Road Trippin’ – SearchLove Boston 2013

This is the first of two posts about my trip to the US a month or so ago… but it’s done in a back-to-front way. Although it was the 2nd conference I attended, SearchLove Boston gets written about first. So, here goes!

Speakers Dinner

You don’t fly all the way to Boston for a conference and make a half arsed job of it, do you? With that in mind I made the executive decision to treat myself to a nice meal the night before by going to the speakers dinner… it certainly didn’t disappoint. For anyone who hasn’t been to one of these before, they’re basically a chance to have a chat with like minded people while drinking copious amounts of wine and eating amazing food.

The venue of choice was Grill23, which by complete coincidence was right across the street from my hotel, and served up the best meal that I had in the whole time I was in Boston (thanks to Lynsey and Lauren, as always, for their epic amount of good taste). Even without the food you can’t really go wrong when you’re sat on a table with Annie Cushing, Dr. Pete, Wil Critchlow and John Doherty though, can you? 

My advice for anyone that attends distilled conferences but hasn’t been to a speakers dinner: just go. You really won’t regret it.

But enough of that… what about the learning?

Day 1 – Three Coffees and a Bucket Load of Water Later…

Neil Patel – Consulting Lessons from the Frontline

Day 1 started with a mild hangover and a lineup that’s as impressive as it was diverse. Neil Patel started by talking about “Consulting Lessons from the Frontline”. The strangest thing for me was that I felt like I already knew him as his face is all over my Facebook due to the amount of ads he runs… but when you’re the founder of CrazyEGG and KissMetrics I think that’s probably fair enough.

The presentation itself was what I’d call a solid start. Some great insights into what it takes to keep clients happy, many of which sound like common sense but my main take-aways were:

1. Call your clients at least once every couple of weeks to check they’re happy and update them.
2. In the early days it’s fine to lock your staff in a basement with no windows or clocks – it just makes them work harder.
3. If you’re running an agency, think like a business owner not an SEO.
4. Being an expert in a certain niche, in the long term, will give you more success than being a ‘jack of all trades’.
5. Make friends with your clients technical staff. Sending them the occasional gift goes a long way as they’re usually completely ignored.

Annie Cushing – “Take Credit Where Credit’s Due”

I was really excited to hear Annie speak and she certainly didn’t disappoint (for anyone running a UK conference in the next 12 months, you need to fly her out here!). In short, this was about setting your analytics up to make sure that the data you’re getting out is correct.

Here are the main things that were of note (there’s loads more but this post needs to get cracking or it’s going to be way too long):

1. Desktop Apps, PDFs, HTTPS webmail, and many mobile apps don’t send referral data.
2. If you do a HTTPS Google search on iOS6, traffic shows up as Direct.
3. There’s an easy way around this – set utm_source and utm_medium (I use the Google URL builder to help with this). Remember that Medium is your bucket (e.g Social), source gives more granularity (e.g Twitter / FB).
4. Multi channel funnels are great but remember that you need conversion tracking to be implemented, they only work on a non-filtered profile, go back a maximum of 30 days, start from January 2011, and operate on a 2 day lag.

Bill Slawski – Future Search

To be honest, the next 40 minutes or so were a bit of a blur. This was patent heavy, full of amazing information, with an overarching message that we’re quickly moving towards Google have far more deep learning capability. Everything we do and interact with is data and they’re doing their best to grab as much as they can.

Wil Reynolds – How to Get Unstuck

A quick coffee later and it was time for the always popular Wil Reynolds. His “How to Get Unstuck!” talk was a highlight for me but not because there were loads of things to take away… more of the amount of inspiration that it gave. The advice of following people outside of the SEO industry and looking at the bigger picture when it comes to marketing rang very true. All too often we get wrapped up in an industry that, from the outside, is often seen as being ‘dirty’ and taken that seriously. This needs to change.

