Ten years ago today, I had the privilege of organizing the first ever search marketing conference. On this anniversary, a look back at how things were then and have they’ve changed in a decade.
In 1999, search marketing itself was about five years old. People had been doing search engine optimization to generate traffic from free listings as soon as search engines themselves appeared in 1994. People were also taking advantage of paid search advertising opportunities, though these were limited and primitive compared to what we have today.
While search marketing wasn’t new, a major event focused solely on the topic had never happened. Instead, search marketing had to make do with appearances within other conferences. It would get a single session at a tech event, or an online marketing show or during a web design seminar. I remember this well, as I often spoke on search marketing at these types of gatherings.
Nobody Puts Baby In A Corner
Search marketing was like Baby in Dirty Dancing, literally put into a corner. Chris Elwell is no Patrick Swayze, but he was a key person who helped pull search marketing out of its corner and put it on stage.
Chris is president of Third Door Media, the company I co-own and which publishes Search Engine Land. Back in 1999, Chris was general manager of Internet.com, the media company owned by Alan Meckler. Alan had started the Internet World series of shows in the 90s, then sold those off. Then he decided to get back into the events business again. Chris was charged with scouting out some ideas for shows.
Chris approached me about doing a search conference. What did I think? Was there enough material for a show? Did I think anyone would come?
Absolutely to both! I remember being at another conference at the time I got his email, and my head was buzzing with ideas. An entire day! Just for search! A chance to really stretch out and explore topics in more than the usual 45 to 90 minutes allowed for all of search marketing, when part of a more general show.
A date and place was decided, Nov. 18, 1999, in San Francisco. I drew up an agenda, invited speakers but really didn’t fully comprehend how big things really were until I arrived at the hotel the night before the show.
Industry & Community
There, I was stunned. We had an expo hall, with about 20 or so companies. I was focused only on the programming, so I wasn’t expecting the trade show portion. Companies with booths, banners, swag. Search marketing was indeed an industry with a real physical presence that I could actually see, for once.
It was also a community, and one that had never gathered en masse to meet before. That was also a remarkable moment for me, that evening. At the reception, people who knew each other only through online forums or mailing lists introduced themselves. It was typical for someone to give you a sidelong look, try to guess who you were and say, “Are you…?” Then there would be big smiles, handshakes and lots of talking.
The next day, the event itself began. It was the first show I’d ever programmed, and I packed far too much into a single day. We started at 8am, ended at a mind-numbing 6pm and often had no break time between sessions. I’ve learned the importance of rest breaks since then!
I kicked things off with an hour long talk called “Back To Basics,” where I did an overview of search engines and general ranking issues. Looking back on my slides today, there was much coverage of meta tags plus a heavy focus on human-powered search engines — directories — which eventually declined in importance. But then again, a slide with tips like this still remains surprisingly valid:
Page content remains important, as do title tags. Meta tags don’t help with rankings but still may help with descriptions. Of course, link popularity is no longer just “growing” in importance. Links are by far the most important ranking factor these days, I’d say
Shari Thurow followed with a session called “Designing Search Engine Friendly Sites,” talking about the need to build sites that can please humans and search engines combined. This was in 1999! But 10 years later, plenty of designers and developers still don’t get the importance of SEO and worse, can view it as something shady.
Buying Ads Before AdWords
The third session of the morning was called “Buying Ads & Placement,” where I had Darian SR Heyman, Catherine Seda and Dana Todd all speak. All of them were notable for ferreting out ways to buy placement against search terms when such opportunities were limited. And I do mean limited.
Back then, there were programs like “Start Here” at Lycos that put a single link at the top of search results with a minimum of text to entice the searcher. Ask Jeeves had a “Merchants Partners” program. RealNames was a keyword navigation system that could get you to the top of AltaVista, if you were clever.
GoTo — later Overture, later owned by Yahoo and renamed Yahoo Search Marketing — was only about a year old. You could buy ads there, but since it hadn’t begun seriously distributing its paid listings, traffic was minimal. At Google, AdWords didn’t exist. Google didn’t have ads at all then (though these started the next month, in December 1999).
We Loved Meta Tags (Well, We Talked Lots About Them)
The final morning session was all about meta tags. Shari returned, joined by Marshall Simmonds, who these days oversees SEO for the New York Times Company, plus we had usability guru Jakob Nielsen.
