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BrightonSEO and an industry retrospective

Friday, September 20th, 2013 by Stephen Sumner

A couple of us Vertical Leapers made it over to BrightonSEO last week and had a thoroughly good time. The event has now established itself as probably Europe’s largest free SEO conference, with visitors arriving from all over the EU and beyond.

There are numerous blogs out there giving you a run through on the day, so I thought it would be interesting to look at the conference last week from an SEO point of view. I wanted to see how, in just two years, our industry has had to take on board accelerated evolution in our best practices.

BrightonSEO started out life above an old pub somewhere in Brighton. Before I was working on the agency side, I know a few people who were there and they said it was pretty fun event. Now, the event runs out of its 2,500 capacity ticket allocation within a matter of minutes.

This growth has happened over the last 3 or 4 years, and this year we have seen some innovative ideas being added to the event, such as speed mentoring and also training courses being offered just the day before.

I first attended in September 2011 when the event was limited to just 500 people and the tickets were snapped up in 26 minutes.

The first presentation I saw at BrightonSEO was by Jonny Stewart of ReviewCentre.com, whose site had been hit by Google Panda. 2011 was the year of the Panda and so many site owners were scrambling to understand the consequences of this new algorithm by Google which focussed on a site’s quality – including its content.

This profound shift by Google has had a huge impact on the industry and we have now seen the emphasis of not just BrightonSEO’s focus on content a lot more, but other new events springing up, such as the http://www.contentmarketingshow.com/

In 2011, James Carson of Bauer Media also looked at this aspect with his talk entitled: Dr Social Love: Or how I learned to stop worrying about Google algorithms and love the people.

I think as an industry we have evolved quite a lot since then and Panda is now sort of accepted as the norm, despite the frustrations it can bring the most seemingly decent website even today. This year I was even greeted by giant Penguins and Pandas handing out beer tokens for the after party.

Rumour has it that the person inside the Panda costume is someone I know!

In two years I feel we have transitioned from the point where we are a looking for just technical fixes for Panda, such as removing advert placements and duplicate content. Instead, we now seem to be talking as an industry of a much more all-encompassing shift to the ways in which a website should be born and then thrive on the web. It is no longer good enough to just have a technically sound website with quality content. The site needs to have a unique offering and provide a top-notch user experience above and beyond what we were thinking was fine a couple of years ago.

Two years ago, Google+ had just launched and most people inside SEO circles were highly cynical about it. Many had wondered how the new social network would take off, yet today it is an accepted part of our work (and essential if we want to leverage the authorship opportunities that it can bring).

A quick search on Google+ this morning, one week on from BrightonSEO, reveals that many in our industry are not only on there, but they are sharing and distributing their content https://plus.google.com/s/%23BrightonSEO

Something that was just emerging on to the SEO radar in 2011 was best practices for dealing with mobile SEO. At the time we were thinking that specially-built, stand-alone mobile sites were the way to provide the best experience, as the Apple iPad had only just been launched a year before. It seemed early days then, but already it has become one of the primary considerations.

Thus, BrightonSEO 2013 offered several talks on “Responsive Design” and mobile optimisation. These included talks from Bridget Randolph and Justin Taylor on the subject. Generally speaking now having a site built that is responsive is considered the best practice, although the number of sites that are currently responsive is still woefully low!

In 2011 I dare say many of us SEO practitioners were probably still using quite traditional methods and aspects, particularly with respect to our “link building”. As it transpires, these would not stand the test of time for much longer and soon after my first BrightonSEO visit, Google unleashed another algorithm, this time named after another black and white animal.

Google Penguin was unleashed on webmasters shortly after the spring conference of 2012 – I am wondering whether holding the event on Friday the 13th is such a good idea anymore! The Google Penguin algorithm is Google’s attempt as cleaning-up questionable link building practices and we as an industry have had quite a lot of turmoil and upheaval as a result. Essentially, both Penguin and Panda have meant that we as SEOs need to totally reconsider many of our concepts and methods.

This year at BrightonSEO we have seen several presentations that have either been focussed on the subject of these two algorithms (or numerous remarks made in almost every other presentation on the subject). Tim Grice, whom I met at the earlier event this year in an excellent training course offered by the organisers, gave a presentation last week that really chimed with me and my colleagues. It was on the subject: “Selling Does Not Make You Link Worthy”.

His first slide was so bang on the money with the old fashioned link building practices still being utilised: http://www.slideshare.net/timgrice/seo-for-ecommerce-selling-doesnt-make-you-link-worthy

Scarily, I still see this happening today by some SEOs.

What Tim had to say overlapped with the point I mentioned earlier about how a site really needs to offer something special. A site needs to offer something that people want to talk about. Thinking about a site from this angle means that, not only are you going to help your issues with respect of Google Panda (if you have an imaginative and quality content strategy, the chances are you will appease the Panda), but also that you will earn links, which is gold dust when it comes to link acquisition and staving off the Penguin as well.

So, what is the point in this blog then? Well, using the conference as a good barometer of our industry, you can see that SEO is even more important now than it was just two years ago. Those misguided blogs you see that throw around the phrase “SEO is Dead” have only one part of their posts right: yes SEO is Dead, the old SEO!

The days of building tonnes of dodgy backlinks to a category page, as Tim Grice put it, are dead. The days of spinning content are dead. The days when you build two websites – one for mobile and one for desktop users, are maybe not dead yet but certainly coming to an end.

What we as SEOs have to know now compared to 2011 is vast. We have several algorithms of which to be careful. We need to consider the mobile user. We have to be mindful of social media, as well as the signals and sentiment that this can create. The use of quality content to earn links is also something people have to think about now, as well as the speed in which a site loads in the browser.

These, along with so many other factors, are on top of changes to web design and browser technology. They also come at a time when Google is slowly degrading and hiding the data we can glean from Analytics, not to mention that of the now defunct Keyword Tool. The SEO goal posts are moving the whole time and the rug is always being pulled.

Anyone generalising and making outlandish “SEO is dead” remarks should perhaps be given a moment on stage at BrightonSEO to explain to the 2,500 people gathered there just why they are no longer relevant.

The career of a dedicated and committed SEO practitioner will continue to evolve, and the demand for these professionals will continue long in to the future. Events like BrightonSEO prove that and we need to be thankful that we have events like this for us an industry to attend and share the vast wealth of knowledge contained within.

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Stephen Sumner

Stephen Sumner