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Simon Schnieders Reveals Hidden Truths About Running a Large SEO Agency

Simon Schnieders
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Simon started his career within the SEO industry two decades ago where he was having a chat with two young chaps in a bar in Miami where he was working. These two chaps mentioned that they was earning a load of money, been given new cars and fancy holidays doing this thing called affiliate marketing, and Simon thought - I want a piece of that.

Fast forward to today and Simon is the founder & CEO of Blue Array SEO which is the UK's largest specialist SEO agency employing 50+ people who service clients including big brands Zoopla, MailOnline, RAC and GoCardless.

Simon has a vision of making the SEO industry a better place to work in and many SEOs industry-wide have gone through the Blue Array Academy.

You might also recognise Simon as the author of the best-selling 'Mastering In-House SEO' book where SEO's who work in-house share their stories and experiences.

Simon puts his success of Blue Array SEO agency down to being people-first and profit second.

Watch or listen to our unscripted SEO interview as we go behind the scenes of what it is really like to be a large scale SEO agency owner.

The Unscripted SEO Interview Podcast with Simon Schnieders

Watch the interview

(click the 'cc' icon to view subtitles)

Listen to the podcast

(56 minutes long)

The unscripted questions Mark A Preston asked Simon Schnieders

  • How did you get into the SEO industry and when was that, Simon?

  • What has your personal journey been like since you started in the SEO industry?

  • Do you think that starting your SEO career in the affiliate marketing space gave you a good grounding to becoming successful?

  • Your book 'Mastering In-House SEO', why did you want to publish a book relating to in-house SEOs specifically?

  • What makes your Mastering In-House SEO book different from all the other SEO books on the shelf?

  • Are there any key lightbulb moments in your Mastering In-House SEO book?

  • I noticed on your LinkedIn bio, you said that you are the founder of the UK's largest specialist SEO agency. What does the specialist bit mean?

  • When you originally foundered Blue Array SEO agency, what was your vision for it?

  • How have you overcome funding challenges within your agency?

  • What are the key differences with growing your team today opposed to when you foundered the agency?

  • What specific obstacles have you come up against whist growing your SEO agency team?

  • How do you make sure that the customer experience you provide has a seamless flow from the pre-sales to the after-sales and beyond?

  • Do your own team take the same courses and SEO certifications as the ones you offer to the wider SEO community within the Blue Array Academy?

  • Does your internal training and development go into a lot more detail than your public facing Technical SEO Certification and SEO Manager Certification?

  • What do you think has driven the SEO salary hike the industry has recently experienced?

  • Do you think that constant rising SEO salaries are a good thing for the industry?

  • Do you think that some SEOs are being offered stupid money to jump ship to another agency?

  • As an agency owner, what specific challenges have you faced surrounding the SEO salary discussion?

  • With the cost of living constantly going up for everyone and the looming talk of another recession, what do you think the next 12-months is going to look like for the agency world?

  • How has long term client contract commitment changed?

  • From an agency owners perspective, what does your typical day look like?

  • What do you have to go through to keep all your team in a job?

  • Have you self-funded (bootstrapped) the growth of Blue Array SEO agency or did you take investment on?

  • What are the pitfalls of taking investment on to grow an agency?

  • What specific entity/thing allowed you to go from running the agency on your own to now having an in-house management and finance team?

  • Does everyone in your agency contribute towards directly generating revenue?

  • If you had to pick just one main challenge as an agency owner, what would that be?

  • What was the reason for you wanting to setup your LondonSEO Meetup event?

  • What contributed towards your LondonSEO XL conference being so successful?

  • What sort of investment was required for putting on LondonSEO XL conference?

  • As your LondonSEO XL conference was a paid to attend event, did you make any profit?

  • How will, or will the way agencies sell SEO services to clients change in the future?

  • Do you think that AI in this industry will get so sophisticated that SEOs on the ground will no longer be needed?

  • What specifically is SEO creativity?

  • What is the difference between creativity in relation to SEO vs Digital PR?

  • Is there anything the audience can do to help you?

  • Are the certifications you offer within the Blue Array Academy just a recruitment ploy?

The unscripted conversation between Mark A Preston and Simon Schnieders

Mark A Preston: Welcome to the unscripted SEO interview. I'm your host, Mark A Preston, and today we have joined with us, the founder of Blue Array, SEO, Simon Schneiders. Hi, Simon!

Simon Schnieders: Hey, Mark. It's lovely to be spending time with you. And for your audience's clarity, this genuinely is completely unscripted. We haven't done any prep at all, so I'm very much looking forward to this.

Mark A Preston: Wonderful!, So, Yeah, I’m really wanted to get you on the interview series to get an insight into what it's really like behind the scenes of running a large SEO agency. So, just for the audience who doesn't know who you are; could you give a bit of an overview and a background of who the Simon is and how you're started in the industry?

