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by Alec Sharratt on 6th April 2011
It was a beautiful day in sunny Brighton, one of my favourite places, as a full house of 250 search professionals, hobbyists and practitioners were seated in a theatre at Brighton University for the conference. The day kicked off with a deliberately provocative debate titled “Is SEO doomed?” This instantly sparked hot and, in some cases, furious comments from both the rather candid speakers and the audience.
One of the first points of contention arose from Linkdex’s Managing director who said that “SEO is about building trust with people and the community”. This provoked a flurry of rebuttals from enraged or befuddled speakers who retorted with comments like “SEO is about building trust with search engines”, “SEO is about rankings” and “SEO is about delivering traffic to a website”.
In my humble opinion all of these were valid points, and are in most cases directly proportional to one another… Rankings will bring traffic for example, and engaging with your industries community and target audience is equally important for many businesses SEO strategy.
One comment which rang true to my view of search was that “so long as there are search engines there will be SEO”. It became apparent that for most of the panel the word “doomed” did not mean dead. Rather that SEO is still in its infancy as an industry and as both search engines and search specialists develop, SEO will change from the form it takes now. This is evidenced in how it has developed from the early days of Excite, Infoseek and AltaVista where all you needed were Meta keyword tags.
A general consensus was that SEO would move towards marketing as it matures. As search engine algorithms advance in their perpetual spiral of refinement we can expect holes to be plugged and new cracks to emerge. The debate incited some great remarks and was well lead by the conference organiser Kelvin Newman (creative Director, Site Visability).
Doug Platts – Communicating the Value of SEO
Doug Platts, head of natural search at iCrossing, delivered an informative presentation on communicating the value of SEO to your client. Doug’s insightful look at the subtle differences in client size and how value should and can be communicated to the client focused on setting expectations and understanding your client.
Doug spent some time explaining the disparity between good KPI’s and bad KPI’s, for example page views, page rank and bounce rates are not intrinsically great KPI’s… whereas conversions, revenue and profit are. This in itself helps to demonstrate value to the client, by understanding what is important to your client and reporting on it.
It was also stressed in the presentation that year on year comparisons of KPI’s as well as monthly assessments are of great value.
Lucy Freeborn – The Evolution of Link Building
Leapfrogg’s head of social media Lucy Freeborn gave an impassioned speech about the evolution of link building, PR and strategies. This focused heavily on “becoming a leader” and becoming more “strategically involved” with your client. Drawing upon her years of experience working for companies like Yahoo, Lucy elucidated the point that PR agencies are not SEO agencies and that SEO agencies do most of what a PR company can do and much more.
Lucy delved into Leapfrogg’s link building strategy and how it has evolved over the past few years into a holistic approach covering all areas from directory submissions to more advanced strategies. This was all backed up by case studies and real life examples, painting a complex picture of how different strategies can be combined to meet the needs of the client.
Paul Chaloner – Everything is a Social Network
Social media expert from FreshEgg, Paul bestowed upon the audience an interesting idea that SEO is or is soon to be dead, while social media is here to stay. Another controversial hypothesis, but one supported with some interesting experimentation.
Paul walked us through an experiment which focused around whether tweeting can help to improve rankings, and get pages indexed with Google. As with any good investigation employing the scientific method, Paul used a ‘control’ and a ‘test subject’ altering a single variable in order to get good quality data.
The research involved testing a well ranked blog, the blog also fed into Google news. This was tweeted to over 50,000 people and shortly after tweeting it appeared on the 1st page of Google for the keyword (and blog title) “There are no social media experts”
The other side of the experiment involved a lesser ranked blog, but that also fed into Google news, this was not tweeted initially. After a period of not being ranked or indexed, Paul started to Tweet the blog and this seemed to be the reason for it being indexed a few days later.
Despite obvious problems with control and variables which are to a large extent outside of the webmaster’s or SEO consultants influence almost as soon as a blog is posted; the conclusion was that social media is a vital and already highly integrated part of Google’s algorithm.
<In my opinion> Any indexed location on the internet that links to a webpage will inevitably lead to the content being indexed by Google. The rank it attributes to that content though still largely depends on the usual suspects; keyword focus, on-page elements, site authority, and competition. Tweeting is a part of that mix and a great tool but only has a minimal influence if a holistic strategy is already in place. </in my opinion>
Jo and Graeme – Staying on the Right Side of the ASA
An appealing presentation by Jo Morley and Graeme Benstead-Hume from Site Visibility centred on a set of regulations coming into play by the ASA (Advertising Standards Agency). Proffering statistics like in the UK last year online advertising spend exceeded TV advertising spend. The ASA as the name suggests, are responsible for regulating paid advertising which is now extended to online advertising.
