The Two Failures of SEOMoz’s Pro Seminar

by on September 9, 2010 | posted in SEO Theory

I know I’m a bit behind the onslaught of SEOMoz Webinar coverage, so I’m not going to bore you with the particulars – the particulars being the common SEO takeaways that you can find anywhere with a finger on the pulse of SEO.

There was a lot of good content the lovely folks in Seattle let us, the attendees, get in on. For me, Tom Critchlow’s presentation on keyword research and the standard Latent Dirichlet Allocation model (LDA) formulated by Ben Hendrickson were the two biggest takeaways from the conference. That, and, of course, the solid networking and overall learning experience that comes with attending SEOMoz’s great event.

BUT, the conference wasn’t all roses, smiles and smirks. If I’m good for anything, its criticism – and here I will bring you the “less sunny” side of a conference that has otherwise only heard bright, shining praise.

1.  The Conference Revealed That SEOs Are Terrible Journalists

This is not a jab at Dana Lookadoo, who did a great job covering the conference in her two posts on the subject. This is, however – a jab at our community as a whole – for multiple reasons.

Condcutor CEO Seth Besmertnik was at the conference, offering an entertaining and informative presentation on Scaling SEO. The presentation was good, undoubtedly, but what followed the talk was the most surprising.

Condcutor, in the days prior to the event, was openly outed by Matt Cutts for their publicly exposed paid link network. Conductor is known for buying paid links on some of the biggest sites on the internet for their clients, and because of it, several people complained to Matt Cutts about their practices. Cutts confirmed Google was taking action against them, so the question now stood – is there validity to this? What does this do to Conductor’s business model? How will they deal with the PR backlash this creates?

Any question regarding the Matt Cutts/Google webspam team would have been, if nothing else, intriguing. Even given an open forum to ask questions post-presentation, the audience was dead-silent – including myself. I don’t have much of an excuse, given my obvious knowledge and concern regarding Cutts’ outing – and I really don’t know why I didn’t bother to inquire. Obviously, there’s some pressure looking like the badguy in front of 300 people, which isn’t always fun to do.

The relative silence reminded me of Eric Schiller’s post on Social Media – and how it, largely, is a vacuum of positivity and smiles, something that creates a non-optimal, less-than-Darwinian environment.

The most effective tool the field of marketing uses to distort messages is the notion of positive thinking.  The cult of positive thinking and personal development have had a long and profitable history together, and as a result it was only natural that positive thinking would cross the short divide between personal development and social media. Thus positive thinking formed the very fabric of the facade which prevented any critical discourse from occurring.  By promoting strictly positive attitudes, social media bloggers often censor and limit speech, all the while supporting the well-stated ideal of “openness.”

Now that we know this positivity tornado isn’t beneficial, it seems fair to ask – what were we thinking? As SEOs, we had something to gain as SEOs in questioning Besmertik. Right? Or was there an unwritten silence due to the very fact that questioning Besmertik would further enflame a paid link buyer’s career and company – much as what had happened to We Build Pages?

I don’t know for certain, and likely, it’s some mixture of all of the aforementioned factors. But what these factors do conclude is that SEOs, as we are, are terrible journalists. We do not ask the hard questions. We are frequently unwilling to criticize viewpoints, especially when exposed to potential public criticism.

The more we challenge standard thought, the better SEO will be as a profession – and the more likely it’ll be that we’ll approach a promised land that more accurately understands the search engine’s algorithms.

2. The Seminar Nurtures Advanced Beginners

SEOMoz’s Pro Seminar is designed with one track – meaning that the many specialties of internet marketing, CRO, PPC, social media, SEO – were all addressed at different times during the conference on one, non modifiable timeline, and likely, everyone who paid for the conference sat through them. What this track did was offer a breadth of detail about multiple subjects, and likely, leave every person feeling as though they had some modicum of expertise at each.

