Interview with Ed Fry about Inbound.org

Inbound.org logoBack in June, I interviewed Rand Fishkin about Inbound.org, an Inbound Marketing community that calls itself the “Hacker News for Marketers.” The site was about four months old at the time of the interview, as it had officially launched in February this year.

Roll on six months and the site has seen some significant changes: Ed Fry (@edfryed) was hired as the site’s General Manager in September and a redesign of the website was released towards the end of October.

The site’s nearing its first birthday and Ed and co. have some big ambitions for the site for 2013 – see Ed’s The Future of Inbound.org slides and the related submission/Discussion page (which itself links off to eight other Discussions which are covered in the slides) to find out more.

I recently approached Ed asking if I could carry out an interview – sort of as a follow-up to the one with Rand in June – and he happily obliged. Below we cover his recruitment, the redesign, what’s new, what’s in store in 2013 and more…

Here we go…Ed Fry photo

Steve Morgan: How did your recruitment as General Manager come about? I’d love to hear the full story beyond the official announcement.

Ed Fry: It came out of pitching Rand (amongst other people) at LinkLove/SearchLove conferences. Whatever idea was on my mind, or someone else mentioned that had some sense of being validated. It wasn’t like a persistance thing, but when talking in the post-conference after parties sharing ideas with people and seeing whether it gets them excited too.

These ideas weren’t all related to Inbound.org – most were more related to SEOmoz. One idea pitched was print editions of the Beginners Guide to SEO. That could be super-handy for an in-house to hand around a company? That particular “pitch” got quite far! I ended up researching full costs and submitting a proposal to Jamie and the team at Moz…

I’d been doing some work in the recruiting space at the beginning of this year, so the idea of a jobs board for Inbound was bubbling around. I pitched it to Rand at the LinkLove afterparty in March. His eyes lit up, and we followed up by email. Little did I know it was then a topic of discussion the week after at LinkLove Boston when Ben and Jon were introduced

The trail went cold when Rand and Dharmesh got back to me saying the site wasn’t big enough to support it yet and it had to triple in size before they’d consider it. So that was the end of that…

…Until a day or so before MozCon I was on Inbound.org and noticed a link to a jobs board. Later found out Ben and Jon had just built the thing without being asked (they’re awesome guys). Clicked through and saw this beautiful thing. By the time I had pieced an email together to Rand asked what had happened, he’d already launched it officially in his opening keynote at MozCon. We followed up after that via email, and discussion turned to what would make Inbound.org and the jobs board a success. The rest is history…

That all said, I’m not advocating grabbing Rand at every conference and pitching him for a job. That’s not a repeatable, scalable process. Instead, you should find who’s top of your industry, find what they’re working on and pitch ideas onto that. Find their pain points. Find why they do what they do. Chase that.

Steve: Are Rand and Dharmesh still involved much? Or have you taken the helm 100%?

Ed: Day-to-day decisions, working with Ben & Jon (the developers at Tailwind Creative) and with the moderating team is down to me. Rand and Dharmesh are still very much involved. This is their baby. :-)

The basic problem for them is time commitment – they need to be involved in the big picture, but don’t need to be involved in writing a specification for a new feature, or liasing with moderators. It makes sense to outsource that.

If you’re going on the ‘at the helm’ analogy, Rand and Dharmesh are Commanding Officer’s and I’m Officer of the Watch. Orders and direction come in. My job is to plan and execute on the granular level.

Rand and Dharmesh both fund the site and it’s bigger developments. Very generously too!

Steve: In the announcement, Rand was hoping that users would take a survey “to help guide the next steps for development and expansion of Inbound.org.” How many replies did you receive?

Ed: Just over 50.

Steve: How much did people’s feedback steer the redesign? How much did you take on-board?

Ed: Some ideas were incorporated into the first rebuild. Others were saved and scheduled for later. It was also a validation that we needed to move off the WordPress platform. What the community wanted simply isn’t possible in the long term with a blogging platform.

Steve: Tell me about the redesign. What were the challenges from migrating from the old site to the new site?

Ed: I wrote more about this on Quora.

It was less about a redesign and more about redoing the backend. The original site was in WordPress which was good enough for the initial version, but a poor platform to build on. Adding a new feature like Inbound.org tools becomes increasingly complex to build and maintain.

The new site uses the CodeIgniter framework for PHP.

Migration we planned over a weekend when there’s less activity. We put a simple holding page up, migrated the data across and pushed the new site live in time for SearchLove London.

Steve: How did you work with Ben & Jon (the designers)? You’ve already mentioned that you operate in sprints (“Growth Hacking Sprints”), but not in an Agile way…

Ed: Not in an Agile way? “Agile” can get overused or misunderstood. Since it has quite a strict definition (here’s Wikipedia’s), I feel it rubs people up the wrong way when you misuse it.

