SearchFest 2011 Keynote Interview: Chris Sherman

Todd Mintz

Chris will be giving the Opening Keynote at SearchFest 2011, which will take place on February 23rd at the Governor Hotel in Portland, Oregon. Tickets are available now. To purchase, please click the following link.

1) Please give us your background and tell us what you do for a living.

According to Google, I’m the restaurant critic for the St. Petersburg Times. In my spare time, I work with my partner, internationally renowned race car driver Danny Sullivan running Search Engine Land and organizing our Search Marketing Expo (SMX) series of conferences.

I started covering search in the early 90s, right about the time the first web search engines and directories appeared. I worked for a time as the Websearch Guide for About.com, and as a consulting analyst covering enterprise search for IDC. Before that I was vice-president of technology for a global management consulting firm based in Amsterdam. I once sold individual packets of koolaid door-to-door, until my parents said I had to turn six before they’d allow me to continue.

2) As you “program” the content on SearchEngineLand, how do you choose what news stories to cover and what is the role and function of the various series of topically themed columns that SEL runs?

The editorial mission of Search Engine Land is threefold. First, we strive to be the “site of record” for all important news related to search marketing – that’s what drives our news coverage. Second, we want to be a leading site for search marketing education – how to do search optimization, advertising and social media marketing the right way, with content appropriate for a range of knowledge/skillsets from beginner to uber-advanced. Third, we want to be known for thought leadership in the search marketing industry. The latter two areas are what drive the topically themed columns and our “features and analysis” sections.

We have a staff of eight editors, each with responsibility for certain areas. Danny Sullivan tends to cover the big-picture issues, and often does deep dives into new technologies or services. He’s also our point man when a myth or company needs skewering. Barry Schwartz and Matt McGee coordinate our news coverage, either writing posts themselves or assigning stories to other editors. Greg Sterling and Vanessa Fox are both highly knowledgable generalists, but tend to dive in on coverage where they have deep industry expertise and experience – Greg in local, mobile and legal issues and Vanessa in technical SEO, drawing on her experience as one of the principal architects of Google’s webmaster tools. Elisabeth Osmeloski has recently assumed my former role of overseeing our columns and features, now working with more than 300 writers. And Pamela Parker has recently joined us after working for years in various top editorial roles at ClickZ, primarily covering paid search.

Working with all of these great people leaves me in the position of a virtual editor-at-large, with the freedom to take deep dives into topics anywhere on the spectrum from breaking news to complex, important industry issues. I’m really looking forward to having the time to get back into doing a lot more writing again as the year unfolds.

3) As you “program” each SMX conference, how do you decide on the sessions / tracks that get included and what are some characteristics of speaker pitches that make you more likely to invite that person to speak?

Danny and I have been programming search conferences for more than a decade now. Our process continues to evolve. In the early days, we literally worked off of a spreadsheet and personally invited people we thought would be good speakers on a particular topic. These days, the process is more involved. First, we invite people to suggest ideas for topics, and then we typically lock ourselves in a hotel room for a day or two to create an agenda for a show, combining the best ideas we receive with our own sense of the crucial issues and topics that need to be covered. Next, we invite people to look at the agenda and “pitch” to speak on specific panels, telling us explicitly what they would talk about and why what they have to say would be valuable for SMX attendees. Over the past few years, we’ve also started working with a team of people we call “coordinators” – industry experts who we know and trust who actually make the speaking selections for individual panels. We work together as a team, but we also rely on the judgement of coordinators to select the best possible speakers for each panel.

