Tips From The Top: One One With Sarah Bird, CEO of Moz

I spoke to Sarah Bird, CEO of Moz. about her best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Sarah: In my 20s, I was focused on education, culture, and social justice. My education had me globetrotting to a ton of really exciting places, from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver BC, to Koç University in Istanbul, to the UW School of Law here in Seattle, to the East China University School of Law and Politics in Shanghai. Practicing law was my main gig before transitioning into the tech world. I loved being able to help people with their most sensitive and painful challenges.

I started at Moz as the 8th employee in my late 20s. We were a really small and tightly knit group with big dreams for the future of SEO. And I had no idea what I was doing. My background was in law, not tech startups. Helping build Moz from the ground up meant facing a ton of challenges every single day, which were both exhausting and exhilarating. I am so grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow that Moz has afforded me. The learnings didn’t stop when I became CEO.

As the business grows, things you had figured out stop working. You’re constantly adjusting to new scale and new competitive pressures. I’ve made some really expensive and bad decisions over the years. I’ve hired the wrong people. I’ve built the wrong product. Each time, I try and remember that failure is just data trying to move you in a different direction. I heard Oprah say that in an interview and it has stuck with me. Each time I make a mistake, I try to understand it, forgive myself for it, and look forward to trying something else in the future.

One of the most difficult things for me is being comfortable not being liked. The culture I grew up in made me believe that being liked and making other people feel good is a woman’s highest value. Over the years I’ve gotten better at being comfortable making other people uncomfortable. One of my most important learnings is that great leaders can push you out of your comfort zone and have the courage to make unpopular decisions. 100% likeability is not the goal.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Sarah: Great leadership is a balancing act. At Moz, TAGFEE is our north star. We strive to live the values of transparency, authenticity, generosity, being fun, being empathetic, and being exceptional. It’s not easy by any means, but neither is being a leader. It shouldn’t be easy. So commit yourself to living your values in the best way you can. Make sure those values have great integrity. And strive to be excellent even when you fail, because we’re all people. People fail sometimes. Be humble, be swift to learn and careful to listen, and be courageous in everything you do.

Also, get a leadership coach. You need someone independent, experienced, to help you reframe challenges and hold you accountable to your better self. I have grown so much through great coaching.

Adam: What do you consider your biggest accomplishments as CEO? How have you guided Moz through the transition of losing its founder?

Sarah: Companies have many founding moments; change creates a lot of opportunity. When the former CEO asked me to take over, it was important to recognize that we had an opportunity to re-imagine some things, and re-commit to others. It was important to me to emphasize our commitment to our TAGFEE values. And also to encourage people to try new ways of thinking and doing things. It doesn’t mean that the old way was wrong; it simply means we’re operating in a new context and it might take different behaviors and attitudes and skills to move us forward.

I’m very proud of the “people helping people” mentality that we hold at Moz. There are ups and downs, but we don’t quit when it gets hard. We lean in and weather the storm. When the going gets tough, we still find ways to take care of people. Perks like four months of paid parental leave, paid paid vacations (we give each Mozzer three thousand bucks to spend on their vacay), and no-meeting Fridays have been core parts of our culture we’re not willing to compromise on. Your employees are people, and life happens to people. Enabling them to live life the way it’s meant to be experienced is humbling and gratifying.

Adam: With search engines like Google moving increasingly toward paid search results and sponsorships, what is the future of SEO?

Sarah: The future of SEO is dynamic and impactful. We’re entering a golden age of search. Search has gone beyond the desktop and mobile phone. It’s baked into our home assistants, our cars, our watches. Robust visual search is around the corner. We are searching more and in more formats than ever before.

Yes, there are paid ads. There are also new, interactive search results. But SEO isn’t going away so long as people are searching and finding the best answers to their questions. I don’t think search will ever become just a list of paid ads. The vast majority of clicks still go to organic results.

Moz is committed to helping people understand this dynamic industry so that they can succeed in this new multi-format search environment.  

One of the ways we’re preparing for this is investing a ton in SERP analysis and keyword suggestions. As SERPs change, we want to be the first to let you know. Our recent acquisition of STAT Search Analytics is an example of our commitment to understanding changing queries and formats.

Adam: What is the future of Moz in light of this shift and in light of the rise of competitors with similar offerings? In what ways are you differentiating your offering and your brand?

Sarah: First, SEO is a big, dynamic industry and there is a lot of room out there for multiple competitors. I don’t think we’re anywhere near the peak of SEO software maturity.

Moz is special in a few important ways.

First, we are big believers in the power of local SEO. Local search is a powerful SEO specialty because it has such strong commercial intent. When someone does a local search, they are usually planning on going somewhere and spending some money. We have invested a lot in helping people with local SEO data distribution needs. We also offer local pages and review management. We are going to be launching even more local-specific SEO tools in 2019. I can’t talk more about them right now, but stay tuned!

