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December 11, 2007

Conference Recap: SES Chicago 2007

By Karl Ribas

Last week I attended the Search Engine Strategies conference here in Chicago (I'm local to the area... about 1.5 hours west of the city), and while my colleagues Brian and Li have already published a taste of what the conference had to offer (with their session notes and interviews), I figured now is as good of a time as any to jump right in and highlight my experience... a recap post if you will.

So the first question I'm sure you're all wondering is why did I choose to attend SES in the Windy City and not PubCon in Las Vegas? Was it because I felt SES was an overall better conference than PubCon or that it had a better line-up of speakers and events? Nope... I assure you that wasn't the case. In fact, I've never attended PubCon and so I could never intelligently compare the two. The truth is, as I mentioned above, Chicago is just an hour or so down the road from where I reside and as a general rule of thumb my team and I will always opt to attend a local show whenever we have a choice in the matter.

Just a side note before I begin my recap, I want to preface my post with the idea that I am coming at this from an industry veteran's point-of-view. I've been involved in search marketing now for over 4 years, and while that in itself may be a short amount of time, I've attended 8 conferences (7 of which were SES). I encourage you to keep that in mind as you continue to read.


Don Shultz's Opening Keynote
I've never seen nor heard of Don Shultz until his opening keynote on Monday evening. Don is a professor at Northwestern University, and had lots of great wisdom to share regarding the cultural differences that exist between search marketing and traditional marketing methods.

Seth Godin's Day 2 Keynote
SES lined up another great speaker in Seth Godin. Unlike Don Shultz, I've been a fan of Seth Godin for a long time and was extremely excited to hear that he was going to be apart of SES Chicago. Seth spoke about "Meatball Sundaes" - referencing his new book, which he gave a way for free.

The Orion Panel Concept
The Orion Panel was something new to SES, I believe anyway. It was certainly the first time I've come across it. Basically, the Orion panel included industry thought leaders who were given the task of discussing some of the more important topics that we marketers face today. A few of these topics included privacy, community in the digital age, and thoughts on universal search.

A Taste of New Speakers
Yes... having 2 industry conferences going head-to-head in the same week left the talent pool a little dry in some areas, but in a way I figured this was a good thing. SES featured several new speakers, all of whom shared different views on many of the topics typically discussed at SES. It was nice not to having to sit through the exact same slide-show presentation that we've all seen multiple times before.

Kevin Ryan
While I imagine that there will be a day when people begin to compare Kevin Ryan to Danny Sullivan in regards to who was / is the better SES spokesman (similar to how there is a forever ongoing debate as to who made the better James Bond - my pick is Sean Connery) - I personally felt that Kevin Ryan did an absolute superb job picking up where Danny left off. I especially enjoyed how he and Kevin Heisler tag-teamed the conversation during the Orion panels.


Lack of After-Hour Networking Events
Seriously... the night life was soooooo dead. I was back in my room before 10pm every night... and that was after spending 2+ hours at the hotel bar. In all fairness, I'm sure that there was a lot going on "behind the scenes", but a "D" lister like myself never seems to get an invite.

Boxed Lunches
Lunch is certainly not a selling point for whether or not one should attend a search marketing conference... I obviously understand this. However, after getting a taste of what lunch at these conferences could be like, it makes it very hard for me not to complain about my funky tuna sandwich, bag of chips, apple, and cookie lunch.

A Sub-Par Exhibit Hall
It would be very misleading if I told you that the exhibit hall really sucked, as I'm sure it provided some value to many of the conference attendees. However, looking at it from my current position in the industry, I found it to be a useless waste of time. There were no vendors that I absolutely had to see, or that even seemed in the least bit interesting to me. Again, this is my personal opinion on the matter. The sad part is I have no thoughts or advice for how the gang at SES could improve the quality of it.

A Taste of New Speakers
I know what you're all thinking... how is it that the new speakers are a "highlight" of the conference and at the same time something I'm complaining about. Well, it's quite simple really. With PubCon also going on this week, many of the "A-List" speakers (and industry folk) that I enjoy hearing from and hanging out with were nowhere to be found. Instead, I was left hearing from a bunch of people I've never heard of and found myself questioning their "expertise". That's certainly not a good thing when you've come to a conference to learn.

Lack of Advance Content
It may be that I was spoiled a bit when I attended SMX Advanced back in June, or it could just be that I read way too many damn industry blogs, but whatever the case is, I found SES Chicago to lack in advanced content. Where was that little "nugget" of information? Where was that one great take-away that I could take back to bossman and justify the expense for attending such a conference? For me... it just wasn't there.

FINAL COMMENTS (directed towards the SES Crew)

I have a few final thoughts that I'd like to address to the people directly responsible for putting on the SES conference. These are issues I've been questioning for some time now, and it's to the point where I am almost hesitant to include them in this recap. However, I feel that these issues need to be addressed or at least known. I welcome anyone to comment on them (especially those associated with SES).

While you would think a search engine conference like SES would appeal to veteran search marketers, I would argue that this is no longer the case. Instead, it is my belief that SES is a conference that is specifically tailored to the needs of in-house marketers and to the do-it-yourself folks. As I made mention above, there seems to be a serious lack in "advanced" topics and discussions. Those "nuggets", as I referred to earlier, are becoming farther and fewer apart with each SES conference I attend. With that said, my question to the Search Engine Strategies people is where does that leave industry veterans like myself? Where is the draw?

On another note, with all of the live blogging that is encouraged at these shows (bloggers are given a full conference press pass) I'm finding it very difficult to justify reasons for even attending the conference. Let's face it... anything worth mentioning at SES will ultimately be mentioned again and again afterwards via industry bloggers and analysts. In that regard, why should I (or my company for that matter) shell out 2K on a conference pass, travel expenses, and a hotel room just to attend SES when I am able to follow the entire conference as it unfolds in great detail from the comfort of my home and office? I mean I can literally get a line-for-line recap of what appears in each speaker's slide-show presentation as well as pictures and videos to boot. And all this, absolutely free! Where's the value in your conference?

While it is inevitable that someone sooner or later will chime in with the argument that "SES is a great networking environment", I feel compelled to address that idea right now. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that SES offers a valuable opportunity to connect with other search marketers and industry folks. However, in that same regard, so does Search Engine Land's Sphinn. The truth is, I don't need a conference pass in order to hang out at the hotel bar and bullshit with my industry buds... I just need the will, a vehicle, and a sober driver to get me home at the end of the night.


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Interestingly, I attended Pubcon, and wrote a similar, although more specific post. Mine was geared towards the poor moderators I've seen as of late, but I think the overall discussion is this: With live bloggers, Where is the justification for an experienced SEO to attend these events anymore? I'm having a tough time finding one.

Specifically to SES, I remember reading a comment someone wrote (sorry for not giving due credit; I don't remember where I saw it) that stated how the new Advisory Board is made up of people that probably haven't actually done SEO for quite some time. I think that's a painfully true statement.

For reference, here's my blog post on the topic: http://danperry.com/wordpress/keep-seo-conference-from-clipping-the-iceberg/

My feeling is that conferences will get more vertical sooner rather than later. There will always be a big show for beginners (and I think SES may be the owner of that demographic), but I think the SMX approach is probably the way to go. Smaller, more vertically focused 2-3 day conferences, rather than the 4 (or 5) day behemoth, where you don't remember anything from the first few days, and don't have time to implement 90% of the ideas you jotted down.

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