SMX Sydney 2011 Recap – A Journey in Three Parts
As usual, please note that the following is personal commentary and does not reflect that of my employer. Thanks 🙂
Cliff notes version: Wow. Barry and Co. have totally hit it out of the park with this new format for SMX Sydney. The inclusion of a third day (SMX Elite) devoted to the more advanced topics has cemented this as the conference for SEOs to attend in Australia. No doubt.
As always, the highlight of SMX is the chance to mingle with some of the top minds in the industry. People like Rob Kerry (Ayima), Rand Fishkin, Marty Weintraub, Danny Sullivan (Search Engine Land), Greg Boser (BlueGlass Interactive) and Dennis Goedebuure (eBay) were all available at the conference, and I’m constantly blown away by just how open these guys are to you picking their brains. And, regardless of the price, having face-to-face time with these guys is worth the price of admission alone.
So that’s the cliff notes version. Now, if you want the longer version with added beer, read on…
Part One: In which, already nursing a sore head, the conference kicks off.
First off, I need to send out a massive thanks to my new employer for sending me down to the conference this year. Their sponsorship not only enabled me to attend the conference, but even offered me the opportunity to fly down the night before the conference started to get settled. As such, on Wednesday I headed down with Nathan and Darryl from ireckon, and Greg Boser from Blueglass (who was in Brisbane visiting Darryl following the newly formed Blue Glass Australia partnership between Blueglass and ireckon) for a preconference function.
After we checked into the Sydney Hilton, it was straight out to a Sydney SEO meetup at the Admiral hotel. Many beers were had, the inevitable (and much anticipated) hug with Michael Motherwell hugged, and somehow I managed to win an SEOmoz t shirt. All in all, a successful night… and all this before the conference had officially started.
And so it came to pass that, after too few hours sleep, it was time to head down for the official start to the conference.
Danny Sullivan from Search Engine Land (who, incidentally, just celebrated 15 years of covering search marketing) was the Keynote speaker for Day 1, and – as always – got things off to a great start. Danny looked at the current state of search marketing as a whole, and amongst other things discussed:
- The fact that search is back. Despite all reports to the contrary, there is no doubt that our job is more important than ever.
- bing vs google
- The Panda/Farmer update
- The garbage that still manages to perform well in results
- The fact that Google still have a lot of work ahead of them. According to Danny, “Links are leaking.” The importance of backlinks is already becoming diminished (a point that was repeated several times throughout the conference).
- And the fact that all the search engines are desperately seeking new signals, such as social signals for quality etc.
Finally, Danny pointed out that search marketers should be proud (despite the somewhat less than salubrious picture of us that mass media is wont to paint) because we’re part of the search revolution. Without us, the engines can’t improve.
Following Danny, Rand Fishkin took to the stage to discuss the old chestnut of “White Hat vs. Black Hat”. Thankfully for us “live tweeters”, Rand uploaded his entire slidedeck to Slideshare, which I’ve embedded below.
With Rand jumping around the stage, it’s hard to miss the passion he has for the topic… he really, really doesn’t like spam clogging up the SERPs.
As the entire presentation is there for your viewing, I won’t rehash any of the points too much. I will pull out two points though:
- On Rand’s “Reason for White Hat #2: No long term risk”, I must point out that’s probably a bit debateable. What’s white hat one day might be deemed black hat another. The engines can be fickle that way.
- On Rand’s “Black Hat techniques made White #4”, about registering fake sport accounts (or Rand’s suggestion of “fan” accounts) in order to gain large followings: as a Sportsbet affiliate, I want to point out that this totally doesn’t work. Not at all. Nuh uh. So don’t try it, mkay? Because, quite frankly, I don’t need the competition 😉
Next up was Tiffany Oberoi from Google discussing Google Instant, and the impact on webmaster, users and technical challenges. The most important point I took from Tiffany’s presentation was one that I believe there is currently a lot of confusion around.
Tiffany pointed out that the impact to webmasters is minimal, as the suggested instant results are for the predicted query, not for the partial query.
I think this is important for webmasters to note, as there seems to be a lot of misinformation spreading that with the launch of instant, you would need to optimise for partial queries in order to take full advantage of the feature. Not so, according to Tiffany.
Other points from the presentation:
- The biggest change for webmasters is that you may see impression counts increase, as on average Google is now serving 5 – 7 times more SERPs than before.
