May 1st, 2012 @ // No Comments
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Early last week, Google began using a new algorithm to help it combat webspam from black hat SEOs. Dubbed Penguin, it aims to eliminate from the search engine’s listings websites that engage in certain shady practices. But how well does it work?
Google webspam guru Matt Cutts explained the rationale behind Penguin in a post on the Google Webmaster Central blog. He noted that “We see all sorts of webspam techniques every day, from keyword stuffing to link schemes that attempt to propel sites higher in rankings.” Penguin “represents another improvement in our efforts to reduce webspam and promote high quality content.” It’s supposed to decrease the rankings of sites that violate Google’s terms of service.
Cutts gave two examples of websites whose ranks he expected to see drop after Penguin. One displayed egregious keyword stuffing. The crime committed by the other site seemed a little more subtle, until you tried to read its text. It showed a poorly-written piece about exercise, with links about loans randomly scattered throughout the text. The text of the article clearly did not relate at all to the links.
The Penguin algorithm, though going live for all languages at the same time, was expected to have less of an impact than Panda. Cutts noted that Panda’s initial version affected about 12 percent of all queries to some degree; Penguin was supposed to affect only a little over three percent of all English queries. In languages with more heavily-spammed sites, Cutts wrote, Penguin could be expected to affect more queries – five percent of Polish queries, for example.
If you’ve been doing SEO for a few years, you’re probably scratching your head right now. Granted, this is just one of a number of techniques Penguin is penalizing, but really – keyword stuffing? That practice is so old, it predates Google, and no good SEO does it anymore! Is Google only now going after these black hat approaches? As Danny Sullivan observed, “It’s not, even though the blog post might give some newcomers that impression…Rather, what’s really happening is that Google is rolling out better ways that it hopes to detect such abuses.”
One reason Google hopes to do better at fighting this kind of webspam is that, unfortunately, it’s not hard to find websites for which it still works. This discourages white hat SEOs from building the kinds of great websites that Google wants searchers to find. Why go to all the work of building an excellent website (so the thinking goes) when some other site can outrank you just by spending a few hours and a little money on techniques that break Google’s Terms of Service?
In fact, Google seems to have finally gotten the message that SEO is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. If you read Cutts’s blog post, he very clearly describes – and encourages — all the good things that white hat SEOs do for websites. These blessings include making it more crawlable, translating “jargon” into words that normal searchers would use, improving usability, creating great content, improving speed, and so on. It’s not the first time that Google has endorsed white hat SEO, but since it sometimes seems as if the search engine is at war with SEOs in general (as opposed to black hat SEOs in particular), it’s good to see it in black and white.
May 1st, 2012 @ // No Comments
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I very nearly titled this article “The Truth About Keywords in Title Tags.” I didn’t because I’m no longer sure that anyone has all of it. If you’re ready to rethink one of the most basic things you’ve ever learned about SEO, and stop simply reacting to Google, keep reading.
First, let me give credit where it’s due. I just finished reading a post by Michael Martinez in which he digs more deeply into this so-called basic topic than anyone I’ve seen. Martinez’s contrarian views, eloquently expressed and supported, can make any reader rethink a cherished position. If he’s right, then the way most of us do our page titles or title tags is – well, not wrong, exactly, but a little misguided.
We all know how you’re supposed to write title tags, right? Start by doing some keyword research for your topic, build a title using those keywords, then lather, rinse, repeat. Make sure you repeat those keywords at appropriate intervals throughout your article. Voila! Your keyword magic will get you a spot in the SERPs, right where searchers can find you.
Martinez questions this approach – even as he blatantly uses it in the very same post. He titled his entry “How to Write Title Tags for SEO” and uses that phrase periodically throughout the piece. Clearly, this classic technique delivers traffic and rankings. Martinez does not say that it doesn’t work; rather, he maintains that it’s too basic.
“Real search engine optimization doesn’t care about a SINGLE keyword,” Martinez explains. Your page of content should rank first for far more keywords than you can fit in the title tag. If you can only get to the first page of Google for one to three expressions, according to Martinez, your SEO sucks.
Martinez wants us, as SEOs, to use our imaginations a lot more than we do when we’re simply trying to optimize page titles and links. “If you’re sitting there bored to tears because all your boss wants you to do is put his favorite keywords in your page titles, you can slip one past him by optimizing those same pages for other keywords AT THE SAME TIME,” he all but whispers conspiratorially.
He then invites us to join in on the conspiracy by writing posts on our blogs with titles that start with “What I Think About…” or even “If I May Intrude On Your Thoughts For a Moment…” and then add the topic at the end. If you’re hardcore enough to actually try this, he also wants you to not check your keyword tools before adding that topic. Some will see no reason to try this scary, seemingly pointless exercise. Why not stick with winning titles like “How To…” and “Ten Ways to…” and so on? Come on, Martinez does that right in the article in which he preaches rebellion! Why should we do it if he doesn’t?
May 1st, 2012 @ // No Comments
Back in 2009 (was it really that long ago?!) Rand wrote a post titled Perfecting Keyword Targeting and On-Page Optimization, which is one of the most popular blog posts on SEOmoz. It is still referenced as much today as it was back in 2009. The core principles haven’t changed that much, but there are some new additions to an SEO’s toolkit when it comes to on-page optimization. Today I want to focus on what these new additions are in relation to eCommerce websites.
