SEO Conferences and The Future of Live Search Events

The SEO conference industry, launching a conference company in the current world of search and how making things a little different can help with industry disruption (such as an English company launching a conference series in Las Vegas).

In this episode Craig Rayner and I discuss:

  • SEO trends and how they differ in the UK vs the United States
  • The SEO Community in London and in Europe
  • The SEO conference landscape with tool companies holding their own conferences vs. the traditional conference companies
  • The way that SMX and Pubcon have both constantly and positively disrupted themselves and adapted to the market
  • The nuances of white hat vs. black hat SEO arguments and other organic search trends

The Show Notes

SEO Conferences and The Future of Live Search Events

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Loren Baker: Good afternoon. Welcome to another edition of Search & Deploy, brought to you by Foundation Digital and the team at Copyblogger’s Rainmaker.FM network.

This is Loren Baker, your host of Search & Deploy. I just got back from about a month and a half, or two months of travel from various conferences, ranging from Texas to California to London, England. Hence, is my excuse for not getting many podcasts up in the past few weeks.

To make up for that lapse in podcasting, with me today, I have the COO and co-founder of a new conference series, his name is Craig Rayner. Craig and his team have launched a conference called UnGagged. They were nice enough to have me speak and host a panel over in their second conference in London, England. I had spoken at their first event, which was held in Las Vegas.

These guys are crazy enough to launch their first conference ever in Ceasars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada, then followed it up with one in London, and have another one planned for Las Vegas, I believe, later in the year. We’ll talk to Craig about that.

The SEO Conference Landscape with Tool Companies Holding Their Own Conferences vs. the Traditional Conference Companies

Loren Baker: The reason why I invited him on the show today, in addition to him being nice enough to have me twice at his events, is because I thought it very curious as to seeing not only why a company would launch a conference series in today’s environment where there are multiple different conferences going on in the world of SEO, not only the traditional ones like SMX. I think SES is still around. They do a couple shows, of course Pubcon.

You have the Copyblogger team just did their Authority Rainmaker Conference. You have multiple tool companies like Searchmetrics pairing up with Search Engine Journal to do the SEJ Summit. You have BrightEdge doing conferences, Conductor doing conferences.

It’s really become a market where there’s a lot going on. Not only that, conference companies are competing with online versions of conferences along with the amount of online video and audio information out there.

I really wanted to sit down with Craig. Myself, being a veteran of various search conferences and even trying my best to launch some in the past, wanted to get an idea of what these guys are thinking about, what their vision is with UnGagged. Really, what’s going to make their conference series different from everything else out there?

The SEO Community in London and in Europe

Craig, welcome to Search & Deploy. It’s great to have you.

Craig Rayner: Thank you, Loren. Welcome, everyone. Okay, so lucky enough to have met you a couple of times, Loren. Thank you very much for being one of our early supporters.

We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel with UnGagged. That’s something I should put out there straight away. We’ve been in the industry, digital marketing industry as an agency, for quite some time. Because of that, we’ve actually extensively traveled, been to quite a lot of conferences ourselves, within the search arena particularly.

That was actually the thing. If you, like us, have been to lots of the conferences that are out there, with out trying not to be insulting at all, but we just got really, really bored. We got bored of a variety of things. We didn’t really feel that the speakers were certainly giving a fair time because conferences were selling cheap tickets, like networking passes. And everyone was just in the hallways meeting and greeting. It was just like a cattle market is how we saw it.

It didn’t really seem to be any quality. You go to the speaker sessions because you’ve actually paid for a higher ticket and nobody’s in there. Now, we thought that was crying shame because the speakers were there to actually impart some wisdom.

Anyway, there are lots of conferences out there within the search arena. They’ve got a very similar format. They seem to churn out the same speakers time and time again. Those speakers, not their fault, if they’re on the circuit and they’re just constantly going around doing their thing, then they really are not really learning. They’re not really knowing what’s up today. They’re not really getting the knowledge that they could impart, so they end up just saying the same thing just in a different town. It reminds me of a rock-and-roll band on tour. It becomes pretty faceless.

For us, that was the thing. Also, you go to conferences, you don’t get any food, or if you do, it’s not that great at all. You’ve been lucky to get a free drink. It just didn’t seem to be friendly. It didn’t seem to be conducive to networking, to making friends, to sharing wisdom and knowledge. We just wanted to do something different to actually allow all of those things to happen in one space.

Loren Baker: Yeah. It’s really cool, too, because not only are there a lot of different conferences going on and you guys doing something different, but it seems like the existing conference companies that are actually taking their time to disrupt themselves are doing better. It did get to a point where, when I went to a search conference, I felt like I was going to a book fair.

