StatBid Foundations Series with Rand Fishkin

We all hold these biases in thinking we want something because it is held up as the prototypical or archetypical example of what ‘success’ looks like.
— Rand Fishkin, Founder of Moz, Sparktoro

I’m so happy to share the success of our first in hopefully many Foundations speaker series events. We held the event at the Irving Street Kitchen in the heart of Portland’s Pearl District.  Many thanks to the staff, their beautiful space, and the wonderful spread they put out for us. A huge thank you to Big Commerce, theJibe & Shopper Approved for sponsoring.  The event was so successful, we’re excited to announce we’re bringing Rand to Seattle on August 23rd.

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Every startup has its own challenges, and we’re no different. We’ve done our best to meet these challenges head on.  Part of what Roy and I love about StatBid is bringing people together to learn from one another and hopefully in doing so we can help others avoid some of the mistakes we've made. 

By solving problems and sharing ideas as a community, we can all grow in success.

Rand Reading Audience

I’ve had the good fortune to know Rand Fishkin for many years and he shares these same core values. It’s what led him to write the book Lost & Founder.  So, it seemed like a no-brainer to ask him to be our first speaker. To a group e-commerce professionals, Rand
read excerpts from the very book he wrote for everyone who’s looking just to sit down
and pick his brain over lunch. Obviously, it’d be impossible for him to spend all his time
having lunch with the curious minded, but he was gracious enough to spend some of
that time with us.

Rand Reading
...promotional pricing, especially when offered to a very large audience, creates
the impression that discounts and special offers are part of a brand’s ethos, and
rather signing up at full price you, as a potential buyer, should wait until the next
promotion launches.
— Lost & Founder by Rand Fishkin
Rand Q&A

Not only did he impart some illuminating knowledge through his reading, but the
event goes to the next level with an open-ended Q&A session. Rand
spent the better part of an hour answering questions from the audience in a formal capacity, and as you can see from the photos even more time while signing books.

It was so great hearing so many ideas thrown out and Rand being able to give
his insight. Personally, I loved seeing everyone sharing ideas with each other after Rand wrapped up.  This is what we had hoped for and why we take the time to build a community of like-minded people willing to share and learn from one another.

Below are some of the questions people asked and Rand's answers.  There's a ton of value packed into Rand's answers.


questions answered

Question: My biggest issues are some of the chatter around Google ranking manufacturers higher than retailers and increased pricing competition. Obviously, we need to differentiate and provide a unique brand experience, but what are the keys to eCom success in niche speciality retail? Where do you see up and coming marketing opportunities to grow new to file customers?

Rand's Answer: Yeah, right. So you're basically describing a problem that's gotten perniciously worse in Google, over time, for anyone who's a reseller of a product that a manufacturer offers on their own website. Right? Or, very frankly, that Amazon offers on their website, because Amazon has become such an overpowering brand in Google search results that they can sometimes take over, even above the manufacturer. So there's a few things you can do. First off, if someone else has a huge amount of authority, you can leverage that.

For example, if you can get your product onto Amazon as a reseller, you can sometimes outrank the manufacturer with your Amazon page. Which, Amazon's not exclusively alone in this, that can sometimes be true on some other websites depending on the niche; but that's certainly one option. And that's called "Barnacle SEO", by the way. So for anyone who's interested... like you've latched yourself onto a big ship. So if anyone's interested in playing that game, Barnacle SEO.

The second thing, that I definitely recommend, is trying to earn your loyal customers and loyal audience through indirect searches and indirect traffic generation methods. So this would be the things like, we're gonna do content marketing, we're gonna do social media marketing, we're gonna do influencer marketing, and we're gonna get people to our site, right? Who then subscribe to us, who build loyalty with us, who think of us, so that when they search for whatever it is, they add, then, our brand name to the query.   I'm seeing it a bunch with Etsy. Where people have a basically a non-branded query term and they add Etsy to it because they're looking for stuff specifically from Etsy. They want to support those types of businesses.

And then, I think, the third tactic that you can play is the pure ad game. Right? So Google has gotten pretty darn aggressive with Google Shopping results. They can sometimes dominate the top of the search so heavily that the first organic result, which would be a manufacturer's page, is pushed down far enough that you have to worry about it less. 

But this means, I think for each query like that you have to pay close enough attention to what's going on in the search results and then sort of see the trend, what are the features, what does this visually look like on mobile and on desktop, can we play that game, is that going to be a winning strategy. And you can combine all three of these too.

Question:  Do you ever see Amazon's market share within product search stabilizing?

Rand's Answer: So, fascinating question because it pre-supposes that Amazon is dominant in this area. So together with a company called Jumpshot, out of California, which monitors click-stream data; and they have access, I think it's ... I think they have between six and seven million devices here in the US, mobile and desktop, and so they basically observe all of the urls that all of those devices visit on a browser. Doesn't matter if they're https, doesn't matter if incognito window, etc. 

