Episode

June 14, 2023

Join me as I sit down in our first episode with Ryan Bednar, a fellow 2x Y-Combinator alum and the Founder of RankScience. During the episode, Ryan and I dive deep into the ever-changing world of organic search. We’ll cover perspectives on content development, explore the value of backlinks in 2023, and discuss the pros & cons of building your content marketing and SEO channels in-house vs. with an agency.

Optimize Episode 001: Ryan Bednar on How Organic Search Is Changing, The Pros & Cons of Working With An SEO Agency

Join me as I sit down in our first episode with Ryan Bednar, a fellow 2x Y-Combinator alum and the Founder of RankScience. During the episode, Ryan and I dive deep into the ever-changing world of organic search. We’ll cover perspectives on content development, explore the value of backlinks in 2023, and discuss the pros & cons of building your content marketing and SEO channels in-house vs. with an agency.

Jun 14, 2023

Learn More About Ryan Bednar

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ryan-bednar-9520853/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ryanbed

Website: https://www.rankscience.com/

Episode Transcript

Nate Matherson (Speaking)
0:00:00
Hi, and welcome to the Optimize podcast. This is our first episode, and I'm so happy that you're here. My name is Nate Matherson, and I'm the host. As you might know, I've been building and scaling organic search channels for most of the last decade across a variety of different, but very competitive, verticals like consumer finance and B2B SaaS, and I've learned a thing or two along the way. I'm happy to share those insights on this podcast, but content marketing and SEO is changing, and it's changing at a rapid pace. I've got questions, you've got questions, and we all need to keep up. And on this podcast, we're going to bring on some true experts ranging from in-house teams to agencies and solo practitioners. We're going to ask them pressing questions and get the insights that we need to go and improve our search rankings and drive more traffic from organic search as SEO changes from here. Each episode comes out on Wednesdays, and each episode is going to be about 35 or 45 minutes. We're not going to waste your time. You'll leave feeling like you learned something and have something to go and implement on your own website. And without further ado, I'm thrilled to bring on our first guest, who's a friend and true expert. I've got a ton of questions to ask him. Let's get into it.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)
0:01:17
My name is Nate Matherson, and I'm your host. On this weekly podcast, we sit down with some of the smartest minds in content marketing and SEO. Our goal is to give you perspective and insights on what's moving the needle in organic search right now. Today, I'm thrilled to sit down with Ryan Bednar. Ryan is a friend and fellow Y Combinator alum and truly one of the best in organic search. He's experienced scaling organic search channels across a variety of industries for both his clients and his own websites. And at RankScience, Ryan's agency, he's worked with a large number of Y Combinator–backed startups on everything from technical SEO, off-page SEO, and content creation. There's a lot for us to unpack here today, and I'm really excited to have this conversation with Ryan. 

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This episode of the Optimize podcast is brought to you by Positional. At Positional, we're building tools for content marketing and SEO teams. We've got a great selection of tools for everything from content optimization to keyword research and technical SEO. visit our website at positional.com. 

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

Without further ado, let's jump into the podcast. So Ryan, it's great to have you on today. I know there's a lot for us to talk about — everything from working with content agencies and SEO agencies all the way to how organic search is changing from here, because we know that there is a lot of change coming, and I'm trying to get ahead of it personally. And hopefully we can help our listeners do that, too. But before we jump into the questions, it'd be great to learn a little bit more about you. How did you get into content marketing and SEO? What led you to this being your career path? 