Craig Rayner: Yeah.

Loren Baker: I’d go in and see the same presentations. This is why, back in the day, we did the Search & Social Spring Summit and stuff like that. We did want to change things up a little bit as speakers and as agency people. You did see the same presentations. Then you get pitched with a book, and then the speaker is out there signing books in the conference hall.

I like the rock-band-on-tour analogy as well because you do hear about how boring the road can be because it is the same thing. It’s monotonous, over and over again.

Craig Rayner: Exactly.

Loren Baker: And there are a lot of company evangelists out there that do the same things, but I always have wondered, when you see someone consistently on the road, are they the person actually doing the work?

Craig Rayner: Yeah, that’s true. That’s right. You touched on something there also which was something we were completely against. I don’t know if it is because we’re British, I must say. We found that it was very uncomfortable if you paid not so much for a ticket, then, often, the quality drastically drops. I’m not saying always, but often. Some of those conferences, you were just being pitched to the whole time. We just got uncomfortable. It just wasn’t us. We just did not like that.

I’m not saying that people don’t have the opportunity at UnGagged to talk about their product or their service. That’s not it. But we certainly don’t allow a pitch first. That’s really against where we’re trying to go with UnGagged.

The Way That SMX and Pubcon Have Both Constantly and Positively Disrupted Themselves and Adapted to the Market

Loren Baker: I really appreciate that, too. What I was getting at with the disruption, too, when I look at search conferences, I never want to talk about anyone specifically in a bad tone. I will talk about a couple of companies that have done well.

It does seem like SMX has taken the proactive approach of disrupting themselves and not necessarily going down the same route as their ‘predecessor’ did, being owned by a larger conference company and going down the copy-and-paste, boilerplate route of one moderator, three speakers, three book pitches, and then let’s get everyone in the expo hall.

Pubcon’s been doing some interesting things, launching some smaller events. Those guys are like you too, Craig. I think you said once, you’ve always been a Rolling Stone and never a Beatle, right? You pick Vegas. Those guys do Vegas, and they do New Orleans. I don’t know which town you can get more trouble in. New Orleans you might leave with a curse on you or something like that. Those guys are doing the smaller thing, too. It’s refreshing to see because, for a while there, I felt like you said, it was monotonous.

Craig Rayner: Yeah.

Loren Baker: Playing on the Stones thing. The Stones just did a surprise show down near me actually, in Solana Beach, down there between La Jolla and San Diego in Southern California. They surprised a bar that held 400 people, and they played a 90-minute set.

Craig Rayner: Wow.

Loren Baker: As a speaker, even if I’m using the same deck, I try to change that deck up, right?

Craig Rayner: Yeah.

Loren Baker: What happened to me once was — and I’ll own this — I was at a Pubcon, and I used a deck that I had used in a previous conference. I thought I changed everything up, and on one of the slides, I had the other conference’s logo.

Craig Rayner: Okay.

Loren Baker: I heard a chuckle from the audience, and I’m like, “What? I didn’t tell a joke.” I looked at it. I was like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I did that.” Really, that was kind of a wakeup call to me to make sure things were a little bit more put-together and original. I didn’t want to become what I was sick of, which was the same kind of monotonous things.

At UnGagged, besides really focusing on not as many pitches and not the same decks over and over again, what else have guys done that kind of differentiate yourself from the pack?

The UnGagged Experience

Craig Rayner: One of the things that we think is very powerful is that we’re just a very small group, but we’re very passionate. We don’t really think that our vision’s easily going to be infiltrated or diluted. What I mean by that is that you go to a lot of conferences where you know that the sponsors wouldn’t allow certain things.

This was one of the key things. It was UnGagged that got its name from literally from ripping the gag off. Letting the speaker say exactly what they want to say, so no one can literally say to them, “Hey! You can’t say that because that might upset Google,” or whoever, you know? We’ve got no place for that.
We strongly believe in freedom of speech. We want to give people the platform to have open discussions and to share information.

Touching on a few things there. One, we’re a speaker-led conference because we believe in education. We believe in imparting our wisdom. Because stuff like that, we tend to attract, luckily, some of the best speakers on the planet pretty much that are going to come speak about stuff that they perhaps wouldn’t be able to say at other conferences because we let them say exactly what they want to say. It is a behind-closed-doors policy. There is no recording.

