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Interview with Cyrus Shepard - Inbound After Hours - Ep. 22

17 mins read

This week we have a very special guest on the show, Cyrus Shepard,  former SEO head at the software company Moz.

Find out all about his time at Moz and his rise to lead SEO, but also find out about what you need to know about developing a career as an SEO and the latest emerging trends within the SEO industry.

If you are looking at getting into SEO, this is the podcast episode for you. Cyrus Shepard offers lots of advice for aspiring SEO's.





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Thanks so much for joining us this week.

Have some feedback you’d like to share. Do it in the comments below! 



Full transcript:

- Hi, everyone! Welcome to another episode of Inbound After Hours. This week, we've got a very special guest. We got Cyrus Shepard. Hey, how's things?

- Hey, guys, good to see you. Talk to you.

- Fantastic. Cyrus, for anyone who doesn't know who you are in the Inbound community, can you just give a little bit of background on yourself? Where you've been and worked, and what your involvement is in the community. Yeah, most people today probably know me either on Twitter or from my work at the software company Moz, where I was SEO for a number of years. I started doing SEO back in 2009 because I was making websites, you know, basic HTML, Dreamweaver, you know, horrible looking things, and I needed a way to market them and I started googling how to get traffic for websites. And I was looking at AdWords and all of that stuff and I discovered SEO when it was like a light switch went off. A lot of people don't know this about me, but for years, I actually went to film school and I was a struggling screenwriter. I was a horrible screenwriter. But once I started switching to SEO and marketing, I was actually good at something in my career for once and it was like, I can't believe I'd been trying to write screenplays all this time when... And I love it! So, I got into SEO, and then I lucked into a bunch of things. I got my first client extremely quickly. I started working at Moz in the Customer Service department answering phones and unloading the dishwasher at 6AM. Just as a way to be at the company and they, within three or four months of working there, they actually promoted me to lead SEO of the company.

- When does that happen?

- I don't know! I still don't know 'til this day. And I had terrible Imposter Syndrome for probably the first year. And I actually left the company for a while because I'm like, I shouldn't be here, but then I left and I, you know, I was actually pretty good at that so I went back and I spent another three years and you know, it was a great opportunity so today, I'm, today I run my own content-marketing company. We generally don't take a lot of client work. My wife and I have a partnership. We produce our own content, do affiliate marketing, things like that. A few consulting clients. That's where I am today. But I still have that, I'm still on Twitter. I'm still trying to help people out. That's ingrained in my DNA. And that's where we are.

- Awesome. That sounds good. One of the questions I've always had is, what's the kind of pressure like in being an SEO at somewhere like Moz, who's the pinnacle of SEO kind of content.

- So you think the pressure is gonna come from the community but it really doesn't. For me, the pressure came from working with Rand Fishkin. I do not wanna screw up in front of him. I've learned so much from him. And so, I would, but at the same time, I had a job to do. So sometimes we would disagree and butt heads but Rand is awesome and he would let me do what I want. So that was more pressure than the pressure of community and we screwed up all the time but that says, yo, you try things, sometimes they work, sometimes they don't work. The one thing we did have to get right, though, was when we wrote blog posts, when we did our correlation ranking factor study or we did our best practises, we had to make sure we weren't wrong. We don't always have to be right, but when we were giving best practises to other people, we had to go through that extra mile to make sure we are giving a base level of standards advice that, you know, wasn't just widely inaccurate. So, we took that very seriously and still do today, so.

- I think the challenge a lot of companies have, whether it's agencies or inhouse, is reaching that quality threshold of content. There's a lot of content goes out, like you say, particularly in this industry, some of it is wrong, sadly, and

- [Cyrus] Like the big names.

- No, no, definitely not, but because everyone's pressured to write content, I don't think there's that pressure to put it through editorial process or put it through testing or get a high threshold like you're describing there. What this sort of process is or challenges you guys how you make and choose what you put out is good, true, honest advice. How do you put a gauge on that? So, for years, we actually didn't have an editor. People, we'd have a lot of contributors to the Moz blog, a lot of people in the industry, they would just type in their blog posts into the CMS and hit Publish at midnight. They could be anywhere in the world. That changed around 2013, 2014. We actually hired an editor that actually created a process which kind of, you know, kind of sucks in a way because any time you add process to something, it slows you down. But in terms of the, sometimes you don't know. Sometimes, we've screwed up. We published things that ended up being wrong. We've taken some heat, but sometimes you do have to take some risks at doing that. So, generally... You guys are agency. One thing that I always recommend for agencies, agencies have such unique opportunities to publish case studies without publishing best, you don't have to dive into best practises, but I know how challenging it is because you have to take hours out of your day. It's available hours that you could be doing something else and you don't necessarily have a staff of writers that are great at producing your own content, so it is challenging, but I find agencies that produce a lot of good case studies about being overselling, the actual goal of educating, much like this podcast, actually do pretty well most of the time.

