My SMX West Journey: From Newbie to Speaker with Top SEO Takeaways

My SMX West Journey: From Newbie to Speaker with Top SEO Takeaways

Conference Noob

I’ve been working in the inbound marketing and SEO space for more than 7 years, but have never attended a major US search conference. That is, until last week. Having been mostly exposed to the UK SEO scene due to living in Israel and time zones (twitter feeds), I have been quarantined from interacting with the US search community. That all changed dramatically – namely due to our new hire Aaron Friedman.

Aaron convinced me that going to SMX West together would be an awesome opportunity to meet new people in our industry, and get some juicy takeaways from thought leaders. Never would I have been able to imagine just how great the experience would have been.

Not only did I walk away with a ton of actionable takeaways, Aaron introduced me to a multitude of incredible people, and lastly – I somehow ended up speaking on a site-clinic. Read on!


My Major SEO Takeaways

I have pages of notes, slides to review, and many new tools, techniques, and things to try in the weeks to come. However, here are some major high-level takeaways that I brought home to my team…

  • Rank Checking is Dead (or soon will be) – From the industry insiders who I trust and spoke to informally, it seems that rank checking is dying. Both as a KPI and as the actual ability to scale scraping of results. This doesn’t mean that aggregate reporting of rankings via WMT or keyword vertical reporting won’t occur. Rather that Google is seriously cracking down with assigning new resources and more people to an  anti-scraping team. Now is a better time than ever to start educating clients and moving away from spot-check rank reporting. Focus on key conversion related KPIs that come as a result of organic search (non-brand, with and without not-provided segment, etc). Look at verticals or buckets of search and how they perform over time. There are a ton of other means to effectively report the same thing (or better).

Matt Cutts and Jon Henshaw at SMX West 2013Jon Henshaw of Raven Tools about to throw down with Matt Cutts. juuuust kidding….. sorta.

  • Digital PR and SEO – This intersection is closer than ever. Our link building strategies at Kahena have already been moving in this direction. However the skills and tactics related to traditional PR have never been more relevant for white-hat SEOs. It’s hard to scale, but it provides the most comprehensive value added for clients. One of my favorite sessions was Link Building and PR – some of the best link building tactics come from other disciplines. Digital PR and off-site optimization are a match made in heaven.
  • Authorship and AuthorRank– While I thought it was important and vital to implement before, I can’t stop talking about this after SMX. The engines love it, it’s great for CTR and establishing authority, and cross-domain connections via a Google+ profile could really prove useful as Google starts turning up the ‘AuthorRank’ dial in the near future.
  • Schema. Use it. Now.  – This is one of those head-smaking tips that you know you should do, but don’t implement nearly enough nor take advantage of its full potential. Beyond just itemprop, reviews, and authorship markup – there are literally hundreds of objects on a site that you can markup. Both Matt Cutts and Duane Forrestor reiterated several times how important it is that we as webmasters help the search engines discover and understand data in a structured way. Help them help us!
  • Page 1 Testing and User Experience – It was uncanny how blunt and clear the message was from both Google and Bing regarding the testing they do on page 1 (they move results around ‘artificially’ all the time). Never before has user experience on landing pages been so important. While I used to laugh-off page load time as a major rank factor, click stream data has never been so important. Make sure that you’re keeping users on a landing page for a good amount of time before they click ‘back’ to Google, click on a different result and stay there. Easy data for the engines to gobble up and make decisions about your site.
  • Panda, Penguin… Peh… Who Cares – Don’t get me wrong – understanding algo rollouts are important. However, obsessing over the iterative changes and rollouts seems silly to me. If you focus on quality link building, don’t build a ton of thin, crap content pages whose sole purpose is to rank for long-tail queries, you should be good. I’m not suggesting there are never any false positives – but if you spend half your time worried about getting chased by an update, you’re missing the point. Duane Forrestor put it best when he said “We dont have a barnyard of animals.”:).

  • Everybody Needs To Talk To Matt Cutts – While I originally dismissed and made fun of how ridiculous it was that people lined up to ask Matt questions, I fell into the trap of running to the front to get a picture and ask a question. What can I say, he’s the closest thing we have to a celebrity (silly, right?). Much to my surprise, immediately bumping me in line was no other than Jon Henshaw from Raven. While I didn’t eavesdrop, I got the impression it had a lot to do wtih the recent rank checking showdown showdown whereby several companies lost their adwords API access. Suffice it to say, people mob Matt Cutts – and I just find it pretty hilarious:matt cutts mob

It’s All About The People

From the moment the conference started, Aaron (being the SMX veteran that he is), was greeted by every other person. It was incredible to see how much of a community existed in real life – especially given that some participants were fairly unknown to others just a couple years prior.