I made the following mockup to try and visualise clearly all the elements of an eCommerce product page that are important for on-page optimization.
Let’s get into more detail on each of these elements and see what we can do to take advantage and optimise for them, starting with the new additions since Rand’s post in 2009. I’ve related the numbers in the mockups to the sections below; some sections do not have numbers because they are not visible on the page, for example META description.
If you run an eCommerce website and are not collecting customer reviews, you are seriously missing out. Not only is this great feedback that you need to have to improve your business, but it is also an amazing source of unique content. Better yet, it is very scalable across large websites, which means you can get lots of content onto lots of pages.
Quick tips for collecting and using customer reviews:
Also, if you are worried about things like this having a negative effect on conversion rates:
See if you can customise your review system to not show this message on products that do not have reviews. Set a threshold so that when a couple of reviews are received, reviews are shown on the product page.
Added benefit: microdata
You also need to make sure you are marking up these reviews with relevant microdata. This will give Google more context about your content, as well as giving you the chance to improve click-through-rates from search results like what we see in this example:
The use of review microformats is increasing all the time so there is an argument that you are not standing out anymore if all the other results have the same type of markup. You could even argue that to stand out you should take them away
I’ll admit that this is a tough one to execute, but it is one that I feel is very worthwhile for eCommerce sites. There are many websites already adding videos to their product pages, but they are not always doing it in the most optimal way. A great example of the right way to do this is Zappos who now have over 50,000 product videos.
There are a few benefits to having videos on a product page. One of which is helping make your product pages more link worthy and rich in content. Good quality videos demonstrating use cases of products could also help conversion rates (particularly for high-end, technical products) but I can’t provide evidence for that unfortunately.
Another added benefit as you’ll see from the screenshot above is how your search results for product pages can stand out from competitors. I’ve seen loads of eCommerce stores who have videos on the page but are not embedding or marking them up in the correct way.
By far the best system I know to embed and optimise your videos properly is Wistia, which SEOmoz use for Whiteboard Fridays. These guys have a great system and are always improving how things work and adding new features. We’ve used them on a test site or two at Distilled and got video snippets showing very quickly.
I could talk more about using videos to aid SEO but Phil did a great post that covers pretty much everything you need to know here. He also did a presentation on video SEO and you can see the slides over on Slideshare.
One of the problems that always crops up on large eCommerce sites is how to efficiently deal with pagination. You can have product categories that contain thousands of products that span many pages. You want to make sure that all of these products are indexed and regularly crawled, but at the same time you don’t care too much about the paginated pages ranking or having too much link equity.
Since Rand’s post of 2009, we’ve been given an additional way of handling pagination. Namely the rel=”next”, rel=”prev” and “view all” attributes. This markup can help Google better understand pagination and pass link equity to key pages. Google gave some good instructions on how to implement these attributes here and here which you can take a look at.
There are a few other ways to handle pagination, which Adam Audette explains very well in this post on Search Engine Land.
Another new tool that is available to us now is the use of microdata and the support of the Schema.org vocabulary by the major search engines. That announcement back in June 2011 was quite exciting but didn’t really live up to expectations and Google seemed pretty slow in showing this support in their search results. However this seems to have changed and we are seeing more and more examples of Google using this data now.
Bringing this back to eCommerce, there are a few types of markup you can use on a product page which you can see documentation on here. This page also contains details of review markup that I talked about above. Not all of the properties on this page will be applicable to you, but here are some tips on how to use this:
Another big opportunity for eCommerce websites is the integration of question and answer content focused on products. As mentioned above, eCommerce websites have always had the problem of getting unique content onto product pages on scale. Question and answer content can help solve this problem and gives you great scope to get user generated content onto lots of your product pages.
There are a few benefits to integrating this type of system:
Here is a live example from Jessops:
I personally feel like there is an opportunity for Quora here if they wanted to explore this space. Many retailers will be looking for this type of system and Quora may be able to offer something that helps them reach the critical mass of content they’d need.
I’m a little skeptical about whether social sharing buttons on product pages are a good idea. The goal of a product page is to get someone to buy, not to get them to tweet or like the page. Sure these social signals can help, but personally I’d rather not distract people from buying my product. For me, social sharing should be encouraged at different points in the buying process:
There is an alternative use of social buttons, which I haven’t seen or been able to test on a client site yet. But I wanted to share it anyway. It builds upon the code that Tom Anthony talked about here which allows you to detect if a user is logged into Twitter, Facebook or Google+ whilst they are viewing your website.
If you can use the code that Tom created to detect if a user is logged into Facebook for example, you could show that user a custom message. This could be anything you want but it could be something as simple as encouraging them to like your page in exchange for a discount. This not only gets you the like but also increases the chances of the user converting after giving them a discount.
Tom quickly tested this theory on a test site which you can see a screenshot from here:
You can put whatever message you want in here, this is to demonstrate what could be done if you think a little out of the box and not just put social share buttons on a page because that is what everyone else does.
Again, this is something that has become more of a focus since Rand’s blog post. Speed has always been important but SEOs sat up and took a lot more notice when Google confirmed it was a factor in the algorithm, albeit a small one.
For me, an eCommerce site should care about site speed because of its effect on conversion rate rather than rankings. A user is not going to hang around waiting for your product pages to load and there have been some good studies that show the positive effect a fast loading page has on conversion rates.
