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SMX West Recap: Key Takeaways and Experiences

As a follow up to my conference survival guide last week, I wanted to post a recap of one of the best conferences around, SMX West. Here is a recap of the events and key takeaways of day 1.

SMX West started off with a bang, as well as a slightly bumpy flight from Orange County to San Jose. This trip included my boss and I and ended up being one of the best SMX West trips thus far. It’s great when you’ve already met some people, know them from last year, but you still haven’t met everyone that you should at these conferences. It seems to me that these conferences get better every year, and if this year’s conference is any indication, SMX Advanced is sure to be a fabulous outing.


Getting Settled

Monday ended the workday with a flight to San Jose. We ended up at the San Jose Marriott where, unlike Orange County’s weather earlier that afternoon, was sunny and beautiful. Our first night started the meet & greet. There, I ended up getting to meet Bruce Clay himself, Virginia Nussey, had a short conversation with Marty Weintraub of Aimclear, along with several others. In addition, we ended up starting the conference off right by hanging out with one of my former co-workers (Mike Wilton, also of SNC) for the rest of the evening with dinner at an Italian restaurant down the street. He finally had his chance to attend an SMX West conference for the first time this year.

Tuesday began the first round of sessions at SMX West, and the first round of mind-boggling SEO information. My first session ended up being Keyword Research & Copywriting for Search Success, by Christine Churchill. Key takeaways from this session included (from Christine’s slides):

Where Marketers Get Keywords:

  • Site log files for converting keywords: 85%
  • Site log files for frequent words: 54%
  • Internal site search: 46%
  • Competitors’ sites: 36%
  • Competitive Intelligence Tools: 34%
  • Exploring long search phrases: 31%
  • Social semantic mining: 15%
  • Keyword suggestion tools: 15%

Site search box (when you include a site search on your website):

  • Reveals keywords and expressions that visitors are actually using/wanting
  • Acts as a direct feed from the visitors’ brain
  • Gives insight into relative popularity
  • Can follow visitors’ path and see if site converts
  • Make sure you collect site search data

View search queries in analytics.

Learn the lingo of the customer ““ the best keywords come  straight from the customer’s mouth.

Create keyword list using diverse sources:

  • Online & traditional print magazines
  • Company & product reviews
  • Online thesaurus
  • Search in Google with ~ for synonyms

Using Competitors

  • Review their website and print collateral for keywords
  • Look at words they are buying in PPC
  • What terms are they targeting in SEO
  • This can give you competitive insights and ideas on overlooked terms

Christine also covered a number of keyword research tools that are helpful in this process. The benefits she outlined about keyword research tools include:

  • They save money and time
  • They can provide insight outside of your website
  • They can identify keyword opportunities you might miss
  • They offer popularity numbers you can’t get from your own analytics
  • Moves you beyond keyword assumptions
  • Allows you to compare phrases

Keyword Research Tools she outlined include:


Paid Tools include:

There was so much detail in Christine’s presentation that it would cover an entire series of posts about this topic. However, those were my own key takeaways.

One of the key things that can present a problem at SMX West are the multiple tracks. There are so many great sessions that it’s nearly impossible to go to each one on your own. Therefore, it’s usually best to bring someone, a conference buddy if you will, along with you so that both of you can go to the sessions and take and compare notes.

For the next session of the day I decided to head into the “Does Google Favor Brands? An In-Depth Look” session. This ended up with me meeting Aaron Wall and helping him find his way into the session. For those who have been part of the search industry for awhile now I don’t have to tell you that Aaron’s a cool guy and really knows his stuff. The session also featured Bryson Meunier of Resolution Media, Mark Munroe of Reply! Inc., and Tony Wright of WrightIMC.

chairs pic

Aaron Wall’s presentation: Brands Over Relevancy

He believes that Google absolutely prefers brands. There are potential branding signals that Google looks at which include:

  • domain name
  • anchor text
  • link diversity
  • keyword co-citation.

Other metrics that can influence branding signals include search behavioral metrics such as:

  • search volume (and CTR)
  • few back button clicks
  • repeat visits
  • query chains
  • passive user monitoring

Next in the session was Bryson Munier. He believes that there are too few brands ranking to show that there is a brand bias.

He also provided some arguments against Aaron Wall’s presentation. Bryson does, however, agree with Aaron that related links along with suggestion are user driven, but he believes that it is just Google themselves giving users what they want.

Mark Munroe was up next. He believes Google loves big brands. His main point was that brands are going to have a much better experience answering the user’s query. If you are not a brand, you have to be that much better. You should be not just getting rankings, but getting results listed that fulfills PROMISE.

Regarding techniques on how to offset the brand advantage: non-branded sites have to work even harder in order to get ahead of bigger brands. Non-branded sites also have to be obsessive about providing a high quality search experience by comparison.

