They Don’t Get It (Yet): A Look Back at the Rude Awakening that Was SES


[An up-close view of the first ever Search Engine Strategies date in Canada, May 11-12, 2004]

As Search Engine Strategies’ first foray into Canada approached, the buzz was underwhelming. Had one gone by the lukewarm interest displayed by local media and the overall tone of mainstream media coverage of trends in online advertising, one would have despaired that this would be an embarrassing event that would not generate enough interest to warrant a repeat visit.

An uneducated guess would have led one to predict that a small gaggle of avant-garde attendees would have the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, and nearby bars and restaurants, to themselves. No such luck. The rank and file, including local search engine junkies working at companies of varying shapes and sizes, had long been looking forward to this event. Searchies from nearby towns like London and Guelph, western cities like Edmonton and Calgary, and big-city tech industry and marketing professionals from Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, came out in large enough numbers to exceed expectations. Jupitermedia has expanded the show from two days to three for May 2005.

Of course many of the usual experts and suspects from south of the border, and some international attendees, made the trek as well. It seems likely that trend will continue next year if word of our unseasonably warm May leaks out (I guarantee it again for 2005).

Who didn’t show up? The Canadian media. There is no shortage of reporters assigned to technology beats at papers like the National Post, the Globe and Mail, and the Toronto Star, to say nothing of cable TV and other news sources. But at least this time around, they didn’t seem to pay much attention to SES. In their defense, some reporters have made special efforts to cover search from time to time. It’s a question of resource allocation and, particularly with the Toronto Star’s @biz section, the need to pander to an audience who is more content to gripe about service outages with their Sympatico DSL connection and to help “the consumer” decide which gizmo to buy at Future Shop, than to look deeply into what’s really happening online on a cultural and economic level.

In the weeks leading up to SES Toronto, a number of articles confirmed my sense that most observers have failed to catch up with what’s actually going on with daily online behavior.

David Ticoll, a formidable expert in many facets of online business (co-author of The Naked Corporation: How the Age of Transparency Will Revolutionize Business), managed to trot out the shortsighted argument that “search isn’t sticky.” Hmm, yes and no. Google isn’t just search any more than Yahoo was after it gained portal status. And even in search alone, a modest line of argument presented by SES panelist Shane Wagg — that search is habitual behavior like checking email that gets ingrained and becomes indispensable to the achievement of goals – contrasts with the uncritical wisdom of those who aren’t looking at user behavior carefully enough. The patterned nature of this mysterious behavior was underscored by MSN’s Mike Sharma, who gave an eye-opening presentation on the spikes in searches for certain seasonal terms such as “camping equipment.” A generalist might be impressed enough by data exposing the seasonality of spring and summer searches for camping equipment, but only a sharp-eyed veteran might be able to unravel reasons why users in Quebec also searched heavily for this term in January. No, it wasn’t about winter camping. This is around the time the provincial government’s online camping reservation system opens. After you’ve made reservations, you might suddenly realize you need a tent that doesn’t leak.

Marketing consultant and ClickZ columnist Tessa Wegert was all about push this spring. Push? That old thing? In sharp contrast, Wendy Muller, Head of Canadian Sales for Google, emphasized in her SES panel talk that AdWords’ growth has been so swift because it’s “pull-based marketing” and meets with little resistance from users.

If the Canadian press (or other experts) are looking for a little sizzle in their coverage, how about some speculation that the next Google could conceivably come out of research at the University of Waterloo, the same regional tech hub that produced Research in Motion? Open Text, a strong search technology that was once Yahoo’s index search provider (pre-AltaVista), also came out of Waterloo. They’re now a profitable enterprise software company valued at just over $1 billion. They came too early to the party to make Google-sized waves, but there will be other parties. Most will emanate from Stanford, Brown, MIT, et al., but if a Canadian reporter is looking for a local angle and something positive to tell Canadian parents about their local institutions, a story on whether the next Google could conceivably come out of Waterloo wouldn’t hurt.

(Little-known fact: Open Text was possibly the first web index to pilot the pay-for-placement business model, in 1996. The idea received a terrible reception from users and the press, and flopped. Two years later, GoTo (now Overture) was launched and got off to a shaky start before eventually hitting on a successful pay-per-click auction formula that didn’t alienate users.)

