If you were in the standing-room only crowd for the SEMpdx SearchFest 2010 keynote on March 9, I don’t have to tell you it started off with a bang. And a Bing. If you weren’t there, put it on your docket for next year. Now. In its fifth year, Portland’s SearchFest was all grown up.

Expanded to include three simultaneous tracks, “rock star” search marketers from around the country, and a spiffier venue (the classic Governor Hotel), SearchFest was an impressive event. The content was top-notch and the day was well-organized. But what really struck me was the diversity of the crowd. Many of the attendees were not SEO pros (or planning to be). This was a clear indication SearchFest had expanded beyond a wonky SEO shop talk event into a conference any marketer can learn from.

I think a pivotal part of that expansion happened because SearchFest added a social media track this year and split search marketing tracks into SEO and PPC. In fact, it was interesting that at a conference dedicated to search, the social media track was scheduled in the largest ballroom. This was a reflection, no doubt, of the gold rush social media represents to search marketers and traditional marketers alike.

Of course, having multiple tracks to choose from just confounded me because I always want to see everything. I had to settle for running up and down the stairs to catch a few gems in each category.

Bing Gropes at the Future
Keynote speaker, Stefan Weitz, Director at Bing Search, surprised me. I expected a state-of-the-industry talk with a lot of spin about what makes Bing better. We got that. With a Caprica twist. (I hope you’re watching that show on Hulu.)

Weitz talked a lot about where technology and communications in general are headed, with an emphasis on whiz-bang features yet to come. He seemed especially smitten with augmented reality and geo-local stuff. I have to confess, his enthusiasm was contagious, even if he didn’t always draw a straight line to show how those things would intersect with search. For example, he talked about how the next generation of mapping (helped along by geo-local apps and user-generated video uploads) may include images inside of buildings as well as outside (what we’re used to with maps by that other big search engine).

While Weitz was talking about this, I was just thinking about that guy who got caught having an affair because his car was parked in front of his mistress’ house on Google maps. Urban legend or not, will that guy have to worry about personal photos appearing on a Bing “map” inside a restaurant, too? It seems there may be no rest for the wicked in the brave new Big Brother… er… ah… Bing world.

No vision of search would be complete without a discussion of the semantic Web, and Weitz touched on that, too. “This is the year of the semantic Web,” he stated. Then added a caveat: “But semantic is the most overused and misunderstood word.” He said Bing aims to understand what human beings are asking for instead of making humans understand how to work with search engines. He also noted that Bing would “broker” across several sources to present people with what they want.

Throwing down the gauntlet for best analogy of the day, Weitz compared the text Web to acid washed jeans. “It worked, but it’s not that great anymore. No question it will remain a huge force, but we have an opportunity to think differently about the Web and that forces us as marketers into a whole new business of optimization. All these things will change the way we think about optimizing a page for a client or building a site.”

“Prepare yourself,” he added. “Think of search as a groper of a collection of objects, and an attempt to re-associate all those disconnected items in the Web back together.”

And you thought I was kidding about the groping.

Attention SEOs: Let Copywriters do Their Thing
The first session of the day in the SEO track was “Content.” Stoney DeGeyter of Pole Position Marketing in Canton, Ohio and  Heather Lloyd-Martin of SuccessWorks in Portland presented their ideas about what makes for good website copy. I have to confess, ten minutes into this preso I thought it should have been titled “Content: For Newbies.” But I feel that way at some point in every conference I attend. They should all offer beginning and advanced tracks, but don’t get me started on that!

DeGeyter emphasized how SEOs and writers can work together. “You don’t want SEOs writing content,” he said. “Not to say they shouldn’t be involved. They should be doing keyword research and guiding writers, but let writers do their magic and work in keywords where it makes sense.”

“Ignore old-school nonsense,” he added. “Don’t worry about keyword density. We’re not counting keywords. Just write for your audience. You need to make sure you’re not just moving keywords around for search engines. Visitors come first.”

DeGeyter stressed the importance of understanding the conversion process when writing for the Web. “Every page should lead your visitor to the next course of action. What do you want someone to do with this information? What’s their next step? Put that in the content. Give them the call to action they need.”

Lloyd-Martin was on the same page, reiterating many of the same points and digging into the process of how writers can figure out everything they need to know about their target audiences, principally (though not solely) through keyword research.

She offered a handy list of things to plan for when writing for the Web:

  1. WHO does the writing? New SEO copywriters need training.
  2. WHAT pages need to be rewritten? Create an editorial calendar.
  3. WHERE does the budget and time come from? Good writing costs time and money.
  4. WHY don’t you look at other opportunities for optimization? Consider Twitter, blogs, etc.
  5. WHEN are you uploading new pages and making changes? Set deadlines.
  6. HOW will you know if it works? Leverage conversion testing.

Facebook: “People are there to have a good time.”
The Facebook panel in the social media track featured tips and tricks from Will Scott of Search Influence in New Orleans and a great case study on Facebook fan page growth from Ilana Rabinowitz of Lion Brand Yarn based out of New Jersey.

Scott talked about ways to build your fan base on Facebook. He recommended getting your employees to suggest the page to all their friends: “Get your team involved. Buy their love if you have to.” He does this via internal contests. He also advised to “reach out to your current fans by any means necessary– email, blog, etc.”

