Tuesday, July 29, 2008

What do SEO and a Spy Safehouse Have in Common?

Is Search Engine Optimization (SEO) lying and dishonest?

That's a purposely provocative question, and I should make it clear that I have a strong belief in the value of SEO. (In fact, I'd hasten to add before I get into hot water with my peers that Fullhouse offers terrific SEO services with a strong record of success.) But if you can for a moment let go of the idea that SEO is a necessary tactic for interactive marketers, I think you'll find some interesting and challenging ideas that can enhance a brand's web performance and improve the online experience for consumers.

While I would never argue that a brand shouldn't carefully optimize their site for maximum relevance in search engines, I think SEO has become a bit of a crutch. For example, let's imagine that we're responsible for a Web site about hammers; as a result, we want our hammer site to appear at the top of search engine results. We may want this in part because we believe our site is the best hammer-oriented site on the Internet, but chances are our primary motivation for improved search engine placement is that we need traffic to justify the investment in the Web site. As a result, our and every other hammer site are locked in an SEO arms race, all trying to create the best META tags, the most SEO-relevant copy, the most useful ALT tags, and the best brand-managed link-building tactics.

But what would happen if we took these tactics away? Imagine a world without SEO. What if we couldn't optimize our Web copy? What if our ALT and META tags had no value to search engines? What if no amount of PR or paid link-building tactics would create any better visibility on search engines? How would we succeed in generating relevance on and traffic from search engines if our only avenue to do so was through our site visitors?

The Fullhouse Experiential Marketing group has a number of beliefs that guide the work we do for clients. One of them--to which any decent SEO consultant would agree--is this:

The best way to create traffic to a Web site isn't to optimize it...
it's to get people linking to it.

This belief challenges our employees and our clients to consider this question: What if instead of worrying about creating links or evaluating our sites' code for SEO value, we instead concentrated on creating an online experience so terrific, so valuable, so fun, or so informative that our visitors became uncompensated cogs in our SEO machine? What if our hammer site was so spectacularly engaging that consumers couldn't help but to spend time on the site, revisit it, tell others, talk about it with coworkers, link to it from their Facebook site, and blog about it?

These thoughts came to mind last weekend when visiting one of Milwaukee's oldest bars, the Safehouse. This bar has a James Bond theme and creates the ambiance of a secret location where spies may "come out of the cold". You can buy into the clandestine theme or not, but you can't argue with its success: The Safehouse has been in operation for 42 years.

The bar has no signage, at least none that promotes "The Safehouse"; nor does it have an easy-to-find-location. To get to it, you must walk down an unmarked alley. If you arrive at the door, there are subtle signs of something worthy of your attention (an awning, a couple of flags), but there is no indication of the bar name; just a small plaque announcing you've arrived at International Exports, Ltd. If you walk through this unobtrusive door, you will find yourself in a tiny, old-fashioned office, and depending upon when you've arrived, it may be unstaffed. No doors are evident in this office, and I've seen people walk back out thinking they were in the wrong place. But if you pay attention, you'll notice a small sign pointing to a timeclock; if you pull the handle on the timeclock, a bookcase will swing open and allow you entrance into the bar.

The Safehouse advertises in area print magazines, particularly ones focused on tourists, but how can a bar stay open for 42 years with no signage? How can it be successful when it is so difficult to find? And why would a commercial establishment create those sorts of barriers to entry for consumers?

The answer has everything to do with SEO, because the bar has generated four decades' worth of Word of Mouth and business by being the kind of destination about which people rave. If your Web site created the sort of experience that the Safehouse offers patrons, your SEO tactics would be the icing on the cake and not a major driver of search engine traffic.

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