The next interview for Spotlight on Search is with Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz. Two interviews in one day? Well, the repsonse to my queries to interviewees has been fantastic. Plus, Rand has received some excellent attention in the media recently.

First, congratulations on the Newsweek article and for getting Slashdotted, twice in such a short period of time!

I remember reading in the Search Engine Watch forums a while back about how you were considering attending the Search Engine Strategies conference. It seemed shortly after you were explaining Google patents with Dr. Garcia on a SES panel. The growth of your visibility and involvement in the industry is impressive.

Lee: Please describe your background and how did you get involved with search engine optimization?

Rand: As folks may know from that Newsweek article, I work with my Mom (Gillian). I actually joined her company in 1997 and over time, it became a different firm. We got into webdev in the '90s and then usability and were working with an SEO firm who simply wasn't doing a good job. They never even mentioned to us the concept of link popularity!

To make a long story short, we started doing it ourselves and have barely looked back. As far as the SEO community, I got an invite to SES NYC from Danny last year, accepted and have been getting more and more involved in the SEO/M community ever since. I really like going to the conferences, blogging, following the forums - it's become a second job. I owe an absurd debt of gratitude to so many people in this industry. I'm humbled with every link and every mention - it's been incredibly rewarding working in this industry - not just monetarily.

Lee: You offer an abundance of information and tools on search engine optimization on the web site. Some SEO's offer very little how-to information. How does being so informative about how SEO works with documents like "The Beginner's Guide to SEO", play into your marketing strategy?

Rand: Well, our marketing strategy is really about serving our existing clients - folks like Avatar and Shoe-Store. We're not currently looking to add clients, so it plays very well. We do help companies with consulting and speaking - that sort of thing, so being the expert by offering those resources is certainly helpful in that respect.

Lee: You've been very effective at documenting what works and what doesn't. You've also been successful and breaking down documents like Google patent applications into digestible and meaningful bits. How important is it to understand search engine algorithms like HITS and PageRank for successful search engine optimization?

Rand: Hmmm Well, HITS and PageRank are a bit dated. I think what's truly important is understanding how search engines work and how IR researchers and search engineers think. Those documents can help you get a feel for the thought process and the ideas behind search engine rankings and that's what's really necessary. Reading every patent or algorithm can be overkill (even I like to just skim or read Bill Slawski's analysis). It's a personal question for each SEO. Jill Whalen is an exceptionally good SEO and I know she won't touch a patent or white paper from the IR field.

My favorite example of this is actually what Mike Grehan said on a panel we shared in Toronto: "Someday a client is going to ask, well, how do search engines work?" and you're going to say, "well, I don't know, they just do." It was his way of prodding people to learn more about IR and search technology and that's where I stand on the issue, too.

Lee: Rules for SEO change often. Also, with an abundance of forums, blogs and conferences, there's also the opportunity for abundant mis-information. What are some of the most common misconceptions you hear and what advice do you have for new SEO practitioners that want to stay current with accurate information?

Rand: Keyword density is my big pet peeve. It's just a silly idea that search engines would use this to rank pages, when term vector theory has existed since before there were commercial search engines. There's also still a remarkable amount of misinformation about how content or keyword placement or when and how often "submission" take place, etc. I don't know that we'll ever break through all of those issues, but I'd like to make it so whenever someone starts researching SEO, they get a clear, concise, accurate understanding of how SEs rank documents and how SEOs help documents rank.

Lee: In the Newsweek article, the writer alludes to the "dark side" of SEO. It seems every article I see about SEO seems obligated to use the good/bad side angle. You don't see that on articles about creative direct marketing or public relations. What do you think the SEO community can do, to upgrade its image?

Rand: Get out of the tech space. Seriously, I think that the news outlets of the world have taken to viewing technology (no matter the forum) as having a good and bad side - virus writers and anti-virus programs, spam and spam blockers, pop-ups and toolbars and spyware and a thousand others. The Internet's common perception is dominated by this type of thinking, and I don't know that there's a real way for SEO to escape it.

I'm also not convinced it's entirely bad for us. Having a dark side makes us more interesting, more newsworthy and more "sexy". There's nothing wrong with a little panache and style accompanying hard work and talent.

Lee: What popular SEO tactics do you see becoming outdated in the next 12 months? Do you think personal search factors will increase in importance? i.e. Bookmarks, My Web, Personalized Search, etc.

Rand: Bookmarks - I'd cite Yahoo's acquisition of as a sign that personal tagging and social bookmarking may be in the sites of search engineers. However, if they look closely, they'll see that the communities are too "geek" - focused, and that other sources of data will be necessary.

Personal Search - No. I just don't see it taking off. We rely on search engines to give an authoritative view, not a personalized one and already the media is making personalization out to be an invasion of privacy, which I can empathize with. It may get a small share, but I don't see it being a big factor in the long run.

Etc. - Absolutely. I think there are going to be changes in the next 12 months that we can't predict and don't know about now. After all, could anyone have predicted social bookmarking or map mashups or the web 2.0 hype a year before they started?

Lee: What are some improvements you'd like to see in the major search engines in terms of functionality and services?

Rand: Functionality - I'd like to see a greater focus on manual intervention. It may seem contrary to the industry, but if the want relevance, having thousands of reviewers sort through the SERPs is a great way to do it. Humans can see spam and low quality much better than automated systems and right now, there is a lot of inexpensive labor in the world and a lot of money in search engines'accounts.

Lee: What are some of the resources you rely on for information on search marketing: best practices, news, industry information.

Rand: I have an overwhelmingly big daily reading list, but I'll give you a few of my favorites outside the mainstream (after all, everyone reads TW and SEW):

there's plenty more...makes me realize I need to update SEOmoz's blogroll

Lee: What are your favorite search engines and do you use them the same way or differently?

Rand: I like a lot of Yahoo!'s results, but I'm actually someone who will use all 3 big ones and AskJeeves occasionally, too. I do have a preference for Yahoo!'s new beta maps, and I like Ask for instant answers. I use Google when I need to find something obscure and MSN for checking out competition - they tend to show a lot of folks who are working real hard at the grey/black hat link building techniques.

Lee: Do you wear the yellow shoes every day, or just at conferences and in magazine photo shoots?

Rand: Only at conferences and by request of the photographer. Brad (the reporter) heard about the shoes from Kim Krause (of and asked me to wear them. They're an SEO trademark

Thank you Rand!

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

May 9, 2006

Lee Odden is a 9 year internet marketing veteran and President of TopRank Online Marketing, a leading search marketing agency that helps companies increase sales and brand visibility online. Lee has worked with hundreds of companies to develop and implement winning online marketing programs with particular expertise in search engine optimization, online public relations and blog marketing.

Search Engine Guide > Lee Odden > Spotlight on Search - Rand Fishkin