Bottom line is that you should care about site speed for your users rather than SEO. Here is a good guide for improving site speed written by Craig at Distilled.
Another new addition that you can add to your eCommerce pages is the open graph tags. These tags allow you to be much more specific with how your content is shared on Facebook. As Facebook is such a huge platform with a lot of potential for traffic, you need to make sure that you are doing all you can to optimise for it and specify how your content should be shared.
They are also pretty easy for you or a developer to setup and put live. The tags sit inside your header so you will need a flexible CMS or a good developer to make these additions for you. On an eCommerce site with lots of products you’ll probably need a developer to setup the tags so they scale across all of your products and use the correct elements of the page.
Here are some more articles that help with the use and optimisation of the open graph tags:
Ideally, a user should never need to use a search box on your website because they will be able to find their way around using your navigation. But there are going to be times when this doesn’t happen and there are users who will just prefer to search. I think that a search box on an eCommerce website is essential and you should use the data that it gives you to improve your website and customer experience.
Here are some tips for using a search box:
Essential for any eCommerce website. Your ultimate goal is to sell a product so you need to make the call to action as clear as possible. Make sure you are running experiments on your product pages to test and improve conversion rates. Many eCommerce stores focus a bit too much on getting more traffic via SEO and PPC, whilst a quicker way to get more revenue is to get more out of the traffic you already have by improving conversion rates.
Even if you are not actively doing conversion rate optimisation, you should at least be measuring as much data as you can from your site, in particular your product pages which are ultimately the most important pages for an eCommerce website.
Tools you can use to measure and improve calls to action:
Just get one or two of these tools setup and start gathering the data, once you start gathering the data, you are in a much better position to start caring about it and setting targets against it.
You are asking people to enter their credit card details on your website. They need to be able to trust that you are a genuine company and that their personal details are secure. You can do this on the product page and enforce it again throughout the checkout process. These are the types of trust signals you should be trying to incorporate into your product pages:
Also make sure these link to secure certificates where possible so that users can go and verify what you are saying. Be sure to check regularly that these links still work – the last thing you want is this link being broken or expired!
These are underestimated in my opinion, both in terms of customer experience and with SEO. They can be a great way of helping the customer navigate around your website and really help your internal linking.
On an eCommerce site, breadcrumbs can be a bit complicated because there are often multiple ways of getting to the same product page. So the potential breadcrumb trail on a product page could look different depending on which categories and sub-categories you navigate through. For me, the benefits of doing anything too fancy are not big enough to warrant the time. So I’d recommend using one breadcrumb trail and sticking to it. If you are concerned about user experience, you could make the users breadcrumb trail cookie based. But this isn’t always worth the development time so you should assess how valuable it is for your customer experience.
Crisp, clean, high quality images are necessary for any eCommerce website. The users engage with what they can see and will often be put off if the images are very bad. Here is a great post from Kissmetrics that gives some examples of how to optimise images for conversion.
Something I’d highly recommend for an eCommerce website is showing use cases of the product within the images and not just the product itself against a plan background. As much as I like IKEA, I don’t like the plainness of their images sometimes:
I’d much prefer to see products like this shown how I may use them if I buy them and in the setting of a living room for example.
From a pure SEO perspective, you’ll want to make sure you are doing basic image optimization to capture traffic from Google image search where possible. Here are a few tips for this:
I shouldn’t have to go into much detail here as to the importance of this. Something to bear in mind for eCommerce websites is that you are generating META titles for potentially thousands of product pages. It just isn’t feasible to customise each and every one of these, so you should have these auto-generated by your developers based on a template that you give them. For product pages, this is probably just going to be the product name followed by a small call to action or USP. For example including something like “Free Delivery” could work well for improving click-throughs from search. The key really is to try and avoid masses of duplicate META data.
Top tip - an eCommerce website is usually driven by some kind of database which will have various attributes (fields) for each product. A good developer will be able to use these fields to populate other parts of the page dynamically, for example a META title or description. Bear this in mind when writing your META data templates and use these fields if they are available to you.
Whilst the META description has minimal effect on rankings, you should be optimising this for improving click-throughs from search results. Ecommerce sites are in the perfect position to include lots of information, calls to actions and USPs into the META description. As mentioned above, the META description could be auto-generated based on a template that you provide to a developer. This could include database fields such as categories and sub-categories.
In a post-Panda world, it is very important to make your product descriptions unique. Taking descriptions straight from manufacturers or product feeds does not differentiate you at all from the hundreds of other retailers who sell the same product. Spend the time and resource making these unique and engaging and make sure you include the USPs of your offering – such as free delivery or lowest prices.
Again, this is pretty basic SEO but there is one key thing to remember with eCommerce sites. You should not include categories or sub-categories in product URLs, especially if there is more than one way to find a product, for example if it is in more than one category. This can lead to duplicate product pages. You can fix this with rel=”canonical” tags but it isn’t really ideal.
Best practice is to just use product name and a code as the URL, for example – www.example.com/product-name-12345. The reason for the addition of a number in the URL is to cover yourself against similar product names – not usually a problem but worth trying to prevent.
It is debatable how much H1 tags matter anymore and some studies from SEOmoz have shown that they do not have a lot of impact on rankings. However I feel that for the time it takes to optimise this, it is worth doing and certainly isn’t going to hurt you. It is also good to have clean markup of the page so that if for some reason someone browses a page with CSS turned off, the page still has a logical structure.
