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From SEO Pioneer to Audience Research Champ: Rand Fishkin's Epic Journey

Rand Fishkin
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Rand is one of the true pioneers of the SEO world and has been instrumental in educating the SEO community over the years.


Rand is the founder and former CEO of Moz where his weekly Whiteboard Friday videos became a must watch for anyone working within the SEO industry.


After much heartache stepping down from the company he had foundered and built, he went on to write 'Lost and Founder' which is a painfully honest field guide to the startup world.


Today, Rand is the Co-Founder of SparkToro, an online tool which give you audience research data at your fingertips which was built out of frustration of the large tech companies denying you access to your own audience data.


Although Rand has not worked within the SEO industry for a few years now, he is still highly respected and one thing is for sure. The SEO industry would not be what it is today without his involvement.

The Unscripted SEO Interview Podcast with Rand Fishkin

Watch the interview

(click the 'cc' icon to view subtitles)

Listen to the podcast

(54 minutes long)

The unscripted questions Mark A Preston asked Rand Fishkin

  • For all the people who still think you work in SEO, who actually is Rand Fishkin and what do you do now?

  • What made you jump ship from SEO?

  • As you understand the SEO industry so well, what stops you from building a tool that specifically helps the SEO industry?

  • How can the SEO industry use the wider marketing research tools like SparkToro in their overall strategy?

  • How up to date is the data within SparkToro?

  • You have started to post videos on how SparkToro can help within specific scenarios. Have you found them useful from your end?

  • What does the tool SparkToro actually do?

  • What made you want to get into audience research specifically?

  • How does SparkToro conform to data privacy laws?

  • What are the benefits of using SparkToro?

  • Do you think SEOs and marketers have started to forget about the foundations over the past years?

  • Do you think that customers and audiences do a lot more research into a product or service these days before they make a buying decision?

  • How has the impact from the pandemic changed the online space?

  • I see from your socials that food is a big passion of yours, but can you actually cook?

  • Was there a specific scenario where you were trying to make something but couldn't find any recipes or tutorials online?

  • As the whole world seems to be going crazy about AI at the moment, what is your personal view on AI content?

  • I always remember the Whiteboard Friday video you did on 10x content years back. Am I being stupid or is the whole point in content to ensure you create something that is a lot better than what has already been published?

  • Do you speak at many in-person conferences anymore?

  • If you had a magic wand and could change just one thing within the marketing industry overnight, what would it be?

  • Where do you see the marketing industry heading?

  • As you have given your time up to join me today, is there anything anyone watching or listening to this interview can do to help you?

  • Can anyone test drive SparkToro for free so they can understand its benefits to them?

The unscripted conversation between Mark A Preston and Rand Fishkin

Mark A Preston: Welcome to The Unscripted SEO Interview. I'm your host, Mark A Preston:. And today we have joining us, a person that I've known for a number of years and actually is the person responsible for keeping me sane in the industry. You might not believe it, but we've had a few conversations maybe when PBNs come around and things, but always been there to sense-check and make sure I'm on the right track. Well, without further ado we have the founder of Moz and the co-founder of SparkToro, and the author of 'Lost and Founder', we have Rand Fishkin. Hi, Rand!

Rand Fishkin: Hey, Mark. Good to be here.

Mark A Preston: Good. Well, the first question is, can you just explain to all those people that tag you into SEO stuff and top list that actually think you're still in the SEO industry? Can you just explain a bit of a history and what you do now?

Rand Fishkin: Sure, yeah, no problem. So I think inside of SEO, a lot of folks know me from my years at Moz. I started that company, was there 17 years. So a good little while. And that association, I think for many folks in the industry, is tough to unwind. They don't realize that at the start of 2018, so five years ago now. I left Moz, and when I left Moz, I negotiated my severance with them, but it included a non-compete, which means that I can't really operate in the SEO software, SEO industry anymore and have not been doing so since.


When the company was sold, 2021, a private equity company bought laws from its existing owners, and I had to resign the non-compete. So anyway, long story short, I am still under a very long non-compete, and I haven't been in the SEO industry for a long time. So when people ask me SEO questions, Mark, I tend to say, you should talk to a professional.

Mark A Preston: Brilliant! Well, many would say you are the professional, but obviously things change in the industry quite often. So what was it that made you want to jump from SEO into audience research that you're in now?

