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How Top Ranking Brands Like Moz and HubSpot REALLY Do SEO

SEO has come a long way since the late 90s. Algorithm updates and advancements in technology have made it increasingly harder for brands to manipulate their search signals in order to gain maximum search engine results page (SERP) visibility. And those areas where algorithms fall short at identifying current scaled off-page techniques, Google can and will do manual penalties. Gone are the days of spammy methods like keyword saturation, forum and blog commenting and guest blogging at scale.

Google - HubSpot - MozThe Back Story

There are still recommended on-page best practices, but implementing those alone will most likely not lead to an avalanche of organic website traffic. Implementation of new indexing methodologies like Caffeine, and subsequent updates like “Freshness,” have rewarded frequent publication of quality content from trusted websites.

Further technological advances from Google, like the Panda and Penguin algorithms, have made it tougher for SEOs to optimize both on-page and off-page factors without keeping the user’s experience top-of-mind. Its continuous use of security certificates in search has led to robust obfuscation of keyword data making it nearly impossible for SEOs to measure their results in the traditional ways they were used to.

Google’s focus on its Knowledge Graph technology and its launch of the Hummingbird algorithm is pushing to provide users answers directly in its SERPs, instead of clicking through on a link. Google is also using these technologies to get much better at understanding semantics and intentions in search, rather than relying on generic keywords alone.

What Google Says

Google has long been telling us to focus our attention towards the user and not the search engine. Sure, it offers some best technical practices, but its goal is to serve up the most helpful content—utility—to its users. Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Webspam team says:

"I would concentrate on the stuff that people write, the utility that people find in it, and the amount of times that people link to it. All of those are ways that implicitly measure how relevant or important somebody is to someone else."

He continues:

"The philosophy that we’ve always had is if you make something that’s compelling then it would be much easier to get people to write about it and to link to it. And so a lot of people approach it from a direction that’s backwards. They try to get the links first and then they want to be grandfathered in or think they will be a successful website as a result."

In other words, links are still very important; but links to compelling content that provides utility are most important. Google has improved at identifying and penalizing links to content it doesn’t find to be a compelling utility.

Matt Cutts SEO Meme

In January Cutts wrote:

"Okay, I’m calling it: if you’re using guest blogging as a way to gain links in 2014, you should probably stop. Why? Because over time it’s become a more and more spammy practice, and if you’re doing a lot of guest blogging then you’re hanging out with really bad company."

Shortly thereafter, hundreds of brands around the world were manually penalized for guest blogging at scale. The difference between this type of “link building” and real guest blogging is articulated by Cutts below:

"A guest post is something that a fantastic author has thought deeply about, labored over, polished, put a lot of work into and then publishes on a highly reputable domain name."

According to Moz’s search engine correlation survey, dozens of the most correlated attributes for optimized search engine visibility are mostly off-page and link-related. This means off-page SEO has the biggest impact on a brand’s search engine visibility today.

However, links to and from content that do not provide utility (guest blogging at scale) can do more harm than good.

All of this tees us up to discuss how Moz and HubSpot REALLY do SEO.

How Moz and HubSpot Really Do On-Page SEO

It’s not rocket science. Brands like Moz and HubSpot publish copious amounts of helpful content. These particular brands do so on multiple owned blogs. Their large audiences consume, contribute to, share, comment on and cite their posts, which further helps drive up SERP relevance. They’ve built up these large audiences by establishing themselves as some of the first brands in their industries to regularly publish helpful content online in the last decade. Marcus Sheridan calls brands like this “Digital Sooners.”

This is great for them, but most brands don’t have an audience of significance to help facilitate this level of engagement today. Because of this, even if a brand chooses to publish content as often as Moz and HubSpot, it’s unlikely to drive the kind of search visibility those brands experience for many years, if at all.   

How Moz and HubSpot Really Do Off-Page SEO

Their on-page content ends up driving lots of organic off-page signals today. However, that hasn’t always been the case. Both HubSpot and Moz publish guides, studies and other forms of advanced content that are newsworthy to the audience that consumes them.

Moz published its Beginners Guide to SEO and regularly surveys and publishes the results of its bi-annual Search Engine Ranking Factors questionnaire. These examples represent true contributions to the search and marketing industry, and are inherently useful. As a result, they are newsworthy utilities and get cited thousands of times by journalists, marketers and SEOs.