Ryan Bednar (Speaking)
0:04:27
So I've been doing SEO since, I think, 2009, when I was on the early SeatGeek team. I'm a software engineer by trade, and I helped build the first version of SeatGeek, which is now a pretty big company. It was originally just a web app that aggregated tickets from other ticketing providers, and no one was really buying tickets from us early on, but we started ranking organically for a handful of terms, terms like “Philadelphia 76ers tickets.” And we didn't have any marketers on the team; we didn't have any money to work with agencies. And so we tried to reverse engineer from a technical standpoint why some pages were ranking and not others. and how we can make all of our pages rank. And so I came into SEO from a technical perspective. And after SeatGeek, I went through Y Combinator in winter 2011, with a startup called Tutorspree. And it was a marketplace for tutors, or Airbnb for tutors. The company ultimately didn't work out and was kind of sold for parts, but it was a tremendous learning experience for me. And it's where I got really good at SEO, which was responsible for pretty much all of our growth. And when the company shut down, I started getting referred by YC partners to help other YC startups at SEO. So, you know — this is back 2013, 2014 — I became sort of the de facto SEO advisor for YC startups during this period. And, you know, all the while I was kind of building software tools to try and productize some of what I was doing as a consultant. And RankScience was born from that.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)
0:04:29
Yeah. Well, you've been in this industry quite a bit longer than I have. I think I first started in content marketing SEO and SEO around 2014, 2015. And I think, similar to you, like, I found content marketing and SEO out of necessity. I think with any marketplace-style business, whether you're a marketplace for tickets or a marketplace for tutors, or, in my case, a marketplace for consumer financial products … like, in these categories, like, customer acquisition and customer acquisition costs are critical. And similar to you, like, we found it as a way to acquire customers to our site at a lower price point and in a regularly occurring way. And I think a lot of startups, especially now, are thinking about how they diversify their customer acquisition channels with content and SEO. I'd be curious to know, like, you've been in this industry and in this game since 2009 — like, how has it changed over the last 14 years from when you first started thinking about search to kind of what you're thinking about in 2023? 

Ryan Bednar (Speaking)

Yeah, it's a good question. And I can say what you said really resonated with me, like, as a, you know, 20-something with no money working on startups, SEO, you know, seeing, like, free traffic — like, it blew my mind. Like, this … you can get Google to send customers to your website for free. This is amazing. And so that got me really excited about it. I think, you know, I would say 10 to 15 years ago, every SEO agency had a network of sites or PBNs, private blog networks, that they would use to link to their clients and spread authority. You know, this worked, and it was really easy. It was a lot easier to gain SEO back then. It worked so well that Google put a lot of effort into understanding backlinking schemes. So I survived the Penguin update in 2013, or whatever it's called. Those sort of, like, black hat tactics, everyone was doing — even the 1,500 companies were doing. I think since then, backlinks still matter a lot, obviously, but it's harder to get them now. There's less people who have personal websites or there's less, like, personal blogs in general. But I think SEO has been legitimized a bit. You know, it's gained a lot of credibility, especially in the startup community. I, you know, as we've seen stories of lots of startups scaling with SEO as, like, a key driver of growth. Zapier, you know, grew SEO as it was a key driver of growth, Airbnb, others like that. It previously was looked down upon, and you were considered something of a spammer if you worked in SEO. It's now more legitimate. 

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

06:54

Yeah, for the longest time, I called myself a content marketer because SEO almost had a bad connotation to it — like you were up to no good. And I think like you've described, I think in some sense, like, content marketing and SEO has almost become simpler. I think I would personally say it's maybe more competitive and more difficult than it maybe was 10 years ago, like you said, with kind of everyone now thinking about it and taking it maybe more seriously as a real channel than they were 10 years ago. But in some sense, I think there's also less input than there was 10 years ago. People always ask me, how do you win in content and SEO? I think if you pick the right keywords and create great content and do the basics from a technical SEO standpoint, you'll be successful. I think the days … like, PBNs and some of those black hat tactics, I think they still exist, but I think Google has gotten much better at detecting spam and promoting those who are really doing it correctly. But I know you ended up doing Y Combinator a second time. So you're in that elite club of multi-time YC founders. And with RankScience, your current company, you were part of the winner 2017 batch, right? 

Ryan Bednar (Speaking)

Yeah, that's right. And one of the things I was doing as an SEO consultant for a lot of YC startups was building software to try to productize some of what I was doing. I specifically built SEO A-B testing software. We first built this as a CDN with RankScience, and now it's a JavaScript snippet. So with RankScience, we have a JavaScript snippet we can embed on your site, and that allows us to make changes to customers' web pages. We can change things like title tags and see if we can improve click-through rates. We can do all of that with JavaScript through our web app. One of the pain points as an SEO — and I'm sure this is something you've seen, Nate — is, like, you can put together guidance or recommendations for clients, but it's hard to get them to … it's often hard to get them to actually execute those recommendations. And so we can do some of that through RankScience. And so that was kind of the original pitch for the company. But we've evolved to kind of, you know, we're a tech-enabled SEO services agency for startups. We do full-stack SEO, you know, and we've helped probably now hundreds of startups grow SEO from zero to hundreds of thousands of clicks per month, sometimes even millions of clicks per month, including companies like Zapier, Calm.com, Shutterstock, Replit — you know, lots of big, big companies. 