The basic process is me dumping ideas as they come up into Basecamp, I’ll drag them into a set chunk/”sprint” and we’ll talk through one batch of work or “sprint” at a time over Skype. Ben and Jon have other clients and other work so it’s unfair to have a trickle of work coming through. We fix a date for the work, invoice the jobs board revenue or Rand/Dharmesh and ship.

Steve: Have you had much feedback from people post-redesign?

Ed: Mixed. Some people think it’s much cleaner and crisper. Feedback from the audience on the whole has been good, especially with the responsive design. A bi-product of the new site is a massive drop in spam submissions thanks to some new algorithmics. :-) The spam that does make it through we can remove in a few clicks (much easier than the previous site) and if necessary ban the author and all their submissions in one fell swoop. This is brilliant for clearing out the hit-and-run spammers that used to plague the previous site.

Rand doesn’t like the new design, however. He’s picked up on a handful of things we can tweak, but talk it through in more thoroughly, that’s not the point. He wants us to design for brand and it to be more iconic on the web. The site appears too “generic” at the moment and has a couple of inconsistencies…

If you blur your eyes and look at the old site, reddit or Hacker News, it’s the titles of the articles that stand out to you. On the new site, it’s other features like the top navbar and submission buttons. If anything, the titles blend in.

Honestly, it’s not something we really thought about or put much time into for the rebuild. Like I said, the reasoning was building out the backend platform. Maybe this has come to bite us in the back, but also paves the way for an exciting and interesting learning experience as we try to optimize and refresh the design.

Steve: Did Visual SEO Studio’s article – On-site SEO issues of Inbound.org – also help?

Ed: LOL. We had those issues picked up on before, just it’s not something that got shipped straight away. Yes, I’d spec’d it out and talked through how we were going to format <title> tags and all. The ugly redirects and duplicate URLs are a relatively easy fix too within the application model.

Dumb? Perhaps… but done is better than perfect. And it wasn’t like we weren’t going to ship it. Just not yet…

Has it made much difference? So far, not really! Unbranded search traffic hasn’t been a big driver of growth for us yet. Naturally, this presents a lovely opportunity and challenge to execute some really awesome, scalable link building moves – I’m looking forward to shifting the needle with search!

Like the rest of us, we need some links. ;-)

Steve: Has the algorithm changed much? It feels different to before… If so, what’s been amended (if you’re happy divulging such info)?

Ed: The algorithm? Our secret sauce? Yes, it functions differently (updates live compared to updates every three minutes), we’ve modified it to filter spam far more aggressively and added parameters I can vary from the admin panel so we can tweak the aggression. Our aim was to get more of the best stuff to the top, and I feel it’s doing that nicely. :-)

How it works? It was originally modelled on the Hacker News style algorithm, and it’s still broadly similar but with slightly different flavours…

Steve: How’s traffic been since the redesign?

Ed: Finally, seeing some growth! It’s slow and steady, but we’ve seen a ~30% increase in unique monthly visitors. Discussion drives growth through an increase in referral traffic. That’s an actionable root cause of more uniques coming to the site and we know that.

Steve: What about comments on submissions? There seems to be more engagement recently compared to previous months – especially post redesign.

Ed: This is our area of focus as a team at the moment. There’s a real difference between people commenting on an article and people going back and forth in a discussion. The latter is what we’re aiming for, and it’s the latter which draws more people in and drives growth of the site.

Steve: What about the number of submissions the site is receiving? In my interview with Rand, he reckoned that the site was receiving about 80 submissions per day. How many has it been post-redesign and six months later? Any idea?

Ed: About 120-130 articles daily (less spam submissions) and a smattering of tools and jobs. If you go on the site and use the find function in your browser you can play around with this.

Steve: And what are your feelings on the quality of submissions lately? A few weeks ago, Rand tweeted saying that he was chuffed with the quality of recent submissions.

Ed: Yes, I think we’re getting a far more diverse range of articles. No one comes to Inbound.org to read “10 SEO Tips”. What I like to see is more and more diverse, different articles and things to discover and explore. Things we wouldn’t see otherwise, but are still highly relevant to our audience.

Incidentally, it’s often these new and different sources that get upvoted lots on Inbound. You don’t see many Whiteboard Friday’s and other great content making it into the hall of fame. People have seen it already. It’s not new. The new, but highly relevant content excels on Inbound.org.

Steve: You recently launched Discussions. What was the inspiration behind its inclusion? I know it’s still early days just yet, but are they being utilised in the way that you’d envisaged?

Ed: Something we’ve long wanted to include (look at the success of Ask HN and Quora). On the first day of the launch people “got it” (and that was over a weekend) and started posting discussion threads.

Discussion drives growth. Don’t think of discussions as just a thread with comments, but a dialogue between two or more members of the community. That has the effect of bringing everyone commenting back, and also drawing more people in. The days with more discussions tend to have more daily unique visitors. That’s a nice correlation to look at.

Steve: What’s next for Inbound.org? What should we expect to see in 2013? Is it really true that “[we’ve] seen nothing yet“…? (Quick note from Steve: This question was asked – and answered – before Ed released the Future of Inbound.org slides. Even so, I’ve decided to leave it in, as-is.)

