Search conferences are an excellent opportunity to connect personally with representatives from Google, as well as Yahoo and Bing, for advice and assistance with SEO issues. With our SMX East search engine marketing conference starting tomorrow in New York, I thought it was a good time to list my personal thoughts on the right and wrong way to approach them.
I’m not a search engine representative, but I know a number of them and have talked with many about the interactions they have with people at conferences in the 10 years I’ve been programming such shows. I think my tips will help, and perhaps they’ll inspire actual search engineers and representatives like Google’s Matt Cutts to put together his own.
1) Catch Them At A Session: Looking for a search engine rep? Check the agenda, and find the sessions they’re speaking at. Remember, not everyone from Google deals with SEO issues. Don’t go to a panel on paid search and expect the Google speaker to address your SEO issues. Find an appropriate session that’s dealing with SEO. At our show this week, such sessions include:
- Ask The Search Engines: Best Practices Edition
- Duplicate Content Issues: The Search Engine Edition
- Maps, Maps, Maps! (Local Search SEO)
- Pumping Up YouTube (YouTube SEO)
- Universal & Blended Search Opportunities (SEO into blended/vertical search)
- CSS, AJAX, Web 2.0 & SEO
- Meet & Eat Networking Lunch Tables
Other shows have similar sessions specifically about SEO issues. Review a show’s agenda. Read the session descriptions to see if they involve SEO. Look for sessions with the major search engines represented, and you’re on the right track.
2) Make Your Problem Relevant For Everyone: Often search panels have an open Q&A period. If you’re having a particular SEO issue, that’s an opportunity to get your question in front of a representative. It’s fine to talk about your specific issue. For example, if you feel you’ve been penalized, ask how you or others can request a review. But….
3) Do Your Homework: In the example above, asking how to get Google to review a penalty is a terrible question. That’s because if you’d done your homework, you’d have discovered that Google has tools to tell you if you’ve been penalized as well as to request reinclusion. Don’t ask what you can find out online. Make your questions count. In the situation I’ve described, you should have already checked to see if a penalty has been reported and filed a reinclusion request if so. If you’re still having problems, THAT’S the question you put to the rep. “I’ve done all that Google advises, but I still think I’m being penalized. What do I do next?”
4) We Can Talk About That Offline: If you give a search rep a stumper — like the above “I’ve done everything you say, now what” question, you might have stumped the speaker. Almost inevitably, they’ll still want to help. That’s not just for good PR. They actually do discover problems within their own systems by investigating site owner problems. If you’ve stumped them, you’ll probably get a response along the lines of “Let’s Talk About that Offline.” Congrats. You just won a golden ticket for special attention. Hang on to that, you’ll use it after class.
5) Move On, Already: If you haven’t gotten a satisfactory answer, don’t keep hammering away. Asking a short follow-up for clarity is fine. But not letting go of an issue, and continuing to ask, ask, ask loses you friends in the audience plus the sympathy of the rep. If you’re still not happy — and you didn’t get the “let’s talk offline” invitation — then simply say you’d still like to know more, but perhaps you both can follow up offline. Watch the look of relief that will flow across the search reps face. And get your business card ready….
6) See Them After Class: When the session ends, the representatives typically stick around to answer some additional questions. This is a prime opportunity. Sit up front, so that you can immediately get to the stage ahead of the inevitable rush. Usually, speakers will remain in their seats at the speaking table. Just line up right in front. Don’t go onto the stage. Don’t be that person. No one likes that person. If you weren’t at the front, eventually the reps will have to leave the stage. Let them. Often they’ll move out of the room, so that another session can begin, but they may linger in the hallway. That’s a sign they’re still willing to take questions. But if they start to move — if they give subtle hints like “I’d love to stay more, but I have to go,” hand them your card (more prep on that in a minute) and let them go.
7) Be Brief: It’s your big moment. The rep’s all yours. So tell them your issue. Be brief. Explain the situation clearly. Imagine you had to tweet it in 140 characters. Listen to their response. If you have a follow-up, also keep that brief, and keep it to just one. You’re not alone in wanting access. Don’t be a speaker hog.
8) Leave Your Diagram At Home: Is your problem or issue so big that you’ve drafted a diagram? Forget it. Seriously, don’t show up with a convoluted diagram of how you want to cross link 50 different sites car rental sites, each one targeting a different US state, but you’re worried there might be a spam issue. Diagrams scream out that you’re overthinking your SEO efforts. They scream out you’re not someone with a question that can be dealt with in a few minutes. And they make search reps want to run screaming from you, trust me. If you’re thinking SEO that much, you don’t want a search. Instead, find one of the many good SEOs who are speaking. And consider booking a consultation with them. It’ll likely be money well spent.
