Search Engine Strategies 2003 Conference Report
As part of my job as CTO of Interland Corporation (a web hosting company), I need to help provide vision on products and services for the "mass market" of small businesses. I've also been working on driving the SMBmeta Initiative as part of that job. (See "About the SMBmeta Initiative" to learn more about that open, distributed way for small and medium-sized businesses to communicate information such as the physical location of the business and the area it serves, as well at the type of business, to search engines and other services.) Some of the most influential people to whom I need to introduce the idea of SMBmeta were going to be in Boston for a conference, so I figured that attending would be a good thing for many reasons (it was). This is a report from attending part of that conference.

After attending part of Jupitermedia's Search Engine Strategies 2003 conference, I realized that there is much going on in the Search Engine Marketing world that others would find of interest. This is a changing field and becoming very important to businesses and Internet users of all kinds. I'll try to put together here what I learned after attending hours of sessions, hours of private discussions, and hours reading printed handout material.

While this is a Jupitermedia conference, the important thing to many people is that it is "moderated" by Danny Sullivan. Danny currently lives in England, so most people don't get to see him much. What makes him so important, besides running this conference, is that he has for many years run the SearchEngineWatch web site. For paying members (of which I've been for the last year -- it's only $89 a year) he sends out a frequent email newsletter which covers the latest in anything to do with search engines, but the free content has much helpful information, too. He is able to bring together a great group of people in the industry. The reportedly 1,300 attendees included search engine marketing professionals, both independents and those working within "normal" companies that use the Internet in their business, and business people trying to learn how to use search engine marketing to help their business.

Danny Sullivan up close and at the podium
The growth of Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Marketing
More and more regular people are using the Internet for many purposes in their lives, with the majority of the US population online with some reasonable frequency. In addition to email, most use the Web. According to a Pew Internet Project report ("Counting on the Internet") after asking questions about specific topics (emphasis added):

Internet users are very likely to say that they expect the Web to be a source of information on health care, government agencies, news, and shopping. About 80% of Internet users say they expect the Web to have information in these topic areas. These high expectations are driven by experience. Of Internet users who have sought information from the Web on these topics, about three-fourths have had positive experiences in finding what they need. For many of these Internet users, the Net is the first place to which they will turn next time they need information about a government service or health care...

...Web sites that help deliver on expectations...have become, for many Internet users, trusted online sources and tools. "Google" was a word that would have elicited, at best, a raised eyebrow among Americans a few years ago. Today, the popular search engine is, according to comScore Media Metrix, the fourth rated Internet property (in terms of unique visitors)...

So: Internet search works for finding information, therefore many, many people use it. Internet commerce works, so money is involved. Together this makes Internet search very important to many people.

Why does Internet search work from the user's viewpoint? According to a keynote by Paul Ryan, CTO of Overture (which just bought two search engine companies), it is because the search engines strive to make sure that results are both relevant to what is being looked for, and complete. One of his slides: "The Truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: Recall -- the whole truth, Precision -- nothing but the truth." The search engines technologies are always trying to find a balance that gets as much recall (completeness) without sacrificing  precision (relevance).

Getting an index that is complete and can produce relevant results is tough. Fast algorithms used by banks of computers for spidering the web may miss pages that use browser-accessible technologies that are hard to quickly index. For example, how do you quickly index the words on scanned images of historic documents? Most search engines can't follow such common navigation tools as "Go" buttons and drop downs. Most ignore URLs after the "?" so can't get to the "active" content of may content management or catalog systems. Being too aggressive in accepting terms could lead to many irrelevant results. Finally, part of making users happy is sorting the results in a way that is perceived as most relevant.

Search engines also work from the business' viewpoint. As Stephanie Olsen wrote for News.com in her report from the conference:

Christina Crawford, Internet marketing manager for American Express Incentive Services, said her company allotted a "significantly larger" budget to search engine advertising in 2003 after being surprised about the effect of a campaign on Overture and Google over the holiday season.

