting on Google’s every move for years, so it wasn’t a surprise that Rand had a lot to say about the future of keyword research and organic search.

Voice search and information-dependent users

As voice search becomes a more ubiquitous method of searching, voice answers will increasingly take priority over traditional search results on the first page.

Rand pointed out that voice answers are problematic because they provide little-to-no opportunity for conversion rate and click-through rate tracking. Users don’t need to click into a result on voice search because they are automatically presented with the best, most relevant answer.

What’s more, Google doesn’t attribute the information for the voice answer to a source, so you can throw brand affinity as a booster for CTR out the window.

SEOs will likely need to pivot the performance metrics they use with this in mind. Click-through rate may need to take a back seat to engagement metrics, such as time on page or pageviews per visit.

Our conversation with Rand veered from keyword research and took a somewhat creepy turn as we started to discuss Google’s true intention for its users: information-dependence.

Rand believes Google’s main goal is to nurture an addictive behavior to search, and that it’s less interested in the information it provides to the searcher.

For a population who now uses “Google” as a verb as well as a noun, this makes perfect sense.

To prepare for this trend, we’ll need to take into account the content we’re creating. Rand believes that content that provides a truly immersive answer or experience for the searcher will win out.

Fond farewell, Rand and team!

All told, we were granted a full hour of the half-hour time slot booked on Rand’s calendar. We gave Rand our gratitude for lending such a large chunk of his day, then scurried off to the elevator.

We certainly intended on presenting ourselves as professional peers, but speaking with a top mind about our true passion for all things SEO inevitably led to a quick regression to a couple excited kids high-fiving on the elevator.

Until next time, wear your Hawaiian shirts with pride, use your turn signals on those scooters, and keep the awesome tools coming.

Jeff is the CMO for Brafton's marketing team. He specializes in SEO research and testing. In his personal time, he is a woodworker and jogger. He hosts a podcast that can be found below: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/above-the-fold-by-brafton/id1413932916