Curious how Ahrefs gathers & measures their data?
In this episode, Tim Soulo digs deep into everything Ahrefs, including how Ahrefs began, how they estimate traffic, measure keyword difficulty, hidden features & much more.
- 02:36 – How did you get into working with Ahrefs?
- 8:13 – How Tim balances so many projects at Ahrefs
- 10:10 – Some unknown features Ahrefs has
- 16:40 – Estimating the traffic each page gets in a SERP
- 22:05 – Is keyword difficulty an accurate way to measure a keyword?
- 27:17 – How did Ahrefs start off?
- 43:00 – Prioritising growth strategies
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Daryl Rosser: Hey, it’s Daryl Rosser here. Welcome back to another episode of the Lion Zeal Show. In this episode, I’m joined by Tim Soulo and we’re discussing all things Ahrefs. We want to learn how Tim has impacted Ahrefs, how the different metrics and tools work, what core features you have in the works, and all sorts of things like this. This is a great episode for any SEO nerds, especially people that are using or are interested in using Ahrefs. I highly recommend you watch this. All lot of cool nuggets in here and a lot of things that you can just take away from it. Let’s just jump straight into it. Enjoy the episode.
Tim, thank you for joining me on the show today. It’s great to have you here.
Tim Soulo: Sure. Thanks for inviting me.
Daryl Rosser: For the two people who don’t know who you are in our community, do you want to introduce who you are and what it is that you do?
Tim Soulo: My name is Tim. I’m head of marketing at Ahrefs and I’m hoping that at least one of these two people who don’t know me at least knows what it Ahrefs. Basically, here I am officially head of marketing, but because we are kind of a 40-people operation right now, everyone tries to do as much as they can, so I also do hiring. I also do a lot of product strategy, brainstorming features, and all that stuff. Even a bit of social media, tweeting some stuff from our official account and such.
Daryl Rosser: That’s awesome, man. How long have you been working for Ahrefs? How do you pronounce it, by the way? That’s a better question.
Tim Soulo: This is a great question. The way we like to pronounce it here is “H-REFS””.
Daryl Rosser: Ahrefs, okay.
Tim Soulo: But I think that the correct one would be “A-H-REFS”, like the way you spell it, but we call it Ahrefs and then in all of our videos, we use Ahrefs and we try to teach people to do it this way.
Daryl Rosser: Gotcha, Ahrefs.
Tim Soulo: And I’ve been with Ahrefs, I think somewhere right now, it would be three years.
Daryl Rosser: Did you have an SEO background before that?
Tim Soulo: Yeah, but I was never kind of hardcore SEO, so I worked for a bunch of different companies as kind of a general marketer. We did a bunch of everything, a bunch of SEO, a bunch of content marketing, a bunch of copywriting, conversion optimization, everything. Basically, when you’re the only person in the marketing team, you need to learn to do a bit of everything.
Daryl Rosser: That’s awesome.
Tim Soulo: This was my background. I was also launching a few side projects, which also gave me a ton of different experience in all sorts of areas.
Daryl Rosser: How did you get into working with Ahrefs, then?
Tim Soulo: This is an interesting story. Basically, like I said, I was working. I was having a full-time job. Even at some point, I had three full-time jobs. Basically, what I hated the most about my jobs is that always someone had to tell me what to do and I hate when someone tells me what to do because I always have quite a bunch of ideas on my own. Pretty much as a lot of other people, I started doing projects on the side where no one would tell me what to do and I was kind of in charge of everything. One of such projects was a personal blog, bloggerjet.com, where I also launched a few WordPress plugins and three years ago, I also tried to launch a tool similar to BuzzSumo, even without knowing that BuzzSumo existed.
I teamed up with my friend who was a developer and basically, we were pulling the RSS feed of a blog and then for all URLs found in Ahrefs’ feed, we were pulling all the social metrics from all the social networks. Basically, the tool was called “strip the blog” and kind of, in a BuzzSumo way, it helped you analyze which articles went viral and all that stuff. When I was doing some promotion, I don’t remember if it was for this tool or for WordPress plugins or for one of the articles on my blog, I basically was doing a lot of outreach. I reached out to Ahrefs, and because I knew that they are from Ukraine and I was from Ukraine, I sent them-
Daryl Rosser: How long ago was this?
Tim Soulo: Three years ago.
Daryl Rosser: Three years ago, okay.