We’re at the point now where SEO is more about PR, Marketing, and Branding – things that we’re not as good at as agencies who’ve been doing that kind of thing for years. We do, however, have some amazing skills that they can only dream of so we need to stop pissing about and get a place the “big table”.

Well, that’s what I got anyway.

Kate Morris

At this point in the day I was getting quite ‘tweet happy’, so Kate Morris rolling out one of the most tip-heavy presentations of the conference came at the perfect time. Which brings me onto a handy little tip…

If you’re at a conference and can be bothered, ‘live tweet’ it. You’ll pick up a load of followers, lots of retweets, and expand the amount of people that you’ll end up chatting to at the bar later because they’ll have seen your (spam) coverage.

Back to Kate, I could create a massive list of tips that she rolled out but you should probably just sign up for distilledU or find a version of her slides somewhere. Top points:

1. Google operates by country, not language. Google Estonia is available in English, Russian, and Estonian.
2. It’s a myth that searchers want to click on their own country TLDs – Kate has tested this using Mechanical TURK.
3. British people are weird for saying skipping rope instead of jump rope.
4. There are three options when doing international SEO – Geo target, translate, or both. When and how to use each of these is too lengthy for this post, but the flow chart that Kate has put together will solve this for you.
5. Machine translation is crap – get it done properly.
6. Put hreflang in XML site maps instead of on the page as it’s cleaner and reduces page code.

Dr. Pete

For someone so data driven, Dr. Pete can really present. He was funny, full of personality, and even though his topic could’ve been quite heavy it flew by in a haze of actionable ideas and usable code. Again, someone needs to fly him to the UK  The only slightly annoying thing was that one of his code examples of something he ‘knocked up in a few minutes’ was pretty much identical to something I use for an in-house tool. Nobody likes a show-off.

In short, the tips were:

1. Go big, but do a proof of concept first. See if it’s going to work and then iterate.
2. Do some basic research to find out what people are looking for… and then give it to them.
3. Data is everywhere – use APIs, build a crawler, find something good and make it amazing.
4. Information is valuable. At the moment people are giving it away all over the place but that won’t last forever.

John Doherty – Creating Executive Support for Marketing Initiatives

I’ve known John for a while now but, somehow, never seen him speak. Although the topic wasn’t overly relevant to what I do, it’s definitely something that will be useful in the future, and covered his experiences working with organisations to make a real difference with marketing and SEO initiatives.

1. SEO is easy, but causing change is hard – you need to understand the internal structure of an organisation and know who makes decisions when it comes to budgets.
2. Talk money and ROI. “If we increase traffic by X, it’ll make you $,000”.
3. Think about things from a business point of view, put yourself in the shoes of the people you’re talking to…
4. … and talk their language. Don’t discuss getting ‘links’, instead related that back to what they mean.

Eppie Vojt – Scaling Outreach (without looking like an idiot)

When Eppie got on stage, alarm bells were ringing… literally. For pretty much the whole of his presentation we had a fire alarm going off, which wasn’t exactly ideal, but being a complete legend he powered through and – amazingly – made everyone forget about what was going on.

As anyone who knows me will attest, I love to outsource the boring stuff, and Eppie’s presentation was very much along these lines. One of the best things from his deck was (shock, horror) a bit of algebra:

Basically, it shows that in between sending an email to getting a link published there are a lot of variables that you need to be getting the most of. From subject lines to outreach text, following up and have content that people want to publish, it’s all really important so even when outsourcing you need to make sure that you’re doing things in a really high quality way.

I won’t even bother to try and pick out five tips as there were way too many – just look at the slides!

Rand Fishkin – Behavioral Psychology and Inbound Marketing

What better way to finish than with a talk from Rand? Consistently inspiring and always delivering ideas in a way that you just can’t help but buy into, this talk was no different. The problem, however, is how to put it into words – something that’s always a bit of a struggle after listening to Rand speak (in a good way).

