SAScon - swaggering new boy on the UK conference scene. I monkey walked my way through the front doors of The Bridgewater Hall, more tired than any man should be, followed the smell of coffee upstairs and hoped it would be worth the 6am start.
The lineup certainly looked promising with medley of speakers from across the UK and Europe, all ready to discuss the issues of the day. What was immediately different about SAScon was the panels; rather than sticking to the traditional presentation session style many of the sessions were a panel Q & A, led by an introductory question to get things moving. Some subjects leant themselves to this format extremely well and given the speaker list we certainly got some excellent opinions you would not have found in a more standard presentation.
So without further ado, here are some of my highlights of SAScon number one.
- with Bruce Daisley
The day kicked off with a wee speech about YouTube. There were only two iPads kicking about which was surprising - I got a sneaky peak of Joost's as he waved it (carefully mind) in the air.
Bruce ran through some standard facts about the growth of video and it's burgeoning importance on the web now.
The most interesting takeaways from the keynote were the innovations coming from YouTube and their increasing range of ways to target ads.
YouTube is aiming for the kind of in depth demographic targeting available on Facebook.
Google Social Search was mentioned in a later talk which will inevitably get tied in here (this is an experiment which you have to activate in your Google Account). Bruce's speech suggested to me that YouTube is watching Facebook very closely and is trying to provide a way for more 'traditional' TV type advertising to blend with social media interaction on the web.
According to Bruce this is working; with the more targeted, relevant nature of the ads and their less jarring, intrusive positioning YouTube is seeing positive results. For brands who want to communicate through an emotive visual medium YouTube is an essential part of the marketing mix that will compliment and enhance other activity.
There are some exciting innovations happening at YouTube such as an increased focus on premium content and the aim to continue experimenting with live streaming. This is great news for Google, as it will massively increase the monetization opportunities for the network.
It's also good news for clients/agencies as it provides an increasing number of effective ways to reach our target audiences. As a YouTube user however, I can't help feeling that the network is just becoming another tool in Google's media portfolio.
Search and Social Media Panel
This was an interesting panel which covered some old ground, but highlighted the continued struggle of agencies and clients to capture both what social media is, and how it can be used/leveraged/exploited for marketing.
Some great points came out of this panel:
Social Media as a term is bankrupt.
No one can define exactly what social media is, in the widest sense it encompasses almost everything we do that involves a dialogue, in the narrowest sense it is limited to a few networks. Neither of these seem to fit.
Keep your perspective.
A lead on from point one, Joost raised that point that in the UK and US we talk about Facebook and Twitter like they are the biggest networks in the world, but this is not the case. In Holland Hyves (Heard of it? Me neither - that's the point) is much much bigger than Facebook, and Twitter usage is very low. There is no 'one size fits all' approach when looking at social media internationally. This also applies for the UK, think about who your target audience is; do they use Twitter? No? Then don't waste your time on there.
Social media is a small part of the media mix.
If you subscribe to a narrower definition of social media (if you have ignored the previous two points!) then social media spend is almost totally insignificant. Particularly from a corporate or offline media point of view the spend for online is still small in comparison to a TV campaign. However, if you subscribe to a wider definition anything that generates a dialogue or creates a conversation is social media, so the spend is huge. How you pitch 'social' to people could be very important in setting an expectation of budget and reach.
Real time search in Google is rubbish.
These results are unfiltered (unless logged in to your Google account with Social Search enabled), irrelevant and spoil your carefully ranked SERPs. The real time results work on Pagerank type metricss, so raw popularity defines what appears and what doesn't. Google have admitted this is not the right way to rank their web results, so why do this in real time results?
Privacy is becoming a bigger and bigger issue.
Facebook may be heading for trouble thanks to their new 'Like' feature. For those that don't know, the 'like' feature has been revamped and extended out onto over 300 partner websites. So if you arrive at LoveFilm and see a film, such as the Star Wars Trilogy, there will be a little Facebook Like below it. If your friends like it their profile pictures will appear next to it. If you click 'like' your Facebook profile will be updated accordingly. There is a heated debate about the amount of information Facebook has, and is sharing outside the network without asking you to opt in. Don't be surprised is there is a Facebook vs the EU case in the news soon...
Quote of the Panel:
"The people behind Facebook are scary and have your data."
Black Hat / White Hat Panel
It was refereshing to hear a discussion of black vs white hat SEO which featured people who don't just tow the Google line. If you're an SEO and you are Google paranoid then let me hit you with some knowledge:
Is it possible to define what black hat or white hat SEO is?
