SES San Jose Countdown

In terms of internet search the really big and influential conference is – without a doubt – SES San Jose.

WebmasterWorld Pubcon and the new SMX Conference series by Danny Sullivan (who more than anybody was the architect of the SES empire) offer similar content, SES remains the key conference venue for search marketing professionals.

I’ll be live blogging the conference and I’ll even try to get a few real time pix out from Tuesday night’s Google Party hosted at the GooglePlex.   In many ways the “Google Dance” is the highlight of the search year, when Google hosts conference attendees (including folks who just sign up for free exhibit passes), as well as tons of Google employees.    The food is great and it’s hard to beat free beer, ice cream, sno cones, and candy but the real highlight is chatting with Google search engineers who with a few exceptions like the amazing Matt Cutts, … don’t seem to get out much.

Paid Links and SEO – game over dudes

It has now been over two years since Google started their crusade against paid links.  I first understood this crusade back in 2005.  It was the first time I’d met Matt Cutts, and we were sitting at the hotel bar during the New Orleans WebmasterWorld PubCon with a handful of SEO folks. I asked about the practice of paid links.  “Don’t buy links”, he said.  Matt was a bit vague about the consequences and other details, and the the Google guidelines back then were not very clear on this point.   In fact a substantial paid link economy had developed and continues today.  However over time Google has become very clear about paid linking.

In my opinion this this recent post from Matt Cutts, Google’s uberMeister of spam tricks and SEO, should sound the death knell for this strategy even for those willing to take the risks that have been associated with paid linking strategies for some time.   Clearly Google is dedicated about this, and will continue to crack down severely enough that the risk outweighs any likely gains.  Certainly any of the sites and folks I’m familiar with in Travel and Tourism should *not* use this practice to raise their pagerank.     I’ve been advising this for some time, but I knew the practice was still fairly common among some elites in the SEO community which meant it was still working.   I’m sure there are some exceptional cases but the basic advice here is easy – don’t buy links.

Like Graywolf, one of the most vocal critics of the Google anti-paid-link jihad, I have a lot of concerns about fairness, best practices, and how much pleasing Google has come to distort the production of good content.   But jousting at Google’s windmill has probably become a waste of time, especially given that many of their concerns about buying and selling links are legitimate.  That practice certainly did distort the relevancy of rankings in a significant way.   In fact Google’s core brilliancy – the pagerank algorithm – put in motion a variety of online linking practices that have reshaped  web content in dramatic, mostly negative ways.    People used to link freely and often as a matter of course because links are the heart of the web and commercial concerns were not in play.  Now, free links are doled out by many very sparingly in an effort to preserve pagerank at their own websites and to deny others a competitive advantage.    I hope Google is considering this factor as they revise the algorithm.  e.g.  linking out to other sites should tend to *boost* ranks for a given term more than it lowers the rank due to leaked pagerank.

Search Engine Strategies – Google Party

Day one of the four day SES conference is wrapping up although a lot of the conference action takes place at restaurants and bars after hours.   I think for most people the highlight of SES is the huge Google Party which will be held tomorrow night at the Googleplex in Mountain View.   “Meet the Engineers” is one of only a handful of times each year when you can talk directly to a large number of people on the Google search team – the other is WebmasterWorld’s “PubCon”  in Las Vegas.

One thing I learned today is the Google’s Marissa Mayer is an expert in Artificial Intelligence (yikes – ValleyWag says Marissa IS an Artificial Intelligence!), and I’m hoping I’ll get a chance to ask a few questions tomorrow after her keynote about where she sees Google’s AI efforts heading over the next 5-10 years.  Larry Page was recently quoted as suggesting that a human-like thinking “algorithm” could well be cracked fairly soon, and Google is one of the places where this type of innovation might actually take place.  That said, based on my talk with Matt Cutts a few years back I don’t think AI as a search driver is a Google priority.  I was surprised then to hear that Matt felt quality AI driven search was still many years away.    Google has to maintain a practical edge to things so they probably can’t put a huge effort behind a “conscious computing” effort, though I get the idea from Kurzweil’s book that a Googley “massively parallel” info architecture may be more likely to bring consicousness to a machine than, for example, the IBM Blue Gene style supercomputer.

