SES Chicago 2008 Recap

“Launch, analyze, refine analysis techniques, adjust and repeat. Search marketing these days shines most brightly because of our ability to provide exact measurements and consistently greater ROI.”

These are the (paraphrased) words of the search marketers who presented at Search Engine Strategies in Chicago last week. An industry that not long ago was a pesky competitor to traditional mass media marketers has turned into a giant problem: search marketing and intelligent media placements are here to stay. The vote is in: people and advertisers love it (at least the people who tend to love these things).

As you can find at the blog here, here, here, here, and here, there was plenty of coverage of SES Chicago if you want to catch up. Several of the session recordings are also available to Search Engine Watch Members.

Monday was led off by a valuable keynote from Professor Lawrence Lessig, who provided insight on the potential of future copywriting laws. The entire presentation can be found at

The conference then kicked into gear with an agenda featuring a variety of topics ranging from search for beginners to deeper marketing topics for those more experienced.

I was fortunate to moderate a very insightful panel, “Measuring Success in a 2.0 World.” As I told some potentially disappointed attendees, this panel had little to do with measuring social media and other glittery Web 2.0 tactics, but rather something bigger in the order of advertising species: how analytics and measurement methodology have grown as a whole.

Later in the day, the “Why Does Search Get All the Credit” panel explored conversion attribution and the ability to track multiple online media touch points, from banner views and organic and paid searches to e-mail interactivity.

As I predicted in my preview, there was little in terms of organized chaos scheduled for the evenings. A few small parties occurred, including an elegant reception for speakers, which then became the SEMPO gathering on the second floor of the glittery and historic Chicago Hilton. Unfortunately, the famous Search Bash didn’t occur this year, although there was excellent blues music out on Halstead.

One difference for me during this conference than many in the past was the amount of client work I had to perform. It was actually invigorating reviewing data for analysis and inclusion within monthly traffic and conversion reports that I was working on.

Tuesday afternoon, I presented on the advanced linking panel. It was a bit unfortunate that much of the Q&A turned to paid linking, although we probably brought the questions upon ourselves by touching on the topic briefly during our presentations.

Eric Enge, who was the panel moderator, recently wrote a great column, “Buying Links is Hard Work.” As Enge advocated during the advanced panel, there are plenty of ways to get links “the right way.”

This was one of those “validating” moments that I often get at these conferences, knowing that what we’ve preached to clients is still accurate. Clearly, marketers are continuing to become more refined in their understanding of link “tending.” Using a variety of tactics to naturally improve your linking footprint will always win out in the long run, but some in competitive industries may find the need to carefully experiment with other tactics, as long as they understand the risk.

Wednesday and Thursday had more insightful panels, and over the course of the week I saw a few videos being shot, many interviews focusing on the increased buzz around measurement, and discussion on how we’re doing as an industry during the economic downturn. Overall, the vibe was very positive, with at least cautious optimism for 2009.

Jim Hedger speaks of “The Fear” at metamend. I tend to not worry as much about bad economic times (a little to my wife’s displeasure — perhaps my head is a bit in the sand). This helped me to even better focus on two values that are consistently delivered to me by this conference: the opportunity to listen to and chat with leaders of the industry; and the amazing education about ongoing evolution in analytics and conversion attribution. The search marketing community has always been close, as Matt McGowan reminds us in the comments of Hedger’s post, and this continues to this day.

Hedger alludes to one surprise that was only known to a few marketers: the potential fireworks that never happened. A particular champion of search engine guidelines (who had once derided the conference’s speakers) was in attendance as a speaker, and there was some feeling that shouting would erupt. Instead, as often happens at these types of civilized conferences, intelligent conversation and mutual (yet often begrudging) acceptance happened. If only politicians were so civil.

Speaking of politicians, I think many would agree with me about one disappointment at SES: an appearance by President-Elect Obama (woohoo, if I may add) never happened. Not even a quick run through the lobby!

Security was definitely present and rumors swirled that Secret Service were on the expo hall floor. This wasn’t obtrusive (unless big guys coming out of elevators every once in a while with mysterious gym bags concern you), but just a bummer we never saw him. I would’ve been a “hip” move by Obama to mention the conference or mingle at the speakers/SEMPO reception on Monday. Maybe next year.

I can’t wait to see how much analytics has grown between now and then. I wouldn’t be surprised to see further innovation in time for SES New York. One thing’s for sure: the search industry, and how we report our success, is growing at a pace near that of medicine itself. (Citation needed)

Frank Watson Fires Back

This was the first SES Chicago I’ve missed in the past three years. I’ve always enjoyed this conference as it is a little smaller and the attendees have more opportunity to connect. Also, the cold weather keeps many in house after the sessions.

Your mention of Hedger’s article was interesting — he is always an entertaining writer. Thanks for the link.

I also agree that the changes to analytics are moving quickly. The biggest leap I’ve noted this year is people who want to tie online marketing to offline conversion.

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