- Yeah, definitely. In the role there at Moz, what were some of the big wins you had in SEO? What were some of the tests you did that worked particularly well? What were the things that worked? Is there anything that jumps to mind, a change you made that made a big impact or was it a lot of incremental stuff?

- It was a lot of incremental stuff. The biggest thing, the surprising thing is just always, almost always goes down to the basics of producing the content that got links week after week. I remember the screwups more than the things we did right. We, in the same week, we switched to HTTPS and we became mobile responsive and we changed a bunch of our CMS and we ended up after that, our ranking that sort of, it didn't tank but it reduced about 20% and we couldn't figure it out for months. And we had to reach out to John Mueller of Google and people think we have these private backdoor channels and generally no, I was posting on the Google WebMaster forum. We do know some people at Google, but you know, and we're like, hey, Moz needs help. Something is wrong. It turns out when we made all those switches, we inadvertently created thousands and thousands of misformed URLs, sent some incorrect signals to Google, and so they were canonicalizing the wrong page, the wrong page. It was half our fault, half Google's fault. That was one of those things where Rand and I butted head a little bit but at the end of the day, it took us eight months, but we fixed the problem. I remember that one more than anything else. No one in the public knew about it or really cared, but yeah.

- I mean, that's a lot of the technical side of SEO is that, isn't it? It's background stuff that front-end users would never know. How much time would you recommend SEOs focus on that sort of stuff first is the actual, real front-end basics like you're describing is good content optimised with this sort of standard stuff that you need. Where would you spend your time? And I know that's gonna be a very different answer for different companies, but--

- It is and I've actually, I've actually... It's a great question for me because I've been struggling with this myself because I'm terrible at that balance. I am an optimizer and the thing about optimization is it never ends. You can go down that rabbit-hole forever and there's no such thing as perfect. You can always improve your page load speed. You can always improve your internal navigation. And you can always tweak things. And I find that I spend way too much time on the nuances but I also enjoy it because that's where I learn a lot of things that I can fill in other places. But honestly, honestly, you know, let me hit the Refresh button. You know, a couple years ago, Google came out with their... An engineer, a Google engineer said the top three, in an interview, said the top three ranking factors were content, links, and RankBrain. Let's substitute engagement for RankBrain and I think that's a good proxy for where people should spend their time. If you build a pyramid, you should spend most of your time on content, the second amount of time on links, or just simply marketing or telling people about your content that you created and third is engagement. And if you think of your pyramid like that, I think that's a good model.

- So, brings us on quite nicely to links. Obviously the journey of link-building, link-earning, promoting your content, it's been up and down. There's a lot of stuff we don't do now that people used to do, et cetera. What are good tactics for people earning links? I know it's a bit different somewhere like Moz that would, I won't wanna say naturally attract links, but it's kind of already got the market presence and the leverage a little bit. If you were looking back at what you're doing now or what you've done with other companies in the past, what's good ways for normal, mid-market companies to get links?

- Yeah, so, when I was at Moz, we didn't worry about that at all because we just hit the Publish button, and that's all we did and hopefully it was good enough, and we got links. Then when I went into private practise, I had the complete opposite problem. I was working in industries where nobody knew who I was, no one cared about me, and I was in the same position that thousands of marketers are. And I wish I had some big insights, but I really don't. It comes down to the basics. I create content that, my one standard for content that we create in my company today is that it has to have something that people can steal. Whether it's a graphic or data or images. Something that people can take away from and my wife is a graphic designer so we're a very visual-focused company. The second thing is just outreach, outreach, outreach. You have to tell people. You have to write a lot of cold emails. The one thing that I learned early on, though, in my link-building career, it's a rookie mistake. I'm sure you guys, anybody working in an agency knows. The biggest mistake I made early on was creating content before I knew--

- Yeah.

