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Search Industry Nostalgia: A Reminder of How Far We’ve Come
If I were writing the local County Cross Country Ski Club newsletter, a retrospective might cover two or three minor changes in the field, and a watershed moment or two. Primitive skis were used by Vikings as much as 5,000 years ago. In about 1460, someone in Scandinavia discovered that you could climb hills easily with a “herringbone” technique rather than removing your skis and walking up. In the 1990’s, someone invented skate-skiing and they added the freestyle event to the Olympics while maintaining “classic” technique as an event as well. Those wishing to be in even better physical condition than the superhuman mountain goats they already were opted to specialize in the skating thing. The rest of us stuck to wine and cheese and classic technique.
As for big changes in cross-country skiing, that about sums it up. Search is a little harder to keep up with.
As I get settled in at SES Chicago 2007, the search marketing industry feels as dynamic as ever; who else could make the grand old 1927-built Chicago Hilton feel so alive with pleasure? Along with the usual helpings of tactically-oriented sessions, the program has served up a few strategy dishes that most haven’t seen before at a search conference (unless they were at SES Toronto 2007, of course!). Seth Godin wowed us this morning with fresh new riffs from his book, Meatball Sundae, signing advance copies for SES attendees.
Seth provides the answers to the burning questions: Why, when I want funny videos, don’t I go to TVGuide.com? Why is it that AOL never built a wildly popular social networking site called AOLBook? The answer is that “It isn’t in their DNA,” as we’ve often heard in Valleyspeak. In Seth-speak, “not in their DNA” translates as “Meatball Sundae.”
Will Meatball Sundae become a useful catchphrase like Purple Cow? My money’s on yes.
It makes you wonder about your own strategy whenever you’re trying to decide whether to just promote the dickens out of something old (the meatballs), or whether fundamental changes to the meatballs’ composition will be required. Like anything else (be it shoes, scuba diving lessons, or directory listings), conferences are going to have a rough go of it if they just try to touch up their own cosmetics and layer new promotional tactics around the same old, same old.
Imagine this horrible nightmare: You show up at an SES in 2008 and are forced to sit through sessions that were unchanged since 2003. No, really, that’s what this column is about – imagining that, to get a better sense of how fast and far we’ve come.
Leafing through an old SES conference program from SES San Jose 2003 shows clear threads of continuity, but it’s a bit surprising (even if you’re knee deep in this stuff) to see what’s become irrelevant in the space of just over four years.
The meta-story-behind-the-story is that SES is no longer the only game in town. In case you’ve spent the past year in a tent, it’s not just about SES anymore. SMX has been active in the fall with dates in key markets like London, and is gearing up for SMX West in California at the end of February. Meantime, some feathers have been ruffled by the timing of WebmasterWorld Pubcon Las Vegas, directly opposite SES Chicago this week. It’s not quite to the level of civil war, “brother against brother,” but nonetheless is a new experience for many to have to decide which conferences to go to in the search vertical. And in the case of this week, to have staff traveling to both (for example, my fellow Page Zero-er and SEL columnist Mona Elesseily is at Pubcon while I toil here in the Windy City; Jill Whalen’s in Vegas too, but her colleague, Pauline, is having steak with my gang here in Chicago).
The changing face of the search industry can be broken down into three parts: subject matter, people, and style/format/structure. More broadly, we can look at the status of the search technology and search marketing industries as a whole, and how its role has shifted.
Inside Baseball: Or should we call it: “BigMoneyBall”? Back in ’03, search was undergoing something of a “follow-on bubble” or “localized bubble,” as a relatively prosperous sector in an otherwise maligned Internet economy. As such, those ramping up search companies, and the financial community considering investing more in them, wanted to talk among themselves about the potential goldmine they were sitting on. So as not to fuss ordinary conference attendees with this naked ambition, sessions like “Search Monetization Strategies” and “Financial Analyst Roundtable” were confined to a two-track “pre-conference Day 1” on Aug. 18, 2003. The other track was fundamentals, aimed at beginners.
Today, it seems a commonplace that search advertising means big money. Trust me, it wasn’t obvious to many even as late as 2004. Pitching my book, Winning Results with Google AdWords, to McGraw-Hill, took several rounds of interaction with senior publishing people who wondered if this thing was really a big enough topic. During the writing of the book, the project would be questioned on any day that some negative story about Google made the rounds in the press. (These were never stemming from bad financial results, as Google has never had a “bad” quarter by any reasonable standard.)
