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Upfront Disclosure: I applied to speak at SMX West and was rejected.

I don’t know anyone who has been in SEM for more than a year or two who has ever come back from a search conference with oodles of new and useful information. The purpose of going to SMX or SES or Search Insider Summit, or Search Outsider Summit (if it exists) is really to network, as far as I can tell. Typically the sessions have the same speakers every time, most of whom are either totally unprepared or totally unqualified, or both.

Last year I spoke on an “Advanced Paid Search” session at SES SF and one of my fellow “experts” told the audience to never buy competitors’ keywords. This is like a tax advisor telling you not to take charity deductions – it’s just wrong and will cost you money. I’ve also seen some well-known speakers who bring their computer up on stage and tweet/do work while other people are presenting. Isn’t that sort of like talking loudly on your cell phone at a five star French restaurant?

This year’s list of speakers at SMX West appears to have been chosen through a complex vetting process that can only be described as a combination of Cronyism and laziness. To wit, a quick review of the speakers (only on the PPC side mind you) reveals that the following companies each have representatives on three different panels (in some cases, the same person):

  • AimClear
  • Click Equations
  • Did It
  • Efficient Frontier
  • Rimm Kaufmann Group

Don’t get me wrong, these companies have a lot of smart people working for them (and apparently even smarter PR and event management people). But given the sheer number of PPC agencies and experts in the SF Bay Area alone, one would think that having five agencies take up 15 speaking slots could be – and should be – avoided.

I find it especially troubling when I see the same person speaking on two or sometimes three panels. If you are such a great expert that you are worthy of appearing on three panels, you are no doubt in such high demand that you simply do not have the time to adequately prepare for multiple presentations. The inevitable result, of course, will either be rehashed or ‘re-purposed’ presentations from prior panels, or no preparation at all.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not qualified to come up with a solution for this conference malaise. I tried to start my own conference two years ago and I don’t believe I succeeded in truly creating valuable content at every session. Based on my own experiences, I think part of the problem is that there is simply a disconnect between creating a ‘successful’ conference from a revenue-perspective, and developing high-quality content.

Building a conference requires a ton of work that is not related to content – booking event space, closing sponsors and exhibitors, promoting the event, selling tickets, biz dev deals, etc. Ironically, putting together great content almost becomes an after-thought. And let’s not forget the subtle and sometimes explicit pressure that comes from top sponsors to have their speakers on the primo panels. The line between editorial and business is not very clear in the conference world.

On top of that, there’s the problem of trying to be all things to all people. Conference organizers feel an obligation to create some panels for beginners, lots of panels for intermediate knowledge, and just a few advanced sessions. And speakers often feel that they must water down their knowledge, thereby talking to the lowest common denominator. It’s sort of like a one room schoolhouse – the sixth graders have to sit through 1st grade arithmetic.

It all comes together in a well-packaged, cool-sounding, but incredibly stale and pointless series of conferences. Attendees continue to attend to network and meet old friends, speakers continue to speak to build their personal brands, and sponsors continue to sponsor because they probably do snag a few new clients from the exhibit floor. In the process, little knowledge is actually shared. It pains me that we can’t break this cycle.