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Martin MacDonald: The Enterprise SEO Titan Who's Changing the Game

Martin MacDonald
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Martin is one of the true pioneers within the digital marketing and SEO industry. His professional career within the industry started back in 1996 when he started building websites and moved into SEO in around 2001 where he worked within the gambling sector.

Martin has a strong technical background and has consulted for some large brands (Expedia, Orbitz, Virgin, Pepsi, McDonalds, Renault, Last Minute, Monster) within the Enterprise SEO space.

In 2017, Martin transitioned from working in-house at large enterprise brands and setup his own Enterprise SEO Agency (MOGmedia) where he now helps to make SEO Scalable for large brands.

Martin is also the founder of, a technical SEO tool that took five years of his life developing due to being frustrated that none of the SEO tools on the market had the flexibility to do what he needed them to do.

When it comes to speaking at conferences around the world, Martin has spoken at over 60 international marketing conferences in cities as diverse as Seattle, Las Vegas, New York, Barcelona, Munich, Amsterdam, Warsaw, London & *many* more.

Due to Martin's extensive speaking career, he has first hand experience of the pitfalls of the marketing conference industry and in 2022, Martin launched BarbadosSEO conference, dedicated to advanced SEO.

Martin is also passionate about sharing his knowledge of enterprise SEO, and has been featured as a digital expert by the BBC, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Chicago Tribune, TechCrunch, TheNextWeb, Forbes, the LA Times, and many more.

With Martin's vast experience within the Search industry, he has had the privilage of being asked to judge top industry awards, such as EU Search Awards, Performance Marketing Awards, US Search Awards and UK Search Awards.

Plus Martin is no strager to winning awards himself - Top 100 most influential people in digital marketing (Drum Digerati).

When it comes to the world of SEO, you could say that Martin knows a thing or two!

The Unscripted SEO Interview Podcast with Martin MacDonald

Watch the interview

(click on the 'cc' icon to view subtitles)

Listen to the podcast

(60 minutes long)

The unscripted questions Mark A Preston asked Martin MacDonald

  • What is your whirlwind history tour of your background within the SEO industry, Martin?

  • Why has your career predominantly been within the enterprise SEO space?

  • With Enterprise SEO, does having a large budget to play with have a direct impact on what is possible?

  • Does the existing trust that large brands have make organic growth easier?

  • How did you manage to get buy-in from the C-Suite at large Enterprise brands when you came up with a new idea?

  • Has having a technical background helped your career to progress in the world of big brands?

  • What was SEO like when you first started to work with or for large brands?

  • In your experience, what is more important - content or backlinks?

  • What do SEOs need to do if they want to climb the Enterprise SEO career ladder?

  • Has working at big brand names helped you to get on stages around the world as a speaker?

  • Regarding BarbadosSEO, what specifically is it that makes it an advanced SEO conference?

  • Is advanced SEO basically technical SEO on steroids?

  • What would you say is broken within the Search related conference world?

  • What's your thoughts about speakers not even getting paid expenses at most Search conferences?

  • What would you say is different about your SEO tool (SERPERE) compared to other technical SEO tools on the market?

  • What can people in the SEO industry do which would make you happy?

The unscripted conversation between Mark A Preston and Martin MacDonald

Mark A Preston: Welcome to the unscripted SEO Interview podcast. Yes, it's 100% unscripted, 100% unrehearsed, even 100% unedited and 100% real. I'm your host, Mark A Preston, and today's guest is somebody that first saw speaking on stage, or it must be over ten years ago now in, Liverpool. I think he was speaking alongside, the founder of Innocent Smoothie Drinks at the event.

Martin MacDonald: Yes, yes, yes.

Mark A Preston: And he's the founder of MOGmedia, an enterprise SEO agency, and Barbados SEO Conference, which is dedicated to advanced SEO. Please welcome Martin McDonald. Hi, Martin.

Martin MacDonald: Hello, hello. How are you doing? Thank you very much for the lovely introduction and, yeah, that conference in Liverpool, that was I can't remember what it was called, but Gary Vaynerchuk (Gary Vee) went on to headline it the following year, and whatever happened to him in the intervening ten years since then? Yeah, no one ever heard it from him again, did they? Anyway, how are you doing, Mark? How are you doing?

Mark A Preston: Very well. I'm going to say, just for the people listening and watching this, that doesn't understand your background and how long you've been in the industry, please, could you give a whirlwind tour of the history of your story?

Martin MacDonald: Absolutely. So the story started probably in the mid-90s, we're going to go back that far, where I was just a teenager in school. The internet was a brand new thing. I had been running BBS's, basically, from my bedroom prior to that, and there was someone else that I knew whose name was Jason five or ten years older than me, but he had started a computer company selling just PCs, back in the 90s in southern Spain, where I grew up. And he was starting an internet service provider, I had plenty of experience with networking and so on and so forth. He hired me, it was me and him started that company up, that would have been 96, started building websites, 96, 97 in about 2001 the online gambling industry was just kind of getting started, and it was getting really big. All the big gaming companies were IPO-ing for billions of dollars and I thought to myself, hey, you can program, why not put together a little poker room?