- Yeah, everybody makes that mistake. You create the content, then you do your link outreach. Wait, this is way hard. This would have been easier if I started my outreach research and then created the content and then went back. Hard lessons all around.

- Definitely. I quite like the theory of creating content that's stealable. I quite like that. How many people naturally just take it and reference you versus you needing to do the leg work and find them and then hunting them down and saying, "Hey, remember the references."

- I think, when I nail it, when we create really good content, and we get that those initial 10 or 20 links and we start to rank a little bit in Google, if it's actually stealable content then the flywheel process takes over and people are finding you in Google search results because you've targeted those terms and you no longer have to do outreach. They're just finding you and stealing your content and linking to you and it's kind of an 80, 20 rule. So if you hit the nail on the head, it becomes a lot easier.

- Right. A lot of people that listen to the podcast maybe a little bit earlier marketing career from a digital perspective. What do you think, if you were looking at hiring back at Moz or in previous roles, what's important to you in looking for good digital marketers and how would that go to kind of career advice for people in marketing today or in digital marketing?

- Yeah, that's a really good question. I think a fundamental understanding of websites. I've worked in SEOs who are completely green and those who have some technical knowledge and it's really hard if you don't have that technical knowledge of HTML and CSS. If you don't have your own site, if you don't have at least a minimum WordPress site, you're starting off a year or two behind everyone else. So just having a website. I know so many SEOs who don't have a personal site and never had one and I, I would encourage that to be the first step. Just writing about anything. It raises your stature in the industry. It gives you credibility. And it's amazing to me that we work in an industry of marketers and so few people market themselves on a regular basis. Just having an SEO blog sets you a cut above the rest and that's your calling card to any industry. When you walk in the door to any company, if you have that website and you're tweeting and posting articles and sharing people, you can get hired anywhere. They won't even look at your LinkedIn or your resume. It's that. So technical skills, yes. Writing skills, communication skills. One thing I learned from Rand Fishkin was that a lot of people don't appreciate is the art of writing emails and I still write emails in that vein. One thing Rand told me, he never writes an email, he always assumes that any email he writes will be published on the web. That there are no secrets in email. Write as if everyone in the world is gonna read it because there's a chance that it will, especially as you grow in your career. You don't know who it's gonna be shared with. Here in America, we have a lot of problems with Hillary Clinton's emails. I think just learning this lesson. Just assume everybody's gonna read it. It's a great marketing opportunity. So that's two things. Communication and technical skills are a basis of what I'd look for, for hiring.

- It's a good two tips that no one... We've asked this question to a lot of people who we have interviewed on the podcast and no one's mentioned either of those two tips in terms of having your own site and the importance of that sort of career progression and employers noticing you versus other people. And yeah, I've never thought of email that way. I guess Rand has had that presence where he's had to worry about people caring about his emails

- [Cyrus] I don't need to worry about it but I still write my emails that way and it's improved things.

- No, it's a really good tip.

- Yeah.

- Definitely. So obviously you're on Twitter very actively. I follow you on there and listen to what you're saying. What's the chatter in the industry like from an SEO perspective at the moment? What are the things people are optimistic about and then on the other side what are things people are worried about at the moment? How does the landscape look?

- So, there is a bit of worry in the SEO industry and that is looking at the quick stream data that people are actually clicking fewer search results, dramatically fewer than they did even three years ago. And that is because the Google surfs are getting so informative with their rich answers and the knowledge boxes and opportunities like voice search where you have the Google home and there's no opportunity to even click. This is a worrying trend. For most people, it hasn't been an issue, but Google is becoming more and more informative and it's a risk to the entire industry and we've talked about it for years but it's actually on the horizon. And now Google is sending out notices to webmasters, how to add structure data so you can better present yourself in voice search and you know, it's a double-edged sword. We don't really have a choice. We want to be in front of the consumer, but the model, the model that we've been using for the past 10 or 15 years, that we're gonna have a website with a link and people are gonna click the link and that's how we're gonna get, that's how we're gonna market ourselves, that's beginning to change and we might have to come up with a different model in the next five or 10 years to still get our message out without that actual website visit. That's something that I'm personally thinking about a lot. The SEO industry, in general, isn't chatting about it much yet but it's slowly eroding away.