For an eCommerce product page, I’d recommend coding your page template so that the product name automatically becomes the default H1 tag for a page. This should help to eliminate duplicate H1 tags across the website and will automatically optimise each page you publish.
If you can provide a phone number, do it. Not only to help in terms of customer support, but also as another trust signal. If we think back to what Panda was trying to achieve, one of the questions was “would you trust this website with your credit card?” and one factor that certainly helps inspire trust is a phone number.
A pro tip here for eCommerce websites – if you have a customer support team. Keep track of your abandoned baskets in the checkout process and if you have captured the customer’s phone number, take some time to get your support team to phone and see if they can see what went wrong. This not only gives you a chance to get the sale, but you can also get feedback on your checkout process and see what barriers to conversion there may be.
Particularly relevant for companies who target local markets, giving Google more signals of your location can help rankings for those types of keywords. You can also use a few bits of Schema.org markup to give some extra context to the content. It is also another trust signal for Google and users to look at.
Well that is about it, I hope that has given you enough to work on to try and improve your eCommerce product pages. To wrap up, here are some more great articles on eCommerce SEO, many of which are from this curated list of eCommerce resources by Everett Sizemore:
As always, I’d love to hear your comments and feedback or ping me on Twitter to ask more questions.
May 1st, 2012 @ // No Comments
Because we want to gather the best data from a wider sample set, we’ve extended the Industry Survey deadline until Friday, May 18th. Help your fellow online marketers and take the 2012 Industry Survey today.
We’d also like to thank our partners who believe in the importance of this survey, including Outspoken Media, Search Engine Land, Distilled, Hubspot, Search Engine Journal, Techipedia, AimClear, Blueglass, Marketing Pilgrim and Search Engine Watch.
May 1st, 2012 @ // No Comments
Google’s new smartphone crawler may have made mobile SEO easier or slightly more predictable, but that is not the end of the story. This is the second in a 3 part series aimed at giving more actionable mobile SEO tips for how to understand and respond to Google’s new smartphone bot. In the last post, we covered how the new smartphone bot works, and which sites will be affected by the change. This post will focus on how to generate mobile redirects that will help the smartphone bot find and index your mobile content correctly. The next and final blog post in this mobile SEO series will review common indexing problems with mobile sites, and how to prevent them.
Since the smartphone bot caches and follows mobile redirects when they are in place, the ranking of your mobile-specific pages (like ones on an ‘m.’) becomes much less important than the rankings of your desktop pages on smartphones. You can usually rely on the strong SEO and rankings of your desktop pages to make desktop pages out-rank mobile pages, even on a mobile phone, but now when a smartphone requests one of those desktop pages from a search result Google will automatically serve the mobile page instead of the desktop page. Problems enter the picture quickly when the redirection is not set up properly.
Google is not being very transparent about this new bot. As of the writing of this article there are many questions on the blog post with the official announcement of the new bot, but they have all gone unanswered by Google. (Here is the official announcement from Google with unanswered comments below).
What we do know, is that the smartphone bot emulates [pretends to be] a smartphone (specifically an iPhone 4.1) when it crawls your website, and thus, it follows any redirects that are in place that would be targeted at a smartphone – This redirection of visitors on smartphones to a different page is called user-agent detection and redirection. Essentially, when a page is requested from your server, the server looks to see what type of device is requesting the page. If it is a smartphone, the server sends the visitor to a different version of the page. (This is all controlled by PHP or ASP.NET code that is placed on the server, and in header of all the page templates.)
Based of what we know of Google, and how they handle mobile and desktop indexing, here are some notes and speculations about how to create the proper types of mobile redirects that will most likely get indexed:
Server Based Redirects – 301 302
Redirection on Every Page
Like with desktop websites, you cannot always assume that mobile visitors will enter your site from the mobile home page. For the mobile redirects to be indexed properly by the smartphone crawler you will need to set up user-agent detection and redirection on every page on your site, and not just the home page. If the redirection script is missing from internal pages, the smartphone bot will not see the mobile pages, so when the listing is clicked on from a smartphone search result, the visitor will still be delivered to the desktop version of that page since there is not redirect cached.
Always Page to Page
Google really likes having a discrete ratio of associated pages in its index. What that means for your redirects, is that they should be from a specific page on the desktop site to the corresponding specific page on the mobile site. This assumes that the mobile version of your site is a complete mirror of your desktop site, and creates problems for mobile sites that don’t entirely mirror their desktop counterparts. If your mobile site and your desktop site are significantly different, you have to do the best that you can to associate mobile desktop pages with the mobile page that is most closely related, even if it is not an exact match.
If you decide simply not to include a redirect, and serve the desktop page, a simple alternative would be to add a separate mobile stylesheet to the desktop page template. With that in place, at least the desktop content will be formatted to fit on the visitors’ screen, even if it is not 100% updated to the full mobile page template.
One common way to handle mobile redirection is to detect and redirect from all desktop pages to the mobile home page. This is particularly bad for SEO, and likely bad for the smartphone bot in particular. The smartphone bot is probably comparing the content on the desktop page and the page it is redirecting to, and it might not redirect people if they do not meet a threshold of similarity. Even if that is not the case, this setup would be bad for users in a search scenario, who think they are clicking on a specific search result, but then arrive at a home page, and have to go about re-finding what they were looking for all over again.
