Ch. 10 – Rubbing Elbows at Conferences- Critical Thinking

Rubbing Elbows


I used to attend a lot of conferences, in my former career. Even as only an attendee, it was usually a costly process. Between airfare, hotel, meals and “entertaining” expenses, I rarely got by for less than $5K. As an exhibitor, my smallest annual budget was $25k for a five day conference. One year, the budget for that same conference was $100K. So don’t sell short the investment that exhibitors make to be there to hand out their swag.

Now, semi-retired, I simply can’t afford to attend a conference unless it happens to be within commuting distance of my home. So I do the next best thing, and hang on every Tweet and blog post of those that liveblog from the conferences, in order to get as much out of it as possible.

Unfortunately, the part that is most important to me is lost… the networking.

“Hello, I’m Doc Sheldon, and I’m a networking addict!”

I’ve been a serious networker for over 30 years. It’s proven its value to me many times over and it’s an addiction. I’ll never give it up. I’ve helped colleagues find jobs, new-hires, clients, even homes, and others have helped me do the same. Some people in my network are casual acquaintances that I’ve never met, and perhaps never will. Others, I’ve worked with on one or more occasions, and consider close friends.

I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit that sometimes, those I’ve actually shaken hands with are given more attention than those I’ve never laid eyes upon. That implies some value to a face-to-face meeting, doesn’t it?

I feel close to a number of SEO practitioners that I’ve never met. Perhaps because we’ve spent hundreds of hours together in a community setting or spoken several times by phone. Maybe we just found that we thought alike on some things that matter to us, and a friendship began to form. Regardless, we were connected by something more than just a day-old comment posted on a forum or blog… there was some degree of human contact.

So it stands to reason that sharing a table at dinner or rubbing elbows at the bar at the end of the day can only help in establishing a relationship, right? Sharing our impressions with each other during a presentation certainly has to help, too. At the end of the conference, we all head home with newly formed friendships in our expanded network… people we may one day be able to help, whether they can help us or not.

Networking should not be mercenary in nature. It should consist of establishing relationships, no more. Whether that relationship ever proves to be helpful to just one or the other, or even neither, should have no bearing whatsoever. A true networker helps people in his network, even if it is highly unlikely that the recipient will ever be able to reciprocate. True networkers don’t pay it back, they pay it forward.

And to me, even disappointing content at a conference can still be a worthwhile investment, if the networking results in new or deeper relationships.

We put this question to our contributors:


9. For you, what is the most valuable conference to follow/attend, and why?


Alan Bleiweiss

SMX Advanced.  Bar none.  It’s the single most invaluable place for people to be for both absorbing knowledge and building critical industry relationships that can’t come from sitting in an office or cubicle.

Next, I’d have to say it would be the Blueglass series of conferences.  They’re few and far between, and they get sprung on us with little advance warning.  Yet when they do, and if you can get to one, do so.  Since they’re smaller events, they’re more intimate – so the networking is first class.  And some of the speakers go beyond the typical topics in most conferences.

Andrea Scarpetta

From a “technical” point of view, I would say Mozcon: there’s plenty of great speakers! But if I had to improve my sense of “marketing”I would love to attend the Affiliate Summit: those people are focused on selling and sometimes you have to learn from the people the right “attitude” to improve your conversions… there’s a limit to what you can learn from paper (or e-books).

Andrew Bleakley

I have never been a huge fan of attending (or following) conferences they are rarely the best forum to learn anything cutting edge and seem more suited to salesmen and drinking games than learning anything remotely cerebral.

Anthony Verre

For me, personally, the most valuable conference to attend is SMX Advanced. 9 times out of 10 top notch material that discusses the most recent issues. Moreover, it’s jam-packed with networking opportunities and intimate enough that networking with lots of different people is possible and to create some lasting friendships.

Barry Adams

I think every conference has some value, as they often feature many of the same speakers. And those speakers are there for a reason: because they deliver interesting talks.

For me personally I prefer the smaller local SEO conferences such as SAScon and ThinkVis, as they’re as much about the craic as about sharing SEO insights.

Dana Lookadoo

The questions are getting tougher…

PubCon would have to be the one I’d choose to attend if I could only go to one conference. It attracts the largest following and offers multiple tracks, thereby offering more networking opportunities and variety of sessions.

SMX Advanced would be the one I’d follow if I could only “track” the content that comes out of one conference, because that’s where the most high-level morsels and often game-changing announcements occur.

Danny Sullivan

Well, I mainly get to our SMX: Search Marketing Expo events, and I find them the most valuable because I think we do a great job of programming stuff that’s right on the cutting edge of search. Beyond search shows, I’ve been to Foo Camp three times in the past and found that fantastic as an informal way to connect with and talk to leading people in the tech and other industries. I’ve also enjoyed events like D or Web 2.0 Summit for the quality of speakers and presentations. I attended Signal LA which had a fascinating line-up talking about content. And SXSW is fun.

Dean Cruddace

ThinkVisibilty, SasCon and BrightonSEO are the conferences that have the most visibility in the UK and have some very clued up speakers. Beyond the sessions though there is the opportunity to get to know those avatars you have had conversations with online and share knowledge that would under other circumstances not see print.

Eren McKay

It’s hard for me to attend conferences since I live in Brazil, and am a mom to 3 boys. However if I could choose a conference to attend, it would be SMX.

Gabriella Sannino

I’d have to choose two. SES, because I’m in the business of Search; Pubcon, because I met some great people and the networking was awesome.

