6 Things I Learned at MozCon: Day Threeby Anvil on July 17, 2014analytics
No introduction necessary this time, except to say that my first MozCon was without a doubt the highlight of my career. And now… 6 Things I Learned At MozCon: Day Three!
- SEO tactics can improve the product itself. (Wil Reynolds)
The famed Wil Reynolds’s talk was mostly about the disconnect between digital marketing goals and real customer satisfaction goals, and it was hugely ambitious in scope and inspiring in its passion (the guy’s reputation as a great speaker preceded him and now it’s easy to see why). Its ambition makes it far too big to distill into a single bullet here, so I thought I’d instead just select one of the many concrete tactics that he trotted out to prove his idea that tactics typically thought of as very specifically SEO can be drawn upon to help improve nearly any aspect of a given business. This one about product improvement I found particularly juicy: he recommended inputting search queries that contained your company’s name or your product’s name in conjunction with some of the keywords that most often correspond to a complaint, such as “why can’t [CLIENT NAME]”, “why doesn’t [PRODUCT NAME]”, “[CLIENT NAME] never,” etc. Then, collect all the most common completions to those sentences (autosuggest and the various third-party tools that scrape it will get you rather far here), aggregate them into a spreadsheet, strip out all the seeds that you started with, and take a look at what’s left. What’s left will be a list of the problems that your product needs to solve. BAM.
- You’re always better off writing the body of your article before the headline. (Richard Baxter, h/t Nathalie Nahai as well)
Both Mr. Baxter and Ms. Nahai offered up this simple-seeming but quite powerful tip that, for all I know, might already enjoy gospel status among professional writers, but that came as a surprise to some of us marketers (most of whom are increasingly forced to do a lot of writing but have stopped short of redefining themselves as writers). It certainly surprised me: I always trusted the choice to establish my headline up front as a means to fix my article’s scope and framework and keep my focus sharp during the rest of the writing process. But the idea doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, as both Mr. Baxter and Ms. Nahai were eager to point out. How can you pretend to know anything about what your piece’s scope, framework, and focus should be until you’ve thoroughly researched the topic? How can you know what your piece is really about until it’s written? All it takes is for one person (or, in this case, two) to suggest a truly, obviously better way of doing something and your old way of doing it immediately crumbles. This was one (or, again, two) of those times.
- Sarah Bird, CEO of Moz, hates marketing.
Moz’s relatively newly appointed CEO, Sarah Bird, took to the stage mid-morning for a live interview with journalist John Cook of Geekwire, and while the chief topic of the interview was the future of the company, Mr. Cook couldn’t help but bring up a provocative quote that she’d uttered when she had met him for the pre-interview over coffee: namely, that she hates marketing. Everybody had a good laugh, and then she quickly clarified that what she hates is traditional marketing, and the reason is because of all the richly deserved connotations of psychological manipulation and predation that it has earned over its lifespan. OK, full disclosure coming up. Ready? Here goes. I hate (traditional) marketing too, at least as much as Sarah seems to, and for exactly the reason she stated. Like Sarah, I hate that there are millions of dollars to be made studying common triggers for anxiety and depression in the name of exploiting them to trick insecure people into parting with their money. And, like Sarah, I also saw inbound marketing as something almost completely different: something predicated on honest, transparent, mutually vulnerable, substantive conversation, and something that I therefore could take pleasure being involved with (she used this as an opportunity to trumpet Moz’s core values acronym TAGFEE, which stands for Transparent, Authentic, Generous, Fun, Empathetic, and Exceptional — pretty tough to argue with values like those). This learning was more emotionally nourishing than intellectually, unlike most of the week’s others, but it’s far from insignificant; before today, I felt I could never bring myself to air my true feelings on the subject in my professional circles, because to badmouth any form of marketing seemed to constitute the basest hypocrisy, given it’s how I earn my living. And then I plunk down at one of the biggest digital marketing conferences in the US and hear the CEO of the world’s foremost SEO software company proudly express these exact feelings in front of the whole world. It brought me a charge of validation and empowerment. We are all supposed to hate this kind of marketing, because it’s the bad kind. We need to remind ourselves of what bad, toxic marketing is so that we can be forever refining our vision of its opposite. Brava, Sarah.
