SMX London – Chris Sherman Interview

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This week I had the opportunity to interview Chris Sherman, Founding Editor of about the upcoming SMX London event. During the interview, Chris gives his insight on the event, the agenda and his thoughts on the search industry in 2015.

If you are interested in going to SMX London and you want some discount, then you are in luck. The lovely people at SMX have provided us with a 15% discount code when signing up by simply add WHITESMX at the registration page.

The below is a transcript of the interview recording.

Daniel Bianchini (DB):Hello Chris, thanks for taking the time to speak to me.

Chris Sherman: Sure.

DB: Really looking forward to SMX coming up in May. So I just really wanted to get some of your thoughts about a couple of key points that I sent across, if that’s okay?

CS: Sure. It sounds great.

DB: So the first one is, obviously, SMX is back in London. What can we expect from this year’s conference? Is there any surprises you can let the audience in on?

CS: I don’t think we’re gonna have any surprises. The real advantage that I think we have in running SMX in London in May is that it comes right between our SMX West and our SMX Advanced show.

During the process of planning the show, we get to not only see what’s new, what’s happening and so on in San Jose at SMX West, but we’re also thinking forward to what we’re gonna run at SMX Advanced in Seattle.

So in my mind, SMX London gets the best of both worlds. We kind of distill the content that we think is really, really useful from both of those shows, and of course it’s not entirely U.S. based approach. We try to look at what’s happening in the U.K., what’s happening in Europe and so on. But we really do get a lot of advantages from having the timing right when it is.

DB:I was at SMX Advanced in Seattle last year. I was lucky enough to manage to come across and I really enjoyed it.

So how do you think the content there differs with the content that you have over in the U.K.? Like you said, you try and get the best of both worlds. But is there a difference?

CS: Yeah. There is a difference. I mean, with SMX London, as with most of the rest of our SMX shows, we try to have a balance between advanced and intermediate content. We really don’t do a whole lot of basic content anymore because we feel that most people who are coming to the shows do have the basics already down.

So it’s gonna be a nice broad range of topics that we’re covering. We do have some of the same sessions that we are running at SMX Advanced running in London. So people who are experienced will have the advantage of getting that content.

There will be different speakers. That’s the nice thing about London is we tend to have more U.K. and European based speakers, so we get a different perspective, but we still get that great content that we really get at SMX events.

DB:That’s interesting. Obviously you have been coming to the U.K. for quite awhile now. How do you think the content has changed throughout time?

CS: Oh, it has been fascinating. I’ve actually been involved in programming search conferences for over 15 years now. When we first started doing them it was just so, so basic. We were only interested in what’s your search engine ranking and how many hits does a page get, and so on.

It was simple stuff. Over time it has involved to be this incredibly complex, very rich sort of process. I mean, when we first started doing it there were no ads, for example. I mean, it was all just organic search. Now we have ads. We’ve got mobile. We have so many things. Social media.

It’s just become this incredibly rich and fascinating sort of process that we have to get involved with and it changes constantly. So to keep up with it, it’s really a full time job.

DB:Do you think there’s been any trends that have stayed consistent or has it completely flipped?

CS: Well, it’s interesting, because when people ask this question I always have consistently, for the past 15 years had pretty much the same response. The content and the way that you actually get stuff out to people is very consistent. You still have to have great content. You have compelling ads. All that kind of stuff.

Yet many people say, “Well, wait a minute. Isn’t there some secret sauce? Isn’t there some brand new formula that we have to be paying attention to and so on?”

Yes, there is, there are. Things change constantly. But in that constant change if you don’t have the good content, if you don’t have the compelling advertising and so on, you don’t have any chance. That’s something that we continue to focus on at the conferences.

DB:We’ve all seen the change in the content over the years. Agencies generally tend to come to these type of events a lot more than in-house members, is sort of the way I see things. Why should those in house people come along to SMX London, rather than just follow it on blogs and Twitter?

CS: Well, I think you’ve seen live blogging. You have seen tweets and so on. That kind of stuff is great. It’s really good to kind of dip your foot, so to speak, into the flow of what’s going on. But you really don’t get the context that you get when you’re at the event itself. You don’t get the nuances of actually watching speakers, seeing their body language, in many cases. Getting the subtle nuances that come through when you hear an actual full conversation or presentation.

There are little things like that. But then also at the event itself, a huge part of it is the networking with the other attendees so that you can see a presentation, you have a break, blog and actually discuss what you’ve just heard with other people who are there.

The opportunity to exchange tips, exchange ideas, and that whole learning process, you can’t get that if you just do it by reading live blogs or on Twitter. So I think that’s a very, very compelling reason for people to actually attend the event itself.

