Epic Friends of Search 2014 Conference Review


Friends of SearchThis has been my first post on SEJ since August 25, 2011 so I thought I should do something special.  That opportunity came last month when I was able to attend Friends of Search 2014 in Amsterdam, Netherlands, as a guest.  The event was perfect as I relocated to Amsterdam from Melbourne back in July 2013 and this international search event was just around corner and across a canal or two from my place.  The event is interesting as it’s actually a joint initiative between iab.nl and DDMA.nl and it had no traditional conference sponsorship. This means no company booths, sponsor presentations or delegate promo bags, which I was accustomed to seeing.

What really excited me about the event was the extremely high-caliber of Dutch and international speakers that were presenting at the event. I was wondering, though, what is the best way to share the insight for those who were unable to make it? The best solution I could think of was to create an epic review of FOS14 with interviews with as many speakers that I could organize in a single 7000+ word post!

The following speakers were kind enough to take some time out of their busy schedules

Barry Adams

Barry AdamsBarry Adams certainly stood out as the most controversial but also one of the most out of the box presenters. His presentation is on slideshare, but he certainly won the award for raising the most interesting points. Some of his tweets also created interesting discussions for those who were unable to attend, but were following #FOS14. Follow his outspoken and entertaining tweets from @Badams.

1) How did you find the crowd at FOS14?

It was a good crowd, very knowledgeable about SEO and digital marketing. The speakers got some great questions from the audience which showed they were thinking about SEO at a very advanced level, which is great to see.

2) Was there anything that surprised you about FOS14?

I thought for a first-time event the organization was surprisingly well done. Usually for inaugural events you see a lot of things go wrong, but the people who ran FOS made sure it was a well-oiled machine with a minimum of hiccups. That was a pleasant surprise.

3) What other speakers session did you catch?

I saw nearly all of them – I’m as much an attendee as a speaker and always eager to listen and learn from others. I thought Marcus Tandler’s keynote was excellent, as was Bastian Grimm’s WordPress security talk. Kevin Gibbons’ content marketing talk was also a very good overview of where that discipline stands at the moment.

4) Being Dutch, what was it like to present at a SEO event in Amsterdam?

It was good! I’ve been speaking at so many UK and Irish conferences that it was great to see a similar event organized in the Netherlands. I think Friends of Search might become a go-to destination on the European conference calendar.

5) What’s The Tomorrow Lab and why the new brand?

The Tomorrow Lab is the new brand for the digital side of Pierce Communications. We at Pierce Communications have often struggled with positioning our agency, as we combine three distinct disciplines under one roof: print, brand design, and digital services. To grow in the market, we felt we needed distinct brands for each of the three areas of our business. Hence the rebrand: Pierce Printellect for print, Brand Etiquette for branding and graphic design, and The Tomorrow Lab for web design, development, digital strategy, and digital marketing. Then we have an umbrella brand called The Pierce Partnership for when we need to combine forces for multidisciplinary tenders. We’re excited about it!

6) You touched on the dangers of not-so-smart personalization, but is Google or Bing getting better?

I think Google is getting better and better at eliminating the mismatches in their personalized search offering, which is actually a bit dangerous because users will stop noticing the personalization. I don’t use Bing very often, but their integration with Facebook makes their personalization much more based on the social graph than Google’s.

7) Which direction is Google going? Is it towards dumb, not-so-smart or creepy personalization?

Definitely towards the creepy end of the spectrum where they will guess what you want to know next and provide you with the answer before you even ask. That to me is dangerous territory, because it gives Google the perfect platform to guide what its users are exposed to, and manipulate their thinking.

8) For those that missed your session, what is wrong with a personalized search result?

