Search THIS: Searching for Knowledge

I set out to see America recently. Well, most of it, anyway -- the California sunshine, Texas' wide expanses, New York's hustle and bustle, and winter’s last holdout in the Windy City. After two weeks on the road, at least two things are now painfully clear to me. One, my favorite airline couldn’t give a rodent’s posterior about my health and well being. Two, Americans are craving information about search engine marketing (SEM) like never before.

Amid jockeying for first-class upgrades and attempting to break new emotional ground with the lost-luggage people, I put into practice my knowledge of the various search marketing languages. That is to say, I spoke techie intolerance (early dialect), marketing/advertising snobbery, CEO blue suit ideology, and, of course, sartorial trade show. It seems the informational needs of SEM audiences are as diverse as the people now practicing SEM.

What is the best access point for SEM knowledge? There are as many opportunities to learn about search marketing today as there are possible locations for my lost luggage. Though cataloging all of them would be impossible, here are few steps toward finding the right SEM knowledge box, along with a little background on the search information explosion. 

Where Did All This Demand Come From?

In 1997, the same year that (now Overture Services, a Yahoo! company) began selling listings in Yellow Pages-style ad format, the IAB presented its first literary representation of The Case for Internet Advertising as a supplement to AdWeek. SEM was not included. 

Only three short years ago, Andy Bourland’s ClickZ Guide To Online Advertising barely mentioned SEM. Why?

Until very recently, search marketing meant tactics for optimizing site architecture to increase listing rankings in natural or editorial search results. The responsibility for doing so rested exclusively with a few select SEM firms and the site builders. Online marketers did not consider SEM advertising.

Fast forward to 2003. Piper Jaffrey released a report in March that concluded search would be a $7 billion industry by 2007, growing from $1.4 billion in 2002. In June 2003, the IAB reported that online search spending had grown from just over 4 percent to 15 percent in 2002. In effect, the online ad industry has been forced to provide increased representation for SEM. Widespread integration of pay for placement into online marketing programs and the popularity of search has provided seed funding for a search engine marketing explosion.

The end result of this detonation? Lots of choices to learn about search.

The Show Must Go On

Deciding on big trade show attendance is a little like selecting notes for a symphony. The right sounds together will make a beautiful career and knowledge-base development masterpiece. Select the wrong ones and your intelligence orchestra could sound like a dozen horny cats playing bagpipes. Mine sounds like a combination of Annie Lennox’s 'I Saved the World Today' and the entire Motorhead 'No Sleep 'Till Hammersmith' collection.

SEM content in trade shows is primarily focused on high-level introductions to the universe of search marketing. However, Search Engine Strategies (SES) has been dubbed the SEM industry’s show with multiple tracks reaching into the depths of search. Hosted by the original search guru, Danny Sullivan, SES appears throughout America in major cities as well as all over the world. My advice for attending SES? Study the agenda. With multiple tracks across three or four days, navigating your way through the show can be a task in it of itself, but well worth the effort.

Ad:Tech is one of those can’t-miss trade shows for online marketing. Search marketing content has been increased over the years as demand has dictated. Ad:Tech has no affiliation or loyalty to a specific publication or agenda-carrying industry organization. Due to its popularity, Ad:Tech’s only loyalty is to its audience, which consistently contains key decision makers in the industry. Show staffers maintain strict quality controls over content and recently made great strides in keeping speaker sales pitches to a minimum. For these reasons, I like to refer to Ad:Tech as the true non-partisan industry barometer.

In a category all its own is the iMedia Summit. The summits create an experience unparalleled in industry gatherings. You will not find an exhibit with lots of booths and banter. What you will find (only after being invited) is content designed for key decision makers in the industry. My first iMedia Summit was a wake up call for what can happen when you gather a large group of key industry professionals while offering them a multi-day think tank for top industry issues -- networking of the highest order and the ability to effect immediate and permanent change to the way online marketing functions. I could say the iMedia Summit ruined me for all other trade shows, but it just doesn’t fit the trade show model.

