Notes From SES San Jose

I had the opportunity to speak at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose last week.  It was at an SES show in Boston sometime in 2000 where I first caught the search bug, and I've been to a dozen or more SES shows since.  The grandfather of all search marketing conferences, these days SES faces new competition from other search-focused shows, and digital marketing events with a heavy search focus. 

In the face of this new landscape, SES seems to have lost its way.  This year's San Jose conference felt stale, as if we were rehashing the same topics we've discussed for the last three years.  I spoke to many others who shared my opinion.  Over the last week I've been reflecting on this history of SES, and where it is today.  There is certainly a place in the search marketing community for a conference of record, but SES will need to shift tacks if it wants to fulfill this role.  Here are my suggestions for revamping this venerable institution:



Cut back on the schedule and sessions. This year's San Jose agenda was four full days, with a supplemental fifth day.  Additionally, the conference schedule is divided into four or five separate tracks, meaning there are somewhere between 15 and 20 sessions each day - and maybe 80 for the whole conference.  Search is interesting, but not that interesting.  There is just no way to offer unique, compelling content in over 80 separate sessions.  Shorten the conference to two or three days maximum, and cut back on the number of tracks.

Broaden the range of content.  SES has its roots in the "tips and tricks" school of search, and sessions are generally focused around specific search campaign tactics.  I am convinced more and more each year that the attendees of SES know as much about campaign tactics as the presenters; there isn't a lot of value in talking about campaign optimization techniques when the toolsets and tactical expertise of the community are at parity.  The show organizers made efforts to break out of the traditional topic areas this year with a focus on international search and attribution modeling, for example, but sessions still focus predominately on tactics.  There is much more to search these days than keyword lists and link building.  Expand the variety of content to include topics for which we don't have all the answers.

Kill the short presentation/panel discussion format. This is a radical suggestion, but SES should do away with the current format of short presentations followed by panel discussions.  While this format makes it easy on presenters, it does not elicit high-quality, thought-provoking presentations.  Speaking at SES is a privilege, and the conference organizers should treat it as such.  Cut back on the number of speakers and require longer, better-argued presentations with compelling data, insight and information.

Bring in voices from the broader marketing community.  There is nothing more futile than search experts selling each other on the benefits of search.  SES should reach out to CMOs and CTOs and other leading decision-makers from Fortune 500 companies,  inviting them to share their perspective and participate in the dialogue with search marketers.  These are the people we are trying to win over in today's search marketing landscape.  Let's bring them into the conversation.

The organizers of SEs have a great opportunity to reinvent the brand.  The show is under new management, and thus far this team has indicated a desire and willingness to revamp the conference.  Let's see if they heed any of my advice.  SES Chicago is only three months away...

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