Tim Soulo: Three years ago, yeah. I sent them quite a warm personal email, like, “Hey, guys. I know that you’re from Ukraine. I am from Ukraine, too. Blah blah blah. I had this and this. Can you please include me in your articles,” and like this. Basically, the person that replied to my email was Dmitry, our CEO and founder, and he started from hiring me to write a bunch of articles for Ahrefs, but things escalated quite quickly because I was telling him, “How about that? You have terrible copy on your homepage. You’re liking this feature. You’re liking that. This is wrong. This is wrong.” Dmitry was actually quite receptive to feedback, so it wasn’t just like some stupid guy was telling him how to run his business or anything like this. Basically, I think within a month from us communicating by email or Slack, he invited me to Singapore to be in charge of marketing. That’s pretty much the story.
Daryl Rosser: That’s awesome. How much has Ahrefs grown? How much has it grown in the last three years since you joined?
Tim Soulo: It has grown pretty well. I don’t have the exact numbers for three years, but I shared an article on Medium where I shared that the year 2016, we grew 85%.
Daryl Rosser: Wow.
Tim Soulo: And last year, 2017, we grew 65%. For an eight-figure business-
Daryl Rosser: That’s awesome.
Tim Soulo: We’re not disclosing yet the number of customers that we have and the kind of annual revenue, but will be my duties at the end of this year, but we are eight-figure business and for eight-figure business to grow 85% and then 65%, this is quite significant.
Daryl Rosser: It’s crazy. What is the coolest thing that you’ve personally worked on for Ahrefs?
Tim Soulo: Well, I’ve personally touched almost anything. Right now, all the copy that you see on the website was written by me. I enjoyed a lot of features that I added to Content Explorer. For example, highlight and link domains where you can use Content Explorer for prospecting and you can create a list of articles and then filter out those where websites are not linking to you. This was one of my favorite features because a lot of features that I was adding personally to Ahrefs were driven by my personal needs. When we were working something with our team and I had an issue, like filtering something or getting some information, I was requesting this from the team and we quite quickly added some new features, but I still think that, again, one of the tools that I worked almost entirely alone was our rank tracker.
Well, with the help of our amazing designers who are also great specialists in UiUx, but kind of the features I was suggesting and the tool that I didn’t invest almost any of my time was Site Audit because it’s quite technical tool. Most of the functionality of Site Audit is generally on the surface, so there was nothing much to add something unique there. Right now, we have covered the basic functionality and from there, we’ll be thinking of unique ways, unique features that no one else has, but I can’t even tell because I’ve touched almost anything.
Daryl Rosser: That’s cool.
Tim Soulo: Even the blog illustrations, all those. I’m not sure if you’ve seen our illustrations, but basically, whenever we need to design a custom illustration for the article, the scenario of illustration, what happens in the image, is always on me.
Daryl Rosser: Wow.
Tim Soulo: I cannot outsource it to anyone because … I don’t know. Sometimes, I get great ideas from our team, but I’d say that 80% of these illustrations are my imagination.
Daryl Rosser: That’s awesome. On a personal level, how do you bounce around between 50 different parts of the business and work on all these different things?
Tim Soulo: This is quite chaotic, I would say. Basically, at any point in time, I try to pick the thing that needs my attention the most. I don’t think I’m super good at productivity or management or all that stuff. Even with building teams, I don’t really like to manage stuff because when you hire people and you need to check what they’re doing, you need to train them, you need to help them with their issues, you have to manage all day and this is boring because you’re not doing some-
Daryl Rosser: That’s true.
Tim Soulo: Actual work yourself. You’re not creating anything. You’re just helping other people do something and I hate that. When I’m hiring people, I try to hire people who can actually self-sustainable, who can do things on their own, and who only need my help with some complex stuff where they would need my opinion or my advice or anything like that. A great example is Joshua. Right now, he’s our blog editor. He writes amazing articles and I don’t have to read every word of his articles and suggest him what should be added. His content is stellar and I’m super happy that we kind of officially hired him a few months ago and I’m super happy. These kinds of guys, they don’t need management and I’m happy that they give me time to work on my own stuff other than try to help them work on theirs.
Daryl Rosser: That’s awesome. Here’s an interesting question. What is some unique features or things that Ahrefs do, Ahrefs, I always say it wrong, that a lot of people don’t know about? What are some cool features that aren’t very popular, people don’t really know that much about?
Tim Soulo: There are a ton of features that are pretty cool, but people don’t know about it. For example, just recently, we released the video, again, with our new guy who we hired to do some video tutorials for us, Sam. He recorded a video with a few hacks that can be done with Content Explorer because Content Explorer is a unique tool in itself because it brings together the database of content that we crawl and collect from all over the web. It is quite big. I don’t remember exactly how big it is, but for every article, for every page that we have in Content Explorer, we have the number of referring domains, we have the DR of the website that is hosting the page, and we have search traffic.
