Yesterday afternoon, while I was in line at the grocery store, my phone pinged. I was mentioned in a Twitter post. For me, that’s becoming a pretty uncommon experience. So I checked the post. And that’s how I found out that SEMPO is no more.
The tweet was from Dana Todd, who was responding to a Search Engine Journalarticle by Roger Montti about the demise of SEMPO. For those of you who don’t know SEMPO: it was the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization.
It was a big part of my life during what seems like a lifetime ago. Todd was even more involved. Hence the tweet.
Increasingly I find my remaining half-life in digital consists of an infrequent series of “remember-when” throwbacks. This will be one of those.
Todd’s issue with the article was that much of the 17-year history of the organization was glossed over, as Montti chose to focus mainly on the controversies of the first year or two of its existence.
As Todd said, “You only dredged up the early stages of the organization, in its infancy as we struggled to gain respect and traction, and were beset by naysayers who looked for a reason we should fail. We didn’t fail.”
She then added, “There is far more to the SEMPO story, and far more notable people who put in blood sweat and tears to build not just the organization, but the entire industry.”
I was one of those people. But before that, I was also one of the early naysayers.
SEMPO started in 2003. I didn’t join until 2004. I spent at least part of that first year joining the chorus bitching about the organization. And then I realized that I could either bitch from the outside — or I could effect change from the inside.
After joining, I quickly found myself on that same SEMPO board that that I’d been complaining about. In 2005, I became co-chair of the research committee. In 2006, I became the chair of SEMPO. I served in that role for two years and eventually stepped down from SEMPO at the same time I stepped away from the search industry.
Like Todd (who was the president of SEMPO for part of the time I was the chairman), I am proud of what we did, and extraordinarily proud of the team that made it happen. Many of the people I admired most in the industry served with me on that board.
Todd will always be one of my favorite search people. But I also had the privilege of serving with Jeff Pruit, Kevin Lee, Bill Hunt, Dave Fall, Christine Churchill and the person who got the SEMPO ball rolling, along with Todd: Barbara Coll. There were many, many others.
Now, SEMPO is being absorbed by the Digital Analytics Association, which, according to its announcement, “is committed to helping former SEMPO members become fully integrated into DAA, and will be forming a special interest group (SIG) for search analytics.”
I’ve got to admit: That hurts. Being swallowed up, becoming nothing more than a special interest group, is a rather ignoble end for the association I gave so much to.
But as anyone who has raised a child can tell you, you know you’ve been successful when they no longer need you. And that’s how I choose to interpret this event. The search industry no longer needs SEMPO, at least as a stand-alone organization.
And if that’s the case, then SEMPO knocked it out of the park. Because that sure as hell wasn’t true back in 2003.
Search in 2003 was the Wild West. According to legend, there were white-hat SEOs and black-hat SEOs.
But truth be told, most of us wore hats that were some shade of grey.
The gunslingers of natural search (or organic SEO) were slowly and very reluctantly giving up their turf to the encroaching new merchants of paid search. Google Adwords had only been around for three years, but its launch introduced a whole new dynamic to the ecosystem. Google suddenly had to start a relationship with search marketers.
Before that, the only Google attempt made to reach out was thanks to a rogue mystery poster on SEO industry forums named “googleguy” (later suspected to be the search quality team lead Matt Cutts). To call search an industry would be stretching the term to its breaking point.
The introduction of paid search was creating a two-sided marketplace, and that was forcing search to become more civilized.
The process of civilization is always difficult. It requires the establishment of trust and respect, two commodities that were in desperately short supply in search circa 2003.
SEMPO was the one organization that did the most to bring civilization to the search marketplace. It gave Google a more efficient global conduit to thousands of search marketers. And it gave those search marketers a voice that Google would actually pay some attention to.
But it was more than just starting a conversation. SEMPO challenged search marketers to think beyond their own interests. The organization laid the foundation for a more sustainable and equitable search ecosystem. If SEMPO accomplished anything to be proud of, it was in preventing the Tragedy of the Commons from killing search before it had a chance to establish itself as the fastest growing advertising marketplace in history.
Dana Todd wrapped up her extended Twitter post by writing, “I can say confidently Google wouldn’t be worth $1T without us. SEMPO — you mattered.”
Dana, just like in the old SEMPO days when we double-teamed a message, you said it better than I ever could.
And Google? You’re welcome.