It might also help if government revamped its budgetary priorities towards technology transfer. Or even if they revamped the power structure in federal cabinet to better reflect the new economy rather than being calibrated for perpetual politicking. [Oddly, in doing some hasty research for this piece, this related article by my cousin, Lesley McKarney (a real scientist), came to light.

For now, coverage of search is still at the gawking, incredulous stage. If they’re to remain credible commentators on technology, search is going to have to take up considerably more of the average business and tech reporter’s radar screen. Google’s still being treated as if it were a $500 million company, not a $30 billion company.

Coverage of the IPO was one thing we weren’t short on this spring. I always figured that fixating on that part of it was attractive to mainstream media because it allowed them to look wise and to distance themselves from what could prove to be an embarrassing bubble down the road. The tone of Google media coverage everywhere continues to be heavily valuation-centric. It’s also focused heavily on perceived scandals and unorthodox management styles. There needs to be more coverage of technological innovation and the shift in the advertising business model that is affecting large and small companies alike at the micro level.

If Canadian businesses large and small are about 12-18 months behind in their adoption of paid search marketing tactics, some purported tech industry pundits need to be held accountable for their lack of vision. Maybe the daily Nortel deathwatch and perpetual convening of the Blackberry fan club really is so fascinating that it can satisfy every viewer’s curiosity about high tech, but I doubt it.

Soon, some of the talking heads will discover trendy stuff like blogs, bypassing completely the changes in content business economics (better ad models) that threaten to make the most popular weblogs (and many other content formats) economically viable.

For now, the real movers and shakers and grassroots players in search have no choice but to convene and share their own, closer-to-the-ground, reality. SES Toronto provided that satisfying feeling. A strong lineup of initial exhibitors and sponsors took a flyer on this one; for 2005, the availability of exhibit and sponsor slots seems already to be tightening.

Content-wise the show offered a stripped-down program, so there were probably fewer highlights than at the recent larger SES events in San Jose and New York. But some sessions were gratifying insofar as real insiders in the industry came to present fresh numbers about trends and to offer clear ideas about where they saw their companies heading, both in general and with specific reference to Canadian audiences. (I read a couple of reviews indicating that Google and other search engine representatives were “tight-lipped,” but that must have been with specific reference to sessions that drilled them on the inner workings of their algorithms. Of course they’re a lot more forthcoming when you attend sessions on how the ad programs work, or general overviews of how users today are using search to find what they need.)

A session on shopping search was particularly interesting. Reps from Bizrate,, and Pricegrabber offered proof of the rapid growth of the segment. Marketer Adam Jewell provided his own third-party quantitative study that included Yahoo! Shopping in the mix with the above three. Jewell’s case study showed that shopping search generally has a higher ROI than any other kind of paid search (including pay-for-placement near search results), but due to the relatively slow pace of consumer adoption, click volume is still quite low. Due to various factors, adoption has been much slower in Canada than in the US. At least one of the leaders in this sector plans a made-in-Canada initiative to overcome the current resistance in the marketplace; others demurred on the question. In general, the panelists were unable to answer the difficult audience questions specifically relating to the foibles of Canadian consumer markets.

The shopping search session, while groundbreaking, was lightly attended. About 40 serious note-takers were scattered around the room. In the same time slot, I was informed that a session on link-building was standing-room-only. This betrays an obsession with “getting it for free” that again feels – at least as far as Search Engine Strategies session attendance goes – at least 18 months out of date. Or it might simply mean that the word is out on Mike Grehan‘s ruthlessly entertaining takes on the link-building subject.

comScore Networks’ James Lamberti, after dropping the bombshell that Google holds a commanding market share of 62% when measured as “share of monthly searches” in Canada (Yahoo, 15%; MSN, 12%), presented fresh data showing that Canadians are more active searchers than Americans. But he made it clear to the audience that he felt that those searchers weren’t being well served by the Canadian corporate sector, who simply don’t seem as aggressive in their efforts to become more visible on search engines.

Increasingly, marketing is data-driven. Until the media start paying more attention to the data about the rapidly growing search phenomenon here (and elsewhere, of course), Canadian businesses will continue to underestimate the opportunities for customer acquisition that are transacting every day, every time one of their customers types in “camping information,” “formal wear,” or “high interest rate chequing account.” Those who attend the 2005 event will be getting in on a good thing. Those who don’t will be missing a helluva party.

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