Basically, it’s for the audiences’ ears and eyes only. What does that do? That sparks interest. It sparks conversations. It sparks all sorts of things going on in people’s brain cells. You can see people thinking constantly on UnGagged. Thereafter, we try to ensure that speakers make themselves very available to all of the attendees. It’s a three-day conference. The speakers are going to say stuff behind closed doors that no one should’ve heard anywhere else.

The concept is meant to be completely unique. The people can just take that and run with it. It’s immediately actionable. Because it’s a friendly atmosphere, it’s a great environment, the people that are there are intermediary to technically advanced. The conversation doesn’t have to pander to the newbie, with respect to newbies, but it doesn’t have to. It’s straight in there from a very high level. We facilitate that.

We put on an event, whereas the actual surroundings are nice. We do things in a very nice and friendly and warm way. It’s got a lovely intimate feel to the environment. Because of that, things actually happen. People do get a genuine return on investment. People do make fantastic leads, etc., etc. Loren, you’ve been to a couple. You know the feeling. You know what I’m trying to say there. We keep it intimate so that everyone benefits.

Loren Baker: What I loved about not only London, but also Vegas, was I ended sitting down at the table with some people that I’ve never met before, but I didn’t realize that I had met them in various forums and on Twitter. A good number of them did not use their real names on forums and in Twitter, nor their photos. But we got to be talking, and I’m like, “Oh my god, we know each other,” type thing. That’s pretty cool. But also touching upon a freedom of speech thing. UnGagged in the tradition of the name of the conference, you do have a policy against Tweeting or covering most of the sessions, correct?

Craig Rayner: Yeah, that’s right. It’s off-putting to the speakers. We want people to fully embrace what is being shared with them. It’s good enough for the speakers to be saying things they wouldn’t normally say and to share stuff and information that people aren’t going to get elsewhere. As I said to one person very recently when they were talking about a particular speaker. It was 55 minutes. All of our sessions are 55 minutes to keep things fair. They said, “Well, how much you think it would be to have X come and be a consultant for an hour?” I said, “Well, probably, you know, you’re looking at 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, $10,000 just for an hour of their time.”

There you’ve got people of the same caliber for three days. The value of it is fantastic. We just try to keep that level very high. We want the next generation of thought leaders to say, in five years’ time or whatever, “I was inspired when I was at UnGagged. I was inspired because I met speaker X or whatever.”

The Nuances of White Hat vs. Black Hat SEO Arguments, and Other Organic Search Trends

Craig Rayner: The other thing that I think we should touch on, certainly from the first Vegas conference back in November last year, one of our sponsors was BlackHatWorld. Now, BlackHatWorld, where are they going to go get sponsorship? Where is BlackHatWorld going to go where they’re going to meet people that are likeminded. That was it. Again, we wanted to give this platform of freedom. To us, UnGagged, it doesn’t matter whether you’re white hat, black hat, gray hat, whatever. It doesn’t make any difference. It’s not about that. It’s all of our futures online. If you get there and if you’ve been naughty, then, hey, you have to live with that — whatever.

That’s how we look at it. If you want to put a color on certain Internet marketing, a lot of people who do have fantastic companies now, brilliantly working on brands as clients — and they’re as white as white can be – but they cut their teeth back in the day with black hat methodologies.

Loren Baker: Absolutely.

Craig Rayner: That’s the truth of it. At UnGagged, they can say that, and they almost feel that they’re amongst friends. A lot of the people that go there are the pioneers of the Internet. These guys are in internet marketing. They’ve been doing it since the mid-1990s.

Loren Baker: Yeah.

Craig Rayner: They’re free to talk about whatever the hell they want to talk about. That, for us, is incredibly important.

Loren Baker: Which is great. I do love that component because nine out of 10 SEOs over the age of 30 are going to have some kind of skeleton in their closet, right? They were involved with link spamming in the day because it wasn’t really link spamming back then. It was online marketing or SEO. They were involved in this or that. Things that I really don’t consider to be black hat. Maybe a shade of gray here or there, things like that, right?

Then when you guys launched, and we talked about this before, when you guys launched your American show, I saw some conversations on Twitter and Facebook like, “Oh, this is a black hat one. I’m not going to a black hat conference. I’m not going to black hat conference.”

I show up, and you have some of the larger companies as sponsors — whether they are SEMrush was there, Eventbrite, Flippa, and then sessions on how to grow your business and how to properly evaluate domains and web properties. You really couldn’t get this far away from ‘black hat’ topic matter. At the same time, when you’re speaking to the audience, it’s kind of refreshing to know that you have a couple of those guys in there along with affiliates and along with enterprise and small business.

