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Friday, November 17, 2006

Danny Keeps a Consistent Thread in Pubcon Keynote

It was a first for Pubcon. Andrew Goodman spoke there! True - but seriously, this is a review of Danny Sullivan's keynote speech. Danny was one of the reasons the conference garnered so much buzz and so many new attendees. On a meta note, I'm pleased to be blogging this review reasonably soon after the talk. For Searchday, I've reviewed the past five or six Sullivan keynotes at Search Engine Strategies, but it's been increasingly evident that "live" blogging or "fresh articles" are far more interesting to readers than the "submit conference session reviews and publish them gradually over many weeks after SES" model. That model has been fine for promoting SES, but not a good reader experience, as the info feels stale even if the content is still valid.

First with the requisite "how full was the room" assessment. Well, a very large hall was packed, though there were a few empty seats in every row - so another 200 could shoehorn in there if Danny's back next year. Also different from other conferences I've been to is that people think nothing of straggling in 15-20 minutes late. The breakfast area was full of folks leisurely doing business, waking up, and letting their pastries digest before wandering over to the hall. The back of the room was quite full by 9:20.

Overall, Danny's theme was one we've heard him touch on consistently: exploring what makes search such a powerful marketing tool, one that resonates with users/consumers in a way that flies in the face of traditional interruption marketing. He even brought in the concept of a "reverse broadcast network" (the customer is telling you what they want, you're just trying to tap into that), a concept that would be new to many first-time attendees.

The formalities included WebmasterWorld founder Brett Tabke reminiscing about his first time meeting Danny, and how long he followed Search Engine Watch. Brett described the heart-stopping moment this past August when we received word that Danny was now leaving Search Engine Watch and Search Engine Strategies. "I was downstairs, and heard my AIM ping," related Tabke. "Then I heard my office phone ring. Then, my cellphone rang." Many audience members could relate.

Sullivan led off by returning some of the introductory love, reviewing ways in which WebmasterWorld has already become an institution. Community members have coined phrases like "Google Dance" (to indicate a periodic Google re-indexing). The term was so popular, the annual Google bash on the Mountain View campus now uses the same name. (Hands up: how many have been there, done that, at every single Google Dance, and got all five t-shirts?)

Other WMW contributions to the lexicon cited by Sullivan were names like Florida (to refer to a particularly unsettling index update) and characters like GoogleGuy (an anonymous, prolific poster from Google on the forums).

The forum community has too many subplots to summarize easily, but Sullivan characterized it neatly by referring to its leader, Tabke, as something of a "rebel" - he did it his way. (Few speakers at Pubcon, yours truly included, failed to insert some sort of cheesy Vegas reference into their content.) Tabke's background dates back to BBS days, so when it came to decisions around technology, programming, marketing methods, and more, Tabke is said to be a kind of rule breaker. Perhaps it's only rule breakers who can create something unique and human enough that it leads to true online community - still a rarity in a world of contrived virtual experiences and information overload.

Sullivan turned to the usual defense of the search engine marketing industry, using popular press dismissals as a foil. Business Week noted that search was well down the list of respectable marketing methods - "just ahead of putting a Herbalife poster on a telephone pole." Should we be insulted, or just laugh at it? From Sullivan's detailed overview of the economic impact of search marketing, it seems we are in the driver's seat, so a laugh is our more common response now. That's how far we've come. Danny shows us the usual clueless insults and we don't get insulted -- we're too busy to care.

Another thing that irritates Sullivan is the continued difficulty in getting financial reporting and analyst commentary that talks about search and only search. Referring to it as "contextual pollution," Sullivan worries that lazy assessments of the financial performance of large search companies will potentially make search a scapegoat in any ad downturn. We remember from the last online bubble that "contextual advertising was the first thing to take a hit," but many forget that search advertising grew out of the ashes of that severe downturn. Danny implies we need to steel ourselves now for the misleading press that will come with the inevitable downturn, when we all know search will remain more consistent as a marketing method than other forms of advertising, whose pricing is much more volatile.

He went on to caution search marketers that because Google and Yahoo are chasing billions of ad dollars in other formats like video, and offline ventures like radio and print, there will be a natural tendency for them to try to "pull us [search marketers] along with them."

This is a concern that resonates with many of us. Especially in the days when AdSense was being rolled out so recklessly, many of us wrote and argued frequently that Google seemed to be getting away from its core strengths. But because the search listings space is all too finite and top line growth matters when you're trying to battle against larger rivals (including old media), it's always been inevitable that these search companies (back in 1999, we were calling them portals, which was then a way of saying "giants who are seeking monopolistic advantages") would seek to expand their reach. And if they're going to do so, then they have to worry about their direct rivals (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and a short list of others) expanding first and establishing leadership. So, as Google caught up with Yahoo, and decided it needed to branch out as Yahoo had done... the land grab was on.

Sullivan's characterization of an industry being "pulled in" to forms of marketing that simply "aren't search" is right on. I spoke with Joe, a marketer and software developer from Spokane, WA, at a Microsoft party that same evening. Joe's company is developing software for submitting video ads and clips to various major publishers of video content. In short, Joe's an example of an online marketer, like so many we are seeing today at conferences like ad:tech, who is working on the "interruption marketing" side of the ledger. As the focus gets more diffuse, Sullivan offers a clear reminder of why that tendency to bother consumers with distracting messages makes search seem that much more special by comparison.

I'll return Monday with Part 2 of this review. Have a great weekend.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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