- Impressions are counted when a user clicks somewhere in the SERPs, specifically chooses a result, or the SERP displays for 3 seconds or more.
Following Tiffany, Rob Kerry from Ayima was up to discuss working with link data. Rob’s presentation starting off with the oh-so-tweetable quote, “Stop +1’ing yourself, links are still king!” A few takeaways from Rob’s presentation:
- Spend one day a month studying your own link profile. Find out what is popular and attracting links, and create more.
- On discussing a few of the link intelligence sources such as Linkscape and Majestic SEO, Rob pointed out that there is no need to limit yourself to just one provider… influencefinder.com aggregates link data from multiple services.
- You can get a real picture of website target terms by grouping links by anchor text and sorting by number of class C IPs.
- Footprints for paid links are easier to find than you think: are the terms blogroll, sponsored, advertising near link? Is it a blog? Is there a “paid blog” disclaimer?
- English links on a non-english blog? Sure sign of paid links.
I’ve pulled out what, to me, was the most important comment of Rob’s presentation. Again, this was a sentiment that happened to be shared by many of the speakers this year:
It’s all about ratios. Anchor text, brand terms, non-commercial and commercial, noise. Manage the ratios of your links.
After another awesome lunch (seriously, the food at SMX Sydney is always tops), Dennis Goedebuure from eBay was up to discuss enterprise level SEO. This was a presentation that I was really interested in (especially considering my experiences at my previous employer), and Dennis in no way let us down. A few points from Dennis’s presentation:
- Some of the advantages of Enterprise SEO: strong brand, lots of data, lots of user generated content, and large technology platforms.
- Some of the challenges of Enterprise SEO: large teams, conflicting incentives, dead wood in the site, complex site.
- Cool URLs do not change. In fact, URLs never change. People change URLs. Keep this in mind and watch your dev team.
- On the point of expiring items and choosing which are worthy of redirects to keep alive, Dennis pointed out that a good way of establishing worth is to look at the number of unique referring domains. As a side note, when you have in the region of 10 million expiring URLs per day (as eBay does) this process of establishing which are worthy of keeping alive is an important one.
- Data is links. As an example, Dennis showed how many links they got out of a piece discussing the amount of iPads two sold. Apple doesn’t release those figures, but with the sheer amount of data that eBay has, they could put together a nice piece showing sales figures around the world.
After Dennis, Tiffany was back up to discuss “Big URL issues”.
- Why use shorter URLs? They are easier to look at, easier to share, more memorable, more appealing for clicks, and (if keywords are used) very descriptive of page.
- Put keywords in URL but don’t overdo it. Use word separators (dashes are best, underscores second best), and all lowercase URLs are best practise.
- It is possible to rewrite dynamic URLs as static URLs, but that doesn’t mean you should do it. In fact, Google don’t recommend it at all. If you want static URL, then create a static version of that page.
Just as a side note, during Q&A with Tiffany, the question of duplicate content across different ccTLDs was brought up again. This was answered two years ago at SMX (in fact, I was the one who asked the question and blogged about the reply here) by Greg Grothaus from Google, who replied that generally speaking dup content across different TLDs is not something you need to worry about.
Following Tiffany, the always kickass Greg Boser was up presenting on “What’s really important for technical SEO”.
I just want to point out at the beginning that during this presentation I found myself commenting… “Wow. Greg’s site reviews are just on a different level to what I’ve seen before”. And I stand by that comment.
Takeaways from Greg’s presentation:
- The very first step in any technical SEO initiative should always be focused on issues related to crawler access and efficiency. You want to make the most of that crawl, and check for any unexpected blocks.
- Check the header responses being returned… accurate status codes, accurate date stamps (if-modified-since). Look for proper file compression being used.
- Conduct a review of robots.txt, sitemaps & meta robot. Check for unintentional blocks, and accuracy in sitemaps, such as dates and priorities (as a side note, sitemaps were big this year from almost all speakers).
- Look through access logs, not just analytics. Find out what are bots fetching, and how often. Similarly, trawl through your error logs. You should consider building custom tools to log search bots separately so it’s easier to spot issues.
- Once the core crawl issues have been investigated, you can begin an examination of poor content performance. Google is no longer “page focussed”. The days of ranking based on page-level analysis are gone, and overall content is now more important than ever.
