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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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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Saturday, August 16, 2008

SES San Jose: The Six-Year Club

The search marketing industry has got itself some serious headcount. In the past eight or so years since Danny Sullivan started the Search Engine Strategies conferences, the SEM community has also moved into a more comfortable relationship with the marketing and advertising world in general. As such, we see a healthy evolution towards overlap in roles, players talking across disciplines, and strategy as a much bigger part of the 2008 SES program, hosted by Kevin Ryan.

Search technology itself has also improved steadily - especially if you factor in the increased difficulty level of scale. Perhaps not so much if you place higher expectations on Google proportional to their $160 billion (GOOG) market valuation (sorry AAPL, that was a one-day blip), or proportional to their massive headcount. But still, search has improved in evolutionary if not revolutionary fashion. This has led people to alter their behavior; when searcher expectations are high, they search more, and more confidently, including looking for hard-to-find e-commerce items. This has led to a virtuous circle for search engine companies and e-commerce players, albeit in what looks increasingly like a winner-take-all environment.

Without all this evolution in search quality, the Long Tail hype wouldn't have any substance to it in practice. The Long Tail is what we used to call the haystack. Consider that giant haystack and searchers' high expectations of finding exactly what they need a permanent condition of today's business environment. A few companies think they're immune from all this. Most understand they need aggressive and measurable forms of direct response mixed in with subtle forms of brand management, to go with (or in some cases, to replace) the broad brand-writ-large approach.

The adversarial, often-zero-sum, "games" of organic search visibility and paid search placement auctions have evolved and become exponentially more difficult to win. So there remains a stark reality for companies playing in 2008 with 2000 or 2002's tactics: unless you get up to date, you're whistling in the breeze, friends. So it's a great idea to attend the shows to keep those cobwebs at bay.

I haven't missed a single SES San Jose: that means this will be my sixth SES San Jose, and my sixth Google Dance. That puts me in the club of diehards of diehards. And considering the mayhem we've gotten up to -- we probably should be dead by now. Some of us have mellowed slightly.

So that's another (or should I say perhaps the) undeniable benefit of SES Conferences: the events and networking opportunities. You do business with, and because of, people who remember you in a deep context. It's fun to attend the big events, but hosting your own intimate or special purpose event, as we found last year with Mona's book launch party, can be a good way to take time out to connect and reflect.

This year, why not check out the Internet Marketer's Charity Party, hosted by a variety of industry luminaries? A nice way to take a hectic week and pause to consider our obligation to help others.

For the sixth time: see you in San Jose!

Labels:

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Ads In a Quality Score World - Minute Observations

Day 1 of SES San Jose is in the books. It was a busy one for me. I managed to moderate a fast-paced session on Search Landscape, speak on Ad Quality, and took in a new session on Ad exchanges.

The Ads in a Quality Score World panel was moderated by Danny Sullivan. In this session I tend to amuse myself by watching carefully for subtle wordings, especially in statements by Googlers.

This shouldn't be surprising, in a way! Imagine if they gave as much info away in the SEO sessions as sometimes we get in the ad sessions. :) No wonder I now think of the Ads Quality session as the "new SEO" session at SES... as with New York, a large hall was absolutely packed for this one!

So Clay Bavor of Google came up with a couple of interesting nuances in an otherwise fairly straightforward overview and Q&A. On the question of how often quality scores are updated (as various pieces of data on keyword relevancy, CTR's, landing pages, human editorial review may be flowing in on different timetables), Bavor improvised brilliantly: he said Google's quality score updates are "relatively real-time." Relatively real-time! Take that you software benefits copywriters! Googlers can improvise this stuff in front of 1,000 people. It would take you a week to dream that up.

Bavor also noted that the old formula for elevation to premium placement, it was "auction price," not max bid, that was a key part of the formula. "Auction price" is what your next lowest competitor is bidding. However, I had always recalled that they said this was "actual price" (real historical CPC) on your keyword, not "auction price." I suppose I could go back and figure out when that story changed, or if I mis-remember it. Remember, at SES there is always a way to amuse yourself, even when on the same panel several times in a row. For me, it's all about the subtle nuances.

On a related note, congrats to Hitwise's Bill Tancer for the 10th anniversary of his Search Landscape presentations! (10 presentations, not all the same though Bill, we know :) ).

Labels:

Posted by Andrew Goodman




Thursday, July 12, 2007

Very Early Plug for User-Generated Content Panel at San Jose

I'll be speaking on a new topic at SES San Jose on Aug. 23 - on user-generated content. The reality is, companies that have tens or hundreds of thousands of pages of *useful* content have a huge leg up in terms of natural search referrals. But how to get that, and have it be vibrant, usable, and interesting, without it being duplicate content purchased/syndicated from somewhere else?

Of course that's what has made "UGC" so interesting as a business model. But what are the prominent UGC sites? Well, of course, it runs the gamut from forums, to photo sharing sites, to volunteer edited directories. When you think about it, the most familiar brand names online are often UGC-based. Some huge success stories include:
  • The Open Directory Project (dmoz) [human edited directory]
  • YouTube [without users video it's nowhere]
  • Flickr [without users uploading photos it's nowhere]
  • Yelp [reviews of local biz, especially lifestyle hotspots, restaurants, spas, etc.]
  • Craigslist [to the commercial/transactional side, but also stretches out to all kinds of classifieds including dating, jobs, etc. - the fact is, people have to write titles and descriptions for what they're selling... so... do this en masse and guess what, you get tons of search traffic]
  • Kijiji [eBay's recognition of Craigslist's power -- same basic biz model]
  • Wikipedia [of course]
  • TripAdvisor [user reviews of travel spots, accommodations, you name it]
  • Topix [adding community discussion of news items to its basic news search functionality]
  • PlentyofFish [dating, with no subscription fee - not only do they have reams of personals with descriptions, they have very active forums]
  • Usenet [ :) ]
And yes, any type of community would seem to count - Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, etc. - some are more accessible to search engines than others. There is obviously a user-to-user and viral component to growth that does *not* rely on search engine stumble-ins, too, but if you look at how some "classic UGC plays" like TripAdvisor grew, it was hugely dependent on long tail stumble-in search engine traffic.

Obviously the list could go on. Personally, I cut my teeth on some of the tech investing discussion forums dating back as far as 1996 (remember the differences between Motley Fool, Silicon Investor, and Raging Bull? Fool was more folksy and advicey at first whereas the latter two were more free-flowing... second and third movers in a space can grow quickly with very little investment if the community is active).

The job of search engines is often to find deep, relevant content on highly specific topics. UGC sites are often perfect fits for what searchers are looking for. Yet in the world of "SEO," talk is often a narrow, pinched description of "SEO-ifying" a corporate or small business website; or alternatively, of optimizing writer-generated and editorial-generated content for search engines. But the above are obviously the most wildly successful businesses you can imagine, when it comes to the potential for rapid growth through organic search referrals down the long tail. They have their own challenges and success trajectories, and as my friend Mike Grehan would say, it has nothing to do with an H1 tag.

I look forward to continuing this discussion.

Labels: , ,

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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