Rand Fishkin, Co-Founder of Moz, says, ". . . the Beginner's Guide to SEO and the Search Engine Ranking Factors were seminal works. They helped establish our brand, build an audience, and create credibility in the market. Without them, it's tough to imagine that Moz could be where it is today."

The same holds true for HubSpot. Its groundbreaking grader.com tool and annual State of Inbound Marketing report are inherently useful and represents a true contribution to the marketing industry – they're newsworthy. HubSpot also publishes hundreds of guides, templates, tools and videos that have provided help, guidance and utility to millions of marketers around the world.

Dharmesh Shah, Co-Founder and CTO of HubSpot explains, ". . . grader.com (which started life as WebsiteGrader.com) has been our best performing piece of content, ever. This is based on the number of leads it generates on an ongoing basis. Of course, like other high-impact content, building a tool does require an investment -- but when it works, it can work really well. We can trace millions of dollars of revenue over the years to grader.com"

It’s the creation and publication of inherently useful advanced content, like the examples above, that drive both audience and the kind of good links that Matt Cutts describes.

Most brands don’t have this type of inherently useful advanced content. And if they do, their lack of audience prevents it from being seen as well as it should. It’s for this reason marketers and public relations (PR) pros need to be proactive and pitch their advanced content to media outlets and niche industry sites to earn the coverage they deserve.

Check out this case study on the results of publishing and pitching inherently useful advanced content to the media. 

How You Can Do It, Too

Since most brands don’t have large audiences like HubSpot or Moz, it’s important to focus resources on building and growing an audience to help drive the signals Google uses to determine SERP relevance.

This is done by tapping into other websites’ audiences and being inherently useful to them. This is also known as earned media. Over time, a certain percentage of those people will stick around and become part of that brand’s new audience and drive the kind of signals Cutts describes above.

Matt Cutts meme 2

This activity is very similar to the work of traditional PR. However, instead of pitching the media a brand or product story, marketers and PR pros need to pitch inherently useful advanced content that resides on a brand’s owned website.

The multiple media citations can drive significant brand awareness, website traffic and conversions. Conversion rates tend to be on the high-side because the citations reside on trusted media outlets.

In addition, these links represent some of the most powerful off-page search signals a website can earn. Notice the word used is “earn,” and not “build.” Search benefits resulting from this audience building strategy is the tertiary benefit after referral traffic and conversions.  

For a more thorough explanation of this process and the results it can drive, join me as my guest on the webinar version of this post, How Moz and HubSpot REALLY Do SEO, March 25th.

Earned Media Process

What’s being described above may seem pretty straightforward. In fact, to some readers it may seem downright easy to do. However, journalist and niche bloggers can be a pretty tough group to pitch to.

To have the best shot at getting content coverage and driving real marketing key performance indicators, you must follow the four steps below.

1. Research – This is the most important step for earning media coverage to advanced content, and should start before the content is created. Tools like Hitwise, Cision and many others help develop ideal personas to target, defines their problems, and identifies the media outlets they frequent and the journalists and bloggers they read.

This information guides marketers toward learning what advanced content to produce, who wants to consume it, and where and who to pitch it to. 

2. Creative – The next step is to actually create the inherently useful content and utility to pitch. It could be an ebook, guide, study, survey results or even a mobile app. This is also the phase to create a landing page to house the content.

3. Promotion – This step – media outreach – is commonplace in the PR industry. Based on the research from step one, marketers and PR pros should have a valuable list of media outlets, journalists and bloggers to contact. Email, social media and all other forms of communication are on the table for promotion and pitching. Native and advertorial paid media placement can help accelerate promotion.

4. Conversion – Having a clear understanding of the goals of the campaign and making sure its aligned with the buyer journey is very important. Optimizing and testing landing pages, marketing automation, email campaigns and retargeting are all items to consider and deploy for consumers of a brand’s advanced content.

Not all brands can achieve the same type of search success that Moz and HubSpot enjoy, but their recipe for success isn’t a mystery. Earning real media citations with inherently useful content that builds and grows audience over time is the path to optimum search engine visibility, both today and for the foreseeable future. Those benefits, however, are merely tertiary to the ample volume of traffic and conversions the referring media outlets drive.  

