Analytics and the Future of Search: SES London Day 1, Part 2

Following the rather standard (read disappointing) lunch, it’s straight into an afternoon of high-profile speakers and big topics.

All-Star Analytics Panel

The afternoon kicks off with a discussion panel on the subject of analytics and how it will change as media such as social media take more & more marketing share. Kevin Ryan puts the audience on side with some amusing comments about the topic and Britney Spears (you had to be there). At one point he says that, as the man responsible for the SES brand, “if this is a train-wreck it’s my fault.” Whilst it’s not a train-wreck, it is slightly annoying that the first day feels rather like the content has had to be stretched to fill the time.

For example, over the whole afternoon there are only three sessions across the three time-slots (rather than four sessions in each of the slots). Tomorrow, on the other hand, there are more sessions than the day really comfortably fits (one of which I’m therefore going to have to miss). All in all it strikes me that SES London could have been a two-day, rather than three-day, event; there’s only so many coffee breaks that anyone needs in a day. That said, the panelists on this session are some of the most eloquent and intelligent of any session I’ve attended, at any event. From their intros it seemed like half of them were PHDs, and it shows.

The discussion immediately dives into the Google issue (I doubt there’s been a session here today that hasn’t); do people feel comfortable using Google Analytics when they’re also running AdWords? Are they comfortable with Google knowing as much about them as it (potentially) does (through Gmail, Talk, Docs, etc)? Ian Thomas of Microsoft makes the very valid point that companies (such as his) which provide free analytics have to pay the bills somehow, and as long as they are open about the fact that they provide these tools because they believe webmasters who use these are more likely to run successful sites, and therefore have more to spend on AdWords, that it shouldn’t be an issue.

As with the paid links debate, it’s all fascinating stuff, but strikes me as being very theoretical. I would imagine that the sort of people who ought to be learning this stuff are probably not at this event, or ones similar to it. In fact, the panel even admit this; Steve Jackson of Satama (whose website I won’t link to because it has very annoying music playing, which was very embarrassing when I opened it during the session) points out that there’s no point having expensive or detailed analytics unless you also have the people & processes to interpret it. He also explains that analytics will never give you exact numbers – what they provide is trend information.

Everyone on the panel agrees that analytics is not an exact science for reasons such as differences in the definition of a session, the fact that a full page often has to be displayed before such a session is tracked, and the time-delay that often occurs between a user initially viewing a product and actually purchasing. They also seem to agree that analytics packages will in some way merge with other online tools, whether they’re ad serving tools, page optimizers, or whatever.

And just as no session is complete without a mention of Google, so social media is a ubiquitous topic. Unsurprisingly, the panel agrees that people should monitor and track success in social media, but also agrees that it’s a very young field and that there are as many ways of measuring success as there are different types of social media.

Day 1 Keynote: Frederick Marckini of Isobar

Mike Grehan introduces Frederick Marckini by reminiscing about how, back in the late 90s, Mike actually bought a book on SEO that Marckini wrote; he is quite literally “the guy who wrote the book then” (and the one who built iProspect into a $50 million business.)

Frederick makes for a very entertaining presenter, starting as he does with some very amusing holiday photos. He’s also one with big ideas, explaining that he doesn’t want to talk about search marketing but about eternal life. He uses as his first example a Reebok ad that has since gone viral on YouTube – gaining an ‘eternal life’ all of its own. 

He also provides some ridiculously stimulating data: in the US iProspect’s revenue is split 50/50 between PPC & SEO, but that is split 75/25 in the UK, despite the fact that clicks between PPC & SEO are typically 72/28. This encapsulates what we see every day when talking to clients – they still feel that SEO is too speculative, but they really need to wake up and look at where the consumers are (clicking.)

Frederick also uses some very interesting case studies to show exactly why (to contradict Mike Grehan) SEO is not dead; showing how investment in SEO amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars directly related to hundreds of millions in revenue; how doing fundamentally basic SEO increased traffic to a site by over 100% in a matter of months; how allowing marketing departments to make assumptions on how users describe your products (rather than using keyword research) is commercial suicide; how, where possible, taking PPC campaigns global can increase sales & reduce CPA.

As with a lot of the sessions, it could be argued that there isn’t that much that can be taken away from the presentation and actioned. What it definitely does though (or did for me, anyway) is stimulate the brain; it reminded me how much good SEO still has to offer; how there are still clients who don’t get this stuff; how clever marketing means that there are always ways of improving your client’s business.