Simon Schnieders: Sure. So, I started in the industry a couple of decades ago in the world of affiliate marketing, and this was just overhearing a conversation in a bar where I was bartending at the time. So, it was a little tiki bar in Miami, poolside. Not sure why I ever left that job. The best job I ever had was a poolside bartender in Miami. But, I overheard a conversation about some affiliates that were being rewarded on cruises around the Caribbean and giving keys to brand new sports cars. And when these guys came to the bar, they were sort of 20 nothing that I didn't think looked particularly adept at what they did.


So, I figured well, there's nothing that these guys are doing that “I couldn't do”. So, I need to do my research and figure out how they're managing to win so much business for these casino groups that they're being rewarded with keys to brand new sports cars and cruises around the Caribbean. I said, “I'd love to get some of that action,” And so I'd spend my evenings at a place called the Digital Point Forum; which was kind of the only place that you could find anything out about SEO hanging out at affiliate conferences in Miami. And I'd say, that the SEO world back then was very, very small. I think there were probably only about 100 practitioners across the UK and US. And yeah, over time I managed to build my own website.


And actually, I think it was about six to twelve months after I started. Then I managed to rank number one for online casino bonus in America, which was a huge. I mean, I was generating on average 20-30,000 dollars per month in affiliate income. Nothing like a big boys were doing. They were doing sort of a, quarter of a, million pounds a month, some of them. So a quarter of a million dollars, should I pay for a month. But that was the start of my SEO journey. The US then outlawed casino gambling, and that, was a very sort of shortlist of time; really so, couldn't tax it, so, they outlawed it. Which led me to, at that stage, sort of had enough of America as well come back to the UK. And I realized that the companies were starting to really understand the importance of SEO. And my first job back in the UK was working for And I managed to grow that website; I think it was better. 3000% increase in SEO traffic, largely off the result of changing some JavaScript links on their homepage to HTML links; because, at that time Google couldn't crawl JavaScript links.


So, very simple, very easy success there. And then went on to mail online, where, working with a guy called James Bromley, MD, we managed to take that business to overtake the New York Times, and that was largely through SEO. So at the time I was there, we built an entire SEO department, which were essentially crafting the work of the journalists there, making the content it more SEO friendly. And, that's still the process that's used there today, and used by many other news publishers as well. And, then I was head hunted by a guy called Alex Chestnuts, go work at “Zoopla’’. And again, a huge successful story. Took that business to 1 billion IPO. When I left, we were doing around 16 million organic visits a month, non brand, and after that I just had an avalanche request for consultancy that kept coming in. So, that then led me to start the agency. So, sorry, a bit of a long winded answers there, but that's the journey of me starting in the SEO industry as an affiliate, going into having some really high profile, very successful in-house roles; and then ultimately deciding to start my own agency.

Mark A Preston: Wonderful!, I was going to say because when I started, like, 2001; I literally started building my own sites in affiliate marketing. I didn't even know what SEO was then. I know for me it was a good grounding because, I got to practice a lot of things and; because, there was no business getting hurt if it didn't work. Do, you think your own background starting in affiliate marketing is what really made you become successful?

Simon Schnieders: I, think so. As you say, Mark is all about experimentation and having the bravery to try new things and be willing to fail at those things as well. And I think, you're right. When it's your own site on the line, your ability to take risks is much greater and therefore, your ability to learn and develop new techniques is much greater as well. So, I definitely think there's a huge amount of play in there. And, I definitely encourage anybody out there who wants to be serious about SEO to have their own playground, whether that's something that's impacted employee, employer sponsored, or something you're doing off your own back. But, definitely.

Mark A Preston: Wonderful! Now, going off on a tangent, I noticed the book in the background. You're mastering SEO and why did you specifically want to create a book targeting in house SEOs?

Simon Schnieders: So, a little bit of background was that I was told by a good friend of mine, Simon, you must write a book. And then I very quickly came to realise that “I don't have a book in me; and, therefore needed to probably get some help with that”. So, I went ahead and spoke to somebody who would be able to do ghost-writing. And, then it could sort of occur to me, well, why am I ghost writing my story? What about if I could get, you know, 20, 30 contributors to help me with a book, then I'd have people to help me market the book as well. So, essentially, the idea behind the book was, it was a platform; that I can elevate the agency through as well as elevate the people who are contributing to the book. So, we've all got our own networks, as if I can bring a bunch of co-authors together to leverage their networks, then essentially that hand-holding helps everybody who's contributing to the book.

Mark A Preston: Yeah! I do agree. I was one of the authors in the second edition. It really does give things on both sides. Do, you think in the book itself there were any sort of things you read where you thought that sort of a light bulb moment?

