I talked to a friend of mine a few months back to ask if he would be going to SMX Advanced again this year.Â Heâ€™s a frequent person on the search industry conference tour, so I kind of expected that he would naturally be heading to Seattle for this yearâ€™s conference.
So I was kind of surprised when he said he was skipping it that year.Â When I asked him why, he said that SMX advanced just wasnâ€™t the same and other conferences, the layout of the conference center – though obviously no fault of SMX – really sucked for attendees. It was spread out so you can easily attend the PPC track and not see a single soul on the other side of the conference center who mightâ€™ve been attending SEO track.Â Oh, and itâ€™s a conference center with huge pillars right in the middle of the room.
He also said that the content just wasnâ€™t new. He noticed the past couple yearâ€™s conferences had been a slightly freshened up version of the previous years and he felt he just wasnâ€™t getting the dollar value out of it anymore to pay to attend.Â He was still considering attending, but only because Matt Cutts is doing a session. If it wasnâ€™t for that he told me he wouldnâ€™t even consider going again. And that is someone who had been to most, if not all, previous SMX Advance conferences.
Now this isnâ€™t just to pick on SMX, this applies to many conferences in this industry.Â It just so happens that SMX Advanced was the most recent search conference, and the conference I happened to be discussing with this shall-remain-nameless person.
Now, part of what he said is correct. The Matt Cuttsâ€™ room with the shape and the pillars sucks ass.Â But again, you canâ€™t really fault Danny Sullivan and SMX for that, other than perhaps changing to a better venue. But the content freshness, I definitely see what heâ€™s getting at.Â You can easily play a name that conference trivia game by giving the session title and you have to guess if itâ€™s SMX, SES or PubCon.Â And it unfortunately isnâ€™t that unusual to see someone at SMX with slides referencing SES, or worse, the guy who presented at SMX to re-used the same deck from SES, complete with the SES branded PowerPoint template. Likewise, there have been people at SES who have obviously reused decks because the examples will be Search Engine Land instead of Search Engine Watch.Â And rinse and repeat at Pubcon.
So why are conferences getting stale? Is a tried-and-true thing? Is it laziness? Do they just assume they will sell tickets because thatâ€™s what they do?Â Are they listening too much to what speakers want to talk about and not enough to what paying attendees want to hear? Or are they just plain and simply not evolving with the times?
Looking at the SMX Advanced agendas for the last couple years show the lot of the same old thing. A Danny Sullivan has added a few new sessions, this year was the first time I can recall him finally adding a content session, unusual for him because itâ€™s not straight search, and they added a retargeting session which is very hot at the moment. So good on him, because content is worth its weight in gold at the moment, and everyone and their Grandma is talking about retargeting.
And thank God he finally took out that tired â€œPagination & Canonicalization for the Prosâ€ session this year. I mean, how many times can we beat the dead horse at SMX?Â All the information is available straight from Google, and Google is a lot better at sorting these issues out on their own than they were years ago when Danny brought out this session.Â However, in its place is the â€œCrazy, Complicated Technical Issues That Completely Sabotage the Best SEO Efforts,â€ but at least this time they try to disguise that dead horse with sheepâ€™s clothing.Â But there were many sessions that were either identical from the previous year, with the same speakers or dealt with the same content but with an updated session title.Â And the speakers as a whole?Â Same old thing of all Dannyâ€™s favorite people, but that is what we expect at SMX.
Onto SES, looking at SES San Francisco (although it is not until later this year, so it could change). It was interesting to notice that SES featured a retargeting session a year ago, so they were definitely on top of what was going to be hot.Â They definitely have more variety in their sessions, but then again, it is a 5 track conference versus SMX 3 panels (plus sponsor track), and SESâ€™s 3 days versus SMXâ€™s 2 days.Â As for speakers, the only have a handful speakers listed on their agenda so far, but I imagine it will be a mix of the usual industry speakers with some new faces.
So maybe part of the problem with SMX not changing that much from year to year is the fact that it is so small and can only offer 21 sessions total to choose from.Â How much different would be if it could expand to three days and five tracks, or we just see the dreaded canonicalization horse once again.Â And with threeÂ tracks, I know there were times when Iâ€™d look at the options and choose something that was hopefully worth tweeting about, if I wasnâ€™t personally interested in it.
As for Pubcon, they havenâ€™t released their agenda got for this yearâ€™s conference, but considering the crazy number of sessions they had last year (I think it is more than SES & SMX have combined in a year!) I expect there will definitely be some overlap on the sessions they have this year as well.Â But unlike SMX, at Pubconâ€™s usual 7 tracks, odds are good that at least one of the 7 at any given time would be worthy for each person to attend.
Maybe itâ€™s time that conferences began looking at different ways to come up with session ideas. Itâ€™s all wonderful to accept session pitches from speakers for session ideas, but remember those people have an agenda about why they want to do that particular session, most likely because they want to bring in clients for that particular area. Bring it back to the attendees instead. Why not ask for suggestions from the actual attendees on sessions they would like to see, complete with what the session description would be, rather than asking potential speakers to do it.Â Speaker audience and paying audience are two different animals J Â Who knows, maybe canonicalization is the session attendees want back (although personally, I probably would have chosen the session on watching paint dry over canonicalization), or then again, they might just want to see it die in a fire like me.
And yes, I know someone can argue that people go to conferences for the sessions they go there for the networking and the bar conversations. But when people are shelling out two grand or so for a ticket, you definitely want to get value out of that, even if you are sitting in the session room nursing a hangover with Red Bull while refreshing #whicheverconference onTwitter.