Toronto is the largest city in Canada and the fifth largest in North America . There are more people in this city than there are in the entire province of British Columbia. It is also my home town so I was more than pleased to be asked to speak at the Toronto Search Engine Strategies Conference again this year.

Having lived away from Toronto for so many years, I keep forgetting how vast the city is. In most towns, a person can budget ten to fifteen minutes to travel between places. Here in Toronto, one must budget that time to move between venues. My only complaint about SES thus far is that the nearest cup of real coffee is a fifteen minute round-trip from the conference floor to the middle of Union Station. There is a large urn of convention centre coffee available on the exhibit floor but no one wants to drink it and chances are you are not interested in reading about it. Suffice it to say, myself and 2000 other search focused folks are suffering through but we are surviving. It is cold in Toronto this week. West coast readers might be interested to know it snowed for a short period on Monday with freezing rain yesterday and temperatures dipping towards freezing in the middle of the night.

For me, real conference started last night with a large group of speakers heading out for supper at a pub more Irish than Ireland . After supper, we returned to the hotel bar where the real fun began. Myself, Jill Whelan, Matt Bailey, Debra Mastaler, Mike Grehan, Christine Churchill, Danny Sullivan and Greg Jarboe and a rotating number of other SEO/SEM practitioners spent much of the night drinking viciously overpriced drinks in the hotel bar while trading stories about our businesses, Google, and the world of search. As StepForth considers itself a highly ethical search-firm and I tend to consider myself an ethical employee, much of the conversation was conduced “off the record” which was highly relevant to the SEO and SEM communities.

The heaviest statement from last night came from Danish SEM Mikkel deMib Svendsen who previously accused Google AdSales staff of poaching clients. There is a simmering anger in the SEO/SEM community about this tactic, one that is simply not going to go away. Over a drink deMib Svendsen reiterated his concerns (on the record), and was joined in those concerns by several others with similar bad experiences (strictly off the record). This practice is yet another potential PR nightmare for Google as it struggles to find its way along the vaguely marked path of Good and Evil. In a bid to capture commission income or to meet an unknown quota, some Google ad-reps seem to be actively targeting clients of SEM companies. Previous reports limited this behaviour to Fortune 1000 sized companies however a few of the stories shared around the table last night were about smaller companies, not larger corporations. I approached the Google booth here at the SES to get a comment only to find there was no PR person there to field media questions. I was offered the business card of AdWords PR spokesperson Mike Mayzel however he has not responded to my queries as of the time of this writing.

One funny note from last night was Danny Sullivan’s out-of-the-blue declaration that there should be a special holiday for search marketers, a call he made in his search engine watch blog this morning. With the rate and rapidity of change over the past year, search marketers are physically and intellectually tired. Danny calls for a search holiday on June 21, July 15, or the first Monday in June. Anyone out there feel like giving your SEM a break for a day?

One of the best parts of being at an event like this one is the presence of dozens of well known names from the SEO/SEM world. These are some of the smartest brains in search and it is an extraordinary opportunity to place faces to their names and voices to their words. For instance, Barry Swartz (Rusty Brick) is demonstrating the brilliant Apple Tiger OS at the computer next to mine. ‘scuse me for a few moments….

One of the drawbacks to the SES format is that there are three sessions running concurrently. I wish to attend all of them but am obviously limited in the number I can actually visit.

The Organic Listing Forum was sparsely attended. While there are easily two thousand attendees at the conference, most seem interested in paid listings with organic listing seminars drawing smaller crowds. Several interesting questions were asked, one of which put notorious “black-hat” SEM Mikkel deMib Svendsen in the ironic position of having to espouse “clean-SEO” practices over the dark-arts he is known to practice. It seems that even the “black-hat” side of our industry is recognizing the days of treating search engines as our personal experimental playgrounds is long-over and that this is a serious business with serious consequences for webmasters using deceptive tactics. Perhaps this will be the most pressing message from this year’s Toronto SES conference. The bottom line for this morning is “GO WHITEHAT OR GET LOST (from the listings).”

Playing with PR

The Google representative was somewhat embarrased when Greg Jarboe from SEO-PR brought up an example demonstrating how Google News can be manipulated. Go to Google news and type the following search querry, “Home Improvement Guide”. SEO-PR represented Verizon on this obviously successful multi-placement campaign. With seven of the Top10 placements on Google News for Verizon, Greg gave the room a good laugh at Google’s expense. The truth is, with a well optimized press release, one can get massive multiple listings on Google News, each of which will complement organic search engine rankings as each offer a link from a source Google can only consider authoritative; itself.

Buying Your Way In and Up

There is a lot of interest in paid-search this year. This is natural as paid-search has been the mainstay of mainstream media. It is also somewhat unfortunate as the world of search is so much bigger than paid search. Greg Jarobe from SEMPO presented a slide showing 82% of monies spent on search are currently spent on Paid-Advertising with only 12% – 14% on organic search. About 4% is spent on search driven technologies such as RSS and paid-inclusion at Yahoo. While a huge proportion of monies are devoted to paid-search, click through rates are much higher for the organic listings with over 70% of click-throughs coming from organic placements and only about 25% stemming from paid-listings. There is an imbalance in ratios between monies spent and click-through conversions in the search marketing world. Sensing this, SES had a session titled: The Balancing Paid and Organic Listings Forum. This was the session I presented at and one of the most popular forums, attended by about 250 people. In it, attendees were reminded that organic listings matter as much or more than paid listings however paid advertising is much easier to understand and quantify for ad-buyers.

I think all our presentations were good and judging from the mob-scene around our table at the end of the all-too-short one hour session, the audience appreciated it as well. There is a lot more to come from the SES Toronto including the infamous Google-Dance which is being held later tonight in the financial district about six blocks from the convention site. My presentation is done and now I can devote my energies to eating, meeting and absorbing as much information as possible.

The exhibit floor is populated by about 40 different search related companies. Fellow Victorian Simon Marshall from Travel BC has set a record for his diligent gathering of Booth-bling with pens, cups, stuffed toys, mints and other shiny stuff. While he can’t actually remember exactly where he found the mitts full of booth-bling, he is happy to report he no longer needs to go shopping for gifts for his kids.