Chris Sherman on Algorithms, Humans & SMX


Search Engine Land Executive Editor Chris Sherman (on right) has been active professionally in educating us since the industry was nascent. A generation of serious social media practitioners and demographic research artists cut teeth, tweak skills and stay current by attending Chris Sherman-designed conference sessions.

Count on tracks he sequences to be measured,  informed by bleeding edge data,  stocked with cool speakers, accompanied  by healthy sides of value-added perspective and measured cynicism. I count him as one of my important influences academically and as a writer because his work has almost anthropological overtones, all the while rooted in simplicity. Chris was one of the first to speak of “advising” or  “informing” processes and about algorithmic/human mashups, long before such theories were the rage.

Recently I had the pleasure interviewing him in straight ahead of SMX Advanced Seattle 2009, upcoming June 2,3.  We touched on the upcoming conference (one of my faves),  social search, the global industry landscape,  Internet evolution and his family’s rich Minnesota history.

|Chris, in 2006 you were quoted as saying [Social Search means] “Internet way-finding tools informed by human judgment. ‘informed’ can mean many things including egregiously uninformed.” How have things changed since then and is human “advice” getting more reliable as a result of mass user engagement and advancing technology?

It’s really hard to tell if things have improved from a search standpoint. There’s definitely merit in the wisdom of the crowds, but there also has to be some kind of algorithmic mediation to avoid problems with spam, gaming the system, idiots, etc. I think the people that are combining both human input and algorithmic systems are on the right track – Yahoo Answers, OneRiot, Eurekster, et al. Other systems… I’m not so sure. Twitter search sucks, unless you’re looking for a restaurant recommendation, and even with the new approach that they plan to take I remain dubious (but also open-minded – we’ll see).

| You’re Co-Chair of the Search Marketing Expo series – but you’ve been coordinating in-person search-marketing gatherings for a long time. How long and how many shows have you worked on?

I’ve been working with Danny Sullivan since 2001, and have lost track of the number of shows we’ve put together in that time – dozens of them. Danny and I have a very fluid style of working – sometimes he takes the lead on a show and sometimes I do, or we just mix things up and each work on different parts of the same show. In general, I tend to organize the international and smaller topical shows (local/mobile, travel, etc) and he does the larger shows. That’s changing with SMX East in October – I’m taking the lead on that one.

Over the past few years we’ve been working closely with a number of trusted confidants as session coordinators. Danny and I develop an agenda, and the coordinators are responsible for speaker selection and choreographing individual panels (they also typically moderate their panels). This approach allows us to tap into the expertise and unique viewpoints of talented search marketers, while avoiding the problems that can arise from a committee-based approach that many other conferences take.

With several of our international shows, we also work with other organizations in mostly a supporting role while they handle the programming, speaker selection and so on.

| What has changed most since your first conference? What’s changed the least?

Most: Google. Least: Google.

Seriously. I’ve been observing the search scene since 1994 or so, and by far the most revolutionary change was the advent and rise of Google. It completely changed the game. And during the past 10 years, Google has evolved into being a fairly conservative organization, introducing change incrementally. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing – you want your search engine to be reliable and trustworthy. But it’s made it difficult for anyone trying true innovation (think Ask’s wonderful 3D experiment, and some of the great stuff Microsoft is doing with images and maps).

| One of the SMX Advanced sessions you’re moderating is “Keyword Research Artistry.” What will speakers be focusing on how this session more advanced than typical search marketing conference keyword sessions?

I’m not going to steal anyone’s thunder here! I can say that all of the speakers are focusing on unique and sophisticated techniques for finding and exploiting keywords that go far beyond the usual techniques of using keyword research tools, mining logs, and so on. These are really creative approaches that are going to surprise attendees, and give them a lot of fresh ammo that they can put to use right away.

| Another session will show how to measure the ROI of social media activities. Are there some activities that just aren’t measurable? Is social media one of them?

Until I saw what our speakers proposed, I would have agreed that social media is difficult to impossible to measure. But the metrics and systems that our speakers have developed look both solid and compelling. If you’re having a difficult time justifying spend on social media, this session will give you tools and approaches that you can use to persuade even the most analytical bean-counter.

| You’re heading to SMX London before SMX Advanced. You’ve been to many international search conferences – how does the professional search marketing differ abroad and how is search faring, in general, on a global basis?

It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of search marketing in different countries. Five years ago, most countries were 18 months to 3 years “behind” the U.S. in terms of sophistication, approaches, knowledge, etc. That gap has closed rapidly, to the point where I no longer think in terms of experience but rather cultural challenges/expectations. For example, in China mobile search is huge, and undisclosed paid search listings are the norm (mixed in with algorithmic listings).

In the U.K. there’s a lot of focus on international search marketing. It really differs from country to country – but generally, search is healthy and growing as the Internet becomes more pervasive. We’ve had a bit of a hiccup due to the global economic dislocation, but there are already signs that we’re moving past this, and the growth in search is resuming its hockey stick pattern (see, even ending with a true Minnesota analogy…:-)

| You’ve mentioned your love of AIMCLEAR‘s home state of Minnesota to me, specifically Duluth and the North shore of Lake Superior. Would you mind sharing a bit of your history with our MN readers?

Yah sure, ya betcha! I was born in Minneapolis and went to high school there. My parents took us up north every summer to spend time on the Gunflint Trail, and I completely fell in love with the place. This is the part of Minnesota where there truly are 10,000 lakes, and if you like silence and solitude it’s an earthy form of paradise.

photo credit: Sylvie Weintraub

Our family has had a cabin there for more than 30 years now, and I try to get back at least once a year to spend time on “the lake.” I’ve also largely succeeded in passing along my love for the area to my kids – my son is taking his first week-long canoe trip out of Camp Menogyn this summer.

Top Picture: Chris interviewing Vint Cerf, “Father of the Internet” and Google Vice President/Chief Internet Evangelist at  SMX West 2009

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