So I did that. And then after I'd spent for best part of a year building that business up, google decided that they were going to ban all gambling, paid search, advertising. This was, I think it was April 2001 or something, so 22 years ago now. And from that point onwards, all I ever did was SEO, because everything that I had at that point in time, all of my assets were rolled into this company and the entire marketing plan was based on a combination of, at that point in time, SEO and PPC, but primarily paid search, because SEO was basically a black box to everyone. So I was active on things like gaming forums; when I say gaming forums, I mean like gaming webmaster forums, the GPWA that was around at that point in time, the early internet forums, things like creator site and things like that, digital point, I was active on all of those 20 plus years ago. And this is fundamentally before SEO had a name, basically and I didn't realize it at the time, but I became a full-time SEO going back to 2001. Since then, I've worked in the poker and the casino industry for seven, eight years; I worked in ticketing for four or five, worked in travel for seven or eight, and I've been running my own consultancy now for six years, which is remarkable, saying it out loud, because it was kind of accidental. It was never part of my life plan to start an enterprise SEO agency, but after my experience of being in-house for about 15 years, it seemed the natural progression.

Mark A Preston: So, like, your background is predominantly in the enterprise SEO space. Why enterprise?

Martin MacDonald: You know what, it was being a bit self-analytical here. The reason that I wanted to focus on Enterprise was that again, going back to that 90s thing, I left school really early. I left school with some GCSEs, don't have an AA levels; so I've got the American equivalent of a high school diploma. And that's it. Like, no college, no university, no further education at all and that was because I was massively into computers and grew up kind of very working class and we would had to pay for university, because I grew up in Spain and I didn't qualify for Spanish University at that point; I didn't qualify for British University, so I was paying wherever I went. In the end, I ended up leaving that. Honestly, and I can say this now that I'm deep into my 40s, left me with a bit of a chip on my shoulder throughout my 20s, and frankly, the first half of my 30s, and I decided in my late 20s, after I'd been, at that point, I'd been working in SEO in the gambling side of things for seven, eight years. But it's not what you could call corporate, right?


Because it was a company that I set up myself and it became very big, but it was fundamentally an extension of affiliate sites, that I'd built in the early 2000s. That was what it was and in about 2007,2008, 2009, I decided that I wanted to see if I could make it in the corporate world. And that was what got me started on that particular path, which I did for eleven years, something like that, before moving into this world and I'm very grateful for the experience that I had, because for my previous employer, it was literally it was hundreds of concurrent projects going on simultaneously; billions of dollars in global revenue attributed through organic search, dozens of teams, dozens and dozens of team members. It was done at such a scale that, I really learned a lot about how scaled business should work in an environment where it was working and was winning and that has given me a fantastic ability to essentially operate as a consultant to other large enterprises, because it's fairly easy for me to see the deficiencies in their processes and combine that with a lifelong passion for technical SEO and frankly, for computers; I say, yeah, I'm into technical SEO. The reality is, if I could have found a job in the late 90s that involved me just sat playing computer games all day, I would have done that but that wasn't a career path at that point in time. So I found SEO, and that's like the next best thing as far as I'm concerned.

Mark A Preston: Yeah, I'm going to say we all playing computer games.

Martin MacDonald: Yeah. Well, I've got my Turtle shirt on today, but yesterday I had on my Commodore Amiga shirt.

Mark A Preston: Oh, wow then were the days. When you're working with enterprise companies and you're working with this massive budget. Well, do you think if you've got a large enough budget, anything's possible or does budget actually have a direct impact in what is possible and the impact?

Martin MacDonald: It definitely has a direct impact into what's possible, but it has more of an impact into the scale of things that are possible, rather than the success of those individual things. So let's say, for instance, you are; let's just say, for argument's sake, head of SEO, a brand like Expedia, you have access to dozens of writers. You have access to as many programmers as you could possibly want to build anything you could possibly want. When I was in a role similar to that, I signed off the sponsorship of Travel TV series. I mean, the level of stuff that you can do, when you get to that level of budget is just phenomenal. However, if they're all shit ideas, you're not going to get great output out of them and frankly, lightning will hit every now and then, as it just as it does. But the reality is you can cast a much wider net, if you've got the processes sorted out and you've got the kind of enterprise budgets that enterprise companies enjoy. So it affects the amount of work you can do, but not necessarily the quality and equality then in our world, obviously, is what defines whether or not something goes well. Now, those two things don't always align because there's like, breakthrough ideas that require very little effort and always do well and a good example of this that, I've talked about quite a few times at other conferences and things has been something that we used to do back in Orbits, when I was working there was we had a National Barbecue Championship every year, it was so predictable.


In about April, May, every year we started this and we picked 20 towns and cities around the US, basically at random, but they had to have above X population and below X population. We had some criteria, but we shortlisted 20 towns of cities, contacted them all and said, so, we understand that your town is one of the top 20 cities or towns in the US for barbecue food. We've put you into the National Barbecue Championships and this is who you're going to be up against here's the other 20. And every year, probably twelve or fourteen of these towns and cities really took it to heart. Like their town halls and tourist agencies or whatever were distributing it around every one of the local businesses; they were all retweeting it for us, they were all posting it, they were taking part, they were marketing, and it's a crazy simple idea, and we did it every year with the different 20 cities, and it worked every bloody year. It was low effort and it just ran itself. So that's a good one. But those ideas are few and far between. I mean, you might do 30 of them and one comes off really well. If you don't have an enterprise budget, you might go bust before you've done 30 of them, there is your problem.

