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SMX East 2012 Day One Recap: The Changing Face of Search Marketing

This is part one in a three part series covering SMX (Search Marketing Expo) East 2012 at the Javits Center in Manhattan.

I went into this year’s SMX East Conference expecting a whole lot of uncertainty and hand wringing about the rapidly changing state of search in the face of Google’s recent run of algorithm updates. The events of day one proved my suspicions to be true on balance, but there were  a couple of notable surprises.

The day started with a session on SEO performance metrics and what SEO providers should focus on in today’s search environment. The first few speakers, including Google Webmaster Central pioneer Vanessa Fox, focused on creative ways to get past that traditional SEO standby: the ranking report. This session included some creative ways to analyze data from Google Webmaster Tools to look at things like click through rate, while segmenting keywords by high and low funnel activity. The basic message from the first three speakers was that SEO has evolved, grown up and become a much more established and legitimate marketing channel. This theme made me feel pretty good, as we’ve been writing about the natural shift away from things like ranking reports at DAC for quite some time.

It was the last bit of this first session that held a couple of surprises for me. I’m going to leave off names and company information, because that’s really not what’s important here. This part of the presentation was really something of a rebuttal to the first three presenters. It came from a provider of a ranking tool that really has a pretty robust set of features. The message was about the place of the sophisticated ranking report in today’s set of SEO metrics. In the moment, I found it quite compelling and interesting. This tool tracks SERP data for millions of keywords and offers meaningful insight at the local level. It was sounding pretty good, and that was somewhat surprising to me. Then came the Q&A portion of the session.

After a couple of run-of-the-mill questions from the audience, an employee from Google Webmaster Tools stood up and essentially undressed the ranking report provider in front of two hundred or so search marketers. She told him in no uncertain terms that his company’s business model is in direct violation of Google’s terms of service and that Google has entire teams devoted to making sure that ranking tools like that have no future in search marketing. It was like all of the air was sucked out of the room. It was awkward; it was uncomfortable; and it was quite poignant. This incident, by far the most memorable of the day, was a visceral reminder that the game has changed. It was Google literally reminding all of us search marketers that the envelope-pushing tactics of yesterday simply will not fly anymore.

That experience stayed with me for the rest of the day, and the echoes of that meta message were repeated through the rest of the presentations. A session on the changing conversion experience reminded me that display is becoming more like search in it’s performance-focus and auction-based models. On the other side of the coin, search marketing is starting to look more like display with new opportunities like Google’s new search remarketing product. To me, all of these things are part of a larger theme that should be telling all of us that channels are converging into an appealing performance-based marketing strategy, and traditional search marketing paradigms are simply not comprehensive enough to tell the compelling stories and move the needle going forward.

The afternoon rounded out with sessions on recovering from Google’s Penguin and Panda  updates and achieving web design success by focusing on the user. I was struck by a comment from Stone Temple Consulting’s Eric Enge, who pointed out that Google webspam guru Matt Cutts told him that the Panda and Penguin updates were new search quality capabilities for the search giant. These are not merely algorithm updates; rather, they are tools that Google will continue to use and evolve to make sure that questionable SEO practices are cast into the dustbin of search marketing history.

In other words, enough with outdated SEO tricks like shady link-building and information architecture built with only the algorithms in mind. Shari Thurow from Omni Marketing said it best when she said that search engine friendly design is a site designed, not for search engines, but for people who use search engines.

Does this mean that SEO is dead? Not really, but it does mean that today’s SEO bears little resemblance to yesterday’s. That gets me excited to see what tomorrow brings, and I’m looking forward to finding out at Day two of SMX.

Scott Ensign, Senior Digital Strategist

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