Basically, you can put any keyword and Content Explorer will give you all articles that mention this keyword from all around the web. Then you can set DR filter of the referring domains to zero and you’ll see articles that mention this keyword and they don’t have any backlinks. Finally, you can filter by the search traffic and you’ll see articles that mention a specific keyword. They don’t have backlinks, but they get search traffic.
Daryl Rosser: Interesting.
Tim Soulo: If you’re doing just blogging or if you’re doing link prospecting, this is a goldmine of information because if people mention this keyword, it means they are interested in this topic. This means that you can somehow get a link from them. If you’re doing outreach, just reach out and say, “Hey, you mentioned this. I have great resources,” or if you’re doing guest blogging, you can just say, “I see you have a blog and you write about this, so will you accept my guest article.” Many people don’t know it. I think I first explained this kind of hack a couple year ago. I published it in our Facebook community and people were blown away. Now, we’ve released it kind of officially on our YouTube channel and people were blown away again.
Daryl Rosser: That’s awesome. I didn’t even know that.
Tim Soulo: Many people still don’t know. Actually, when I at Chiang Mai, at this conference, a few people were telling me about this hack that they were actively using and getting a lot of results with.
Daryl Rosser: That’s awesome. Any other cool ones that you can think of off the top of your head?
Tim Soulo: Another one that I personally enjoyed is when you see a kind of startup or a company that you want to research. Usually when you launch a company, the first few months or the first year are quite challenging to get publicity, to get mentions, so what you can do is you can go to Ahrefs new links report and you can use the data picker to go back in time and see where they were getting backlinks, like back in the days. We built this graph. On the graph, you can see where there were the first spikes and then you can use the kind of calendar, the date picker, to go back in time and see which websites were linking them, which is quite cool.
For example, the other day, I was reading the article, I think, about Slack. I was wondering how did they get such traction so fast. Then when I went back in time and I saw that TechCrunch was linking to them and some other big publications were linking to them, it appeared that Slack, I think one of the co-founders or something previously launched a few other successful startups and this is why he was getting press like this. Just the headlines were saying, “The founder of this launched a new startup,” so they were getting press. This is a pretty cool hack if you want to research some company, how they started, where they were getting press. It’s pretty cool to go back in time and see which websites were linking to them and what were the articles, what were the mentions.
Daryl Rosser: It’s really, really cool. That’s awesome. What are some big features that you’re working on right now, if you can share any?
Tim Soulo: Right now, a lot of resources have been invested into that Site Audit tool because we had to rebuild it from scratch and we are not just building another Site Audit tool. Even though we are kind of all-in-one tool set, with every individual tool we have, we try to compete with the big guys. In terms of Site Audit, we try to compete with a tool like DeepCrawl, which I think are regarded like the leaders of Cloud crawling because if we take the kind of desktop crawling, it would be, of course, Screaming Frog. In terms of Cloud-based, I think it would be DeepCrawl right now. We’re investing a lot of effort there to create a awesome tool.
Then a lot of work actually happens at the back end because we need to crawl all this data. We need to pretest all this data and actually, we have different databases that we need to sync because people ask, “You have this top pages report where you give the traffic numbers for all the pages of a website. Why don’t you add the referring domains column there?” This is the exact question that I asked our back-end team. “Hey, guys. Why don’t we add the referring domains column to the same report that shows the traffic of all pages?” They said, “It’s simple. We have these numbers in different databases and to pull it realtime, it requires a lot of effort,” so we had to do kind of a hack. We had to cache the numbers of referring domains into this other database.
It’s about this all the time. Whenever we want to add some feature, there are usually … Even this super simple feature that seems like a no-brainer, it requires some special technical investment, so a lot of stuff happens on the back end. We are rebuilding our database. We are improving our crawlers. We are adding more servers. Actually, I’m not even kind of the best person to talk about it because I don’t know the hell about all this. It’s all on our founder. He is super technical and super smart guy, and he is very hands-off. Usually when you think of CEO of some company, you think of a person who all that he does is attend some business meetings, maybe goes to conferences and stuff, but our founder is super technical. He actually does the stand-ups all the time with the back-end department, so he is basically managing everything that happens there.
Daryl Rosser: That’s awesome. Could we talk about some technical things? You mentioned estimating the traffic that each page gets and stuff. How do you guys calculate that sort of stuff?
Tim Soulo: That’s basically kind of reverse-engineering where the page ranks for. We have a database of keywords, which again, we have to update every month because if new search queries will pop and people won’t see them in Ahrefs, they will get upset, like, “How the hell don’t you have Pokemon Go in Ahrefs while it is a trend for the last few months?” We have to constantly update this database and then we need to pull rankings for all these keywords. I think these are half-million of keywords. I don’t remember. We have this page, ahrefs.com/big-data, and we publish all our numbers there, so you can check how big our database is. Basically, we have this database of keywords. We kind of check in Google his ranking at the top 100 positions and then we also know the search volume of each keyword.