Marshall reported the findings of a survey on meta tags that solicited the opinions of I-Search readers, a popular email list about search marketing at the time (Kids, email lists were how we old folk communicated with each other before we could Facebook and Twitter and Wave. Now get off my damn lawn!).
I loved opening up Marshall’s slides and reviewing them with 10 years gone by:
That’s right. We were talking back then about whether it was helpful to repeat a particular word more than once in a meta keywords tag. There was also the ever popular “to comma or not to comma” issue:
Any wonder why when I wrote an tutorial about the meta keywords tag in 2007, I started off by talking about how much I hated it? It was a pain in 1999, when it was somewhat important among various search engines. Over the years, it lost both importance as a ranking factor and was only supported by Yahoo. But that didn’t stop people from worrying about it.
Just last month at our SMX East conference, Yahoo said it had dropped that support. Sadly, further testing proved that wasn’t the case. But I remain hopeful it will finally die, relieving Google from having to do further videos about how they really don’t use the tag, so please people, stop suing each other over it.
Doorway Pages & Cloaking
After lunch, sessions resumed with a panel on Doorway Pages and issues on cloaking. Doorway pages and cloaking? Talking about spam at the search marketing industry’s first conference!
Yes and no. Not all the search engines at the time had rules banning doorway pages (a page designed expressly to get a higher ranking). Nor did they all ban cloaking (a method of showing a user something different than what a search engine sees, especially useful for hiding the content of doorway pages that weren’t exactly human-friendly).
The first time I’d seen a doorway page, I scratched my head about why anyone would build one. My coverage of search marketing focused on advice for people who had solid content sites. Why would someone make standalone pages like these? But DR Peck — who was on this panel — had made a bit of search history by using doorways to get traffic for his third-party clients. When I saw these, and wrote an article about how they were driving traffic for State Farm at the then-popular Infoseek search engine, the company came back with a “legit” ruling.
John Heard was also on the panel, a legendary figure for creating one of the first industrial-strength cloaking tools, which had a database that could detect when a request came from a search engine versus an ordinary visitor. I actually used his database once. To spam? No. To help detect search engine company employees that were spamming votes in search awards that I was overseeing.
Also on the panel were Fredrick Marckini, a founding figure in search marketing whose company iProspect was later sold to Isobar, and Brad Byrd of NewGate, another pioneer in doorways and paid inclusion opportunities.
Over time, more and more search engines came out against cloaking and doorways. I ran panels on the topic for a few years longer, not to instruct but more to inform search marketers of what competitors might be doing and educated them to the dangers if they chose to go that route. Typically, these developed into a more debate format. And in end, they got dropped altogether.
The Futility Of Submission
Next, I returned to speak in a short session called “Proper Submitting,” talking about the best way to submit to Yahoo and other human-powered directories. A submission to these places, if not done properly, could haunt you (and hinder you) for years. Unlike crawler-based search engines, there was no revisiting and constant updating of your information.
I also offered tips on dealing with the crawlers. We didn’t have things like Sitemaps back then, a common standard to inform search engines of the URLs you want to have spidered. We had Add URL forms, where we submitted URLs one-by-one. And we liked it. Or, we didn’t, because using those forms didn’t really help that much and grew less effective over time.
Nightmare Scenario: OMG, They Killed Yahoo!
In the late afternoon, it was time for the session I was most nervous about, “Dealing With Directories.” In particular, I had no idea what would happen to the Yahoo representative on the panel.
You know today, how Google is seen by some as this big, bad all-powerful gatekeeper of the web? Yeah, that was Yahoo in 1999.
Seriously, Yahoo was hated by many site owners because of its sluggish submission system. Or because of how an editor at Yahoo might change a word in your description on a whim, killing your traffic. Complaints were so bad that I’d done an entire special report on Yahoo submission problems two years before. Those select few search marketers who had learned the ultra-secret password to submit via the Yahoo “priority queue” protected that from the unworthy like an infant child. Yahoo had so many issues that it even generated a rival, the Open Directory.