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

You've worked with some of the best in terms of Y Combinator companies. And I know now, like, since you originally launched RankScience, you have both a software component to your business as well as, like, the agency side of things where you'll actually go and do work on behalf of those clients. And one of the questions I'm always asked because I'm in the business of selling tools to content marketing and SEO teams is “Should I do it myself or should I hire an agency? This is a question that especially early stage founders often ask me, and especially if they haven't built a content or SEO channel before, but they know that they want to. And so I guess I'll put the question to you. When should you hire an SEO agency like RankScience to come in and essentially help you build this channel for you? Or when should you DIY it if you're an early stage founder and try to build this channel internally? 

Ryan Bednar (Speaking)

The annoying answer here is “It depends” —  as with a lot of things in SEO. I think it depends on your growth goals as a startup. How aggressively are you trying to grow traffic? Are you trying three to five x traffic in six months or a year? If you have aggressive growth goals, it makes a lot of sense to partner with an agency. If you're just starting out with SEO and you're not really sure how to get started, it makes a lot of sense to partner with an agency. You can basically bring experts who work on dozens of other sites with success, bring them into your team and let them show you the ropes. And then I would say, “ Do you have any expertise on your team, or do you have someone on your team who is really fascinated by SEO and wants to become an expert at it?” It's hard to find SEO talent out there and get them to join your startup. There's not as many talented SEOs as there are talented software engineers. But I guess I would say on the other side of things, if you have someone internally who understands SEO somewhat and wants to get really good at it, it might make sense doing it in-house. I think also along the lines of growth goals, are you trying to get cash flow positive in six to 12 months? You know, maybe try to figure it out yourselves. I would say people who are really good at SEO, they can make a lot more money as a consultant, or maybe starting their own agency or starting their own startup than probably, like, joining a seed stage startup. And I would say, you know, with RankScience, we understand startups because we're a startup ourselves. And some agencies try to obscure what they're doing so people keep them around longer. They try to keep the knowledge to themselves. And we take sort of the opposite approach. You know, we'll teach and educate startups on how to grow SEO. And when they're ready to take it over themselves, like, we're very happy with that and, like, usually see it as a job well done because we understand we've been there before.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)
0:12:01
Yeah. And I have a few follow-up questions there that you've already touched on. And so my first is, like, outgrowing an agency. It seems like at some point — like, once you get to like series A or series B or series C and beyond — like, you'll want to build this muscle or team internally. As far as your clients go, when do they typically start to feel like they might want to build this function or team internally versus, like, you know, continuing to use an agency like RankScience or, you know, one of the many other agencies that are out there?

Ryan Bednar (Speaking)

You know, say you get to the series A stage and SEO is, like, one of your top three channels. If it's, like, a top three channel for you, you should probably have someone internally who's an expert kind of running it or at least managing it. You know, that means you probably have your content strategy in place. You probably have had some way, you figured out how to get backlinks, and it's kind of, like, about growing it from there. You know, how do you double it from there? How do you grow by 50% from there? I think at that stage, you know, when you have a more developed marketing organization, you have, you know, maybe a writer on staff. At that stage, it makes a lot of sense to start thinking about doing it internally. That being said, we also, and I personally, have worked with Fortune 500 publicly traded companies where they have big SEO teams internally, but then they also have two or three agencies on retainer, and they bring people in for guidance, advice, for strategy. It's one of these … SEO is always changing. There's always people out there who are on the cutting edge, like seeing what things are happening. One of the advantages working with a consultant or an agency brings to you is they see what's working on other sites right now, or they see maybe what's being penalized on other sites right now, what's not working on other sites right now. And so bringing in outside guidance, outside input, can be really helpful. Because when you're internally, you're looking at one website, you don't know what the rest of the universe is, what's happening to it. Yeah, that's a really good point. And I think there's something to be said for, even if you are serious about building this channel internally and learning how to build a content SEO muscle, there's probably something to be said for also working with an agency who can help you learn and get up to speed faster and then also help fact-check the work you're doing independently. 

