Episode 22: Testing SaaS SEO with Micah Fisher-Kirshner, VP of SEO and Content, Turn/River Capital

This is The Marketing Hero podcast by ClearPivot, turning marketers into heroes.

Maia Wells:

Today, we have Micah Fisher-Kirshner, who is definitely an expert on SEO having led strategy for big names like Zazzle and Zendesk. But very interestingly for us he now manages a set of B2B SaaS portfolio companies around SEO and content at a growth equity firm called Turn/River Capital. Micah has led exits recently for SaaS companies, including Mailgun, Airbrake, test IO, Magnus Health, and Huddle, which we'll get into a couple of examples from those, I'm sure, during the interview.

We are going to talk in depth about what it's like to move from managing SEO strategy and execution into managing companies in the space of content and SEO. Let's get into it. Micah Fisher-Kirshner, welcome to the show.

Micah Fisher-Kirshner:

Thank you for having me here.

Maia Wells:

Let's start off with a question we like to ask every single guest. What is your favorite part of your career, and how did you figure that out?

Micah Fisher-Kirshner:

The favorite part of my career has definitely been putting together essentially an in-house testing platform specifically geared around SEO. I got to actually do that really twice. First, when I was in comparison shopping at become.com, and then as well when I was at Zazzle. For me, what I really enjoyed about that was being able to go in, take that black box that sometimes you can say it's Google, and then tweak specific things and find out well, does this part actually matter or not? Then if it does, by what percentage? And being able to actually fiddle and tweak with it. That's something that I've always felt a lot of pride and enjoyment over.

Maia Wells:

Why do you feel that is? Is that something like solving an unsolvable problem in certain ways?

Micah Fisher-Kirshner:

Yeah, it's a little bit of that. Part of it is a little bit of the challenge and then figuring out said challenge or even if it's just parts of said challenge. I feel like in some ways it's a little bit like using a little bit of my... I have a little bit of an econometrics background. I feel like some of the stats and areas that are involved with it in doing the testing and trying to take something that's often seen very fluffy or qualitative and turning it a bit more towards the quantitative analytical side it, and that's something I get a joy out of.

Maia Wells:

Can you share with us, Micah, if you remember, one of the things that your testing revealed that maybe we would benefit from knowing?

Micah Fisher-Kirshner:

It's more of just the testing then-versus-now changes. So a lot of these tests were, let's see, almost 10 years ago for some of them. So the impact of that probably has changed, and some of them haven't tested since. But I think one of the most fascinating ones was determining placement of the content within the HTML.

And so we actually got to the point, because it was a large site, we could test by search engine, not by search engine, but see the difference between search engines, and see the impact difference between what at the time when Bing was... I think it was Bing maybe it was MSN then. But seeing the actual differences between the impact by search engine and seeing where on one Google was ... We moved the content higher up in the [inaudible 00:04:03] behind the tab. We would see like a drop of, I think it was like 2% on Google and like 10% increase on Bing.

So what I found fascinating at the time is I was sitting there and going, "Okay, what's the net actually then? Is that net numerically better or not?" It was a fascinating kind of situation to be in to, to kind of analyze not just a change, but a weird change where it benefited one search engine quite a bit more than the other. Then saying, "Okay, do we roll this out or not?" Because one, Google is bigger, but like larger impact Bing, but will that still be the amount of value over time if Google continues to increase its market share?

Maia Wells:

Well, it sounds like you're a really data driven guy. Is that something that has always been present for you in your career?

Micah Fisher-Kirshner:

Generally, yes, I try to be as much as possible. In fact, when I first started in the agency world one of the big things that I quickly dove into was in the early days the early launch of Google Analytics, free and kind of how much easier it was than many of the other build on a TruSight catalyst or Hitwise as well. And just trying to have a tool that oftentimes there was no search console, really. So finally having a tool that as an SEO I could use fairly easily, learn pretty quickly, UI understandable, right off the bat, and be able to collect that data and then leverage it for a lot of my SEO practices.

Maia Wells:

That kind of actually segues into thinking about some of those things with new solutions. So thinking about things like UI, data availability, how you can actually use that to improve all kinds of different practices, SEO included. Is that more what you're working on these days in terms of finding new solutions and ideas that are making waves in this area?