Tony Wright was up next, and provided arguments for brands. His main point was that companies with high brand awareness tend to rank for more keyword terms and get more traffic from Google. Next: Google may or may not favor brands intentionally ““ and frankly, he doesn’t give a damn. Brand awareness doesn’t automatically equal Google success, but algorithmically, it should.

Don’t be the logo police: Understand the difference between protecting your brand and alienating your online audience. Never let a good logo or copyright get in the way of a good viral experience.

Whew! Day 1’s still not over yet. Two more sessions are up, including “Don’t Panic! A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Surviving SEO Changes“, and “An Evening Forum with Danny Sullivan.” This session featured the speakers Kerry Dean (Performance Media Group), Michael Martinez, SEO Theory, Mark Munroe of Reply!, Inc., and Marshall Simmonds of Define Media Group, Inc.

Mark Monroe is the first speaker on the panel: We’re told the only thing we have to do to get rankings is “just write great content”. As long as you write great content, you’ll be okay. However, that’s not enough. There is a big difference between just doing things that protect you, and only following the age-old mantra “just write great content”.

Then, he talks about Panda. He talks about Google’s main goals for Panda:

Our goal is simple: to give people the most relevant answers to their queries as quickly as possible.“

“This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites”¦At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites ““ sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis, and so on.”

The same statements can apply to most Google updates: Panda, May Day, Above the Fold, and Freshness.

Mark’s bottom line is: Google wants a good SERP experience: One that sufficiently answers the search query ““ So the user does not have to ask the question again. One that the user trusts: Again, so the user does not have to ask the question again.

To survive and thrive ““ think like Google.

To survive and thrive moving forward, think like a Google Product Manager. If your site appearing in the search results makes a better SERP ““ you are moving in the right direction. Every search is a question. Every result is a promise to answer that question. So, focus on fulfilling THE PROMISE. How does Google measure success? To Google ““ the most successful search result is the one that terminates the search.

Recommendations: Concentrate on improving the SERP experience for users coming to your site. Invest heavily in marketing, branding, social, widgets, linking. Make your website citation worthy and work at getting the citations (links and social mentions). Pay attention to loopholes in Google’s algorithm. Any technique used excessively for SEO can be a risk. Listen to what Google/Matt Cutts have to say about upcoming changes. There are often strong hints if not explicit statements on what to expect.

Next, Kerry Dean is up to bat. He’s a movie buff, so his slides will have references to movies instead of a bunch of text. Hmmmmmmm”¦this could be good or bad. I’m a movie buff myself but have been out of the movie scene for awhile. I don’t think I got all of the references. The only ones I got were Contact, Inception, Independence Day, and Weekend at Bernie’s.

Tip #1: Get your SEO ducks in a row! Already even!

Don’t forget the basics: Social Media and Personalized SERPs are overwhelming, especially when you don’t have the basic SEO methods in place. This includes:

  • Title Tags, Meta Tags, H tags, Alt tags
  • Navigation: Top Navigation, breadcrumbs, footer, sidebar, contextual
  • IA: Make your products easy to find
  • Crawling: Make your site easy to crawl
  • Sitemaps: Keep them accurate and updated!

Tip #2: Double Up On Your Analytics

Why have one data set when you could have two?

Pay for Omniture? Add Google analytics for free! Only use Google Analytics? Add Statcounter for free!

  • Create & monitor events
  • Setup filters in GA to track rankings
  • Set up filters in GA to track short-tail and longtail keyword exposure
  • Track everything that matters to you ““ and then track even more!

Tip 3: Hire a Copywriter for Crying Out Loud!

Fresh content is the future of Search”¦err”¦the Internet. Don’t get scared by Panda. Get on board.

  • Editorial calendars? What are those?
  • Be as unique as you possibly can.
  • Re-write your product descriptions.
  • Add descriptions to your categories.
  • Dust off the old blog. Post every day.

Tip #4: Landing Page, Conversion Optimization

Everything is a test. Every visitor tells you something ““ even if they don’t appear to do anything. Not getting enough traffic? Take full advantage of the traffic that you do get.

What are your visitors telling you about:

  • Site design
  • Page layout
  • Purchase flow
  • Ease-of-use
  • Favorite pages/products/categories/reviews

Tip 5: Embrace The Age of Personal Branding

Building Your Team’s Authority Will Increase Your Website’s Authority. Use AuthorRank/AgentRank to your advantage.

  • Google has always been about authority and relevancy
  • Personalized SERPs give you additional opportunities to rank
  • People who have added your team members to circles will see their articles/posts/images in the SERPs
  • If you have a blog, set up REL=AUTHOR!

Tip 6: Be Relentless About Making It Easy to Share/Check-In

Give Prominent Placement to Social Sharing Buttons. Every share and check-in will eventually become an indicator for organic ranking algorithms. The must-haves:

  • Google +
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest

Test placements! Find out what converts best.

