Last week I was in Seattle for the SMX Advanced 2008 conference. I’ll run down a few thoughts on the trip.
What was good?
It’s always nice to visit Seattle. I had never been to Seattle until last year. Now I’ve been four times, and I’ve managed to get macaroni and cheese from West 5 for three of those visits. I really enjoy Seattle’s vibe and visiting Google colleagues at the Kirkland-plex each time.
SMX has a really friendly feel as well. I got to talk to a bunch of new people. One of my favorite events was a “Talk to search engineers” lunch where several people from Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft each ate at tables with 10-11 conference attendees. Added: Danny sent this picture from the lunch:
My table was a ton of fun. I asked for the topic “Anything but Spam,” and even though we talked about spam a little bit, we also talked about a bunch of other topics, including high gas prices and Google’s Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal initiative, which includes an investment in high-altitude wind energy extraction. We also talked about how presidential candidates describe their interactions with drugs, and whether that reflects the willingness of the younger “Chat/IM” generation to disclose their weekend hijinks on social sites like MySpace and Facebook.
It was fascinating to watch the keynote with Microsoft’s Kevin Johnson. Years ago I read every book I could find about Microsoft, but I still learn a lot from hearing Microsofties in person. Johnson described where he wanted Microsoft to innovate (user experience, business model, distribution, and verticals — especially commercial intent). I also got some insights into how Johnson viewed the Live brand. When Danny Sullivan asked why Microsoft owned an SEO and why Microsoft shut down its book scanning project, I thought Johnson gave especially politic answers. All in all, I learned a lot from the Microsoft keynote.
I also enjoyed the “You&A” session with Danny. We talked about a bunch of topics:
– Truth in marketing: the difference between a prank and more serious deception. You can watch a minute or so of what I said on the subject. By the way, to the folks that ran the conference: if you’ve got a video of the keynote, I’d love if you’d release it on the web where everyone can watch it. That would be supersweet if it’s doable.
– When does Google consider widgets spammy? I talked about the spectrum of why people make links and that being toward the editorial + informed end was better. At the other end are things like web counters with hidden links to spammy sites. Some of the criteria that I mentioned included whether the links were hidden in the widget, how off-topic the widget was (a zombie-themed widget pointing to pay day loans and cash advance sites would be pretty off-topic), whether the target of the links went back to the original widget location or to some completely different third party, whether the anchortext was simple (“example.com”) vs. spammy or keyword stuffed, whether the publisher received clear disclosure that the widget would include extra links (burying the disclosure that a widget would include links down in subsection 29a, paragraph 5 would be poor disclosure), the number of links in the widget, etc.
– Search results in search results. The less value-add there is to a search result url, the less our users like it. Users typically don’t want to see search results from other web search engines in our search results, for example. But search results of different types of data (e.g. civil war property records) would be more likely to be of use to searchers.
– Whether Mahalo is closer to a search engine or closer to a content play.
– Google’s definition of cloaking, plus how that’s different from IP delivery and geolocation.
– Whether Google has different types of penalties (yes, we do).
– Whether people should bother with PageRank sculpting. I reiterated Shari Thurow’s point that if you design your information and site architecture well, it’s not something that you need to worry about at all. This was considered an advanced conference, so I didn’t shut the door on the idea completely, but I did try to get across that there’s an opportunity cost to sculpting and that the vast majority of people would get more benefit from spending their time working on making their site more compelling (so they got more links/PageRank) rather than obsessing about how to move around the PageRank that they have.
– Someone asked “How does it feel to be the moral compass of Google?” (or maybe it was for SEO). On one level, it’s flattering to be asked that, but I disagreed with the premise of the question. I pointed out that Danny can usually predict what stance I’m going to take on an issue, for example. In most cases, an SEO already knows whether a tactic is really useful to users, so they don’t need to hear my take on a particular issue. I found a video of my answer to the SEO moral compass question. Anybody know of other videos from the keynote?
Another favorite moment: I took a fleece jacket with me up to Seattle. Good thing too, because it was rainy and chilly at times. I walked up to one person from the conference at the taxi stand of the conference hotel. The first thing she said was “Oh, you have cats?” That cat hair is hard to remove from fleece.
Let’s see, what else did I like? I knew that one of the panels was going to discuss “white-hat cloaking” (which is an oxymoron in Google websearch), so we took some time to provide more information about how Google defines cloaking — we also revised a bunch of other documentation.
What was bad?
This year a lot more black hat material leaked into the regular conference sessions. Lots of people seemed to notice. Danny did a reflective post about this. He also left a comment on Lisa’s original thread that said “The conference had content that was far more blackhat that I would have liked to have seen. …. Yes, it is useful for people to understand the blackhat world. But there’s more to advanced than blackhat, and I wanted a lot more of that to be shown.”
I’m not going to rehash the debate, because it’s been well-covered in other places. But I will pass along some feedback from a couple people I talked to. I chatted with one person in the conference hotel. The paraphrased conversation was along the lines of “I’m an inhouse SEO, and if I tried some of the stuff suggested in those panels, I’d be looking for a new job.” I chatted with someone else who was attending their first search conference. They essentially said (paraphrasing again) “It was really discouraging to hear one person say ‘If you need to lie to get links, do it.’ I appreciated hearing the opposite viewpoint during the Q&A session. It struck a chord with me to hear you arguing that SEO should be a legitimate industry and that the long-term view is the better approach.”
So I did feel that the black hat material was a mismatch for much of the audience (inhouse SEOs and people doing their first search conference). At one point I felt like I’d stumbled back into 2003, when the search conferences had official panels about topics like cloaking. From that perspective, several panels of the conference felt like a step backwards. On the bright side, I think Nate Buggia from Microsoft re-worked a fair amount of his developer-day presentation on the second day to talk about all the lower-risk ways to improve your site architecture without cloaking. Again, I think the blacker tint of this conference was mostly unintentional, and my hope is that Danny will continue to tweak and tune SMX Advanced in the future.
I enjoyed talking to fellow Kentuckian Mike McDonald for a ten minute interview. We even got a chance to discuss the new Google favicon.
I did a 20-25 minute interview with Eric Enge. Eric is getting that transcribed now and I’ll add a link when he posts the interview.
I also did an interview with Brier Dudley for quite a while on the phone. Brier struck me as quite a sharp guy. The SEO industry can be a bit incomprehensible even for seasoned journalists who have done their homework. I may end up reading Brier as much as I read Mathew Ingram, which is a lot.
This wasn’t an interview, but I had a really good time talking to Colin Cochrane. Check out Colin’s site to see how he nearly yoinked the Google algorithm from me. Later on I managed to retrieve the algorithm and in its place I left some pocket lint and a blank piece of paper. Muhaha!