Mark A Preston: So, working with these big brands over the years, how much has brand the quality and the authority and the trustworthiness of the brand itself, has a direct impact on what is achievable on for organic?

Martin MacDonald: The two things are inextricably linked and basically once you have got a defensible, what's the term that everyone in the moat? Everyone used to say, oh, build a moat, build a moat around your rankings, whatever, fundamentally brand traffic is that. And once you have reached a market penetration level of brand traffic, that isn't going away and frankly, you can turn everything else off. And I have looked at countless enterprise SEO keyword sets, where they're like 95% branded and frankly, they're fine with that because they have enough traffic coming into their website. They don't care about it. And you know what, in those scenarios all very well and good to them, but I think it's a terrible idea. Obviously as an SEO, I think people that are just relying on brand are missing out on a large piece of the pie, so I don't think they should be doing. But the reality is many of the large enterprise corporations out there, do think that way and do simply rely on it. We have opportunity as SEO is there, to perhaps rank other sites for those terms and that is the beauty of the Internet as it sits. But there is also a direct correlation, even though many of these enterprise companies, frankly don't care about ranking for all of the non-brand stuff, there is a direct correlation, between a large enterprise and having a large amount of page rank pointing at the website, and having a large amount of ability to rank for things. Ability being the important word in that sentence, because they may not have the interest or the aptitude, but they have the capability of ranking based on the fact that they have the authority built up in Google. And do you know what?


If you were to think of like a Venn diagram of the best possible opportunity, the best possible opportunity that you will get as an SEO, is a large enterprise customer or large enterprise employer tens of years, 20 plus years of history never had an SEO penalty, never really focused on SEO; doesn't publish very much, frankly only has kind of branded search because it doesn't publish very much, that is the sweet spot for incredible growth. And the few times that I've been in, that like, if you were a MOGmedia client, you would receive our cred and one of them is something like, I don't know, 7000% uplift for a publisher that existed for 20 years and it was simply because they had done a spectacularly crap job of publishing their content. So we went in and fixed four or five things, and they went from hundreds to tens of thousands of visits, frankly, overnight. It took a couple of months but the point is that's the you get the absolute most amount of growth and maybe I'm selfish, maybe I decided that, that was an easier career path than scrabbling around for 30% improvements on 1000 visits a month, not that there's anything wrong with that. I did that for ten years first as well but it's easier doing the enterprise stuff as long as you can get shit done. That's the only difference, there is no difference between enterprise SEO and non-enterprise SEO, other than how do you effectively execute at scale. That's the question.

Mark A Preston: I love what you said there. There's no difference, it's just the scalability of things that you can do. So say, for instance, you're ahead of SEO for this big national, well, multinational brand, and you've got an idea. How do you then get buying from the C-suite to actually get you to theoretically test your idea?

Martin MacDonald: Credibility. So literally, everything can be boiled down to that one word. Everything can get rolled into it. But forecasting results, delivering on those results, demonstrably being able to be dependable for those results, not coming up with pie in the sky ideas, that a ton of effort goes into focusing your messaging correctly. I mean, there's been so much experience that I've had over the years of sitting in, frankly, in C-suites that I had no business being in, given the level of education I have and who I am and so on and so forth. But I learned a lot, I saw people being not in the world of SEO across other channels. So these would have been like morning channel meetings that the C-suite were involved in and other channel owners being absolutely destroyed for coming forward with some new proposal to move the needle by a quarter of a percent type thing. So you learn, okay, you need to be demonstrably aiming for stuff that's going to move the needle. And then I've seen other people burn their careers by pitching something to a $30 billion business, that it would increase their revenue by $15 billion. This is whatever 100-year-old massive business. Nothing is going to move their needle that far in that amount of time. So pitching correct, but then delivering on results and you can't do that unless you've got a certain amount of experience. But once you have done it and you've developed a dependable relationship with the powers that be, then you get the credibility to be able to access budget.


You rinse and repeat many times over it. The other side of the equation, though, of course, is that's just the how do you get the buy in and the sign off from the people above you to be able to do stuff. The next part of the equation is how'd you get the other people to actually do the stuff as well. And one of the big challenges really has been the translation of SEO speak into dev speak or product speak if you like, and the demonstration of utility of application. Hey guys, I want you to build this feature that is going to crawl the site and look for pages, that have got less than x amount of backlinks, and they've got more than x amount of content. And they've got less than X amount of average ranking on average. That was internal linking tool that we built years ago orbits again, or it might have been. I want you to build this, but here is what it's going to do. Here is what the impact is going to be, here's how we're going to measure it, and this is how long it's going to take for that impact to be measured and then keeping all of those teams in the loop afterwards and walking around and given the high fives and the pat on the backs for job well done and so on and so forth. Ultimately, as a long -term developer myself, I understand that, frankly, part of the difficulty in these jobs that makes it less interesting is that a lot of the time you feel that you've got no real visibility into the impact or indeed ownership over the impact. So if you can finagle yourself to, one being able to get the buy in, and two, then been able to get the effort that goes in afterwards, you can navigate yourself into a good career. You of course need to know what those things should be that you're doing and you need to be experienced in SEO to understand those things. So it becomes a more multifaceted role in as much that you are dependent on different soft skills, entirely different soft skills to the hard skills of the SEO that you need to be able to do. But it can be very rewarding over the years.

Mark A Preston: Over the years has having a very technical understanding and background, really helped to mold things and really help for you personally to progress?

