The SEM industry is full of very bright people, but I really have to question the wisdom of whoever made the wacky decision to hold December's Search Engine Strategies conference in Chicago. Because I just arrived back in New York after a series of nightmarish delays and travel hassles, you'll forgive me for wondering whether the whole idea behind SES Chicago is to give the industry a hellish endurance test. After all, who but the few, the proud, and the totally search-obsessed would be willing to run the gamut of massively delayed flights, subzero Chicago winds, and crushing traffic jams to attend this thing?
Because I survived this grueling annual ordeal, here are a few observations gleaned from my experiences at the show:
1. SES keynotes keep getting weirder and weirder. I'm not talking about Northwestern Professor Don E. Schultz, whose keynote on SES Chicago Day 1 provided a good, highly relevant top-down discussion of search as a critical evolution from "push" to "pull" marketing. I'm talking about Seth Godin, whose keynote address kicked off Day 2. I like Seth but found his keynote little more than an elaborate promotional stunt for his latest book, "Meatball Sundae." Again, Seth is a bright, funny guy and I generally agree with a lot of things he says (especially his 2005 comment that "SEO is Worthless"). But my hope is that SES reins in its alarming tendency to hire mainstream marketing celebrities and starts getting some speakers with some actual hands-on search campaign experience to do its keynotes in the future.
2. SES has got to change its name. As my colleague Dave Pasternack has noted several times, "Search Engine Strategies" is a misnomer because the vast majority of the SES sessions have nothing to do with search strategies, but focus exclusively on search tactics. While there's nothing inherently wrong with providing worms-eye view how-to clinics on SEO, AJAX, CSS, Sitemaps, bid management, analytics, or a hundred of other tactical topics, there's really no need for anyone to truck themselves all the way to Chicago to ferret out these granular details when they all wind up on the Web within a few days. Is cash so free-flowing in this industry these days that nobody thinks it's fiscally irresponsible to drop $1,895 (airfare and hotels not included) to get this information on Monday morning, when the bloggers have it all uploaded to the Web by Thursday night?
To be fair, SES Chicago's organizers, including Kevin Ryan, seem to be trying harder than ever to introduce more strategic topics; this time around, there were panels on managing agency relationships, multi-channel integration, the great SEM in-house/outsourcing debate, and selling search to the C-suite. But tactics continue to rule the SES conference agenda, so the show still has a long way to go before it lives up to its name.
3. Where the heck was Yahoo? Google, Ask, Microsoft, and Looksmart all had a big presence at SES Chicago. But Yahoo's absence caused a good deal of after-hours speculation that Yahoo had decided to turn its back on the show because search really isn't a big part of its future. Yahoo's absence was a surprise, given that Ron Berlanger, its vice president of agency development, is on SES' board. I doubt that Yahoo is any less dedicated to search than it was a year ago: in my view, it simply had decided that the time and expense of attending wasn't worth the ROI this time round. But it was disturbing to see one of search's major players take a pass.
4. Has the world maxed out on search shows? Maybe it was the cold weather, the timing, or the fact that SES Chicago overlapped with PubCon (which happened in much warmer Las Vegas), but SES exhibit hall traffic was definitely lower than I remember from prior SESs. This can't be good for the exhibitors whose dollars support this show. In fact, I had more than one conversation with exhibitors who were seriously thinking about canceling future SES bookings; only time will tell whether this talk was the usual show floor grumbling or an indication that the search trade show business is about to get much smaller.