Photo Credit Liana Evans
Online Marketing Blog is very fortunate this week to have a special interview with Chris Sherman, Executive Editor at Search Engine Land and long time observer/analyst/practitioner/advocate in the search engine marketing industry. Chris has been a instrumental influence in the growth of the search marketing industry with his 10+ year old search consulting practice, past involvement with Search Engine Watch and Search Engine Strategies as well as his new role as Executive Editor at Search Engine Land, running the Search Marketing Now webcasts and helping to program SMX conferences.
In this interview, Chris shares how he became involved with the search marketing industry (get ready for some SEM history people), challenges with building a new search marketing publication and conference, what’s different about SMX and how he works with Danny Sullivan programming events. The next Search Marketing Expo show is SMX Local and Mobile and Chris also gives his insight into the local and mobile search marketplace, hot topics and technologies. He also throws in a few marketing tips for small businesses and gives a fairly good reason why in the world he’d ever leave our fine state of Minnesota and live somewhere else.
First off Chris, can you share some about your background and how you got into search marketing and involved with Danny Sullivan?
I was building web sites for clients in the early 90s, and one of the de rigeur elements of sites back then was a page of links to other “cool” sites – not for reciprocal links, but just to demonstrate that you were web savvy. Since there were no search engines at the time, it was a challenge finding sites to add to these pages. Email newsletters like “Netsurfer Digest” and “The Internet Tourbus” brought descriptions of new sites, but to find topically relevant sites, surfing the web starting from a known relevant site (similar to what search engine crawlers do today) was the most efficient way to find these links, but it was time consuming.
So when Webcrawler and Yahoo emerged in 1994 or so I was totally awestruck – what an amazing thing to be able to actually *search* for something on the web instead of relying on serendipity to find what you were looking for! You have to remember that these early engines provided just bare-bones clues (for example, Lycos pioneered the idea of including titles and descriptions in search results – before that, it was just unadorned links to URLs). I was hooked, and started spending a lot of time learning how these magical new machines worked, and since I’ve been a writer forever, began writing about them too.
By 1997, web sites were getting slicker and my clients were increasingly looking to agencies who could develop more complex sites. I was ready for a new challenge, and one day I was poking around The Mining Company (now called About.com) and discovered that they were looking for a “guide” to build out a new topic area dedicated to web search. I jumped at the opportunity, and ended up spending about four years writing about search for them – initially focusing on how to search, but later getting into exploring the then totally new concepts surrounding search engine optimization.
I also started Searchwise, a consulting business focused on web search – both teaching clients how to search and doing site optimization. I also became a consulting analyst for IDC, working primarily on enterprise search research and white papers. With Searchwise, I still train people how to search, and have run workshops all over the world.
During the late 90s Danny and I had been exchanging occasional emails, and we finally met in person at the Internet Librarian conference in San Diego in 1999. In 2000, Internet.com (the company that owned Search Engine Watch at the time) got concerned about what would happen if Danny “got hit by a bus,” so he reached out to me to join him, working both on Search Engine Watch, and also to start a new, daily publication called SearchDay. I started working on the Search Engine Strategies conferences soon afterward, eventually organizing and growing most of the international events while Danny focused on the U.S. shows.
Fast forward to two years ago, when Jupitermedia sold SEW, SES and ClickZ to Incisive Media. After the sale, it became apparent to Danny that his vision wasn’t in sync with Incisive’s. So he left, and after talking with literally dozens of different people, companies, venture capitalists and others, decided to start Third Door Media with Chris Elwell, who had been the General Manager of Jupitermedia. They asked me to join them as a partner in the company along with Sean Moriarty, a sales guy who built up the Internet World conferences. And now it’s full speed ahead building Third Door, with our web sites SearchEngineLand.com and Sphinn, our conference series, Search Marketing Expo, and our webcast business, Search Marketing Now.