- Greg introduced us to the concept of CPR, or “content performance ratio”: what is ratio between total pages indexed and total pages generating organic traffic? Working on that ratio is really important.
- Generally speaking, Greg is not a fan of using robots.txt exclusions, he suggests rather use meta-robots noindex,follow directive. This is something I’d agree with in most cases… why restrict the flow of that link juice?
After a seriously packed first day, we headed off for the traditional SMX Harbour Cruise. As usual, the cruise was full of good times, good conversations, and good food. I actually met another ex-South African, Rory, who is now, like me, working for an STO (Tourism Tasmania) on the cruise. Small world. Considering we both need to work with the same systems under Tourism Australia, it was definitely a fortuitous meeting.
Following the cruise, the partying continued with a stint at Cargo Bar, after which a group of us headed up to Pie Face for the most delectable pies I have ever tasted, and then on to another watering hole. On the way, Leigh from SEM Samurai performed… well, I’ll let the video speak for itself…
Part Two: In which we succumb to a dreaded man flu, say some very-probably hurtful things about SMX Idol, and head into Quarantine.
Unfortunately, trying to keep up with people like Michael, Greg and Chris finally caught up with me, and by the next morning, my “slightly under the weather” feeling had morphed into “full on rotten” feeling. I wasn’t able to shake that for the rest of the conference, which was a shame.
It definitely left me in a difficult position where – quite frankly – most of the conversations I carried out over the next few days came through a haze of cotton wool. This is not the best thing to happen when you’re trying to get up the courage to chat to some of the most advanced thinkers in our field, but it is what it is. And, thankfully, the speakers who I did manage to corner quite admirably managed not to comment on the fact that I looked like a zombie for over 48 hours… nice blokes all round!
Anyway, despite feeling like death warmed up, I was one of only two guys involved in the previous night’s shenanigans (and, surprisingly enough, Leigh was the other) to arrive in time for Stefan Weitz (Director of Search at Bing) handle Day 2’s Keynote.
Stefan is really a hugely likeable guy, and great for Bing. A few takeaways from his keynote (which revolved a lot around social signals):
- Reputation is more than just followers. In order to make sense of reputation, you need to look at user’s attributes and actions.
- The concept of “like” farms (the new “link farms) is simply not worth your time. The scale needed to shift the needle would be huge, and Stefan showed a nifty graphic of “like farm” clumps to scare us off it.
- Stefan believes that the opportunity to infuse emotional connection into binary act of searching can only improve search.
- There is no *anonymous* ranking boost based on “likes” at this point. It only affects those with connections.
- Stefan says the engines definitely face challenges when it comes to likes as a signal of quality at this point. One challenge is that they don’t know the REASON for the like. Is it for a funny video featured on the page, the actual copy, the design, etc. Related, he feels that the really cool opportunities lie in marrying likes with specific expertise.
Next up was Marty Weintraub, presenting on “Deadeye video SEO & winning universal SERPs”.
Marty ran us through the findings of aimClear’s latest whitepaper on video SEO. You can download the full whitepaper here (in exchange for an email address), so I won’t rehash to many of the points here. Here are just a few of the takeaways then:
- Universal results have 41% higher CTR than plain text links.
- If you want a greater chance of breaking into universal SERPs with videos, go informational.
- http://youtube.com/testtube is a super cool resource for seeing what’s working on Youtube.
After Marty, Rand was up again to discuss social media for SEO & link building.
Again, Rand was kind enough to upload the entire presentation to Slideshare, so I’ve embedded that below.
I’ll let you go through that one yourself, but wanted to especially highlight Rand’s point of linking to Google SERPs (as a way of increasing branded search volume and increasing CTR on your listing) as a fascinating way of thinking outside of the box. Watch this space.
After an enjoyable presentation from Ciaran Norris (who thankfully told everyone to stop talking about social media as all media should be social), I headed in to hear Rob Kerry present on SEO for WordPress.
Some of the takeaways from Rob’s presentation:
- Yoast’s “Wordpress SEO” plugin got a nice shout out. I can say from personal experience that I love the thing too.
- WP-minify is a fantastic plugin for SEO, strips out whitespace, comments & unnecessary code. Personally, I use w3-cache plugin which I believe implements minify within its own settings, so I haven’t used this particular one, but it sounded great.