Micah Fisher-Kirshner:

I always try to keep an eye out to see what new things are out there. Personally I've found it to be most of the solutions are behind the times for SEO. I feel that the change of pace that SEO has and kind of the tool sets of the new technology that are out there, it hasn't really caught up. More and more I've seen more like niche oriented tools that solve a specific pain point and less of these larger ones that I call them fixed reporting platforms or solutions for SEO.

They're not very adaptable. They're not very flexible. So when like a change is made on Google it's months down the line before you get that, if at all, the data for what you need into said tool. And it makes it very difficult to keep track of all the changes and understand what the impact is in your SEO because they're these almost tools that were built for a different or a platform essentially was built for a different time than it is today and just haven't caught up. And so a lot of times I feel like more and more I'm trying to use like niche point solutions, which is also hard for what I'm trying to accomplish.

Maia Wells:

So just to clarify, and I don't know if you want to name names or not, but are we talking around the idea of like an SEMrush, a Moz, as those more static solutions and then some of the newer SaaS ideas coming out as more of those niche solutions?

Micah Fisher-Kirshner:

Yeah. I mean, obviously there's aspectrum of how static to flexible they are. I think for me personally I use SEMrush. They make changes every so often, but there are a lot of niche solutions. I'll see, for example, like pixel depth of where your actual result is on the SERPs. That's a niche solution. That still hasn't been implemented in very many type of tools sets from kind of like the larger platforms and the antiquated ones, but like niche ones have come up and great.

Or it took a bit for say a Clearscope being one of like a good niche tool for content and SEO and being able to take my SEO bias and arrogance from what I think is an SEO, put it to a side and say, "Hey, this is kind of what Google is saying as a whole is doing well for this topic. For any of the content that you want to rank try to at least at a minimum match that, and then go above and beyond for what your skill set is." It takes me kind of less from the picture and puts it more towards a good tool based thing.

And the SEMrush and a few other tools have tried to implement some of these things in place. And so it just seems to take longer for the skillsets that we need when we've gone from a lot of static environment to much more machine learning structures.

Maia Wells:

Can you give us a concrete example of a problem that you'll run into by not having that flexibility or a use case where you'd like to know some information in real-time based on an algorithm change and you can't get that in the kind of more, I don't know, legacy solutions for lack of a better word. Can you maybe give us like an application of this idea?

Micah Fisher-Kirshner:

Yeah. So there's been changes between new featured SEOs to come out, whether it was FAQs, how tos anything, or the more recent Google's changes to the title tags not being what is evident to the page. The FAQ's and the how tos those, for like SEOs, those took a bit of time to get added in, but it's also been not consistent. I get it for a project report, but not necessarily the same details at the overall report. And then kind of the details of what I get is mixed and matched. And so there's some there.

And then the title tag, like type changes, you get to see some of that in Ahrefs and there's good utilities of it, but there's no call out to like, "Hey, you don't have the title for this date." It is not for this time period or as least when we've collected the data it's not being used. There's no new column added in. There's no ability to see it when you get down to that level to just kind of see like, as a percentage out of the traffic and the things that you're tracking X amount of percentage as being the correct title versus the non correct.

And so it makes it difficult because if you're looking to try to see, "Hey, why did my CTR shift way in the past or why did my traffic shift?" you're missing out on set data points. Because you don't know very easily and visually in ways to say, "Hey, on this date you have it. This date you didn't."

And so you're trying to deduce what's going on and then trying to remind yourself what happened into the past. And oftentimes those things are not added in until much later. And there's not a lot of quick abilities to make those shifts. That's some of the pain points I hit as I see more and more of these functional changes that often will occur more and more on Google side.

Maia Wells:

And so Micah, do you think that the answer is some of these new startup SaaS solutions that are coming into the market to solve these pain points one at a time?

Micah Fisher-Kirshner:

I'm leading there a little bit because I kind of have to, and I'm not a dev and coder in any way. So for me, it almost feels like a new system built from the ground up has to kind of be built to deal with it. That has the flexibility built from the ground up.