From a topic matter perspective, this is one thing I used to like about the conferences that I used to do. You’re speaking to a room of your peers. I’ve spoken in enough conferences where, if I’m speaking to a room of beginners, it doesn’t matter if it’s a thousand of them. I don’t get nervous at all.

When I’m at Pubcon or something like that and I look in the back of the room and there’s martinibuster, Greg Boser, or Todd Friesen or whoever is sitting back there. I know I got to bring my A game. If I’m going to go up there and try to BS some people, they’re going to call me out, and you can’t do that. By volunteering or getting accepted to speak at a conference of your peers or in a room of your peers, you’re really holding yourself accountable at the end of the day.

And with the whole UnGagged no recording policy, one thing that I really enjoyed about Vegas was there was a lot of self-policing going on. If someone was holding a camera up in the room, there’d be other attendees telling them to put their camera down. There’s a certain kind of respect that goes on. No one wants to ruin it for everyone else, right?

Craig Rayner: Exactly. That’s priceless. You know what it’s like when you start something. Whatever starts up, you’re involved in. With the conference, obviously you’re talking about a lot of people all trying to buy into the same vision. When you actually see that happening, it’s an amazing feeling. It really is. It’s as if people have just understood what you’re trying to achieve, anyone gets the big picture. The big picture is because this is for everyone’s benefit. That’s brilliant. Thanks for reminding me that. That’s very true actually. That’s a very important aspect of the feel of what UnGagged is like.

Loren Baker: It’s also refreshing. If I’m speaking at a larger conference, first of all, I’m thinking about, “Hey, how many of my clients are in the audience, or how many future clients, and what I do not want to share.” When I’m at an UnGagged, I kind of feel a sense of relief when I’m speaking. I can tell some stories, not just about shady things in the past, but also some of the dumb stuff I’ve done over the years — because you do.

Craig Rayner: Of course.

Loren Baker: You typically don’t tell a prospective client that you screwed up in the past.

Craig Rayner: Yeah.

Loren Baker: But we all learn from doing it. It’s like a confessional, so to speak, to a room of non-judgmental priests. I like that.

Craig Rayner: That’s definitely one way of looking at it. That’s true. That’s the other thing, like I said, about the change from when somebody started their methodology on the darker side, and now it could be whiter than white. It’s the same thing as about how people screw up. If you’re in business and you’re trying to be an entrepreneur, technopreneur, whatever, or even if you are in a brand now and you are successful, somewhere along the line, you screwed up.

The thing is that, as we know, the more problems you fall at, you learn how to do it properly, and that’s it. That’s life. We don’t want people standing on stage preaching about how wonderful they are. They’ll tell you how they got to where they got to, and if they did screw up on the way, they’ll tell you that as well. It’s brilliant. For me, it’s a great education.

Loren Baker: Tell me a little bit about where you see trends in search engine optimization going in the future. It’s funny. I still have people talking to me about PBNs, private blog networks and stuff like that. Then the underlying theme, what I heard a lot of on UnGagged, actually, was the whole Yandex test, where they took link value out of the algorithm to see how that would affect search results. Then put it back in, but a lot of talk about, “Hey, maybe links aren’t the future, or this is something that we may see Google possibly doing down the road,” but where do you see organic search going, and what people should not only focus on now, but to prepare for one, two, five years down the road?

SEO Trends and How They Differ in the UK vs. the United States

Craig Rayner: Do you know what? I really wouldn’t know. Yes, some of the speakers did say this also, that they haven’t got a crystal ball. The only thing I would say is that for the longevity of any project, whether it be, would you work for a brand or whatever. I think over here in the UK digital agencies and such are struggling a little bit. I think that’s just because — not all of them. There are many that are incredibly successful — but there are agencies over here, they kind of like to take on a new client, and say, “Yeah, we’re going to do everything for you,” and charge a lot of money for it. Whereas, a lot of that stuff can actually be done by the individuals or from a very small team so things can be taken very much in-house.

So the knock-on effect there might be some change in the future with that because the knowledge is out there. Things are being made more and more simple, if you like, in the way to do things. But where it’s all going with search and such, I don’t know. The overall feel in my case is a very holistic approach. If you’re just trying to be successful, you have to embrace every single way of making sure that your website is doing well. Where it’s going? Who knows?

There were interesting talks at UnGagged about the potential future. I would never want to guess. I’m not a technically advanced chap myself. Therefore, it will be almost silly for me to make try and second guess. I don’t know.