Then we also know the CTR curve of each individual keyword because we use Clickstream. For every keyword, we know if 40% of people will click on the first result or 30% or 10% because usually, as far as I know, the tools that estimate traffic, they will use the standard CTR percentage for all their keywords. In our case, we use unique one. Then we reverse-engineer, so we take the URL and we pull all the keywords for which we’ve seen this URL and the positions and the CTR curve and the search volume of that keyword. Then we calculate the total traffic that should be coming to this page, but again, because our database of search queries is, of course, not covering all the keywords, all the search queries that exist in Google, especially considering that, what, 10 or 20% of search queries that people enter to Google every day are new, kind of never seen before.
People always say, “Why do you underestimate traffic?” Because there’s no way to accurately estimate it because so many search queries are new. They were not seen before, so we didn’t have a chance yet to pull them into our database and to estimate the full traffic. That’s basically the raw idea of how it happens and I think it’s pretty standard for all tools of that kind, but it largely depends on the size of the database, how many search queries you’re checking in Google for positions. It depends how often you do it because if you have, I don’t know, 500 million keywords, to pull positions for all of them every day, it’s quite hard, so the keywords with higher search volume will be checked more frequently. The longer tailed keywords that get 50 searches per month, we’ll check them once in a month or once in two months. I don’t really remember. When you look at the reports, you have to factor these things in.
Daryl Rosser: You mentioned Clickstream. For anyone that doesn’t know what that is, you want to briefly explain it?
Tim Soulo: Yeah. Clickstream is an amazing source of data that’s basically saving the SEO industry right now, I think. Basically, the Google Keyword Planner, they have started to take the data away from SEO professionals. For example, if you put any keyword idea into Google Keyword Planner, they will give you, I think it’s now 700 keyword ideas for any keyword that you put in. They also don’t show you the exact search volume. They show you ranges unless you do advertising, basically pay them money. Those that was not provided, they were taking keyword data away, so they’re not super interested for SEO professionals to know what people are searching for in Google.
Clickstream is the data that comes kind of from users themselves. All of applications that you install on your computer and specifically in your browser, in their terms, they say something like, “You allow us to kind of collect and anonymize data and resell it to third parties.” There are companies that sign deals with all sorts of, I don’t know, applications, plugins in Chrome, in Firefox, and such and they buy this data from these plugins who collect this data from other people. They anonymize it, of course. There’s no personal data, so nothing to worry about. Then they resell this data to other companies like Ahrefs, for example.
One of the most popular companies that collects Clickstream data is SimilarWeb. This is where they get their traffic predictions. They basically buy this Clickstream data from all sources they can. I think I saw a presentation with one of their founders who was saying that they even buy this directly from ISPs, so internet service providers resell data on their users to other companies. But again, I will mention, so that people won’t get so offended by this, this is all anonymized, so there’s no threat in it and this data is culled for marketing purposes only. No one know who is browsing what.
Daryl Rosser: Here’s another question about Ahrefs keyword difficulty. A lot of people always ask me about this, “Is it the best way to measure a keyword and stuff?” How does that work?
Tim Soulo: Yeah, right now, our keyword difficulty is solely based on the number of referring domains to the top 10 pages in the search results. Of course, a lot of people are saying, “You have to also factor the kind of domain authority over domain.” You also have to factor, I don’t know, the age of the domain. You also have to factor in the relevance of the pages, blah blah blah, so the list goes on and on, but then I actually did a small experiment. I took five different keywords. I sent them to a few of my SEO friends and they asked them to kind of give their kind of keyword difficulty scores, what they think about these keywords. The scores were different, so each person who is looking at the keyword difficulty, they are benchmarking it against their own … what they think this keyword should be.
Daryl Rosser: That’s true.
Tim Soulo: But if you are benchmarking keyword difficulty against your own, I don’t know, gut feeling, why don’t you just use your gut feeling and not use keyword difficulty? There’s no way to make a keyword difficulty no matter how hard, how advanced we go with factoring in different metrics. There’s no way to create a keyword difficulty that would satisfy everyone.
Daryl Rosser: Definitely.