Simon Schnieders: I think less about that, more about the experiences of people in-house being very common. I mean, the commonalities are definitely there. And by the way, In house was decided upon because there really wasn't any book written about in house SEO; so, it was more about the opportunity there, just like there wasn't anybody doing a decent sized event in London, so, we did London SEO meetup XL to fill that gap. If we see gaps in the market, we want to try and fill those, but in-house SEO was definitely one of those gaps. So, I wouldn't say there were any particular light bulb moments in what was coming from the co-authors for me personally, but, there was certainly something to be taken from the commonality of the experience of working in-house; and, the themes that were being surfaced as a result of everybody essentially having the same experience.

Mark A Preston: Wonderful!. Now, I noticed on your LinkedIn bio, you say that you are the founder of the UK's largest specialist SEO agency. What does the specialist mean?

Simon Schnieders: You've got two different kinds of agencies. You've got generalists or specialists. So generalists would do SEO paid search programmatic they might do design. We just focus on SEO, so we don't do anything else but SEO. And, that was deliberate. At the time I started the agency, by the way, there really weren't any specialist SEO agencies at the time. There was a book out I can remember reading at the time I started the agency called “the marketing agency blueprint”, which talks about how having a specialist agency was completely wrong. You needed to diversify your income streams and you know I saw a gap anyway, for a specialist SEO agency to come into the market and purely focus on that one thing and really obsessively focus on one thing and do it incredibly well, and I've been proven right anyway. And increasingly, we're seeing more and more agencies maneuvering from generalists to specialists. So, yeah.

Mark A Preston: Wonderful!. So, when you originally set the Blue Array SEO agency up, did you have any sort of vision for it?

Simon Schnieders: I think that the vision for it was to be the best in class. So, as I say, going down that specialist route, being focused on our people first and foremost, and I know lots of agencies say we're people focused, but genuinely, we are. As some testament to that when everybody was making redundancies in the depths of 2020, we didn't make a single employee redundant. We paid everyone. We had to use furlough for some of the team, but we made sure they were paid 100%. We just didn't make any profit. In fact, we lost money in 2020. But that's some testament to how people focus we are as an agency, is that we will put profit or so people before profit.

Mark A Preston: Wonderful!, Yeah, I noticed an article or a video around the time afterwards saying you'd actually invested quite a lot of money during the lockdown period. And, the problem with that is, when you come out of the lockdown period; you were struggling to get funding to get you through the next period. How did you overcome that?

Simon Schnieders: We were, lucky in that we had the bumper 21. Basically, we saw recovery in Q4 of 2020 and then 21 was really a banner year for us. I think we saw 40% growth in 2021. So it was lucky, you know, it was lucky that we had a really strong 2021 and we just, we accelerated our end of year account, so we were able to then take a loan. But if you're applying for a loan, typically they want to see three years of accounts. And so, 2020 was the one that really held us back from being able to borrow, so but luckily, we had a really strong 21. So, yeah, that was what helped us, really. It's just a challenge of growing an agency. It's cash flow, and cash flow is the number one thing you need to have in place, because cash is the number one killer of businesses when you're paying your employees long before you're getting paid. And, some companies, depending upon how the bigger they are, the latest they pay, by the way. I mean, some companies, some big blue chips are taking 90 days plus to pay now, that really puts a strain on your business because you've got all of your outgoings that you have paid for before you're getting paid. And as your agency is growing, you need more and more cash reserves in order to keep that growth in place. So, being able to borrow is hugely important.

Mark A Preston: Great!, On the subject of growing the agency, when it comes to growing the team, and what sort of differences have you seen over the years in being able to grow a team? And what obstacles have you come up against?

Simon Schnieders: I think in the early days of the business, we think about DNA, and so the DNA of an agency typically comes from the founder. So, my DNA transfers to Tom Paul, transfers to Kim Jo, and when you're in a small agency, say less than ten people, it's very easy to control that DNA because you're working very closely together. As your business grows and starts to scale, you need to maintain that DNA in some way, but you can't give the individual attention to those new team members that are coming on board. So, you've got to make sure that as your DNA is rubbed off onto other team members, they're rubbing them off onto other people, as well as having very clear systems and processes and procedures in place.


So the business has become a lot more procedural, a lot more process driven as a result of needing to maintain that DNA within the business. So I'd say that's the most important thing when you're growing a team is how do you keep that DNA in the business? How do you ensure that the training and development and opportunities to progress, all of those things are in place, and it takes rigorous processes. So, one externalization of part of our process is the Blue Array Academy. So, the SEO manager training course, for instance, is the same training that an SEO executive would take within our business to get them to manage a level. But that's only one of a multitude of processes that we have in order to keep that DNA within the business. Because ultimately, what you want is a consistent customer experience. You want a customer who's going to come into the business to get just as incredible in experience as if they were working with the founder directly. And that's a hard thing to do at scale, but, it is possible.

Mark A Preston: Yeah!, definitely. I know, I've built a couple of agencies up myself, nowhere near on the scale you have; but, that's what I found client when I was on core with potential clients. How do you then transfer that experience they're having with you onto the after sales? So training is a massive entity in all that. So, in within your own agency, I know you have the technical SEO certifications and other certifications for the wider community; but, did you say that your own in-house SEOs take them exact courses, or does it go into a lot more depth?