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

So you must have some clients who are also putting in a lot of effort internally and then also using RankScience as a supplement to the work that they are doing. Is that something you see with your clients? 

Ryan Bednar (Speaking)

Absolutely, yeah. And I guess that's why, for us anyway, it makes a lot of sense to scale up or down our engagement if it's, like, maybe we're doing more hands-on work early in the first year, maybe even just the first eight to nine months. And then a company says, “Hey, I think we can take on more of this ourselves. We're going to bring in some people.” Well, it's like, “OK, we can scale back our engagement to something where we're still providing value, but in a smaller way, probably more strategic way rather than being as hands-on.” So, so yeah, that's something that we definitely support. And then I think it's pretty common out there.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

15:13

If I was like an early stage startup, maybe I just went through Y Combinator and I know that I want to build a content and SEO channel. I have a marketplace business. It's clearly going to be valuable to me. If I were to hire RankScience, what are those first one or two things that an agency comes in and does for me as part of building this strategy? 

Ryan Bednar (Speaking)

First, we would try to understand the universe of search terms that you care about for your business. We'd help you figure out the phrases users are searching for that might want to become customers or informational queries where they might learn about you guys and become customers later. And then from there, we'd put together a technical SEO strategy, which is basically, like, what is the URL hierarchy of your site? And what should it look like? How do your pages link to one another? How much content is around these different pages? And then like a content strategy. How can we produce some interesting content about your brand or about your space and get your name out there in sort of your niche? And so that might involve helping produce blog posts or content for landing pages. And then I think from there, the next component, we know you're basically, or at least I would guess, SEO from a high level is like 50% the content that's on your site, and then 50% off page. Who's linking to you? Who's lending authority to your website? Who's telling Google that you're a topical authority? And so that involves outreach to bloggers and other websites to try and get backlinks or almost sort of like PR. 

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

I agree with you. I think keyword research — like, identifying what to write about — is typically, like, the first step. If you don't pick the right keywords, everything else you do is going to be less effective. And that's often, like, a big mistake I'll see early stage startups make: if they'll just start writing content and creating content without actually first thinking about how these pieces of content tie to a specific keyword or question that their potential customer has. And then I totally agree with you from a site structure and technical SEO standpoint. It's something you need to be thinking about early on. And it always amazes me when I go to a blog that has like 50 posts and none of them are internally linked together. And it's the first thing that I'll often recommend doing. But speaking of off page, like building backlinks, this is something that I have quite a bit of experience with. At my first company, we built thousands of backlinks. We had two full-time people building backlinks for us. And we were in a very competitive space, being financial products. And this was also back in 2014, 2015, 2016, when I think backlinks maybe were a little bit more valuable at a page level than they are today. I still think backlinks personally are pretty valuable at a domain level. But how do you think the value of backlinks has changed or is changing? A question I'm often asked is “How many backlinks do I need to build?” So if a client came to you and said, “How many backlinks should I build to my website? Or how important are backlinks?” How would you answer those questions? 

Ryan Bednar (Speaking)