From those, they can see where searches begin and I actually published that data in April on the SparkToro blog and so you can check that out. What it shows is that search ... so Amazon's share of all searches in 2015 was about 2.2% to Google's about 85%. And in this year, in February of this year, it was 2.3% and Google had gone up a little bit more. So, fascinatingly Amazon basically has stabilized as a percentage of all queries. 

I think one of the problems that I see, is that a ton of the coverage I've seen about Amazon's dominance in search, right? Well, again, you've probably seen this too. All the headlines that say, "70% of US Consumers Say They Started Their Searches On Amazon". They don't. They start them on Google, but Amazon ranks #1 and that's what they click. Or it ranks somewhere in the first page. Or they search for "product + Amazon", but in Google itself.

And so, I think that the ... I think the right answer to your question, it's a little complicated; but in terms of do I see, right now, a path for Amazon to shrink?

No.

Do I think that they're gonna stay relatively stable?

I think the biggest war is gonna be in voice. So if Alexa becomes the in-home device that everyone has and uses, I think that's gonna mean that Amazon dominates a lot of that. 

Especially, not first time ... no one says, "Hey, Alexa. Order me some paper towels." Okay, that might happen; but I don't think it's gonna be, "Alexa, get me a new laptop." You kind of, are you sure about that? I never see that happening. "Hey, Alexa. Just book me a vacation. I don't care where." No, it's not gonna happen, right?

I really don't think that Alexa will be like, "I can choose for you." Right? But it's gonna be a few generations before it will do that. I think people will continue to have product research; but there's also, I think the Google voice and the new Google home device is gonna make a really strong push. And it's gonna be a war. 

Question: You talk about competing with the manufacturer, how about flipping that around. How does the manufacturer compete with Amazon?

Rand's Answer: So a few things are available to use as a manufacturer that are not available to anyone else. One of those is being able to control, what Google calls, the knowledge graph results. It appears on the right sidebar of a search query. Is that right? Yeah. The right sidebar of a search query for any particular brand name or an entity name. 

So, for example, if you search for any actor's name, right? You would find, who were we just researching? Tessa Thompson, right? So if you search for her, you'll see ... because her and Janelle Monáe are like dating now. Oh my god. 

So, you know, if you search for anybody like that, those knowledge graph results are available to you. And, in fact, those are controllable as of last week by a brand that says, "We own and control this." So that is a very cool ability available to no one else but you, the registered trademark owner of the brand name. 

The second thing that's pretty cool is that Google gives, by nature, a sort of extra boost, click-through boost and authority-boost, to the official website in terms of a brand name search. So long as you get a lot the SEO things right on your website. So that includes like a friendly url; you don't want to be using sub-domains that'll dilute things, you don't want to be using long, complicated url strings that have a bunch of parameters in them. This is even for sub-brands. 

So if we're talking about like REI's, I don't know, global tracking hiker shoe, I don't know if that's actually a thing but let's say ... it probably is. Then that would be a url that you want to have in that format with those right folders and that kind of thing. As an example, again with REI, if they registered some random domain like, globaltrackerhiking.com and then you had their ad point to that, it will not perform nearly as well as if they have it go to REI.com/global/tracker/shoe or trackershoe or whatever. 

Generally speaking, Google has, has this paradigm whereby, on both the organic and the paid side, domains inherit a certain amount of authority and as you build up this authority and preference; like lots of users who see this domain now prefer to search like this. Click on this and don't bounce back to the search results. You benefit over time.

So another great thing that can and obviously should do, is measure your bounce rate. If lots of people come to your website from Google and then they click the back button and choose a different result in Google, that will kill your ability to rank. In both paid and organic. And that, yeah, that can be a death knell. So folks they see this one, their websites really slow, web user experience is not good or it's not mobile friendly or when it's not desktop friendly. Like someone went overboard with mobile first and now it looks like crap on desktop.

That's a real thing now. And that can seriously harm you click return conversion. Google calls it pogo-sticking when someone goes from the search result to your page back to the search result.

So the question was, how should you think about branded optimization versus non-branded. I have changed my position on this significantly. So I used to think that ranking for your non-branded stuff was the most important because those are the ones that are competitive. And that is true, that's still true today. Non-branded is becoming much more competitive than branded is.

However, the most successful organizations that I see in search and on the web and just in general, are those where the CEO can smile and go, "Oh, you think SEO is important. Guess what, that's 1/100th. All the search terms combined for all of our unbranded products is 1/100th the amount of searches we get for our brand names. And that is intentional." 

And so, I have very much come around to saying, "Yes, SEO still matters, certainly, for smaller organizations and you can win that space." It can be awesome and transformative. It's definitely a wonderful short and medium term investment; but if long-term you can invest in things that will get people, rather than searching for hiking boots, to search for Nike boots.

Forget about it. 

That's the real win. A brand just dominates. And I think we're in an era in, not sure if it's global capitalism or American capitalism, whereby there's so many compounding benefits for becoming a winning brand in a space.  So that's certainly an area that I urge everyone to invest in. 