And because like the niches, which are great, it's also time consuming because I got to go out and review them, get buy-in, get the purchasing price for that, and then integrate it into my current systems. And that's extra time and effort to try to figure that out. And then it's like, is it worth it? And if not is to just, okay, I'm going to have to suffer through more error ranges for the things that I work on.

And to me, it would be great if these tools had those abilities to know. Have somebody in house like Ahrefs has an SEO in house. These types of tools that start to suggest, oh, maybe they can actually make that shift because they've got intrinsically a product that is either originally built by an SEO versus built for SEOs, or they've switched to start pulling in-house SEOs to help work on the actual product and know from an SEO mindset what's needed.

And I think that is a good stop, not stop gap measure, but the right path to hopefully get to the situations that I as an SEO and I would say generally a lot of SEOs really need to kind of understand what's going on as more and more complexity is added into the system.

Maia Wells:

Yes. And actually, we just had a recent episode talking about the importance of SEO and engineering working together, even on the product side, even on the marketing side. So, if you guys haven't heard the episode with Abhishek Rajendra, go look that up because we talk in depth about that relationship and how important it really is to have that collaboration happening.

So, Micah, I wonder if we could talk a little bit about what's happening at Turn/River Capital and some of these SaaS companies that you're seeing come through. You had a couple of recent exits that are super interesting. And even these are tools sort of for developers. I'm thinking of Airbrake, I'm thinking of test IO, things that are reaching out to the community that cares about this, the community of techies like us.

So tell me a little bit about what that transition was like going from being an expert in executing SEO, or as an SEO, turning into kind of more of a growth equity guy. What has that journey been like? And then also I'd love to know any exciting new solutions that are on the horizon that you're looking at right now.

Micah Fisher-Kirshner:

Yeah, so a little background for me. I started in the agency world. I was there for about three years. And then I've been, I went in house for most of my career thereafter. And the switch over into a growth equity private equity world essentially is like being in between the two different worlds really.

And then, for me, I see that as the best of both. I get to work across different companies in learning kind of what's going on and seeing the experiences and then trying to suss out best practices across a very similar industries that the company focuses on, but also kind of act as somebody who is really in-house, part of the team essentially across each of these different what we call portfolio companies.

So the difference in kind of that aspect for me, and we're it changes a bit as I look at things essentially at scale, but at the scale of across the company. So what can I do that I can then replicate? Because we're all ... Basically Turn/River focuses in the B2B SaaS space, as you mentioned. That is one of the areas. We also do security IT as well.

And we found that generally we can kind of rinse and repeat and do a lot of similar tactics and best practices in IT that we can use across. And so the area that I focus on is trying to think through those, find something that works, test it on another. And if it does, start to kind of rinse and repeat and put that into a process going forward.

So the process for that is essentially in a lot of ways a starting point understanding the business. When a new company comes as part of the Turn/River portfolio is understanding where they've been in the past. What are the current leaks so to speak, as I like to put it? What are the issues currently with the site that need fixing so that the growth period from there on out isn't necessarily hampered by any of the things that we're going to put into place.

And then it's kind of let's say a standard process of, here's what we do in our year one, work on these things. And the longer we keep them the more kind of things we have for the, not more, but like different things that we have for a year two and a year three play.

But at the same time thinking, how can I take the year two, year threes, and speed it up moving into year one, if we can do so in a way that doesn't overburden the marketing directors at these portfolio companies? Because of course, it's not just me as kind of in a unique environment as an SEO in a private equity, but it's other marketing folks, other sales folks, and other CS folks, as we're ... the focus is about growing those businesses, which is just unique. And a nice, better path, in my opinion, is like, how can we grow and really improve them? And so we're working with the set teams trying to find, okay, they're missing X, Y, and Z person. We need to get those hired into those companies.

And we are the specialists to help partner with them so that they in their role can be successful in the business in turn. And so trying to understand what is needed goes through then. And so as long as we can reasonably do so without overwhelming in getting there, then that's part of what I work towards when it comes to many of these portfolio companies.