I think they're as important as ever. I do think they're harder to get than they used to be. There's less people with personal blogs. There's less blogs in general. And you have to get, you know … backlinks are most helpful from sites that already have authority and that, of course, makes them hard to get. You could kind of game this back in the day by getting backlinks to deep pages on your site. I do think kind of, like, more domain-specific backlinks, even if the backlinks are to your homepage now, you know, today, are just as helpful as some of the deep ones, although you do want to do some deep linking. With the advent of something like generative AI, with LLMs, anyone can produce 100,000 landing pages in a week. I think, like, content, the playing field for content, has now been sort of leveled a bit — not completely, but it's leveling a bit. And that, I think, makes backlinks as valuable or more valuable than ever. Yeah, and there's different ways to get them. Some folks treat it like PR, like outreach. You're kind of doing sales, but you're asking for people to link to you. And other times people put together clever competitions or games or awards and say, “Hey, you're the top.” There's a company like Expertise.com that they have all of these awards they give out. Like, “You're the top 100 plumbing business in New Jersey; like, please put this badge on your site.” And that badge goes back to them. So there's different ways to go about it. I think they're still important, but maybe the way Google evaluates them is a little different than they used to. The cool thing about SEO — and this is, like, one of the things that I've always enjoyed — is everything's public, right? And so you can look at your biggest competitors, see what they're doing, see how many backlinks they have for the pages they're ranking for. And that's kind of the answer is, like, if you want to get to page one for a certain search term, here's what the competition's doing, here's how many backlinks they have. And then you can kind of decide from there: Is that achievable in the short term? Is that achievable in the long term? And then figure out a game plan. And you can even go … you can reach out to those sites that are linking to them and say, “Hey, we have this resource that I think would be a good fit for your landing page; link to us, too.” I'm sure everyone's bombarded with those emails. But everything's public and you can kind of see what your competitors are doing and figure it out from there if you want to look for it.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)
0:20:48
Yeah, I think that's a really good point with leveling the playing field in terms of actually creating content. Like, what are some of those other signals that Google needs to use to cut through this massive amount of new content that's being created? And, like, yeah, backlinks are the original and probably one of the best ways to cut through the noise of all of this new content that's been created. And yeah, I think that strategy you mentioned in terms, like, best towns or best cities or best plumbers in New Jersey, that's a really interesting one. Like you said, if you're just doing cold outreach, it is a slog. And I also think that websites that might be willing to link to you are a lot more skeptical than they would have been eight or nine years ago. Like, I think if you'd gotten an email eight or nine years ago that said, like, “Hey, like, I've got this great resource; you should link to it. It was probably somewhat novel, but now it seems like everybody and their brother is trying to build these resource page backlinks, and it's a lot harder to actually get those types of links, and they also might not be as valuable. Yeah, so what are some of those tools that you can use to see what your competitors are doing or conduct that process that you just described?

Ryan Bednar (Speaking)

I think the most common ones are Semrush or Ahrefs. Those are the two biggest data sources for keyword research, for backlinking, seeing what competitors are doing. I think they'll even give you an estimate if you need this many backlinks to rank for this term. I wouldn't trust that 100%, but it's at least directional. You could use it. And then I think, like, if you're putting together a content strategy or you're trying to produce content that's better than a competitor, there's a bunch of tools, there's a bunch of different content writing tools out there like Positional, like your tool that customers can look to, customers can use to try to beat out the competition.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)
0:22:43
Yeah, I appreciate you mentioning our tool. As far as creating content with AI goes, I know you just mentioned it. There's kind of been this huge influx of content created with tools like chat GPT and Jasper. Are you using AI to help in that content creation process? How should your clients be thinking about AI? Like, how are your clients thinking about creating content with AI? It'd be great to just get your perspective on “Should we be using AI to create content on our websites for organic search?” 

Ryan Bednar (Speaking)

23:15

I sort of take the position that it's inevitable. And I know Google has sent out some sort of mixed signals on whether they're okay with AI-generated content or not. I also think you can't necessarily trust what Google says. I think they often throw a lot of misdirection out there. But I personally have a bunch of sites that are like 60 to 70% AI content and they're working really well. And I've seen it work in the wild quite a bit. There's a lot of people throwing up, as I mentioned before, sites with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of landing pages overnight. It's all AI content. I wouldn't do that. I wouldn't recommend that. I think Google has a good idea of what organically created content looks like. You know, you're publishing X number of pages per week or per month. And it's just like they have an idea of what a natural organic backlink profile looks like. If you're getting too many backlinks in a certain period of time, that could set up red flags for that. I wouldn't just publish content. I probably wouldn't publish content straight from chat GPT, right? I would run it through a tool like Positional. I would have content writers or content editors improving it, updating it. I would get it proofread. I would make sure it's not spitting out lies. I think AI-generated content that is edited and curated by humans along with some other tools is kind of where things are moving. 

