Ten Lessons From SES San Jose

I attended the Search Engine Strategies conference in San Jose last month, and found it to be a great educational experience. Apart from the in-session lessons, I came away with several insights that helped me come home with the information I was looking for at the event.

I’d like to share ten of those insights with you, so that you can benefit from my SES San Jose experience, and so you can have a productive time at the next SES conference. I’ll start with some specific answers I got at the show, and then outline some tips that helped me get those answers.

1. Link buying is an extremely hot topic.

We know it was the intended topic of at least 2 sessions at SES (one of them being the extremely entertaining “Is link buying evil?” panel), but I personally witnessed it come up in, and nearly overwhelm, several others, not to mention overhearing conversations at the Google Dance and in many conference center hallway chats.

Just for fun, let’s see how the terms “buying links” and “building links” fare in some web popularity barometers.

Google Fight: Link Building vs. Link Buying

Google Trends: Link Building vs. Link Buying

Technorati: Link Building vs. Link Buying
Buying articles = 2,092
Building articles = 2,347

Yes, it turns out that “buying links” kicks “building links” ass in GoogleFight and Google Trends, and the two come to nearly a dead heat in Technorati. These trend analyzers seem to reflect, at least at a superficial level, the same general sentiment expressed by many at SES: people want to be able to buy links without fear of penalty by the search engines. In reality, I think the issues run much deeper than this, which I began to explore in another article, The Paid Links Debate: Shades of Gray.

2. Who says you should only have 200 links per page?

This is something that has passed as wisdom since I’ve been following SEO, and it’s always made some sense to me. Indeed, when asked directly, representatives from Ask and Google seemed at first to agree. Their common response was effectively “gosh, if you’re designing pages with more than 200 links on them, you have to ask yourself whether you’re doing the user any favors.”

When reminded that user sitemaps often have more than 200 links, both vendors said, in effect, “yeah, well, that’s probably OK.” Both acknowledged that there’s no hard limit, but that with some notable exceptions, pages with lots and lots of links could start to look like spam. I take the usability comment to heart, and in general, will continue to advise my clients to try to design pages that users can easily understand and navigate, which will naturally tend to produce pages with fewer than a couple of hundred outbound links.

3. Local search is an amazing and nascent vertical space.

There are many “plain old web search” gurus out there, ranging from the dark side to the brightest of white hats, with an uncanny sense of how the search engines work. However, there are very few such wizards in the local search space. And yet, according to many, local search is perhaps the fastest growing of all the search verticals.

This means it’s very much a “wild west,” frontier type environment. There’s a lot of information out there, but it’s hard to know what’s good and what’s bad. It seems like there’s a ton of opportunity for the companies that have local products and services and can figure out how to optimize for local search.

At the same time, it seems like there’s a great opportunity for some smart, early movers in this space to carve out a niche among the first real wunderkinds of local search. By the way, one person that seems to really understand this stuff is Justin Sanger, founder of LocalLaunch. If I had to pick one “go to” guy to get my local search questions answered today, he’d be at the top of the list.

4. The best thing about attending the sessions is getting to ask questions.

Sure, you can be a hotshot and stand up during Q&A and try to ask a question that shows everyone else just how smart you are (pet peeve #1) or waste everyone’s time asking ill-formed questions that generate no real insights (pet peeve #2). But the real magic is in formulating good questions that can help advance your (and others’) knowledge of the field, and knowing how to get them answered.

This takes practice and preparation, to help you avoid wasting opportunities. Your question needs to be laser-focused so that you can get in, get your info, and get out in 5 minutes.

The practice part comes from seeing the kinds of questions that the Search Engine Guys are willing to answer, and those that you’re going to get a “pat answer” for: “Should I buy links?” is a great example of the latter. Most of the useful things I learned came from asking questions that the Search Engine Guys are willing to answer.

Regarding preparation, there are a few more tactics beyond formulating a good question. At the risk of giving up a hard-won secret, here’s the most important tip: attend each session with a goal to isolate one of the speakers after the session ends, and ask them a prepared question. Know your target in advance, and get seated strategically. This means sitting in the first few rows, and making a bee-line for your target as soon as the session officially ends.

If you’re in the first 3 or 4 positions in line, you have an excellent chance of getting your five minutes 1-on-1 with an expert. I guarantee that if you apply this tip, along with tip #5, you’ll easily be able to generate your own “10 things I learned at SES” next year.

5. The Google Dance is great for getting T-shirts … and for getting more answers

Well yeah, of course the T-shirts are great. But more importantly, you have 2 unmatched opportunities to go 1-on-1 with the source. The most important venue is the “Meet the Engineers” session, which is a mildly advertised activity that takes place upstairs in building 43. If you look closely, you can find signs leading you there.

Be careful – you can easily drop 2 hours or more in this room, even if you don’t ask a single question. Just eavesdropping on Googlers answering other questions is fascinating. At one point I looked around and spotted Matt Cutts and Adam Lasnik holding court in the room, along with at least 10-20 other engineers. The ratio of Googlers to questioners in that room is about as high as you’re ever likely to see. Once again, the rules of preparation and practice from item #4 above apply.

The second venue is the Product Demonstrations – another relatively low-profile activity at the Dance. I had to ask three different Googlers where the Product Demos were. Once located, I found most of the stands manned by engineers and surrounded by very small crowds. There were even some free-floating “generalists” wandering through the area to answer questions. One of them even gave me her e-mail address and promised to follow up on a question I’d posted online to a Google Group if I didn’t get a useful response!

