Say what matters: My Mozcon 2012 presentation

Ian Lurie

These are the notes from my Mozcon 2012 presentation. I emphasize ‘notes’. There’s quite a bit of stream-of-consciousness going on here. If you want to see the presentation and supporting materials, instead, go to the bundle, or check out the slides themselves, right here:

I think the folks at SEOMOZ are mad at me. See, they asked me to talk at MozCon this year, and I was really flattered. Speak at the premiere search marketing conference? Hell yes.

But then they gave me the topic:

“How to build links without doing anything”

Really? Seriously? What did I do? Build links. Without doing anything? Sure. Right after that I’m going to give my seminar on how to turn lead into gold.

The genius of it

Then I realized they were brilliant. Brilliant. They were telling me, “Ian, be the contrarian. It’s what you do best. Channel your inner New Jersey-ite and kick some link building ass.”

Well OK then.

So, I tried “How to build links without embarrassing yourself.” That was OK.

Then I finally got to:

Yep. Stop link building.

Your link building campaigns resemble my social life in the early 1990s: You think you’re a great catch.

So cool

You think you're cool

But you’re not as sexy as you think.

You're actually a rodent

You're not as sexy as you think

And you’re trying way too hard.

Stop. It.

The Penguinopalypse

You really have to stop now, because the day we all dreaded—the end times we all wrote of in the ancient texts—the Penguinopalypse, has come. The End of All Things.

The Penguinopalypse

The Penguinopalypse

Google got sick of us embarrassing them and slammed the door on our itty-bitty, link-spamming fingers.

Link building has failed.

As a long-term strategy, link building has failed. You had a nice run for the last decade. But I’ve got bad news for you: 10 years is nothing. Big brands look at businesses that are all puffed up because they’ve made a profit for 5-10 years and pat them on the head, saying “Aw, so cute. Come back and talk to us when you’re 50.”

And I gotta get something off my chest. No one else in our industry is a big enough jerk to say it, so I will: I told you this would happen.

Yes, I did. For years. Google is smarter than us. We kept manipulating the rankings. Eventually this was bound to fail. Your business can’t grow based on a marketing strategy called “How to get easy links from Blogpost and Squidoo.”

There is no such thing as link building

The real reason link building failed? It never existed as a tactic. Not really. Link building is a result—an outcome—of good marketing.

We screwed up when we turned link building into something you do, as opposed to something that happens. That’s why Google loosed its penguins on us.

So no link building. This is about audience building. Audience. Building. Which means this is about content.

There is no such thing as content marketing

But this isn’t about content marketing, either. There’s no such thing as content marketing as a tactic. Like ‘link building’, content marketing is an outcome of good marketing.

The proof? When you talk about ‘content marketing’, your bosses and clients look at you like you’re insane. You’re using the wrong point of reference. Instead of calling it content marketing, call it marketable content. Content that helps grow a business. You’ll get a lot more support.

Marketable content works like this:

  1. Build a great message.
  2. Communicate it well with marketable content. That grows your audience.
  3. Which grows your authority (including links and shares).
  4. Which then grows your business.

Easy, right?

So why do so many people go out there, start throwing content around like chimps throwing poo, and then completely fail?

Because no one says what matters.

Say what matters

You want to build links? You want to produce marketable content? Say what matters. Let me say that again, in bigger print:

Say what matters

Say what matters to me now. Which probably isn’t your product or service. More likely, it’s some random thing that relates to your product or service only because I’m interested in both it and you.

One great example: Life Insurance. No one sells life insurance by saying “You are going to DIE man!!!” They sell it by offering ‘peace of mind’. Because peace of mind, which has very little to do with death, at least for me, matters now. That’s how you reach me.

Another example: I’m what folks refer to as a ‘squishy liberal’. Squishy, apparently, because I believe in such madness as health care, and education, and other silliness. But I drive a car that’s an environmental disaster, because I also like speedy cars. And I’ve tried target shooting a few times and really liked it.

That seems random, right? But what if this ‘randomness’ is actually normal? What if lots of squishy left-wingers like me also like the same randomness. Then it’s not so random any more, and you can reach a lot of people, just like me, by mixing sports cars with politics. Which, after I’ve endured four years of completely foul politics, may be your only shot at getting me to listen to you.

Say. What. Matters.

Which sounds great, but how exactly do we do that? Use the Idea Graph.

The Idea Graph

The idea graph is this universe of topics that relate to each other, not semantically but because people like them. It reveals all sorts of crazy stuff, like:

  • People who watch the show Grimm also like the Beatles;
  • SEO’s like to watch Hell On Wheels (the TV show);
  • People who like Harry Potter also like organic produce.