Garrett French

I was really impressed with the quality of the Link Love conference put on by SEOMoz and Distilled. WOW! I’d love to go to the Content Marketing Institute’s conference as well… and ConFab. Niche conferences are usually more interesting to me. I also love going to my local SEO meetups here in RTP.

Heather Lloyd-Martin

I love the SMX conference series. Smart people, a fantastic speaker lineup and great food (and yes, conference food does make a huge difference!) Many conferences are good. This conference series is great.  After all, how can you go wrong with a conference series led by Danny Sullivan and Chris Sherman?

Hugo Gill

I like to follow the smaller conferences such as Think Visibility as the topics are varied, original and interesting. I hope to have the opportunity of attending this conference in the future (it would be my first).

Of the larger SEO conferences, I like to follow Search Engine Strategies as it brings together some fine professionals giving valuable information and opinions on a variety of Internet marketing topics.

Ian Lurie

MozCon is definitely my favorite. The presenters are top-notch. Presentations are stuffed with useful information. And there aren’t any 5-person, 45-minute ego-stroking panels. It’s far and away the most valuable 3 days in search.

Jahnelle Pittman

I’ve never been, but I’d go to SES – because who doesn’t want to know what others have to say about your industry? However, if I could only go to one, it’d be any seminar, workshop, class or conference that included Jakob Nielsen, because the man is a genius on usability!

Jey Pandian

I’ve only been to SMX Advanced and I felt that it was a waste of time with too many speakers who were focused on self-promotion. I’ve heard good news about Pubcon and the Affiliate Marketing Summit but have been to neither.

Joe Hall

I think most of them are pretty good….generally speaking you aren’t going to hear that much difference at any of them. But I love the BlueGlass ones, because they are so low key and create a much more intimate networking event.

Joshua Titsworth

For me it isn’t about which conference is most valuable to attend, but the one most of my peers and friends will be at. Two reasons. One, I’m friends with most of the people in this industry that I share the same beliefs with. So if they’re heading to that conference it’s one I really want to make sure to attend because they’re attending because they see some great value in it. And two, because it gives me a chance to network with others in this industry. Growing my network is about building more relationships to give/get client referrals and give/get link opportunities. The possible job offer down the road isn’t a bad thing to have either.

Justin Parks

I usually only go to one conference and that’s ThinkVis in the UK.  It’s not a sales effort, it’s not heavily branded and it still holds true to its roots of a networking event as a core aspect rather than a promotional vehicle.  Of course, promotion goes on, in the talks and events, but it has a very respectable and welcoming attitude, and that’s what makes it work for me.

Lyena Solomon

I like MozCon conference very much.  It is very focused on SEO, the speakers are usually outstanding and share information that we can use.  They offer specifics, not just generalizations 0about the industry.  We all know what we are supposed to do in theory.  MozCon manages to illuminate the path.

Michelle Robbins

For search and internet marketing, and again I realize this sounds self serving, but I have to go with Search Marketing Expo (SMX). I’ve been attending search marketing conferences since the very first one Danny Sullivan organized in 1999. After attending each of the major conferences (multiple times) I always come away thinking that SMX consistently kills it in content. The others have great aspects as well (some are maybe better for networking/social events) but when it comes to the programming and content, nothing tops SMX. I always learn something new.

M.J. Taylor

None have ever caught my interest.

Rand Fishkin

It’s not fair for me to say MozCon ( or the Distilled events (, though these are, in my opinion, some of the best advanced conferences in the online marketing world. Instead, I’ll go with Dreamforce (Salesforce’s annual event).

Steve Gerencser

Don’t do conferences any more. Stopped many years ago when they became giant echo chambers. Too much money for too little bang.

Taylor Pratt

I think this is going to be different for everybody. You need to attend a conference that is going to challenge the way you do things for the better. If you’ve solely focused on SEO and aren’t too analytics savvy, you may need to attend a conference like eMetrics or a Google Analytics training seminar to help improve the quality of data you’re focusing on. Or maybe you’ve been hired on the social media side of things and you are trying to get a better grasp of SEO, so you might choose to attend a show like SMX or PubCon to improve your skills in that area.

Tim Nash

I am not a fan of most conferences. Most are simply places for people to brown nose “celebrities” within the industry and listen to people preaching myths and waffle. That said, networking in person is invaluable and while too old to go partying all night long, it’s nice to let your hair down. If your UK based, I would recommend Think Visibility. It’s every 6 months, smaller and unlike other conferences, the emphasis is on proper one-speaker sessions, without panels. This makes the sessions worthwhile and goes more in-depth than any other conference. It also has some of the most fun parties going, if your new to the industry, avoid the larger conferences. And if you do go to them. don’t go the sessions – you will learn far more in the lobby.

William Slawski

There can be a lot of value to be gained from attending one of the bigger conferences for a number of reasons.

One is that people from around the world converge upon them, and provide a chance to meet with and talk to people whom you otherwise might not have had a chance to talk with. I remember skipping an after lunch session at one conference because of a conversation on geology-based differences in search that included two people from Ireland, one from England, another from Germany, a couple from the US, and another from Australia.

Bigger conferences can also draw keynote and other speakers who might not be as willing to present at a smaller conference.

Having said that, I’ve been only attending or speaking at smaller venues recently, such as meetups, because of the opportunity to have deeper conversations with participants, including site owners who know their sites very well.


You can begin with Chapter One of Critical Thinking for the Discerning SEO here.