Rand Fishkin is the CEO of Moz, an SEO software company founded on the principles of “TAGFEE” — transparent and authentic, generous, fun, empathetic, and exceptional. He co-authored the Art of SEO from O’Reilly Media, co-founded Inbound.org, and was included on PSBJ’s “40 Under 40 List” and BusinessWeek’s “30 Best Tech Entrepreneurs Under 30.”

Tell us about your philosophy of simplicity in design.

Human beings love and crave the simple, the easy, and the intuitive. Yet, we’re surrounded by a world of increasing complexity, nuance, and bombardment. When design delivers simplicity, it’s like a wave of refreshing revitalization washing over us. Simple design is harder. It’s more time-consuming. It’s the exception, rather than the rule. And that’s why it’s so incredibly valuable.

In my field, this is especially hard. Moz makes software for professional marketers, and we need a lot of data and metrics so we can understand not just what’s happening, but why. Our design mission is to answer that “what’s happening” question as simply and intuitively as possible at the top level of our product, and then let our subscribers dig in to find all the gory, detailed numbers they need to reverse-engineer the “why.”

You mention in your blog that you’re a contrarian. What are the advantages and disadvantages of that approach in business?

I think of my philosophy around this as akin to taking the road less traveled. Life is a great adventure, but certainty and conformity aren’t adventures that interest me. If I’m not passionate about something, how can I expect others to be?

The advantages are that choosing to be the exception exposes you to a lot of opportunities and ideas that others haven’t considered. Being unique is a powerful marketing tool — it automatically differentiates you from the competition. But you can’t simply choose to be different. You have to craft a narrative about why you’re different, and authentically explain the source of that uniqueness. Otherwise it’s just a shallow positioning tactic that potential customers and amplifiers will see right through.

The disadvantages are that being the exception is risky. There’s no roadmap of data showing how your path will progress, no comparables to benchmark against, and, very often, a lot of people who’ll tell you you’re doing it wrong. If you choose to embrace exceptionalism, you’re going to need a thick skin and a lot of patience — this is anything but an easy path. And, in a lot of ways, that’s what makes it so rewarding.

Where do you see SEO going from here?

We’re on a journey that, more and more, looks like it will overlap with the broad responsibilities of great marketing in general. The search engines still care about a lot of specific best practices and tactical elements to make sites and pages easy to surface in the query results, but the elements that promote one site or page over another have gotten so broad and far-reaching that simple link building doesn’t do justice to our jobs nor does it provide the kind of predictable results it once did.

As I said in a 2011 post, the responsibilities of SEOs have been upgraded, and I don’t expect that trend to ever slow down. Great SEOs today think bigger than SEO — they start with the brand’s narrative, mission, vision, and goals, and then find where and how SEO fits in strategically. Trying to earn rankings and search traffic with a purely tactical approach worked from 1997-2007, but as the engines have increased their sophistication and searchers have become more discerning, it’s no longer enough.

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