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

24:38

That's the sense I got from Google's updated guidelines. I know that in April of 2022, John Mueller came out and said, “Don't use AI. If you use AI, we will catch you. SpamBrain is going to mark you as spam.” And then they updated their guidelines at the start of this year. And they said, like, “You can use AI to generate content, but you'll still want to add your own expertise and originality to those pieces. And so I think what they were saying was like, “You can use AI, but you still want to make sure that it's, you know, of high quality, you've combed through it, you've made it unique into you.” I think the problem is that the companies that are using AI are tending to go from zero to 100. Like, I know I talked with a startup the other day who legitimately published 400,000 articles to their website using AI overnight. So they went from, like, 10 articles on their blog to 400,010 articles on their blog, and they ran into, like, a whole bunch of indexing challenges. So I kind of get the sense from your response … you think that if you are going to start publishing with AI, you'll want to ramp into the production or publishing of that content and maybe not drop 400,000 posts all at once. 

Ryan Bednar (Speaking)

25:55

Even if I had 400,000 posts that were written by a human, I wouldn't dump them onto Google all at once anyway. I think it needs to be kind of released thoughtfully in an organic manner. And I think, in general, I'm excited about generative AI for, like, programmatic SEO. So, like, where you can use SEO to, where you can use generative AI to, sort of, like, summarize a table of stats and pick out some key points or highlights. And maybe that little paragraph that generative AI adds is only like 10 to 20% of the content on our programmatic landing page. Like, that sort of stuff is exciting to me and not just writing entire articles with it and publishing them.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)
0:26:36
How I've seen some large sites use AI pretty effectively is they're using it as a supplement to the work that their team is already doing. So if there are, like, a large number of very long-tail keywords, they're using AI to go after that, you know, five orr 10 percent of keyword lists and not using it for like 80 to 90 percent of what they're doing. But, yeah, I think it'll be interesting to see where it goes from here. Like you probably remember back in, like, 2012, 2013, 2014, like when I was first kind of getting into this industry — like, spun content was a big thing and Google took action on that with the Panda updates. So I think this idea of low-quality mass-generated content is not new. Google has been dealing with large amounts of low-quality content for the last 25 years. So I mean, personally, I wouldn't be surprised if at some point in the next year, like, there is some sort of shift in the algorithm, maybe specifically targeted at low-quality AI-generated content. But I think, like you said, as long as you're using it as a supplement and actually improving upon what's generated, you should hopefully be OK. But it'll be interesting to see where everything goes in the next six to 12 months. 

Ryan Bednar (Speaking)

27:53

It's an exciting time. Yeah. I think every, it seems like every five to six years or so, the entire SEO community freaks out and is like, “SEO is dead. SEO is dying. You know, it's over.” And I don't think SEO is going away. I don't think generative AI spells the end of SEO. It's just kind of like a new tool. And I think it should be a tool for website owners and operators and writers, but it shouldn't be the only tool that folks use.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)
0:28:23
Matt and I, like, we ask ourselves once a day, “Are we crazy to be starting a SaaS tool set for content and SEO teams?” Like at this exact moment in time, when one of our investors forwarded me an article which said< like, “SEO is dead.” Like, “Why are you building this?” And I'm like, “Huh, well, like, yeah, people have been saying SEO is dead for the last seven or eight years now, and it's still not dead.” I think it's certainly changing. And, like, you and I have both seen the new UX and UI that Google is experimenting with. What are your thoughts on, like, that new search experience and how it might be changing, how we need to be thinking about how we do our jobs? 