Tim Soulo: Again, the more metrics we add … because we have a cache keyword difficulty for many millions of keywords, basically you can type any keyword into Keywords Explorer. It will give you, I don’t know, 100,000 keyword ideas, and then you can filter through 100,000 keyword ideas with key keyword difficulty metric on the fly. It’s not that some tools where you need to click a button, like “pull keyword difficulty” and then it would calculate it. We have it on the fly and the more complexity we add, the higher would be the cost to calculate this metric, but then again, we can ramp up the costs and then ramp up the price of Ahrefs subscription. No one would pay it and people will still blame us for not including this and that, so we chose a pretty simple way to calculate the number of referring domains because let’s face it. When SEO professionals are looking at the search results for a given keyword, the first thing they look at is how many backlinks they have. The second thing is, of course, the-
Daryl Rosser: That’s true.
Tim Soulo: Quality of search results, the relevance, and all that stuff.
Daryl Rosser: No, I think you’re right. The first thing if I’m going to check a keyword is the number of referring domains each of the pages have, for sure. It’s a good function.
Tim Soulo: Again, we don’t promote our keyword difficulty like some snake oil or something like this. Everywhere, we say that it is a proxy to how many referring domains the top 10 ranking pages have. We don’t sell it like, “This is an ultimate metric that you should always consider, blah blah blah.” We say that it is cool for filtering a large list of keywords, but of course it’s not reliable because there are so many other factors in place. As the SEO industry already knows, when you’re ranking in top 10, a lot of other factors kick in, like behavioral factors, like if people will click back from your result, how long they stay on the page, and blah blah blah. There is no way to capture everything in a single two-digit metric.
Daryl Rosser: Here’s an interesting question, then, because we we’re kind of discussing this in Chiang Mai. How do you think Google … You mentioned user metrics like how long people spend on the page, the bounce rate, and stuff like that. How do you think that data is being collected and measured on a keyword level?
Tim Soulo: Well, first of all, we don’t know this for sure.
Daryl Rosser: Obviously, yeah.
Tim Soulo: I think this is a general feeling in the industry. Everyone is doing some SEO work and everyone has different pages, different websites, and when you work on these factors that you can control, then you start looking at the factors that you kind of cannot control or didn’t tweak. Usually, for example, for us at Ahrefs Blog, we know how many backlinks we have. We know the quality of our content, but we don’t really know what people do. We can only imagine how people look at other articles compared to ours, so we tweak some things and see if rankings go up or go down. This gives us a feeling that something behavioral is in place. How Google would measure it? I think because they have Chrome, they could be using this. I don’t think they would use Google Analytics. To be honest, I won’t even give you an answer to this because I just think that any answer that I will give would be wrong, so let’s say I don’t know.
Daryl Rosser: Fair enough.
Tim Soulo: I personally have a feeling that there’s something in place based on my experience ranking websites and from my conversations with other people, a lot of people are feeling this way, too.
Daryl Rosser: Interesting. Here’s another thing I’m curious about. You mentioned a story before. How did Ahrefs start off?
Tim Soulo: This is an amazing story. It would be cool if Dmitry would be presenting it, but he’s not a very big fan of doing interviews and such. Basically, Dmitry wanted to build some kind of search engine for PDF files or something like this. I don’t remember, but he needed a big export from Majestic database. I’m not sure what kind of export he needed because he told me this story three years ago back when I was joining Ahrefs, but he needed a big data dump from Majestic. He emailed them and said, “Hey, guys. I need this and this and this. Could you do a custom data export for me?” They said something like, “Yes, sure. Give us $10,000,” or something like this. Dmitry was basically a guy from Ukraine where the cost of development are cheap and the brains of Ukrainian developers are pretty sharp, so he thought, “For this kind of money, I can build my own web crawler”-
Daryl Rosser: That’s so awesome.
Tim Soulo: Which he basically did. I think if Majestic simply gave him this data for free back in the days, they would be doing a lot better right now.
Daryl Rosser: That is a very awesome story.
Tim Soulo: Yes, this is an amazing story. You never know where the competition will come from.
Daryl Rosser: It’s so true. Cool. In terms of just straight up bragging, what makes Ahrefs better than the other tools? You don’t have to name any specific tools or anything like that, but what makes it better?
Tim Soulo: I would just say that the thing that makes it better is that Dmitry, our founder, I think he’s the most hands-on CEO among all the tools of this sort because, like I said, he is basically in and he is in the back-end. He knows how the crawling happens. He personally buys all the servers. He personally builds some algorithms for data processing for Clickstream and such and such and such. I think the edge of Ahrefs is in the technology. We are always advancing and it’s mostly back-end technology, but even now, we are trying to put our front-end on some new rails and again, it all comes from Dmitry. We also have a CTO who’s also an amazing guy, super smart, but I think when a founder himself is so deeply technical, then the tool would have a strong competitive edge from the technical perspective.