“Facebook ads are the bomb!” he enthused. “They have a lower cost-per-click than traditional pay-per-click advertising.” He stressed that Facebook is immediate, measurable, and it amplifies other media. “We’ve found a very high amount of traffic to our site comes from Facebook, while some of the traffic from other referring sites has gone down.”

Scott’s presentation was chock-a-block full of great ideas – too many to detail here. Perhaps the most interesting was this claim: “From an SEO plus social perspective, Facebook is the killer app.”

Rabinowitz talked about how Lion Brand Yarn went from zero to 100k+ followers on Facebook and how they manage their internal resources to engage with fans. “I’m a big advocate of testing dayparts in almost anything,” she said. “There are a number of tools that allow you to automate posting. Test this over a three-week period over different times of day and different days of the week. Historically, we know with email campaigns you want to send something out at 10:00 am on Tuesday, but Facebook activity often happens after hours. If you can engage people after their kids are settled in, you might be able to get their attention.”

A great anecdotal gem from Rabinowitz (that I agree with): “We noticed our Facebook fans hate Twitter, but Twitter fans don’t mind Facebook.”

PPC for Social Media: Unprecedented Opportunities for Highly Targeted Campaigns
Luther Lowe of Yelp in San Francisco 
and aimClear founder and President Marty Weintraub provided very different perspectives on pay-per-click advertising in the PPC track. Lowe gave a big picture overview of what Yelp is and how it came to be, just touching briefly on its ad products, which aren’t exactly ads. They are actually “sponsored results”- listings that appear at the top of a list after a query. Kind of like Google Adwords meets Citysearch.

Lowe’s key points:
1. Yelp is transactional social media – nobody searches for a plumber just for fun.

2. Most successful businesses on Yelp focus on providing great customer service, not soliciting reviews. The word of mouth will take care of itself.

3. You can figure out how it all works by using Yelp’s free business tools.

An interesting note: apparently Yelp users won’t see all reviews for every business because of Yelp’s review algorithm, which can be perplexing to businesses. “It’s our heart as well as our Achilles heel,” Lowe explained. “The algorithm drives businesses crazy, but we accept that. It turns out consumers want filtering.”

Marty (seems silly to call him by his last name) gave us a high-speed, granular analysis of the opportunities with Facebook advertising. His rapid-fire, off-the-hook presentation style had the usual effect: people talked about it all day.

What I tweeted in the moment pretty much sums it up:

Tools & Competitive Intelligence – spying made easy
The panel on competitive intelligence in the social media track included Neil Patel of ACS in Seattle, Jordan Kasteler of Search and Social in Salt Lake City, and
 Brian Carter of Fuel Interactive in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Here are a few of the highlights.

Carter:

  • Online data can be overwhelming, so the best way to start is with questions. What do you need to know?
  • Watch for slip-ups by employees of competitors (on social media sites) that may reveal tactics or limitations.
  • Don’t spend too much time focusing on competitors– that just makes you a follower. Pay more attention to customers.

Patel:

  • Instead of paying for research, you can find out what people want on Twitter.
  • Google trends can help you determine what you should be going after if you want to leverage the social web– but you must act quickly because trends change fast.
  • Tweetmeme can help you figure out what’s going to be popular before it actually happens.

Kasteler:

  • Ways to monitor include: buzz/trends, blogs/RSS feeds, email alerts, social conversation, forums/message boards, and social sharing.
  • If you need to monitor tens of thousands of mentions a day on the cheap, take a sample of comments, figure out what words are most common and create a variety of standard queries.

Some of the juiciest tidbits came during the Q&A when the panelists starting discussing how to build fans on Facebook. I think these tips fall under the grey hat category, so I’ll skip attributions:

  • Facebook Blaster Pro will help you collect IDs of people.
  • You can pay someone to create a tool that will spider a competitor’s fan page, then you can create multiple accounts to connect with those people.
  • Create a fan page with your name on it so all your friends will connect there, then change the page to something else later.

Big Take-aways from Searchfest
Marketers from other disciplines have finally decided that they can learn a few things from search marketers, particularly as it relates to playing in social media spaces. PR pros, web designers, eCommerce specialists, channel marketers and more showed up to get insights from those on the front lines of driving Web site traffic and conversions.

Now is the time to master the ever-changing intricacies of Facebook. That includes B2B marketers! Multiple panels examined this dynamic concept: Facebook offers unprecedented opportunities to create the most targeted ad campaigns ever and it’s a great place to build community as well. I would have liked a little discussion of the dark side of Facebook, i.e., their crappy customer service, the fact that fan pages can disappear without warning, and most importantly, you never own your content on Facebook. But it’s the nature of conferences to present the giddy upside.

For real-time comments about SearchFest on Twitter, you can read (and download) the archive I created at Twapperkeeper.com/SearchFest.

To see SearchFest 2010 in pictures, check out Matt McGee’s photostream on Flickr.

Creative Commons License credit: Matt McGee
  • Ben Lloyd

    Thanks for the great review of SearchFest Carrie! I’m ecstatic that you found it “impressive”.