Three days, 21 search-packed sessions, roughly 10 hours of sleep, and copious amounts of beer later… I’m back from another great SMX Sydney conference. The conference was – as always – a fantastic chance to catch up with old friends, meet some new ones, generally natter about search marketing, and gain some fantastic tips from some of the world’s top online marketing minds.
The conference itself isn’t cheap, and travelling down to Sydney always seems to end up costing more you think… but even though I’ve only recently launched Conversation Media, there was never any doubt in my mind that I would make the financial plunge to attend the conference; even if it meant I had to slum it a bit.

And I am really, really glad I did.

There’s one thing I want to make clear, before I dive into this recap: the highlight of SMX, for me, is always the people. While the knowledge passed along in the formal sessions is great, it’s the chance to solidify online relationships face to face, and generally just hang out with some damn good people that makes the conference for me.

As an example, this year I finally managed to catch up with one of my favourite Twitter folk, Todd Friesen from PositionTech (@oilman on Twitter) for the first time, after a year of generally shooting the breeze on Twitter and sharing a common love of music. Other folks included Greg Boser from Three Dog Media (@gregboser), who I’d managed to meet briefly last year, but managed to spend a bit more time with this year. And, even though we – mostly – live within a three hour flight of each other (some of us even within a 10 minute drive), it also gave me a chance to catch up with my #invisiblefriends (it’s a twitter thing… don’t judge) too. Although it sounds ridiculous – even to me – catching up with all those folk was worth the price of admission alone. Of course, it didn’t hurt that it just so happened to take place around a bunch of search marketing sessions.

With that said, here’s a brief (selected highlights) recap of what happened down at the 2010 SMX Sydney Conference.

Part One: In which our hero panics, the conference kicks off… and Chris Sherman looks at the current state of search

The first day kicked off with me locking myself out of my hotel room. Surely, an auspicious start to the conference. Following on from that brief moment of panic, I somehow managed to sprint my way to the Hilton hotel in Sydney in time to catch Chris Sherman’s opening keynote. Chris is the Executive Editor over at Searchengineland, and it was clear from the opening moments that he really is passionate about search. Chris took a look at the current state of search, and looked at where things site with four players: Google, Yahoo, Bing and Wolfram Alpha.

Chris Sherman keynotes at SMX Sydney 2010
Chris Sherman kicks off SMX Sydney 2010. Pic courtesy of @DDsD and Twitpic

A few points from Chris’s keynote:

  • He truly believes that we are, right now, witnessing seismic changes in search.
  • By now, it’s clear that Google have shifted from being laser-focussed on search, to being “everything to everyone”. In the end, we never learned if Chris saw that as a good move, or a bad one… and unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to ask him.
  • Chris pointed out that Yahoo no longer seem interested in the search itself, but rather what happens before and after a search is conducted. In a way, they’re returning to their “browse” roots.
  • When Chris moved on to Bing, he asked how many people in the audience had used it; I was completely shocked by the low number of hands that went up in the air. I mean, sure… Bing has less search share, but c’mon people, this was a search conference… almost every search marketer should surely be testing it out, at least? Regardless, he pointed towards Bing’s fantastic travel planner, and its price forecast technology (learn more about it here)… how long until this is rolled out to more verticals, such as retail? I wouldn’t bank on it taking too long…

After a look at Wolfram Alpha (which, while undeniably cool, still doesn’t fly to high on my radar of concerns right now), Chris moved on to look towards the future of search…

  • It’s undeniable that social is impacting search. Some statistics on usage: 1 billion+ users spend 2 billion minutes on social media per month. In terms of time share spent online, facebook is 16%, youtube is 9% and google is 5%.
  • Chris also brought up the recently released figures detailing the number of searches that take place on Twitter, and reminded us that this is still a largely untapped opportunity for the future.
  • Recent research released by Morgan Stanley shows that, sometime between 2013 and 2014, mobile internet usage will overtake desktop internet usage. Interestingly, Chris also pointed towards the Cisco research, that claims that by 2013, 70% of mobile data traffic will be consumed by video.
  • Chris sees a point coming where we actually see less advertising online. Even though that sounds counter intuitive, he firmly believes that as targeting becomes more advanced thanks to our social activities, ads will be refined more and more.