Ed: User-side, all you’ve really seen is a tweaked design, less spam and more comments. Of course there’s more to come!

If you step back and think of the whole community as an ecosystem, what we’re doing, what we’re struggling with and where we’re going there’s a big role for Inbound.org in empowering and showcasing our community. Our role is to get that right. It’s a careful balance between managing existing bits of the site, not diluting engagement with too many new features at once, not bankrupting Rand and Dharmesh, not overloading Ben, Jon, the moderators or myself and keeping members happy with what’s already going on.

Steve: In fact, it’s nearing its 1st official birthday, is that right? (Christ, it’s gone quick…!) Got anything special planned?

Ed: Hehe… you’ve got some ideas?

We’ve been floating the idea of a Yearbook. The best of Inbound.org so far… designed, printed and bound in a beautiful book. This is similar to the Inbound Magazine we’ve asked the community about. A lukewarm response so far…

Steve: And what about you? What are you up to (in addition to managing Inbound.org)?

My Uncle has this principle – “focus on the primary mission”. I’m a first year student at the University of Bristol studying Economics and Management. It’s a course that covers a lot of maths, statistics, micro and macroeconomics, finance and accounting as well as business management. Broad, often hard but really enjoyable. That’s the primary mission.

If the University has got one thing really, really right it’s the startup and enterprise support. Our University incubator Basecamp runs regular events, workshops and meetups which are awesome. One of these – Crossroads – involves student entrepreneurs mixing with student hackers. I’ve met two incredibly talented guys from that, and we’re working on something incredible in the recruiting/learning/education space. Keep an eye out on Twitter – this will take off big time in 2013.

I play trumpet, and (somehow) managed to get into the Uni big band Hornstars (yes, we’re called that for that reason…) where we’ve played at some incredible gigs and balls (hey, hire us!). It’s the kind of band that’ll travel across country to Birmingham for a gig at midnight, have a few drinks then make it back for morning lectures. Super-fun. Oh, and we’re touring sunny Croatia in June! Awesome…

There’s a really, really fantastic Church I’m going to and getting involved with here at Bristol. An awesome, vibrant student community including several from my halls, an awesome website (they “get” the need for awesome media, and have the talent pool. I’m very happy!). Watch some of the videos of what’s happening in Bristol and talks. Some of the stuff we’ve had this first term has been really useful and practical, especially with all sorts of Uni shenanigans. Which brings me nicely onto…

Bristol nightlife. During the day, it’s a superbly social place during the day… but it really comes alive at night. I’m lucky being only a short walk to many of Bristol’s biggest and best clubs. There’s never not something going on. Otherwise staying alive. Student cooking is quite enjoyable. Ordered 4-Hour Chef and I’m digging into that this Christmas.  I like what Tim Ferriss is teaching. Planning on cracking cooking skills, and getting into seriously good shape again this Christmas and from New Year. My muscle tone isn’t the same as it was when I was playing rugby. :-( Together with the challenge of mastering JavaScript and front end languages, as well as growing Inbound.org into a huge, blossoming community. That’s the challenge for 2013 I think!

Steve: How do you manage your time between Inbound.org, university and other projects? (Bonus question #1 from my good friend @Andrew_Isidoro of SEOfosho)

Ed: A combination of saying “NO”, bloody-minded single tasking, micro-tasking and budgeting time for rest and procrastination. I think humans function like pendulums – work, rest, work, rest – if you try and mess with that cycle and over-stretch yourself one way or another you’ll ruin yourself. I just don’t understand how or why startup founders and bankers work 90+ hour weeks…

At the same time, when you’re in the zone – aka. “FLOW” – I milk it. I’ve had some super-productive evenings, often deep in writing something or working on a mockup in Divshot or something similar.

I use Gmail and Trello, with Basecamp for Inbound.org work. And post it notes. They’ll never go out of fashion.

Steve: Can we expect to see you at any conferences in the near future? (Bonus question #2 from @Andrew_Isidoro)

Ed: Distilled brought me up in this industry, and they put on simply incredible conferences. I couldn’t get to SearchLove London this year since I had exams and tutorials over those dates (primary mission, right?) but I’ve got my eye on the LinkLove London dates already. That said, I prefer SearchLove for the variety of speaker topics having more than one evening to talk to people.

MozCon would be interesting, and I do really like Seattle (been three times already!), but in “the land of the free” I’m not old enough to drink! That’s not just “not fun”, but it kills the alcohol-fueled discussions, debates and pitches you’ll have with *anyone* that I’ve found takes a conference to a whole new level. The best networking in this industry has come from having a drink in hand at Distilled’s events in London. Rand, Wil Reynolds and the Distilled guys in particular. Jobs like this have come out of that! Sure, MozCon would still be good… but not the same kind of experience. MozCon 2016 however… :-p

There are other events I’m looking at, perhaps more product or dev orientated. It’s something I need to be on top of more…

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