Mirrored Mobile Desktop Urls
Mirrored urls can give Google a stronger sense that the two versions of the page are closely associated, especially when serving one in place of the other, as Google’s new smartphone bot does. To create mirrored or parallel url structure between the desktop and the mobile site, you must simply replicate the file structure of the desktop site on the mobile site with the only modification being the addition of either the mobile subdomain (‘m.’) or the mobile subdirectory (…/m’) on the mobile alternatives.
Example: www.yoursite.com/cindy has a mobile version of m.yoursite.com/cindy or www.yoursite.com/m/cindy, so the file structure IS mirrored or parallel.
www.yoursite.com/cindy with a mobile version of m.yoursite.com/article_id12345#cindy is not mirrored, nor is www.yoursite.com/m/article_id12345#cindy
Again, this rule assumes that there is a one-to-one ratio of desktop pages to mobile pages, and that may not be the case on your site, but you should do the best you can to be consistent with the url structures and differences between your mobile and desktop pages. If your pages are already set up that way, there is a handy mobile redirection script generator to help you generate the page to page redirect rules, and it can do as many as 4 versions of a site, so desktop, smartphone, WAP and tablet in ASP.NET or PHP.
Since the smartphone bot is emulating an iPhone, your server will likely send it exactly what it would send to an iPhone. That means that if you are handling iPhones with specific content or a different version of the site, you should be extra careful to make it crawlable, and to make sure that it is ok to serve that content to all of the smartphones. If you have different pages for non-iPhone traffic, then you may need to set up user-agent detection and redirection on your iPhone pages, to send the other types of smartphones to the other pages, to over-ride the automatic redirection from the smartphone bot.
May 1st, 2012 @ // No Comments
Today is a good day. Whether you’re a Mozzer, a fan of what we’ve built, a Seattle-startup supporter or even tangentially involved in the field of web marketing, there’s reason to celebrate. After 5 years of organic growth (from our initial funding in 2007) and two tough, failed attempts at financing (in 2009 and 2011), I’m excited to announce that SEOmoz has raised $18 million in venture capital from Foundry Group and Ignition Partners. Brad Feld from Foundry and Moz’s COO, Sarah Bird will be joining the board as Gillian Muessig steps down to pursue new goals. Oh, and that chip on my shoulder about VCs is probably gonna shrink a bit.
You can find the official meme-based press release here. But, as our core values dictate, this post is going to be lengthy and extremely transparent about our progress to date, the financing process, our new investor, and the road ahead. I’ve broken these into the sections below:
In February of 2007, we launched a collection of tools and resources for SEOs, hoping it would help bolster our traditional consulting practice. By the end of that year, it was responsible for nearly half our total revenue and Seattle’s Ignition Partners and Curious Office, invested $1.1mm to help see the vision of software for professional SEOs grow. Two years later, we dropped consulting entirely to focus 100% of our efforts on PRO membership.
Since then, our subscription product has grown tremendously and achieved exceptional traction. We’ve iterated massively on the orignal product with launches of the Linkscape web index in 2008, Open Site Explorer and our Pro Web App in 2010, the Mozbar for Firefox and Chrome, SERPs Analysis and more recently, too, with additions like Social Tracking, Branded Segmentation, Google Analytics integration, Universal SERPs tracking, and our new, much larger, Mozscape index. And our customers seem to have appreciated it:
*As of April 2012, we’re significantly ahead of budget for 2012, w/ a March revenue run rate of ~$19mm
As you can see, our small Series A has carried us a long way. Out of necessity, we’ve been re-investing nearly all of the money we’ve made in the last half-decade back into growing the company. Below, you can see the progress of our subscription model over the last 6 months.
*December’s lower free trials (due to the holidays) means slower January growth
I’ve talked a number of times about our subscription metrics here at SEOmoz, but given this fundraising, I know there may be additional interest and scrutiny, so I’ll try to describe them with a bit more depth:
For an enterprise SaaS business, these metrics are fairly mediocre (well, the churn metrics anyway, the acquisition numbers would be phenomenal), but thankfully, we’re not the typical enterprise model. Because we have very low costs for customer acquisition (we acquire ~85% of our customers using inbound marketing rather than paid channels), and very low COGS (no account management, sales people, or services costs), our model scales very nicely. You can see more detail about this in our funding slide deck, embedded in the next section.
Traffic’s been growing at a somewhat shocking pace, too. In the first 122 days of the year, SEOmoz + OpenSiteExplorer had 6.85 million visits:
Our traffic from every source has been increasing dramatically. In comparison, the 122-day period from April 3rd – July 30th, 2011 had 4.46 million visits, a growth rate of 54%. Search engines have been sending more traffic, our email marketing efforts are getting better, social media sources are up dramatically, and referring links + branded/direct is up, too. The only traffic source that’s remained relatively stable is RSS, which we suspect is due to more and more people replacing their RSS reader with socially-based referrals and apps.
Looking at Moz in 2012, it would appear that we’ve got a healthy, growing business, but as you can see from the growth chart above, we’d predicted that our last few years of doubling subscription revenue would slow. This is largely due to capital constraints on the business. We couldn’t make the technology, infrastructure, people or marketing investments we knew were needed to accelerate. That’s precisely why, at our early February board meeting, we decided that despite our setbacks the previous summer, it was time to hit the road seeking venture investment for a third time.