DB:I’m very much an advocate of those, just to network and then making sure they speak to people after the show or straight after the presentation to make sure that they can clarify any points they were a bit concerned about.

So the next section I’m taking a look at the agenda and I wanted to just talk about that, if that’s okay.

CS: Sure.

DB: keyword research is a huge part of search marketing, both organic and paid. With the removal of the keyword data, obviously, and the focus starting to move towards the user, how do you think this changes the way we look at keyword research?

CS: Well, I think keyword research is and will always be very important. I mean, that’s fundamentally the way search engines work regardless of the improvements and the algorithms and so on. You’re basically taking a string of words and trying to match that to content on the web.

Until we really get full AI based voice search, that’s not gonna change very much. What’s changed is that the search engines are going beyond just the simple strings of keywords and they’re actually looking at content. They are looking at more semantic intent.Also intent. That’s the key word. What is the person really trying to accomplish when they’re using a search engine?

So I think the search engines are looking at much more of a behavior that’s going on and trying to help people understand beyond what the simple words that are being typed in. What is it that we can do to really solve this person’s problem or satisfy their information need?

So I think from the standpoint of somebody doing SEO, keyword research has to become much more about what are the different personas? What are the needs, and how can we create content that’s gonna be really rich that will help satisfy these needs?

So the keywords, again, I think they’re fundamentally important, but it’s much more than that, the way that search engines work these days.

DB:With keyword research comes content and that’s become a huge, huge topic since the changes Google made over the last few years.With content moving on to be a bit more creative, a bit more visual. What’s the best piece of content you have come across and why, or several?

CS: It will probably sound trite, but I’ll say Shakespeare. It goes back hundreds of years, but there’s a reason that Shakespeare was relevant in his time and still is now. I mean, it’s just absolutely amazing stuff that this guy wrote.

I think to be more contemporary, there’s stuff that I see being created every day. To your point, it really is all about creativity. But again, going back to what we were talking about earlier, I think again, compelling content is something that satisfies a need. I think if people really wrap their heads around that concept, creating that kind of compelling content becomes much easier.

It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare. It could be something as simple as, where can I find the best tool for this task that I’m trying to provide. Even mundane things like that, you can create very, very compelling stuff if you get creative and really try and help the person that has that need.

DB: Grand. So, just taking another step in a different direction, there’s also a panel this year, which is great. Past panels involving employees for search engines have generally become quite heated, which is obviously great. I really enjoyed the SMX Advanced one last year with Matt Cutts.

What are you hoping to hear from the search engines representatives this year during the Meet a Search Engine session?

CS: Well it’s gonna be very interesting. The search engines, we’re really lucky to have them at the event. It’s great to have representation from Google, from Bing. In past years we’ve actually had Baidu, we’ve had Yandex, we’ve had other search engines.

It’s always difficult to know because they have an interest in, obviously, engaging with their customers, which is really what the SEO community is in a large degree. But they also have competitive issues. So it’s almost like a dance trying to get them to reveal interesting things and sometimes it does get heated, as you said. Other times it’s more, “Well, come on. We’re really trying to draw you out.”

I don’t honestly know what we’re gonna hear this year. Sometimes it’s very, very interesting. Very deep and, “Wow, this is really gonna change my life as a search marketer.” Other times it’s, “Well, things are just sort of business as usual.”

But it’s my job as moderator of that session to really do the probing and really trying to get at them. Quite honestly, I don’t know yet how I’m going to approach that. But it’s definitely something that I’m gonna have fun with and really try to see what we can come up with in that session.

DB: I’m really looking forward to that. I’m quite interested to see how you’re gonna get some, extrainformation out of them, shall we say. When you talk about search, social media is never far form the discussion.

CS: Right.

DB: How do you feel that search and social is best used together, and whether it is essential to every business?

CS: Well, it’s a good question. We’re actually running an entire track on search and social. One of the things that’s actually emerging as a theme is that search and social, I think until quite recently, have been thought of as very, very different species, almost, in marketing. But, in fact, they’re [inaudible 00:11:36] and they can amplify the effects, one or the other.

In the past we’ve kind of focused on that as well. Do this on Facebook or Twitter. Then you might have this kind of impact on your search results and drive traffic and so on. But that was always kind of done in an almost ad hoc way. I think what we’re seeing emerging now is people really analytically looking at how do we make these two things work together?

What are the tools that we have? What are the sort of reports, the metrics, the things that we can measure and conclusively prove that, hey, this is the way you should really be approaching this. Then how can we take that amplification effect and really magnify it so that we’re not just having a really effective search campaign, we’re not just having a really effective social campaign, but we’re seeing ripple effects based on what we’re doing with both that really, really compound the overall effect of both sides of the equation, if you will.