The panel wasn’t just about Yahoo. Paul Wood from the Snap directory was on it, along with I believe Kate Wingerson from Looksmart, which was a bigger search player back then. Chris Tolles, now of news search engine Topix, was a cofounder of the Open Directory and got plenty of laughs then and in future appearances for his needling of Yahoo.
Then there was Yahoo. I barely got someone from Yahoo on the panel. I’d asked and asked, and followed-up and followed up. Eventually the corporate PR folks told me that sadly, no one was available. No one from Yahoo, out of a staff of over 100 editors, could make the short drive up from Silicon Valley to San Francisco.
I fell back to a personal contact, Andy Gems, a Yahoo producer who I knew online, from when we connected through a submission issue I was dealing with. I told him Yahoo wouldn’t send anyone to the show. Bless his heart, Andy came out himself.
After the formal presentations, we took the first question. I didn’t know what to expect. I’d joked with the search engines that I was prepared to jump in front of an angry mob and save them, if the crowd turned ugly. They didn’t realize I was only half-joking.
Maybe I’m silly, but I still get goosebumps and kind of choked up over what happened next. The person started off with a statement. He thanked the search engines for coming out. He said, as I remember it, that it made a difference to him as a search marketer to know they felt everyone was worth their time, that search marketers weren’t just some type of enemy to be fought.
The audience broke into applause.
After the session, Andy in particular was swamped with people who came up to him raising issues and looking for help. He had a stack of business cards, and he was thrilled. He thought it was great and said he couldn’t wait to get back to Yahoo to help all those people.
The Rise Of Google
The day ended with “Meet The Search Engines,” where we had a panel of speakers from the crawler-based search engines.
Doug Cutting of Excite, who later went to Yahoo and this year, to Cloudera, spoke. Jan Pedersen, now chief scientist for core search at Microsoft / Bing, represented Infoseek. Paul Gauthier, co-founder of Inktomi, took part, as did Andrei Broder of AltaVista, who is now at Yahoo. The panel also included a small search engine at the time called Google, with cofounder Sergey Brin representing it.
Consider the companies again that I’ve named on this panel:
These were all major players in the search space. Today, the first four are gone. Sure, AltaVista, Excite and Infoseek (now Go) all have sites that let you search. But they’re powered by someone else, and they have tiny amounts of traffic. Inktomi, sold to Yahoo and incorporated into Yahoo’s technology, will get absorbed by Microsoft.
Of the five players on this original search engines panel, it was the upstart, the second-mover, Google, that unseated all of its competitors. And not just its crawler-based competitors. The human-powered directory space had been growing. But Google’s improved relevance meant you could have crawling and relevancy that rivaled that of a human-curation. Google killed the directories, as well. And Microsoft — Google’s chief rival in spirit and soon, if the Yahoo search deal goes through, in traffic, is a third-mover not even on the scene at the time.
Sergey Brin & Not Believing In Spam
While the agenda listed Larry Page as speaking, Sergey was also there. He either joined Larry or replaced him at the last minute. Some conference veterans remember how Sergey rollerskated on stage. Actually, he did that a year later, joking about new Google technologies and demoing his shoes with pop-out wheels.
What was memorable about his first appearance was his now famous statement that Google didn’t believe in spam. He said during the discussion:
Google’s slightly different in that we never ban anybody, and we don’t really believe in spam in the sense that there’s no mechanism for removing people from our index. The fundamental concept we use is, you know, is this page relevant to the search? And, you know, some pages which, you know, they may almost never appear on the search results page because they’re just not that relevant.
How times have changed. These days, Google devotes significant resources to removing spam from its index. It not only has mechanisms to do this, but it even has mechanisms for those banned to request reinclusion.
But at the time, it was true. Google was largely spam-free, compared to its competitors. In fact, as Sergey made these remarks, the other more established engine reps all nodded their heads in acknowledgement that the link-based algorithm Google had at the time was very effective at fighting common types of spam back then.
And Since Then…
The first show concluded, and with several hundred people in attendance and positive reviews, it turned into a regular series called Search Engine Strategies. It grew into a multiple day, multiple track event.
Search marketers got another conference series when the popular WebmasterWorld forums expanded its informal “PubCon” gatherings that began in 2000 into a formal conference setting in 2003.