Basically, he talked about influencing behaviour by nudging people in the right direction. A fly in a urinal. Changing the wording of the cards you get in hotels asking you to reuse your towels. Using social proof to make you feel like everyone else is doing something so you should too.

Throughout much of the talk I was thinking of Predictably Irrational, a book that everyone should read at least once in their life.

And with that the day was over… time for drinks.

One of the main differences between Boston and London conferences was the size, which for the most part was a good thing. More intimate, more time to chat, and fewer people around means that you get time to chat to far more people. As it turned out we spent most of the night chatting with Jason from Zemanta, but there was also plenty of time to meet people that I’ve tweeted from afar but never had chance to meet in ‘real life’.

Again, if you go to a distilled conference make sure you don’t wuss out and go back to the hotel. Get yourself to whatever networking opportunities you can as the amount you’ll get out of this is probably equal to the day sessions.

Mackenzie Fogelson: How to use Content, SEO & Social Media to Achieve (Big) Goals

It turns out that Mack is one of the nicest people you’re ever likely to meet. Charming, personable, and more than happy to dish out help to pretty much anyone that asks, it was almost guaranteed that she’d kill it on stage. Looking at back at my tweets from the day, she started off by saying something to the tune of:

“Stop thinking about SEO and start thinking about what you want to do with your business”.

It’s so obvious but completely forgotten again and again. From there things just got better, but here are a few highlights:

1. Watch the video at
2. To quote a paraphrase from Phil Nottingham: “Protip from @mackfogelson – make sure your reports aren’t complete bullshit. #searchlove”.
3. If you’re not getting buy in from the company you’re working for, go somewhere else.
4. Getting your team to work together is absolutely crucial. Be constantly collaborative.

Will Critchlow: The Importance of Technical SEO

Next up, Will discussed technical SEO but not just by giving a list of stuff to do – he also reminded the more geeky of us that it’s important to talk in language that people understand. If you remember, John Doherty mentioned that in his session too and it’s very, very important. Clients don’t care that “best practice says you should do x”, they care that “by doing x you’ll make a bucket load more money”.

1. The Google PageSpeed score doesn’t measure how long a page takes to load, it just looks at things you should do and tells you whether you’ve done them.
2. Google crawls URLs in javascript – watch out for this (I’ve seen the AddThis widget create MASSIVE crawl issues by attaching a random number to the end of every URL. You’d never know about this without looking at server logs.).
3. Up your site speed sample rate in GA by adding the following line of code: _gaq.push([‘_setSiteSpeedSampleRate’, 100]);
4. Learn about robots.txt ordering – it doesn’t work as you’d expect it to.
5. Use a tool like Server Density to monitor for changes to things like robots.txt
6. PushState is really cool, infinite scrolling (i.e. when you scroll down a page and related posts keep loading forever) can be really annoying if your contact form is only linked in your footer.

Before we continue, let’s go back to Dr. Pete for a second or two. Quote of the conference:

Low hanging fruit is rotten and covered in goat shit.

Alrighty… now it’s time for an outsider.

Abby Covet: Search is the Front Door to User Experience

Something mentioned by a few speakers was that we get very wrapped up as being part of the SEO industry and forget about the bigger picture. Having Abby talk about user experience was hugely refreshing and something that will hopefully become a theme of distilled conferences.

The way she used the concept of doorways to show that search and user experience are completely linked, like with most good ideas, is an obvious one but it made for an enthralling talk. “There is no home” is the point that sticks most in my head – after all, visitors could reach a site and land on pretty much any page so you need to make sure that each and every piece of content is interesting, usable, and shows you off in the best possible way.

I’ll leave you to look at her slides, but before that here’s Abby’s reply to someone who asked her opinion on something that she obviously didn’t like:

“What do I think?… What do you think?… What do you think I think?!”

Probably a ‘had to be there’ moment but it still makes me laugh.