Simon Schnieders: Yeah!, it goes into a lot more depth than what we've externalized. But, the movement from an SEO executive to an SEO manager is typically through a process that's quite similar to what we've externalized in the academy. So it's not an exact replica of it. But anybody who joins us as an executive will have to do the Blue Array Academy as part of their journey with us. But, that's not the full journey. That's a subsection of it, but yeah, it's a part of it.

Mark A Preston: Right. I want to get on to some sort of touchy subject where the industry had quite a lot to say about and SEO salaries, now I've noticed over the past year that salaries in the industry in the UK have increased. You know, I've heard of like literally SEO excess with two years’ experience getting money like some SEO managers get. Without putting any numbers on things. What do you think, driven that sort of change in the industry? And do you think it's a good thing from an agency owner's point of view?

Simon Schnieders: Yeah, I think the increase in salary is obviously as a result of demand in the market. If demand wasn't there, then the salary increases wouldn't be there. But, I think it's got a lot to do with the lack of training and development you get at other agencies where essentially we can take somebody with no experience coming into the world of SEO. And within a couple of years have them client facing doing an incredible job and say they'll have had that DNA transfer at that stage when our team is getting head-hunted and most of them get head-hunted at least on a weekly basis. It's really as a result of the laziness of other agencies who aren't investing in the training and development that we're doing.


Yeah, I think this salary inflation, some of it is shocking to me in the sense that we've had SEO executives approach to have immediately been given SEO manager roles. Agencies where we've said that you are not ready for this, then you're not ready for this in our agency. But, of course the answer from that particular individual is, well they think I am because they're willing to pay me. Okay, fair enough. But, as I say, we have to maintain a very high standard and a consistency of customer experience that is vital to that DNA of Blue Array. And therefore we are going to get that attrition within the business; because, we've got people who are not willing to invest in the training and development and need to be feeding off people like Blue Array. But, it is what it is. Personally, it's not a bad thing for the industry. I think, if anything, COVID has been a really good thing for us in terms of broadening our horizons. I'll be honest, prior to COVID, I'm a Redding employer and I hire Redding people and what I actually found was that broadening my horizons and being able to open up opportunities for people around the UK to work for Blue Array has actually been a big upgrade for us.


We found that there's some great talent out there beyond Reading and so that was actually a good thing for us. But yeah, I think in terms of salaries and where they're at, I can give you an agency's point of view on this, which is that we maintain very strict P&Ls, so profit and loss accounts. We roughly pay 55 pence in every pound that we receive directly on salaries or labor cost, and anything beyond that means that we make little to no margin. And most agencies in a healthy place need to be making around 20% ebitda or operating profit. If you're doing that at the moment, you're doing very well as a sort of 50 plus agency, but, it's very hard for an agency to be able to compete with some of the silly money that's being thrown around there, particularly from in houses that SEO for us represents a percentage of overall P&L account that we don't have much flex on if somebody's going to get paid another 20, 30,000 pounds to work somewhere else, we just don't have the ability to change the shape of our P&L, whereas a larger company might be able to do that. Unfortunately, we are only able to pay what we are able to pay and we're constrained by things like day rates, for instance.


That's the only way that salary will go up in agency land, as if day rates go up. And, with the strain on the cost of living and that pinch being across the board, that's unlikely to happen this year. But yes, it's a tricky one. Ultimately you have the numbers you have to be able to work with, and that's all you have. And, if people are going to be leaving for bigger salaries elsewhere, then that's fine. But, I think certainly the questions I'd be asking of companies is, did you make any redundancies in 2020, for instance? So, if you're thinking about leaving an agency to go to another agency, or leaving agents to go to an in-house role, particularly as we're heading into a recession, I'd want to be asking, did you make any redundancies in 2020, for instance? And if they did, there's a strong chance that they'll be doing that in 22, 23. So, yeah be careful. Money is not that bright, it is the only bright and shiny thing. You want a good training, development, and you want job support, security as well.

Mark A Preston: Definitely, Well, as you mentioned, the cost of living for everyone's gone up, and you mentioned the word recession. How do you think the next twelve months are going to pan out from an agency world? I know I was running an agency during the year of 2007 to 2008 when Woolworths and lots of others went under, and it wasn't a pretty time from an agency owner, So, because I've heard both sides of that. Basically, things are only going to grow, and others are saying, well, businesses are going to tighten the wallet. So, from your personal view, how do you think the next twelve months are going to pan out in the industry?