The SES San Jose track on search monetization and investment was an appropriate and even prescient recognition of the unfolding reality in the business.
It wasn’t until April 2004 that Google filed their inevitable IPO prospectus, and the first shares of Google stock changed hands following its famous modified Dutch auction format, initially priced at $85, that August 19. Finally, the horrific pre-IPO “quiet period” was over, and Googlers could begin talking to us again, although it took them about a full year to get back in the habit.
Arguably, the massive success of the Google investment (not just by the founders and early investors cashing out in this initial IPO liquidity event, but further investor profits generated from subsequent rapid rise of the stock towards today’s lofty $700 level) played a big part in the VC resurgence of 2005, and the so-called “Web 2.0 era.” At first, investors got caught up looking for the “next Google.” Then, they went after companies that would thrive in the “Google economy” generally. Eventually, all hell broke loose as VC’s lined up to go fishing for the “next anything.” That period is winding down now.
It’s important not to think of this growth in purely personal terms, as a bunch of people getting rich. Google’s great wealth has led it to apply its collective brainpower to issues outside of merely increasing Google profits. Recently Google announced a push into researching renewable energy “cheaper than coal.” It took Bill Gates decades to reach a similar stage of attempting to solve such a large social problem, with his recent massive investments in global concerns like the AIDS crisis in Africa. By the time they’re finished, expect Googlers to have solved at least two or three major problems that all the collected wisdom in industry and politics could not solve over many decades.
Search Trends: Certain topics have all but evaporated from the discourse of search marketing. Arguably, their importance was exaggerated even in 2003, but inertia dictates that some pitches and tropes tend to last beyond their recommended shelf lives.
Paid inclusion in search indexes was a supposedly hot topic du jour, with Inktomi, no less, still around pitching and sponsoring. The model is rightly regarded as a lame duck today.
Metasearch was already waning in importance in 2003, but there was still a session on it. It continued to wane. The definition of “metasearch” is up for grabs, anyway. Metacrawler and the like came of age in a very defined period in search engine history, when there were seven or eight viable competing search algorithms and indexes to choose from. The concept of metasearch is still very important today in a general sense, but these kinds of companies, putting out those kinds of metasearch results, have lost their raison-d’être.
Alternative PPC Search Engines was another panel that addressed the potential and pitfalls of something that was dying even as the panel convened. While all kinds of alternative ad networks continue to compete and innovate today, the many second-tier paid search engines of 2003 were using up their last chances to convince advertisers that they weren’t bastions of click fraud. As the paid search platforms at Google and Yahoo improved dramatically, and reach through them continued to increase as well, advertisers had their work cut out for them just optimizing their buys through these two, and maybe a couple of others (Microsoft adCenter, Ask, etc.). In 2003 I came close to releasing a buyer’s guide to these many alternative paid search engines. But if you look at the trajectory of just one of those companies – LookSmart – you can see why releasing such a guide would have done a disservice to advertisers. As hard as it may be for some to take, the main search engine companies today have most of the paid search market share for good reason: they deliver value, accountability, and service to advertisers. Now that everyone measures results, advertisers increasingly understand that while some clicks may look inexpensive, you usually get what you pay for.
Dealing With Directories also feels like a panel that was convened a century ago. Today, search marketers address the off-page piece with complex link building strategies, social media, SEO-PR, and a great volume of effort. The ins and outs of dealing with Zeal, ODP, Yahoo, etc. – not really something anyone gives much thought to anymore, mainly because part of it is just considered “the basics,” and the other thing is, you don’t get terribly much bang for your buck from these links as compared with five or six years ago. For best practices in submitting to the few directories that matter right now, these sessions would still help marketers. If I were one of the agency-side panelists (Osmeloski, Whalen) and I had an audio transcript available for you, I’d probably price that at around $40 or offer it as a freebie lead gen tool.
That said, second-generation strategies were already rolling out in 2003. An Advanced Link Building panel set the stage for continued debate and development of strategies in this important off-page factor.
Blogs and RSS Feeds were ascendant in 2003 and a panel was devoted to “how search engines are dealing with blog content” and “how news search engines gather information.” Companies like Technorati (founded 2002) and Daypop (founded 2001) went on to catch a wave; other (previous generation) players like Moreover and ScreamingMedia went someplace invisible, as so often happens to Meatball Sundaes. It’s not surprising that online content syndication companies founded prior to the conception and widespread adoption of RSS 2.0 would have trouble meshing with the new standard.
