Behind every search there’s a story

This week, I was reminded why I got into this business. The timing was good, because to be honest, after being involved in too many discussions revolving around search budgets and cross channel attribution models, I had lost touch with what I found so magical about online marketing in the first place. But Tim and Daniel reminded me. It’s a story worth repeating.

About a week ago, I was sitting at a board room trying to find an “apples to apples” comparison for a CMO of a huge company to help validate moving money from traditional brand building channels into search. We had run dozens of models, compiled multiple spreadsheets and put together at least 6 different slide decks. In the process we did our level best to suck all the life out of the exercise and reduce it to a colorless discussion based solely on numbers. We were trying to find that elusive formula that would allow us to compare the impact of a dollar spent on search vs a dollar spent on TV. It was a variation of a conversation that I’m sure we’ve all had multiple times in the last year. I guess it was a sign that digital has come of age. We were trying to subject it to the same BS that had propped up TV and print for decades. But in the process, we were missing something critical. And I found that something critical on the streets of San Francisco.

When I started in search, I used to get kick from the fact that thanks to what we did, a small Mustang after-market parts retailer could outrank Ford for keywords like “Mustang parts” and increase their online business by 10 times in under a year, eventually outstripping their traditional bricks and mortar business that had been around for decades. Or that a small boat manufacturer in Kelowna, BC could rank number one for “boats” and suddenly start getting inquiries from around the world. Online made things possible that had never been possible before. And that was pretty cool.

Those stories are still happening and being talked about, it’s just that they’re not happening at the boardroom tables I’ve been hanging out at lately. But then I ran into Tim and Daniel, and their story restored my faith in online marketing.

Tim and Daniel are just a couple guys that happen to love their city (San Francisco) and wanted to find a way to afford the sky rocketing rent that allows them to continue to live in this city. So a little over a year ago, they started a bike tour company and started taking tourists through the streets of San Francisco, pointing out the little nooks and crannies that give the city it’s color. They’re both pretty personable guys and the tours benefited from their obvious passion for their subject. They can bring Haight-Ashbury or the Castro to life in a way that no tour book or bus tour ever could. They reduce San Francisco to a street level, intimate love affair, exactly the way the city should be seen.

Now, as cool as that is, the story wouldn’t be worth telling unless people actually discovered the tour, allowing Tim and Daniel to keep doing it. And that’s where the Internet comes in. Right now, their tour is the number one ranked tour on Trip Advisor, with 145 reviews, all of them “excellent.” And so, because of this feedback, they top a very long list of things to do in San Francisco. They probably won’t get rich, but they will keep the business rolling and keep paying the rent. And that’s not a bad outcome for being able to do the thing you love. I asked Daniel what the impact of the positive ranking on Trip Advisor had been and he was positive but realistic, “It’s been pretty awesome, but as I keep telling my mom, it’s an algorithm and it might be gone tomorrow. But we’re enjoying it while we can.”

Excellent advice. Enjoy it while you can. And when the big business of search seems to suck all the fun out of life, remember that guys like Tim and Daniel are still stoked about what it can do for them.

That’s why I got into the biz.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider February 23, 2012