Of Moz and the State of Industry

Disclaimer

Many of you, readers, may do not know that I am a Moz Associate, apart from being an independent Strategic SEO consultant and blogger for Stateofdigital.com.

However, as an Associate, I am not a Moz employee, therefore I do not know the details that led to the recent layoff of 60 Moz’s employees.

This post, then, will not be around Moz, but the state of the Search industry SAAS companies as perceived by a subscriber to many of the tools these companies sell.

The purpose of this post is not to criticise any company, but to open a debate, which I strongly ask you to participate in, while not attacking anyone or any of cited companies, being always respectful.

Moz Blog SEO and Inbound Marketing Blog Moz

August is a strange month in the Search Industry

It seems as if everybody comes back from their holidays with a huge desire to revolutionise our existence.

For instance, Google rolled out Panda globally in August 2011… I still remember that day, because I and hundreds of SEOs in Spain and Italy were enjoying our holidays (which usually are in August and not in July, as in the USA).

This year the turmoil came from a company very dear to my heart: Moz.

A few days ago, Sarah Bird the CEO of Moz, publicly announced in a blog post that Moz is going to “doubling down on Search”.

The title of the post was trying to underline the positive side of the news: Moz is going back to SEO, which is was what it was always better at.

However, the bitter news was in the middle of the post, where Sarah declared that this decision caused the layoff of 60 employees.

This was a very sad decision, but, if we consider that Moz right now has tools like Moz Content and Followerwonk, which are not directly related to SEO, it was something sadly to expect. Those tools,  have people working on them every day, from developers, product teams, support et al.

As someone, who himself suffered a company reorganisation back in the days when I was working at a television company in Italy (the movie channels I was directing were dismissed because they were substituted by the Sky ones), I know what that means: reconsidering budgets, cutting workforce because of the new situation and the new strategy of the company, people’s personal stories dramatically changing…

However, as happened to me and to many of ex-colleagues back in those days, I know that if you are strong enough, you can completely change your life – not only professionally – for the best. And I am sure that all the people, who were forced to leave Moz, will very soon find a new exciting job (check and share their profiles, here on hiremoz.com).

Meet the Mozzers HireMoz

What I was not expecting was that this decision also included part of the Community team.

I say part and not entire, because people like Trevor Klein and Felicia Crawford (Blog area) or Rachel Goodman Moore (Moz Academy) and another 8 people in the Customer Success Help Team, (which is also moderating the Q&A), remain. In addition, people such as Rand himself and other in-house SEO Specialists who evangelise and engage with the Community as well as Associates like me (posts writer and Q&A), Ronnell Smith (who takes care of YouMoz), Christy Correll (moderator in Q&A), Everett Sizemore (Q&A) and many others (you can see the entire list here) will still be around.

However, I don’t want to enter into this topic, because my personal friendship with the members of the Moz Community team would make my words not that objective.

I will simply present two general considerations, that maybe can be developed into something more interesting that can be discussed in the comments.

What role to give to Community building?

First of all, we should ask ourselves what the role of a Community for a business company must be. Should it be something that ultimately leads to a conversion? Or should it be something that helps in building a brand?

Moz, since its very beginning (and also because it started as an SEO blog), always saw the Community as something not directly related to its own tools, but as a “universe” where SEO and marketers in general could virtually meet-up and engage about Search topics.

This “universe”, which at first comprised only the main blog and its comments, expanded with time into a more complex ecosystem:

  • YouMoz, the real community generated blog;
  • Moz Q&A, a mix between Quora and a forum;
  • Mozcon, which should be considered also, if not mostly, a Moz community event;
  • Webinars;
  • Moz Academy;
  • Social Media profiles, which see a big part of its activity not only prepped to answer customer care issues, but also for engaging with the large Community of non subscribers to Moz;
  • Evangelizing the Moz spirit of doing marketing through talks, and not only the ones by Rand Fishkin;
  • The main blog, especially the comments’ area.

If we look at what all these Community building actions did for the Moz brand, we cannot say it was a failure, despite the inevitable defects they may have, and of which – as an Associate I can tell you – the people working on them were aware.

mozcon

But let’s not talk about Moz, let’s talk about how that model inspired her companies.

Moz as an inspiration model

Moz was a pioneer in creating a strong community around its brand, but now we can see how many other SAAS are doing the same, albeit with some variation.