Simon Schnieders: I think, SEO is one of those things that is largely recession proof. We've certainly seen that in if you go back way back to 2008 when there was this huge recession that we had, SEO was the first to recover, and we saw that in COVID as well. I've got friends who run other agencies. We were the last to see cutbacks in terms of spending. Paid search, for instance, got cut back immediately instead of February, March of 2020. We didn't really feel it until April-May, and then recovery came in Q4 of 2020 before everybody else. So, SEO is one of those things that's very resilient. It's one of those things that people can invest in, knowing that it's a bit of a longer term thing. So, if they start to see light at the end of the tunnel, it will be the first thing that they start to invest in. I certainly see that in terms of customers today, we're seeing less commitment from them, so they're less interested in the long term and retained services. They're more interested in project work with us.


That's very acute at the moment, is that they want projects that are going to give them the opportunity to grow traffic quite quickly and then maybe invest again if they see results after that. But the longer term commitment that you might normally see from a customer with; yeah, we know we need to invest in SEO, we know it needs to be long term. We're not seeing that so much. Customers are very non-committal at the moment. But that's obviously these wider macro factors are at play here. But I think based on other recessions, let's say 2008, the financial crisis, SEO the first to recover there, 2020, COVID the first to recover there. I think we're in as good a place as you could be in terms of the marketing tapestry’s. We're in a great place. Just as an industry.

Mark A Preston: Yeah, that's wonderful to hear, actually, just for people that obviously don't run an agency and to get into, because all this is one side of an agency where they might work within an agency and they don't really understand what's involved to keep in that job. So, from an agency owner's perspective, what's your typical day look like?

Simon Schnieders: It's very varied. I mean, no day is the same at all. There's an awful lot of firefighting, so I would say my main job is firefighting and there's different burning fires and I can't predict what fire is going to be there for me tomorrow, but there's an awful lot of that sort of stuff going on. We're a very mature agency now in the sense of we got 55 employees. It's a very different agency from when it was a 10 person agency to when it was 20 to 30 to 40. They're very different agencies to run. Now we have the luxury of having a finance director and managing director, an operations director. All of these things have made my life a lot easier because I've grown the business bootstrapped. That means self-funded, right from employee number one.


And I've really enjoyed that journey, not being funded, not having the luxury of being able to hire, having to hire when I could afford to hire, essentially. So, I've done most of those roles; I've had to do debt collection; I've had to do account management; I've had to do all of those things. And that's been quite a rewarding journey for me. But, I rarely have to dive into much of the operational side anymore, thanks to having today the people in place to be able to manage those things for me, I'd say today quite a bit of my time will be spent on things like business development. So, this is something that we're taking very seriously at the moment one of my way was to (28:24 – 28:25 not clear) give away our plan anyway, which is whenever there is a slowdown stroke recession, this is an opportunity that most companies take to do cutbacks, to stop marketing spend. I take the opposite view on that. I see it as an opportunity to really ramp up and take market share where people are investing less in those areas. So, as of next month’s we're heavily investing in out-bound marketing for the first time.


We've done quite well with sort of business to industry stuff. I'm very much focused on B2B over the coming months and years ahead anyway. So that's where my time, I guess is being spent at the moment is sort of thinking about the future and strategizing the business, making sure that we're in the right place in 6,12, 18 months from now and making sure that the team are aligned with that sort of thing, with mechanisms like OKRs, so I'm in a position of, I guess strategizing for the business today more so than anything else, which is good fun because I don't always get it right, but most of the time I do. And it's a good position to be and I'm not really say firefighters operationally, it's more around where do I think the market is going to be in twelve months from now and are we prepared for that?

Mark A Preston: All right, now you mentioned you have grown the agency naturally. Self-funded the agency growth. Was, there ever a moment where you sat there thinking, why am I doing this? Why don't I just take some investment in? Then, I can take all these problems away.

Simon Schnieders: I don't think I've ever there's certainly times, many times I thought, why am I doing this? Why am I putting myself through this? As much pain? Particularly in the early days of the agency, it is so painful. I didn't sleep more than, I would say 3, 4 hours a night for a couple of years. Genuinely, that's how intense it was. I was so invested in the business and wanting to see it really grow and flourish and being bootstrapped to say you can't afford to hire on demand, you can only afford to hire when you can afford to hire. So, you need the revenues in place to be able to get those people on board. I think taking outside investment, I've always been worried about doing that because it's about control more than anything else. If you're going to be taking on investment, it will come with a cost. And that cost is going to be that you're unlikely to be able to make decisions as independently as you did previously. It's likely that your reporting is going to get a lot more complicated. So, there were things that I saw around investment which looked like chains and shackles to me, and I didn't fancy wearing those. So I've always stayed away from it, knowing that growth was going to be there for us. And ultimately, I can deal with short term pain. I could see a future where I would be able to hire people to be able to support me in the role. And it worked out fine, but it can be incredibly painful at times.

Mark A Preston: Well, I can certainly relate to that, definitely. You said that you now have a management team behind you in Blue Array SEO. But, prior to that, what was the entity or the thing that happened to enable you to suddenly think, right, I can start to bring in a management team to help me with the running of the business.

