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No. 16
June 25th, 2007

Review of SMX Advanced through a Small Business Lens

I attended the second Search Engine Optimization (SEO) conference of my career earlier this month in Seattle. The event was organized by Danny Sullivan, who is widely regarded as the father of the SEO industry, and who now serves unofficially as its chief public advocate. Chris Sherman and the rest of Third Door Media I’m sure also did PLENTY to make this show such a success.

Prior to attending I was a bit concerned that the material might be a bit TOO advanced for me, seeing as how I’ve only been an active member of the SEO community for about a year. On the whole, I found the conference sessions to be a bit more basic than I’d expected, but I did glean some excellent tidbits in some of the second day’s sessions, and some of the presentations and Q&A sessions were absolutely fascinating on a purely intellectual level (more to come on this later in the post).

And the networking sessions were terrific, too. It was so rewarding to meet people from all levels of the industry, from relatively unknown one-man shops like mine, to in-house marketers for large corporations, to some of the SEO blogosphere’s top men and women. One thing that we all agreed on: none of us knew what we’d be doing for a living without the Internet!

A quick blow-by-blow of the highlights:

Microsoft Party

Matt Cutts Interview
Duplicate Content Summit
Social Media Marketing
Personalized Search Implications

Yahoo Mixer / Google After Dark

Penalty Box Summit
‘Better Ways’
‘Give It Up’ – Secrets

SEOmoz Party

Pre-Conference – Sunday Night – Microsoft Party
Microsoft threw an open-bar cocktail hour (that was really more like four hours) to kick off the event on Sunday night. Seaton Gras, who’s starting a search engine for kids, won an Xbox by being ONE number ahead of me in the raffle! 🙁 –just kidding, congrats, Seaton. I really enjoyed hanging out with Cincinnati’s John Beagle, who rents and sells laptops, computers, and CCTV‘s online, and Andrea Albl of Gardner Publications. Towards the end of the night Lisa Ditlefsen and I struck up a conversation about all things London, where I studied for a semester in 2001.

also bent the ear of Neil Patel of ACS SEO, who’s just started a new personal branding website called Quicksprout, and Todd Malicoat, one of the SEO industry’s top consultants. These guys are bonafide rockstars in the industry, but you’d never know it based on the way they carry themselves–their modesty and enthusiasm is quite refreshing. Matt Inman of SEOmoz — truly on the cutting edge of both web design and coding techniques — was the same way.

Day One – Monday, June 4, 2007Matt Cutts, Google’s anti-spam fighter search quality guru, started the conference off with a bang in an interview with Danny Sullivan. His most salient advice for small businesses:

  • Treat your PageRank like PlayDoh. A smallish PR site with 200 pages is going to get most of them shoved into supplemental results, meaning those pages don’t show up in a normal Google search. Use your internal link structure to tell Google what the most important pages in your site are, and hit your highest-traffic or highest-converting keywords on those pages.
  • Link out to authoritative sites. These would be City Governments, Chambers of Commerce, School Districts, etc. This will help your rankings marginally, but will probably help your users/visitors immensely.
  • Make sure your ‘category’ -type pages are served statically. Don’t have these served dynamically as a product of search results–take the time to code them in a way that is search-engine friendly.
  • A person who owns 20-25 domains is probably not going to get flagged for spam review. A person with 200-250 stands a pretty good chance of some sort of human review.
  • Clickthrough rates on the Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs) really don’t affect general search rankings very much because the signal is too noisy (they’re MUCH more influential for Personalized Search, however).

The Duplicate Content Summit was next. I didn’t get a whole lot out of this session because I’m not a spammer, and none of my clients’ sites have been scraped for content, thankfully. As far as internally duplicated content, all four search engines (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Ask) basically said the same thing: there’s no penalty for duplicate content, but it means those pages just aren’t included in the engine’s index. Yahoo’s Amit Kumar said that they’ve got an interesting new meta tag in the works where web designers can tell the search engines which parts of each page are duplicated and which are unique. As of yet, none of the other three has adopted this convention yet, though.