You can also see that we’re not doing as much marketing as the other guys. For example, SEMRush, they have, what, 400 people in their team or something like this? We are 10 times smaller than SEMRush and we don’t go to every conference. We don’t work with every influencer. We don’t have resources to do everything. They do a lot of marketing. We cannot afford this. Same with Moz. They have a blog that was running for … I learned SEO from Moz Blog, basically, so they have a huge audience. They have huge reach. They have a lot of content. We cannot compete with such things, so we are trying to compete in the quality of our data and the quality of our tools.
I wrote another article at Medium about the comparison test. Basically, what we are trying to do is win the comparison test because in today’s world, it is so easy to learn about the alternatives as soon as you start using something, let’s say you start using an Android, you learn about iPhone. You start using a PS4, you learn about the Xbox. You learn about alternatives super quick, so what we think is that when people learn about tools like Moz, SEMRush, Majestic who have been around for a very long time, they will also inevitably learn about Ahrefs. Then all we need to do is win the comparison test because people are always looking for a better thing to use, for a better spend of their money.
Daryl Rosser: Absolutely.
Tim Soulo: If they look into SEMRush and if they look into Ahrefs and they play around with the reports, they play around with the data, they see how much insights and data they can get. We try to win this test and I think this is our biggest driver of growth. Basically, we are kind of drifting behind the big guys. They do all the marketing. They do all the education, and we just try to win the comparison test.
Daryl Rosser: That’s awesome. I know from my experience running a pretty big SEO community, I guess, on Facebook, a lot of people on our SEO are switching over to Ahrefs. In the last, I’ll say, year or so, it’s been a massive transition.
Tim Soulo: You see, no marketing could do that. That’s not marketing. That’s purely product.
Daryl Rosser: Absolutely.
Tim Soulo: That’s purely product. There was nice saying. I wish I could remember it. It’s like something, “You can fool a small amount of people for a long time, or you can fool a large of amount of people for a short time, but you cannot fool a large amount of people for a long time.” This is what happens. We cannot fool a lot of people for a long time. It’s just comparison test.
Daryl Rosser: What do you believe is the primary reasons for the growth of, I can’t remember what you said, 60-something percent in a year, and the year before, 80% I think you said?
Tim Soulo: I think it’s people use Ahrefs, they get a lot of value, and because, again, we are social beings, we are social creatures. Whenever we learn something cool, we want to share it with others because by helping others, you get some, how is it said? Social currency or something. People naturally want to tell about cool things to other people, so when Ahrefs will impress a customer with our data, with how much results they can get, with how much insight they can get about their competitor’s website, about their own website, people just naturally tend to share. Like you just said, whenever conversation starts about, “Which tool should I use? Which tool is better?” Somehow, our users are the most vocal.
I don’t know. Maybe some marketing is also in place here, they way we kind of present ourselves, the way we do content, the way we try to maintain quality in everything we do, but what I am seeing is that maybe the other guys have more customers than we do, but our customers are surely the most vocal. Maybe it’s because of the pure quality of the product. Maybe it’s because we do something right in terms of marketing. Maybe it’s both, but I think that the larger part is the product itself.
Daryl Rosser: For sure. I’d say it’s almost, at least from what I noticed, the influencers in the SEO space all recommend Ahrefs and then everyone else almost just kind of follows along and just copies what they’re using and because they’re using it, they vocalize it as well.
Tim Soulo: And I can say that we don’t even do any kind of influencer marketing.
Daryl Rosser: That’s awesome.
Tim Soulo: I kind of communicate with a few people now and then, but we don’t have any kind of influencer program. Well, I think you could feel it yourself. I didn’t try to bribe you to use Ahrefs. I just gave you the tool. “Play with it. Tell me what you think,” and I wasn’t following up with you all the time, like, “What you think?”
Daryl Rosser: No.
Tim Soulo: “Can you write about us?” Or anything like this. It’s just all natural. If there is a connection, yeah, we would talk with you. We would communicate, answer each other’s questions. If not, no, we don’t have kind of an influencer program.
Daryl Rosser: That’s cool. You’ve got a very small team, like 40 people you said, give or take-
Tim Soulo: Yeah.
Daryl Rosser: Versus 400. How do you manage all your customers and ask them things screwing up or whatever?
Tim Soulo: Yeah, this is a challenge. For our support team, the primary objective, the primary goal of support team is to reduce the amount of support queries.
Daryl Rosser: Nice.
Tim Soulo: It’s not that we hire people who would just answer to queries and chat. We hire people who would give feedback to all the other people in the team. If people are constantly asking the same question, then we need to change something about the interface, then we need to change something about the copy on our website, we need to change something about our emails, and blah blah blah blah blah. We try to look for patterns and we try to fix them so that we won’t have to grow. Also, we don’t have any sales team, so we don’t have to pitch customers by Skype or phone or anything like this. We’re kind of quite successful for now with staying relatively small and we’d like to keep it this way. I think after Dmitry counted how many people have, he said that he is going to set a hard threshold of 50 and so we won’t grow above 50.
