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Episode 40: SEO & the Network Effect

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All Xero Gravity episodes

Hosted by Elizabeth Ü and Gene Marks

SEO. Many business owners have been led to believe it’s a one-trick pony. Tune to Xero Gravity #40, and hear why — from the horse’s mouth — SEO is actually one of the best ways to grow your business.

Wizard of Moz, Rand Fishkin, shares how SEO goes way beyond keywords; that it’s about constantly doing these things well, as well: keeping up with the right terms and phrases, creating thought-provoking web content that earns shares, mentions and links, and improving the user experience and path to conversion, from a site visitor to product purchaser. When working in harmony — along with a bit of SEO tech — your search engine rank can fly up the charts.

Plus... “serendipitous channels,” predictions on social and mobile, and a bit of zaniness — George Clooney, mom, dropouts — between Rand, Elizabeth and Gene!

Small Business Resources:

Episode transcript

Hosts:     Gene Marks [GM] & Elizabeth Ü [EÜ]

Guest: Rand Fishkin [RF]

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GM: We’re off to see the Wizard!

EÜ: We’re off… [laughs]

GM: The wonderful Wizard of Moz!

EÜ: Wizard of Moz. Okay, start again. Three, two, one…we’re...so we...

GM: We’re off to see the Wizard!

EÜ: Hold on! Sorry, one, two, three...

EÜ: & GM: We’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Moz!

XG Producer [laughs]

EÜ: The Wizard of Moz. Like oh gosh, botched it again. Me, me, me, me…

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GM: Hi everyone. Welcome to our podcast, Xero Gravity. I’m here with Elizabeth Ü.

EÜ: Hey Gene.

GM: We are super excited today! We’ve got the Wizard of Moz, Rand Fishkin joining us for a conversation about search engine optimization — that’s his specialty. And also, what it was like to start up his business. This guy’s got quite a story, don’t you think, Elizabeth?

EÜ: He is really a celebrity in the world of small business. Not only search engine optimization, but some of the things that you need to think about as somebody starting a business. So I can’t wait to hear what he’s got to share with us today.

GM: Yeah, it will be an interesting story. I mean, he started up this company virtually from nothing, and really grew it. It will be interesting to hear…

EÜ: With his mom!

GM: …that should be interesting to hear.

EÜ: Yep, and some of the hard truths about starting a company too. I know it’s not always rosy, and Rand will be sharing that with us as well.

GM: We’ll be back with Rand in just a minute.

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EÜ: Welcome back. We have Rand Fishkin on the line. Rand, thanks so much for joining us today, we’re really glad to have you.

RF: Great to be here, thank you so much for having me, Elizabeth.

EÜ: One of the things I was really curious about is you are kind of a larger than life character, if someone produced a movie about your life, who would play you and why?

RF: [Laughs] Let’s see. First off, I am smaller than life — I’m actually a quarter inch shorter than the average American male. Five foot eight and three quarters, as the DMV tells me.

Playing me in the movie loosely based on my life? I don’t know, it would have to be somebody very nebbish, you know, think like probably one of those character actors, mm…

GM: Oh come on Rand — we’re thinking like, you know, Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise…

RF: No…

GM: You know, or George Clooney in…

EÜ: I was thinking George Clooney as well. I don’t know why; I don’t know if he could do the moustache as well.

RF: No, you guys are way off track.

GM: You’re on a podcast, nobody knows what you look like. You can make up anything you want to make up!

RF: Yeah, when they figure it out, they’re going to figure it’s more Woody Allen than George Clooney. So let’s just leave it with a voice.

GM: So Rand, tell me what does Wizard of Moz do? Tell us your story.

RF: Sure, sure. So Moz, back in the early 2000s, there were a bunch of companies that used the moniker Moz. Mozilla Foundation was obviously an early one, they’re behind the Firefox browser.

GM: Right.

RF: There was also Dmoz, the directory; Moz Project, which is an open directory; there was Chef Moz, which was an open site for recipes and restaurants, there was Map Moz for geography and maps, and I started a company called SEO Moz. It wasn’t even a company. It was just a blog. I wanted to do what all these other Moz’s had done for opening up data and information about how search engines worked.