Blogs covering or writing about the SES Search Conference

Session coverage roundup from Barry at Search Engine Land

Search Engine Strategies

Public Speaking Tips from Brett

Brett Tabke is the excellent owner and “last stop” moderator of WebmasterWorld, the largest forum in the world dealing with Search Strategies and SEO. “PubCon” is the WMW conference and is held annually in Las Vegas and at other cities during the year.

The PubCon blog has Brett’s excellent article that is suggesting detailed tips on Public Speaking and preparing a good presentation.

Unfortunately for all of us even good advice goes largely unheeded by speakers for reasons I’ve never understood. Part of the problem is that self-confident, smart folks often are poorly prepared, thinking they can “wing it” because they’ve seen other self-confident smart folks *look like* they wing presentations when in fact really good talks are usually canned and focused more on entertainment than education. I often want to gag when I hear people rave about an entertaining talk as if they learned something, only to 1) note that the talk probably was not really about anything of much substance and 2) watch the raver’s future behaviors change NOT A WIT.

I’ve given several travel technology presentations and I’ve sat through *a lot* of conference presentations over the past ten years or so and it’s pretty clear to me that speakers are more born than made, and they are entertainers not educators. Real learning can be fun but it takes brain work most conference folks simply don’t want to do. This is why the unconference is so effective.  I noted that my “popular” talks tended to deal very simply with complex topics and not go very deep, which just confused people.  Also I’d throw in fun or intriguing items to keep people interested.  Unfortunately this made it tough to really “dig in” and talk about the intricacies of the topic.

For every Guy Kawasaki there are a hundred regular folks and another hundred lousy speakers. Guy is a superb speaker with – I think – a lot of canned presentations that “feel” spontaneous. He injects some anecdotes to shake it up a little, but the one time I heard him talk it was just too polished to be “real”, and I was told after that somebody had seen the same talk before – I think more than once!

Google Downrank Penalty

One is torn between respect owed to Google for all they’ve done with search and frustration with their insufficient help/info for downranked sites. I know a small number of folks on the web spam team work to keep “collateral damage” low, but I think what bugs me is the ongoing strong implication that there is very little collateral damage when in fact there is a lot.

Ironically this opaque approach to downranking penalties is what spawns a lot of bad information at many forums and leads to the mistrust of Google that is increasingly common among many of the elite SEOs and webmasters.

The big part of my frustration comes from what I think is a lie, or at best a misleading thing that Google tells sites in the standard emails from Google support, which says that because your site is found in the Google index you have no penalty.

I now believe that by any reasonable definition of “penalty” this is a false and unreasonable statement.

What they really mean by this emails is that your site has no “manual penalty”. A manual penalty is invoked in extreme cases where sites are removed from the index. This is generally for things like hidden text, sneaky redirection, or other SEO tricks banned by the Google Webmaster Guidelines. However, if your site has a big downrank it probably has been penalized by the algorithm in a direct way, probably by a subtraction of points that leads to a much lower score for many/all of the pages in your site.

Here’s a good example of the downranking penalty at our Online Highways Travel site:

Searching Google for “Province of Djizak” it would be reasonable for a user to find this page somewhat high among the results:

Why would a user want this page? It’s highly relevant for the search, leads to more info about Uzbekistan, and our Uzbekistan section was created mostly by a leading travel expert from Uzbekistan who publishes the leading travel magazine for the Silk Road region of Asia.

So, why is this page relegated to obscurity, at position of approximately 190 of 193 results listed? Here it is on the last page of the Google results.

I wish I knew, though I’ve been assured by Google in several emails that we have no penalty when clearly … we do.

Google probably has a right to penalize and re-rank however they see fit, but along with this power and responsibility goes an obligation to tell an unvarnished truth about the status of sites. I used to believe that large sites with high advertising spends were not more likely to get special help than small sites, and to Google’s credit they have historically been good listeners/talkers at events like WebmasterWorld and Search Engine Strategies, but I now wonder if the lines are getting blurred between the advertising and ranking realms at Google. Google probably has the right to do things as they see fit, but please don’t tell me that thousands of small and medium-sized sites with relevant pages aren’t getting penalized and downranked when they … clearly are.