For example, there are 1 million subscribers to the NY Times. However, Google’s News tab receives 10.3 million searches a month and Yahoo News has three times that. And with 92% of journalists searching online for content there are huge opportunities to push a client’s business using press releases and blogs (stuff we all knew already, but which it’s good to be reminded of). 

I could devote a whole post to this presentation; suffice to say it’s a truly fascinating and inspiring one. It takes in everything from collaborative filters to the long tail, and covers how tagging and community preferences are driving the growth of social search which is likely to fundamentally change our industry. As if he hasn’t done enough to get us all thinking, he leaves us with the three principles that are changing search:

  • Decoupling of content from time (as anyone who has TiVo will know)
  • Decoupling from place (as epitomised by the fact that you can download content to your phone, on the move) 
  • Decoupling of content from platform (again, you can download content to your phone or use a Slingbox to turn your laptop into a TV)

If you want to learn more about these things, I’d suggest that you read books such as The Cluetrain Manifesto, Wikinomics, and, of course, The Long Tail. You should also listen to Frederick speak if you ever get the chance.

Universal/Blended Search Panel

To say that I feel sorry for the guys on this panel is an understatement. Not only did Frederick cover the main themes of universal search, he did so in such an exciting and inspiring way that I seriously doubt they’re going to be able to top it.

Kevin Ryan gets things going by sharing some data showing that the implementation of universal search has actually boosted the use of search; it has coincided with a growth in the number of searches being made, and the number being made per user. He also suggests that it’s driving an increase in clicks on paid search ads -this suggests to me that people don’t always want to see news stories or videos in the results. Hmmmmm.

Mike Grehan argues that universal search was a natural progression for the engines as we move into the web 2.0/broadband era: 10 blue links simply weren’t going to cut it in an age were conversation is king and content is just something to talk about. Jeff Revoy, of Yahoo!, and Adam Lasnik, of Google, back this up, albeit with some rather dull explanations of how they judge those ‘properties’ which they’ll include in their blended results. Come on guys! Frederick just blew me away – you’re going to have to do better than this (which the number of people drifting off, physically and mentally, during the discussion highlights).

Andrew Goodman, of PageZero, provides a reality check with his point that whilst plenty of companies and brands are starting to think about how they can capitalise on blended search, there are still many who don’t even get the basics of SEO right. One thing that doesn’t come up is the fact that there are complexities to this that many search agencies simply won’t be aware of.

For example, because we often work with WCRS, an ad agency which is part of our parent group, we’re aware of the issues relating to putting TV ads on YouTube, in that unless the ad agency/client has written the contract with the actors in the ads to include global usage, they simply may not legally be able to put these ads on YouTube. Before you get all creative, make sure that the lawyers are on board.

The discussion moves to whether the engines will be happy to include adverts in the blended results. There doesn’t seem to be a definite answer, although Google’s aversion to paid inclusion over the years seems to rule it out on their part. Yahoo? Who knows. I certainly don’t, and I heard Jeff Revoy’s response to the question. 

Kevin poses the question as to how the engines sort the wheat from the chaff of user-generated content. Adam talks about the use of data from the social graph to evaluate what users are interested in; as with much of what this panel has discussed it is, I’m afraid, ground that Frederick covered earlier and in a much more engaging way. I don’t mean to sound like a Frederick groupie, but there’s nothing like an amazing presentation to highlight the things that are lacking in those that come after it. 

Kevin asks whether the engines are likely to move to a position whereby they will only show the content from those properties they own (so that Yahoo would only show images from Flickr & Google would only show videos from YouTube). Mike Grehan quickly points out that this would actually be likely to damage the relevance of the results and, seeing as their businesses are built on relevance, might be a bad move. Thankfully Adam (Google) and Jeff (Yahoo) both agree. Phew.

Deprived of access to a plug socket, my Mac is starting to feel as fatigued as I am and is threatening to die at any moment. I’ll therefore take the opportunity to wrap up the 1st day of SES London. It certainly seems like an apt metaphor for the day – a rather disappointing end to a day that had so recently sparkled. 

Ciaran is the SEO & Social Media Director of London based online marketing agency Altogether Digital. He loves a good conference and would be happy to speak at any you might be organising.

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