People like Chris Sherman, Karen DeWeese and the aforementioned Chris Elwell — all of whom helped build the success of the original series — joined Third Door Media. We started over with a focus on maintaining the quality programming we’d always done along with an emphasis on a good conference experience.
Our Search Marketing Expo conference series launched its first show that same year, SMX Advanced held in Seattle, in June 2007. The show sold out and has done so each year since. We’ve also added two more US shows, SMX East and SMX West, giving us three per year — plus we run events outside the US, including Germany, Britain and Australia.
Beyond these three major conference series, there’s also any number of smaller “retreat” events, summits, training seminars, workshops and more. Those seeking to learn through live, in person events aren’t starved for choices.
I’d like to call out a lot of memorable moments over the years, interesting panels and people who’ve made a unique impression at the various shows over time. Perhaps that will be for a future retrospective. Maybe I’ll organize the “SMX Reunion” show that I thought would be a cool way to mark today’s anniversary. Talk to me in 5 or 10 years! But I’ve already written a lot so far, plus I’m petrified that I might leave someone out accidentally (especially when I’m writing this fair early in the morning — it’s been a busy week already!).
Instead, some general reflections:
Search marketers are an amazing community. Over the years, I’ve constantly watched as veterans have welcomed newcomers into the space, offering advice and tips freely.
It’s been a real pleasure to watch people speak for the first time and develop into veteran presenters. It’s one of my favorite things, to give new people the opportunity to share knowledge.
I’ve been grateful when conferences been agents to promote change with the search engines. We’ve had summits and just general discussions during regular panels that have directly resulted in new features.
Keynote Memories & Finally, Ballmer!
One of the things I’ve tried to do with my conference programming over the past few years has been to get the very top people from the search companies to do keynotes. I felt such appearances really speak to the search marketers at the shows.
Search marketers have been the foot soldiers who have build the profits of these companies. They’re the choir that sometimes feels forgotten, singing their hearts out about search and still fighting budget battles against other forms of media that aren’t nearly as measurable, or which have far lower ROI.
When the top execs come out, the search marketers respond warmly. It says to them that they warrant time and attention. That they are important. They should already know this, but it’s always nice to be reminded in some way.
Google’s Sergey Brin did a keynote conversation with me in 2003. He was no longer the chief of that little search engine but instead a business rockstar who got swarmed by crowds, when the talk ended. People loved having him appear.
Yahoo cofounder Jerry Yang came out for a keynote conversation in 2005, speaking on Yahoo’s 10th birthday and laughing that while he started Yahoo by listing web sites by hand, he had no desire to pick up that particular job again.
IAC chairman Barry Diller came in 2006, and before we took the stage, I’ll always recall that he appeared stunned by the more than 2,000 people in the auditorium. “Who are all these people,” he asked me — to which I responded, “Your customers.”
Later that year, Google CEO Eric Schmidt did a keynote that was a real pleasure, as he’s an executive that can deftly handle both high-level policy questions yet be versed in specific technical matters.
Microsoft has long been on my wish list, and I’m thrilled that Steve Ballmer’s going to keynote at our SMX West conference this March 2-4 in Santa Clara. It’s a great way to go into my second decade of producing search conferences.
Thanks — And Baby’s Staying Out Of That Corner!
I’ve chaired 41 search conferences over the years. I counted! But chairing an event is like conducting an orchestra. OK, I’ve never conducted an orchestra. But I know the conductor can’t make music alone. You have a team, and I’ve been fortunate to have great teams to work. My current team at Third Door is amazing, and huge thanks to them for all they’ve achieved.
Thanks also to the search companies who have taken part to support education at these events, to the sponsors and exhibitors who help make them possible, and to the attendees who are at the heart of all the effort. Thank you for coming to our shows. Most of all, my thanks to the speakers, moderators and session coordinators who give of their time and energy largely because they like to help others.
Finally, over the years, search has gotten more complicated, more diverse and offers more opportunities than ever before. There’s video search, social media impacts on search, rich search listing displays and much, much more.
If search marketing was big enough for a dedicated show in 1999, that remains even more true so today. No offense to other forms of internet marketing, but search still needs its own event where it can spread out and shine. It’s important enough to warrant that. I’m glad search got out of its corner, and I’ve got no intention of ever letting it get shoved back in.