And so this blog started building some popularity, and growing some influence in the sphere of SEO — SEO being the practice of search engine optimization, and sort of how the search engines work.

And this blog was something that was a passion project for me. It was something I was doing a little bit outside of my normal day-to-day work, with the goal of making SEO a little easier to understand, and maybe using writing and teaching as a tool for myself to learn.

EÜ: So it sounds like teaching and learning are important to you. What were some other experiences you had in your life that really prompted that passion?

RF: Well, I dropped out of college and…

EÜ: Oh I did that too. Excellent.

RF: Yeah, all right — it’s a great club.

GM: Did you really Elizabeth? I didn’t know that about you.

EÜ: It’s true, I mean I went back.

RF: I have yet to do that. Well that’s not entirely true, I have been asked to contribute a number of times to the University of Washington, which is where I dropped out, to their business school and some of their startup programs. And so it’s funny when I get up on stage and say “I stopped paying for college here, but you shouldn’t!”

EÜ: I bet they all freak out!

RF: Right.

EÜ: So why did you drop out?

RF: Well, two reasons: one, I had gotten into a fight with my dad who had been paying my tuition. I paid my own tuition for, I think it was two quarters — this was back in the year 2000 when the University of Washington was still affordable enough that even with a close to minimum wage salary, I could afford to pay my own tuition and rent. That was something I think kids today can’t do, and that’s really sad.

But, you know, paying your own tuition means that you start to identify whether you’re getting a return on your investment. My sense was I was learning way more in the business world as a, you know, sort of web designer, web developer, than I was in class. So dropped out.

It’s also possible that I sort of had a girl break my heart and got a little, got a little sad about that.

EÜ: It may or may not have happened.

RF: Yeah, I moped in my room, and maybe didn’t send in my tuition check, and didn’t register for classes.

EÜ: Oh no!

GM: So what were you majoring in then when you were at the university?

RF: Finance of all things, which I utterly despise.

GM: So you drop out and when you start this business up, did you have any capital to get it going and, you know, was it just you?

RF: So I was basically a web designer/developer for my mom’s small business. She had started a company way back in 1981 as a solo entrepreneur just helping people, helping local small businesses with their marketing and print materials. And when her clients started needing web design, when I was in high school, I did a little bit of that, you know, using Microsoft FrontPage and that sort of thing. And then got into that full time when I dropped out, working with her. And no, we didn’t have any capital, well— let’s see. We borrowed a lot of money. It was very easy to get credit before the financial crisis of 2008. Credit card companies and banks were just giving it to really, anyone. People who totally could not afford to pay it back including us, and so in, I think it was 2004, we had about $150,000 in debt, and then we were unable to make some of our minimum debt payments. And that meant that by 2005 we had almost $500,000 in debt.

GM: Oh my gosh!

EÜ: Yeah, it balloons quickly.

RF: Yeah, it really does. It was an ugly time.

GM: I don’t understand, so if you were just starting the company back in 2004, to run up $150,000 in debt, did you have other employees at the time? What were the costs that…

RF: Yeah, basically you’ve got to do a lot of dumb shit to rack up $150,000 in debt over, what was that, three and a half, four years, between 01’ and 04’. And we did those things. We paid too much for office space, we tried to hire people, we tried to do some advertising for ourselves. You know, my mom and dad have a little bit of an odd, complicated, slightly dysfunctional relationship where she sort of felt obligated to bring home paychecks of a certain size, even when we weren’t making that money. You know, a lot of dumb stuff.

EÜ: I imagine that must have put a bit of a strain on your family life. Because here you’re saying you dropped out of college because of the ROI, and because you knew you weren’t making enough to keep paying for it, and yet, here you are in business with your mom and spending more than you actually had. So did this put a strain on your family?

RF: Yeah, especially because my mom and I never told my dad that we had any debt.

EÜ: Oh wow!

RF: Yeah, ah…I heard it was pretty much a shit show when he found out.

It was years later, it was many years later, I think it was in 2008 or 2009, and he was watching a video or reading an interview that I had done where I talked about this, and that was how he found out.

EÜ: How were you feeling about all that?