Finally, Chris concluded with a reality check… web search has consolidated to a few major players, and it’s likely to stay that way. The good news is that the competition between majors has also increased, which should drive innovation.

Part Two: In which we learn to build a bullet-proof link campaign, how to deal with duplicate content, and that neither Americans nor Canadians appreciate Vegemite.

Greg Boser’s session on “Building a bullet-proof link campaign” was a real highlight for me. 
As part of my work, I often rely heavily on the quality of the content itself to be enough to attract good quality, editorial links. As such, I’ve never delved too deeply into strategic link building. Greg’s presentation changed all that, by showing how he does a detailed analysis of competitors’ link profiles… as opposed to the usual “take a cursory look at your competitors backlinks and make assumptions” approach that I’ve seen so often.

Greg Boser presents at SMX Sydney 2010
Greg Boser presenting at SMX Sydney. Pic courtesy of Kalena

Greg’s advice was to analyse the top players in your space, and develop a link profile based on the average of that analysis. The goal? To build a link profile for your own site that replicates quality and quantity, BUT – before you ask why you would want to only replicate – the point with this is to stay within that norm. Greg’s point was that you don’t want your site to draw too much attention when you’re first going after those links.

When building a link profile of their competitors in a space, Greg said the things they will typically look at include factors like:

  • The average number of links a site has
  • The age of the linking sites
  • The PR of the linking sites
  • The average number of linking domains
  • The average age of the linking domains
  • The PR distribution of incoming links
  • The anchor text concentration

After his presentation, Greg tried Vegemite. As did Todd. Let’s just say that Americans and Canadians don’t seem to be able to grasp the finer points of Vegemite.

After Greg, Todd Friesen took to the mic to talk about duplicate content issues, and how to deal with them. Now, this is something I deal with fairly often in my work, but an old dog is never too old to learn new tricks.

Todd Friesen presenting at SMX Sydney 2010
Todd Friesen discussing duplicate content issues. Pic courtesy of Kalena

Todd kicked off by showing just how easy it is to run into duplicate content issues, especially when it comes to web server configuration conventions. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to advise people that allowing your website to resolve on both and (or even and is not exactly optimal, so the point can’t be emphasised enough. Pick one version of your site, people!

A common theme ran throughout Todd’s presentation: duplicate content is not that difficult to deal with, so there’s really no excuse for not dealing with it. With so many tools at our disposal, such as 301 redirects (redirecting all other versions of the page to the “real” version of the page, that you want displayed in the SERPs) and the “rel=canonical element” (a second choice behind 301 redirects, but in most cases far easier to implement), right through to setting preferred versions of your domains in Google Webmaster Tools… there’s a number of ways that you can – and should – deal with duplicate content.
Heck, as Todd said… even if you’re dealing with a site with faceted navigation – such as a large ecommerce site, where products can be found through multiple categories – the answer is simple: choose a default path that you want Googlebot to follow, and block the rest of the paths.

Incidentally, if you’re interested in learning more about duplicate content, check out Google’s Webmaster Tools “Duplicate Content” help page; it’s a great resource, and recaps a lot of what Todd talked about.

Part Three: In which we learn a very interesting tidbit of information from a Google representative.

Following a presentation from all-round nice guy, Danny Dover from SEOmoz, and one from Tribune SEO Director Brent D Payne, a very interesting comment was made during the Q&A session. Following some gentle prodding from Brent towards Greg Grothaus from Google on the question of cloaking, However, Brent succeeded in getting Greg to admit something which – I personally think – is a huge admission in the world of search.

According to Greg, as long as Google users are served the same results as Google, then you should be fine from Google’s point of view. I thought this was a huge statement. If this is indeed the case, what it means is that if you’re keeping an eye on your visitor’s refferer, just serve up the same content to users referred from Google as you would serve to googlebot… but every other source of traffic seems to be fair game. Just think of the link building implications! I’ll be awaiting further confirmation from Google on this.