Daryl Rosser: Fair enough. You guys are based in Singapore, right?
Tim Soulo: Yeah. The headquarters are in Singapore. We also have a small office in San Francisco and the rest of the guys are kind of contractors, freelance, who working from different parts of the world.
Daryl Rosser: If you guys don’t have sales people, what positions do you have?
Tim Soulo: No, not a single salesperson. Even, like I said, in terms of positions, they are quite blurred. Everyone is trying to work on everything they can. For example, support people also help me with some marketing tasks. Our two designers, they also act like product managers, so they actually try to understand the product and not just to draw whatever we tell them and they have a small marketing team who are mostly outsourced. For example, Josh is in the UK, the guy who handles the content on our blog. The new guy that is doing videos for us, Sam, he is in Canada, I believe. Everyone is in different places.
Daryl Rosser: That’s awesome.
Tim Soulo: Again, like I said, it would be hard to manage because different timezones, you have to schedule these meetings. We don’t even have meetings. I just try to hire people who would be self-sustainable so that I wouldn’t control every step.
Daryl Rosser: What’s your management style, then? You just message them, “Hey, can you work on this,” and just kind of leave them to it?
Tim Soulo: We have Slack, pretty much, I think like every company right now. Whenever something, some quick question will pop, we’ll just communicate in Slack, but generally, I just use email and usually, the kind of goals that I set to each person are quite straightforward. I think it somehow manages itself. Like I said, I am not super cool at management. I actually hate management. I love creating things, so I try to put management on the people themselves and see how people would manage themselves and I would just help them to kind of refine their priorities and refine their goals. That’s it.
Daryl Rosser: That’s great. What are some, maybe top three, things you’ve learned over the last three years? Definitely put you on the spot there.
Tim Soulo: Yeah. The one that first pops in my head is that anything can get you in trouble. This is quite fun. When you get rich, when you get a large enough audience, anything can get you in trouble. For example, when I posted an ad for finding people to write for our blog, I said, “I need native English speakers,” because at the time, we didn’t have, I think, a single native English speaker in the entire Ahrefs team. Not a single native English speaker. I used the term “native English speaker” and people on Reddit, big SEO channel, they started that I’m kind of being racist and, “They should say fluent English speaker.” This thing got me in trouble. Then we also once published an article that had an illustration of a shaman going in circles around a computer with a website, kind of trying to do SEO in shaman style. Then we had a little backslash from Native Americans who said that we were making fun of them, so we had to redraw the illustration to make the shaman look like a shaman.
Daryl Rosser: Wow.
Tim Soulo: Yeah, we had quite a few of these things. I just learned that you have to be super careful with everything you say, with everything.
Daryl Rosser: I guess, also, people will be people. There’s always someone that’s going to complain about something.
Tim Soulo: Yes. It always happens, but still, being in charge of marketing, you have to kind of-
Daryl Rosser: For sure.
Tim Soulo: Keep an eye on such things and not let them happen. The second thing that I learned, probably it is that you have to start doing everything yourself. If you want to make sure that someone will do a quality work, you have to start doing it yourself. For example, with Ahrefs Blog, when I just joined Ahrefs three years ago, I wasn’t even sure that blog would be a good channel for customer acquisition because back in the days, no one was reading Ahrefs Blog. No one even knew that Ahrefs had a blog, so something terrible was happening there.
I wasn’t even sure that I have to spend time on our blog because there was so much work on the tools, on the pricing, on the copy of the pages, blah blah blah, but still, somehow, I managed to slowly act one step at a time, improve this, improve that, hire a better writer, hire a better writer. Then, right now, blog is actually a good source of customers, of exposure, of backlinks, of education, of everything, but I wouldn’t know it if I would just hire someone to run our blog and assigned to them. I need to do everything myself and I need to know what works and what doesn’t.
The same with our Facebook group. When I started our Facebook group, I didn’t know what would be the positive thing about it, what I can get out of the Facebook group, but then as it started growing and I was coming up with new ways we could use it, like to find better testers, to find people who would translate our interface, to do some contests, to get support from people, I realized that this is a great channel, but if I just had some social media guy and the social media guy would tell me, “We need to launch Facebook group,” I would just say, “No. I don’t see the purpose in it.” I think it is cool when you start doing everything yourself and then once you dig into it, you will assign it to a person and you will then help them to grow with even more than you did.
Daryl Rosser: I like that.
Tim Soulo: In terms of third thing, that’s a tough one. Let’s leave it as two.