I think an abundance of personalized search results leads to decreased exposure to alternative viewpoints, new ideas, and contradictory concepts. As humans, we should not have our every belief validated and confirmed by the internet – in fact, we should have our ideas and beliefs challenged and debated. And that means we need to expose ourselves to opposing viewpoints and alternative modes of thought. Personalized search does the exact opposite: it wraps us up in the same information from the same sources and filters out information we don’t want to see. It basically enables cognitive bias on a massive scale, and that is a bad thing.

9) What is a filter bubble and why should marketers be aware? Any resources on the topic?

The filter bubble concept, first coined by Eli Pariser who wrote a great book on the topic, is the result of excessive personalization on the web, where search engines and social media sites only present us with information they know we want to see and engage with. And this information is not necessarily correct, but we might not ever know that because contradictory sources are increasingly filtered out. So we end up with unshakable beliefs that are never challenged, and these beliefs could be entirely false. Like I said, the filter bubble is an enabler for cognitive bias, where we become increasingly entrenched in our own little worlds of information we agree with, and as a result we become increasingly disassociated from the real world where there are opposing viewpoints and different opinions.

10) How can marketers counter or adapt to the filter bubble?

I think being aware of the filter bubble is the first big step. From there on we should take conscious steps to avoid becoming trapped in our own filter bubbles: disable personalised search in Google, use Amazon when logged out, actively seek out Facebook friends you don’t see in your feed, read news from different websites, etc. Exposure to ideas and opinions we might not agree with is vital for ongoing personal growth and development – at least, it is for anyone who values truth.

11) What are alternatives to Google people should be exploring?

DuckDuckGo is a great search engine that does not personalise its search results and that, in fact, stores no information at all about its users. So it’s a great privacy-friendly search engine as well. For other Google services, there are plenty of individual alternatives available like Yahoo Mail, Dropbox, Skype, etc. The advantage that Google has is that it combines all these services in one easy to use platform, which is why it’s so hard for people to distance themselves from the Google ecosystem.

Dixon Jones

Dixon JonesDixon Jones was the only presenter who was focused purely on data and insights possible due to MajesticSEO’s massive treasure trove of data. Dixon is the Marketing Director of MajesticSEO, a link research and insight platform. He also shared his insights regarding the 2,482,001,145,270 URLs that their crawler has seen covered in one of their recent blog posts “A Word About Scale“. It’s always interesting talking with the marketers who build tools that we use all the time because they often have interesting tips on how you can use the tool better. They also listen to feedback on how to improve the tool so it’s more useful to marketers.

Dixon’s presentation started off with a shout out to Moz for the hard work that their team and contributors put into gathering insights from leaders in the search industry. He also commended SearchMetrics for their data led dive into what influences Google search results.

1) How did you find the crowd at FOS14?

Great! Just a taxi drive from Schipol! Excellent (and very international) speaker lineup.

 2) Was there anything that surprised you about FOS14?

A few things. Firstly, the turnout was much higher than I expected. For a first event – and knowing how hard others have struggled in Amsterdam – this was packed to the rafters. I also loved the quirky, yet incredibly central, venue. Glad there wasn’t a fire though!

3) What other speakers session did you catch?

A few. I quite enjoyed Bastion Grimm’s talk on security issues with WordPress.

 4) What do you think Google might be doing with Disavow Tool data?

Google never takes an action without having at least two reasons. Often only one reason has an outward focus. The first benefit is clearly for the user, as we have certainly seen Google now seems to be reacting to disavow lists more and more promptly, easing the pain of recovery from Penguin penalties. However – the lists also give Google new data on where habitual link farms lie. If a domain is on one or two separate disavow lists – that may be random. If it is on proportionally more lists than would be expected for the size of the site, then that’s a flag that may be used to penalize other sites with links from that domain. The result is quite a clinical ‘bad neighbourhood’ index.

There is a third advantage for Google as well – this bad neighbourhood list is not acquired through a public crawl, so other search engines don’t have a comparable list. That makes Google’s data comparatively stronger, structurally.

5) Is Majestic looking at doing anything like crowd sourcing data?