Social Media Marketing, the new “hot” technique in SEO, was the third session of the day, featuring three of my favorite SEOs: Rand Fishkin, Neil Patel, and Todd Malicoat, and Cindy Krum, whom I’d never seen before. I was a little disappointed by the session, not because of the quality of the presentations, but because I felt like I’d read most of the same information on blogs over the last several months.

The #1 question I wanted to have answered was how to make SMM work 1) on a small budget 2) for service or B2B companies. The best answer was given by I think Todd, who recommended targeting Netscape and Reddit instead of Digg. The volume of the former two sites isn’t as great as the latter, but the audience is probably going to be more receptive to posts of a more professional variety. Neil also made a great recommendation to search for keywords related to your business within those sites to see what articles have been popular in the past. This might give you an idea of what kinds of linkbait quality content are successful for your business or industry. Apparently, there are also a number of niche/vertical Digg-style sites, but again, very few in the B2B / service sectors. I’m still researching this one…

Personalized Search was Monday’s final session. Michael Gray, I thought rather boldly, expressed serious reservations about the viability of personalized search right to Matt Cutts’ face. Tim Mayer of Yahoo implied that they were also moving in a direction that took more user data into account, but that they were being a bit more cautious about privacy and transparency than Google. Matt responded by saying that Google firmly believed that Personalized Search will lead to a higher-quality search experience for users, which of course means that they’re going to be a bit more aggressive about using data like search history and even web history to inform their results.

Two of the more interesting, action-able, insights from this panel came from its fourth member, Gord Hotchkiss of Enquiro. (Great presentation, Gord.)

  • Because of the greater relevancy of personalized search results, the length of the average search query may get shorter (i.e. searchers may start getting “lazier” and less specific about what they’re searching for). For small and local businesses, this will probably lead to a greater reliance on Pay-Per-Click advertising and Local results, as they’re not going to have the SEO budget to compete with larger companies for “national” search terms (i.e. “hardware store” rather than “hardware store oakland ca”).
  • Viral optimization and “sticky” websites are going to be much more important from here on out. Because Google typically gives major bonus points to sites a user has already visited in Personalized Results, the more often you can get visitors to return to your website, the greater the chance you’ll show up higher the next time that user performs a new search. Keep them coming back with updated high-quality content and interactive tools that they can tell their friends about too!

The Yahoo Mixer and Google Party followed on Monday evening. I struck up a great conversation with Adrian Pareira of ParetoLogic, a Canadian company that makes Spam-Filters and Anti-Spyware. Their company is really taking off with affiliate sales, something I’ve not yet made the leap to. I also enjoyed meeting a few more Brits, Ciaran Norris of a UK SEO company called Eyefall Altogether Digital, Ekrum Ashgar of Party Gaming, and Rob Kerry of EvilGreenMonkey fame.

Day Two – Tuesday, June 5, 2007The Penalty Box Summit was my first session of the day on Tuesday. Take-home points from this one included:

  • Spam is all about intent, not the extent, of a particular technique. One or two CSS image replacement manipulations isn’t going to raise any eyebrows, but entire paragraphs stuffed behind images or Flash animations across an entire website might…
  • Don’t stick out like a sore thumb in your industry. If your competitors only have 50 or 100 links coming into their sites, don’t go out and get 1000. You’re sure to raise a red flag there, and if it’s not a viral push from sites all over the internet (as the result of a story that makes the front page of Digg / Reddit, for example), you’re probably going to be looking at a penalty.
  • All of the search engines are getting MUCH better at looking at user-submitted spam reports, as well as re-inclusion requests. Google is even planning to go so far as to tell trusted ‘mom and pop’ webmasters through their Webmaster Tools console whether their site has a penalty, what it is, and why they’re being penalized. [Black-hat SEOs probably aren’t going to receive the same kind of treatment though 🙂 ]
  • The latter two points raised particular discussion with respect to the real estate industry, where an insane amount of spammy reciprocal linking goes on between realtors all across the country. Google recently adjusted its algorithm to take a much harder look at this. The problem is that the sites that are being penalized ARE mom-and-pop realtors who don’t know the difference. They’ve just happened to sign up with mega-networks that use this reciprocal linking tactic to raise the rankings of their clients. Just one more reason to avoid those overblown, outsourced companies and hire someone like me 🙂

Lunch found me at a table with Melissa Mackey, Marketing Director for MagazineLine out of Okemos, Michigan. It was great catching up with a fellow Midwesterner & getting a sense of how far along the Internet craze has gone beyond the West Coast!

