This is my take on Day 1 of SMX London 2008.
Obviously, I couldn't get to every session or speak to every delegate, so please feel free to add your experiences in the comments.
Likewise, if you've managed to to snap photos of anyone wearing this year's Distilled t-shirts, please do drop a link to them. We might even be able to rustle up a prize for the best photo (though I can't guarantee that it won't just be another t-shirt.)
The day began on a somewhat odd note, with a Keynote session by speakers from Microsoft adCenter and Webmaster Center, with a strong focus on the tools and services they offer to SEMs running organic and paid search campaigns.
ZhaoHui Tang walked us in detail through Microsoft's keyword research plugin for Excel, which pulls a variety of keyword data from Live Search. Though I've had installed on my desktop for months, his presentation may persuade me to try it out - particularly as he suggested that UK and French keyword data will be rolled out over the coming months.
One surprising feature was it's ability to generate text ads, given only the URL of a page. I'll be interested to see how they implement it, but I can't imagine that our PPC Expert, Richard, will be quaking in his boots just yet.
With a more organic focus, Nathan Buggia walked us through some of the features of Live Search Webmaster Center. Many of the features would look familiar to users of Google's offering, but Nathan did demonstrate some differentiating features - including the ability to see in reasonable detail the pages on your site that are inaccessible to spiders, and any issues causing this.
Surprisingly, his demonstration involved logging in and showing us the account details for MSN - allowing us to see that the around 40,000 pages on MSN.com return a 404 error! Apparently this is out of a total of about 1 billion pages across the domain - this figure seems particularly big when compared to the factoid that the Live Search index now includes about 20 billion pages - I'll let you do the maths.
Nathan implied that a broad target for his side of the search business was "to make sure that our search engine is the best partner to content publishers" and to achieve this, suggested that "being transparent and working with third parties is part of Microsoft's DNA."
##Keyword Research Tools and Techniques
KeyRelevance President Christine Churchill (described by her fellow panellist as 'the first lady of keyword research') spoke about he process and best practice for keyword research. She put particular emphasis on ensuring that you are "speaking the customer's language" - with the sensible recommendation of involving sales people, customer service staff or call-centre employees to assist in the process, as they have direct experience of talking to the consumers, in their language.
I'd highly recommend seeing Christine speak if you have the opportunity, but for companies that have recently employed new SEM team members, it would be particularly worth giving them the chance to hear the First Lady.
Completing this session, Tor Crockatt seemed excited to be able to discuss her 'keyword algebra' process for identifying positive and negative keywords for a PPC campaign, and explained the pitfalls of not using exact matching on brand names or media titles.
##Landing Page Testing and Optimisation
This session found a good balance between paid and organic search landing pages, with some valuable insights from panellists. Graham Cooke (Google) suggested that many of the pages a user encounters during their journey through your site may be landing pages, and showed the improvements that had been made to the AdWords sign-up page, after they employed Google's multivariate testing tool, Website Optimizer.
Anders Hjorth was unapologetic in his belief that designing a landing-page design can be as difficult as designing an entire website. He also discussed the differences in data collected and impression made on a user who has arrived on a page from a search engine, rather than navigated to it through the site hierarchy.
Jon Myers explained how, thanks to personalized search and blended search results, users are increasingly likely to interact with your brand on websites other than your own. By way of an example he offered Dove, who have received many more views of a recent video via YouTube than their own site.
To finish the presentations, Mark Simpson discussed successes that some of his Maxymiser clients had seen when testing their landing pages. One example was Jobsite.co.uk, who managed to increase sign-up rate by 50%, by using two pages for the sign up process (rather than one) which made the process seem simpler and less daunting to first-time visitors. Mark reminded us that for a PPC campaign you can create as many landing pages as necessary (even one for each keyphrase) and then use robots.txt to disallow bots from crawling these pages and causing duplicate content issues.
For a company just staring with landing page optimisation, the final tip from the Q&A provided a useful jumping-off-point: use analytics to identify the pages with highest bounce rate on your site, and begin by working on these.
##Link Building Fundamentals
Four panellists managed to cover broadly the same fundamentals, all without adding much to the conversation. Meanwhile, the moderator managed to put questions to the panel that suggested he'd been having a post lunch doze during the presentations.
##Search Engine Friendly Web Design
Once you've learnt to ignore the tiresome American bombast and outrageous claims, Shari Thurow is a trustworthy web designer who evangelizes about solid information architecture and design to suit humans - with search engine spiders as an important but firmly secondary concern.
She suggested that the old 'the target content must be found in three clicks' structure has been superseded, and that users will click anywhere up to 8 - 20 times to arrive at the content they want, as long as the keywords they're interested in are 'validated' back to the user at each stage - part of a conceptual tool, as I understood it, called 'scent of information'
I had the chance to meet lots of people that I've only 'met' before on Twitter, alongside some really interesting SEMs and other people working around the industry. Though I can't list them all here, I'll be following them from my robousbey Twitter profile - feel free to stop by and say hello.
So: your comments, corrections and additions are appreciated, and I'd love to see if any Distilled t-shirts have been seen 'in the wild'.