RF: Very separated, you know, very distanced. I’m in a good place with that, but yeah, it was deeply troubling and dysfunctional and hard, and no fun at all. And I think the crazy thing is, this is not that unusual. I have talked to so many entrepreneurs over the last decade who’ve done business with family, or who’ve had confrontations and conflicts with co-founders, and that sort of, you know, deeply troubling, messy beginning is far from unusual. It might not be the norm, but it’s not less than 10% or 20%. It’s in those ranges. And that’s a tough thing to start a business, and it’s hard to mesh personal relationships with financial relationships with business obligations — fundamentally, a hard thing.

GM: So what was the turning point for you?I mean you said you had racked up about half a million dollars in debt. At what point did you start turning things around?

RF: That was probably the beginning of 2005. We had an inkling that this blog I had started, which was called SEO Moz at the time, was starting to bring in some clients and some interest. I was getting offers to, you know, speak at some events. SEO Moz was building up a reputation in the industry, and so we thought that by kind of pivoting from web design and development, and classic small business marketing over to SEO, that we might actually have a shot. And, you know, we hung in there, we dodged debt collectors, you know, guys in gold chains with, you know, big shoulders coming to the office and looking for you. And managed to survive long enough and build up a client base that we were able to repay the debt. We didn’t repay the full half a million dollars, you know, my mum would call up whoever it was, Chase or Wells Fargo or Bank of America and say, “Hey we owe you 100 grand but we’ll give $12,000” and they would say, “Okay.” They’d write it off essentially. It would go on your credit history as a black mark, but they wouldn’t be trying to collect on you anymore.

EÜ: Would you do it differently next time? I mean it sounds like you got off a little bit easy…

RF: Oh gosh!

EÜ: …with 12 grand on 100k, but…

RF: Yeah, I mean if you can think about it two ways, right? 12k was probably the original sum we actually owed. 100k was just all the penalties for not paying on time, right? That kind of thing.

EÜ: Right.

RF: And yeah, I think we in some ways, we got off easy. In other ways it was, you know, kind of crappy. I mean one of the things about bankruptcy that’s really nice is, if we had been able to declare bankruptcy we could have started with a clean slate and seven years later your credit history is sort of clean again. In my case, my credit history’s going to be messy, has been messy for, you know, more than the last decade, and probably is going to keep being that way for a while. So…

EÜ: Right.

RF: You know, I rent an apartment with my wife, but it’s in my wife’s name. I don’t own a car, you know, that kind of thing.

GM: So, you said that you would do things differently…

RF: Oh gosh, yeah.

GM: So you’re older and wiser. What specifically would you have done if you could tell yourself back then, when you were starting up this company?

RF: First off, I think transparency is at the core of how business is done and lives are done well. And I think that the dishonesty and you know, internal turmoil was a complete farce. It was a creation that was wholly unnecessary, and obviously a lot of things could have been better if we had been open and honest. Not just with my Dad, but with ourselves and each other about how things were going. Then assess the business and say, hey, this is clearly not working and we could have said that a year instead of four years in. So, you know, a lot to regret there, a lot to do differently. But I’m also not a huge fan of the consulting model. If I were going to start another business today, I really like software and product.

GM: What do you have against consulting? It’s just not a model you would recommend to others?

RF: No, I think it depends. I think this is something where transparency again is at the core of what’s necessary here. And you need to have great self awareness to do a great job at building a business that’s successful for you, and for your customers, and for your employees. And my self awareness is I like building things that scale. I like building things that don’t require direct sales. I like building things that many, many people can benefit from, that have wide distribution. Software is one of those things. Tools are in that category, products are in that category. Services is not, really. Right, with services you are helping one individual company or organization or person, and then moving onto the next one. And that’s not a model that I personally love, and that resonates with me. But if it does for you, then you should know that, and you should pursue that. So it’s not about recommending it to others, it’s about having that self awareness.

EÜ: Well I have to believe that there was something about the blog post, or whatever it was that you were writing on SEO Moz back in the day in early 2005, that was really resonating with these people who were calling you up and saying, “Hey we want you to help us with our SEO,” and maybe this is a good opportunity to ask you to help us understand a little bit better what SEO is.

RF: Yeah, sure…

EÜ: What does that actually mean?