Rand Fishkin: Yes, so, I mean, it's a little bit of a challenging thing. I wanted to stay in the marketing industry. I really love the people. I felt like I had a good understanding of the sort of pulse of the industry and how to help people, but I obviously could not do SEO. So it was a little bit less of a, “Hey, what do you want to do?” And “Hey, you're not allowed to do this thing anymore.” So, audience research was very interesting to me because my co-founder Casey and I had seen a lot of people spending a tremendous amount of dollars and energy trying to uncover what their audiences paid attention to and their online behaviors and their demographics, and mostly using a combination of surveys and interviews and manual research but getting lackluster results at best, and spending six figures and months and months to try and do it.


So we had this idea that, “Hey, wait a minute.” A ton of this data is public on the web, right? Everyone who has a public Twitter account, public YouTube profile, a public Reddit account, public page on Facebook, public Instagram, all of those pages are crawlable by Google, which means we can crawl them too. And then we can index that data and say, “Oh, well, you want to know about chemical engineers in the UK?”

Well, we can tell you that of the twelve social networks we covered, we found 4200 people whose bio or profile or LinkedIn job title included chemical engineer. And they say they're located in the UK. Let's just show you all their aggregated behaviors, right? We're going to anonymize them. You won't be able to see who any of them are, but you can see all this data about them, what they read and watch and listen to and subscribe to and follow and post about, and what hashtags they use and what education they say they have on their profiles, all that kind of stuff. And that data is invaluable.


It's very straightforward. It's easy to understand. You know exactly where it comes from, but tons of people need it for their marketing campaigns or their market research campaigns and for their clients, and it just wasn't available. You couldn't get it at your fingertips, right? If you wanted to do that five years ago, I mean, you were talking about a huge custom job, six figures, a couple of engineers, probably a year of work. SparkToro, we were like, let's just build it for the whole Internet and provide that data in three or four seconds. So that's what we did.

Mark A Preston: Brilliant. Now, how do you see SEOs using SparkToro to help them? Because obviously SEOs changed. Well, I don't think it's changed. I think it's just a bit different. Myself, I was always doing research 20 years ago on audiences and things. It just was a lot harder. But how would you say that the SEO industry can use the wider marketing research tools like Spark Torah in the overall strategy?

Rand Fishkin: Yeah, so, let's see this is an area where I want to be careful, because, again, I have a legal obligation not to build software that helps SEOs with SEO.

Mark A Preston: For myself is I use lots of tools outside the SEO space.

Rand Fishkin: Sure, absolutely. Yeah. So, my position, my formal position is SparkToro can't help SEOs with SEO. Not directly. However, many people who are SEO practitioners and marketers of all kinds do a lot of marketing strategy and tactics that are not purely, “Hey, how do I rank for this keyword in Google?” right? They do lots of things like trying to, “Hey, let's try and understand where this audience pays attention so that we can go get a guest article in that place, or we can get them to write about us, sort of PR types of activities, or guest editorials.


Let's go find these publications so that we can talk to our advertising team and get them to do some targeted advertising places. Let's figure out what conferences our audience attends because we should be present at those conferences. We should try and speak at those conferences. We should try and sponsor those conferences. Let's figure out what YouTube channels they subscribe to so that we can get those YouTube channels to talk about us, to feature us. Maybe we just go to our Google Ads account, and we say, “Hey, I want to advertise to this YouTube audience.”

The same thing is true for Google Display ads across the Google Display network. The same thing is true for Facebook. The same thing is true for Twitter or for LinkedIn or for Reddit, right? If you can understand which subreddits your audience subscribes to, you can go follow those subreddits and figure out what conversations they're having, and then you can go extract out data about, “Hey, lots of these people care about this subject.” We should probably write about that subject. And then you can go do your keyword research or your SEO stuff and try and rank for those keywords.


But certainly, SparkToro is a kickoff point for understanding behaviors and demographics from which you can draw a ton of conclusions and lots of direct actions about what you should be doing on the PR, content marketing, advertising, those sides of the business.

Mark A Preston: So, the data within SparkToro, how up to date is it?

Rand Fishkin: Yeah. So, we crawl over a, we basically refresh the entire index every 120 days. So, anything you see in SparkToro is between one and 119 days old. But generally speaking, I try and say that most of it is in the last quarter. So, when you look at SparkToro today, what you're seeing is things that happened in Q-Four. However, I say this, but in December, we launched a feature called Audience Tracking, which will tell you only things that changed and happened with your audience last week.


So, for example, this morning, I have in my inbox, “Hey the audience that follows Balsamiq".., the UX wire framing tool that my friend Peldi runs. So Balsamiq has an audience of several tens of thousands of people. SparkToro tracks all of their activity every day and then tells me at the end of the week, “Hey, this is what changed with Balsamiq audience just last week".  So that data is week over, week fresh.

