SEO Firm Spams Awards Ceremony (And Other Tales From Pubcon)

Some things happened at Pubcon, and I’m finally ready to talk about them. No, I wasn’t traumatized — just a bit woozy from the desert heat.

A current ad campaign from Bermuda Tourism contends that “some things are better experienced than explained.” That would be an apt way of putting it for Pubcon, and Vegas. Pubcon, for those who’ve never attended, is a conference event (focused largely on SEO and affiliate marketing topics, but of course, it has branched out to a wider variety of cutting-edge digital marketing and (self-?)promotion tactics). Its flagship event is the big one in Las Vegas.

Pubcon’s brand is scrappy and tactical; its online user interface hasn’t changed much from the plain-HTML, homemade banner days. Longtime speakers are given login access to they can update their bios and headshots, but some forget. The whole feel is happily 2004-throwback-retro.

Don’t be fooled by the wrapper, though. Over the years, while keeping the tacticians happy, Pubcon has turned into a bit of a meeting place for industry veterans who have grown and sold companies, moved up the corporate ladder, and “settled down” into more strategic and integrated roles.

That seems to be the way the whole industry has headed; my visit to the US Search Awards on Wednesday Oct. 12 in conjunction with Pubcon marked the third dressy awards gala I’d attended inside of six weeks! Pubcon’s US Search Awards went off smoothly, with every bit as much class as the recent Landys and Bing Agency Awards. The event was ably MC’d by charming-as-always Mel Carson. It was held in a large venue in the conference wing of Caesar’s Palace. (The conference itself was at the Las Vegas Convention Centre; most attendees stayed at bargain-priced Treasure Island Casino and Resort.) In case of lineups, for a not-enormous paying crowd, two fully-stocked bars were set up. Wine also came with dinner. A third “theme” bar was available in the corner. The theme was vodka.

Some of this might have explained why an over-refreshed introducer (for Brett Tabke winning a major award) rambled on too long, getting himself in hot water for attempted humor, a voice impression of one of his mentors, a South Asian engineer. The angry tweets following the gaffe were overdone, but in any case, a heartfelt apology came later on Facebook — with the target of the impression weighing in against “political correctness” in his comment.

By comparison, a presenter in a session the previous day had offered to “Braille this shit up” if people in the audience were “blind.” No one batted an eye. Some giggled.

Anyway. It’s Pubcon.

Like I said, even Pubcon has largely grown up and settled down. At the awards ceremony (and conference), I ran into a wide variety of industry pioneers: Anne Kennedy, Mike Grehan, Shari Thurow, Bill Hunt, Fred Vallaeys, Jessie Stricchiola, Cindy Krum, and… there were simply too many to name! Kevin Lee and I spoke on the same panel for the first time since a very long time ago.

At the couple of tables nearest Mel’s ministrations, I had the good fortune of a great seat surrounded by PPC pals: John Lee, Brad Geddes, Page Zero’s own Mona Elesseily, Microsoft’s Frances Donegan-Ryan, Christi Olson, and Purna Virji; Elizabeth Marsten, Kim Thomas, and David Szetela (wacky wiseguy photo of us with his wife Wils Murphy below, courtesy of a booth at the awards event).

At the conference, we get tactics and ideas; at the bar, we swap gossip; at lunch, we talk priorities and try to sell people on our ideas; and at the awards show, we get to hear about who’s done a great pubconjob in the past year. Some 26 marketing achievement categories were awarded, the result of tireless work by a panel of hard-working judges. Big winners included Point-It, Wordstream, aimClear, Catalyst, AdAlysis, and LSEO.

Pubcon founder Brett Tabke snagged the Lifetime Achievement Award. Eric Enge of Stone Temple Consulting took home the Search Personality of the Year award, the second major industry award Eric has bagged inside of a month. Both received well-deserved standing ovations.

One entrant, of Philadelphia, had an interesting strategy to get their name out there: enter in nearly every award category – sometimes multiple times. Unprepared for this, folks at our table began shifting uncomfortably at first, then giggling as it dawned on us: this onslaught of references was the quintessential PubCon goof! An SEO firm that decided to ignore the unspoken rules of propriety and take any possible opening to boost visibility. didn’t win a single category it was shortlisted for — even the ones where it was cited several times in a category. That wasn’t based on any kind of blanket condemnation, but rather on the fact that each entry came up short in the judging for that award category. Even a strong entry might place a close second to another strong entry if its fit with the category was a bit of a stretch. Some agencies were a strong fit for the categories they were shortlisted for.

Adding to the (retro-throwback) surreal quality of the spam was that both the program and the order of announcing the finalists in each category was alphabetical, so always came first. The old Yellow Pages directory trick!

Far from being embarrassed by not winning a single category in which it was shortlisted (having its name read out over twenty times), one gets the feeling that got what it hoped for – a lot of tangible attention.

That in itself is deliciously analogous to how both organic and paid search deal with freak-accident visibility nowadays. The engines look at CTR’s, clickstream data, and other measures of relevance and user engagement. Companies that luck into high rankings – or pay to show up on the wrong keywords – get choked out eventually by today’s more sophisticated algorithms, the impact of keyword Quality Score, etc.

One wonders if’s lucky-unlucky day in the awards-show sun will regress to the mean (or worse), much as the subprime mortgage lender, convinced that their product needs to be in front of people who perform a keyword search for today’s lottery numbers, will find their Quality Scores sink to 1’s and 2’s.

To all the winners and finalists, congratulations on recognition richly deserved.