6. You can get better answers if you ask the right people

Here’s another question I got answered after a session: Is the concept of “crawl budget” useful for figuring out how to structure your site? For example, should you employ tactics like excluding low-importance pages from being crawled by putting them in robots.txt, or minimizing page weight, in order to “spend your crawl budget more efficiently”?

For this question, I got a response from Eytan Seidman of Microsoft. He told me that MSNBot does not come to your site with a “bandwidth budget” in mind, but that it is useful to think of a page budget. This told me that page weight is not an essential factor in managing your crawl budget, but that tools like robots.txt and your sitemap file might be very useful in focusing the MSNBot crawler on the most important parts of your site.

I didn’t get a chance to ask this question of Google, Yahoo! or Ask, but a colleague tells me that Google has answered this question the same way.

By the way, I chose the Microsoft representative strategically for this question. For the very popular “Meet the Crawlers” session, despite my best efforts to get to the stage, the Google and Yahoo Guys were too mobbed in seconds after the session ended. But there was the poor (almost lonely looking!) Microsoft rep, who had quite impressed me with his answers during the session, sitting there checking his voice-mail. I swooped in and got about 5 solid minutes of very useful discussion with him!

7. You can get more than just general questions answered

If you’re lucky and persistent, you might just get help from the search engines with your specific site problems. Another key goal I had for the conference was getting some help with a site that has done well in Google, but poorly in Yahoo, despite a huge concerted effort to figure out what’s holding it back. We’ve checked everything we can think of on this site, and are baffled as to why Yahoo apparently thinks so much less of it than Google and Microsoft.

After one session, using the tactics I described earlier, I approached a Yahoo engineering manager with a very simple question. I asked him “If you were in my shoes, how would you go about debugging this problem?” We had a very productive exchange, in which I was able to convince him that I had ruled out all of the routine causes that he suggested, and he gradually became intrigued with the problem (bonus tip: presenting a baffling situation is the fastest way to an engineer’s heart).

He ended up asking me for a business card and the name of my site, and took great care to also type this information into his PDA so that he wouldn’t forget about it! I’m not sure what will come of it, but I am certain that there are very few other opportunities for me to get my case in front of a Yahoo engineering manager, and get him to take an active interest.

8. Choose the sessions you attend by the speakers, as well as the content

Rob Kerry and Rob Snell are two very smart and very funny guys. I showed up for the very last “Site Clinic” session of the show on Thursday at 12:30 without much enthusiasm, only to be delighted by these guys’ combination of wit and wisdom.

I have no idea whether they’ve worked together before or not, but they sure made a great team. Their styles were different enough to be very complementary, they established great rapport between themselves and with the audience, and they were an absolute riot.

On top of all that, they dispensed some very useful advice, in a rapid-fire yet digestible manner. I’m reminded again that dispensing knowledge with a sense of humor is a gift to be treasured. You could do a lot worse than having these guys take a look at your site.

9. Don’t take the common wisdom as gospel

If you perform regular maintenance on your server, you should know that nothing will stop googlebot from coming by and trying to crawl your site during your outage window. It turns out that there’s a very specific way that you should deal with this.

Most people with planned outages want to serve up a user-friendly error telling their users to “come back in 30 minutes” or something like that. Redirecting users to a temporary server, and serving up an HTTP 404 error, with a custom error page, is a very common way to handle this.

Unfortunately, it’s the wrong way. When Google gets a 404 error, it (correctly) interprets this as a message from the web server saying “this page does not exist.” As you can imagine, telling that to Google doesn’t necessarily cause good things to happen. Google will apparently not give up after a single 404 message, but tell it to go away a few times, and it will eventually listen to you!

What you should do instead is serve an HTTP 503 error, along with a custom message. A 503 error tells Googlebot (or any user agent – other robots, web browsers, etc.) that the web service is temporarily unavailable. Turns out that the “temporary” part is the operative phrase here. Since the outage is temporary, Googlebot will plan to come back at a future time to try again.

By the way, the Google engineers I spoke with were intrigued by the idea of providing more tools that would allow you to tell Google about your crawling preferences, including things like planned outages, so that googlebot could deal with them automatically. Who knows, maybe we’ll have a Google Webmaster Tools feature that deals with this more transparently sometime in the future?

10. Take some time to explore your surroundings

Here’s an important tip for anyone planning to attend SES San Jose next year: the Marriott has a Peet’s Coffee & Tea on the first floor! If you’re a coffee aficionado but you’re not from California (or Newton, MA), you may not know about Peet’s. And I may have already done you a grave disservice, because if you like good espresso drinks, you will want to try Peet’s. And if you try Peet’s, you will realize just how unfortunate you are if you do not have easy access to a Peet’s near your home or office.

Yes, there’s a place for Starbucks when you’re in a hurry, and predictable, familiar mediocrity trumps all other factors. But if you have the time and inclination to experience a wonderful caffe latte or cappuccino, Peet’s really can’t be beat. Let me put it this way, proximity to a Peet’s would be way high on any relocation decision for me. So make sure you check Peet’s out at the next SES in San Jose. (And they do ship nationally).

John Biundo is Chief Search Analyst of Stone Temple Consulting, an SEO consultancy with offices in Boston and California.

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