Martin MacDonald: Yeah, absolutely massively. After going back to the mid-90s, after I started the Internet service provider with my friend, about three, four years into that, decided at that point that I should probably get a proper job and I went and worked for in the (19:35) UK down in Burgess Hills and I was a database administrator. So my role was writing the software that their salespeople out on the street were going into pharmacies up and down the country and taking orders for their products, that then get back into their car, connect it to their Ericsson G H 788 telephone connect via GPRS at that point in time, and then upload their sales into our mainframe system and I wrote the software that pulled together and then put it into the global Shearing system. In order to get qualified for that, they put me through a twelve month course with Oracle in database administration. Basically, I became a certified DBA at that point. The things that I learned in that year, and bearing in mind, that year was three years before Google were founded. The things that I learned in that year absolutely set me up for the following 20 years, and the fact that, I will absolutely, hand on heart, say, My God, I'm glad I was starting to look at Google back in the days when they had a monthly update and it was simply just a big database, like I was used to working on professionally anyway.


So, yes, I was very in tune with how Google worked and because I was lucky enough to start that 20 years ago, I have been lucky enough, therefore, to be able to have grown up, frankly, in this environment and to have increased my personal knowledge level over the last 20 years in line with Google in as much that like, if you're starting today, I don't know how you learn all this stuff effectively, because it was going back 15 years ago when we only had one update a month. We had a month to work out what changed. In this environment, you simply can't do that anymore. So you get restricted down to everyone following best practices and everyone doing the same thing, and you're never going to stand out ,once you're in that environment. The old world that we used to live in, where we did have that month to analyze stuff, frankly, was more exciting, because if you could find the hack for that month and implement it, oh, my God, the following month would be amazing. But I guess that happens in every new industry, right? I'm also very grateful to have grown up in an industry from its infancy that's become very big now.

Mark A Preston: Well, compared to yourself, I started late in 2001, and I think I was probably doing SEO for three years, before I even heard what SEO was.

Martin MacDonald: Absolutely. Yeah.

Mark A Preston: Back then, it was just incredible, the ability to drive business. And I think the opportunities was a lot more probably because there were less people doing it.

Martin MacDonald: Oh, absolutely and also, frankly, the spam systems were less diverse at that point in time. I'll give you an example of something that would have been three or four, I was running the poker site at that point in time, and I was part of what at that point was called the 24 H Network, which was a Swedish poker. Basically, we shared players between us. We signed up our own players, and then I had whatever I had about 18,000 real money players on my one. I was, I think, the second largest network, the second largest partner on their network, behind their main skin. But there's maybe 100 different poker sites, if like that. And part of the marketing agreement was, I didn't have to fund bonus codes, basically, up to a certain amount. So consequently, whatever it was, it was like $5 a person or something. So I had learned at that point in time, and this wasn't common knowledge, you couldn't just Google this. I had learned that backlinks were important for SEO, and the more links you had pointing at your site, the better the ranking was. So I thought to myself, all right, let's put together a little campaign here. Published it in a load of poker forums. I owned the poker forums, so was able to market it out to tens of thousands of players quite quickly, saying you get $5 bonus code if you can post in this thread five different places on the Internet where you've left a link that goes back to my main site. Now, this is before the days of online spam, right?


Now, people, it wasn't before the days of online spam. Email spam was a thing. This level of spam did not yet exist, because it wasn't common knowledge that backlinks were important for ranking. I had literally thousands of people building me links, blog commenting, forum commenting, writing blog posts themselves, starting whole websites to get this $5 like it was the effort that these people were going into was phenomenal and I had to build a database in the back end to double verify that, I hadn't previously paid out people based on other links that they're then sending me in their application processes. But, the reality was, six months later, I was ranking in the top three positions for almost all big money poker terms, and that company was sold in 2007, before I then became a corporate enterprise, SEO. But that was the Wild West back then, and it was great fun, and you could get away with so much. But the reality is, should my site have ranked third for those terms or second for those terms? Absolutely not, pure spam. There's no good reason why that could have been determined or defined as a quality site. So has Google got much better? Yes. Have I stopped doing this kind of spammy stuff? Yeah, I absolutely have and it's been the best part of a decade now since I've done anything like that, simply because I've found that the ROI in doing things right is better now than the ROI in doing things the hooky way, which it was back then. So I'm neither prone or anti-black hat, if we want to put it that way. I am pro whatever the easiest method is to get long term, dependable ROI. And that dependable thing is the thing that is no longer the case with the more interesting and esoteric forms of SEO.

Mark A Preston: That's a unique way of putting that. So just you touched upon back links there content and backlinks. That seems to be, in a nutshell, what the SEO industry think SEO is content and backlinks. But in your experience, what's more important?

Martin MacDonald: Ten years ago, 15 years ago, my answer was content is largely irrelevant, if you've got enough backlinks. And I said that with pure qualification, in as much that I had WordPress plugin networks of 100 million backlinks, that I could point to any site to get it to rank for anything at that point in time, that is no longer the case. So consequently, content now has an increasing level of importance and if you were to plot out over time, over the last, say, 12 or 14 years, I would say that we've gone from a 100% link 0% content to a probably more than 50% content, less than 50% links basis at this point in time, depending on what the query is. Because if you're looking at queries that frankly have no query volume, no competition, Google is unaware of them, then you can rank any piece of content just based on links for that at that point in time. However, if you're looking at any keyword, that's got any competition whatsoever, you have to have above a minimum level of threshold of quality of content. So it's about the thresholds now that didn't simply exist back then. So it is both of those items, and frankly, a lot of people overcomplicate SEO. I overcomplicate SEO in many ways, and as much that in my enterprise world of looking at SEO, there are hundreds, if not thousands of potential things that you can improve on any given web page or website and it's about the selection of those things. I don't know, I'm trailing off here into things that I probably shouldn't talk about.