So I think we’re gonna see a lot of people talking about, here are the real techniques. Here are the real analytics. It’s gonna be very tangible and real information rather than we just have a gut clench that this is gonna work.

DB: Okay. Thank you very much for that. Just take a little step away from SMX and the agenda. I wanted to just talk about the industry a little bit. So in 2014 it continued to be a year of change in the search industry. Any reports on what Google specifically has up their sleeve this year, and whether we’ll see any other animals begin with the name P?

CS: It’s a really good question because again, as I said I’ve been watching the search space for well over 15 years. Every year, in my mind, has been a year of significant change. It continues to just astonish me how things keep evolving and keep progressing.

I think we’re not gonna see the kind of dramatic changes that we have in the past few years with the various algorithms, with the knowledge graph and so on. But what we’re starting to see, and I notice this literally almost every day when I’m using Google now, is I think that AI within Google has become so good that the AI itself is actually starting to make changes to how Google works.

Google will not talk about this. They will not publicly admit it. They acknowledge that they’re using AI and so on, but I think, as much as what Google is planning in terms of the change to their algorithms, the improvements that they’re making and so on, I think there’s a subtler change going on. The software itself has actually reached a stage where it’s improving on its own.

I have no proof of this. I have no way to substantiate it. It’s just more that I have been using Google since it started in 1998. My sense is that I’m seeing changes that I haven’t seen before, and I don’t really know what to make of them other than, well, maybe the AI really is here. So I think that’s gonna be an interesting thing to watch going forward. Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I’m wrong. But that’s my sense.

DB: I’d be very interesting to keep an eye on that, like you said, and seeing how that goes. So we’re just going to talk about this year specifically. What do you think will be the biggest trend in 2015, and what do you think practitioners such as myself will be doing a lot more of in the search marketing campaigns during 2015?

CS: Well, I hate to say it because it’s kind of a cliche but I think mobile. I mean, this is the year, if not already, where people are active more on mobile devices than they are on desktop, and not just mobile devices itself, but voice. I think voice is becoming a huge thing. It’s gonna be very interesting to see. I’m not entirely clear yet what the implications are in terms of how you have to alter your SEO efforts. Obviously, the ads are different. There’s in app stuff that is starting to emerge that is very interesting, that’s very different. Both Google and Bing are surfacing things from within apps. So I think mobile is gonna be probably the thing that most people are gonna be focusing a lot more on this year than they have in the past.

DB: That’s very interesting. I think, obviously a lot has come out over the recent weeks. Google’s recent announcement of mobile and the ranking factors. So, mobile is definitely something I would agree is gonna be huge this year, if not last year as well.

If you have to choose one, and I know this is putting you on the spot a little bit. What do you think is currently the most influential important ranking factor signal?

CS: That’s a really good question, too. I think we’ve actually moved beyond what’s the most important one? Obviously in the past it was links. I mean, you could argue a good case right now that it’s content, but there’s no good definition of what is quality content, and so on.

I don’t know. Again, depending on whose studies you look at, there are anywhere from several hundred to several thousand ranking signals that come into play. My sense with that is that depends entirely on the type of site that you have, the content that you’re providing, or what you’re trying to accomplish with your marketing.

So the ranking factors are gonna vary. If you’re local, obviously it’s gonna be some local signals that are gonna come into play. If you’re a retailer it’s gonna be process and all that kind of stuff. So I don’t think there is any one overall kind of signal anymore in the past that links were. I think it’s probably also gonna become much more diluted, if you will. We’re gonna have many, many more signals. They are gonna be starting to be used in very more complex and nuanced ways.

So I think that’s good for searchers. It’s gonna make our jobs as search marketers quite a bit more challenging to try and understand. Okay again, it’s getting back into the head of the searcher, because I think that’s what the search engines are trying to do themselves in terms of understanding, what can we do to make the best possible experience for the people that are using this?

DB: And finally. How would you compare the strength of search marketers in the U.K. to those offered out of the U.S.A.?

CS: I would put them on a par. This is interesting because in the past, quite honestly, when we would program the conferences I would kind of gauge. Features that we rolled out in the U.S. and they wouldn’t come to the U.K. for a year or two or three years later.

But I think that’s changed. Everything is pretty much equal now around the world. Maybe a little less so in some other parts of the world. But definitely in the U.K. it’s absolute parity with the U.S. We program our shows with that in mind. We don’t think there’s any difference at all. So we’re trying to bring absolutely the best quality programming, the best speakers that we possibly can to the U.K. shows just like we do in the United States.

DB: Great. Well, thank you for taking the time to speak to me. I’m really looking forward to SMX in May.

CS: That’s great.

DB: I look forward to seeing you then.

CS: Sounds good. Thank you, Dan.

DB: Thank you very much, Chris.

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