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Reflections on Jason Calacanis Keynote

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On Tuesday at SES Chicago, Danny Sullivan interviewed Jason Calacanis.

I’ll have a longer article in SearchDay. Basic observations, now that the dust has settled:

  • Before the keynote, there was anticipation that this “controversial character” would be a “wind him up and let him go” type speaker. Some let it be known that he’d probably pop off and be offensive.
  • Calacanis was offensive, to some. Not to me. His observation that “SEO is bullshit” is far from unique (Godin said similar, and so, I think, did those old Wired and Webmonkey one-pagers that used to rank so well for the term SEO). But to 75% of this audience, apparently it was blasphemy. What Calanacis meant was really not far different from what a number of the white hatters say, but it goes farther. Being very concerned about building a content business happens to focus so heavily on the fundamentals that of course it is good SEO in itself. People: I’m afraid he’s right, or at least, how can you argue with success. Weblogs, Inc. got a whole lot of traffic from that attitude.
  • A number of other seemingly offensive points were fundamental defenses of the spirit of quality web experiences against deceptive ones. Not liking pay-per-post blog schemes is not exactly offensive, it’s actually again, kind of a white hat statement.
  • He said a lot about his work at Netscape, recreating a Digg-like experience. I found the comments about paying the top 50 “content curators” to ensure a professional approach to editorial work quite insightful. Indeed it eerily paralleled the many specific discussions initiated and fostered by Traffick around the implicit incentives lurking at the Open Directory Project when no editorial staff got paid. I argued at some points for making those incentives explicit, to anchor the thing in reliable editorial quality. Calanacis is saying precisely the same thing. Strangely, after all these years, at this same conference I bumped into David Prenatt, then known as netesq in the old ODP debates which made us infamous around here. :) (There were forum discussions that are no longer accessible)
  • Danny really shouldn’t have. He played word association with Calanacis. The first few things that came out of his mouth were cautious and respectful, and you got the feeling he was laboring to be statesmanlike. Then Danny mentioned Nick Denton (“Valleywag”, to be precise) and lo and behold the venom spewed forth. “Slime” was one of the words he used. It seems there is no love lost between these two, but it’s hard to really figure out why, other than the fact that these two were competitors and one likes to downplay his business accomplishments and the other to oversell them. And both make a living or a hobby out of offending people, it seems.

In the end, Calacanis’ substance didn’t offend me. I found it constructive. His style was easy to get past, for me, but not so much for those who don’t appreciate that the play’s the thing. So you have to conclude that the dismay with the man stems from some combination of fallout from his real-life actions, his self-promotional schtick, and the hypocrisy that inevitably surrounds the rhetoric of purity. Regardless, he’ll probably hit a few more home runs before he’s done.

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Andrew Goodman is Principal of Page Zero Media, a marketing consultancy which focuses on maximizing clients’ paid search marketing campaigns.

In 1999 Andrew co-founded Traffick.com, an acclaimed “guide to portals” which foresaw the rise of trends such as paid search and semantic analysis.

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