Simon Schnieders: So, the answer to that is revenue. The reality is that we have sort of two separate types of heads here in the business. You've got non-revenue generating headcount and then revenue generating headcount. So, you can't continue to grow your revenue generating headcount, i.e., People servicing accounts without non-revenue generating headcount to support those roles. But, it is revenue that helps you to get that stage. So, there'll be a point at which you could probably go, I don't know, up to about 20,30 employees before you start to need to bring in someone on the HR side of things, for instance. So, that HR role would be a non-revenue generating head-count role. But, it's revenue that's essentially gotten you to the stage where you were able to afford non-revenue generating head-count.

Mark A Preston: Actually, in my head, that's pinging something else. Going back to what we mentioned about salaries, that's a very good point, because it's not that the salaries are obviously based on a day rate or whatever, but there's all these other salaries to pay that are not focused on servicing the client. So, you have to take theirs into an account as well.

Simon Schnieders: Correct, it’s something that customers don't understand sometimes as well; is that the day rate they're paying is a blended day rate. It's not the individual who's servicing your account. They are backed by an army of people who facilitate their roles. So, yeah, correct. It's all we can refer to as a blended day rate. So, all of those non-revenue generating, revenue generating headcount are rules there to support that individual, but to the customers, sometimes they'll just be, well, that's the day rate, that's what I'm paying this individual for. It's not that at all.

Mark A Preston: So, if you were to pick one sort of main challenge from an agency on that, what would it be?

Simon Schnieders: The main challenge?, “I think it's a constantly evolving space and the world is constantly evolving around you as well, so you can't, you have to seek out discomfort”. I think it's the most important thing from an agency owner's point of view is that if there's ever a time I'm feeling as though I'm quite comfortable by the way I get really worried, because it means I'm not focused on what's around the corner or what's three steps around the corner. Because, that's an important thing from an agency's point of view, if you've got to be reinventing yourself. You've got to be reinventing your offering. You've got to be thinking ahead all the time and constantly seeking out discomfort or putting yourself in situations where you feel uncomfortable. Because, in the early days, I think discomfort is one of those things that naturally, as human beings, you try and avoid human beings are constantly trying to avoid pain. But, as an agency owner, I think you've got to realize that you've got to find normality in that discomfort and pain and then actually seek it out when you're not feeling that because it means you're not challenging yourself. You're not growing the agency in the way that you need to. So, I think that's my what I've always felt anyway, is that we've got to be pushing ourselves all the time as an agency, otherwise you become redundant.

Mark A Preston: Wonderful!, Now moving on to your Excel London SEO event. Right, Unfortunately, I couldn't make it myself because, it was my grandson's first birthday. Yeah, I did think about it for a minute, but I thought, no, I can't. I can't do it. So personally, I missed the event only because of that, but I've heard many, many, good things about the event and obviously the Star Wars theme. But, what reason did you want to set up a large SEO event in London? What was the reason behind it?

Simon Schnieders: Simply because, no one had done it before. So, there was no SEO focused industry event in London that was going on at the time of any scale anyway, so, it took a big leap of faith and by that I mean, I think we'd committed around 60,000 to £100,000 in costs associated with that before we'd even sold a single ticket. To give you some idea of the kind of commitment you need to make to go for something like this, hiring shortage, town hall, hiring AV people, get, flying people to the event, all of these, the costs associated with this are pretty astronomical. But, I was absolutely sure that doing this was the right thing to do. And while we did make a profit, and I was hoping because we were going to give away profits to Ukrainian relief efforts, we still got pretty close to break even on it. So, yeah, it did very well for us. I think in terms of, again, part of our mission statement is that we want to educate and elevate people, and giving people a platform to be elevated upon is very important. So, excel really hit the mark on that side of things.

Mark A Preston: Yeah. So what was it about your event that made it so successful?

Simon Schnieders: I think it's the team. The fact that this is something that Martin Split mentions to us as well. He said, I absolutely love events like this because it's not done by professional event organizers. It's an agency with a desperate group of people or with desperate skills and just cobbling it together to try and make an event successful. And the team did an absolutely brilliant job. We had someone from our finance team and someone from the SEO team getting Martin Split into his storm trooper costume, for instance. Everybody banded together to make it a great event, and I think that gave it something special, is that it wasn't professionally done. We just all banded together as a team to make it work, and it worked.

Mark A Preston: Yeah, I think that this interview series, that's why I've called it the Unscripted SEO Interview, because, I wanted something real. And, I think that's what people are after now, they do not have to stage things and everything to be perfect and film to be professionally edited. They just want something real and honest. I think more events in the industry pop up like this, but obviously I've run small events myself, even the small events, there's a massive time involvement and I think people who are coming to the events and maybe they have some criticisms behind one or two things. I don't think they truly understand what goes into putting even an event on in London, a localized event, just to give them people an understanding. What sort of would you say if you were to put it in hours? What sort of time commitment? Obviously, what did your team obviously that time commitment; the time commitment to where? From on top of their day to day jobs, just to put it into some context. What do you think that equates to?