Mark A Preston: One thing that I really want to know is SEOs that have been in the industry, say, two, five years, who want to get in to the enterprise space, what do they need to do in order to theoretically move up the ladder into the SEO enterprise space?

Martin MacDonald: I think the first thing that they should do is, not think of it as moving up the ladder. Think of it as moving to a different ladder, because moving up the ladder, I think creates an artificial barrier that isn't there. I know a lot of people that are completely useless, that have got roles in enterprise companies. So it's not like saying, oh, in order to work for a large enterprise company, you've got to be very good at your job. That's not the case. I have never found that to be the case. What do they need to do to actually move into that role? Now, that is a different question, because it goes back to what I was saying earlier, about you need to be cognizant of your soft skills, your communication abilities. Very, very important your written abilities. That's something that I feel is worse now than it was maybe when I was starting my career. Maybe it's just me, I don't know. But that's the fundamental difference, because you're moving from an environment where you don't need to depend on those to execute. You're moving into an environment where you yourself are not able to execute the things that need to be done. You must leverage other people to do these. If you cannot therefore incentivize these other people to do those things happily, productively and efficiently, then it will not reflect well on yourself. Ultimately, you are being measured by other people's effort as to what it is that you directed them to do.


So you need to get both of those things right. So whilst I say the SEO portion of it is exactly the same, your input is entirely different between those two things. So in order to transition from, let's say, for instance, in no way am I diminishing it again. I've done it for years myself. Say you are a single person company you run a couple of affiliate websites in different niches, and you want to go and work for a Microsoft or whatever, a big corporate company. That is the main difference is you are no longer going to be the person doing all of these things other people are going to be doing it and your risk to reward ratio naturally, has to be different as well. It's kind of two ways of looking at that. You can get away with more on a corporate website, but if you're doing anything ,that's even remotely kind of SEO dodgy and you get caught, expect to get fired for it immediately which wouldn't happen, if it was on your own affiliate site. So there's positives and negatives in both directions. But fundamentally, as someone that's done it on both sides, I would not think of moving from a non-enterprise company to an enterprise company as moving up the ladder. I would think of it as moving to a different ladder. You can go up either ladder, and you can reach incredible heights on both ladders. They're just very different ladders.

Mark A Preston: Wonderful. Has promptly been an enterprise SEO allowed you to open doors, say, speaking on conferences. I am the head of SEO, at this brand that everyone knows about that. Has that status allowed you to open door you want to normally open?

Martin MacDonald: Absolutely 100%. So I got started speaking because, I used to be in a group of people where we'd go every Thursday night to do you remember I say, do you remember Like they don't exist anymore. Do they exist anymore? I have no idea. Checking his other window so what? the way I got into it was on like a Thursday night. Yes, it does exist. On a Thursday night used to host a pizza and digital evening, where we'd go around to their offices that were almost directly across the road from the office that I worked in London, and we would give like a 10 or 15 minutes little conference talk to the people in the room and one of the ones that I did was about the May Day Update 2007, I think that was 16 years ago now, in May, unsurprisingly and Will Critchlow was one of the other people in the room and remember, if they done it was way before Search Love. It was way before Link Love, like two, three years before them. Two years before them, at least, because the following year they did an SEO pro, which was the event that they did was still co-branded with Mos, when Mos used to be an agency as opposed to a software company.


And they asked me to speak at that, basically to redo my Mayday presentation from six months previous that Will had seen me doing at the offer assistance. So that was how I got in in the first place. That wasn't because of being Big Brand, but without doubt, if you have got, I don't know, Expedia or Uber or Microsoft or something as you're working from company in your bio, you are going straight to the top, I'm sorry to say this, but you are going straight to the top of the pile of potential for every conference out there SEO and we'll come back to that in a second. And you are going straight to the top of the pile for speaker submissions, because it makes financial sense for the conferences to be able to use your logos on all of their marketing material moving forward and also human nature, people are going to see that, oh look, Martin from Expedia is speaking at that conference. That must be good because Expedia have got really good SEO. That's just the way it works.


So you have to be exceptional to get away with doing it, not on a big brand basis and there are plenty of people that have done that over the years, but it is much harder. However, again, I don't think that should be the case, which is why with Barbados SEO specifically just rewinding for a second, I've had three Barbados SEO events so far couple of local ones, one international one those are continuing every year for the international ones, every couple of months for the local ones. The reason I did that is because I wanted to run conference, basically, I didn't want to travel to conferences anymore, so I wanted everyone to come to me. That's the fundamental reason, right? But I also wanted to run a conference that wasn't done like that. That wasn't done like the rest of the ones where, frankly, if you're working for a big brand company, you get to come on stage or if you are sponsoring the event, you get to have a keynote or an immediately after keynote thing ,just for a marketing exercise. So what I did for Barbados SEO, which unfortunately, the speaker pitches for Barbados SEO international number two, have already finished. So you can't pitch for that, but you can definitely pitch for next year.