Maia Wells:

So let's talk a little bit more about timeline because I heard you say things in terms of years, which is music to my ears because I think a lot of times, especially in marketing for a software at SaaS, everything is due yesterday. I mean, it feels like we are all moving in such a fast pace all the time.

I mean, we all know SEO by and large is a long-term game. If you are looking at the technical health of your website, content programs, I mean, there's so much that goes into it, right? And so it's not something like advertising where we see how many people come to the website tomorrow.

So I wonder if you can talk to us a little bit about the possible pressure to grow. I mean, we do want to make money here, right? I mean, that's what a growth equity firm is about. Let's get these companies ready to go. Let's everybody make some money, right? And having that pressure there, or maybe even timeline pressure on that versus the idea that SEO is not a quick tactic. So how do you deal with that? Do you deal with that? Tell us a little bit more about the timelines.

Micah Fisher-Kirshner:

Yeah. No, I don't mean to lengthen and say it's only all about work around your 1, 2, 3. We look at the data on a week to week basis. We are looking at what can we get done? When a company comes up what can we get done in the first 90 days? And the same thing of like, what can we do to speed up work from year two or three and move it into year one?

And so it's a balance with the portfolio companies in saying, "Okay, SEO is generally longer term. So we need to put in some foundational work to get this out of the way, but you have your paid work, your CRO work, getting the data properly set up. You have all these other things too." And understanding that because we are all aligned towards a single goal, what's nice about it is that we can do a better job of prioritizing our different work.

And in turn, they can help understand what their prioritization of their work should be too, because the end goal is like, we're trying to hit a specific number. We hit the number. It doesn't necessarily matter how we get there, because we're going to hit ... Obviously, if we can hit it in the way that we think we should, that's best, but if we still hit it and we figure out why or how, we can then learn from that and use it elsewhere. And so it's always a net benefit.

And so, the inter party politics type stuff is less then because we're all aligned to the goals. And it makes it then easier, even if the pressures on of like, we need to look at this week to week, we need to be on it. Because oftentimes at least the first 90 days in the direction where things are going matters for the next two, three years. And it's helpful getting that aligned early on. Everybody kind of understands. And then, so there's that side of it.

And then there's the, on the Turn/River side, where it's helpful of that. We have operations, the marketing and sales CF side, led by folks that actually understand each of these different marketing channels. And so having that person there who understands, yes, SEO does take a while, that you've got to build this in, lessons sometimes the misunderstanding that can occur about like, we need this now.

But we're also always pushing of like, can we do this faster? Is there a way we can speed this up? What are some creative ways to get around roadblocks? And it's a very conducive environment in that regard of asking questions to help hit. Sometimes our biases are where we shut things down. And it's a great way to kind of try a little. Can you get around it? Is there a way to make it work?

Maia Wells:

Definitely a lot of problem solving going on. So what would be an example, let's say, of a first 90 day goal? Let's say we can't get to the finish line in 90 days, but what would be like a starting line kind of a thing that you would do with a typical company you're working with here?

Micah Fisher-Kirshner:

Yeah, a typical 90 day type goal. Prioritization of what needs to be fixed. So there sometimes can be some pretty big stuff. It may be ... These can vary. so it can go from like you have 10,000 domains that are linking to you and they're broken. You've missed a chunk. And it's like, "Well, that's a good chunk. Let's prioritize that."

There's a chunk of the site that has accidentally been blocked or chunk a of the site that shouldn't be, that might be creating issues. And so there's a prioritization. We'll call it kind of the audit side, but really it's just trying to find problems that has been as part of the nature of the business over X amount of years.

And then the other part is any quick wins that I can look at and say, "Yeah, we fixed this, I'm pretty sure we can get a quick win out of that." And that's usually meaning the continent side of the house. Fixes of specific parts of the site that I can scale across different businesses by just knowing intrinsically like, we fix the title tag in a format that's better like this, as one example, to starting to get a business shape together, depending on how complicated or big the company is.

Then it's, are we missing topics that we should be writing about? And this can be for, in the B2B world, are we talking about the right B2B subject? To the content end of like, have we covered the topics that we should be covering? Are we considering all the competitors that we should be considering for our target demographics that we care about to create with our ideal customer profile?