Mark A Preston: Yeah, I've noticed. Well, in recent times, you've started posting short videos on not use cases, but how SparkToro can benefit different scenarios. Have you found them to be useful from your end?

Rand Fishkin: I think so. I mean, it's one of those tough things, right? The only metrics that I have to track it are vanity metrics. So, I can see whatever Twitter or LinkedIn or Mastodon give me in terms of, “Hey, this many people saw your post".  On native video in LinkedIn at least you get to see how many people, excuse me, watched a certain percent of the video. So, there's some data suggesting it is engaging and people are watching and resonating with them. Whether they take any action from that, very difficult to know.


But this is the way I think a lot of marketing has to go, because you can't. For example, if I were to make a video mark and it was a 60 second video, and I said, “Hey, click the link above this video" , to go to the website, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, anywhere I wanted to put that video, it would do worse. It would perform badly on those platforms because those platforms are anti-link platforms. They don't want to have people leave the platform. Their algorithms sort of dissuade creators from linking out. I mean, obviously we all do it anyway, but you're not going to do as well as if you post the native video without the link. And so the way we play this at Smart Toro is what my colleague Amanda Natividad, coined as Zero-click content, right?


We produce a lot of content that requires no click at all. You can consume it entirely, right? It's a tweet, it's a LinkedIn post, it's a reddit post, it's a YouTube video, it's a native video that's on one of these platforms. It's just mastodon post. And lots of people will see that because those platforms I mean, mastodon is different, but those algorithmic platforms reward engagement and they reward non-linked content.

And so we just play the platform's game, right? It's all about getting that zero-click content and that engagement from it, and then counting on the fact that some people who view that, read that, we'll go check out. Let me see. Who is this, Amanda? Oh, she works for SparkToro. What do they do? And that's the loop that we count on people doing. Even though we can't track and measure it, there's no way to know whether it's working. We kind of have to have faith in the zero-click content concept.

Mark A Preston: Yeah, I remember recently reading the article she did about it based on a few case studies you've done.

Rand Fishkin: Yeah, I mean, I don't think there's anyone, certainly not on Twitter, and it's becoming true on LinkedIn that uses zero-click content more effectively than she does.

Mark A Preston: Yeah, well, I'm going to say certainly because I've played around with SparkToro quite a while, and I've had a few conversations with you about different ideas, though but it's not until you started doing them videos, that I really started to understand what it was, because it took me quite a while to understand, well, what is it? What does it do? I go in and do things. And you described a couple of scenarios where people are using it more of a search engine or a keyword tool rather than the audience side.


And now I've got my head around it, and I think those videos you've done have really helped, because is different scenarios. Like, are you running an event? Well, this is how it can honestly then trigger moments if you are thinking about running an event. Ah! I haven't thought of that. And I think that overall, whether you're in the SEO space or not in the SEO space, I think the audience research is such a big entity because I've never been one to just do what everyone else is doing. I've always been the one that, well, no one can understand what I'm doing, but they can't understand how I've got the results.

Rand Fishkin: It's always good to be out in front of your peers, Mark.

Mark A Preston: Yeah, I think the whole audience research has really excited me. And what is it about audience research that excites you? Why are you in this space?

Rand Fishkin: I mean, two reasons. One is I do love helping marketers. And when I saw how many people were trying to do audience research, market research and spending gobs of money and months of work, wanting to make that a simple and easy and direct process, that makes me excited. But the second reason is because Google and Facebook, Amazon and to a certain extent, Twitter and Microsoft and other companies, they know this. They know all this data, they have all your customers data, they have all of your markets data, and they won't share it with you, even though you're the one providing all the content, right? Providing them with the free creation of your profile on Twitter, on LinkedIn, on Reddit, on YouTube.


You created your YouTube channel. Google knows everything about all the people who subscribe to you. Why don't you get to know that?  They subscribe to you.  You're the one making YouTube all that money. It seems wrong and unfair to me that the big tech companies get to extract this data and use it for their targeted advertising or their machinations of business strategy, and we don't get to use it, even though we're the ones, the creators are the ones who made that audience possible. Sure, YouTube gave us a platform, Twitter gave us a platform, LinkedIn gave us a platform. But those platforms are, especially today, incredibly easy to build and maintain, right? A Mastodon instance will cost you a few hundred dollars a month, even less.


Who makes Mastodon valuable? It's creators, right? And that information should be available to the creators. It should be freely available to everyone. I get really pissed off when I think of how Facebook used to provide all this incredibly rich data about your audience. The people who subscribed to your page, right? They were fans or followers or whatever they called them.