RF: In 2005, I think one of the biggest challenges that people had was recognizing that Google, and at the time, Yahoo and Microsoft, kind of owned the pathway to the Internet. Right? Everyone started their web experience from these search engines. Today, maybe you could say that it’s search engines and it’s Facebook or Twitter, or those kinds of things. But because of that, so many businesses and organizations relied on search traffic on whether they could be found in search engines, and whether they came up high in the rankings as to, you know whether they could be successful on the web. And if they couldn’t show up, if they didn’t rank highly, they were going to flounder and die while their competition thrived.

And so search engine optimization, this practice of being able to be visible in search engines, to rank highly, to outrank your competition, to target the keywords and phrases that people were actually searching for, to draw that traffic to your site, and provide a great experience and convert them from merely being visitors into hopefully being buyers. That whole process is what’s contained in search engine optimization, and it was very, very mysterious, you know, in the early 2000s. And I think, alongside many other folks in the field, right, folks like Danny Sullivan and Aaron Wall who ran SEO Book, SEO Moz was one of those pioneers that tried to make that information more accessible, and make search engine optimization less of a mystery.

EÜ: One of the things that I’ve always wondered about search engine optimization or SEO for short: is this really something that all businesses need to do? It seems like there’s certain industries or certain types of business that might benefit more than others. So maybe you can help explain why this is important, for whom, or maybe it is important for everyone.

RF: You’re definitely right. I think search engine optimization is most important, matters the most if many, many people start their discovery process or continue the investigation process of whether they should buy from you, or use your services through search. That’s not true for everyone. There are plenty of businesses and organizations where word of mouth is everything, or referrals are everything, or maybe conferences and events are how you sell. But for a tremendous number of businesses — I would say an overwhelming majority today — search is a part, or a big part, of how consumers find you, how they compare you against others. You know, I’ll give an example. Last night my wife and I realized we are running out of space on our bookshelves for all the books that I keep buying. I’m sort of addicted to physical books. I read a lot of them.

EÜ: Yay!

RF: They’re awesome, right? And so we, I think, Googled, you know, bookcases. And I visited, what did I visit? Pier One and Cost Plus and Ikea and Crate and Barrel — five or six other stores that came up in the top two pages of Google’s results. And we found a bookcase that fit in the space we needed and purchased it. And we’re going to go pick it up this week. So that process is something that many, many millions of people are doing every day. And so there’s this tremendous opportunity if you can rank in these results, to convert visitors into buyers, and to bring them to your site, and to create awareness for yourself. I would say that if you can understand your buyer’s journey, which hopefully every business owner can and does, you need to find where search fits into that. And then you need to practice good SEO in order to be there — be in those relevant results, when your searchers are seeking you out.

GM: So Rand, can a business owner practice good SEO without someone like you helping them, or without having an SEO consultant working with them?

RF: Yeah, it’s certainly possible. We know plenty of folks who do it sort of more entrepreneurially themselves. I would say that for many small and medium business owners, it’s wise to bring someone onto your staff who can do web marketing, including SEO, or to hire a consultant or an agency to do it for you. This is a relatively technical, complex field for sure, and there’s a lot of ins and outs. But the basics, the fundamentals, are pretty easy to understand. It’s just when you get into the tactics and the weeds of doing it, there’s a lot of work.

EÜ: And so what happens if you don’t pay any attention at all to SEO? Are you just going to languish at the bottom of the list, or what happens?

RF: Very, very often that’s the case. I think one of the challenges, one of the frustrating things about SEO, is that a lot of people historically have thought of it as a one-time activity. You know, I redesign my website and I launch it and I SEO my website, and now I’m done. Right, I’ve done my SEO. But in fact, if you look at the people who are winning at the top of the search results, especially for competitive terms and phrases, they’re people who are investing in SEO every day, right, every week. They’re doing work to earn links and mentions and social media shares. They’re doing work to create new and better content. They’re doing work to identify the new terms and phrases in their field, and create pages that target those terms and phrases. They are improving their user experience, they’re improving the path to conversion, and all of these things can help help them rank higher.

And if you’re someone who once every two or three years says, okay, “I SEO’d my site, now I’m done,” you’re going to be losing out to the people who are practicing it week in, week out.

GM: You know, Rand, the industry of SEO consultants sometimes gets a bad rap, and I’m sure you come across competitors. What do you think about that? Do you think there are lot of SEO consultants out there who are not doing a good job, or they’re overcharging? And what can a business owner like me do to make sure that I’m finding the right person, and I’m not getting taken down the wrong road?