This was a great question and sparked a spectacular discussion about Google, Broadly speaking there were three definitions of black hat SEO which came out of the fray.
(1) Black hat is doing something against Google's guidelines. Pretty straight forward and relatively uncontested.
(2) Black hat is doing something that gets you noticed. This view was more interesting and debated; 'getting noticed' in this means your activity within a vertical or market; for example acquiring 500 more links a month than your competitors.
(3) Black hat is automation or mimicking or human behaviour.
One key difference which emerged from this discussion is that so called 'black hat' SEO is scalable, whereas white hat is not.
Google is constantly producing propaganda to connect black hat to actual illegal activity such as hacking, to encourage you not to scale your activity, because the easiest way to scale up is automation. This is not the case and perhaps we have become blinded by Google's control of the search industry...
Some websites are born more equal than others.
If you are working on a huge corporate website such as the BBC, much of the activity could be construed as black hat. However it could also be construed as advertising, media buying, partnerships.
Sometimes whether your work is black or white hat comes down to how you approach your link building, the spin you put on it. Google won't remove the BBC website for acquiring in their eyes a paid link, but a brand new site may well feel Google's wrath and be used as an example to others.
Link buying is not an efficient model.
The amount of effort you put into buying 200 directory links; competitor analysis, link profile analysis, contact and purchase, would be better spent acquiring two links naturally. They will have a longerm more valuable life, make your link profile much stronger and probably require less time.
There is a flaw in the way a lot of people analyse links and competitors whcih leads to aggressive link acquisition, where a more natural link acqusition strategy is more appropriate.
Some ranking fluctuation is just noise.
It is highly likely that fluctuation in rankings is noise to make it that little bit harder to game Google. If your rankings were static all the time the cause/effect chain of SEO activity would be much simpler to identify. As a result Google have (potentially) built in SERP noise to keep us on our toes.
Yes there is a big demand, yes it does happen. Should you do it? Only if you're damn sure you know what you're doing.
Quote of the Panel:
Thanks to Ralph Tegtmeier (aka Fantomaster) for this one
"It's not my f*cking fault that Google can't differentiate between what is duplicate content and what is not."
Who Should Exploit Social Media Panel
One really good question came out of this panel for me; is new media marketing finally meeting with 'old' media marketing?
Engage was the word of the day in all social media oriented panels.
If you are going to engage in a social media network, with your audience, then are you doing it to tell a story and build the brand/product, or are you just amplifying/pushing out brand messages?
Going back to the YouTube speech, YouTube is popular because videos are an emotive medium, people share funny videos almost every day. The same is true for videos calling on the whole spectrum of emotion. All the big brands we have grown up with (or in some cases are still living with!) were built up by telling a story through print, through radio and through television. Now those brands are trying to take that online. It doesn't work in SEO or PPC, because those marketing channels are just about visibility. Social media however opens up the door for the story to be picked up again and actively.., engaged with. You can become part of that brand story.
Companies and brands that endear themselves to their customers connect with them on an emotional level and social media has allowed the customers to tell brands what that means to them on an individual level. The one-to-many relationship used to be one way, from brand > customer. As the web becomes more social it's opening up the other way, from many to one, from customers > brand. Awareness of the marketing mix and where online fits into that is becoming more important than ever top create a successful campaign.
Judith Lewis summarized this nicely by pointing out that we need the person who knows a little about a lot of things to create the big picture. But the person that knows a little about a lot, needs the group of people who know a lot about a little, the experts, to make this campaign happen.
Should you go to SAScon #2
The blend of sessions I saw at SAScon focused on and tied together three main topics;
Search engine marketing
The conference managed to discuss all three and illustrate (thanks to the speakers and open panels) how the business aims of networks and search engines are affecting the work we do. It's a forward thinking conference and as a result the discussions sacrificed practical advice on the hear and now for dicsussion of the future of the industry, the implications of the search engines' business goals and how are industry is moving forward. This opened the appeal beyond just SEOs and agency geeks which some conferences do suffer from by getting too technical or niche.
I'm very interested to see where SAScon goes next year. Personally I'd like to see it extended to two days (there was a lot squeezed in) and some more meaty presentations rather than just discussion. The North is in dire need of a good conference or two (obviously I'm not forgetting the wonderful Think Visibility in my home town of Leeds) - we can't go letting those London types have all the fun.
So should you go?
Yes I think you should, and here's why.