There are all sorts of audience-building possibilities in this kind of knowledge. Selling organic produce? Maybe you should tie in with kids learning magic. Or make Monsanto look like he-who-must-not-be-named.

The point: Maybe vegetables don’t matter to me right now. Maybe I just got back from the store. Or I hate vegetables. But you have another shot at capturing my attention if you find something else that matters to me in the graph.

The idea graph is powerful stuff.

Take a peek

If you want to take a peek at the Idea Graph, use Facebook. I took a quick look at ‘Marketing’, which of course led me to ‘Search Engine Optimization’. But I can’t write about SEOevery day. Fortunately, there’s lots of other stuff I can talk about:

SEO and Hell on wheels? Why not.

SEO and Hell on wheels? Why not.

I can probably come up with something fun about Hell On Wheels and tie it into SEO, right? By doing that, I have a better chance of saying something that matters to a reader who’s sick of SEO (or thought they were).

Get deeper into the data: The Portent IdeaGraph

Facebook is great, but it’s slow, and you may miss relationships because you forgot to type in a particular word. That’s because Facebook’s ad tool is designed for ads, not research.

We’re working on a different dataset that’s retooled just for research. Right now, it’s got about 10,000 topics, very loosely connected. We need a lot more data to make it really powerful, but there’s still insights to be gained. Plus, you can create pretty diagrams like this:

The idea graph, from 150,000 feet

You can download a partial dataset here.

Open the spreadsheet. You can find stuff like this:

Basically: The sheet lists every topic in the graph and links to every other topic in the graph, if any. The third column shows the ‘distance’ between the source and target topic. The smaller the distance, the more likely that someone who likes one will like the other.

Give it a try. And, if you want this resource to get better and better, opt-in to the app that builds the graph here. We won’t do anything sneaky. We’ll just use your data to build out the graph.

Then you can use the data to say what matters.

This is pretty strategic stuff. Here’s an example to illustrate how you can apply all of this tactically:

Use the graph to grow your audience

Say I’m a college student. The last thing that matters to me, right now, is studying. Right? If you operate a site that helps students study, you have to pray I find you the week before finals, because that’s pretty much your only chance of reaching me.

Or, you can figure out what matters to me now. Like games! Games matter to me now! They’re fun!

Based on that, you could create a game and put it on your site, or your Facebook page, or whatever:

And thereby reach a far larger audience of students who don’t happen to be studying right now. Suddenly, we’re saying what matters.

This worked—it’s a real example. We got a few quality links and 20-30 shares. Sounds like peanuts, but that was a 2-day effort, and not one of those links is from blogspot. These are all quality links that you won’t end up deleting later.

The wrap-up

I’m not saying ‘link building is dead as a tactic’. I’m saying it never lived. Pre-Penguin, you could get away with all manner of troublemaking, manipulating the rankings by spamming links. Now, that’s over, and it’s time to acknowledge that link building is a result, not a tactic.

Content marketing is just as non-existent. Throw it out. Stop thinking in terms of link counts and pages written.

Instead, find ways to grow your audience through marketable content. And you can make your content more marketable by using the Idea Graph to figure out what matters to me now. Do that, and you’re maximizing the chance your campaigns will generate results.

Check out Portent's Free Digital Marketing Training Library

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (that's more than 25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team, training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. Way to step up to the challenge. I love the idea graph concept and look forward to playing around with the data.
    One thing I did notice is that the opt-in link for the graph appears to be broken?

  2. Ian, I just read about three posts in a row – I can’t believe I haven’t stumbled across your blog before.
    If it’s any consolation I’ve been saying ‘I told you so’ in the UK and now in Australia, whilst trying to exude as much offensive smugness as I can.

  3. No lie, I haven’t thought of creating marketable content like this before. My approach was always been the direct way – my blog is about x topic so I should always write about x.
    As always, this takes it a step further. I like the idea of segmenting audiences so that we can create content that applies to specific subsets of our customers/traffic. Thanks for this, Ian. I’m going to carry it with me for a long time, and I am certain the content I create will be that much better now.
    P.S. Your posts are the equivalent to Skyrim to me. First-person awesomeness. #IanLuriefanboi

  4. Thank you, your Monsanto comparison made me laugh out loud! I sum up what you say when I talk to clients as “connect the dots.” Maybe because I have three children and realistically they (children in general) are often quicker than a lot of adults. Pushing links can be like joining every networking group available; not all are going to work for your business. Take a step back like the graph and look to see where the good profit connections should be linked.

  5. What a great read this was! You’re totally right about Google and it’s infamous penguin updates. It’s not about the amount of links one has anymore, it’s all about creating content that people WANT to read about and hope that they share your content with others on the web.
    Thanks again!

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