Update: Blogging about this has affected the results – on May 11 this blog post is number one for the term “Province of Djizak”! Our subject page remains very low – about 201 in rankings even though it is *referenced* by the number ONE page for the term (and of course is much more relevant to the search).

This, combined with the Chico the Wonder Dog experiments and a lot of reading and talking with SEO people, leads me to think that the downrank penalty really is site wide and that Google really is sacrificing a lot of good pages like our UZ section to punish us for what they see as undesirable cross linking / thin pages / failure in some cases to use nofollow on links / ?

Update 2: Maybe I shouldn’t complain about the rank? Our Djizzak Province page appears, after all, two places above this, um, highly relevant page for that query: Application of defecation lime from sugar industry in Uzbekistan

Update 3: OK, I have now created what I would argue is the world’s best “Province of Djizak” web page, located at the Online Highways blog. Unfortunately I had a problem changing the title but that page should *at least* rise higher than 200 for a query. Why? Because it is quite a bit more relevant than any others for that term and it now has TWO LINKS from this, the top page for the query “Province of Djizak“. If my hypothesis is correct it will not rise up because it will fall under OHWY’s site downranking penalty.

Update 4: Province of Djizak original OHWY page is now number one at Google for “Province of Djizak”. This is NOT at all consistent with my site penalty hypothesis above. It is consistent with the idea that we need to beef up incoming, new links to get pages re-ranked.

Update 5 (June 1). The original OHWY page is again heavily penalized – number 216 from number 1 yesterday. This, alas, is totally consistent with the sitewide penalty hypothesis I describe above.

BarCamp USA 2007

Wow, if BarCamp USA <<too bad… it’s been cancelled >>really pulls in 5000 technology enthusiasts it could be the best conference of the year, and in Wisconsin no less. At a cost of $50 it’ll also be close to the cheapest.

What? You don’t know what a BarCamp is?

I love the unconference formats. After attending about ten computer conferences over the past 18 months including Microsoft’s MIX06 and WebmasterWorld’s in Las Vegas and Boston, my favorite conference was MashupCamp 1, a dynamic gathering of startups and mashup developers down in Silicon Valley at the Computer Science Museum. Dave Berlind, Doug Gold, and supporters did a fantastic job with these Mashup Camps and I’m sorry I missed the one just held in Boston and will miss Mashup Camp IV in July because I’ll be in Pennsylvania for our family reunion.

Organizers of the BarCamp USA say they expect 5000 but could handle up to 20,000. I sure hope this approach prevails in the conference space rather than the expensive and exclusive conferences that are tailored primarily to support existing large companies and sales efforts. I should say that Brett and his crew do a fine job making WebmasterWorld an inexpensive and great conference compared to the alternatives.

Fancy Las Vegas parties at nightclubs like TAO and PURE are really fun and neat, but the really profound changes in technology are only partly happening over cocktails in Las Vegas. They are ALSO happening inside laptops plastered with goofy stickers, handled by young geeks who haven’t even learned how to do laundry. BarCamps cater to that crowd, and that’s a crowd you want to pay attention to if you want to better understand where tech is headed … and headed fast.

Blog Tag Game

James Kim Search Discussion – Click here | Mount Hood Climber Search

Aaron Shear tagged me to share five things people don’t know about me. It’s tempting to make up some some impressive stuff (but I won’t lie!) since the other folks are all very interesting, namely Google’s Adam Lasnik, International SEO Consultant and speaker Joseph Morin, Search Engine Watch Forum’s Jessica Bowman, and Scottish SEO/SEM Scott Boyd.

Here are five things from my little world:

1) My lab, Chico the Wonder Dog, has been working hard to nab the top Google spot from a Chihuahua by the same name. I told him NOT to buy any links or I’ll sick Matt Cutts on him.

2) A recent blog post about the Kim Family Search here in Southern Oregon now has over 1000 comments and has spawned a new project that will combine blogs and a database to help facilitate future search and rescue info coordination.

3) For a time I was a good Touchscreen Kiosk guy, working in the 90’s on a US Forest Service/Tourism project that had multimedia kiosks in travel spots all over the state. I now volunteer on the project I designed that replaced that one, with internet connected stations at the state welcome centers and other travel spots.

4) I can talk like a Duck. No, not the stupid way, the good way. I started talking duck so I could tease my sister by swearing at her without my parents understanding the conversation. I still feel guilty about it, but time shall heal this.