Technically, we already do through our distributed crawler project, but in terms of crowd sourcing disavowed domains, we do think that Flow Metrics have proved effective in highlighting potential problem areas already. Crowd sourcing disavows comes with layers of problems…one is that black hats might use that to distort our data. I guess that’s a long-winded way if saying that I can’t reveal our roadmap.

6) What two competitors do industry research reports well?

Experian (previously called Hitwise) USED to, but now they seem to keep the data close to their chests. Although they are not really competitors, I do like some reports that come out of companies like Brightedge. On the competitor front, I mentioned both Search Metrics and Moz on stage as the strongest reports for the subject I was talking on, but (as they both make clear) the correlation signals are not causation signals – and this dramatically reduces the inference that one can glean from such studies.

7) Do you see ranking signals different by region?

I think that the biggest difference by region is the choice of data sources that Google accesses and indeed the interpretation of the query, which is highly affected by language. It seems penguin is more acute at the moment in the UK, but watch this space!

8) You touched on negative SEO signals are out there, what countries or verticals seem to be more likely to attract unwanted links?

Heh! Well I could list a few…and the UK is on the list next to Russia and Ukraine. But a bad link is not country dependent. The link farms have spread far and wide. Ultimately, there’s a set of really bad networks identified by Google manually – but now it is Google’s disavow lists that are answering the “where”, not geography.

9) Has majestic or any of your agency peers felt the impacts of negative SEO?

We did not feel an impact – but we did receive a negative signal, which we were able to mitigate before it took hold. I am not going to go into how we dealt with our instance. However – I have seen instances of negative SEO affecting sites now. Negative SEO, though, is an expensive, risky and ultimately an unfulfilling strategy, which is why it is not totally rampant.

9) Do you think penguin got it right for most sites?

Yes. It was really very effective. Further, I think it has started to change (for the better) the SEO culture of the countries and sites affected most.

10) What’s in a link? Is there more to a link than we think?

In links you can measure power, passion, influence, context, sentiment, intent, proximity, co occurrence, concurrence, timeliness… Yes, links are an interesting signal. They represent one of only two ways of accessing data on the web. You either type in a URL or click a link. Now with mobile and tablet, links increase rather than decrease as a navigation aid.

11) What is one key take away from FOS14 that you hope attendees got?

An appreciation of the wider picture I hope. That a single signal cannot be mined for long in isolation, because a green flag can turn red easily.

Wouter de Rijk

Wouter de RijkWouter de Rijk is an Online Acquisition Marketer for Dutch online retailer Fonq.nl since 2007. He is responsible for search strategy and affiliate marketing channels but also an active social media user found tweeting from @wouterderijk.

There is actually interesting story behind why I attended Wouter’s session. I went to the wrong room by accident, only to discover too late that his whole session “Case Study: Search Engine Marketing Lessons” would be presented in Dutch.  It was clearly marked on the guide with a language symbol, but the room was already far too crowded to leave so I decided to stay and see what I could learn. I must admit, it was tough to understand some of the more specific elements, but his presentation was easy to follow and quite visual. So I was still able to follow most main elements he covered and I did learn a bit more about the Dutch online retail market.

1) How did you find the crowd at FOS14?

The crowd was a good mix with people from E-commerce parties, agencies…and gurus! This good mix led to great networking opportunities and discussions between the sessions.

2) Was there anything that surprised you about FOS14?

Yes, that last year was a game changing year for search! SEO is more and more about engaging and inspiring content, and in AdWords it gets harder and harder to achieve a good CPA. It was good to hear that some old school guys are emphasizing that trend!

David Iwanow

David Iwanow

SEO Product Manager at Marktplaats
David is now located in Amsterdam, Netherlands working with the ebay classifieds group. He was previously the marketing director of The Lost Agency, a web analytics focused search agency. His rants, interviews, research and thoughts on digital marketing can be found on his blog Lost Press Marketing.
David Iwanow
David Iwanow

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