Phil Nottingham: Leveraging video for link building

At this point we’ve only got 4 presentations to go, but the next two were definitely highlights. First up, Phil managed to hilariously troll Will Critchlow while also firing out another load of really actionable tips. Frustratingly for me, every time I hear Phil present about video I sit there thinking “Wow – I’m definitely going to do all of that”, and then don’t. So far the same has been true but that’s definitely not his fault.

First up was a discussion about when, and if, to use YouTube. The general consensus is “no” (unless you’re posting cat videos) but there is a time and a place because it lets you reach a wider audience. If, however, you’re serious about video SEO then using a service like Wistia is going to give you far more success in the long run.

Once that was out of the way Phil started to power through the rest of his 140 or so slides at pace, with some of the main takeaways being:

1. People are more likely to link to a ‘rich’ page that contains a video than they are to actually embed the video itself;
2. Popcorn.jt combines HTML5 and jquery so that you can fire off events at different times on separate parts of a page… which makes for an incredible experience (hard to explain in one line but well worth researching).
3. Using YouTube to bait and switch is a great, legitimate, tactic for link building.
4. Blog posts with video on them get more links, shares, page views, etc.
5. Make stuff for other people (such as tutorials) in return for a link.
6. Video interviews are great link bait.
7. It doesn’t have to cost the earth, but you should invest in some decent lighting.

Ross Hudgens: Actionable Content Marketing Tactics

At this point I remember feeling like I needed an intravenous drip of coffee and Red Bull, but there was no time at all to relax as Ross was about to go through yet another list of tips and ideas that could make an instant difference to any client. He talked about things like forum links (no, it’s not 2006 and yes, they generate sales), domain name misspellings, reverse image search, monitoring stolen images, and finding email addresses by subscribing to newsletters.

You can see each and every one of these in the slides but the main ‘head smacker’ that got me was his idea of including trust signals on sub-pages. How many times do you see big brand logos included only on the homepage of a site? But what if a user reaches a category page and never bothers to check the home? Simple but effective!

Mike Blumenthal: Anatomy of Local Search Results

Anyone who was there might have noticed that I skipped a presentation by Rebecca Churt from Hubspot. Why? To be honest, I just didn’t see it as relevant and kind of felt like the topic could’ve been covered a lot faster. With that in mind, let’s skip through to Mike Blumenthal who talked – in a lot of depth – about local search and where it’s going.

The overall message is that there’s a lot of change, but there’s a large prominence on local search at the moment. (In my opinion one of the most telling signs of the last few months is local results appearing above all standard organic listings. That shows just how important getting a local listing is).

Here’s a quick list of standout points:

1. Zagat is on the way out – we’re going to back to 5 stars.
2. Ranking locally is very dependent on reviews and citations from relevant local sites.
3. Location is important, and the centre of a city now changes depending on signals from other business listings.

Will Critchlow: The Future of Search Marketing

Finally, Will was back to talk about the future of search. Before I go into too much detail, let’s get one thing out of the way:

It’s not link juice, it’s link equity.

If you’re speaking to high level management and say link juice you’re going to get laughed at, so just stop.

Will’s take on things was that link building is in trouble. Quick wins and spammy strategies are on their way out and we need to really be thinking about long term brand building through sustainable methods. We’ve broken directories and article sites. We’re in the process of breaking guest blogging and infographics. What next?

In my opinion it’s not really ‘us’ that’s breaking things – it’s Google. Everything comes back to money and while there is the ability to game the system and get ahead we’re always going to see tactics be over used or implemented in a horrible way.

Final drinks…

And that, my friends, is that – we headed off to Sweet Carolines for some final food and drinks. It was great to spend some time with Lynsey and Lauren who always do an amazing job at organising these events, and as a final note I’d really like to thank them (and everyone else involved – speakers included) for putting on a great conference. Next up is London later this year… looking forward to it already!

Matt Beswick

Co-founder of Aira and Blush. Marketing / tech geek. Husband. Dad of two. Enjoyer of bourbon, cookery, computer games, and things that go fast.