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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Five Most Controversial People You'll Meet at SES San Jose

I have a keen interest in how each and every SES conference is shaping up. Occupational hazard!

So today I talked about the upcoming SES San Jose (next week, Aug. 10-14) with Stew Quealy, as always SES Advisory Board Co-Chair, and VP, Content Development, Incisive Media. In a strange economic year there is remarkable continuity in the show.

I thought it might be worth giving newcomers a heads-up about what to expect. Rather than the dry playbook approach, let's try a hook. Who are the five most controversial people you're likely to meet?

Now there are a lot of exciting, dynamic, wonderful, insightful, loopy, and entertaining speakers. However, that doesn't make them all equally controversial.

Why is controversy important? Well, it can serve as a lightning rod that can lead to productive debate for months and years, and industry changes.

The list is highly subjective. I don't know everyone; even attending all the shows. And marketing being what it is, some people (more than a few) make a major effort to rant, rave, and otherwise be heard above the din. Staged controversy is, in our business, an adequate second-best to real controversy. And of course, we'll take it.

And now for the list.

1. Mike Grehan. First off, Mike is Co-Chair, SES Advisory Board. For that reason, you'll see a lot of him and find him deeply involved in debates about substance and curriculum. Second, Mike, well... does a darn good job of ranting, raving, and otherwise being heard above the din. But if it was on style alone, Mike wouldn't qualify (he pared down the pageboy haircut some time ago). It's about the substance. Mike released a self-published book that became an industry standard in following the search scientists' tea leaves, long before those MozSEO and BookAboutSEO people came along (or whatever their names are). More recently he shared a white paper with the community on behalf of Acronym Media, where he once again tried to introduce us to the future of search. Mike said things about PageRank's ineffectiveness long before it was the cool thing to do. He has made a career of grabbing people by the arm, and making them understand: what you're hearing about search is yesterday's information, and here are the concepts that will guide the playing field going forward.

2. Bryan Eisenberg. Bryan's another one of those fellows everyone loves to be associated with - now that it's cool. Now that it is cool to do conversion improvement work, to lambaste coworkers who are too lazy to test. Back when Bryan was making waves, not so many people were willing to toot his horn. (Formal researchers, for example, can be a little stuffy. They don't like agencies and consultants who actually do stuff.) Think, though, about how disruptive it is to force organizations to truly test their marketing. Bryan has never done so "politely," but his good nature wins everyone over. It must be a sign of either his good nature or his masochism that he travels so frequently to Canada, a land where everything is good enough, and no one likes to hear that they suck. But when a guy from Brooklyn who gets up every day at 5:00 a.m. to get down to work on improving things tells you good-naturedly that you suck, it's hard to be mad at him. Whether you implement his advice or not is up to you.

3. Shari Thurow. Shari Thurow is polarizing, and audiences ask for her by name - and pay good money to hear her speak. As the quintessential "white hat" information architecture expert, Shari Thurow has authored a couple of the more authoritative books in the space. Most speakers in the SEO field are what is smarmily known as "gray hat". But Shari will take any questionable SEO practice to task. She won't pussyfoot around. She'll simply call it "spam." This approach is draconian in the eyes of SEO's. Corporate and academic audiences tend to love it. Shari thrives most in an academic setting, she has shared with me. So while a short session may give you a flavor of what she teaches, you'd learn much more from taking a day-long training session or even a longer course. By advising you to take these, by no means am I suggesting you should agree with everything Shari says. But that goes for any "professor" with a strong point of view, doesn't it?

4. Avinash Kaushik. Web analytics expert Avinash Kaushik has reached "star" status despite his frequent telling of inconvenient truths to corporate audiences. Proof: he's often referred to merely as "Avinash". (Of course, for many people, that's because they can't remember his last name - but they won't admit it.) Because of his long list of credentials, and meaty blog posts at Occam's Razor, it would be easy to assume that Avinash is a steady, serious individual. He is, but that's not where it ends. It's in the discussions and speeches where Avinash will subtly get up in your grill. With the sweet smile and risque humor, this five-star speaker might be mistaken for the Russell Peters of the analytics world -- if he could do anything other than an Indian accent, that is. But make no mistake, corporate folk. Avinash is a bit angry with you. He hopes that you'll test and improve your web pages and campaigns using the relevant data, and then go ahead and do it again. No vetoes from the "HiPPO's" (the Highest Paid Person in the Office/Organization). He won't help you make excuses about failure to execute. Like Shari or Bryan, he'll just say what he thinks flat out: "Don't you like money? Do you want to be poor?" Miss Avinash's act at your peril. He's speaking on Day 1 of the full conference.

5. Nick Fox. I've saved the sweetest smile for last. Nick Fox, to some of us, is a man who needs no introduction. Only in the search marketing world would an architect of a Search Ads Quality system be keynoting, as Nick is in San Jose this year. It was in New York a few years ago that the industry finally seemed to give full, full recognition to the fact that paid search and organic search were equal partners - at least to marketers if not users. 800+ people crammed into a hall to watch Nick, me, and other panelists talk about "Ads in a Quality Score World." That was the kind of frenzy normally reserved for a chit-chat with Matt Cutts about his innermost thoughts on organic search (or what kind of dressing he likes on his salad). And sure enough, this year in San Jose, instead of Matt, we have Nick keynoting. Nick has always done a fantastic job explaining a complex system. To my surprise, Nick's bio shows that he is not a computer programmer (though I'm guessing he also is) by trade; he studied economics at Harvard. And no one will be surprised to hear he graduated magna cum laude. Why is Nick (and by extension, his company, that shaped and moulded this ad quality system) controversial? Like Google as a whole, the ad quality system is an iron fist in a velvet glove -- especially if you're an advertiser that likes to break the rules or ignore relevancy. Both the iron and the velvet parts have been refined over the years. For a recent flavor of how I view the "hidden government" that lurks inside the Google-designed "economic model," check out my recent SEL Column, Geekynomics? Finding the Hidden Government Within Google's Magic Money Machine.

See you at SES!

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