Can You Really Learn Search Marketing at a Conference?

By Aaron Goldman, VP Marketing & Strategic Partnerships
MediaPost’s Search Insider

With another Search Engine Strategies in the books and the biannual Search Insider Summit going down in Park City this week, I've got my mind on search shows – and search shows on my mind. More specifically, I've been thinking about just how much people actually learn at these conferences.

Fellow Search Insider Mark Simon put in his two cents on SES Chicago in Monday's column. While I don't fully agree with his assessment of the show — overall, I do think it was "worth the trouble" — I also don't fully disagree with many of his points. So, rather than engage in the tit for tat back and forth that Mark and I often do in this space, I want to focus on one specific aspect of SES and conferences in general — practical search marketing education.

At SES Chicago, I had the pleasure of manning the CIMA booth, which gave me a chance to meet and interact with fellow attendees and exhibitors. With this topic in mind for my column, I tried to ask as many people as I could if they had learned anything practical at the conference.

The answers I got were all over the place, ranging from "yes" to "no" to "define practical."

Not surprisingly, first-time SES attendees seemed to come away with more tangible learning that did the regulars on the trade show circuit. But that's not to say the old-timers were disappointed by the show. They just had very different reasons for attending — namely, keeping their fingers on the pulse of the market and networking with fellow search professionals.

Search marketing education and training has been a hot topic for just about as long as search marketing has been around. The first wave of search professionals was largely self-taught. Over time, resources such as books, trade pubs, and certification programs surfaced to meet the demand for focused training.

But can you really learn search from a book or an online tutorial? Sure, you can learn how to use a search engine UI or best practices for copy testing. But can you really learn search without interacting with professionals? There's just so little that's "by the book" when it comes to search marketing.

It's this crucial face-to-face aspect of "learning search" that spawned trade shows like SES, SIS, and SMX (Search Marketing Expo.) As more and more companies build out search departments, the most popular form of training seems to be sending people to conferences.

But are trade shows really the answer? Can you learn enough about search marketing at a conference or two (or even five or ten) to develop (and maintain) the skills necessary to manage a robust holistic paid and natural search program?

I suppose the answer is relative. To effectively manage search programs of a certain scale, it may be sufficient to read a book, get your Google cert and hit up your closest trade show. But if I'm a mid-sized or large company spending millions of dollars search marketing, I don't know that I'd trust my search budget to someone whose training came in the form of note-taking from a bunch of self-promoting presenters who think that being on a panel at a conference makes them the next Danny Sullivan — yet are too afraid to share any real tips for fear of losing their competitive edge. (OK, that may be a bit harsh — not all sessions at search shows feature shameless self-promoters. In fact, many of them include genuine search experts who are willing to disclose their success stories — but I think you get my point.)

One thing I can tell you with certainty is that at my company, we don't rely on trade shows to do our training. We've spent a good deal of time and money to develop a thorough orientation program that enables all our new hires to learn the ins and outs of search marketing through practical training led by seasoned professionals (I know, I know — who's the shameless self-promoter now?)

Our program includes a mix of classroom and on-the-job training and requires all employees to successfully complete two levels of internal certification exams. We have a fully dedicated staff member responsible for the planning and implementation of our training, but have the individual courses (over 50 of them) taught by subject matter experts from within the organization.

To augment our internal training, we require our account strategy, project management, production, and data analytics teams to achieve certifications from each of the major search engines. And our ongoing training includes the requisite book reading, trade pubs — and, of course, attending conferences.

Now I'm not saying that this depth of training is required for everyone looking to learn the ropes of search marketing. But I know our clients, who are primarily Fortune 500 marketers, feel more comfortable that their budgets are in good hands than they would if the extent of our team's training was limited to trade shows.

Bottom line? I firmly believe that search conferences provide value to attendees. I just think the value is more-so in the participation than the education.

It's in this spirit that I eagerly anticipate this week's Search Insider Summit. By the time this column is published, I will be en route to Park City, where I look forward to sharing challenges and successes with fellow professionals, cultivating relationships with key business partners — and, yes, actually learning a thing or two about search marketing.

As always, I promise to recap the top buzzwords from SIS in my next column, as I have for each of the last two summits.


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