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.

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