What have been some of the challenges in building up a new online news and conference business? Things have grown very quickly so I assume you and Danny have some pretty big goals. What are you doing to make SMX events different from other conferences?
The good news is that we’ve done this before, so we know what needs to be done and the mistakes to avoid. The biggest challenge in starting anything new is that you have to build everything from the ground up. We’re running as lean as possible, so that means if we want something done we have to roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves. Fortunately, we’ve assembled a great team of exceptionally self-motivated people with years of experience who all really enjoy working together toward our common goals. We don’t need to spend much time deciding what to do – we just go out and do what needs to get done. So yes, things have moved quickly.
We’re also fortunate that people in the search marketing community have been very generous in helping us: speaking at our shows, writing for Search Engine Land, participating in Sphinn. It’s really great (and a bit humbling) to get that kind of support from our professional colleagues.
SMX will differ from other events in a number of ways. Apart from our years of experience developing and running conferences, Danny and I stay closely attuned to what’d happening in the search marketing space. We talk with the search engines constantly, and we also stay close to the people we feel are pushing the envelope as practicing search marketers. This lets us look ahead and create conferences that feature new ideas, tactics and approaches that help attendees come away with some cutting edge techniques that they can put to use right away.
We’re also putting a lot of effort into plain old customer service, trying to anticipate the needs of both conference attendees and sponsors and exceed expectations rather than running just a “same ol” type of event. A simple little thing we did at SMX Advanced was to offer really good food and beverages throughout the day. People loved it, and we plan to keep doing these types of things. Our goal is to get everyone involved totally engaged and excited about attending our events.
I posted a Reader Poll recently asking about search marketing conferences coexisting and since you’re pretty close to that topic I’d like to ask you as well, “Can SES, SIS, SMX, Pubcon and New SEM Conferences Coexist and Succeed?”
I can’t speak for the organizers of any of the other events, but I think we’re still in the very early innings of this game, and there’s plenty of room for growth. We’re not going to plan our events based on what anyone else is doing – we’re going to put on the best possible conferences we know how to do. I think any organization that puts the needs of their key stakeholders ahead of other considerations will do just fine.
[Editor's Note: As of the publishing of this interview, 69% of poll respondents do believe multiple conferences can coexist and succeed. 18% say maybe and 13% say no.]
When you and Danny are both involved with organizing or programming a conference, how does that work? How do you separate tasks and who does what?
We have a very fluid working relationship, both editorially on Search Engine Land and when we’re programming conferences. Typically we take a divide and conquer approach, where we’ll each take on specific panels and independently organize them, occasionally bouncing ideas off each other but for the most part just moving forward on our own. We know each other well and trust each other, so we don’t feel a huge need to check in on what the other is doing.
As we’ve done in the past, Danny will likely play a bigger part in organizing the U.S. shows, where I’ll be organizing and running our international shows, but there’s really no formal division of duties. There doesn’t need to be – we’ve done these things together for ages and we’ll just continue to work together in the way that’s served us really well.
I’ve always believed that to be a good search marketer, you should be a good searcher. I’m wondering if, with a book like “Google Power” under your belt, you think the same?
Absolutely. I don’t know how you can be an effective search marketer if you don’t have a mastery of the underlying technology. It’s important not only to be a good searcher, but to have a lot of empathy for people who don’t know how to search, or think they know but really don’t. Only when you get into the minds of these kinds of people can you create an effective strategy to connect with them. It’s amazing how many people build their search marketing strategy to appeal to people just like themselves – intelligent people who use appropriate, relevant search strategies, when so many people are out there flailing around with entirely different and often ineffective approaches to searching. I think reaching these people represents a huge opportunity that many search marketers don’t even consider.
The next SMX event is Local and Mobile. As the co-host for that event along with Greg Sterling, what do you think are some of the hot topics for local? For Mobile?