The problem with this, though, is that this “expertise” is often illusory, and more importantly, potentially dangerous. When a person believes they have expertise at a subject but don’t actually, they shun help in light of doing the work themselves given their baseline of knowledge. Due to the nature of their shallow expertise, this is often frequently lacking and very likely, a rather expensive decision.

As a pure SEO with a majority agency experience, I came in with no deep knowledge about the particulars of analytics or PPC or CRO. In some of the subjects I left just as abashed about the concepts as previously – but now with more passion to improve. In one particular instance, Tim Ash’s presentation on Conversion Rate Optimization, I actually left thinking I knew what the hell I was talking about. Given a few days to consider and ponder my new-found expertise, I came into the following conclusion:

How can I possibly know what I’m talking about – especially after only an hour of advanced tips, and no practice with the newfound methodology?

In any niche with a decent cost-per-click or any level of competitiveness, profitability isn’t cut and dry. Making money paying for traffic isn’t easy – and to think that a simple, good CRO session could possibly train me for such a situation is beyond naive. Temporal factors and buyer psychology are just two of the things I don’t have the first idea of how to manage, but having left that session, I did. Or, I thought I did.

Luckily, I have a blessed experience of having listened to Merlin Mann’s talk on being an “advanced beginner”, which gave insight to the fake expertise we all assume to have.

In the video, Mann, productivity guru and blogger at 43folders, cites the Dryfus model of skill acquisition. This model has five pillars. At our first stage, we are aware of our own ineptitude – this often comes very early in the adoption phase. Soon, we move into second, dangerous stage – being an “advanced beginner”. At this point, we know enough to think we’ve become better than the novice, but similarly, we are not spatially aware enough to know of our own lack of expertise.

I think back to my first year as an SEO – I argued so vehemently to submit to 10+ link directories for our clients to my boss, just knowing it would give us rankings. I was the bash, bold reader of SEOBook and SEOMoz and for damn sure, I knew what I was talking about. Four months or so later, the page was buried and most of the links either did nothing to bolster rankings or had the absolute opposite effect.

The SEOMoz Seminar offers a similar ubiquity – a few sexy tips within each bigger specialization, but a dangerous ability to leave the informants believing they are now experts at each individual subject.

To some extent, this is okay. It’s perfectly acceptable to be an advanced beginner as a consultant and offer holistic services to small businesses. Run your personal website using everything mentioned during the seminar. But the problem with this approach, and the approach of trying to become a real “internet marketing expert” – is that the ceiling is rather low. You can only make so much being relatively average at five things. The success you can garner managing small businesses – unless you’re local SEO expert David Mihm – is rather mild.

The people who make the most money and have the most success start off by running specialized departments within a bigger company – such as being a Director of SEO. Eventually, your “advanced beginner” skillset at PPC or CRO will grow with exposure, but it won’t be required to take the next step to Director of Internet Marketing – it’s understood that this isn’t necessarily needed, just as a head football coach needn’t have played every position on the field.

However, it is nearly impossible that you could potentially impress an employer with a skillset that is functionally advanced beginner in all sets – because even if you BELIEVED you had the ability to run a department, your performance would surely suffer when opposed against the actual experts in your niche.

So, then, the problem with this seminar is the potential development of a class of advanced beginners, and in many ways, that’s what I witnessed when meeting the people I did at the conference. Many were jacks-of-all-trades, doing their own thing, running small shops or heading a team to themselves. In that way, I suppose, the conference fit them – but it was also quite telling that many seemed to be struggling – or better put, not succeeding in the way they could be if they latched on to a singular identity and ran with it.

The #Mozinar – Still Magnificent

This is not to say the Mozinar wasn’t worth cheering. The event was a blast, had a great info, and overall, was well worth the time and money invested. However –  in a similar breath to what was mentioned earlier – this does not mean that it’s immune to criticism and/or improvement. And really, this is mostly not the seminar that’s being criticized – it’s the people, like me, who attended – and the overall ideology of the conference.

If there’s a market, SEOMoz, should, by all means, fill it – even if by doing so they are admitting that they are packing the room with a group that might largely be considered underachievers – or those unable to find their niche.