Anyone out there watching this, please do. All of our pitches were anonymized, names were removed from them. They were placed into a database. Every one of the members at staff at my agency read through all of them, there was over hundred in the end, and then graded them across a couple of different  criteria. I then took, and I didn't do this myself. Reason being, I have a lot of history in the industry, I know a lot of people in the industry, a lot of speakers. I never wanted to be accused of either nepotism or favoritism or whatever. So consequently, I left it down to the team to blind vote, and we then took our list of speakers from that blind vote. What I found interesting after having done this process for the second time, is that experienced speakers naturally kind of rise to the top of this list, because they're also better at pitching. So I need to think of some way of kind of diminishing the existing speakers, because I'd love this event to be, like, Brighton has become, right? I love Brighton SEO Brighton’s amazing. But that basically is where new speakers go to cut their teeth.


Barbados SEO is obviously like a destination conference, so it can't be just that, but it should be partially that, because what it can't become is the same twelve people that you see in every other conference every year here and tweeting, and that becomes a ridiculous echo chamber. So I was really happy to have about a third of the speakers last year where I knew it was the first time I'd spoken at anything, and they were great. There was no discernible difference in the scores of the quality of the speeches between the people that have done 50 conference speeches versus the person that the people that had just done their first. And there's one last thing I'll say on the topic of conference speaking. If you want to do it, go ahead and do it, because, honestly, it's the thing that's made the most impact in my career. Having visibility out there in the industry is what's got me all my good jobs over my life. I don't know how well it's done forever, get me any clients? To be honest with you, I'm not sure that either. Conferences and social media are great for that. Personal references are better for that but, yeah, it's excellent you should do it. You should embrace it.

Mark A Preston: So with Barbados SEO, what makes it an advanced SEO conference?

Martin MacDonald: There is the million-dollar question. I mean, let me turn that round and put it back to you. What's the difference between advanced SEO and regular SEO?

Mark A Preston: Well, for me, it's things that you do once you've sorted the foundation stuff out.

Martin MacDonald: But for me, those first two words in your sentence, that's the operative part of that, because there is no clear definition of what Advanced SEO is. Advanced SEO to me is, how do I correctly manipulate the internal link graph of an enterprise site to take into consideration anchor texts for ranking keywords outside of the top ten positions, pointing at that page, where both the source page and the destination page have got entities that are in common. So therefore, I know that'll work. That, to me, is advanced SEO. But if you've been doing this for six weeks, then writing a well-crafted meta description is Advanced SEO. That's why I find it hard to define any this is what advanced SEO is. So really what the messaging there about Barbados SEO is, it's advanced SEO in as much that the content is intended to cater to practitioners that have been working in SEO for many years for at least three to five years, full time as SEOs, they know what they're doing. This isn't a beginner's 101 SEO session. People are not going to travel to a destination and sit for two or three days going through beginner’s SEO stuff. Because frankly, if you want to do that, then you're going to do it in the city that you live in, in any SEO course, you're coming to a destination to meet the most successful, the most experienced people within the individual niches, within your industry, because they're able to go through these more advanced topics with you. Now, what the strict definition of an advanced topic is, purely is in the eye of the beholder.


But the opposite is not in my mind. I think you can clearly define what a non-advanced topic is. It's the stuff that you have to know the building blocks of your understanding as to what SEO is and by avoiding those topics, that's what makes something an advanced show rather than a non-advanced show. And the way that I would define this is I don't think God, I don't know I'm not sure if do SMX Advanced and SMX exist anymore? I can't remember if they rebranded or just went bust or whatever, but that was kind of the fundamental difference between those two shows, was that at SMX, you could go with someone that's been working in SEO for six weeks and get great value out of the show because you've learned a lot. You couldn't do that at SMX Advanced because everything would have been over your head. So it's not about the preselection of very advanced topics. It's about making sure that you're removing all of the non-advanced topics. That's the only way, that I can think of to cater to being an Advanced SEO conference.

Mark A Preston: Right, it's not like advanced SEO is basically technical SEO on steroids.

Martin MacDonald: Oh, no. Absolutely not because that would be I mean, that's kind of gatekeeping, right? I am a technical SEO; however, I'll give you examples. Adam Rhymer, for instance, so he is one of our speakers at BBSEO 23 in November. November 15 to 17th, 2023 get your tickets now He's one of the speakers there, right? And I'm incredibly grateful that he made the graders and was selected internally. I'm also not surprised, because his speech is going to be about creative link building. He is unbelievably good at finding creative angles to then basically get big brands to go viral. Like, he's phenomenal at it and I saw him speak I've only seen him speak once at the Advanced Search Summit, Washington, DC November or December 2019. It was the last trip that I took before COVID and it was the first SEO conference speech in, I don't know, a decade. But I sat there riveted through the whole thing, laughing at all of the jokes, like, just been oh, that's absolutely brilliant. Oh, that's fantastic, taking notes. Zero technical SEO in that in the slightest. So no, it's absolutely not just technical SEO. As a technical SEO myself, I have to be careful to not be biased towards that specific niche. So it may appear that way, when I'm talking about it in public, but that's because that's the bit that I love.