The first case that comes to mind is the one of SEMRush, which since a few years is investing a huge effort in time, people and quite surely money in creating a strong community of SEOs around it own brand thanks to its social media actions, its blog and presence as sponsors at industry events.

The biggest difference, and probably one of the mistakes made by Moz, is that SEMRush immediately decided to go international when building its community, so as to have as many marketing teams as there are main markets (USA, UK, Spain, Germany, France, Italy).

In doing so, SEMRush was able from the first minute to build a strong base of people in each market, who are devoted to its community events and, as a consequence, it is not so strange that its #SEMRushchat on Twitter is much more successful than any other Twitter chat about SEO.

Sure, SEMRush neither is perfect (for instance sometimes some of their blogs need a stronger editorial control, especially in countries like Italy or Spain), but right now it is a company that is almost ruling the same audience Moz is targeting, and now will try to conquer back again, something that it could have all the opportunities to do before, when it was the market leader.

semrushchat

Unfortunately, for reasons I do not know, Moz decided to expand its help team only very recently to London, when it was too late and, for sure, always postponed any idea of internationalizing itself in the real sense.

SEMRush, though, is not the only example of a company that was inspired by Moz in creating a strong brand based on community marketing.

Somehow in the space between a pure non-commercial community and one that bases its actions in also promoting its own tools, we can see the example of SISTRIX, which for a couple of years has started creating buzz with its case studies and basing big part of its strategy in creating strong relationships with SEO professionals, but not only in a brand evangelists way.

Other examples outside of the Search Marketing sphere can be found in Unbounce or Wistia… it’s not a case that these companies have decided to create their own conference.

Probably many of you are thinking that the decision of Moz of quitting the Community team is a symptom that Community building as a way of creating and reinforcing a Brand is not the way to go.

I sincerely disagree with that answer. In fact, a strong and positive perception of a brand is usually a way to finally create revenues: just imagine a community like the one at TripAdvisor, the soul of which is its forum, that clearly is essential to its Top of the Funnel.

On the contrary, basing a Community strategy only on supporting your own product, I personally would not define it as a Community strategy, but a Customer Care one, which is also important and can be a wonderful way of creating a Brand that last too, but it is not the same a real Community in my honest opinion.

Therefore, and please remember that this is only my very personal opinion, the problem is what can be defined as disillusion.

Problem: Community and Product unaligned

Your SAAS company can be wonderful in creating brand authority, and thanks to it to can see increases in subscribers, but then the tools you commercialize cannot stand the pass of time and start being surpassed in quality by others, then those subscribers will start feeling a misalignment between the coolness and greatness of the Community and the tools you sell.

open site explorer majestic seo ahrefs Explore Google Trends

This dissonance is what ultimately leads to unsubscribes, criticisms and, maybe worst, an army of people that may tell how great you are as a company, but won’t recommend others marketers to use your tools.

The problem, then, is in your product strategy, not your Community.

And this is what leads to my second consideration about Moz and the state of the industry: the future is for those SAAS that will be able to offer very specialized top notch products, and not for the ones trying to sell “Swiss army knives”, with which you can do everything, but not very well.

In this sense, the decision of Moz of  to start “doubling down on Search”, and to return to its SEOmoz roots, seems to be going in the right direction.

Search Tools were the ones that made Moz something you need to subscribe to in order to work with easily.

However, the product strategy which started with Moz Analytics, the acquisition of Followerwonk and finally the launch of Moz Content, possibly dispersed energies that would have been better concentrated in constantly upping the level of the original tools (e.g.: Open Site Explorer).

Luckily for Moz, that original vision is already here with new tools like Keyword Explorer, Moz Local, or the very recent new SERP feature tracking in Moz Pro, this one being the case of a characteristic already present in other tools, but not with such precision and immediate utility.

Hopefully, Moz will focus on the path of these three tools, while overcoming the dramatically slow pace of updates to the tools themselves.

We can see this strategy based on marketing niche specialization (or even hyper-specialization) in many others SAAS:

  • Onpage.org and DeepCrawl for crawling;
  • Botify and Screaming Frog for crawling and logs analysis;
  • SerpWoo, Accuranker or AWR for rank tracking;
  • Majestic and Ahref for link analyisis.

and I am citing only few of many super-specialized tools available.