SEOMoz delivered exactly what they promised – it’s just what exactly that is that we have to question.

Image credit appropriately goes to SEOMoz, kingpins of SEO.

  • Eric Pratum

    I think the existing flip side of social media echo chamber is the snarkweb. This is probably the only conference/seminar I’ve ever been to where the speakers have not been somehow thrashed through Twitter by at least a few attendees. It would have been very interesting for someone to ask Seth about the whole Matt Cutts thing, but that person would have of course risked becoming the seminar douchebag.

    Advanced beginners? Pish posh! Clearly, after attending my first SEO event, I know everything there is to know. ;) In all seriousness though, I feel like the SEOmoz seminar is the iPhone of the SEO event circuit. Wait, is there an SEO event circuit? Anyhoo, what I mean by that is that the iPhone is not the best phone, nor mp3 player, nor camera, nor who-knows-what, but it is the best all-in-one. Much the same, the SEOmoz seminar seemed to me to be a best offering for everyone. I know that SEM events exist, and I’m sure there are local search events. Surely, those would lend themselves to specialists, but as you say, this event attracts and is likely more suited to generalists, who are in my mind more likely to be people managers (managers of specialists, that is) or individuals, who have to do all of the search marketing for their organization: optimization, PPC, analytics, etc.

    For me, the event was great, but maybe it’s like my MBA. I went to a school that had a great MBA program for people that didn’t have business backgrounds…not so great for people with business backgrounds. Much the same, this seminar might be best for people like me, who need to know enough to implement the small stuff and, beyond that, just have to be familiar enough with the field to speak intelligently about it and be able to fold SEO into larger strategies and tactics.

  • Rebecca Lehmann

    I was surprised by the lack of coverage overall during the event. It’s probably the only reason my daily recaps got so much attention, honestly. And I had seen that Matt Cutts had called out Conductor, but didn’t make the connection myself until someone mentioned it on Twitter. And yeah, I wasn’t going to be that person. It may have been different if the preso had been about effective linkbuilding tactics instead of keyword research.

    On social media, your post reminded me of something that Dan Zarrella said in his Twitter presentation about how negativity was retweeted much less and overly negative tweeps have fewer followers. That’s a pretty strong disincentive for being the one who poo poos everything, or even just for being real sometimes. Heck, that’s part of why I don’t follow a couple of the big industry names. It’s not that I don’t respect what they do, but their constant put-downs of news, opinions, tools, etc. reek of a bad ego trip that I am better off without.

    • Ross Hudgens

      Rebecca, I agree that positivity is what “works”, at least statistically. But that’s just a science equation. Lists work too – but they’re largely drivel that people consume and spit out without much thought. A bigger, better web is one that mixes positivity with negativity OCCASSIONALLY. I think a good mix is what’s needed – and often times, there’s absolutely no mix at all.

      How can one improve without criticism?

      • Eric Pratum

        I think the research Rebecca is referring to gets more at the psychology of social media users. If they like positivity, they just do, and statistics will show it. There’s always room for critics and hard questions. It’s just a matter of who is willing to be “that guy,” because some of us honestly appreciate him doing what we don’t have the balls to.

        If you’re asking the tough questions and ruffling a few feathers, the level-headed people will recognize that you’re not doing it out of spite, to be mean, or whatever else. You’re just being fair, curious, and open…although they still might not retweet you ;)

  • Cathy Reisenwitz

    SEOs aren’t journalists and they don’t need to be. Maybe no one asked Seth Besmertnik about getting penalized because they wouldn’t get any useful knowledge out of it, they’d just look douche-y. It’s not my job at a seminar to ask “gotcha” questions like a journalist, it’s my job to learn how to do SEO better than I’m doing it now. And the Mozinar did its job in helping me do that.

    You said the seminar has the potential to develop of a class of advanced beginners. How do you have a seminar where you cover a topic for one hour and offer great tips without the potential to develop of a class of advanced beginners? This doesn’t seem like a problem specific to Mozinar, but a problem with any hour-long talk about a topic. How was Mozinar worse than other seminars in this regard?

