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The Essence of SMX West 2008

by Virginia Nussey, March 1, 2008

Last week saw the inaugural Search Marketing Expo: West come and go. Industry coverage of the event was extensive, so unless there was only a specific topic of interest to you, you may find sifting through the mountain of issues, questions and suggestions a daunting task. Along with the daily recap of sessions attended by BC bloggers Lisa Barone and Susan Esparza (which you can find here, here and here), we've broken down the coverage into a look at the overarching themes that generated a majority of the conversation last week.

The Evolving Landscape of Search

Danny Sullivan kicked off the event with his keynote Search 3.0, Search 4.0 & Beyond, setting the tone for the discussions to come. The evolving landscape of search was the most significant theme of the week, hardly missing an appearance at any session or with any speaker. All three keynotes dove into where search is going and what that means to users and the SEO industry. The evolution of search includes blended search, behavioral search and personalized search. Also notable is search's shift from an external tool to a more internalized collective memory.

As Danny explained, we are currently working under a search system that favors links for the democratic significance they hold. This is an improvement on the previous search model that merely picked up on keywords. Search engine marketers have responded to the importance of links by experimenting with paid links, link bait, nofollow attributes, siloing, etc.

The next frontier, led by Ask3D, is blended search. Blended search returns results from books, images, news, video, local, and the Web, and may rearrange or remove parts of the traditional top ten results to do so. For SEOs, this means that ranking in traditional Web results may be more difficult, but there are more opportunities to show up through alternative mediums.

Behavioral search draws upon the collective wisdom of the user community. Based upon what other searchers found relevant or related, the search engine may provide recommendations to refine results. For instance, through behavioral search, someone searching for "widescreen TVs" can also be presented with other terms that the collective found useful, like "flat screen TVs" or recommended brands. One of the major benefactors of behavioral search is advertisers. With a well-defined audience in the behavioral search crosshairs, advertisers can reach the demographics they value most. SEOs should view behavioral search as an opportunity to refocus on their intended audience as well.

Refining results even further, personalized search —among the leaders, seen in Google alone — weighs individual user preferences to return subtly unique search results. Based on Web and search history data, personalized search helps to find the most relevant results. Its main strength is in improving relevance of results when faced with queries that include terms with multiple meanings. Based on the user's former click and view habits, personalized search realizes that this car-lover is looking for the automobile rather than the wildcat when he types in "jaguar". When marketing and optimizing for personalized search, it helps to appeal to users, rather than search engines, with compelling content.

Memory Extended

While all of the above developments in search must be addressed by the SEO industry, a revolutionary idea wove its way through SMX. A fascinating concept to content generators, site optimizers and Internet users alike, integrated search is fast becoming a reality. Rather than search being considered something to go and do, searching is more and more becoming a seamless retrieval of "transactive memory". Transactive memory is the collective mind of a group, where each person remembers what they know, and the information can be drawn upon without everyone having to remember everything. Transactive memory can often be seen within families or between couples, for example, a mother who knows where any item can be found in the pantry or where her children left their homework when they came in the house.

Gord Hotchkiss spoke at SMX and used the example of telling time to explain how transactive memory works. Say you're in line at the grocery store and the person behind you asks, "Do you know what time it is?" You answer "yes" and look at your watch. You didn't really know the information — it was more like an extension of your memory. Search will soon become just such an extension. Right now someone may ask if you know what the capital of Slovenia is, and you'll probably answer, "No, let me look it up." In the near future, your answer may more closely resemble, "Yes, let me look it up." The integration of search reflects this sense that our memory is stored elsewhere, we just have to go out and get it.

This evolution is already taking place. A typical group of the coveted 18-24 demographic, gathered around the TV and a laptop computer some night, might be sharing company Web sites, Internet pet projects, Wikipedia posts, and researching any questions that came out of their conversations. If someone else was using the laptop, chances are every one of the rest would have the Internet at their fingertips through the iPhone or Blackberry in their purse or pocket.

Search Marketing Standards, Training and Analytics

It's clear that the awesome power wielded through the Internet is already understood by search engines and SEOs. This led to another SMX West theme: Is it time for search marketing standards? Considering that the very nature of SEO is manipulative, the responsibility of SEOs to use their power for good — that is, getting the highest-quality, relevant content to show up in SERPs — may require reinforcement. Some believe that standards would promote sustained growth in the industry and establish authority in the online marketplace. SEMPO's Metrics and Standards Task Force is developing search marketing guidelines, but is also careful not to cross the line into enforcement. Organizations like the IAB and DMA have begun developing more rigid standards for search marketing, defining tactics and rating risks.

Along these lines, analytics and training were popular subjects at SMX for their role in improving SEO/SEM practices and getting the most out of your SEO/SEM efforts. Although still considered somewhat cumbersome, Web analytics is vital to a site because it tracks visitors, how long they are on a page, where they came from and where they went, and tracks search engine robots as well. After the conference, it's clear that there's no one set of analytics tools to trust your site to. The decision of which tools to use depends on the needs of the site and the measurements that will reflect real-world requirements. The key to getting the most out of analytics is to deeply evaluate what you really need to measure and make a plan of what you want to accomplish. With this in mind, you can better assess the scope of the investment you will make in analytics.

Rather than a session dedicated to training issues, the topic of training often came up in reference to quality and responsibility. If you choose to do SEO in-house or have a large project ahead of you, training is key to making sure your tactics are accepted by search engines and that you have the most comprehensive SEO knowledge of tools and techniques possible. If you're in the market for a high-quality SEO training experience, check out Bruce Clay's SEO training and certification courses.

The bottom line? SMX West brought to light a number of increasingly important themes for the search engine industry. From the changing face of search and how SEOs can adapt to the transition, to the integration of search and the need for marketing standards and rigorous training, these ever-present themes colored the conversation last week. If like most of us, you couldn't be there, take a moment to browse the blog's session coverage archive and get SMX at its second best.

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