The impacts of these new regulations are to prevent:
As with many new online regulations that are coming into play this year, most are entirely un-policeable. In fact no active investigation will be done to actually police this; rather it will rely on whistle blowing. This kind of passive enforcement often leads to competitors using regulations as a way of slowing the advancement of rival companies as I’m sure Google will pay testament to.
On the plus side these regulations will help to create a more level playing field and assist in legitimising digital marketing.
Dr Harry Brignull – Dark Patterns
Harry’s presentation was by far the most gripping, even the title stands out and makes you want to know more. This inspiring talk centred around the use of psychological and visual trickery in order to achieve a goal on a website. Using the opt-in or opt-out process as the starting point for the talk, Dr Brignull showed a graph that compared organ donor card as an example.
In the UK people have to opt-in to be a part of the organ donor program, as a result a relatively low number of people are registered. In Europe however many countries have an opt-out scheme whereby everyone is automatically an organ donor and should you not want to be, you have to opt-out. The figures speak for themselves, with between 97-99% of people registered as organ donors.
When translated into the less honourable world of online businesses, the opt-out philosophy manifests itself on countless websites. You have probably all seen the tick boxes automatically ticked for receiving mail, this is opt-out in action! You have to say no rather than yes to something. Variations of this appear all over the net, with oddly phrased sentences that if not diligently read will result in a weekly or daily email from the company.
The second phase to the opt-out strategy is the “easy in, difficult out” strategy. This helps the process along, the example given was a website which uses opt-out for an additional service. They have a 24/7 helpdesk but if you call them to cancel this service you will find that you actually need to speak to the cancellations department. This department works only 9-5 mon-fri, and when you do get through you discover that you have to send a letter to the head office. The game is simple, a simple tick box will get you the service, but several days or weeks of communication are required to get you out of it.
The “evil genius” award went to Ryanair whose travel insurance question came in the form of a drop down menu asking you what country you live in. It is a mandatory field and by selecting a country you agree to buy travel insurance. Unbelievable though it is, it clearly works for them; the smaller and less attention grabbing text underneath betrays the familiar nature of the drop down menu, explaining that you are agreeing to buy insurance. The opt-out option although in the list exists outside of the alphabetical order and rather than being at the top or bottom it sits in the middle of the list where most people would not expect to see it.
The conclusion to this was equally concerning that, by huge brands using these dark tactics, they are sending a message out to smaller, newer companies that this is acceptable and appropriate behaviour. This is in turn creating an almost systemic problem for future generations who could end being continually distrusting of websites for fear of being tricked into buying products or services that they did not want.
The Final Debate – Is SEO Ethical?
The final debate which rounded the day off was a prelude to the drinks and networking at the pub across the road, was as impassioned but more reasoned than the first debate. With several diametrically opposing viewpoints jostling for position, the debate was lively if nothing else.
Some people believed that SEO is by definition unethical because search specialists are essentially manipulating the search results. Other saw SEO as either effective or not, simply put ethics do not come into it. There was room still for more opinion on the topic with some believing that aspects of SEO like ‘black hat’ are unethical.
One audience member, rightly stated that the guidelines that Google set out are not a set ethical practices or rules, but rather a set of guidelines that help them to restrict activity counter productive to delivering relevant search results. I agree with this entirely and personally raised the point that Google try to deliver relevant search results not because they are ethical but rather because they are profitable.
Furthermore we (as search specialists) manipulate websites to improve rankings because it is profitable. The only point at which ethics come into play are in how you deal with your clients. Being honest with your clients and meeting your professional responsibility to them is more important than the method employed to deliver results.
This prompted a quick rebuttal from a panellist who queried what ethical impact this has to the end user… In my opinion people do not have a moral right to a relevant search result, it’s a free service and there is more than one page of results should you want to look further.
Ultimately with any debate about ethics, there is no correct answer simply opinion and given that everyone has an opinion there are a lot of different views. Nonetheless the debate was a great end to the day and was a great talking point later on.
Overall I would say the day was very interesting, lots of great presentations, plenty of interesting and colourful characters pitched in with their views, questions and advice. There were a few titbits to take away and test or implement in your own online marketing strategy. As important as the information, I felt that the real benefit came from networking, meeting people within the industry in a friendly environment conducive to open and fair exchange of information and opinion.