- When does SEO turn into more of a branding game just being unable to touch point where you're appearing either in a knowledge box and this answer was provided by such and such a on voice search and this is who the answer's from and it's just another part of brand awareness and sort of digital engagement that doesn't directly lead to traffic?

- Yeah.

- Further down the road, it's kind of, you might get the longevity benefits. Is that kind of the way--

- Yeah, and I think there are still, the opportunities for branding have not diminished whatsoever and they're probably increasing. Unfortunately for some publishers, the opportunities for monetization are switching from the publisher to Google and we're starting to see Google actually try to help out a little bit, helping publishers with subscription models. Mostly it's the big publishers like Wall Street Journal, New York Times, that are benefiting from this, but, yeah, the way that web monetization models are definitely shifting. Let's switch the conversation to exciting things.

- Yeah.

- Things we're excited about. Speed improvements on the web, AMP, the double-edged sword. I'm now a fan of AMP. I wasn't for a number of years, but, I finally converted.

- How far do you think people should be pushing with AMP at the moment? Because a lot of the AMP work we do here with clients is in their new section and blog and stuff like that, stuff that's really low farmer anyway, whereas webpages and stuff that has a bit more complexities to it and things like that, we haven't really started pushing like service pages and things into AMP. Do you think the technology's going to get there where we need to go down for AMP websites or are you guys doing that already?

- And I think your guys' approach is smart and it's balanced. The problem with AMP exactly as you touched upon, it's an implementation issue. Especially if you have a lot of custom pages, custom CMS, it's just expensive and hard to transfer some of those pages into AMP so you have to find your balance. I think, as you guys probably have experienced, it's getting easier. The tools out there are making it much easier. I wish, I wish, I wish Google didn't give preferential treatment to the AMP pages. They just gave the same treatment to all pages that met a certain speed and experience threshold but we're not there yet.

- Yeah, cause there are good developers who can achieve very, very good speeds without AMP.

- Faster than AMP.

- Yeah, exactly. And sometimes they are better experiences than AMP at the moment as well.

- Yeah, yeah, exactly. We were excited to see this week, Google is pushing a fix for the URLs. I'm sure you saw that. So you know, sometime in the near future, you won't have to use the Google cache URL, you can use your own URL. That's a big improvement. So, looking forward to that.

- Cool, us too. How's, from your viewpoint, Andrew, obviously, we're a full inbound agency so SEOs are kind of pockets of the full offering. How focused a client's own SEO versus where we were as a few years ago is very, very SEO heavy. Kind of our balance is moving, obviously moved the content and then continue to move. What do clients focus on now?

- I think we have a mixed bag, I guess, but people still like to know key words, rankings. They still like to ask, where are we, are we at number one? I don't think that will ever change, but I think people are understanding now that the methods to get those rankings are content-based. And obviously, we link-build and things like that, but I think the sale of content is much easier now. I think it's just overwhelming and I think that people understand that much more. Which is good because that's what we do. But the idea, the metrics is still key words. And I mean, more people understand domain authority and we're educating our customers as well but I think with the inbound methodology as well has done a good job of selling that content plan. And yeah, it's getting easier a little bit.

- [Cyrus] You have Google on your side. Forget about rankings and links and all that stuff. Just focus on content, which you can debate whether--

- We like to do both.

- [Cyrus] The clients, definitely.

- I've always been... We had a guy a few weeks ago, a guy called Peter at this company called Data Box. It's like a reporting tool and we're chatting about reporting a bit. I've, for quite a lot of years, I've been pretty hardlined. I want all reports to just be, this is what organics brought you in terms of traffic, leads, revenue. Kind of top line business figures and everything else is, it supports that, like, do you know what I mean? So clients are asking us for really in depth 200-page key-word reports and stuff like that and--

- We don't. We say no.

- We kind of say no. But how, what's your stance on it? How important is still looking at your key words? Are they even accurate given the personalization in search and things like that?

- The whole topic side, I guess, as well. We're moving away from that.

- Definitely. How much did Moz care about where they ranked featuring the original keyword?