Daryl Rosser: Two works, okay. Two works. When you joined Ahrefs initially, there was a whole bunch things to do. You said you ended up doing a blog, which is a great idea in hindsight. How do you kind of prioritize all these different things and decide what to go into, what’s not worth it? You haven’t done influencer marketing. You’re not really huge on going to events and sponsoring stuff and things like that. How do you decide what to do and what not to do?
Tim Soulo: Basically by doing it. I cannot say that every decision was the right one. For example, in a few months after I joined Ahrefs, I went to PopCon in Vegas to hang out there. Basically, my goal was to see if there would be any point of being at this event. At that point, I thought there’s no reason for Ahrefs to be there. There’s no reason for us to sponsor events because we have better things to do, blah blah blah. Right now, I don’t feel this way. Right now, we want to start tapping into conferences, participating in them, sponsoring them, and all that sort, but basically, I just started doing a bit of everything. I started connecting with influencers and I saw what was the outcome compared to the amount of effort that I was putting in. Then I figured out if I want to do more of it. Basically, I tried everything.
Here’s a fun story. Maybe we could add it as the third takeaway that I’ve learned at Ahrefs. Basically, there’s all this hype about conversion funnels, sales funnels, how to convert people, onboarding sequence, blah blah blah. We installed three different analytic systems. I think KISSmetrics, Woopra, Mixpanel. Maybe there was even something else. All three of these platforms were getting the same data and we have configured the same funnel in all these analytics systems. How many people enter our homepage? How many people click on the “start trial” button? How many people fill their information, get the notification email, confirm your email? How many people end up registering their account? What we saw is that each one of these three platforms showed us different numbers.
Daryl Rosser: Sounds about right.
Tim Soulo: We realized, “How can you care about optimizing your file for one or two percent if all these analytics platforms are different by one or three percent at the start? What’s the point?” Then we also realized that the time that we spent on doing some A-B test … for example, when you start designing a new tool, a new feature, or even a new landing page and start discussing with the rest of the team, it somehow appears that there are two or three amazing ideas and you cannot decide which idea is more amazing than others. Eventually, someone will often say, “Let’s do an A-B test,” to which we say, “No. We don’t spend time on A-B tests. Let’s pick whatever feels right because the time that we spend on doing A-B tests, on configuring everything, could be actually spent on writing a better article or creating a better tool, or adding some more data, or refining our help section.” We don’t do any A-B tests. We don’t have a kind of setup of tracking every single click that people do in our platform.
Daryl Rosser: Fair enough. Fair enough. Cool. Two final questions, then, and we’ll wrap it up. Number one, what is something that people don’t know about you personally, that most people don’t know?
Tim Soulo: I’ve seen someone on Facebook once telling you to ask a question about my profile picture with the fists?
Daryl Rosser: Yep.
Tim Soulo: Maybe that’s something that people don’t know about me is that I was training MMA, mixed martial arts, for four years, I think. I wasn’t even close to professional, but I was quite consistent and I had personal trainer. I guess this is where the profile picture is coming from, but in all honesty, I was just have fun in front of the camera and then I thought that if I want a memorable profile picture, I need to use this because I didn’t see anyone else with their fists in their profile picture and I think that-
Daryl Rosser: It is different, for sure.
Tim Soulo: I think it’s quite eye-catching and people memorize it.
Daryl Rosser: Definitely.
Tim Soulo: That’s something I think people don’t know about me. Maybe they also don’t know that Tim Soulo is not my real name because-
Daryl Rosser: Really?
Tim Soulo: Yeah. I was born in Ukraine and we have quite lengthy names, which are hard to pronounce for anyone outside of Ukraine or Russia, so I had to use my pen name, but in our industry, to be fair, a lot of people use pen names.
Daryl Rosser: A lot, yeah.
Tim Soulo: Even Rand Fishkin, as far as I know. Maybe I am terribly wrong here, but I think Fishkin is not his last name.
Daryl Rosser: Interesting. I’m using a real name. Cool, man. The final question is just where can people find you if they want to reach out, connect, or anything like that?
Tim Soulo: Thanks for the question. I have prepared a page for this. It’s ahrefs.com/tim, T-I-M. There’s everything that I want people to know about me. Everything is on the page. There are a couple of articles that I think are the best ones. There are links to my social channels, a couple research studies that we did at Ahrefs. I highly recommend to check out this page because there’s some cool information there.
Daryl Rosser: Awesome. I appreciate you joining me, Tim. It’s been really awesome.
Tim Soulo: Sure. Thanks a lot for inviting.
Daryl Rosser: All right, man. I hope you guys enjoyed the episode and I’ll catch you next week.
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