By far and large the biggest highlight of SMX West were some of the awesome industry people I was able to meet. The following are just some of the great people I met for the first time in the flesh. I had great, 1 on 1s with each of these folks. There were so many great indidivuals that I met – but I just want to call out a few that helped make my first SMX in the US an awesome experience.

SMX Lunch


AJ Kohn of Blind Five-Year Old- Longtime fan of his blog, it was great to laugh and joke about our common love of the 90s DC electronic music scene. It was great seeing him morph back and forth from a really chill, kind guy to an industry expert speaking with authority on panels. Looking forward to reaching out to AJ to talk shop soon.

Marty Weintraub of aimClear – This man is a genius. I’ve seen him speak twice at SMX Israel, but I had a super interesting walk-and-talk with him discussing how he grew aimClear and scaled their operations. These were timely tips as we grow and scale Kahena. I know how much Marty loves Israel – we’re hoping we can find a way to get him out here for something soon 🙂

Jon Henshaw of Raven – I’ve known Jon since the alpha days of Raven Tools when many of my old company’s recommendations were being implemented weekly. I was super excited about meeting Jon in person. He was beyond kind and genuine, a super approachable and down to earth guy. Despite helping to build an incredibly robust piece of marketing software,  this guy is one humble dude. He jumped off the stage immediately prior to a session starting to shake my hand and meet in person. We had a candid chat about the future of rank checking and SEO metrics.

Casie Gillete Okay. So I kind of stole Aaron’s best buddy at SMX – but honestly Casie rocks. She’s always smiling and has an infectious laugh – but don’t let that fool you. Casie’s got some serious chops. In between hilarious jokes, shmoozing, and saving seats at lunch – Casie gave me some incredible takeaways about client management and helped guide me through the conference (as she did with Aaron when he was a noob).

Casie and Aaron

Greg Finn – Greg is hilarious, point blank. While we first met at the crack of dawn at day 1 breakfast and had some more serious conversation about the industry, his true colors came out during drinks that night. Without going into too many details, he had all of us crying with laughter. That man’s mind runs quick!

Akvile Harlow of SMX- SMX really lucked out with Akvile. She is a super competent, diligent community manager and did a kick-ass job keeping everyone informed and well ‘fed’ in all of the SMX feeds the entire conference. She was also awesome to hang out with during off hours and somehow seemed bright-eyed and bushy tailed every morning (I know you were out late.. how do you do it?!). [Edit: I now know… DJ in a past life!]

Elisabeth Osmeloski
of Search Engine Land – Elisabeth was the gracious individual who gave me the opportunity to speak. She moderated so many darn panels it was incredible she didn’t tire out from exhaustion. Elisabeth clearly cared about making sure everyone in the audience walked away with a clear way to apply presentations to their own sites, positions, etc. She did a great job moderating and adding value… makes the difference between a cohesive panel and a few speakers talking for a while.

Ruth Burr of SEOmoz – While I only really got to hang out with Ruth towards the last few hours of the conference, she really represents all that is TAGFEE about SEOmoz. She let Aaron and I hitch a ride with her to SFO and we had a great chat about life, what its like to work as an in-house SEO at the mozplex, and oddly enough predictive genetic analysis! All in all – a super dynamic, strong, great individual to know. They’re lucky to have her.

Eli Schwartz – Eli and I happen to have gone to UMD at the same time but did not know each other. He gave a great talk about his SEO work at Survey Monkey. Definitely going to be following up with Eli often given how many friends and connections we have in common.

Annie Cushing – We <3 Annie Cushing at Kahena. Her Google Doc audit tool is used daily here. It was awesome to meet her in the flesh. She’s got some serious energy and good vibes whenever she walks into a room and packs an incredible amount of knowledge. Loved sitting next to her at lunch and catching up periodically thought the conference. Look out for Annie to dominate in 2013!

Jen Sable Lopez of SEOmoz – She’s one of the most recognizable faces if you follow SEOMoz. We had a great chat about Mozcation and how we’re going to make a pitch this year for Jerusalem 🙂

Adam Audette of RKG – We love RKG’s blog here at Kahena – our online ad team has always been huge fans of the agency. It was awesome to talk shop over a few beers and listen to Adam talk on a few panels – specifically his candid discussion about link building and the disavow tool in the link building discussion panel.