Mark A Preston: Yeah. So as an industry, to sum up all the conferences out there, search conferences, what would you personally say what's broken, as in the conference world, I've moved out of speaking at marketing events into corporate and business events, basically because I get paid, marketing events don't pay me. So that's what allowed me to move into that space and I'm doing really well in that space. But as an overall, it's very tricky conversation. But to get rid of repetitiveness, what does the conference industry in the search field need to be doing?

Martin MacDonald: I have to be careful of my response here overall, because I'm like, I don't know if we had this conversation 18 month ago. I'd be like, right, this is shit, and that shit, and this needs change, and this needs to change now. I have to be cognizant of the fact that, I am technically running my own conference series now as well, so I have to answer it in that context and the things that I have been super strict about us not doing are well, one, the way that we're handling the speaker selection at the moment of being utterly blind and looking at the quality of the content, and then looking at how the content runs overall rather than the people and the personalities, that's a problem. And I say that as a problem as someone that has massively benefited from it myself over my career, because I have been invited to speak at so many conferences, simply because they've seen me speaking out of the conference, getting up on stage, being all aerated, whatever, and being like, yeah, get that guy, blah, blah, blah. So no content distinction was made in that I was simply asked because I was an enthusiastic speaker. I don't think that's right, I think the content is what people are going for, not someone's enthusiasm. But it's human nature to want to do it that way, which is why I pulled myself out of it.


So there's that. The other side of it that is fundamentally broken in the SEO industry is the sponsorship, the paying of speakers/the paying of expenses of speakers/the overt salesmanship that most of the conferences literally are, let's be honest, I was incredibly lucky that I worked for a number of big brands that were fine with funding me to go out, speak at most of the conferences that I spoke at. If you go to and then click on the conferences, I've got a list of think, most of them, because I wrote it a couple of years ago. There's like 70 conferences that I've spoken at there. I've been maybe paid for 15 of those 70, just to put it in context, right? But my previous employers were fine paying for me to travel the world and go speak at them. All the reason their ROI from that, just to be perfectly transparent, was it made recruitment easier. So, consequently, if I am going around the world and speaking to teams of rooms of 100 and 5500, a thousand SEOs, whatever it is, there was a measurable impact on how easy it was to recruit in that market afterwards. That is the ROI for a big company. The things that I would change, therefore, are, one, focusing on the content, not on the money. Speakers cannot pay for this themselves, right? I wasn't paying for it, my employer was but even that was wrong.


The conferences themselves are getting this content. They're selling the tickets; they're selling the sponsorship. They're a business. You are providing that business with the product that they are selling for free, unless you are getting paid or at least getting your expenses paid for it. Now, it's a hard ask because, I'm producing something that's a destination. So it's expensive people to get here, the hotels are expensive, so on and so forth. So it's a harder job for me to put together a price that makes sense for people to get here and come to the show and so and so forth which is why, frankly, Barbados SEO will depend on sponsors. But those sponsors are not using the conference as a sales avenue, right? I'm fine with Swag being at the conference from these things. Swag is another thing that's irritated the year. That's a whole other whole other topic. I'm fine with them having swag, frankly I'm fine with people from those individual companies speaking, if they have made the grade of the selection, that is the hard and fast criteria. Not you've paid to advertise. Not, oh, this dude gets up on stage and he runs around and he swears a lot. So he's but there's me that I'm referencing here. He runs around a lot; he swears a lot, so therefore he's an interesting speaker. That's no good, so it is the content but I understand why every other conference out there operate the way they do mainly, Brighton doesn't need to operate that way. There are other examples advanced search summit doesn't need to operate that way. So there are examples of conferences that work exactly this way, but most of them don't. Most of them are just advertising vehicles that you're paying sometimes $1000 or $1,200 to go and attend for two or three days. Many of them are a waste of time.

Mark A Preston: I have spoken to a few event organizers in the field myself and off camera code in. Some of them, not all of them, were saying that basically we need to get the names on stage that's going to help us sell the tickets.

Martin MacDonald: Absolutely, yeah, I mean, it's true fundamentally, you're working in a marketplace environment when you've been a conference organizer, right? It's the same as it's the same as in our world, working for, I don't know, an eBay where you're trying to attract both the buyer and the seller. In this case, you have that, but you've got the content produced and the content consumers, it is the same thing. But if you can manage to create an environment where fundamentally what we're doing here is we are saying to content producers, no, you should produce this content for me for free because of exposure, right? That shit doesn't work online anymore. It still somehow works in the conference industry world. Now, to be absolutely clear, Barbados SEO did not last year pay any of its speakers. We did, however, pay 100% of the travel expenses, 100% of the hotel expenses, 100% of the expenses on island that was meals, drinks, all the rest of it, full board in the hotel transport to and from the venue, from the hotels and things like that. So the speakers were out of zero pocket. There was no money had to go in from the speaker's perspective last year. I am absolutely hoping and expecting that to be the case this year, although that hasn't been. We've got six months before the event at this point in time.


Our primary sponsor of the event last year was Barbados, the country, their tourism office and if we enjoy that level of sponsorship again this year, basically 100% of that money went into paying everyone's expenses. It's not intended as a money making enterprise for me in the slightest. It's intended as I would like everyone to come here and enjoy the beautiful place that, I'm lucky enough to call home now and get together for a couple of days of advanced SEO and I don't have to go anywhere. So I'm quite selfish on that basis, but I don't need it to make any money. Therefore, my objective again, for this year is to attract enough sponsors to simply pay for all of the expenses for the speaker travel and the speaker accommodation. And when we've reached that level, I'm done, I'm finished. That's fine. Doesn't cost me anything. Speakers get to come here for free and we all get to sit and share ideas for three days and there's the massive ROI fund. So I guess what I should say at this point is, if you're a large company that would like to sponsor Barbados SEO, please go to and click on the sponsors link.