Our board of directors meets quarterly to discuss the key issues facing the company and review the progress made in the prior three months. At our February meeting, each of our executive team members – Jamie from Marketing, Adam from Product, Sarah from Operations and Anthony from Engineering – expressed the sentiment that their teams could benefit from additional capital and that the time was right for a raise. Kelly Smith (of Curious Office, an observer on our board) and Michelle Goldberg (who represents Ingition) agreed.
Unfortunately, that meant getting my weary, jaded head back into the funding world, something I’d been dreading since our last financing fell apart just after we signed a term sheet in August 2011. We strongly considered but ultimately rejected hiring bankers to help us run the deal process, and this was in large part due to my personal issues of confidence. It’s hard to describe that feeling now, but I truly believed and feared that we’d once again spend months on road, pitching investors, and end in June or July with nothing to show for it again.
Much of February was spent contacting investors, colleagues and entrepreneurs we knew and asking for help with introductions, positioning and the creation and review of a funding slide deck. You can see a modified version of that deck below:
Some of those calls and connections led to early interest from some big names in the later-stage industry (VCs who typically put $15-50mm into companies at Series C, D and above). Unfortunately, these started out with a familiar pattern – a call expressing interest, a request for data, upon receipt of that data, a deeper request for more data, repeat ad nauseum. We were just settling in for the tough reality of a long slog to reach that first offer we could leverage to start a process when I got on the phone with Brad.
Nearly every entrepreneur and person connected to the startup field knows of Brad Feld and Foundry Group through the exceptional reputation they’ve built. Brad’s been named the most respected VC in the business, makes hilarious music parody videos, funds dozens of successful companies, co-founded Techstars, is a two-time entrepreneur himself, runs inhumanly long distances and sponsors lots of public bathrooms. He’s a very awesome, very weird and very Mozzy guy. I liked Ben Huh’s recent post about him best:
I’ve been fortunate to have him on our board and he’s helped us even before we took funding. In start-up lingo, he’s my number one value add, even on a board studded with greatly helpful and wickedly smart people.
The funny thing is, I would describe my interactions with Brad as slightly weird. Yup. Weird. Not in the creepy WTF? kind of way, but good, like whoa-I’m-being-transported-to-another-planet kinda way…
…He’s unlike any VC I’ve ever met.
When we got on the phone, I knew that A) Foundry almost always does early-stage deals and B) They almost never put more than $10mm into a deal and C) They hadn’t asked us for any preliminary information or a deck. Thus, I was fairly certain that this call was purely advice-driven, though I hoped it would potentially lead to some helpful introductions. But, when I started the call asking for help, Brad stopped me. He said Foundry was interested in potentially leading the round themselves. My heart skipped a few beats, and we got into a conversation.
How do I know Brad? Through three of the more unlikely sources imaginable: first, Brad + Seth had looked at SEOmoz briefly in our 2009 raise attempt, but, like a lot of others, passed at the time; second, through my blog post on failing to raise money (which Brad read and wrote about); and last, through my wife Geraldine, whose blog and tweets are apparently a topic of enjoyment between Brad and his wife Amy. Side note: Next time someone asks what Geraldine’s blog monetization strategy is, I’m replying with “it already made $18mm, what more do you want?!”
The Saturday morning after that phone call, Brad wrote a post entitled “Don’t Be Gunshy Because You Dealt with BucketHeads the Last Time Around.” The Moz team was already enamored with Brad and working hard to keep our excitement in check. That post made it harder, and then this email (sent later that evening) made it 10X harder still:
We sent in excess of 40 emails back and forth over the next 3 days. Included in that volley was an invitation to come to Boulder, Colorado to meet some of the companies he’d invested in, his partners at Foundry, and talk seriously about an investment. I also got to talk to T.A. McCann from Gist, Ben Huh from Cheezburger and Keith Smith from BigDoor, Brad’s other investments in Seattle.
Interesting side note: Many investors we’ve talked to over the years have told us to “talk to their CEOs.” I almost always take those introductions and get on the phone, but VCs may not realize either A) how honest CEOs are with each other or B) what their CEOs actually think of them. Due to these, I’ve often heard recommendations that damn with faint praise or point out a lot of good reasons not to get involved.
Brad’s one of only a few exceptions. The reviews were unbelievably positive. So much so that it was hard to believe they were real. Each one brought up example after example of Brad putting the entrepreneur’s interests ahead of his/Foundry’s own, even when serious amounts of money were on the line. He may never have heard of TAGFEE until our conversations, but Brad lives those values in his personal and professional life with the same obsessesiveness that we do at Moz.
On Friday March 16th at butt’o'clock in the morning, Sarah and I boarded a flight to Denver, rented a car and drove to Boulder. We had lunch with the crew from GNIP, another of Foundry’s investments. They are clearly awesome dudes – the kind we’d love to work with (and the restaurant they took us to had the impossibly-hard-to-find cult beer, Pliny the Younger, in stock). The pattern of Brad’s investment in very cool people was becoming clear.
After lunch, we spent the afternoon meeting with the Foundry team. There’s only 4 of them, because Brad doesn’t believe in associates (I’ll let him explain in a blog post at some point). Jason, Ryan, Seth and Brad were all surprisingly easy-going and their styles put at ease, too. It was a welcome change of pace from the usual hours spent in VC offices. After the meetings wrapped up, Brad took Sarah and I to dinner down the street at Oak.