She said that search engine marketing drove about 40 percent of the calls to buy American Express gift checks in one month, versus a wide-scale direct mail campaign that drove the rest. The cost of the Internet campaign was about $600, compared with tens of thousands spent on direct mail, Crawford said.

The search engines have very complex yet mechanistic ways of determining what to index and how to include and rank it in query results. Web site owners often try to "game" these systems with spam, so the search engines have many "traps" to prevent such gaming which would lead to unhappy users. (You wouldn't want a series of porn sites as the result of searching for the popular query "hilton head condo".) These trapping techniques are constantly evolving as part of an elaborate cat-and-mouse game.

Unfortunately, the spam traps and spidering technology limitations lead to many web sites being inappropriately left off or under-ranked. This makes the web site owners unhappy and the search engines and their users unhappy. A new specialty arose in creating a web site: making sure that you do the things you are supposed to and don't do the things that you aren't. This area (which I'll discuss more below) is Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

Another thing happened in the last year or so: The rising importance of paid placement. With the "death of banner ads", which used to be the dominant way to pay to get people to visit a web site, and the success of Overture (and now Google AdWords and others), paid placement within search engine results has become very important. Such placement can be within the search listings themselves, or nearby in a special area on the same page. Paying for just showing the listing has in many ways been replace by the more popular paying per click-through, with both fixed and auction-bidding pricing. In addition, there is another thing you can pay for: Pay to be considered for inclusion in the search index. Since some pages aren't found by the search engine spiders, or take a long time to be found, some search engines let a business pay to have the spiders index the content of a page (or an XML version of the contents that they can read).

The combination of making a web site "search engine friendly" and using these new paid search engine options is leading to the field of Search Engine Marketing (SEM).

Some of the things I learned:

"Organic" listings (the type you normally get in a search engine because they found you somehow and list you as relevant because others link to you, or because your wording is good, etc.) are very important. They are relatively cheap (they should really "just happen" without paying anything extra) and can lead to great traffic to a web site (it sure works for this web site!). Unfortunately, it can take months for a web page or site to reach its prime with its organic listings. It often takes weeks after changes for the search engines to note the changes, it may then take months for others to find your page, link to it, and then have that link used by the search engine relevance algorithms to raise your rank. Therefore, using paid listings (and paid inclusion) is important if you have time sensitive issues (e.g., a special sale, or something tied to current events) or are new. In a crowded topic, sometimes the best business model may be to pay to be considered relevant with special placement. For unusual search terms, organic listings may be just as (or more) effective, though.
Understanding and choosing keywords and phrases are very important, both for getting organic listings and for making effective use of paid listings.
Normal, good business thinking is back. Much of the talk was about ROI (return on investment), and measurement of profits resulting from various techniques. Paying per click and other Internet-enabled techniques make doing such "Marketing 101" analysis possible and desirable.
"Channel conflict" such as when a reseller buys the limited paid placement for trademarked terms, or uses what looks like the URL of the producer company, is happening. Here is yet more stuff for the lawyers to deal with in writing reseller agreements.
Weblogs are not well understood by most of the SEM community, just as SEO is often ignored by bloggers. (Some couldn't get over the idea that a weblog would have a <title> tag like "Starting March 3, 2003" that would hurt your archive pages in a search engine listing. Listing some of the subjects mentioned would do wonders for rank.) However, PR professionals like Greg Jarboe (whom I ran into at the conference and was head of PR for Ziff-Davis for many years) are in the SEO business, and from my discussions with him it was clear that people like him do understand the value of weblogs, so we'll see interesting combinations.

The SEO job
It is interesting to understand the job of being an SEO professional (and why it can require full-time effort).

The search engines are like a hellish, unforgiving software program compiler. One mistake and your page is rejected but you may not know for weeks and then it may take weeks to correct. One mistake with your web site and you will get a low ranking in the search results without knowing you really do deserve higher. Learn a search engine company's wily ways, and the next day it's changed out from under you without warning. (Hence the need to subscribe to things like Danny's publication and do lots of experimentation and networking...)