Ryan Bednar (Speaking)

29:05

So yeah, I've seen the new release from Google. I think, you know, they're under a lot of pressure from OpenAI. Chat GPT usage is exploding. And this technology originated from Google, right? It came out of Google, and they've just sort of been afraid to release it. And now that they got all this outside pressure, this version where they dropped a chat bot, like right into search results, you know — like, it feels a little hacked together. I'm sure it'll get way better. It's obviously really early, and they whip this together in weeks to months. I think it's pretty clear a lot of informational queries in the future are gonna be served by these LLM answers. But Google's kind of been doing that already with, like, the zero click answers or position zero results for a while. So it's, like, as SEOs, that's something we've already been dealing with. But I think … and I would also say, I think it's pretty clear there's real risks to Google's monopoly on search, right? If people end up using chat GPT for 10% of what they Googled before, that definitely is a big risk to Google, but they're also in the strongest position to utilize this technology and extract the most value out of it going forward. And I would also say, I think for many types of queries, users are going to prefer Google's file search results over a chatbot response. And so I'm confident SEO is not going away. It might be changing. It might be changing dramatically. Who knows? But I think Google's in the best spot to utilize this technology. And our skill set as SEOs, like, might have to grow. Right? I don't know that anyone is really thinking about how to game LLMs so that Google plugs your company when someone asks it a question. But, like, SEO might creep into that space eventually, you know., I'm not sure, but it's definitely exciting times.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)
0:30:54
Yeah, I agree. It seems like the new UX and UI, feels like a featured snippet or like an instant answer. I think to me, it's clear that Google still does want to prioritize publishers. Like, I think in the new UX/UI, there's like three or four different publishers that they highlight at the top of the result. And so it does appear that publishers still will get traffic even from those queries that might be heavily influenced by a generative AI-type result. It's just changing the real estate and who gets placed into those boxes up at the top. I think from a “tools to build” perspective, it's pretty exciting. I think we all learned how to optimize for those featured snippets over like the last five or six years. And so I guess from here, it'll become a game of, like, what do we need to do or optimize for to get included into these AI boxes at the top of a search. And I don't know what tools we'd need to build to do that or, like, what goes into our pre-publishing checklist, but it's something that we're definitely thinking about. And I'm sure you will be with your clients, too. One of the things that I did want to get your perspective on in the content SEO space is, I know that there's a lot to do every single day. Like, we could be working on keyword research, we could be writing new content, we could be making our website faster, we could be internally linking. There's a lot for us to do every single day as content marketers. What's, like, one or two things that you see people spending time on or investing significant amounts of energy into that's just totally not worth it and a waste of time.

Ryan Bednar (Speaking)

32:32

Yeah, I would say two things. You know, one that I see … this, like, creeps into most organizations and teams where SEO starts working or SEO is working well and people want to … they're just looking at overall clicks and impressions and traffic and it, you know, SEO traffic in general, you know, it can turn into like a bit of a vanity metric because you can rank for all sorts of terms that are easy to rank for and don't turn into customers for your business. I would say being too obsessed with growing overall traffic is pointless if it's not generating revenue. And instead to focus on rankings in traffic for key terms that you know are converting viewers into users or dollars. So I guess, like, figuring out some kind of ROI heuristic for SEO and making that the thing instead of overall traffic. I know it feels good to get hundreds of thousands of clicks or millions of clicks or whatever, but, like, users or dollars is what matters really. And then I would say the second thing, and this is, like, maybe more of a pet peeve, is people obsess over core web vitals reports. You want a passing score ideally, but it's such a small percentage of what makes your website rank. Like, I wouldn't spend more than, like, a small amount of time trying to improve your Core Web Vitals. This is not the focus of your SEO campaign, but a lot of people get stuck on that.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)
0:34:00
I would say that, like, eight out of ten of the search consoles I get access to are failing Core Web Vitals. And there are a lot of reasons that might be the case. I think obviously you want your website to be fast and generally available, but I do agree with you that once you go down the rabbit hole of Core Web Vitals, it can be hard to get out from under it. And on the flip side, you could be focusing your time on actually improving your content or building links or whatever it is. As far as judging the ... because I know you talked about judging the performance of the channel: what should you be looking for in the first three months? And then what are those KPIs that you ultimately want to be thinking about maybe six or 12 or 24 months into building this channel?