The key thing for anyone wanting to speak at SMX is to make the strongest pitch possible, and that means two things. First, convince us that you know your content backward and forward. While we do like to see speaking experience, we’re also willing to go with people who impress us with deep insights they’re willing to share, whether they’re experienced speakers or not. Second – and this is the most important point – convince us that what you have to say will be *truly* valuable to our conference attendees, whether you end up working with/for them or not. Our attendees want to leave SMX with tactics and new ideas that they can immediately turn into action for their own search marketing campaigns. If you aren’t offering that you’re not going to speak at our shows. It goes without saying that if you’re wanting to make a product or service pitch, or if you have PR or marketing people submit your pitches, you also won’t be on our radar. Bottom line: offer something of value to our attendees rather than trying to impress us.

As an aside, I’ve heard some outlier comments about speakers somehow needing to be part of a “clique” or working for a sponsor of a conference to be selected. This is just not the case at all. We have a strict church and state separation between our editorial and commercial teams at Search Engine Land and SMX. Speakers at our conferences are selected strictly on merit. We do invite some speakers to speak at many of our conferences, but it’s because they’ve proven themselves repeatedly (and attendees have also endorsed them via the feedback that we collect at each conference). For anyone to suggest that we have some kind of club, or that we favor sponsors is just absolute [insert synonym for bovine excrement here].

4) How can a business hiring a search marketing firm make sure they don’t suck (both before and during the engagement)?

Excellent question, and one that has no simple or easy answer. I’d look first of all to see how much information the firm offers on their website. Are they upfront with the methods, tactics and knowledge that they apply on behalf of clients? The best firms tend to freely offer their best ideas, not afraid to share their knowledge, because knowing *what* to do is quite different than knowing *how* to do it. I wouldn’t trust anyone claiming to have a “secret sauce” or some kind of black box technology – white hat techniques are pretty open (though not always appropriately applied).

I’d also want to talk to existing and past customers – including those that weren’t happy with the services provided by the search marketing firm. Openness and honesty are key – happy customers are of course important, but disgruntled customers can provide other types of insight – was the firm easy to work with but didn’t satisfy goals? Were client expectations unrealistic or unreasonable? Really good SEM firms aren’t afraid to admit that they aren’t always successful. The key to selecting a good firm is to find one where there’s a good cultural fit combined with a process that results in realistic goals that lead to ethical practices with results that can be reliably measured. SEM isn’t rocket surgery, and if you can’t understand (or trust) what a SEM firm says it’s doing, they’re likely either not doing a good job or leading you into trouble.

During the engagement: It’s important from the outset to establish tangible, measurable goals (even with SEO). Reports should be frequent, easy to understand, and focus on how the goals are being achieved (or not, and what the plan is to fix what’s not working). Over a certain period of time (say rolling six month increments) the goals should be consistently achieved, or you’re not working with a reliable or trustworthy partner, and you should consider looking elsewhere.

5) What would you tell a business that wants to push some or all of their marketing budget away from search and into social media?

First and foremost, understand *why* you’d want to do that. Although we’re starting to get some tangible metrics for the effectiveness of social media, it’s still not clear that Facebook likes or the number of Twitter followers a company, person or brand garners has a meaningful impact on the bottom line. Social media seems to have the most impact on creating brand lift and driving visitors to online content providers. It’s less clear whether it drives actual sales, either online or offline – the attribution models that distribute credit between all channels (social media, organic or paid search, offline media, etc) are still largely vague and inconclusive, in my mind.

By contrast, search is one of the most directly measurable media – particularly if you’ve got a relatively uncomplicated sales process (search, click, buy). So while I’d say just about everyone should be considering a social media strategy of some kind, I’d be conservative in allocating budget until we have better tools and techniques for measuring the effectiveness of social media campaigns.

6) What is the state of the search marketing community today compared to 5-10 years ago?

I thought your interview with John Audette (Seven Questions For SEO Pioneer John Audette) was great – it really captured the camaraderie and “small village” feel that we had when things were just getting started. Nostalgia aside, we continue to have a very strong community in our industry. It’s one of the few industries where even fierce competitors are still willing to sit down at the bar at a conference and share tips, insights (and of course, the occasional black hat technique). It’s also great that the community has expanded but still welcomes newcomers

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