Another interesting (albeit less controversial) point to come out of that Q&A is that webmasters should not be afraid of using that “recinclusion request” in the Webmaster Tools console. The fact is that – once you’ve been pinged with a penalty – even if you remove the offending elements from your site, it’s not enough to simply wait for Google to come back and see that you’ve cleaned up your act… in fact, it’s totally plausible that they may not pick up on it and remove the penalty until after you’ve submitted the reinclusion request.

Part Four: In which we wrap up the first day, consume far too many beers, and our hero finds himself having McDonald’s at 3am in the morning.

When the day wrapped up, a few of us headed down to the Marble Bar, and watched a ridiculously funky band called “The Suspects” tear it up. After some serious funking and jiving, I realised it was roughly 10pm, and I still hadn’t had anything to eat. I headed back to my hotel to get changed and every intention of picking up something to eat… when I promptly got a text message telling me to get back to the Marble Bar, as more attendees had rocked up. Heading back out at 11pm – with no dinner in my belly, and only the lunch and afternoon tea from the conference to sustain me – things rapidly went downhill, and after a very cool night hanging out and learning all about the finer points of viticulture with Todd, Greg, Barry, Darryl and “the irishman” Gavin Costello, the next thing I knew it was 3am, and I was eating a McDonald’s burger. Just another typical night at SMX.

Part Five: In which we deal with a pounding headache, wrap up the conference sessions, and pay tribute to the food.

SMX Morning 2 Keynote. Pic courtesy of Andrew Ballard.

Having an early morning meeting scheduled for 8am for my day job, I was ready and waiting (albeit with a slightly worse-for-wear look) for the morning keynote at 9am. Looking around the conference hall, there must have been a few sore heads that morning, as there were notably fewer people than there had been the previous day . Which was a shame, as I found the longtable keynote featuring Gillian Muessig from SEOmoz, Marty Weintraub from aimClear, Andrew Goodman, Chris Sherman and Alex Parsons from ninemsn very entertaining. There were some seriously smart cats up there, particularly Andrew who continually blows me away with his insight.

Following the morning keynote, I headed into the “Social Media Track”, where #invisiblefriend Cathie McGinn from Readingroom was presenting on “Building and Maintaining a Social Media Strategy”. The poor girl seemed slightly nervous, but she shouldn’t have been… Cathie had some great tips to give, although I think it might have been slightly basic for those already deep in social media.

Dennis Yu from Blitzlocal was up next, discussing “Facebook Ad Targeting for Social Marketers”. First off, no, I didn’t get a chance to ask Dennis what the deal with Shoemoney was, seeing as that seems to be what everyone is asking me. Moving on to more pertinent information, the takeaways from Dennis’s presentation were:

  • When it comes to Facebook ads, the most important element to test is the image.
  • The most powerful element of Facebook advertising is the ability to target friends of friends.
  • Forget about CPC on Facebook. When it comes to volume, bid on the CPM basis and not CPC, but make sure you monitor the CTR risk.
Marty Weintraub presenting at SMX Sydney 2010
Marty “If you’re not using Facebook advertising you should be fired” Weintraub. Pic courtesy of Kalena

Marty Weintraub was next, and he absolutely nailed us with 119 slides in 20 minutes (good thing he said he’d send off his slides to attendees!). One of my favourite quotes from the session? “If you’re not doing Facebook advertising you’re goddamn negligent, and should be fired! Facebook is half the internet!“. Leave it to Marty to tell it how it is. The main points I took from both Dennis and Marty’s presentations was that you can and should be very aggressive when it comes to Facebook advertising. I know that in the past I’ve taken a passive approach, but after that presentation I’m definitely going to be shaking things up.

After another fantastic lunch…

(actually, at this point I’m going to interrupt the narrative, because something needs to be acknowledged here. I’m not sure if it’s simply because I was travelling rough on this trip, and basically living on nothing but the food at the conference due to a tight budget… but in my opinion this year’s SMX had undoubtedly the best food EVER. Seriously. The chocolate pastries were heaven. The banana bread was delectable. And that chicken butter, on the second day? C’mon people, I know you all agree with me… it was insanely good!)

