The Santa Clara convention center is rather big. Its sprawling footprint crosses seven or eight zip codes, several counties and encompasses at least three unique ecosystems. It was like I had breakfast in Sunnyvale, attended sessions in Santa Clara and attended a Google event somewhere near San Jose and I didn’t leave the building once. That’s my greatest complaint about SMX West. The building was too big. While complaining about the situation a wise bird reminded me, if the length of the hallways is the biggest complaint, you’re probably in a pretty good place. For the better part of last week, Santa Clara California was a pretty fun place to be.
The trip started on a good note and simply got better from there. StepForth CEO, Ross Dunn and I ended up on the same flight from Vancouver Island to SeaTac airport where by happy coincidence we met up with three other old-time SEOs, Todd Friesen, Ken Jurina and Damian Finley. The five of us were journeying to join 2400 or so of our colleagues attending the first (very) large conference thrown by Third Door Media. Each of us had attended the extraordinary SMX Advanced in Seattle eight months earlier, a show that left us with the higher than expected expectations which we hoped SMX West would live up to.
SMX West : A Home Run!
It did. Third Door not only hit a home run, at this show, they took the cover right off of the ball. The place was packed but that’s only part of the point. The information was amazing but, that too is only part of the point. SMX felt different, vibrant. It was the little things included in the planning for SMX West that made a difference. Items like fresh fruit, blogging tables in sessions, free WiFi through-out the venue, specialized social networking games and the brilliant Search Marketing Bowl session made life far easier for attendees.
Making life easier for attendees is more important than one might think. It is one of the ways SMX appears to differentiate itself from other shows in the search marketing sector. That differentiation may prove critical. One of the most frequently asked questions I faced was the difference between SMX and SES. While I am not going to try to answer that directly, at least not today; it is a question both Kevin Ryan and Danny Sullivan think of as frequently as it is asked.
Making life easier for attendees serves another important function. As interesting and enlightening as these conferences are, they are also exhausting and often annoying. Try making small talk with three hundred people a day and trying to sound and feel fresh every time. That’s after standing through a presentation or an hour-long keynote speech when all your body wants to do is curl up in the nearest corner and nap off the night before. By the middle of the second day the little things that make the difference have an enormous impact on the enjoyment and comfort of attendees.
Not Too Close for Comfort
Comfort is cool. Even cooler than comfort however is a good education. Being at SMX is like spending time in a small but highly elite university setting. If you want to learn a lot, you can. Speakers and many attendees know more about search marketing than virtually anyone else in the world. This is especially true given the basic facts that a) we are still building this industry, and b) representatives from each of the major engines were on site and onstage answering most reasonable questions. (note: Apparently questions about the Microsoft / Yahoo situation fall outside the definition of reasonable, at least for the Yahooligans and Microsofties at the event.)
If gettin’ all learned-up just ain’t your thing, the frat-parties alone are worth the price of admission. There was a specialized networking pass designed for just that. Though it did not get the holders into the skill sharing sessions a networking pass got the bearer in the door of most of the social and networking events. Anyone was allowed on the pool deck patio. Thats where some of the best social events happened anyway.
The keynote speeches were standing-room-only in rooms Third Door Media President Chris Elwell said had been prepared to accommodate 650. Like the keynote sessions, the skills sessions were also packed. Those wanting seats had to show up early, especially for the first three rows which were set up with tables for easier blogging. (yet another simple and highly appreciated touch)
There have been a number of reports on the sessions. Those who weren’t able to attend were able to keep up on the information by reading blog posts by writers like Tamar Weinberg, Lisa Barone, Matt McGee, and Barry Schwartz, or they could follow much of the action listening to WebmasterRadio.FM. What the many reports cant tell you is the tone of the people, the stuff that makes up the vibe of the show.
Like most search marketing conventions, the tone was somewhere between family reunion and collegiate mayhem. Everybody smiles. Imagine a bunch of rocket scientists (or their intellectual equivalents) who truly love being around each other getting together for five days of talking, learning, eating, thinking and drinking. Nobody gets very much sleep because leaving the venue (even to go upstairs to your hotel room) means missing a few hours of fun. By the end of the last day, attendees have either adjusted or are ready to collapse.
Sometime around the second day, people tend to start losing their voices. In our work-lives, many of us go hours without talking to anyone. At a search marketing conference, one has to make conversation with hundreds of people a day. No amount of salt-water gargling makes it better so my best advice to those preparing for a show, spend the week before leaving mumbling to yourself while coding at your computer. Don’t worry if your co-workers think you’re nutty, such perceptions can work to your advantage. It works for me at any rate.
Matt Cutts is Lookin’ Good, Rand & Microsoft
Matt Cutts is looking good. I spent about half an hour with him on the first day, opening the conversation with;
“Dude, you’re looking well.”
He did. The Buddha belly is gone and his grin is bigger than ever. Matt smiled at me and said, Yeah, I’ve been exercising a lot, before sharing a personal story about an encounter between him and his boss Sergey Brin. How do you manage to get so much work done and keep up a fitness regime? I asked. It was a serious question. I don’t know how some people do it. I had a keyboard installed on my elliptical walking machine, he said. Simple as rocket science…
Rand is more popular than Googlebot. Its crazy to watch him move through time and space while gracefully dealing with the few dozen questions being thrown his way by the two dozen bodies surrounding him. One couldn’t get close to the Seomoz booth for hours because of the crush of people around it.
Microsoft is reaching out. I’ve never seen Microsoft make such an effort but they are looking pretty cool. They had the largest booth on the floor and were open to meeting with and talking with anyone who wanted the time. While Microsoft does attend most shows, their booth had a more open and inviting vibe. Perhaps it was the group staffing it.
I could write far more about SMX West but there simply isn’t enough time or column space. This was the second best search marketing conference I’ve ever attended. The very best was the SMX Advanced conference held in Seattle last year. Enormous congratulations to Third Door Media and their conference partners. SMX West rocked. Though it is hard to say exactly how it could get better, we know they have a lot of information about attendance. Every badge was scanned before the bearer entered a room. Third Door knows where virtually everyone was at any given time during the show. I suspect they will use that information to build a better line-up next time though I am not sure what a better line-up could possibly look like. This one was amazing.
Lastly, it was Chris Elwell’s birthday last Tuesday. I’m glad to have taken part in an event that, though it made for a few stressful days, could only have given him a great present.