The Las Vegas Convention Center was filled to the brim last week with the best Internet marketing minds on the planet. PubCon 2008 kicked off on Tuesday with a scheduled 90 sessions, three keynotes, several parties and one very hardcore networking event -- PubCon Classic, a day of networking and drinking at Hofbrauhaus.
Despite the cost of attending the conference jumping -- ticket prices alone were up 30% over the year before, not to mention the difference in airfare, accommodations and cab fare in a year that saw just about every industry fighting an oncoming recession -- attendance grew 14 percent over the previous year. It was a crowd that came interested in the basics, driven largely perhaps by the accountability and specific focusing capability of Internet marketing. According to chatter on the floor, 80 percent of attendees were new to the show. As a result, sessions tended to be at a 101 level, without a great deal of advanced content. However, don't let that fool you. PubCon was anything but lightweight.
The focus on the fundamentals of Internet marketing wasn't just a message for the new attendees in the audience. Panelists made sure that it was obvious to everyone that getting back to basics with your search engine marketing campaign was critical. Even Top-Shelf Organic SEO, the first search engine optimization-specific session and one that was slated to cover "mid-level to super-advanced organic SEO," began with Jill Whelan myth-busting common SEO misconceptions surrounding what SEO is and is not.
The emphasis on knowing your entry-level search marketing was backed up on Wednesday by Google's release of a 22-page-long starter guide for SEO. Though some in the industry took issue with the advice that Google handed out, it was nevertheless a clear sign that knowing at least the basics of SEO is critical. It is also, as Matt Cutts pointed out in the final session of the conference, a clear sign that Google does not hate SEO or webmasters.
It is critical that every marketer have a solid grasp on the fundamentals of search because the game is about to change again, warned our own Bruce Clay. He boldly declared that 2009 is going to see a huge shift toward several new ways of doing search: behavioral-based, intent-based and blended search results. In particular, he predicted that blended search would come into play even more strongly.
When Google introduced Universal Search, they began to say that they judged rankings based on over 200 signals, a 70 point jump over their previous statement. It is Bruce's belief that those 70 elements have not yet been fully implemented and that in early 2009, webmasters are going to have to be ready for a sudden surge in the importance of engaging the visitors through the use of images, videos, audio, maps, advanced technologies like Flash and AJAX and the integration of RSS feeds. Collectively these elements can be called "engagement objects."
A main message of the conference was the reminder of Google's mission statement: to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. And they have made huge strides in that direction. Earlier this year Google announced that they were able to pull the text out of Flash files, causing great excitement among Web designers and consternation among search marketers who were already having a hard time convincing clients that an all-Flash site was not optimal. What nearly everyone missed in the commotion was that this wasn't the first such development Google had made. In the last year, Google has been working very hard at getting the content out of video and audio files as well, as well as doing image recognition on all those PDFs that are simply scans of catalog pages.
Naturally with the implementation of intent-based searches, demographically and behaviorally targeted searches, not to mention the blending of myriad types of content including geographically targeted content, into what was previously "ten blue links," it is becoming less and less likely that search results will look the same to any two given people for the same query. How do search marketers measure success in a world where rankings no longer can be compared accurately? The answer has to be traffic and conversion.
If you are not running an analytics program on your site, taking a baseline, learning and understanding where you get your traffic and conversions and how much you're paying for each of those conversions, you are setting yourself up for failure in the future. Google Analytics is free and contains many of the features that a paid analytics service provides. Omniture services are more comprehensive still and come with Omniture's world class support. Either way, you have to understand that it no longer matters if your site is number one on Google for your keyword term when you do a search because what everyone else is seeing may not be the same.
It may be that this move toward traffic instead of rankings is what drove the other main theme of this conference. Link building has always been a huge topic at Internet marketing conferences, but more than ever, this conference highlighted that link building is coming to mean learning to play in social media marketing. The 5 Bloggers and a Microphone session on Wednesday hammered home an even more surprising message: Twitter is the new black. If you're not participating on Twitter and monitoring your company name, you're missing a huge opportunity to engage and brand your company and services.
Overall, the message of this conference was to create "halo media." As defined by Shawn Rorick in the kick-off keynote on Tuesday morning, with halo media, you create a "circle of presence" around your company using multiple channels to reach the consumer. Halo media eliminates the problem of mismatching the message to the consumer's buying cycle by focusing on giving the customer ways to experience, reference, discuss and purchase when they are ready. The user isn't asked to "click and buy." This message was reinforced over and over again: do your fundamentals, target the long tails, increase engagement and make sure that when the customer comes looking for you, you're there to be found.
For more from PubCon, check out the Bruce Clay blog for liveblog coverage of 17 sessions from Las Vegas.