And then the Cambridge Analytical scandal happened, and Facebook used that as cover to take that data away. And basically, under the guise of, “Oh, it's a privacy problem", Which it's not.  It's not a privacy issue. Showing you aggregate data about the whatever the genders and ages and educations and job roles of people who subscribe to your Facebook page, that is not a privacy issue. No one's privacy is being violated when you say, “Oh, alright, 17% of my 6000 followers, whatever, have a masters that doesn't hurt anybody's privacy.” But Facebook knows that it can charge you money to reach that audience.


And if you learn too much about them, you might be able to target them outside of Facebook. You might not need Facebook anymore. I hate that. I hate the idea that these big tech companies are using us to build up their platforms and then not even sharing the information that they gather with us again. SparkToro was designed to claw some of that data back.

Mark A Preston: Yeah, I think going back years, I think from my side, I think the turning point was the not-provided in analytics. The industry went a bit, well, what do I do now? And I think from then then GDPR in the UK come about. But what you describe, it isn't somebody's phone number. It's not somebody's email address. You can't recognize a person. It's just the overall well, what percentage my audience are interested in X-Y-Z?

Rand Fishkin: Yeah, exactly. So, you know, SparkToro will not tell you if you go search for chemical engineers in the UK. It will not tell you. Oh, you know, here's Bob, and he lives here, and here's his email. No, none of that. But it will say 21% follow this, you know, Connected Chemistry Industry Association, and here's its social profiles and website. Oh, and then they attend this conference, and they follow these YouTube channels, and they listen to these podcasts, and they subscribe to these newsletters and all these subreddits.


That information violates no one's privacy. It's public out there, right? You could if you wanted to manually go get it. You just go to Twitter, go to LinkedIn, search for chemical engineers, and then go down the list and make a big database yourself. Copy and paste all the data and take a cell and then run a big division of okay, well, let me see how many of them follow this person. You could do it yourself. It's all public information.


Everyone has the option to make their accounts private, and those who want to do SparkToro can't crawl anyone whose account is private, neither can Google. But, boy, it sure is a pain in the butt to try and get this data manually, you need a machine to go crawl it and index it and present it to you the right way. And that's what we're trying to provide.

Mark A Preston: Yeah. Just before Christmas, I did a speaking gig with a room full of professional speakers. And I actually used SparkToro as an example. So, I told these professional speakers to go and have a look. And basically, I just said, well, you're here, and you want your goal is to be one of these speakers up here. But why don't you research what one of those speakers are doing? You go to SparkToro. Just put them in there, see where they're talking, what their audience says all these different things, and the minds were blown.


And these are professional speakers who get paid around the country and the world. And it's just that for me, sometimes marketing I won't call it simple, but the logical stuff. I don't know why, but all the training and the speaking things I do, for me, it's the logical stuff that makes people think. Because I think they're so wrapped up in data and all the other things, they don't strip marketing right back. And I think they, these tools are so important to understand.

Rand Fishkin: I do seem like one of the things that frustrates me sometimes is people will say, well, I don't understand exactly, what should I use SparkToro to do, right? I'm playing around in there. I'm not sure how to apply this. And my general response is, look, if you don't have already a question, a tactical or strategic question that needs answering, yeah, you shouldn't be using SparkToro or any other tool.


The reason to use a tool or product is I have this question, this problem that needs solving. Now, how am I going to go get it solved. If you tell me? "Hey, we're spending hundred thousand dollars a month on Google and Facebook ads, and I don't know if we're getting as much from it as we could. I wonder if we took 25% of that budget and put it toward direct sponsorships, direct advertising, content marketing, right. These kinds of things, would we do better?" And the answer is almost always yes.


But very few businesses are sort of willing to invest this way, right? And if that answer is yes, then you almost certainly need SparkToro or something like, because you have to answer the question, where should I go spend that money? Where should I go spend those content efforts? Where should I go pitch? Where should I do my PR? Which conferences and events should I be at? Which YouTube channel should I be pitching? Which podcast do I need to get on? Which subreddit should I be participating in? Which social media channels should I be following? Who am I trying to get to amplify my work on Twitter and LinkedIn and Facebook and Reddit and all these other places?


And the answers to those questions are what SparkToro can provide. But if that's not your problem, right? If you don't have that problem, I don't think you should go in there. You know what, this is a lot like for SEO people. I think this will help.