Simon Schnieders: Yeah, I did manage to rope in a great project manager called Lauren, who's based out in Barcelona into this, and it was his full time job, really, for three months to do this on top of all of the team also being involved in it. I mean, it's military planning, we had spreadsheets everywhere for everything imaginable, but yeah, I'm not sure about actual hours involved. Thankfully. I haven't looked at that because I don't think I would want to.

Mark A Preston: We don't want to depress you.

Simon Schnieders: No. It would definitely have made the event a total loss, but that's not necessarily that's not what we did. We didn't do it to make profit, and any profit was going to be given away anyway, but it was more about, no one's done this, let's do it and let's just give it our best shot.

Mark A Preston: So, when's your next one?

Simon Schnieders: So, we're hoping to be May the fourth again in 2023. So, I'm looking forward to doing that again.

Mark A Preston: Well, I'm sure I can miss my grandson's second birthday. You know, the first!

Simon Schnieders: I wouldn't want you to.

Mark A Preston: No, the first one is obviously a big one. Maybe, I can pay for him to go somewhere. So, just as an industry as it is now, how do you think it's changed over the years?

Simon Schnieders: I think it's got more and more professional, and I think that's a good thing. I think we've got a way to go. I think we've got a long way to go, and I want to be part of that change into making us more of a disciplined marketing channel and maybe even the performance marketing channel as well, in the sense of accurately being able to. So, a vision for the future of SEO would be that we can accurately estimate how many conversions we can give to a customer in twelve months from now of working together. We're getting pretty close to that in Blue Array at the moment. With artificial intelligence, I think that predictive analysis can get a lot better, and I think if we could do that, then we become a much more predictable marketing channel and the investment starts to increase as well. The challenge with SEO is it's a punt still for most customers, right? I mean, they know they're likely to achieve a return on investment, but how? What is that return on investment?


Can we quantify it accurately within a certain percentage, for instance? And that would change the industry enormously, because, as I say, if we've got that this is what we can achieve after 12 to 18 months of working together with hard numbers, then the industry will change completely as a result of something like that. And that's the industry I'm trying to drive us towards, and we'll get there. I think that's the exciting part about the future of our industry anyway, is that being accurately able to predict where customers can go with us in the future and therefore give them the assurance that the investment that they're about to make will give demonstrable ROI. I think that's the exciting thing.

Mark A Preston: So, a quantifiable future, basically, in SEO, because obviously, we've both been in the industry a lot, and it has been mentioned once, or twice, so it's just trust. Businesses are trusting an agency that they're going to deliver on their promise. And that's basically what it is. So, if there is something in the pipeline to say no, look, these are real stats, these are proper calculation on this is obviously no one can guarantee 100% they're going to get this, but if there's some sort of way to actually show that, in essence, obviously you have to trust an agency, they'll do the job. That's a given. But, actually being able to trust it and you mentioned ‘Al’ there. Now, how obviously the industry is dabbling in ‘AI’ to a certain point, but do you think ‘AI’ will ever come to a point where people on the ground will lose their jobs because of AI in the future?

Simon Schnieders: I don't think so. I think with SEO, ‘AI’ has the opportunity to disrupt every industry. But the more creative the industry, the less likely AI has the ability to disrupt that industry. And I think with SEO, it is a very creative area. I think some of the challenges that we've had that I can think of recently, lots of challenges that we've had, have needed creativity more than prescriptive action checklist SEO isn't going to move the needle for most customers. It takes creative thinking about the opportunity and then executing on that opportunity. So, no, I don't think it's going to disrupt the industry in the same way that we'll do lawyers, for instance. But, yes, I think we've got a very bright future, and I'm very excited to be working in the industry and very excited about the future of the industry as well.

Mark A Preston: Right, so when it comes to SEO and creativity, what sort of things are you relating to?

Simon Schnieders: So, creativity being the idea that we're experimentation, for instance. So we've talked about this previously, Mark, where when you've got your own website, you've got the ability to be creative and think about new ideas on how to approach things. Here's a creative idea that we had not that long ago where there was a client that came to us saying, we've got two months before Black Friday hits and we want to be ranking number one for this keyword Black Friday. And there was absolutely no chance of us doing that through normal mechanisms. But we came up with this idea, well, look, if the majority of the traffic, 95% of it, is coming to the site directly for your Black Friday deals anyway, on Black Friday, why don't we redirect the entire home page to your Black Friday page to transfer all the page rank into that and see how that goes? So, it's the creativity to come up with new ideas and new approaches to things that haven't, as far as I know, been done before.


