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Monday, November 17, 2008

SES Chicago is Jessica Bowman's Favorite SES Conference

Jessica Bowman, an in-house SEO expert who has built in-house SEO programs at Yahoo and Enterprise Rent-a-Car, will be back to join attendees and fellow speaking alumni for this year's Search Engine Strategies Chicago conference.

Recently Jessica was overheard telling friends that SES Chicago is her favorite SES. We caught up with Jessica to get to the bottom of this. We also asked Jessica for a few other thoughts and pointers about conference life and large-organization SEO.

Traffick: Jessica, you've been overheard stating that SES Chicago is your favorite SES conference of all! I don't hear that so much. People may mention San Jose because of the great weather and the Google Dance, or New York or London because, well, they're New York and London. Me, I have a bunch of reasons to prefer SES Toronto above any other. But Chicago?!? My Page Zero posse and I have a lot of fond memories of that conference to be sure, but maybe you can share your reasons for liking this one the best?

J.B.: It's my favorite event because it's more intimate than all of the other shows. The show is at the same location as the conference hotel, so you don't have to go out in the cold, and you can sneak a few winks during lunch if you need them. Because of this, everyone is condensed within the Hilton, which makes constant opportunities for interaction. And, there are two great bars where everyone congregates in the evenings where you can talk more candidly and interact with the speakers you saw during the day.

Traffick: Other than eating a piece of the giant candy Christmas decoration in the Hilton lobby and getting ill, I have one SES Chicago memory (non content related) that really stands out: Buddy Guy himself getting up to do a number at his blues club (Buddy Guy's). Sample lyrics: "Hey all you Yahoo people, why don't you call me on the phone..." Anyway. Do you have any spectacular memories?

J.B.: The Buddy Guy party is my fondest memory of all and one of the reasons Chicago is my favorite. Outside of that, it's the many nights of great conversation that happens at the hotel bar. The venue seems to be very conducive to conversations with attendees - I have had many eye opening conversations an met new people that have become friends.

Traffick: Fond indeed. I remember having a conversation with some of the guys in Buddy's band, and by the end of it, they were all fired up to come play at Jeff Healy's in Toronto... Your speaking and consulting generally focus on the challenges of in house SEO. Have these kinds of sessions become more popular over the years? Do you feel that the number of independent SEO shops will dwindle over time as companies bring the work in-house?

J.B.: In-house SEO sessions have definitely become more popular. When I started as an in-house SEO 6 years ago at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, I didn't meet one person who was in-house. Two years later we had the first in-house SEO session and only 20 people attended. Today it's a full house and once or twice we've even had standing room only at an in-house session.

I believe there will still be a place for independent shops, and I expect the number to decrease over time, but not in the next 3 years. I anticipate the demand for agency work among the bigger brands to dwindle, because they are starting to catch on and have the need and budget to build an in-house SEO program. I predict the needs for agencies will be more project based and bigger long-term contracts will come more from the mid-sized company who isn't ready to build out a team, but is ready to invest in SEO.

Traffick: That all makes sense. Some companies should never build in-house capacities in areas where they cannot afford the full-time expertise, or can't find a top person. And as far as all those in-house and agency positions being properly staffed, we're years away from the point where we overcome the current labor shortage of qualified SEO's, and years away from the point where this knowledge set is built into what people in a variety of professions bring to the table. You hear a lot of talk about folks 'knowing just enough to be dangerous,' and they are just that! My next question is about Yahoo, where you did in-house SEO advising. Can you share any learnings about being in the interesting position of teaching a big company that is actually a search engine, how to get better rankings in search engines?

J.B.: [Chuckle] Surprisingly, it's the same as it was for any enterprise-level organization. When I joined Yahoo!, I thought it would be different because they were a search engine and I was going to be doing things differently. It turns out that they are no different than any large company with many different divisions - politics, red tape, proving the ROI, getting SEO into the development life cycle, etc.

The biggest tips I have for enterprise-level in-house SEO programs are:

  • Get SEO injected into the development life cycle. This seems to be the most complicated and the most vital to success. It requires you to put on your detective hat and map out the entire development life cycle - who does what, when, who they give it to, who approves it, etc. Then, identify which steps and deliverables SEO needs to be involved in. It gets challenging because most companies do not have it documented in the level of detail you need for successful SEO injection. When clients bring me on board, the first thing we do are a series of intake discussions that reveal new layers of complexity with every minute. Once we know the intricate development life cycle, we identify where SEO needs to be involved when it comes to: meetings, discussions, reviews, approvals, contributions and more.

  • Train. Train again. Train one more time. Repeat. SEO is not top of mind, it's not part of the job description and in the grand scheme of things it's not truly a priority in the eyes of many people involved in SEO.

  • Establish a scorecard. At large organizations, scorecards work very well. Make it simple, yet effective and compare different divisions so that business managers can see what SEO can do for them. A piece of advice I give to clients is when creating your scorecard, run it by all the execs before you officially publish it. Some managers are sensitive about other people

Traffick: Awesome tips! Hehe. You trailed off a bit at the end there but I think you're coming through crystal clear. Managers don't like to be told they're doing a crappy job. Tact is key. Did I just say crappy? One last question. Do you have any strategy for learning and developing your talents that you apply when attending the search marketing conferences? Even conference veterans need to keep pushing the envelope and using the opportunity for continued learning, networking, and personal growth, right? How about tips for newbies?

J.B.: Tips for the newbies:

  • Talk to anyone and everyone - it's surprising who truly knows search engine marketing and who can add insights to your PPC or SEO campaigns.

  • Gather business cards and write on them - too many times I have come home with a stack of cards and struggle to remember what we discussed and why I wanted their card. One additional thing I've learned is to fold the corner of cards that are from people I want to talk to after the show.

  • Attend sessions all day - even if it's something you already know, sometimes just sitting back and listening to what others are doing will make you think about your projects from a different perspective. I have been attending search conferences for 6 years and I still take away tidbits and come up with new ideas during the most basic sessions.

Traffick: Thanks for your time and insights, Jessica! See you on December 8.

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