RF: Yeah, yeah, great question. So, okay, first off, just to be clear again, folks who are in the SEO consulting world are not competitors of Moz, because we don’t do any SEO consulting. That being said, the world of SEO consultants I think, unfortunately has gotten a bad rap from, in my opinion, just a few bad eggs. And that happens because a lot of the manipulative and bad SEO that you see comes from a small number of companies who are very high volume. They email spam, and they cold call, and they create this impression of a world of SEO consultants that’s filled with bad people. When in fact that could be just five or six companies, you know, coloring the field for the rest of the hundreds and thousands, tens of thousands, actually, of good consultants and agencies out there. My opinion is it’s really, it’s a field of thousands and thousands of great folks and a few bad eggs. Unfortunately I think because, really because Google and the other search engines in their early days were so secretive about what worked and what didn’t, there was no way for a small business owner to understand how SEO worked, right? They’d go to Google and Google would give them no information, and there’s no phone number — you can’t talk to anyone there. You don’t know how it works and so you can get really taken advantage of.

I think the way to combat that, you know, to the latter part of your question, is get yourself a fundamental understanding of SEO. There’s two good resources I’ll point to: both of them are free, entirely free. You don’t even have to, there’s no registration required, or email or anything. One of them is our Beginner’s Guide to SEO. So if you search for SEO Guide in Google, I think it’s either number one or number two. Thank goodness we’re relatively good at SEO. That is probably an hour’s read, and will give you a great fundamental head start on understanding the principles and concepts behind how search engine optimization works.

The second one is, if you’re more of an audio-visual learner, I did a class with Skillshare. It’s a free class, so if you Google SEO Skill Share or Skill Share Rand Fishkin or something like that, you’ll find this class and that is about 80 minutes long. It walks through all the fundamentals of SEO, gives some quick takeaways, and a lot of tactical tips. It’s basically me and a whiteboard and a computer showing you a bunch of the principles behind it. So those are both good resources.

EÜ: I love your whole whiteboard series.

RF: Thanks, yeah.

EÜ: I also recently read your 2016 predictions.

RF: Yeah.

EÜ: So I’m hoping you can tell us about some of those. We’d also love to hear how accurate your 2015 predictions were.

RF: Yeah, yeah. So that was a blog post. I always do this because you know, there’s a lot of technology prognosticators out there who make theories about what’s going to happen in the next year, or the next few years. They do that annually, but then they never grade themselves on it, right? Like hey, am I doing a good job of predicting what’s coming next?

EÜ: Right, yeah. Exactly.

RF: So that’s something that I really like to do, and I think my 2015 ones were not excellent, probably not my best year, but still I got more of them right than wrong, and gave myself a passing grade there, allowed myself to make some predictions for 2016. I think the predictions that I’ve got for this coming year, they sort of center around the search engines and how social media and mobile are changing things, right? So I made a prediction that I think Twitter is going to figure out how to grow again. I sort of hope they get a full time CEO at some point this year. I do think they’re going to figure out growth maybe in Q2, 3, 4 or something like that.

I think mobile is really interesting. It’s grown tremendously, but fascinatingly, at least so far, it hasn’t been cutting into desktop use much. So we still use our desktops quite a bit, and I think part of that, a big part of that is because for most professional types of work, you’re still jumping on a computer at your office and when you’re doing real creation style work at home, a mobile device is almost eating up all your other time in your life. It’s when you’re waiting for your bus, it’s when you’re sitting in your car, it’s when you’re chilling on your couch and barely watching the TV show that’s not that interesting. You know…

EÜ: Yeah, anytime you really don’t care about ergonomics, right?

RF: Yeah, yeah for sure. And so my prediction there was I don’t think mobile will cut into desktop’s use much more than it has the last four or five years, even though it continues to grow.

EÜ: So one of the things you talk about that I think is a great term is “manufacturing serendipity.” Maybe you can tell us a little more about that and why it is important for small businesses.