So, Mark, one of the core parts of audience research is keyword research. Keyword research is just another form of audience research. It's like the one form that SparkToro can't do. But your goal in keyword research, which is like the fundamental building block of SEO, at least it used to be when I was in the industry, I assume it still is. The concept is, I need to understand what people who might become my customers are searching for.

Mark A Preston: Yeah

Rand Fishkin: And if you don't know, how are you ever going to do, never mind SEO. PPC, SEO, any kind of search, Mark right, people who search for X are likely to be my customers, and the inverse, my customers are likely to search for x,y,z,a,b,c,d. That process is core to the building blocks of how you do all SEO and all PPC. Without it, you're sunk.


You can't do anything. And the way I feel about content marketing and PR and social media marketing, and a lot of these other practices, targeted advertising, targeted sponsorships, speaking events, pitching YouTube channels, whatever it is influencer marketing is that same building block has to be present. So as keyword research is to the SEO field, a deep understanding of what your audience pays attention to, how they behave and who they are, is how you build up the rest of your marketing strategy.

Mark A Preston: Yeah, it's the same thing. If you don't get the foundations right, everything you do is going to be pointless. And I think that, oh my God.

Rand Fishkin: You might get lucky.


Mark A Preston: I could go on forever. You can see it frustrates me. It's like the number of companies that come to me, and I research, it always nine times out of ten, the foundation is wrong.

Rand Fishkin: Yeah.

Mark A Preston: Well, we've done all this stuff over here and we've done all this and done that, and it's just the foundations are wrong.

Rand Fishkin: Yeah, I see this a lot because I think over the last 20 years, there were many points in time where, basically, if you had a business with a decent product that served a group of people who needed it, and you got a basic website online, right, in 2005. And you managed to throw your website into Google Ads, Facebook Ads, LinkedIn, if you are B2B, you could generally make a return just from with no aim, with no intelligence strategy.


Because the internet was growing so incredibly fast. Demand was growing so incredibly fast. Google, Facebook and LinkedIn and all these other platforms, YouTube were growing so incredibly fast, and so there was so much more demand than supply. Over the last, I'd say, it’s probably really the last six or seven years meant much of that is plateauing.   Right? The number of people searching Google in 2021 was not that different from the numbers searching Google in 2020, which was only a bit more because of the probably the Pandemic than from 2019, right?


And so, all these plateauing things have meant that the return on ads spend and the return on investment from throwing your digital marketing against a wall like Spaghetti and seeing what sticks doesn't work like that anymore. But unfortunately, I think it's going to take another decade before business owners who are used to that, "hey, I just throw some money at Google and Facebook and everything works, or Amazon and everything works". And we've been leaving that era of Internet marketing for a long time, but the memory sticks around.

Mark A Preston: Do you think a lot of it is due to customers and audiences now are more clued up, they do more research into a certain entity, a certain product? Do you think that's from obviously from your own research, do you think it's, a case of, well, you know, they're more clued up about what they want? It's not as much like impulse buying.

Rand Fishkin: That's probably true in some sectors, but not in others. I think that impulse buying, especially on the consumer side, and I speak from an American, United States perspective, is still very heavy. And my guess is that's true around the world. But what's also true is whereas you were competing with, you know, ten people in 2005 and 100 people in 2010 and 1000 in 2015, and today 10,000 50,000, right? So every one of your competitors, you know, if they weren't online before the Pandemic, surely made sure that they are.


Every single business that is competing with you in your space, that's solving the problems that you're solving, they are all online. They are all trying to do Internet marketing of some kind. One of my biggest frustrations, Mark, for the years that I ran SEO was trying to convince my board of directors, my investors, and the investors that I was pitching that SEO was a real thing, that people were going to continue searching Google, to find, you know, information and to buy products and all this kind of stuff. That was a slog.


I can't tell you how many smart, reasonable people with hundreds of millions of dollars to invest were very skeptical that SEO would ever become widespread. Even as late as 2012, right. There was still incredible skepticism in the investment market about whether SEO was going to be something that every business did.

Today, every business, every business has an SEO team or an SEO agency or both. You just can't find a business without them. It is table stakes to do internet marketing or marketing of any kind. You know, the industry is just, I don't know, probably a thousand times bigger than it was in 2008-2009 or 10.


And as a result, you know, incredible opportunity. I mean, you've seen, like, SEM rush going public (30:34 not clear) having just extraordinary revenue. I think that, in a way, what's funny about Moz is it had good timing in terms of being early, but took its eye off the ball right at the wrong time, because the board of directors and myself thought that the SEO market was going to be too small and we had to broaden.