Its hard to really distinguish between local and mobile since they’re often so tightly interwoven. In local, it’s probably the community aspect that’s really catching fire. Sure, the search engines are getting better and making it easier to find local merchants and service providers, but now you can also tap into information and opinions provided by your neighbors and community to help inform your search.
I think we’re also seeing some real innovations in analytics and metrics in both local and mobile, allowing search marketers to get a much clearer sense of searcher behavior and conversions even when the much of that behavior takes place offline in a brick and mortar context.
With the SMX Local & Mobile show, we’ve also worked hard to offer up a mix of presenters from both the technology providers as well as experienced search marketers who’ve run successful campaigns in the local and mobile space. These are people who can offer really valuable advice to search marketers who’ve wanted to tap into local and mobile customers but don’t know how or who have been reluctant for one reason or another. SMX Local & Mobile is designed to offer tons of actionable tactics and techniques, and open up the emerging world of local and mobile search opportunities to attendees. We’re trying to provide content that’s really not available anywhere else, online or offline.
What are some of the technology innovations that you’re excited about when it comes to mobile or local search marketing?
Maps combined with images rock my universe. I can easily see a day when you do a local search and your results include thumbnail images of brick & mortar storefronts. Those images can in turn be the virtual storefront for the millions of small businesses that aren’t and probably won’t have web sites – hosted by the search engines. I think you’ll also start to see some immersive experiences where you’re not really searching as much as exploring – something like what EveryScape is doing with its virtual tour of Union Square in San Francisco. These kinds of things will improve, and as mobile devices improve, we’ll be able to do them on the run. I anticipate we’ll also see the emergence of something like bluetooth enabled eyeglasses that will project these types of immersive experiences giving us a live, 3-D experience literally in front of our eyes, allowing you to physically interact with these virtual worlds.
What kinds of companies are investing most heavily right now in local and mobile search? Do you think that will change as those channels build out?
All the usual suspects are investing heavily, along with tons of smaller firms with interesting ideas. But you’re also getting non-traditional players like Nokia and some of the mobile carriers, and some pretty good stuff happening with some of the internet yellow page providers as well. Too early to tell at this point who the winners will be, but it’s exciting to see the level of investment and development going on.
With so many considerations in the search space: text, images, audio, video, news, blogs, mobile, local, social networks, social media, etc, what advice would you give a small business if asked for 2 or 3 search marketing tips?
Know your customers, and go where they go. It’s not necessary to have a dominant presence everywhere – you just need to be positioned so your customers can easily find you. So for small businesses in particular, that mostly means the web right now – globally if you’re an online retailer, or locally if you’re a real world merchant or service provider. If you’re in a high-touch business, it’s probably worth exploring the social media & network spaces, or consider starting a blog. What I wouldn’t do, though, is stretch yourself so thin dabbling in all of these areas that you’re not effective in any. Pick an area and master it. When revenue growth follows, that’s the time to think about investing in other areas of search marketing. Otherwise you’ll be wasting time and money.
Besides Search Engine Land and Sphinn, what other information sources do you rely on in order to stay on top of what’s happening in the search marketing industry?
We’re in a fortunate position in that we’ve got long established relationships with the key players in the industry, and we’re often briefed well in advance of announcements, product launches and so on. We’re also often asked to provide feedback and offer input at during the early stages of product development so we have a good sense of what’s coming over the months ahead. Apart from that, I try to keep up with the sources listed on our blogroll at Search Engine Land – they’re there because we think they’re quality voices covering our search marketing universe.
Lastly, you’re a fellow Minnesotan right? Why would you ever leave our amazing state?
Well, I grew up in both Minnesota and Colorado. My parents, and my brother and his family still live in the Twin Cities, so I still get back there quite often. If I didn’t live in a house in a great family-oriented neighborhood with a spectacular view of the front range of the Rocky Mountains, I’d likely be in Minnesota. Like search engines, life often serves up multiple appealing options and you’ve got to make a choice!
Another recent interview with Chris Sherman by Richard Zwicky can be found at the Enquisite Blog