Raven itself recently presented the renewed Auditor tool as a declared intention of abandoning the suite way.

The market always decides in the end, and the market is clearly showing that it prefers to use many specialized tools than one tool for everything.

Suites are possibly useful only for the enterprise market as a way to have everything under a unique dashboard, but I would not be surprised if in future the next successful suite will be mostly be an interface, while all the data will be collected by APIs from others tools… and – let’s be honest – who isn’t the SEO that already has built something like that by hand with Excel?

In this sense, a tool like URL Profiler could be an example to follow and to have evolve.

Possibly, this is also the reason for the success of some “Inbound Marketing” suites, like Hubspot, which are absolutely far away from being great, but can solve the need for a unique dashboard.

On a discordant note we can find SEMRush, which once was a tool specialized in keyword research and competitor analysis, but that now offers also Social Media analysis tools, a link analysis tool and an auditor one, becoming somehow similar – if not in function, then in spirit – to what Moz Analytics aimed to be.

However, once again, we can find a big difference with respect to Moz: SEMRush decided to expand its tools offering when it already had a large subscriber base, so that every possible hiccup in the quality and evolution of the new tools could be possibly covered by that same customers’ base.

Conclusion

The news from Moz is indeed sad, not only for the 60 employees, who lost their jobs and whom I urge our so generous industry to help in hiring, but it is an especially important alert to all the SAAS out there: specialize yourself, be good in what your real audience is interested about and be fast in delivering new tools and updates to the old ones.

And do not make the mistake of believing that the Community you created is the problem.

About Gianluca Fiorelli

Gianluca Fiorelli is an SEO and Web Marketing Strategist, who operates in the Italian, Spanish and English speaking countries market. He also works regularly as independent consultant with bigger international SEO agencies.

  • Gianluca, thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts on what will probably be a potentially sensitive and divisive topic. Like you, I am friendly with people at both Moz and SEMrush. For the record and full disclosure: I use both tools for different purposes. I have given a Mozinar and will be speaking at MozCon this month. I have given a SEMrush webinar, hosted a SEMrush Twitter chat, and participated in their White Nights gathering a few months ago.

    I think one major difference between the two is that Moz has now taken venture capital funding and SEMrush — I think — is completely private. As a result, Moz is probably (and understandably) feeling forced to maximize returns for its investors as quickly as possible — and that may mean a focus more on growth through direct marketing and product marketing and less on brand marketing and public relations. SEMrush is private — again, I think that is correct — so the owners can do as they please. And that may mean taking a longer-term focus on branding and community.

    However, I’m not sure I agree with the view that SEMrush has focused more on “outside” markets. The United States and Europe are roughly the same size. So, I’d consider the USA to be a market in which Moz has dominated and Europe to be one in which SEMrush has dominated. Mozzers can travel from Seattle to Boston while SEMrushers (is that a thing?) can travel from St. Petersburg to London.

    Personally (and partly based on my own specific areas of expertise), I prefer PR, publicity, and brand marketing to product marketing and direct marketing. So, I’m always a little sad to see a company such as Moz decide to focus less on these areas. If anyone is interested, I wrote a post on my site on the day that Moz made its announcement: http://www.samueljscott.com/2016/08/18/value-community-will-miss-moz/

    • Samuel, Gianluca mean other.

      SEMRush make local team for few countries – France, Italy, Spain, Germany. While English is engaging most users soon they can find local team speaking their language.

      • Very good point — I forgot about the language barrier that they overcame! Sure, most people in our industry speak English. But given the choice, people will always prefer to speak in their mother tongues.

        • Yup, Peter commented right 🙂

          • Olga Andrienko

            Just arrived in Brighton, so no time for a long comment, have to run to the venue 🙂
            Gianluca, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Loved your honest opinion and how you analysed the decisions and looked back in time on what could have led Moz to this step.
            One thing that really resonated with me on a personal level is that our approach of working with industry experts and building community was inspired by Moz. I’ve been with the company for almost 3 years now and we had no community back in the days. We just did what we were best at 🙂 the approaches might look similar, but the core is totally different.
            Also I’d like to clarify a few things about SEMrush that I saw in this thread.

            Sam, you’re right, SEMrush is a private company founded by Oleg and Dmitry.

