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Observations from SES San Jose

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SEMs from around the world descended upon San Jose this week for the Search Engine Strategies 2009 Conference & Expo.

SES San Jose, in its 11th year, featured 70 sessions and boasted a whopping 150 speakers discussing topics including PPC, keyword research, SEO, social media, local search, mobile search, link building, and video optimization. Additionally, the expo hosted more than 100 companies, featuring the latest and greatest in search products and tools.

In all my years of attendance, some things about SES never change. You see a lot of familiar faces, which speaks to the allure and staying power of the industry. The booths always showcase a few sponsors with business models that make you wonder if they'll survive the next year -- a sign of both the ingenuity and mutability of the field.

But at its heart, SES is a place where you can gain an outside perspective on everyday search challenges and see how the other half is handling things. Here are a few observations.

The Economy Had An Impact...Sort Of

We've all heard that budgets are being cut, business travel is down, and people won't shell out money for a conference. However, I saw no evidence of this in San Jose. In fact, Incisive Media Marketing VP Matt McGowan tweeted that there are "over 5k delegates - more paid delegates than @SESNewYork." The exhibition hall was packed with more sponsors than I'd anticipated.

Missing from the event this year were the over-the-top giveaways. Also, the lavish parties that used to be synonymous with search conferences (no Google Dance this year) were few and far between.

The world of search is getting more mature and continues to have tremendous importance. Despite the economic downturn, people came out to share and learn more about how to advance their businesses through search.

When you think about the commitment involved in coming to SES, it's easy to pass on the event in the interest of saving time and money. If you don't meet with people in the industry, however, it's tough to evolve. You can read all the SEO blogs and Web sites you want, but there's no substitute for meeting the industry's movers and shakers face-to-face.

Social Is No Fad

A lot of sessions this year talked about the use of social media and its impact on search. Social has graduated from just a way to generate links. It has become a channel that complements search just as display does. The difference is that social is searchable, so there are more points of intersection to examine.

Mike Volpe, VP of Inbound Marketing for HubSpot, may have said it best: "Make sure your content is not just link-worthy, but share-worthy." People are finally looking at social media as a way to get their messages shared rather than just an outlet to trolling for links. When your message is tweeted and shared, it shows up in "secondary search engines" like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Semantic and Real-Time Search

Bing's advancements have spurred deeper search conversations. People are discussing how the engines can better pull in real-time data. And it may soon be time for semantic search to really step to the forefront.

The rumblings about taking semantic search more seriously have grown louder, which is interesting in and of itself. By and large, I don't believe that most people are dissatisfied with the current results. The semantic search proponents I spoke with, however, see this as a big miss and feel people don't realize how much better search could be.

Semantic search, and the drill down to user intent, is fascinating. In the world of real-time search, tweets may be integrated into results, but the tradeoff is quality of information.

Determining relevancy of real-time data, particularly social media posts, is at best incredibly tricky. A massive amount of work needs to be done in semantic categorization and trending before we see any meaningful shifts in the engines.

Analytics, Funnels, Attribution, and Performance Models

In "What Can the Recession Teach Us," I talked about not changing your business model. This advice was validated at SES San Jose by an entire track dedicated to analytics attribution.

The sessions focused on asking marketers to put serious effort into fixing their analytics. As a digital industry, we must figure out how to push past last-click attribution. While this is difficult, the first step is correctly configuring your analytics package so that you can at least get a better sense of what search is delivering.

Conclusion

If anything, the sessions and discussion at SES San Jose this year illustrated an industry that has finally achieved maturity. The early concepts of "gaming" search engines were almost entirely absent, and in their place were sound marketing strategies and plans for improving the online experience.

SEM has really come into its own this year, and it speaks volumes that, even in an economic downturn, the industry continues to thrive and innovate.


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