All I would say is, it’s been going strong for a very long time. Hand on heart, we wouldn’t have started UnGagged if we thought that this whole industry was going to implode, far from it. We actually do feel that there’s a lot of depth and strength that will come for the future. At the end of the day, when people talk about different ways of searching or if Google, for example, is trying to second guess you, get in your mind and try to guess what that search is, and the fact that they’ve said that they might not be involved with search in the future. Well, let’s just say, whatever happens, we’ll run with it.

Loren Baker: Yeah. With the whole building-up of internal digital agencies, that’s been a trend here in the US. It’s really interesting to see it on two fronts. One, you have companies like CBS Interactive, Disney, and Salesforce that have been incredibly active with snatching up some of the top minds in SEO. Really recruiting from agencies or even bringing some people out of their ‘caves’ of doing things in a shady side, right?

Craig Rayner: Yeah.

Loren Baker: Some of these teams that I see put together, I’m like, “Wow, these are some of the best SEOs I know,” and good for them. They have a great corporate job, great benefits. The industry’s aging, right? All of us who started out at this, we all started out as young kids getting in the search. We’re parents now. We’re graying. We’re worrying about health insurance, paying for college. That’s a component of it as well, right?

Craig Rayner: Absolutely.

Loren Baker: It’s funny, too, on the industry side. I get leads coming in from companies that are asking me how to build their internal digital marketing teams, how to build their internal digital marketing agencies. That’s a double-edged sword. If my job is to help you build the best agency internally, how does that benefit me, so to speak, right?

Craig Rayner: Exactly.

Loren Baker: Which is a challenge for consultants. It’s really interesting to hear. We’re about to run out of time, Craig. Tell me and our listeners at Search & Deploy a little bit more about your plans for Las Vegas.

Teaser: UnGagged 2015 in Las Vegas

Craig Rayner: Okay. Las Vegas is November 9 to 11, three days. Usually UnGagged is over a weekend. This is an experiment for us to do it from a Monday to a Wednesday, but that is typically UnGagged. We always like to do things slightly different.

Basically, it’s going to be a three-track event. We’re looking at probably a good 40 world-class, absolutely fantastic speakers again. Tremendously good value, again, the early bird’s out there at the moment, including accommodations. It’s the Tropicana. That’s Vegas. After that, we will be going back to London next year.

Loren Baker: Wait a second, wait a second. One second. Did you say the Tropicana?

Craig Rayner: Yes.

Loren Baker: Okay. Didn’t they just get remodeled?

Craig Rayner: Yeah, they just have spent $200 million I think. The area that we have for UnGagged will be be the brand new, or completely refurbished. We’re going to keep that same level. We’re going to have fantastic food. There’s going to be the drinks. There’s going to be fantastic networking. Hopefully, it’s going to be approximately 20 to 30 exhibitors. We’re looking for those at this moment in time and sponsors.

We’ll probably try to keep it, as we always do, as intimate as possible, maybe a maximum of about 300 people, fingers crossed. It should be a very similar event of the last two events in the way that we present the event and the feeling of the event — but of course, new speakers, new content, completely unique. As a I say, I’ve added three tracks this time, including roll-your-sleeves-up workshops. It’s going to be a good three days again. We’re very, very confident that we’re going to nail it again.

Loren Baker: Cool, cool. Tropicana sounds awesome as well. What about the future London event? What are your plans?

Craig Rayner: Yeah, we’re going to London. I think what we’re going to do is we’ll do London and Vegas every year for as long as we possibly can. If it really does take off and we get a demand over in the Far East, for example, then we will try to fit that in as well. We’ll try to keep exactly the same methodologies and also the same vision. Take UnGagged to the Far East or India or somewhere like that.

The idea for us is never to really have the massive conference. Vegas has got the space, but we never want to be one of ‘those’ conferences. We never want to go to an aircraft hangar or, sorry, should I say, a conference center. We never want to do that kind of thing. We don’t want thousands of people that don’t get to know each other, that don’t get a good return on investment, that don’t appreciate the speakers. We will always keep a lid on that. We would always keep it intimate. We would rather have more conferences than a few huge conferences because it’s just impersonal.

Loren Baker: Amazing, amazing. Well, thanks so much, Craig. Really appreciated you taking the time to go through this, have the conversation. I’m looking forward to the next UnGagged.

Craig Rayner: Of course.

Loren Baker: Again, everybody, that was Craig Rayner, the COO and co-founder of the UnGagged Conference Series and from DotCom Consultancy. This has been another episode of Search & Deploy. Thanks again, Craig, and thanks for listening.

Craig Rayner: Thank you very much.