Tip 7: Be Even MORE Relentless About Mobile eCommerce

Purchasing on a mobile device should be simple. HTML5 and Responsive Web Design are making sites more friendly to mobile browsers. Responsive websites mean you don’t necessarily need to build a separate mobile site. HTML5 is like Flash, but readable on all browsers/devices. All the SEO work you’ve done for the main site will help mobile search. rankings.

What is going on out there?

Last year”¦Google launched Panda, algorithmically penalizing a lot of big name sites, and most of it is about a lack of fresh and/or unique content. But clearly it’s about a lack of value to a user.

NYTimes article exposes JCPenney paid links. Google is forced to penalize JCP with the ~90-day, +50 penalty.

Google penalizes Forbes for selling links.

Google penalizes Overstock for their edu link scheme.

Throughout 2011, more and more sites are penalized as additional updates to Panda are released.

We learn 2 things:

  • Great content is like a Panda force field.
  • Don’t be stupid about paid links.

And how about that social media?

  • Spotify launches in United States
  • Google+ launches
  • Google+ brand pages
  • Pinterest comes out of nowhere
  • Twitter brand pages
  • Google launches SPYWorld
  • Google+ is a “˜ghost town’?

We learn 2 things:

  • Start monitoring referral traffic


Final conclusions:

Google is telling us:

  • Don’t buy links
  • Produce quality content
  • Get involved in Google+

We know two things:bFundamentally, SEO is still SEO. Now, we have to get social.

Our next speaker on the panel is Marshall Simmonds.

He said he has seen more that has happened in the last two years than what he has ever seen happen. How we address these changes can be reduced down to two things:

  • Opportunity
  • Agenda


Panda was an outstanding opportunity to push our digital properties. Video/images lead the pack in terms of what people are clicking on in the SERPs. What are users looking for and what are we targeting??

Freshness ended up coming out in 2011. The point of this update is that it targets timely content ““ if the content is timely then it’s going to get in the index faster. Content started saying when it was updated. That shows timeliness. They saw trends that showed increasing results matching this. Now newer results show even greater matching of such trends. So what can you do to take advantage of this?

What to do:

  • Pay attention to the in your XHTML sitemap
  • Blog about a topic? Blog often! (consider an editorial calendar)
  • RSS feed ““ for your blog (WordPress supports)
  • Time Stamp
  • +1 probably a strong signal
  • Watch timely queries – things people ARE searching for (queries, what’s hot/real time/trending) not necessarily historic data

Next he discussed some Panda suggestions, however, they are vague:

  • Push the SEO Agenda!!!
  • Time for an SEO audit
  • Reduce and/move Ad Blocs
  • Consider “˜no-indexing’ or removing poorly performing pages
  • Syndicating content?
  • Page speed
  • Clean up duplication with specific parameter handling guidance
  • Where are you linking?
  • Sitemap
  • Only opportunity

Search Engines are distracted and confused. It’s not easy to crawl a site like the New York Times. It’s not as intuitive as it could be. The bottom line is site maps ““ you absolutely need to focus your time and energy on those. There are different types of sitemaps that you should be implementing including:

  • XML
  • HTML
  • image sitemaps
  • video sitemaps
  • news
  • blog
  • products

He also provides a slide that shows how much of a significant increase in search referrals after sitemap implementation for a website. One site he did had 20,000 pages indexed initially. After a partial sitemap was implemented, he saw a 1% increase in indexation. After a full sitemap was implemented, he saw a 69% increase in indexation, with the end result being 166,000 pages being indexed after the sitemap was fully updated.

If you do video, you should be doing a video sitemap, and you should also seriously consider YouTube optimization. YouTube rankings lead to rankings all over the place ““ that is the way you get into the top rankings.

Google Universal Video SERPs Platform allocation data shows:

YouTube ““ 84%
Daily Motion ““ 3%
Metacafe ““ 2%
Google Video ““ 1%

Next he talks about the Google standout tag, which should be inserted into the header section of the page’s code. Rel=Author also puts a nice little profile pic in the search results that shows who authored the article. Is it confusing? Yup. Wildly consistent in displaying? Absolutely. Buggy? Indeed. Important? Yes. It IS important.

So what can I do Today?

Google moving the goalposts is opportunity to push your agenda.
Panda isn’t bad conceptually, it’s progression and requires adaptation, which = opportunity
Despite Freshness update, the long tail is alive and well ““ pay attention to
SITEMAPS!!! Every kind and every feature
Don’t forget video (via YouTube SEO) and Google News (standout tag)
Internal linking ““ what are your top pages? Are they healthy? Where are the power pages?


What a great first day of sessions at SMX West. Totally looking forward to day 2. Should be another day of sessions and great information to wrap my already soaked-up-brain around. Can’t wait to let the information from these sessions flow from my fingertips to your computer screen.



One Comment

  1. Chris Foerster March 5, 2012

    Great article Brian. I enjoyed reading it. Can’t wait for the next one!

Comments are closed.

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