Join The Conversation

  • Ben Ustick's picture
    Apr 15 Posted 3 years ago Ben Ustick

    Hey Chad,
    Great post. While every business might not have the resources of Moz or Hubspot, there are still very valuable lessons to learn from the way they do things and their commitment to quality. Each of the four steps you brought up at the end are easily actionable even without unlimited resources. It might not be an ebook, like one commenter said, but find a way to add lasting value in the same way that an ebook can. Anways, I thought this would be a nice post to share with our readers, so I included it in my roundup of March's best SEO, content marketing, and social media articles. www.northcutt.com/blog/2014/04/march-round-up-best-seo-social-media-content-marketing  Thanks again.


  • Aaron Watters's picture
    Mar 14 Posted 3 years ago Aaron Watters

    Definitely agree with the guest posting concepts, its not going away but we may see purification by fire in the upcoming months. I found myself getting frustrated with Google recently concerning quality guest posts, but I received a dose of reality this morning.

    I received a call today from a prospective client who mentioned they went from #1 to page 10 over the last 6 months. After checking out this local small businesses link profile I found 1.5 million inbound links with a large quantity of spammy guest post links. I haven't seen too many Penguin penalties come across my desk but sometimes you have to take a look at the dark side...

    Thanks for putting together the post Chad!


  • Mar 14 Posted 3 years ago Ahtesham Ahmed

    It is not impossible to understand the algorithm of Google, it is difficult but not impossible for those who are knowledgeable in search engine optimization. SEO experts will know what it takes for a site to rank well, although that doesn’t make it any easier as it still takes time and effort.

  • MCCCODE's picture
    Mar 13 Posted 3 years ago MCCCODE

    i believe in due time that guest posting will regain its impact and will be even a better one than the just the gain of the Link.

    i was reviewing some of the conversations i had surrounding this topic. On a pod cast that Matt Cutt issued a few months a go he said something on these lines. If some great influencer is writting a guest post for your site is actually an honor.

    On this same line of though you have a small percentage of the google algorithm dedicated to authorship, a blog or site that uses the attribution code <a href="[profile_url]?rel=author">Google</a>, provides a strong reference to Google and other engines that this person has written a piece on my site. If this person Authorship is a good one than it only reflects possitively on you. The only piece we should be aware is that the author is not a spammer or has a bad rep. and yet even in those cases some sort of warning could be issued on Webmaster tools, or if you if are using MOZ analytics they have something too.

  • chadpollitt's picture
    Mar 13 Posted 3 years ago chadpollitt


    I agree with your comment. It actually reaffirms what I was trying to get across in the article. What I describe above is difficult and does indeed require investment that some small businesses may find challenging. In fact, Dharmesh's quote he gave me speaks to that issue. I also believe what you believe - that links and guest blogging are not dead. It's guest blogging at scale and some of the other things described above that makes link building around "flimsy" content dangerous for all businesses.


  • MCCCODE's picture
    Mar 13 Posted 3 years ago MCCCODE

    Backlinks are not dead and will not be for a very long time. The current statements from Matt Cuts are referring to this Link Farming and automated content that was very popular in the past.

    The way I see it when guest posting is a bit different:

    • It begins with Quality in your post: a true valuable piece of information (on any media and its combination)
    • Links are attributions or complementary information that are relevant to the piece you have written. Attribution is a correct practice, is giving credit where credit is due.
    • Even if the Link on your guest post has a diminished value on the Google algorithm, it does not mean that it does not have a value to your piece, and the piece you have written, it will still provide an anchor for the readers of that Blog or publication.

    I consider myself a Moz advocate, i like the brand and what they stand for; and yet many of their tactics are complicated and expensive resources that small business will have a hard time tapping into.

    For example the e-book: is a powerful concept, provides value and has very good capabilities in terms of marketing. With that said, creating a powerful e-book is not an easy task, requieres investment in design and writing, requieres time investment. I doubt small business has the time to create a periodical publication that will attract the buzz of the market.

    The key that i have seen and been working with several individuals and companies is the cooperational approach. utilizing relationships to the best of the potential for mutual gain in all aspects, just as an example

    lets say i am creating an article about alternative social media Networks.

    usually i write my piece and contact others that i know are advocates of this topic and ask for an opinion or a different view; if it provides the value i request publishing permision and provide credit where credit is due.

    The same process goes for other resources on the article. illustrators or designers do you have a visual that reflects the content of this piece? would you like me to included and give you the image credit for. and it goes for video infographics and so on.

    As the relationships grow and trust is gain between the parties the reciprocal approach is gained, and these individuals or companies come to me to contribute in my area of expertise and they are very much welcome.

    There are many paths companies and small business could take, is all about planning and testing those theories to se what it works.


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