- Well, we tracked it, definitely and it was, we didn't care so much ourselves but we, it was a good proxy to show other people in the company, show the efforts of what we were doing. What a lot of people don't realise about Moz is SEO and marketing was just another department in the company and we had to compete for resources just like everybody else. It was a little easier because we're Moz, because we made SEO. The goal was, you know, we had a justification, but, yeah, I... At the end of the day, you know, it's all about how many conversions we got and those sort of things. And it's tough. I'd been having this conversation for eight years now and I don't think there is an answer. You wanna show value for your efforts, and it's really tough to focus on exactly the right metrics but I think simplicity is the way to go. If your clients, you know, two or three metrics show on the business value of what you're doing, de-emphasize the rest because rankings are gonna fluctuate. Traffic's gonna fluctuate. Focus on the results and focus on longterm.

- Perfect. Cool, so to kind of wrap things up, if you had to give two or three tips or areas of learning for people in SEO and in marketing among what should be the things they should be learning about to kind of save themselves or to enhance their results in the next six to 12 months? What sort of things should they be reading about and trying to test and implement to their company at the moment?

- Yeah, so, I... One thing I highly encourage people to do is simply to experiment because so many people don't and it's hard when you're an agency and you have clients that you're working with because you don't wanna try things that are risky, but sometimes you find those clients who are willing to try things. And if it's not your client site, maybe it's your personal site, whatever. We did so many experiments at Moz. They were crazy. We... The craziest one I think we did was with de-index Followerwonk to see how long it would take to drop out of Google rankings and how quick we could go back in. We did crazy stuff like that all the time. And we'd have these meetings like this could cost us a million dollars if we screw it up, but oh well, it's for science. So first was experiment. Two, we touched on this earlier but if you're kinda young in your digital marketing career, writing about your experiences and engaging in people on Twitter. Twitter is our biggest gift in SEO, that you can talk to literally anyone, get in contact with literally anyone, and if you have good content, people will share it. I will share it. Because, you know, I try to share 10 to 15 articles a week and it's hard to find those sometimes that are actually worthwhile. So if you have a good case study, a good experiment, something that's original, it will get shared and you will be known and you'll learn. And even if you don't learn, you can debate it with other SEOs and figure things out and get your name out there in the industry. And I tell everybody to attend one or two conferences a year but no more.

- Obviously Moz Con would be one of those, would it?

- [Cyrus] Yeah, sure!

- Cool, we had a good chat. We had Rand on the podcast a while ago and he was talking about the benefits of going to conferences from a brand viewpoint but then also like a personal viewpoint as well. We kind of have a similar stance. What are the ones that you'd like to put on your map in a year? What are the conferences that take your eye and you think about going to?

- Well, I think Moz Con's a good one. That's at one end of the scale. The other end would be Brighton SEO. Very low cost. Tonnes of great content. I don't wanna tell you the ones I would stay away from. If you... I think the creme de la creme is SearchLove run by Distilled, but that's on the pricier side but it's very, very intense small groups. I've also... I've been, last month I did a bunch of conferences in eastern Europe which is great. In Prague and Romania. And those places are wonderful because they don't get a lot of speakers from the United States. They're very appreciative. Jendrick Fabroski runs Marketing Festival in Prague. I watched it grow from 400 people to almost 2,000 people today, but sometimes I like those regional conferences that are a little more... They don't have as big a profit motive. Some conferences are just all about making as much money out of you as they can. My judge though in conferences, how good is lunch?

-Definitely. Is there anything else you'd like to tell people watching? Or anything we haven't covered?

- Oh, I wish I could give you some great tidbits but I don't really have any. Don't believe everything Google tells you. Google does a great job. John Mueller, great representative and soon to be Danny Sullivan. We used to work for, he used to own Third Door media, but yeah, don't believe everything Google tells you. Don't believe everything your eyes tell you either. Things change all the time and have fun.

- I like the last one particularly. No, that was fantastic. Well, appreciate your time. I think users got a load of value out of today. Definitely appreciate you doing that for us. What's the best way if people want to stay in touch with you and listen to the sort of stuff you do and read the sort of things your publishing?

- They follow me on Twitter. I don't... I don't make my email address widely known but you can find it if you really need to. But Twitter is the starting point for all of that.

- We'll put up your Twitter link below on the show notes so that people can read you and send you any kind of good words from the podcast. So we'll do that. And yeah, appreciate your time. Enjoy the rest of your day. I know it's early out there. And we'll see everyone else next week. Thanks guys. Thank you.

- Cheers.