- Been blogging drunk and want to remove an indexed post after you’ve deleted it? Serve a 410 http status code on the deleted post’s URL via htaccess… generally Rob finds this works quicker than a usual 404.
- If you’re serious about the site you’re running wordpress on and are making money from it, don’t go for shared hosting… it’s simply not worth the risk.
After that, I stuck around to hear Paul Carff from Google discussing video search optimisation.
It was a great presentation, but by this stage I was seriously fading fast and feeling incredibly ill, so my notes were not so extensive from this one. However, major takeaways were to pay some serious attention to the new functionality within video xml sitemaps, and that Google is aware of the disconnect within hosting your videos on Youtube but wanting to get your own version to rank within the SERPs.
Following on from that, I headed in to hear “SMX Idol”, where three attendees were invited to give a three minute presentation to the audience on a subject of their choosing. The prize for the “winner” was a guaranteed speaking spot at SMX Melbourne. Now, perhaps this was the headache talking, and the winner seemed to be a nice enough dude personally, but I could not believe the winning presentation.
The dude presented on how to win more twitter and facebook followers, and basically advocated:
- mass following tools that determine if someone follows you back and automatically unfollows if not; and
- using fiverr.com in order to “get your content in front of 100s of thousands of my followers for just $5”.
The thing is, when it came time for the audience to vote on best preso, he had a serious majority. Maybe it’s just that most of my day job is now spent in the social media area, but even though the presentation was entertaining, I simply cannot believe/accept that the SMX audience is that naive. It was, quite frankly, ridiculous.
Sorry. There’s my old man rant over.
After the usual site clinic (which, despite presenting Mike with the perfect opportunity to make completely inappropriate comments thanks to a Brazilian bikini site being up for review, was fairly staid) the main part of the conference was over.
For those of us “Elite” ticket holders, however, there was still another 24 hours to go. Following the site clinic, we were bundled into buses, and transported to the Q Station in Manly, where – for the first time ever – attendees were allowed to attend the “international speaker dinner”. The dinner (which was full of scrumptious delights, by the way) gave us unprecedented access to some of the best minds in the business.
I was lucky enough to get some insight into the Asian online scene with a very entertaining Barry Lloyd, president of WebCertain Asia. Whereas most Australian online marketers are still getting to grips with the Asian market, Barry is an absolute fountain of knowledge. And considering how important the market is for local tourism needs, I had a great time soaking up Barry’s anecdotes.
Unfortunately, however, I was simply too ill to stay up for much longer past the dinner, and decided to head back to my room to rest up for day 3… SMX Elite.
Part 3: In which we dive into advanced sessions, ask the search engines to leave the room, and get the best of the best from the speakers.
This is going to be a short recap. Here’s the thing: Although we were only asked to sign a (hilarious) FriendDA* for the “Give it Up” sessions, I don’t feel comfortable writing about a lot of what was discussed during the Elite sessions just yet. Not because they were too far into the “grey” side of the “white/grey hat scale” (they weren’t) but I still need to play around with a lot of what was said before I offer my own thoughts out into the wider field.
So I’ll rather just give an indication of the day itself.
For a while now, Australian’s have been complaining about the lack of “advanced SEO training” at our local events. I can without hesitation say that Barry and all the speakers got it exactly right during these sessions.
The entire conference ticket would have been worth it if only for the sessions on the Elite Day, and the access provided to chat to the speakers afterwards.
Major Takeaways from the conference as a whole? (barring the final day)…
- You’d better hope your site offers something of value. “Perceived Quality” is no longer just something the search engines pay lip service to. With the amount of quality indicators that the engines can now draw from, you really want to be seen as a quality brand. Better yet, you want to be a quality brand.
- Exact match anchor text is no longer the holy grail of link building that it once was.
- Maximising crawl efficiency is more important than ever. Pay attention to the accuracy of your sitemaps, look to increase your CPR, etc
When next year rolls around, I’ll be first in line to get this access again. And next time, hopefully I won’t be feeling like I’m dying.
Once again, kudos to Barry and Lisa for pulling off Australia’s best Online Marketing conference.
Thanks to Andrew Ballard over at rebusiness.com.au for the use of several images throughout this post.
*Like an NDA, except less legal.