I also ran this point past search conference speaking veteran Matt Cutts, who added:
It’s true that a diagram on the fly is probably a warning sign, but I welcome people who have thought hard about an issue and walk up and say “The spam report form only allows N characters, so I brought you this in-depth report.” Or “I wanted to give you this reconsideration request where I documented all the ways we’ve tried to clean up our site.” I don’t mind taking printed material and carrying it back to the team to check out.
That said, handing over a 25 page report is probably still overkill :)
9) Your Business Card Is Your Friend: Got a complicated question? Again, tell the rep what the issue is briefly, but say you understand that it might take more time than they have now and ask if they’d like to contact you to learn more. Then give them your business card with a short summary of the issue on the back. Move along. You’ll be appreciated for having been reasonable, and people who do this DO get follow up contact. If you were one of those “let’s talk offline” folks, say that. Literally say — “you wanted to talk offline about my issue. Please contact me when you’re ready.”
10) Don’t Expect Their Contact Information: You can a search engineer or representative for their business card or email address, but don’t expect it nor insist upon it. Search reps tend to be rather protective of their information, mainly because once they help someone with a problem, they sometimes find the same person then decides they’re a well to tap for any issue in the future — and they just don’t have the time to do one-on-one like that. There’s also an issue that if they give their contact details to someone, that person in turn might give it to a friend, and so on. That leads to another tip. If you’ve been trusted enough with a search rep’s contact details, don’t start handing it out without permission.
11) Fess Up & Clean Up Your Mess: If you think you have a penalty — and are pretty sure why, such as for buying links or having spamming content, be sure to have done everything you can to clean things up before asking for help. And fess up to everything you’ve done. Nothing will lose potential support more than having a rep hear your “I did nothing wrong” story, take the time to investigate your issue and then discover plenty of evidence you were knowingly violating guidelines.
12) Hallways & Other Encounters: You’ll find reps outside formal sessions, such as just wandering in hallways, having lunch or sometimes at their company’s booth, if they have one on the expo floor. All the rules I’ve mentioned above apply. Be brief, have a business card ready, etc. If they’re working a booth, ask away — that’s what they’re there for. If you catch them outside a booth, be polite. If they’re walking, don’t try to stop them. They’re probably going somewhere. You might ask if you can “walk and talk.” If they say yes, keep it brief. If they look at all uncertain or say it’s a bad time, don’t try — give them a card. If they’re talking to someone, don’t interrupt. Stand off in view, so it’s clear you’d like a moment but not so close that you’re eavesdropping.
13) Let Them Rest: Reps often attend parties and networking events. It’s fine to approach them at these times. But be especially brief. Ask if they have a moment, and stress you’ll be brief because you know they’re out trying to relax. Because, you know, they are. The reps are human, and after answering a huge number of questions in a day, sometimes they need a break. Have that business card ready. Another tip. Don’t talk shop. You’re at a social event. Socialize about something other than search. You’ll have a nice conversation and perhaps build the foundation for future talks about search.
14) Don’t Monopolize: Don’t monopolize a search rep’s time. For one, there are many other people trying to talk to them. Similar to Mike Arrington’s advice on how to interact with speakers at a conference, if you see the rep looking around a lot, they’re probably aware of other people behind you also wanting a chance to talk. Also to Mike’s advice, don’t assume that trying to spend as much time as possible with the rep will make for a better relationship. It can have the opposite effect. Many SEOs do form good relationships and even friendships with search reps, but these don’t happen because someone tried to force it.
If in the end, you don’t get time with a search rep, don’t be offended. There can literally be over hundred or more people trying to catch them over the course of a conference. You might also have unlucky timing, catching them as they’re trying to prep for a panel or perhaps when they’re trying to catch up on work back at home base (just like everyone else, they have jobs with needs that don’t wait just because they’ve gone to a conference.
There are other ways to contact reps, of course. Google maintains an official group for webmaster issues, as does Bing. Google Webmaster Central has a variety of tools allowing webmasters to diagnose their sites, as does Bing Webmaster Center. Yahoo has advice and a support form here. Representatives also frequent forums such as our Sphinn social news site and WebmasterWorld. Check those out, if you don’t have an opportunity to meet a rep in person.
Finally, there are plenty of panels where you’ll find search representatives from the paid search side of the house. I haven’t covered advice for these reps primarily site owners and marketers dealing with paid search issues often find it much easier to get help. You’re paying for those ads, so the search engines put plenty of routes out there (and kudos for them putting so much out on the “free” side, as well). Still, general courtesy and tactics above outlined for search reps on SEO issues apply to paid search reps, as well. Heck, it’s good advice for approaching any speaker.