Mark A Preston: I do a lot of work in the optical industry. Opticians. And pre pandemic, to be honest with you, it was pretty straightforward. There were only the big brands and a minority of independents that were doing anything on, digitally. But as soon as the pandemic hit, Woof!  Everyone was forced into it. That's the thing, they were forced into it. And now it's a totally different space than it was.

Rand Fishkin: Absolutely. I mean, I have talked to business owners who believe that physical world retail is now less competitive and more cost effective than internet marketing. And some of them are probably right. There are probably spaces where you do better to set up a storefront in a physical location where you know people are coming, and if you get your geography and your sort of retail space right, and your products right, you can do better selling there than you can online.

Mark A Preston: Yeah. Going totally off topic, can you actually cook? I mean, I'm seeing all these wonderful dishes. Is it like you just get it from the restaurant? I said, look what I prepare. I look at these videos, I thought, I'm going to try that. For some reason, it never sort of turns out the same. And when my kids say, I'm not eating that, you know, something's wrong. Is it like cooking a passion for you?

Rand Fishkin: Oh, absolutely, yeah. Deep passion and interest. I love it. I find it fascinating, I will say, I agree with you that 99.9% of recipes leave something or many things out. Many important things out. Right. So, if you make a recipe, which I often do, 10, 12, 15 times, you start to learn these little signs and tricks and things to spot. And I think the problem is that most professional or even amateur recipe writers assume that that knowledge already exists, right?


So, whatever it is, you're making chicken Katsu, and you don't understand why the breading on the chicken keeps getting burnt, especially on that third or fourth piece and every piece after that. And this question of 'what am I doing wrong?'. And until you realize that it's not one thing, it's five different things. It's about, well, did you get the egg back l? Or mixture just, right? So that the panko adheres to the chicken properly and doesn't fall off too much. Do you have a skimmer to remove the pieces that do in between putting a new cutlet in the frying oil, did you use too little frying oil? Right. And so the oil temperature is going haywire. Do you have a heavy enough pot?


You want something that's cast iron or enameled cast iron to be able to hold the heat. It's all these 50 different tips, none of which are mentioned in the recipe. Right? The recipe says, okay, now dip it in egg. Now dip it in panko. Now put it in the frying one. That's not enough, right? You haven't given enough information. You know what's really good? I will say most salad recipes. There you go. Real simple.

Mark A Preston: I can just about sort that out.

Rand Fishkin: Yeah. Salad recipes. You're good.

Mark A Preston: I'm sort of in what I call an experimental cook.

Rand Fishkin: I think that works. I'll tell you a story, Mark. I have a friend who's a moderately famous, well-regarded bartender, right? He was a publican for many years. He innovated a bunch of different methods and did quite well for himself, right. Sort of in that field. He has become a close friend. I see him quite regularly. He comes over and he asked me for a Negroni one night this summer, this past summer.


Negroni is a very simple drink. It is equal parts red Aperitivo, Vermouth and gin. Seems pretty hard to mess up, right? You don't have to shake it. It's herd cocktail. There's nothing else in it. I made him one. I served it to him. He took a sip and went false and put it to the side. He didn't touch it again. And so, I texted him the next day. He was like, “Hey, man, you got Andrew. You got to tell me. What did I do wrong? What was wrong?"


It turned out everything was wrong. All three of my ingredients were wrong. It was technically gin. It was technically an Italian red Aperitivo, and it was technically a vermouth, but it was the wrong kind of everything, right? And this is not something if you go online and you look for how to make a Negroni, you will not find this information, right?

One of the most important things, for example, is you've got to use a London Dry Gin, right? A lot of gins that are produced now have a huge array of botanicals. And if you look for the most award-winning gin or the best tasting gin, or the gin that wins all these taste test awards, you will find ones that are not appropriate for most cocktails, including Negroes. If you go and you buy what you think is the best thing to purchase out there, you can have a bad time. But nobody says this, right?


That information is extremely unavailable unless you're an insider and you understand it. Anyway, I wrote a blog post a while ago on SparkToro, I think, called “The Secret Is….There is no secret”.  And it's all about this kind of stuff, right? And anytime you dig into a field, whether it's cooking or cocktails, or SEO, or Internet marketing or YouTube advertising or PR, you find that there's not just one trick. Oh, well, if you just do this, you'll get it, right? That never happens. It's always once you learn this trick, then you find out that this other thing is wrong, and then you figure out that this next thing is wrong.


And I think this is why it's so valuable to have lots and lots of hands-on experience and learn from your mistakes. Right? That's what everyone says in Internet marketing, right? They always say, just go try, go build a website, try to rank for some things, try to make some content. You'll figure it out.