5) I have a double major in Botany and Psychology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. I don’t know why. Therefore, naturally, I do travel internet publishing and blog about most anything that pops into my head.

I’m tagging these five bloggers because they are all very interesting AND educational folks:

More Tech Memes

James Kim Search Discussion – Click here

Yikes – I leave town for a few days and can hardly keep up with all the interesting tech news items. In addition to the fun Jeremy v. Matt copycat debate we’ve got:

Jason on Digg Rigging This is just a tiny part of the HUGE number of upcoming stories which will showcase how complex the relationships are between SEO, social networking sites, and …. money.   I actually contacted the Digger Jason is effectively accusing of abuse and it does not appear to me he’s taken any money at any time.   Here’s a great summary of that “Digg Ban” case.   But his innocence does not suggest to me that there is not a huge and growing issue with Social media SEO uses and abuses.  At PubCon many were discussing how powerfully social networking can help with organic optimization as well as straight traffic generation to a site that gets “dugg” or creates a compelling (including stupid but popular) YouTube video.

Jim at Microsoft apologizing in a very web 2.0 way. Scoble would be proud of this “naked conversations” approach to corporate blogging. Too bad Microsoft didn’t see how making Robert the semi-official corporate blogmeister with the huge salary increase he deserved for “getting Web 2.0” before the suits did (most MS suits don’t even get it now) would have returned 100x on the investment.

… and speaking of “getting Web 2.0”. Yahoo does but can’t seem to get the mileage they deserve for retooling the corporation as a community internet extravaganza. This set of leaked Yahoo internal documents about the potential Facebook aquisition provides a fascinating glimpse into how big deals are analyzed. As a Yahoo shareholder I think they should save the billion and just get their stupid ass in gear with the excellent social network stuff they already own like Flickr (which should be the template for other social applications, (OVERHAUL the INTERFACE and yes, you can rename this URL monstrosity! ), Yahoo Video, Yahoo 360, Answers, groups, etc, etc. As I’ve noted before Yahoo suffers from giving people so many options they tire of the decision making and go to Google’s simple interfaces, search, and simpler suite of choices. Google expects us to act like the sheep we are. Yahoo expects us to do too much mental work choosing how we relate to the internet.

Leaving Las Vegas

Pubcon has ended and probably won’t reappear in the USA until next year here in Las Vegas.   It was a nice conference and I really think Brett deserves a lot of credit for keeping this as the ‘affordable’ search conference, as well as the most technically advanced.   He told me 2100 attendees this year – almost double from last time.

Due to some flaky internet connectivity at the motel and during the conference I missed posting nearly as often as I would have liked to but I’m now at LAS Airport with superb and *free* WIFI.   I wrote about the free LAS Wifi last time I was here.   Aiports would be smart to adopt the ad supported model, especially as increasing numbers of frequent travelers use EVDO or just slow cell connectivity rather than pay 9.95 to pick up a few mails.

Ad supported free WIFI is a win win for a lot in the food chain, and I’m glad to see Google start this in Mountain View and MSN’s getting the idea for some WA locations.

Plane’s about to leave but I wanted to say thanks to Brett and Pubcon staff for a conference well done!

Whoops, we missed Web 2.0 at Pubcon!?

I’ve enjoyed Pubcon Las Vegas and I’m looking forward to the big bash today to wrap it all up.   Still, for the first time I’m leaving with a feeling of the growing disconnect between the really neat  developments in Silicon Valley I’ve been seeing at Dave and Doug’s Mashup and Startup Camps and what the mostly SEO focused and new business folks are up to here.

(Notable exception was Lawrence’s presentation which was excellent and addressed several key points like the coming Gadget/Widget revolution and user content challenges and opportunities).   He’s in SF so I think he “gets it” more than a lot of the folks here who seem stuck in what have become “old school” concepts of highly manipulative SEO work, link networking, arbitrage and often risky SEO tricks.

I think the big story in computing right now at many levels are the issues that surround content ownership, content use, mashups, and gadgets.    Not much discussion of those here and I think that lack of awareness may come back to haunt those who don’t pay attention to the “new” internet, aka “what happened yesterday?”.

But hey, I’m in the cheap hotel so what do I know?