Stepping outside traditional channels can provide you with a fresh perspective as well. Case in point; local search. This topic is bound to be hot at any SEM trade show, but garnering the perspective of a stodgy old industry like the yellow pages can apply a whole new knowledge base to local search. In my experience, the clear-cut leader in this space is John Kelsey’s firm, which not only gives attendees their money’s worth, but adds a touch of class to an industry in dire need of some polish.

Other publication-driven conferences and summits offer a unique “reader destination” perspective to the industry and are picking up more search content. AdAge and Jupiter Events (SES affiliated). represent a great way to see the issues you deem important take form and shape. Technically speaking, the better the audience, the better the event. I have no further comments here, you know who you are.

Industry organizations round out the search for knowledge. The IAB has a big bold search committee and IAB events  continue to provide more search related content and the organization has a search specific road show planned for later this year. Also worthy of mention are Shop.Org and the Direct Marketing Association’s Net marketing trade show.

All of these events represent big opportunities to fly off somewhere to learn about search, but what if you don’t have the budget for travel or tolerance for obnoxious airline employees?

In a Theatre Near You , or School of Search

Find an event near you or go back to school. Why not do both? This month, iMedia learning kicks off its eight city road show and its Search Marketing 101 online learning course. I took a sneak peak at the course outline and presentation last week and I haven’t seen expert collaboration like this since the works of Van Gogh and Gauguin -- with two possible exceptions. One, there will be no ears forcibly removed. Two, though traveling these days can have an adverse effect on one’s psyche, advanced depression is not in the agenda.

Regional events provide a great forum for search marketing. Audiences tend to lean toward small to medium enterprises and since search experts reside all over the country, these events can usually pull in some great talent. As an added bonus, one can take local networking to the next level since attendees are bound to be from your neck of the woods.

Content for these mini-shows is often jam-packed into one day or evening sessions. Organizations like the DMA have local chapters which provide SEM information in easy-to-digest packages. Some are billed as the end-all-be-all for search marketing information, but hopefully we are all just a bit smarter than to accept a search cancer pill pitch.  

Industry guru Bruce Clay is offering a road show combined with thoughts on SEM tools, and the Laredo Group’s “In Search of Business” runs in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago from April to June.

There are literally hundreds of events all over America. The best way to find them (aside from the usual networking) is to check in with your local business trade publications. One piece of advice here: watch for sponsor-driven content -- i.e. in the event a vendor is providing all of a show’s information, prepare yourself for interlaced sales pitches.

On the other hand, getting a sales pitch doesn’t mean you can’t glean useful know-how from the information presented. A couple of month’s ago, I attended a two-day training class organized by Overture for the purpose of, you guessed it, helping advertisers learn how to use Overture better. Stop laughing. I found the course extremely beneficial and a good way to meet the people I work with every day in search.

There are plenty of people out there who are more than willing to “teach” you about SEM. A simple Google search for Search Engine Marketing Training reveals quite a few options for search coursework. Some these “classes” are formulated around sales pitches for an organization’s services or to help sell the author’s book.
In the End, It’s up to You

Wherever you may go, whatever event or group of events you may find to suit you, make your investment of time and budget in the activity pay for itself. Study the agenda carefully and attend sessions you think are most relevant to your needs. Ask lots of questions. Relevant and poignant interrogatories can add value to every attendee’s experience but don’t try to turn the session into a personal gripe venue or steer the conversation away from its set agenda. A good moderator will bring the conversation back down to earth, but don’t count on it. Lastly, fill out those comment cards. Believe it or not, the people behind the scenes at these events are listening, so tell them what you want!

See you on the road.

About the author: iMedia search columnist Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Kevin believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing.

Kevin feels the concept and practice of “customer service” in America is a rotting corpse. He has given up hope for a company maintaining any level of respect for the people who purchase goods and services from them, particularly airlines. Mr. Ryan is also a card carrying friend of the AdBusters foundation. 

Meet Kevin Ryan at Ad:Tech May 24-26th, 2004 and select cities in the iMedia learning road show.