CEO puts fresh face on SEO
If Rand Fishkin had been my math teacher, I probably would have studied engineering instead of English literature in college. Fishkin's gift for explaining...
Seattle Times staff columnist
If Rand Fishkin had been my math teacher, I probably would have studied engineering instead of English literature in college.
Fishkin's gift for explaining complex stuff with a clear, breezy style is a big reason he's become a star in the mysterious world of search engine optimization, the realm of consultants and hackers who tweak and manipulate Web sites to make them more prominent in search engine results. That open, helpful tone has been key to the success of Seattle-based SEOmoz.org, a search-marketing community Web site and consulting business Fishkin launched three years ago.
More than 50,000 search-marketing experts are registered users of his site, which offers free information and advice, including a weekly video lecture where he'll discuss topics such as social-network marketing strategies.
The name is a blend of SEO, shorthand for search engine optimization, and moz, a nod to the technology-sharing ethos of the open-source Mozilla Foundation and dmoz Web directory project, efforts that inspired Fishkin to share most of his research online.
"We felt we would open up SEO and share everything we had and not keep it secret or keep it under wraps," he explained. "I think that's what built the community, SEOmoz — there's such a wealth of information. Now there's a premium module, but we still keep a ton of tools free and probably some of our best articles are still free."
To make money, SEOmoz charges $399 a year for the premium content and does consulting, at a starting rate of $10,000 per month. Clients include Microsoft, National Public Radio and Yelp.
Within a week or so, SEOmoz is finalizing its first round of venture financing, taking $1.25 million to speed its expansion — from eight to 14 people — and build itself into an essential collection of Web marketing tools.
Fishkin, 28, expects the company will be worth $80 million to $100 million and perhaps sold to a search giant in a few years, ideally about the time he and his fiancée start having kids.
The son of a Boeing engineer and a marketing entrepreneur, Fishkin was raised in his mother's small business. Boeing brought the family to Seattle from New York, and he grew up on the Eastside and attended the UW.
Just before graduating with a degree in finance, he left to work full time at his mother's marketing and design firm. It evolved into SEOmoz, where she's now the president and he's chief executive.
With Fishkin appearing in national media nowadays, his demeanor is helping to improve the reputation of SEO.
It's a controversial industry tainted by spammers using SEO tactics to game search engines and peddle Viagra, gambling and pornography.
More broadly, SEO also raises questions about the accuracy of search results.
A big reason Google was so refreshing when it debuted was because its results seemed pure and objective, compared with earlier search sites that had become cluttered with paid results and advertising.
Now it's impossible to tell at Google, or any search engine, whether you're getting the unfiltered results of algorithms scouring the Internet. The top results have almost surely been influenced by search-optimization techniques.
There's no use pining for a search utopia, free from commercial influences. That's like wishing for affordable housing in Seattle or a zero carbon footprint.
The best we can hope for is that search engines keep getting better and more precise, and that SEO is dominated by legitimate, transparent players.
Fishkin seems to be on the up and up — earlier this year he turned down a $10 million offer to push a gambling site to the top of Google's results, for instance — but he doesn't have a lot of choice.
For one thing, he shares most of his tricks online. For another, he works alongside his mother. So, he really didn't take that $10 million?
"Oh, heck no," Fishkin said. "The thing about something like that is that while $10 million sounds like a lot, it is $10 million worth of work, undoubtedly. As far as building a white-hat Web site to rank competitively against all sorts of black-hat shady techniques that are being used in the gambling sphere, you really would be talking about two to three years of work by a team of people with a lot of effort going into that. You'd make some money off it but ... our feeling is that SEOmoz has the potential to maybe be an $80 million to $100 million dollar company in two to three years."
How about the direction SEOmoz is heading?
"A year from now, I'd love to see services at a place where you go online, ... you sign up for an account with Google to buy your ad words, you sign up with Yahoo and then to get some keyword research you sign up with Wordtracker. You're doing SEO, so you have to sign up with SEOmoz," he said. "We're going to provide things that will be essential and with which you can't do without."
There was an outcry in the SEOmoz community when the venture funding was announced. Could they have been worried about more content being moved into the premium section?
"Actually, I don't think that's the case," Fishkin said. "I think people definitely do trust us to keep creating great content for free as well. I think what people were really concerned about was the culture and the style of being so open about the business."
I've heard of SEO consultants charging $2,000 an hour, so I was surprised SEOmoz needed funding at all. But Fishkin said it decided to accelerate its growth, especially after learning of two competing startups.
"We looked at the model, and we said [in] two to three years we can have all of the things we want done and built ... tools and products and services and articles and all this kind of stuff," he said. "But with this funding we could probably turn it all out in eight to 12 months.
"So it was a question of, do we want to take this opportunity because we have this lead in the market to take it all the way and become the undisputed market leader very, very fast, or do we have the patience to sit and worry about a better-funded competitor coming in and taking over that marketplace."
Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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