Mark A Preston: Yeah, but I'm going to say, as far as content on the web is concerned, I think the whole industry is going to be mad on AI at moment. I won't tell you what I think, but what's your thoughts on the whole AI content? I don't know. You mentioned their fact checking, just simple things like that. What's your personal view on this?

Rand Fishkin: Let's see. My guess is that AI content generation, which is most of what the SEO industry seems to be talking about, marketing industry seems to be talking about, will probably become a part of some people's toolset in the near future. And if and when it advances even more, it might become part of more people's toolset. They'll use it for potentially taking whatever a keyword or a topic or a hashtag and generating some ideas around it, and then using their own intelligence to modify that and turn it into something that's production ready.


I could see that use case, I could also see the use case where for some content that's not that important for search engines, I don't know, very boring product descriptions. Oh, well, describe this screw versus this screw. This one's a little bit bigger and that was a little bit smaller. I could imagine people potentially using AI content generation for this stuff. But the thing about SEO, the thing about internet marketing world is people love to jump on trends, right? Anytime there's something new and exciting, it gets blown up. So, I don't know if you remember, like Google Glass, everyone was like, “Oh yeah,” people are going to be searching with their eyes, they're going to put on these glasses and look through it. Or VR and AR. That augmented reality.


People are going to be booking through their phones at the physical real world, and that's how we're all going to navigate the future. And it barely became a thing. Think Pokemon Go is probably the biggest and last thing we all used it for. Chatbots, right? Chatbots were going to be huge in the 2013-14, right? Everybody in internet marketing was talking about how chatbots were going to replace help desks and how we're going to make chatbot centric websites. And you're not going to anyway. Mike, I'd just be careful on the trend jumping thing. I mean, I think that all these examples, crypto is a good example of this, right? Web3 is another good example, NFTs, gosh! Everybody needs a mobile app. You remember like 2010, 2011, every SEO conference I went to, there was a whole session on why you shouldn't have a website.


You should have a mobile app. Nobody should have a mobile app. Like the top 30 players in a market should have a mobile app and nobody else, because people just don't, nobody's going to install your app, everybody uses the mobile web. So, I fear that the AI conversation is similar.

Mark A Preston: Yeah, the way I think about everything is stripping it right back logically. And I don't know when it was quite many years ago, your 10x content thing always stuck in my mind. And I think with these AI content tools, well, all it does is create something based on what's already out there. But as marketers, should we be focusing on creating something that's better than out there? And this is my thought process, and this is my understanding.


Well, if all you're doing is regurgitating what's out there, forget about who actually owns that content. That's a different matter. But how is an AI supposed to make it ten times better than what's already out there? If they're using what's out there as the research? And for me, that's what's always stuck in my head. That 10x thing.

Rand Fishkin: Yeah, I think.

Mark A Preston: I've always been. Unless it's better than out there, I just don't publish it. What's tough is, a lot of things that are not the best in their field do well, right? But I don't think in a competitive market where there is lots of already existing players who have done extraordinarily well and dominated that field, I don't think you can stand out by doing something worse than that. Just generally speaking, you've got to be better on some of the vectors, right? Product quality, price, positioning, marketing, something.


And I'm not sure that most content generated AI helps a lot with that. I will say, I'm almost more interested in the image and visual generation that AI is coming out with. So, you know, for the last few years, lots of people have been using these image generation tools to say, like, "hey, I want you to imagine this, you know, fantastic science fiction landscape for me. Or I want you to, I don't know, you know, imagine a fantastical, you know, world, but put this existing person into that landscape and, you know, give me a picture of that, a visual of that".


It's not I mean, it's fast. It's very fast. Does a decent job. Some of those images and pictures, I've seen them across my Instagram feeds and on our station and those kind of places. They look pretty good. I don't think they’re 10x, but are they usable and potentially useful to some folks? Sure, absolutely.

Mark A Preston: Yeah. I'm going to say, do you speak at many person conferences anymore?

Rand Fishkin: I did a couple last year. I'm planning on doing, I think, three or four this year, but we'll see. What is it, the new XB? I can't even remember what the new Omicron variant is called.

Mark A Preston: Yeah.

Rand Fishkin: I don't know, not as excited to go to in-person events, but I try to wear a mask most of the time. It's a little awkward wearing a mask around folks at a conference.

Mark A Preston: The writing SEO in-person event, the one just after well, we're not even after it yet, but the one after and I remember bumping into John, and I think he was sort of wearing a mask to hide, I think.