Adam Audette

Mike Arnesen – Besides sharing dietary habits, I really enjoyed hanging with Mike. He’s is an all around kick-ass inbound marketer and person. Out of Portland, he’s got a great vibe and had an impressive presentation on authorship that had the whole crowd’s eyes glued front and center.

Barry Schwartz – While I’ve known Barry since ‘Sphinncon’ (pre SMX Israel), it was great to see him in the larger context of the SMX scene. Barry has in many ways been a trailblazer for Israel to be on the map of search marketing conferences and SEO as a whole. It’s by no coincidence that every time I mentioned Kahena’s HQ in Israel, 99% of people said they wanted to visit, mentioned SMX Israel, and were super positive. Thanks, Barry.

Brent Csutoras – Brent has been on my radar since I first started in SEO. I had known him through some work with a client in 2007 and his incredible techniques with social media – specifically digg, reddit, etc. The force is strong with this one. 

Dave Lloyd of Adobe – Dave gave an in-depth presentation on Technical SEO Metrics. He’s the senior manager of global search marketing at Adobe and it was really interesting to hear how big corporate handles some of the day to day performance measurement issues at scale. I approached him the next day about a specific issue with a client and some software they use in-hosue at Adobe. He didn’t just give me advice, he marched me right over to a rep from that company and made s&%t happen. He was insistent that I come with him and made a point to reiterate that we’re a community – a tight knit group of search marketers and that we look out for one another. Super generous and a representation of what it felt like to be at SMX West over those three days.

Duane Forrester – Duane is by far the most approachable guy relative to his position as head of webmaster tools (and outreach) at Bing. He sat for literally hours with attendees throughout the conference discussing individual specific problems. I was astounded at his patience, knowledge, and his generosity. The willingness to really hear from webmasters and marketers on their everyday, real problems with bing and search at large makes it clear that he’s dedicated to the mission of bridging the gap between the engines and webmasters. He’s also hilarious and can switch back and forth from joker to professional advisor in an instant. Uncanny to watch.

Duane Forrester, Ari Nahmani, Aaron Friedman


From Rookie to Speaker In a Day

Imagine my surprise when on the second day of the conference, I get the following text from Aaron:


Without going into too many details – there was a spot that needed to be filled on the link building site clinic. Aaron was asked, but instead he suggested that I instead fill the position given my deep background with link building audits. Gotta love that guy, eh? No wonder we hired him 🙂 So… quite quickly, this happened.

SMX Speaker

Speaker Badge, FTW!
“Aaron, does this mean I get to eat those pastries in the speaker room now?”

The thing about site clinics is that you really can’t prepare. Besides firing up Open Site Explorer, Majestic, and Search Metrics, everything was off the cuff. The session went off really, really well. I gave several site owners advice on how to A) obtain links in interesting, tough niches B) diversify, dilute, and clean up backlink profiles from over-optimization and C) focus on content generation and more sustainable link earning tactics. It’s amazing how much misinformation there is out there. One of my favorite things is to be able to dispel myths and help people save time and money in their off-site efforts.

Ari Nahmani on the Link Building Site Clinic Panel at SMX West 2013

I swear I’m not reciting the theme song to Fresh Brince of Bel Air…..

 link building for plumbing sites

My nightmare the night before. Luckily I didn’t get asked about plumbing sites… *phew*!

Ari Nahmani on the Link Building Site Clinic Panel at SMX West 2013 pic2

My partners in crime clinic:Search Engine Land’s Elisabeth Osmeloski and Vertical Measures’ Kaila Strong

I thought the clinic went really well, but it’s always nice to get some positive feedback. Mark traphagen from Virante wrote a nice wrap-up post from the session and I got some great feedback on Facebook in the SMX West 2013 group.

All in all it was an incredible few days. The truth is – we were straight up exhausted upon leaving San Jose. While it was all worth it, this about sums up how we felt…..

aaron tired

Oh and one more picture. While giving a presentation in LA at one of our partner agencies’ offices, the company dog mounted Aaron. He took it in stride and managed to still give a rockin’ presentation. Hilarious.

aaron dog

Until next time!

Ari Nahmani

Ari Nahmani is the CEO of Jerusalem based Kahena Digital Marketing. Ari is a web analytics freak who loves performance measurement data, excel, and pretty charts that demonstrate ROI. With an addiction to double espressos and as an Apple fanboy, it’s not uncommon to see Ari unsuccessfully managing his ADHD juggling multiple screens and iDevices. Follow him: @AriNahmani or at +Ari Nahmani