Within minutes of sitting down, he said (rough, from my memory): “I talked to the guys before we left the office; everyone wants to do this deal. We’re in.”
Have you ever been in one of those situations where you want to get up, run around the room screaming and high-fiving everyone then order all the beer on the menu, but you have to stay cool and act like everything’s normal? First world problem, indeed.
Luckily, 30 minutes later, I got up to “use the bathroom” and texted my wife. She wrote back in classic Geraldine fashion:
Can I just say again how awesome it is being married to her?
We finished dinner with Brad, grabbed froyo next door, walked around Boulder’s promenade and went back to our hotel. The following afternoon, he emailed over deal terms, all of which looked good except the pre-money valuation (initially $70mm – we’d hoped for higher). I emailed back that we loved everything about the deal, but were seeking a slightly higher pre-money. Brad said he’d check with his team and get back to us Monday. Despite my illness, I headed out to a bar for Moz’s help team manager’s (Aaron Wheeler) birthday. On St. Patrick’s day.
The bar was packed to overflowing. I think I ordered a “whatever sounds good to you” from the bartender. The wall was lined with Montana-esque memorabilia and knick-knacks. Nearly a dozen mozzers crowded around a jam-packed booth. I looked down at my phone and saw this email from Brad.
Cue me freaking out, standing up from the booth, screaming and possibly attempting to buy everyone in the bar a round of drinks (thankfully, Geraldine grabbed me before I did so as it would have been a very expensive proposition). That round of jumping around and high-fiving everyone I missed out on in Boulder came back that night. I hope that after reading this post, you can let that same crazy smile spread across your face and lift a glass of your favorite beverage to help us toast.
Looking back on this process with Foundry, the calendar is practically unbelievable. The time from the first phone call to an offer and agreement on deal terms was literally 8 days.
Now back in Seattle, we spoke to Michelle from Ignition and went to their Bellevue offices that Monday to pitch their partnership (using the deck you’ve seen above). The timeline was accelerated by an upcoming 2.5 week trip I had to Madrid, Munich, London, Boston, and San Francisco, but we made it work. When I left for Madrid on Wednesday, March 21st, we had already started the diligence process for our Series B.
On the middle leg of that long trip, in Munich for SMX, I had the chance to share some exciting news with friends at a downtown pub:
And somehow, Geraldine captured their reactions (and mine) with impeccable timing:
I think Will Critchlow’s face in this photo perfectly sums up how all of us at Moz are feeling about this event.
This, of course, was followed by much drinking of German beer:
The round formally closed on Monday, April 23rd, when funds were wired to our account. Sarah sent around a nice screencap:
Prior to that, $2.17mm was our highest-ever account balance (we’ve been a bit more profitable than expected the last few months). I have to say that after years of aiming for investment to help us grow the business and, yes, to get some additional, external validation of our work, our model and our market, the transaction itself feels pretty good. But, perhaps stranger still, was a reflection on the funding I shared first with Geraldine, and then later in an email to Brad:
It sounds cheesy or overly-sentimental to say, but it’s the truth. The money is going to help us do amazing things, and it’s going to mean we can do a lot more of them faster and at greater scale than we could have on our own. But money can come from a lot of places. There’s only one seat on our board for a new investor and I’m more certain than I’ve ever been about anything in my long tenure with this company that he and Foundry are the right match for our special brand of startup.
For those interested in the VC world and the specific of the transaction, I’ll try to provide some detail:
Following the transaction, here’s how the ownership breakdown of SEOmoz looks (be sure to mentally place a ~ in front of numbers):
As part of this round, Gillian and I had initially planned two somewhat unique moves.
First, to take some “money off the table,” meaning that we’d sell shares directly to the company and use some of the funding for personal capital. We had initially intended to have Gillian take ~$4mm and me take $1mm, but ran into a challenge around pricing. In order to fairly value “common” stock (which is what Gillian, myself and employees own), companies must undergo a 409A valuation by an external party. Ours came back valuing the common stock at $49mm (vs. $93mm for preferred). This low number is great for employee option grants and recruiting, but means that we’d be selling a lot of shares to reach those target numbers. Hence, we opted to take more minimal payouts now of ~$440,000 each, most of which is going into a fund for some family members’ debt we’ve long wanted to pay off. In the future, we’ll have the option to sell back more shares at future 409A valuation prices.
The second move is more non-standard. When a new employee joins a startup, they usually receive stock options equivalent to some percent of the company’s total ownership (if you’re interested in learning more, I recommend this post from Dan Shapiro and this one from Tony Wright on the topic). For example, let’s say John joined SEOmoz in January 2012 and received 1,000 stock options and we have a total of 1,000,000 shares. John has options equivalent to 0.1% of the company. In a normal fundraising round, everyone takes some “dilution” to make room for the new investors. If the new investors own, say, 20% of the company in the funding round, John’s options now represent 0.08%.
Gillian and I have always been passionate about three goals around SEOmoz:
Saying those are goals is one thing, but making tangible, visible moves to prove that commitment is harder. This is one of the few times we can show how serious we are about goal #3. Thus, we each sacrificed shares we owned to give back to each active employee at the company so they maintain their ownership percentage. In our example of John above, this would mean 0.02% of new stock options granted to him.