Ryan Bednar (Speaking)

34:54

It depends on the campaign and the goal,  obviously. But yeah, early on you are looking at, kind of like, impressions as, like, a leading metric of, like, are you starting to appear in Google for some of these terms? Eventually, once you get to page one, you will start to get clicks. So traffic matters next after that. So impressions, clicks, and rankings. You want to see yourself going up in rankings for key terms. And that can take one to three months. Sometimes that can take three to six months. It depends on how competitive your space is. And then from there, I would try to figure out how, to your best ability, when a user signs up, figure out how to attribute. It's not easy. Google's made this harder over time. But figure out to your best ability if you can attribute that user to SEO in some way. And even if it's an approximation, I think that's going to go a long way towards building credibility for advocating for SEO in your organization. And it'll help you focus. It'll help you stay focused on “What types of content should we build? What sorts of terms should we be ranking for?” Now, of course, there's exceptions. Sometimes you create content just to generate links, and then it's the other pages that generate revenue. But having revenue and some sort of ROI in mind helps campaigns stay focused. 

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

36:14

So I've really enjoyed doing this podcast with you, Ryan. I think we tackled a lot of interesting talking points and items for the listeners. And we can cap things off with a quick rapid fire round. I'm going to ask you, like, five or six questions and feel free to just give me like the first thing that comes to your mind. Does that sound good? 

Ryan Bednar (Speaking)

Cool. Yeah, yeah. Sounds good. All right. 

Nate Matherson (Speaking) 

So I know you're an investor in a large number of startups, and I know that OpenAI was recently valued at $30 billion as part of their most recent fundraising round. Would you be buying or selling OpenAI stock right now?

Ryan Bednar (Speaking)
0:36:49
Buying, just based on the potential. I mean, yeah, buying.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)
0:36:52
Would you be buying or selling Google stock right now? 

Ryan Bednar (Speaking)

36:56

Buying, still buying.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)
0:36:59
Alright What does an awesome piece of content cost? Like, if I'm creating my budget, I want to get a piece of content created, what should I expect to pay for that piece of content? 

Ryan Bednar (Speaking)

37:09

I'd say there's a range. For a really great piece of content, it could be anywhere from 500 bucks to a few thousand bucks, especially if there was something like a survey or research done or something along those lines. 

Nate Matherson (Speaking) 

Does it make sense to buy backlinks at all in 2023? 

Ryan Bednar (Speaking)

37:26

Yes, it does. I mean, I think if we're just being honest about how the industry works, like, sometimes you have to buy backlinks. Google will tell you never to buy backlinks. They'll say, “Just create great content and everything takes care of itself.” But yeah, I don't think it should be like your main link-building strategy, but I would do it opportunistically. 

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

37:48

And as far as trading backlinks goes, I know you've probably gotten the emails — I get them to, sometimes even from Fortune 500 companies — that want to do link swaps. Do link swaps work? Should I be swapping links with XYZ startup or large company? 

Ryan Bednar (Speaking)

I'd say sometimes, right? If there's like a piece of content that you want to build backlinks to and the way to get a backlink to that is to link from them somewhere else. Yeah, it can help, but not always. Obviously, you know, Google's smart and can kind of see that you're both adding a link to one another around the same time. Ideally, you have multiple sites and they link to you from one site and you link to them from another. That's how it works sort of on the agency side. 

Nate Matherson (Speaking)

For our listeners, if they want to get in touch with you or learn more about RankScience, how do they do that? 

Ryan Bednar (Speaking)

38:40

Yeah, so I'm @RyanBed on Twitter if you want to follow me there, or ryan@rankscience.com. We do SEO office hours for startups. Happy to chat with anybody and do a strategy session. I love teaching people about SEO, and this is something I'm really excited about. And yeah, thanks so much for having me on. This has been fun.

Nate Matherson (Speaking)
0:39:01
Yeah. And in the show notes and transcript, we'll provide a backlink back to your site, Ryan, as well as, like, your Twitter profile and some additional information for the listeners to get in contact with you. I've really enjoyed doing this. I think I've learned a few things. So thanks for coming on the Optimize podcast.

Ryan Bednar (Speaking)

Thanks so much for having me, man. This was super fun. This was cool.

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0:39:22
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As an SEO novice, Positional makes it easy. I can quickly go from keyword research, to clustering, to content outlines, then go focus on just making good content. I felt like it helped bridge the gaps between what would’ve taken 3 or more tools in the past.

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