            Regarding our local strategy – we have regional teams for US, UK and Australia as well, so we’re going local not only on the language level.

            Have to run! Thank you again for the insightful post, Gianluca, hopefully, we have time later today or tomorrow to discuss it more at BrightonSEO.

          • Jennifer Sable Lopez

            Olga I love hearing that your approach to community was inspired by Moz. 🙂 This made my day!

  • I read that news with mixed feelings too.

    From one site i clearly part of Moz success is due that “community team”. But from other side their major products suffering because company lost company focus. There are many examples – crashed on index rebuild, slow update cycle, slow new link finding, etc.

    So for now if some charm of Moz is vanished and this can be clearly seen from outside. But strange – they have very small timeframe to focus on what’s important to company and make it greater. And w/o community team their job is even harder than before.

  • As I wrote in the post, not all the community team has been laid off

    • Sure – my comment elsewhere in the thread was just that Moz seems to be making a community a lower priority but not cutting it completely.

  • Gianluca, as you know I have a huge amount of respect for you, and this post is no exception. It may be because I mostly agree with you, but I’m just a little unclear on what sort of debate you were hoping to spark with this post? I think most people agree that with SaaS, you need to specialize and that community is critical… I’d be interested to hear from someone who doesn’t think so. I feel there must be other major elements of your post that I’m missing, since I don’t think I’ve ever read/chatted with you that I didn’t learn something new.

    • I am glad that we agree about the importance of communities in the SaaS industry.
      However, the “debate” could be: do you think investors – the not cited elephants in this post – understand its importance?

      A second debate is based on the “return to SEO” Moz did, so about the hyper specialization of tools vs omnichannel suites

      • I think in general investors are of two types – the ones that “get it” and the ones that don’t. In our ultra-commoditized, want-it-now world, there are simply too many options for anything to make people put up with lousy community or customer service. Savvy investors get that.

        While the Moz community is more about engagement on the topic of the day, that kind of camaraderie builds confidence in people who aren’t part of it that if they some day need it, it will be helpful. I can say I’m definitely in that boat – I don’t currently pay for Moz or use the tools. I recommend them to people all the time, and I very occasionally engage in the community. But I have an extremely favorable impression of the company, the brand, the people, and the community. By extension, I recommend the tools even though I don’t use them myself.

        That level of brand trust may not be as essential in other industries as it is in ours, but it’s definitely necessary on some level for almost everything that’s SaaS and many things that aren’t.

        I agree – SEMRush has done a great job of this, and to a lesser extent, DeepCrawl. I’m very impressed by how effectively both companies have “activated” the influencers in our community. I guess the question for the investors would be if it leads to sales, but from where I’m sitting, they both look like they’ve been pretty successful.

        This is not to indicate that just because you have a strong community you will be successful… the software has to at least pass muster, if not be significantly better/different than something else already available.

        I’ve rambled, but to answer your question, I think it’s clear that some investors “get it”. I think my question is – does anyone have an example of investors who clearly don’t “get it” but are still successful?

  • Thanks for the thoughtful post Gianluca. You and I agree on a lot of things. 🙂

    Obviously, I agree with you about product strategy. The recent moves allow us to continue the recent momentum we’ve achieved on our SEO tools and make them incredibly valuable and competitive.

    Internationalization is something that we’ll invest in after we’ve gotten through some important product milestones. I don’t want to increase complexity in our go-to-market before all of the product as amazing as the Local, Keyword Explorer, and the SERPs Features.

    Your last sentence implied that I thought community was a ‘problem.’ I want to assure you that I do NOT IN ANY WAY think of the community as a problem.

    The community is amazing and inspiring and makes Moz possible. Moz started as a community first, and that won’t ever change. The decision to lay off some of our strongest and most visible people on the community team was a tough one. We are still very heavily invested in community and will continue to be so.

    In the months ahead, you should see stronger and stronger product offerings from Moz. You should also see continued investment, support, and nurturing of the community. If not, please let me know. We love SEO and we love community. We don’t want to let you down.

    • Thank you Sarah for your comment; I really appreciate it.
      In order to avoid misunderstandings, I was referring more to the investors than you yourself. I know you have a strong belief in the power of community building :-).
      Again, I’m really happy you commented here, so to bring also the Moz point of view and clarity to the discussion