‘Better Ways’ was up as the first gathering of the afternoon, which basically turned into a quick-hit advice session. My favorite tidbits from Aaron Wall, Jim Boykin, Cameron Olthuis, Greg Boser, and Todd Friesen, among others:

  • Find some non-commercial (i.e. non-competitive) search terms related to your business and buy PPC ads dirt cheap. This will help build buzz for your company (and who knows, maybe a link or two) and give you targeted traffic at the same time.
  • Give out awards to related, but non-competing, businesses. You might get a few links from the companies you award + the residual link juice makes it worth the effort of building out this kind of website / webpage.
  • There are TONS of great SEO tools at WeBuildPages. Thanks for your self-promo, Jim, I love this page!!
  • From Danny: Google Real Estate is coming. Realtors, get your listings into Google Base now to build up familiarity with the interface and trust at Google. Google is already placing Google Base results at the top of OneBox results for certain searches, and is starting to spider its own listings + throwing them into the SERs further down the page!!

The final session of the conference, Give It Up, was one of the most valuable — several top SEOs including Stephan Spencer, Bruce Clay, Jen Slegg, and the ubiquitous Todd Friesen and Greg Boser, gave out some terrific cold, hard, action-able recommendations. Clients, I can share these with you in a private consultation, but as attendees, we were sworn to secrecy not to publish these publicly on our blogs! 🙂

One presentation which I think I CAN share publicly, because it’s not exactly a secret but more of a commentary, was Mikkel deMib Svendsen‘s description of his research with Markov chains. Like Mikkel, I’m not exactly sure I understand the math behind these, but essentially they consist of a mathematical formula/algorithm that can be run on a set of existing content parameters, producing an entirely new chunk of content. Mikkel suspects that Google is experimenting with using Markov chains for its News section to produce combinations of stories and feeds that are customized to the personal preferences of each individual user. A less savory application includes scraping content from trusted sites, running the algorithm, and producing “unique” content for one’s own web properties. Eventually the technology will be good enough to be eminently readable by users and eminently unique to the search engines.

And perhaps the best “session” of the event, the SEOmoz party, took place at a cool place called Garage Billiards on Tuesday night. I began bowling with Becky Ryan of Trellian, Gillian of SEOmoz, and several members of Epiar. For not having bowled since about 2002, I didn’t think 134 was too bad! I also enjoyed meeting Shimrit (another Londoner), talking to Mikkel deMib Svendsen about his Markov chain presentation, catching up with Gillian about the development of SEOmoz along with Pat of SEOish, “SEO Chick” Lisa, and Susan Klasmeier of Merkle (and subsequently losing two straight pool games to Susan). From there I took the opportunity to get to know some of the Mozzers a little better, including Jane, Scott, Jeff, Rand and Rebecca. (My favorite quasi-mozzer, Rebecca’s boyfriend Jason, and I also talked hoops until late into the evening.) AWESOME party guys — I appreciate the invite!

All in all, after two weeks of hindsight, I’d have to call the first SMX a smashing success for Danny Sullivan and Third Door. While the sessions themselves may not have been as ‘Advanced’ as touted, or as ‘Advanced’ I would have liked, I did get several new ideas for marketing my clients’ websites, and the networking sessions were phenomenal. My guess is that Danny is already at work figuring out a way to “up” the assumed experience level for the presentations next year!

[tags]smxadvanced07, smx, smx07, smxadvanced, smxseattle, smxseattle07, searchmarketingexpo[/tags]