Question: What if you only had one thing to focus on in eCommerce, what would you be doing?

Rand's Answer:  I think this ties a little bit to my previous answer, but I think that the process of figuring out when and why my audience, who buys my product, goes and talks about that product and amplifies it for me. All right, so researching that process. Why you talk about it, when you talk about it, with whom you talk about it, who are you to talking about it and don't talk about it, and then getting lots and lots of those people who do talk about it, to talk about it more. And amplifying whatever it takes to get that going, that is what I would invest in. 

I get that being able to spread organically without needing to ... win in competitive marketplaces is probably the thing that sets great brands apart from good brands that you've heard about.

Is it challenging to do that without looking like fake and astroturfy?

Yes, it definitely hard to do. I think that people who do it best and look authentic doing it are the ones who invest primarily in a combination of actual product, like the product that delights their customer in some way that's very meaningful and also makes it amplification worthy, and they invest in customer service and being the ... a level of communication and a kind of communication that resonates with their audience in a very special way. 

Actually, one of my favorite examples, definitely my favorite example right now. You guys are familiar with the Domino's Pizza marketing story? A few are nodding heads.

Okay. This is 2008? 2009? I think Domino's got a new CEO. Maybe it was earlier, 2006, something like that. They decided that many of the critics of their pizza were correct. They were great at fast delivery, they were great at location, they were great at convenience, they had good prices. Their pizza was terrible. Tasted, literally, like cardboard.  So, the incoming CEO and the executive team put together a marketing campaign that was, sorry, a product and then a marketing campaign that was essentially, "We're gonna throw out our old recipes. We agree with our consumers who told us it was terrible."

We're not gonna make a pizza like this anymore. We're re-doing our ovens, our ingredients, our dough, our sauce, our toppings, our spices, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And then, we're gonna put up billboards around the country that have, whatever it is. Shilo tweeted at us six months ago, "Domino's I'd rather eat this leathery shoe." And Shilo, our pizza is now way better than a leathery shoe. Have billboards with, literally, people's names and then the crap that they said about them and addressing them.

And they had a big television marketing campaign that they ran on NFL and all that kind of stuff of, "Yes, we used to suck and now we're better. Here's this offer." So I think that's kind of a good example of that ... it is viral-worthy. It's worthy of talking about, but it also has some authenticity behind it. 

One caveat to this, my friend Adam's son just did his middle school science fair project on "Which is the best fast-food pizza?" And they ordered all of the Seattle area fast-food pizza chains. Domino's still came in last.  So ... It may be that it's way better but apparently it's still not that good.

Question: Does link building still matter?

Rand's Answer: So Google's messaging has been, "You don't have to worry about that as much as in the past." That was, by the way, also their messaging in 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016, right?

Like, "We are less reliant on links now. You just put better content in, we'll take care of the rest." I think that's ... I think it would be dumb to ignore link building for a bunch of reasons.

First off, links can send direct traffic. And direct traffic that you can get from links is high-quality, good stuff. Good ... if you can diversify your sources of traffic, that's also an excellent method.

Second, Google likes links coming from places that are authentically covering what you are doing or want to refer people to you. Which means you have to do things that are worthy of amplification coverage, which will help build your brand.

And then the third, I would agree today, with Google saying, "Links matter a little less than they did five years ago." Much more so than I did in 2013 or 2007.  But, less is not none. I would say if you are in a competitive space and you can get a dozen, two dozen high-quality, new linking domains to a page of yours that's ranking for a product; you will almost definitely move up in the rankings. You will almost definitely sell more of that product. You will almost definitely get more clicks and more traffic. 

And weirdly consumers have this perception that Google always puts the best thing at the top and so you can see consumer sentiment changing with Google rankings. Which is kind of disturbing, right? They think of Google as an endorsement engine and so if you can rank highly they'll give you that benefit.

So, in terms of ... onto your question about the strategic side of link building. What I would do, generally speaking, is I would try and identify those places that you think are likely to be linking to you or should be. And that could be a wide group. So you could look at, oh, here's a bunch of my competitors and where they get their links. And here's a bunch of people who wrote about similar content, but aren't actually our competitors, they're just places that cover topics like this and we'll link to them. 

Here are media sources that cover our field. Here's partners that they have. Whatever it is. And then try to look for the commonalities in why. So, one of the biggest pieces advice I always give people is, before you ever create something. A page, a product, a new company. Have a great answer to the question, "Who will help amplify this and why?" If you can literally list that out, if you can say, "Oh, okay. This person will help me amplify this because ... and here's the great answer to that." You're on the right path and that's the best way I've seen to get things too.

If it were easy, everyone would do it. The thing about link building that's awesome is that it is one of the few ways in SEO, as compared to like on-page stuff, few ways in SEO that you can truly stand out in your field. It's very difficult, very time consuming, challenging. There are very few, well there's more now ... there's only a small handful of consultants and agencies who are any good at it and so if you can build that as a competitive strength, it's also a competitive area worth entering.