- The Google Analytics UI might only allow two dimensions at once, but the API will give you up to seven. (Annie Cushing)
This tactically-focused, wonderfully clear and engaging talk from data guru Annie Cushing was mostly about visualization (Ms. Cushing was cited several times over the course of the conference for her talent for making data “sexy”), and though I loved it, my honest side compels me to admit that I mostly loved it because she validated all of my preferred viz techniques and by extension my entire aesthetic sense. Turns out I might be good at Excel (maybe even… Excellent?); I’d never really thought that before, so that was a nice dose of affirmation. But there was a smattering of tips for Google Analytics in there as well, and the one that made the headline here was a true whopper. As an SEO, my use of Google Analytics is daily, but rather shallow compared to what hardcore web analysts seek to accomplish on the platform; nonetheless, there have been dozens of occasions when I still wished for the power to segment a report by more than two dimensions. Well, guess what I didn’t know? I can have those extra dimensions. All I have to do is enter the platform via the API rather than relying on the user interface. Now, as long am I’m being honest, API interaction has always terrified me a little bit, but this is precisely the kind of incentive I need to get serious about it. Time to roll up the ol’ sleeves!
- If sufficiently distributed across the web in the form of link anchor text, any given phrase can (quite possibly) earn placement in Google autosuggest. (Rand Fishkin)
Moz founder Rand Fishkin’s conference-closing presentation was a slate of results from the search experiments that he has personally supervised in recent months, and it was the most fun SEO presentation I have ever seen. He’s dedicated what appears to be a huge amount of time and resources to running experiments on various keywords’ SERPs to test the veracity of certain Google rumors and study a variety of apocryphal ranking factors, old and new alike. This one concerned the possibility that if a link were circulated widely enough with the same anchor text (and presumably from sources with sufficiently high authority), that anchor text could begin to earn status as a suggested phrase in Google autosuggest. This premise sounded fishy (no pun intended… this time), and Rand was very diligent about disclosing again and again that he is not a scientist and that his experiments are not to be regarded as scientifically meritorious, but: it’s hard to argue with the cleverness or integrity of the experiment he described here, nor with the persuasiveness of the result. His wife is a travel blogger and he has included a link to her blog with the anchor text “serendipitous travel blog” (a phrase presumed not to be at all widely queried) in his Moz bio, which is, not incidentally, reproduced in full pretty much every time he guest blogs or is interviewed, which is a lot. This means that this link with exactly this anchor text is all over the web. And, again, probably nobody searches for this phrase, like, ever. But it’s in autosuggest. Try it for yourself. This could lead to a major reevaluation of what drives suggested searches (given further, more rigorous testing), and, what’s more (as a clever fellow attendee brought up during Q&A), the presence of a phrase in autosuggest fuels more searches for that phrase. Holy smokes.
- Pages that have earned a high ranking due to link acquisition can maintain that ranking after the links have been removed. (Rand Fishkin)
Speaking of mind-blowing… I definitely never thought of this possibility, but Rand mentioned a shocking auxiliary discovery that his team made in the course of conducting a million of these experiments: they could push a freshly created page to a #1 ranking on a given keyword by building a bunch of high-quality links to it, then remove the links (all of them), and find that the page’s ranking would be maintained. He gave a hat tip to Martin Panayotov and Mike King for having called out the “link ghosts” phenomenon in the comments of a Moz blog post three years ago (a post by Justin Briggs, of all people), but he appeared to suggest that he never would have truly believed it until he saw it. DOUBLE HOLY SMOKES. These discoveries of Rand’s are possibly profoundly significant in and of themselves for the tactics they might inform, but they also underscore the bigger message that Google’s workings are enormously complex, our forensic studies in SEO will probably never run out of things to test, and therefore, we’ll never stop learning. What a glorious note to end on.
I am just as stunned today thinking about MozCon being over as I was yesterday thinking about there being a day left. Day Three was arguably the best of the bunch, and far from offering up too much information (although it was a lot, let’s not kid ourselves), this conference has made me hungry for more. My fire is lit again and from the feeling in the blue, blue room at the end of it all, I’d wager my fellow MozConners are with me. Let’s all go home and do things that make us proud. Let’s be both tactical and strategic, both analytical and creative, and in everything we do, let’s be honest, authentic, loving, and bold. Let’s build a better web.