RF: Sure, yeah, yeah. So this is kind of something that over my career I’ve observed, which is that exposing my content through all sorts of means: through blogging, through these whiteboard Friday videos that I do, through guest contributions to things. I’ve mentioned Skill Share or writing for Pro Blogger or writing for other sites through speaking at conferences and events through participation in social media. I’m essentially exposing Moz and how we can help people and content that hopefully is making people better at their jobs, and at work through all these mediums. And because of that, a bunch of positive serendipitous things happen.

Things like, you know, we raised both of our rounds of venture capital essentially because of, or almost entirely directly because of content that I created for the web: blog posts and that sort of thing. That’s how I was exposed to a lot of the early conferences that invited me, which connected me to other entrepreneurs who then became clients for our consulting business. It’s how we’ve done a lot of our hiring over time. It’s how we’ve done a lot of our, the spread of our product and our marketing. And so that the challenge with serendipity is it’s very unmeasurable. I think a lot of web marketers kind of hate unmeasurable channels, right? We’re trained in web marketing that everything we do has to be numerically driven and attributable. The problem is when you restrict your activities to only things that can be measurable, you lose out on a lot of these serendipitous possibilities.

And so we have something that we do on our marketing team at Moz, that we’ve done for the last decade, which is to take 20% of our dollars, of our people, of our time, and invest them in hard to measure or unmeasurable serendipitous channels.

EÜ: I love that, I love that. Because you never know, you have no idea what that one thing is that you will have done, will have gotten in someone’s ear, that will then make sure that they’re going recommend you to somebody else for some big thing.

RF: Yeah, yeah, and I mean the way we think about it too is, when we do these things, let’s do things that are positive for other people and positive for the world, and let karma and serendipity sort of reward that as they will. And that’s been proven to be extremely ROI positive over time. It’s just very inconsistent and very hard to measure. You know, you might practice something for years before you see a massive return on it, right? That seems to be how these things go.

EÜ: It really is. So before we close, I just wanted to ask you one last question. Having heard your story, all these highs and lows and the tension with your family, and feeling like you were hiding the truth, but then closing with these positive serendipitous experiences: was it all worth it in the end?

RF: Was it all worth it in the end? Let’s see: I’m very thankful for the experiences that I’ve had and I am, I know that, I’m incredibly lucky to have gone through the things that I did. And to have made so many stupid mistakes in my career, so many times, and then doubled down on them and taken years to learn the lessons from them. And yet, still come out to this place where Moz is today. For folks who don’t know, Moz is about 200 employees, about 23,000 paying customers, and a little under $40 million in revenue. So it’s kind of in a nice place and growing, not as fast as we’d like, but growing. And I would say that, I don’t know if it was worth it is a hard thing to say. Like I also have a tremendous amount of regret about my professional life, right? Things that I immensely wish I could go back in time and do differently.

And so I think it’s a little less about trying to balance out the scales and say was this worth it or not, and a little more about saying just try and experience this journey, and appreciate it for what it is. And learn from it, and hopefully help other people learn from my journey as well, and maybe avoid some of the dumb mistakes that we made.

GM: Well Rand, I want to say we have absolutely no regret for having you on this podcast. You’ve been fantastic.

EÜ: Yeah, I really appreciate your transparency. I really appreciate your sharing your personal stories. This means so much more than listing off some of the things that people can do to improve their SEO. So really, thank you so much for being so honest.

RF: Oh gosh, it is my pleasure. Well you know, I’m writing a book about sort of the last 15 years of these experiences, and so a lot of the stuff is fresh in my head, and it’s good timing. So thank you so much for having me on.

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Elizabeth: Wow, what an amazing person Rand is. I’m really impressed at how transparent he is, even about some of the things that weren’t going quite so well. And to hear him talk about what he might have done differently and how all that dishonesty early on, when he was in so much debt with his mum, really caused a lot of internal turmoil that looking back he thinks is wholly unnecessary.

So what a great show, really enjoyed having Rand Fishkin on the line today. And do stay tuned because next episode we have Andrew Eager from Boostability. We’re going to continue this theme of SEO, search engine optimization. And Andrew’s going to join us and share some tactical tips, and these are more nuts and bolts of how you can implement some SEO for your website to get noticed. Thanks and I’m Elizabeth Ü— we’ll see you next week.

GM: And I’m Gene Marks. Look forward to seeing you guys.

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