I’m incredibly grateful to Gillian for helping to make not just this transaction and stock sacrifice possible, but for all the amazing support and effort she’s devoted to the the company over the last decade. For those who don’t know, Gillian founded the business that eventually became SEOmoz in 1981! That’s more than three decades ago. For the first two, she was the sole propietor. After 2001, when I dropped out of school, we joined forces with Gillian as President for the next 6 years. In 2007, after our funding transaction from Ignition, she stepped out of a day-to-day operational role to contribute as a full-time evangelist and member of our board of directors. Today, she takes another step toward pursuing new goals and aspirations.
Thousands of folks in the Moz community have met and interacted with Gillian over the last few years through her extensive world travels. I hope you’ll join me in thanking her for the amazing work she’s done and supporting her new, more independent direction.
The few people I’ve told of this transaction before today almost always ask “what are you going to do with $20 million in the bank?!”
We do have some big plans, but we also want to be very cautious and deliberate with spending. Given our revenue and expenses run rate, this is a decent amount of operating capital, but it certainly doesn’t give us the freedom to be reckless. Several items on our roadmap in the next 12-18 months include:
If you have suggestions, we are, of course, all ears!
My sincere thanks and great big hugs go out to everyone in the Moz community, Seattle startup world and of course, our investors, new and old. We know that the road ahead will have more big challenges to overcome, but it’s been so much more fun and rewarding taking this ride together. Here’s to finally putting the psychological fear and disappointment of failed funding behind us and to an incredibly bright future.
p.s. If you have any questions related to this news, feel free to ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to reply (am on my way to the Future of Web Insights conference in Vegas this afternoon, so please forgive if I’m a bit tardy).
May 1st, 2012 @ // No Comments
Link building strategies are a part of any successful search engine optimization marketing campaign. With Goggle’s newest algorithm update, it’s more important than ever to go after natural links which can help drive traffic to your site and improve your rankings in the search engines.
Natural links are gained when people find your website, product or service useful, interesting, relevant and important and link to your site for those reasons. Companies with existing marketing, public relations and social media strategies already in place should be on the lookout for link building opportunities to maximize efforts.
Here are a few examples about how to gain natural links through strategies that your company might already be doing (or can be doing):
Sponsoring an event allows your company to show support for a cause you believe in and get your brand in front of a niche- targeted audience. Events are a fun way to grow a mutually beneficial relationship.
At SEO.com we host WordPress meet-ups every month. The meet-ups are open to employees and non-employees, developers, designers, SEOs and anyone who wants to learn more about WordPress. Not only are our meet-ups a great place for our employees to network and learn from others who are in a similar industry, the meet-ups also benefit our company as a whole. When people are talking about the past or future meet-ups they naturally link to our site. The same concept works with our free webinars in the way that being involved in an event will naturally make people talk about you.
Corporate sponsorship of a collaborative event (such as a marathon, street carnival, beer festival etc.) is also beneficial for building valuable relationships. Relevance is the main key to sponsoring these types of events. For example, my co-worker organized The Front Runner Century, a fun 62- mile bike ride in Salt Lake (in which I will be riding!) and one of their main sponsors is a bike shop in Salt Lake called Canyons Sports. Canyons sports will provide support vehicles and help with bike repairs during the ride and the Front Runner Century has linked to their site and suggested that as a great place for a bike tune before the event. (This paragraph is a perfect example about how talking about events and linking works).
An event organizer for any collaborative event should have no problem placing a link on the event’s website with information about your product or service and post about your company through their social media outlets. As an added link bonus you can write a guest post for the event’s blog about your sponsorship involvement and the passion you have about the event and link to pages on your website.
Your company can set yourself apart as an expert by providing useful information about your industry, service or product while you naturally increase traffic to your site. This highly- informative article is a great example of how SEO.com is doing just that, and if you find this article interesting you will hopefully link to it, tweet it or share it. All shameless plugs aside, there are two main places on your website where you can provide useful information:
Besides providing information on your own website there are ways to provide useful information else-where on the Internet:
By answering a question on a social media site, more times than not you will be able to gain a link, but more importantly you’ll gain a relationship.
By running a sweepstakes, contest or giveaway on your site, you’ll be able to drive traffic to your website and social media sites, generate leads, engage customers, gain customer insight and increase brand awareness. If you come up with a great contest idea, bloggers will want to write about your contest and users will want to share your link through their social media outlets.
Industry trade shows are a great place to network with other professionals in your industry. Before you head to the tradeshow, consider writing a report about new findings and statistics in your industry. You’ll not only be providing valuable information, you’ll also set yourself apart as an industry leader. Place the information on your website so the trade show and other companies can find your study easily and link to it. You can also speak on behalf of your business at the show in which the tradeshow will naturally link to your company’s site.
I wrote about SEO press releases in a previous post, which are also a great way to gain media exposure and coverage on new sites that choose to publish a press release that contains links. Press releases are one small aspect of public relations and way to reach out to the media.
Another way to build relationships in your community through public relations efforts could be to run a blogger event. A company could invite a group of bloggers into their factory or office and teach them about their company’s eco-friendly practices. The more positive things that a company does, the more opportunities they open up for people talking about them (and linking to them).
My co-worker Nicole Bullock will write a Part 2 about more great ways to naturally build links. I’d love to hear about how your company has used traditional marketing techniques and as a result gained great exposure and links.