SMX Toronto Day One Recap: The Courage to Change

This is part one of a two part series on SMX (Search Marketing Expo) 2012 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

SMX Toronto started out with a somewhat morbid analogy. Keynote speaker Gord Hotchkiss of Mediative opened the conference with a talk titled “Changing Course and Avoiding the Seventh Iceberg.” The basic point that Hotchkiss was making was that the digital economy is a disruptive force of the type that normally scuttles large businesses. Just over 100 years ago, the captain of the Titanic effectively ignored warnings about six icebergs before colliding with the seventh. In other words, the signs are there. The digital revolution, Hotchkiss argued, is changing business as we know it, and companies (particularly big ones) need to have tremendous courage in order to make the kinds of tough decisions that will see them through this unprecedented period of change.

It’s hard to argue with Hotchkiss on this. He gave a whole passel of examples of companies that have failed to adapt during periods of disruptive change (only about 10% of the companies that started the Fortune 500 are still in existence in any form today), and the big reason is that it’s really difficult to be brutally honest in assessing weakness. Companies have a lot invested (people, resources, infrastructure) in business as usual. Changing that in a radical and meaningful way is no small task.

The keynote talk kicked off a day focused on change and how to consistently approach that change with courage and innovation. While Hotchkiss was talking about how the digital revolution is changing and will continue to change business in general, the rest of the day was focused on how the pace of change withing the realm of search marketing is accelerating and how we all need to continually adapt and reevaluate our approach to the space.

Our own Ken Dobell led a panel on “The Big Google Kitchen Sink,” where he and others focused on the changing face of SEO. As I’ve said on this blog before, SEO is no longer about trying to reverse engineer the algorithm or delivering ranking reports. More and more, it’s about getting your content to be ready, relevant and right. Ryan Jones of Sapientnitro had an interesting point during the panel that the concept of content itself is changing as well. It’s not just about copy or even relevance. More and more, it’s all about usefulness. Figuring out the usefulness of content and the signals that indicate that usefulness may just be the next big challenge for Google and search marketers.

The theme of change continued with a session on Google’s (not provided) encrypted search change of a few months ago and how we can glean data in the face of disappearing search referrer data, while preparing for a world where this data is not available at all. That means, again, focusing on the content that’s working and continually making it better. That was followed by a session on link building and the increasing disconnect between traditional SEO signals like Pagerank and the number of back links a page or domain has and search engine rankings. That means SEO is less about a few tricks that get you higher on the page and more about creating meaningful (useful) content that is aligned with what users are looking for and measuring those efforts against larger business objectives.

Just as the digital revolution is changing the way business works right before our eyes, the ongoing push toward relevance and usefulness is changing the way we all need to approach search marketing. Just like many businesses will likely not survive the disruptive nature of the new digital economy, many search marketers will find it extremely difficult to shed the baggage of the well-worn tactics of the past. Will you be one of them, or will you have the courage to change? There are more icebergs ahead; consider yourself warned.

Scott Ensign, Digital Planner & Channel Integration Specialist

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