Mark A Preston: And it's technically perfect.

Martin MacDonald: Yes, absolutely.

Mark A Preston: Wonderful. Well, the time has run away with this like mad. I know this is like a catch up for us, but is there anything we haven't covered already that you feel as though the audience really need to hear?

Martin MacDonald: I could launch into about a 15 or a 20 minutes diatribe right now about SEO tools and the way that SEO tool suites work. But you know what? I'm going to save the audience that one because between us recording this and it's going out, I have no idea when it's going to go out, by the way. How about we talking days, weeks.

Mark A Preston: About a week.

Martin MacDonald: Fair enough. Between now and then, I will have launched the software suites that I've been working on for ages. That's going to have to happen now that I've said it as well. So, I mean, that is the thing that I would like to talk about most and go on about how the fundamental problem with every other SEO tool suite that we've got out there at this point in time is a lack of customizability for enterprise level SEOs. In as much that as an industry, we've somehow ended up in this situation, where we've been funneled into fixing things that product managers at SEO tools think are important for SEO, but product managers at SEO tools are not full time SEOs. So we've ended up in this weird scenario where, we have a whole generation of SEOs that are just fixing stuff that are in tools, that have not been built by people that do this for a living, which is a strange scenario. I've spent five or six years working on a product, which is the opposite of that, an SEO crawler that is built for professional SEOs, by professional SEOs and I hope, I very much hope, will be well received by the industry. But I guess we'll see, I guess by the time this comes out, we'll know whether or not my hope was in vain or not. So this will be an interesting little historical thing to look back.

Mark A Preston: I'm sure it will be. Just to tap on that, that tool you are launching, what's the audience, the user audience of that tool? Just to clarify that.

Martin MacDonald: Do you know what? It's a great question, because is, frankly, when the tool first started, the user audience was one, it was me. And so everything in the tool basically has been built up originally for me to provide SEO services to enterprise customers. It then diversified into being a lot of more things as I started hiring people, agency side, and it became even more things when I started wanting to distribute it to the general public. So it's moved from being an audience of just one to being the audience intended for this product are full time professional SEOs and or product managers that are charged and responsible with SEO. The reason I make a distinction there is, I have worked with dozens, dozens, and dozens and dozens of companies over the last six years. There are enterprise companies that don't have an SEO team. They have a product team, they have an engineering team, and the product or engineering team are the people that are ultimately responsible for SEO. You'd be surprised, but there's more enterprise companies out there in that situation, than there are enterprise companies that have got a good SEO team.


So the solution that I have built, which people watching this may or may not have seen, but I'm sure, Mark five or ten-minute demo before we had this call in the first place. The solution that I've built is kind of designed to fit into that arena, where it is designed for people that have a very good knowledge and understanding of SEO, so they can go forward with the tools, the tools and recommendations that provides to effectively generate additional ROI and measure that ROI and report on that ROI, it's those three things that the tool does. And if you're a project manager or a product manager rather than an SEO, it also helps you by giving you the best habits to what actually needs to be done to affect change with individual tickets as well. And if you want more details on that, then you should probably go to follow me on Twitter or something, because I've no doubt I'll be going on about it ad nauseam, moving forward. So @searchMartin on Twitter.

Mark A Preston: So on that basis, I'd like to thank you so much for taking the time to away from building your tool and away from your business and away from creating this amazing conference and away from the million other things you're doing in the industry. To spend an hour or two chatting about all this been truly amazing. And I just want to finish on, if the audience can do anything to say thank you to you, what would that be?

Martin MacDonald: Do you know what? I am incredibly lucky, I have an amazing life doing something that I love. So the thing that I would like most for them to do for me, if they want to, is the stuff that we were talking about earlier just getting yourself out there and signing up to go and speak at conferences, to getting yourself out there and publishing content out there, that to me, would be the greatest thing. Because I don't need them to do anything for me that benefits me at this point in time. I would be happier if they did something that benefits themselves. So to learn from me being this uneducated fairly myopic not good at anything else apart from stuff online person, that's managed to go out and travel the world and live all over the world and speak at 60-70 conferences and build a couple of businesses and so on and so forth. Mainly off the back of being out there and put myself forward in the SEO world and going to conferences and speaking and things like that.


So, the one thing that I would like people to do is, if they want to do that and they haven't already done it, go ahead and bloody do it. And if you've got any reasons why you haven't done it and you're like, yeah, but I can't do it because of this, send me a direct message. My Twitter direct messages are open for non-follow up, whatever you call it, they're open. Anyone can DM me, and you know what? Once a week, on average, maybe once every two weeks, I get a message, something along those lines and I'm always getting into these conversations. So that would be the thing that I would like people to do for me would be, if they've ever thought about it, apply to speak at a Brighton SEO, or a Barbados SEO, it's going to say Search love, but I don't think that exists anymore. Whatever the new search love is going to be, get there and do it. That's what I want you to do for me.

Mark A Preston: Okay, well, thank you Martin, for your time and all the best.

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