Ahem, where was I…

After another fantastic lunch, it was back to “Ballroom B” to listen to Todd presenting on “Marketer to Developer translation”. Although most of the session was common sense, it would have been a particularly helpful presentation to any inhouse search marketers. I know that, in my own capacity, it certainly inspired me to “renew” that relationship with our developers… after all, without them, we’d be nowhere.

Matt Burgess
During the Q&A with Todd, Greg and Lucas, I played “Q&A microphone holder”, where everyone played the hilarious game of “How far can we make Matt run between questions?”. Pic courtesy of Andrew Ballard

Lucas Ng from Fairfax Digital continued the inhouse stream, with a presentation dealing with “How to get more budget for Search Marketing”.

Again, this was common-sense stuff, but I think what both Todd and Lucas’s presentations exposed to us is that, as inhouse marketers, we sometimes take the easy way out. It’s easy to blame a lack of progress by pointing the finger at the IT dept getting things done, or at the “money people” not releasing the purse strings… but what Lucas and Todd drove home was the point that – instead of complaining about it – it’s far more productive to actually DO something about it. I really enjoyed this inhouse stream, and hope that Barry keeps it around… but looking around at the attendees, it seemed like the number of inhouse SEOs there had certainly dwindled this year, replaced more by agencies. Time will tell if the “inhouse” sessions stick around.

After that I sprinted off to the other stream to catch Greg Grothaus from Google presenting on real-time search and social networks. Greg’s a seriously nice guy, and as much as it’s fashionable to take pot shots at Google, he exemplifies a lot of what I love about this field. Even though he’s involved in search at the highest levels, he’s still like an excited kid when it comes to the new horizons in search; such as the effect social is having on exactly how we view search itself.
One thing that came out of the presentation is that – while there wasn’t an explicit endorsement – Greg certainly didn’t vehemently deny that links through Twitter may pass some ranking signals. Anecdotally, I can say that I’ve certainly seen some evidence on this from numerous social networks; in particular, through the nofollowed links on Facebook fan pages. Just something to consider…

The final session for the conference was the infamous “white lab coat” site clinic. To the dismay of many, no sites were “outted” this year… although let’s just say it looks like may have their link profile examined (see what I did there guys? Gave you another link from another unique domain to help you out, when that inevitable scrutiny comes… ain’t I just a nice guy?).

Part Six: In which we cruise the Sydney Harbour, imbibe more alcohol, and say goodbye to some new and old friends.

What other way is there to end off an SMX Sydney conference, than with a harbour cruise? Fantastic scenery, fantastic company, fantastic drinks… it was, well… fantastic. Rather than prattle on about how it was a great time, here’s a short pictorial recap of the event (I’ll update this as more picture surface, so be sure to check again later)…

The view on the walk to the SMX Harbour Cruise
Standing around the drinks table. Where else would you find @motherwell? Pic courtesy of Andrew Ballard.
Kalena from Searchenginecollege, Danny Dover from SEOmoz, and Pete from Sitemost.
View of Sydney Harbour Bridge from the cruise.
Kalena and conference host (and vineyard owner) Barry Smyth
View of the Sydney Opera House from the SMX Cruise. Pic courtesy of Andrew Ballard
After the cruise, we all piled off and headed into various waterholes around Sydney. Good times. Pic courtesy of Andrew Ballard.

… more to come…

And there you have it… a whirlwind recap of my 2010 SMX Sydney highlights. Of course, with two streams running throughout the conference, there are plenty of things that aren’t included in this recap… for example, I unfortunately missed out on Cindy Krum’s “Mobile SEO” presentations, although by all reports they were (as always) fantastic. I also missed Gillian’s presentation on “Checkout Process Optimisation”, which apparently was an eye-opening session.
There were, however, several people live-blogging the sessions, so if you’re after an alternative viewpoint, then I’d recommend heading over to Glenn’s writeup (caveat: that’s not an endorsement, as I don’t agree with all of Glenn’s comments; but it’s a nice alternative take) or Kalena’s.
If you know of any other coverage that you think should be included here, drop a comment and I’ll consider adding it to the post.

Congrats must be thrown out to Barry and Lisa, for pulling together yet another kickass conference.

All that’s left to say is: See you at SMX 2011!

Thanks to Andrew Ballard for letting me steal some images for this post.

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