Meet the Portals as a topic nearly makes you laugh out loud today. Even as we debate the unfolding worlds of universal and blended search (I was on the Orion panel yesterday, with reps from Google, Microsoft, and comScore, as well as good pal Mike Grehan, where we and the moderators explored the implications of search engines circling back to long-lost habits of serving up more of their own related vertical content in the SERP’s), nobody wants to be called a portal. I guess everyone’s afraid that they might turn into AOL – one of the biggest Meatball Sundaes of the digital age – if they ‘fess up to that. One of the “portal” companies represented in 2003’s panel was (the still-not-dead-yet) Terra Lycos. MSN, AOL, and Yahoo sat in as well; Google didn’t.
Vendor trends: The conferences tend to be a delicate balance of vendor pitch opportunities and genuine unvarnished content. A quick look at some of the leading vendor sponsors of the time is instructive. The name of Atlas Search (today, a leading bid management and ROI measurement platform, under the umbrella of Microsoft Advertiser & Publisher Solutions) was still, in 2003, GoToast! For those who don’t remember why, it was a play on words for the relatively small set of advertisers addicted to GoTo.com, back when clicks cost mere pennies, and before that company changed its name to Overture and eventually got acquired by Yahoo. GoToast! Imagine! A cheesy name based on the name of a pioneering, now-defunct paid search listings vendor. It’s comparable to naming some spreadsheet-related plug-in LotusLand or 1-2-Threepio, and keeping the name too long. GoToast and GoTo evolved similarly. Both companies were known for aggressiveness in their early days – GoTo for doing anything they could to hawk clicks, no matter how fraudulent; GoToast for overselling their product or spamming SES attendee lists.
Anyway, Atlas Search (owned by Microsoft) it is now. How far they, and we as an industry, have come. Do you think the GoToast founders, in their dreams, would have liked to be acquired by first an online advertising holding company, and then onwards and upwards into Microsoft? You would think.
It would be interesting to chart the progress of some of the leaders in our industry, and starting with how they showed up on programs back in 2003. That would be a long discussion, so it’ll have to wait for a future column.
Style, format, and structure
I think all events experiment somewhat with styles based on trends in attendee demand. Sometimes, they test new formats. If a Web 2.0 conference has a few panels about wikis, why not make the sessions themselves like wikis? Ugh. Tried and true formats often do work, and interactivity – while often a real enhancement to a session – needs to be thought through, and audience participation pre-warmed so it isn’t just dead air or the conference equivalent of crank calls from random strangers. Content is still king.
SES-wise, the shows continued to grow – explode might be a better word – between 2003 and 2007. Events at venues like the New York Hilton have been bursting at the seams. With five tracks at that event, and four or five at a typical Chicago or San Jose show, it started to become difficult to catch every session you wanted to, and often you could go days without seeing certain friends and colleagues. This year’s Chicago event has dialed back to three tracks, and has upped the quotient of keynote speeches and special panels (the Orion Panels) to offer perhaps a thread of continuity and community amidst the required granularity.
In general, it looks like all conferences in our business are getting savvier and harder-working with planning the presentation side. In the early days, the content was so new that almost any format would work. As we evolve, the range of attendee skill sets is vast. We need to build a clear delineation of “practical sessions” vs. “newbie sessions” vs. “advanced or high level sessions” into the programming.
Beyond that, the marketplace for tradeshows is growing fickle and governed by practical limits to user attention. For relatively affluent participants in this economy, a conference competes with dealing with client development, or a family vacation. Translation: conferences today have to be concerned not only with attendees’ bottom line perspectives, but also with fun. That’s probably why we’ve seen growth in both full day seminar-style training and the selection and glitz factor of various socials and parties. While the sponsor-driven “big party one-upmanship” days tend to be confined to bubble periods, that hasn’t slaked attendees’ thirst for the happening after-hours events, where, in addition to plain old fun, you never know what business advantages you might pick up from that conversation conducted (to quote former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney) “after a couple of scotches at 2 a.m.”
Finally, the keynote Danny Sullivan conversation with Google cofounder Sergey Brin at SES San Jose 2003 marked the first, and only, time Sergey has keynoted at a major search conference. You can certainly get your money’s worth from Schmidt, Mayer, Cutts, and about 50 other Googlers, but if you want to paying attendee asses in the seats (with apologies to the low-key Larry Page), Brin’s your showman. Will he ever be back?
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.