Rand Fishkin: I feel for folks, right? Like, the stats in the US are just awful. I think more people died from COVID the last two and a half years than in every war we've had combined since World War One.

Mark A Preston: It’s crazy. Is it just, gosh! If you had a magic wand and you could change one thing overnight in the marketing industry as a whole, what would it be?

Rand Fishkin: Oh, boy! That is, all right, I'm going to give the wrong answer, but it's my initial thought, after much more consideration, I'm sure I would come up with something better. But I think that anyone who, like we were talking about before, anyone who collects data about broad aggregate behavior, and they use creators work to generate that. So, Google relies on websites and creators of YouTube content and creators of content across the web in order to get people searching, in order to direct them to the right places, in order to get all their instant answers.


And I think Google should be required to provide the information that they gather and the information benefits that they generate back to the people who do it. So, keyword not provided, I don't think is a reasonable exchange, right? They should tell you which keywords people search for when they came to your website, and they should tell you, “Hey, your web, as they do in Google search console. Right? Google gives a good amount of information about, hey, what did people find you with and what kinds of searches did you come up for? "

I think that should be globally applied and it probably should be written into law, EU law, UK law, US law, right? That, hey, if you're YouTube and you have all this data about who subscribes to Mark's channel, you have to share that with Mark. "Hey, Mark, here's a bunch of data about your audience on YouTube. How they behave, how they found your stuff, how they engage, that kind of data, which is crucial to you and does not violate anyone's privacy".


The same thing is true with Twitter, it's true with Facebook, it's true with LinkedIn, it's true with Reddit. If you are the one providing the value, creating the content, creating the community, creating the profile, people subscribe to you, the platform should be required to give you the valuable information about the aggregate audience that you've generated for them. That's the only way to make that exchange more even.  Today, Millions, hundreds of millions of people around the world are working very hard for Instagram and Facebook, LinkedIn, Reddit and YouTube and TikTok and Google, Amazon and getting nothing from and it's a fundamentally unfair exchange of value that big tech has basically used its monopoly power and its political power, lobbying power to prevent. I want to see that.

Mark A Preston: And as a last question, where do you see the marks in industry heading?

Rand Fishkin: Well, definitely not to the place where I waved my budget, unfortunately. Let's see. So we are almost certainly in for a recession this year globally and in the US. I know the UK is already in a recession and probably has a bunch more years of pain in front of it, but my guess is that I've seen the estimates around advertising. I think that marketing will grow, advertising will grow less quickly than it did last year, two years ago, three years ago, four years ago. But I don't think that growth is stopping. I think we still have many, many more years ahead of growth in both digital marketing and all of the organic marketing-side content, PR, SEO, social, et cetera, et cetera.

What I'd be worried about for marketers on an individual basis is, if you continue investing in the same way that you have in the past, which is essentially relying on conversion rates to be the same, relying on return on ad-spend to be the same, I don't think that's what's going to be true, especially this coming year. I think that every business who wants to do well in a difficult time of recession, rate negative GDP growth is going to have to optimize and tweak their campaigns, their channels, their messaging. Probably you're going to have to take some of your ad dollars that are not currently returning as much and put them toward organic channels that can serve you well in the long term. Right?

I'd be willing to say,:” Hey, I'm going to take the top, you know, the worst, performing 25% of my ad spend.”  And I'm going to put that to building up a great email newsletter, building up subscribers on YouTube, building up our content platform, a great blog, a newsletter, whatever it is. I think that those kinds of things that can return lots of value for you as economic conditions improve in the future, that's where I hope the marketing industry to go.

Mark A Preston: Brilliant. And just to finish off, as you've given your time to people watching this, is there anything that people watching this can help you with or answer? Or is that because you're spending your time coming on, giving all this valuable information? Is there anything that anyone's watching this, can I do anything to help you?

Rand Fishkin: That's incredibly kind. Let's see. Well, so I would just say if you want to follow along with more of the stuff that we've been talking about today, I'm most active on mastodon, where I'm at Rand Fish. And I would say if anybody wants to try out SparkToro, it's free to do so. There's no free trial. It's just completely free. You don't need to put in a credit card. You can just try it for free, see if it works for you, see if the data is interesting and valuable. Several tens of thousands of marketers use us every month, entirely for free, and we love that.

Mark A Preston: Well, thank you very much for jumping on, and it's been an amazing chat. I'm sure we could chat all day, but I'm sure you have all the stuff to do.

Rand Fishkin: Mark, thank you. Thanks for having me. 

Mark A Preston: Thanks. 

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