And those are some of the things where it's like, "Okay, let me collect that data of competitors, see what they have, see where they rank, what they're targeting." And then create a list together that I can go back to a content team or a marketing team to do so.

I think the last part usually is something like that in the 90 days any kinds of process or writing with SEO mentality, kind of best practices that I put together and say, "Okay, here are some things to help answer your questions about SEO concerns or ways of which we should be doing said research when it comes to your content that you're trying to rank on Google. Here's a way to do it." And so it's getting the training and teaching sessions going.

Maia Wells:

Yeah, it definitely sounds like some planning, some low-hanging fruit and some filling of holes kind of right at the beginning. What about a year into it would you say would be some goals? Or even what would be the end game, where, what is the picture of a company look like when you're starting with them versus upon exit, I guess, is really the goal here, right? What does that look like?

Micah Fisher-Kirshner:

Yeah, over time mainly it shifts from here to here is the process to handing more off to them. That can be just to the marketing person, giving them tips and things to do, to, "Hey, you need to hire somebody in house now. You're at the size year 3, 4, 5 in your big enough that you need an internal SEO," to more experimentation.

So it might be we've done all the major scalable things. And now we want to kind of like see what are some new ideas that we could throw out there, or in turn giving ideas back to me to say, "Hey, let's deal with this." Or kind of some fun stuff where like my paid person is doing a new program that's working well, but might be harming my SEO side in some way or form.

And so it's, not pivoting, modifying some of my work that I need to then work with the portfolio interns. "Okay, this is great. Kind of harmful here. How can we offset this to make it less harmful or turn into a positive?" And coming back to them on some of that. But we generally try over these years is that that's less amount of my time and effort into them and letting them kind of take more and more of the reign. Just so that then as we get new portfolios coming in I can spend more time with them because they're often say more need of the help at the start.

Maia Wells:

And so to wrap us up here a little bit, what would be something that you can leave us with? A piece of advice that you would give somebody that you're turning the reigns over to. Let's say you're turning it over to an in-house SEO that's been hired or a marketing director of some kind. What advice do you leave them with? Do you just say, "Hey, you know what? Here's the best practices. Good luck." What do you give them to walk away with? What is the inspiration, Micah, that you give these folks that you're working with?

Micah Fisher-Kirshner:

What I try to do is be a bit ... One is just generally be available for them. Here is what I've done. I basically try to explain on what I've done and why and where the gaps potentially still are because it's a different world of what I work in across scale versus when you're deep into the house. You can go pretty deep and fix individual things pretty quickly. So I'm there to still be helpful and answer any questions as it comes along.

I give them some of the training in my documents and things that I do, but making sure that they understand, "Hey, this is your thing now. This is just the way that I did it. Feel free to take it in your different direction." But it's also the willingness to chat with them every so often to talk about what's going on in the industry, because we are, so to speak, in the same bucket. We're not going to be competing any more.

But it's also like a history with them. So we want them to continue to be successful because it also looks good on us that after we hand it off it doesn't just crash. So we want to make sure that the handoff is good. And so there are documentations, training, explanation. And sometimes as needed check with them and help answer any questions or getting a sounding board of like "This SEO issue is really knowing the heck out of me. What is going on?" or, "We need additional help. Do you have recommendations?" "Here are some folks that I can recommend."

And so those are some of the things that I try to help in turn. Because I think of it as like, these are things that I would love for whenever I've gone to a new company is knowing what's happened and why, and who worked on it, and who can I talk to and understand what the issues were?

And so being able to kind of pay it forward and give that to them, I think is kind of my mindset of what I want to try to help with and take a successive one, give it to them. And so, as an example for that, I've worked with helping that part of that handoff with Mailgun. And so that part of it where it's like, same thing, it's a person to hire what they need help with.

And sometimes it's a learning experience even then versus like, "Okay, here's what I think it is." But then as needs change then that's got to change, but those are the fun things that I get to help with even after.

Maia Wells:

Yes, documentation as inspiration. I love it. That's what we all need more of in our lives.

Well, Micah Fisher-Kirshner, it has been a pleasure having you on The Marketing Hero. Thank you for joining us.

 

Click me