Second, we invest in and validate the quality of our data. We have the best link index on the market right now. Domain Authority is the metric most correlated to a site’s ability to rank well. Our rankings are the most accurate. Our keyword suggestions are the best for the English language. Our data science and subject matter expert team puts so much heart and brain power into making sure what we release is accurate and helpful. We do not cut corners. I am proud of our focus on quality data.

Lastly, we are a values-driven company that people trust. Most digital marketers begin their SEO journey with Moz. I’m proud of the impact we have on creating an industry of professionals around the world. We want to help people be the best digital marketers they can be. We want this to be a profession that people are proud to be in and proud to study.

Adam: With the explosion of voice search, mobile, and other channels, what do you believe will be most impactful for SEO in the next year or two?

Sarah: Mobile is baked in. It’s here and has changed search results forever. Voice activated search is already here. If you’re doing SEO today and you haven’t thought about mobile and the impact of voice-activated searches, you’re not doing your job well.

I don’t think voice response is going to have as big an impact on SEO as people think. In very few kinds of searches do we have the patience or the appropriate environment to be read out as a long response. Thus, the kind of queries that voice-response is best for are naturally limited. We can visually take in information much more quickly than we can listen to it.

In the farther-term future, I’m excited about the opportunity in visual search/AR. I love the ideas coming from the Google Lens team. It’s too early to start building SEO tools around it, but it’s going to be so much fun to watch that format evolve.

Adam: What we should be “afraid” of in SEO? Is it Amazon taking over Google searches? Google’s focus on creating no-click search results? Or another trend?

Sarah: There is nothing to be fearful of in SEO. The fundamentals of good SEO apply agnostic of platform. Google has told us clearly, firmly, and often that the searcher’s experience is number one. Content that satisfies their intent, providing answers directly in the SERPs in the form of featured snippets, and projects like Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) all speak to this. Low-quality search experiences will continue to be devalued. Providers of excellent content and user experience will continue to win. There are no monsters hiding under the bed in SEO. We have all the opportunity in the world to satisfy customers faster and better than ever before. Marketers that learn and innovate and experiment should see new trends as a competitive advantage.

Amazon is providing really good competition for product searches right now. Choice is good. It makes everyone work harder because consumers will vote with their attention and eyeballs.

Adam: What is the most valuable skill you would recommend someone in SEO learn?

Sarah: Staying curious. SEO is always changing and evolving. Constantly asking “why?” and “how?” is a hallmark of a high-performing SEO.

  • “Why did I get a higher click-through rate from Google after I changed the order of content on my homepage?”
  • “How do I improve my overall time-on-site metrics?”
  • “What kind of search result is THAT?!”

This stuff is what keeps good search marketers awake at night. When something like a 1% increase in site traffic can mean millions of dollars in sales, an inquiring mind and an analytical approach are vital.

Oh, and work on your numeracy skills. Once you’ve mastered understanding large data sets and drawing insights, learn how to tell a compelling story with data. Without these skills, you’re capping your professional growth.

Adam: What do most people not know about SEO but should?

Sarah: SEO isn’t just about clicks to your site anymore. It’s about brand. And it’s about on-SERP conversion rate optimization. People are transacting and interacting with your brand without ever reaching your website. And that’s okay.

Adam: What are your best tips on improving SEO rankings quickly and sustainably without invest heavily?

Sarah: SEO isn’t a one-and-done activity. There are no shortcuts that will bring you lasting success. It’s a process that evolves and lives and grows as your site and business thrives and grows. And whether it’s your time or your money, there’s always an investment when it comes to marketing your business right. Understand your searcher. Know what they want and why they want it, then answer that need with fresh, accurate site content. Try targeting long-tail keywords that have lower demand but higher conversion potential, keywords that have high demand and lower competition, and make sure to build those links. It can take months, sometimes years, to see tangible SEO wins. Like I said, no shortcuts.

Adam: How can consumers evaluate whether an SEO “expert” is truly an expert or selling magic beans?

Sarah: Transparency is a big one. SEO is an open and well-researched field. There are no secret optimization techniques. If an “expert” won’t tell you what they’re doing and why, it’s time to move on.

Another one is guaranteeing revenue or results. Rankings are volatile and can change from hour to hour — anyone claiming they can definitely rank you in position X isn’t being straight with you. Same story for ROI: search is always changing and always evolving. Making revenue estimates is good; making revenue promises is not.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Sarah: Recognize your own power and privilege, then use it to accomplish good. At Moz, we’re aware of the massive barriers to entry in the field of tech. We also know we have the power to change that for people. Partnering with organizations like YearUp, Ignite Worldwide, and Techbridge helps us level the playing field. It doesn’t always benefit Moz directly, but that’s not the point of doing good things: making the tech industry more inclusive benefits us all. It’s our responsibility to make sure everyone has access to a career in STEM if they want it. Never underestimate your own ability to enact change.

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