This is just the opposite of the browsers, which are usually very forgiving of variations and "mistakes" in HTML coding and which lend themselves to quick testing. This is unlike compilers that give (hopefully) helpful error and warning messages. The techie "coders" and graphic designers who make most web sites aren't used to such thinking.

Being an SEO person is part writer, part editor, part technical quality assurance, part debugging. It is like being an editor for an ever-changing technical language. Something as literary as rewriting all the <title> tags on a web site can have as much effect as recoding HTML for easier spider access. (Those <title> tags carry great weight with many search engines.) Something as simple as an Apache rewrite rule can bring a dynamic web site into listings.

A balance at the conference between men and women was evident, especially compared to most techie conferences I attend (which have few female engineers). Also, there seemed to be a wide variety of backgrounds.

Who's a good guy? Are there bad guys?
A hot "insider" topic was about the types of SEO techniques. It is important to understand the difference among these types and know who uses them when hiring someone to do SEO. Obviously, there is a lot of emotion here because the general public doesn't distinguish among them. (Some people are worried about effects that remind me of the pollution of the old term "hacker" which used to not have the connotations of illegality it often has today.)

There are those SEO techniques that just try to help you follow the search engine rules and not mess up. The search engine companies and users like folks that use these techniques. They help everything work. They are like copy editors that clean up typos and awkwardness in written material. (With writing, almost everybody can benefit from editing.) I'll call this "By the Book SEO" techniques.

There are what I'll call "Expert SEO" techniques. These are ones that are "officially" frowned upon by search engine companies because they are often used to try to get inappropriate placement, but that are used in this case for getting around technical limitations of the spiders. An example would be showing a text page to the search engine instead of an animation in order to have it properly index the page. The intent is to have the results be what the searcher would expect if they didn't know the technical limitations of the spiders. The "danger" here (hence, the need for use in the hands of an "expert") is that if done wrong the search engine will treat you as spam.

The next set of techniques are ones that try to get your pages ranked higher than one would expect. These "Gaming SEO" techniques include using web sites whose sole purpose is to create the appearance of link popularity, or feeding extra text to the search engines with important keywords showing up more than would be natural.

The final set of techniques, which I'll call "Lying SEO" (not that I have any bias here...), is used to get pages to show up in searches for which they would not be considered in any way relevant just to get more traffic. An example would be buying up the expiring domain names of organically listed web sites and replacing them with porn when viewed with a browser but not by the search engines.

Have a trade organization?
One of the after-hours events was a kickoff meeting for the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization. Many of the SEO/SEM people see a need to band together.

One of the issues discussed was educating the public about the different types of SEO techniques. There was angst about the article that appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal on January 26, 2003, titled "Web Sites Try Everything To Climb Google Rankings". That article related the story of the owner of an e-commerce web site that used Gaming SEO techniques but then got caught by Google and had their ranking plummet. The article lumped all SEO practitioners into the term "optimizers", which really worried those SEOs that don't use such techniques. The article showed little awareness that there were other ways and reasons for getting search engine optimization help. Hence the need for an organization to help spread the word of what the industry is really like.

Another issue was getting regular companies to see search engine marketing as legitimate and perhaps part of advertising. As one person pointed out at another session, a $5 million budget for a public relations campaign is considered a huge marketing expense, while $5 million for a national advertising campaign is not. When normal business people see the value of SEM, perhaps they'll budget appropriately and then practitioner rates can rise appropriately... (This reminds me how the lowly graphic artist suddenly became a highly sought after hire when the web first became really popular. Now editors and testers can get the same bump as their skills -- with a bit of new training -- become in demand.)

As a veteran of trade organizations over the years (e.g., I'm a founding trustee of the Massachusetts Software and Internet Council, and I was on the board of the Software Publishers Association), it was fun to watch a new organization struggle with issues of membership and mission. The person spearheading this is Barbara Coll of Webmama, an SEO serving companies like Netflix and Intuit.

The first Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization meeting, Barbara Coll leading a subgroup afterwards to work on next steps
-Dan Bricklin, 6 March 2003

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