And I think that's where creativity comes into it in some part as well. I think as well, there are lots of ways to tackle different challenges. Actually, within the office today, we were just talking about this. So we've got a client who has recently acquired another company and they come to us saying, we want you to help with this acquisition. And so it's a merging of two companies together. And one way would be 301, redirects all of the pages on the sort of source site through to the target site, and then the target site has those pages there that were existing on the source site. That would be one way to do it. But for this particular client, this acquisition was one where the brand is well known, it's well liked. It would be quite a jarring journey if you were a user being redirected to a brand new website and thinking, what the hell am I doing here? So, we were thinking about ways to do that differently.


So, a different approach might be we're going to cross the main canonical from the source site to the target site, and then we're going to do a Meta redirect so that you can still access the old site. And then it will say, this site has been acquired by this site, and then we're going to redirect you in a few seconds and then you get redirected from there. But again, it's that creativity to think about. This is an interesting challenge. How do we approach this a little bit differently? That's going to work for users and search engines. So, I think it's things like this that excite me about SEO is like the creative side of it, like thinking about challenge in a different way.

Mark A Preston: Right. Because, the reason I asked that question is, I didn't want people mixing creative SEO with digital PR.


Simon Schnieders: Sure.


Mark A Preston:  As the two entities, how different are there?

Simon Schnieders: So, I think a lot of what I see in digital PR today is ineffective. And by that I mean creating campaigns that sit on a website and have nothing to do with that particular brand, I think it is completely ineffective. And we've seen that in the past with campaigns that agencies have done, where although they're getting lots of links to this particular page, it's unrelated to their core products or service. And page rank doesn't seem to dissipate from that page. The links to the point of that page seem to stop at that page, even when it's got links through to header, navigation, et cetera. The Google well understands that when people are linking to a particular resource, if it's not relevant to that resource, then why should it flow benefit through to the website? Right? And I think what we're seeing now is a change in terms of the PR, where it's all about brand and narrative, and as a subsequent consequence of those things, you get backlinks. And I think, that the step change that has to happen across the board is brand narrative consequences backlinks rather than campaign, great idea, going to generate backlinks, but actually it doesn't do a damn thing because it's completely ineffective.

Mark A Preston: Yeah; Wonderful!, Well, I can't believe it's nearly an hour already. It just goes so fast and obviously there's a mountain of things we could discuss, but I'm sure you've got some work to do before the end of the day. And, I have. But, just for everyone watching this, is there anything that the audience can do to help you with anything in the industry or anything that you need help with?

Simon Schnieders: I think just in terms of thinking from a wider point of view, what is it we're trying to achieve as an industry and how can I elevate and educate others within the industry? I think that's what we've been trying to do at Blue Array. I'd like more agencies to be doing the same sort of thing as well, so it feels as though we're maybe on our own a little bit with things like the technical SEO training, making that available free. I think we need to do a better job of elevating and helping each other in the industry, rather than being, I think, worried about competitive advantages other agencies might have on our spot by giving away things. As I say, I think we'll do a better job of driving everybody forward with greater transparency, with a greater effort across the industry to share information. It will be a benefit for everybody by doing more of that. So, I hope that's what we're doing at Blue Array is really pushing the industry to do more. We're certainly doing a huge amount, I think, as an agency, but I'd like to see more agencies, more individuals doing that as well.

Mark A Preston: So, the certifications on the “Blue Array” site was all about helping the industry to move forward and basically, because some people might think it was done just as a recruitment play.

Simon Schnieders: Yeah, no, it definitely wasn't that. I mean, we don't really have any challenges with recruitment. We actually tend to feed from the bottom of the ladder, so we're taking people with little to no experience in SEO and then driving them through the business from that point of view; it certainly wasn't pushed out there as a recruitment tool. The idea was that we were trying to elevate standards across the industry, not just locally, but globally as well, hence making it available globally. And the feedback we've had has been phenomenal. So, I think we've got, last count, 20,000 students in there. It's not something that generates any income for us, so we are actually charged by the platform provider on a per user basis. So, it is a big-loss making exercise for us. But, for us, again, it hits that mission statement of wanting to educate and elevate our industry and therefore we're happy to swallow that cost.

Mark A Preston: Wonderful!, Right, well, I'd like to thank you from the bottom of my heart to agree to come on such an unscripted interview where you haven't had a clue what's going to happen and I hope you haven't been sweating too much. But, I think some things, even though there might be difficult conversations, need to be discussed because of perception, I mean, some people might get the wrong perception of certain things, but, I want to thank you so much for coming on the Interview series and yeah, well, I'm sure when this goes out, people will have a different understanding of what's going on from an agency owner’s point of view.

Simon Schnieders: Sure!, Yeah, I hope it's helpful to other people to get that insight. At the end of the day, I'm a human being trying to run a business in the best way I know how, and other agency owners, I'm sure, are doing the same as well. But, it's a very challenging business to be in, and we're all doing, I think, the best we can within it. But, I've really enjoyed speaking to you, Mark. I always do, and really appreciate your time and some great questions. I've enjoyed it. Thank you!

Mark A Preston: Fantastic. Thank you!


Simon Schnieders: Cheers. Mark.

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