    • Ross Hudgens

      Several SEOs use Conductor as a platform (I’m not one), so it is in their best interest to know where it’s going. Similarly, asking Besmernitk would shed some light on really how Google judges spam links in general if Besmertnik had a good rebuttal – which I imagine he does. Of course, it’s possible he’d probably take a “no comment” on the sitution.

      The Mozinar does this because we are learning stuff about things we don’t really know about. If I took an hour long class about SEO, it would likely fill in any gaps I had about SEO information. But when I start from near scratch, I have nothing.

      Again, as I note at the end of this post, I’m not really bagging on the mozinar in paticular with this statement. I’m bagging on the general idea that occurs so frequently, and also did in this event. If anything, the mozinar was a little better, as much of the info can somewhat be applied to other areas around SEO.

  • Ryan Campbell

    Nice post. It was nice meeting you at the seminar and I can agree with your points. I’ve been guilty of being the “advanced beginner” and learned some hard lessons as a result in my career. On the other side it’s also nice to be exposed to other areas to speak intelligently about them and utilize them in your area of expertise.

    • Eric Pratum

      I’d have to agree with you. For some people (me for example), the most important thing is to be able to speak intelligently about something. The problems would arise as Ross says when I gained confidence to do more than talk, to also act. Truthfully, I went into the seminar feeling that I understood a decent amount about SEO, not that I could do SEO professionally, but enough that I would feel comfortable volunteering my time to someone just so that I could improve my skills. I came away feeling like there was so much more to it than I was previously aware and that it’s a good thing that I haven’t tried to sell my “SEO” services in the past ;-)

  • randfish

    Hi Ross – thanks so much for writing and giving us feedback. Sorry to hear these two issues dominated the positive takeaways from the PRO training seminar for you.

    Personally, I think 99% of the time, the questions folks asked were terrific – valuable, useful, added to the discussion, etc. I’d certainly agree that SEOs aren’t journalists – but then again, this event wasn’t billed as a “conference” so perhaps its a perception issue? I would say that for me, personally, Seth is a good friend and a great colleague in the industry. His company’s history of selling link advertising seems to be waning quickly in favor of their enterprise software business model – just as SEOmoz has switched from consulting to software. My sense is that his talk didn’t focus at all on the link acquisition side of things – perhaps that’s why the comments stayed relevant to the talk rather than venturing into alternative territory.

    Certainly, you can feel free to bring these up yourself :-)

    Regarding the “advanced beginner” issue. I think we can do a better job promoting and presenting the event as truly “advanced” and “expert-level” (I think the official name includes the word “expert”). However, we can’t pre-qualify attendees with some sort of test of their knowledge, so this will likely always be an issue.

    That said, I can say from looking at the feedback that very few people complained the content was “too advanced” and some did say “too basic,”so my guess is we’re going to keep working to bring the level of discourse up rather than down for future years.

    Great to see you at the event – hope we get to catch up again soon.

    • Ross Hudgens

      “Hi Ross – thanks so much for writing and giving us feedback. Sorry to hear these two issues dominated the positive takeaways from the PRO training seminar for you.”

      This isn’t true at all – I highly enjoyed the seminar. These were only criticisms, not overwhelming things – if anything, I mainly did it because all the “positive takeaways” had already been done to death in the past two weeks, so I thought it better to offer an opposing view rather than add to the clutter. The seminar was well worth it and a great event.

      You 100% did the event as you marketed it – there was no mis-representation. Cheers for that – the “advanced beginner” realization was more something I realized about the event, and it’s attendees – that came from actually taking part in it.

      Which is why anyone should actually go to these things – to learn.

      • Ross Hudgens

        Also I think you misinterpreted/skim read my “advanced beginner” part – the talks were definitely advanced (generally), but because each were advanced discussions of areas that require expertise, the danger is that they make us “advanced beginners” – the state where we believe ourselves to be experts, but actually are anything but.

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