Search Engine Optimization, the Digital World, and the Capo d’astro Bar
If you’re an AdMan (or AdWoman) you might know a story about my grandfather, Bud Robbins. In the early 60’s, during the “MadMen” days of the creative revolution called advertising, Bud was hired by an agency to write copy for the Aeolian Piano Company, a competitor to Steinway and Baldwin. While he may not have known it, Bud was on the verge of a hugely successful campaign, and mild fame among his advertising peers.
Enroll yourself in any Intro to Advertising class, and your prof will likely welcome you with a slew of vocabulary words to memorize, in an effort to familiarize you with some foundational concepts and terminology. If your professor is worth their salt though, you’ll soon learn that terms like positioning, messaging, and value proposition are all important facets of a brand, but are, at best, lowly characteristics of that brand. You’ll learn somewhere along the line the one thing that will enfold every area of a brand — from their product or service offerings to your presentation of them — and that’s strategy. Strategy created around a value proposition can turn three lines of a business plan into a sale. Strategy is important; it’s what was meticulously thought out and leveraged during the days of print, radio, and television, and it’s what creates success in today’s digital world.
When assigned the Aeolian gig, my grandfather knew almost nothing about pianos, and as such, reluctantly found himself touring the Aeolian Piano Factory in Upstate New York. The trip lasted two days, and towards the end of the second day, Bud found himself in a similar predicament to the one he was in at his arrival: he was still clueless about pianos, and had so far gleaned very little to justify, let alone encourage, the purchase of this $5,000 instrument, especially as more popular brands existed at similar price points. That is, until a conversation ensued to shift his understanding of the Aeolian piano and its competitive advantage.
“They sure do look alike,” Bud commented, noticing the negligible differences between the Aeolian, Steinway, and Baldwin in the Aeolian showroom.
“They sure do. About the only real difference is the shipping weight — ours is heavier,” replied the sales manager.
“Heavier?” He asked. “What makes yours heavier?”
“The Capo d’astro bar.”
“What’s a Capo d’astro bar?”
“Here, I’ll show you,” replied the sales manager, crawling under the piano.
He pointed out a metallic bar fixed across the harp, bearing down on the highest octaves. “It takes 50 years before the harp in the piano warps,” he stated. “That’s when the Capo d’astro bar goes to work. It prevents warping.” Bud immediately dove beneath the Baldwin, only to find, what he described, as a “Tinkertoy Capo d’astro bar, at best.” The same went for the Steinway.
Bud’s newfound understanding of Aeolian’s products started to get his gears moving.
In 1996, Bill Gates wrote that, “Content is where much of the real money will be made on the Internet…” Gates’ statement, likely deduced by benchmarking successful print, radio and television campaigns, came 30 years after the Advertising Revolution. Almost 20 years later, his statement about the Internet holds true.
While the Internet was developing into the medium we know it as today, advertisers and marketers were taking notice. Similarly to print, radio and television before it, analyzing and controlling advertising efforts on the Internet was of great importance. However, before any marketer or advertiser could promise successful online campaigns, there was an element of this new space that needed to be understood, and that was the search engine. In the same way the 1960’s affected advertising, the search engine would re-revolutionize almost everything in advertising-related fields.
During the 60’s, securing a television commercial block required networking, meeting, and possibly pitching a concept, in order to eventually — hopefully — land the time slot. Showing up on the first page of search engines is a different story. You can’t meet with Mr. Google and negotiate a deal, and that threw advertisers and marketers for a loop. How can you influence a search engine? There are a a few different ways, however, many people do so by aligning themselves with the computative methodology a search engine operates under. In doing so, a commonly observed pattern is the unfortunate absence of humanistic elements that once drove advertising and marketing efforts. Strategy became all about feeding the search engine, and in many scenarios still is.
“You mean the Capo d’astro bar really doesn’t go to work for 50 years?” Bud asked
“Well, there’s got to be a reason why the Met uses it,” the sales manager casually added.
Bud froze. “Are you telling me that the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City uses this piano?”
“Sure,” replied the Sales Manager. “And their Capo d’astro bar should be working by now.”
Off Bud went.
Standing in front of the Metropolitan Opera House with its director, he inquired about the Aeolian sales manager’s comment. “About the only thing the Met is taking with them [in their move to the Lincoln Center] is their piano,” the director said. It was true, and that quote was the headline of Bud’s first ad for Aeolian. It created a six-year wait between order and delivery time.
Content was king.
Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is the process of formatting a website and its content in such a way that brings favor in the eyes of a search engine. Given the approach search engines take in valuing content, it’s not uncommon for people to err on the side of Google, and put all their eggs in that basket. The problem with this strategy is that Google isn’t a customer. Google is a distributor.
There is a fairly common practice of “keyword stuffing” that occurs online, in varying degrees. (Adam Hietzman wrote a great summary of old school vs new SEO tactics and why your approach must change.) If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of keyword stuffing, think of a keyword as a tasty treat, and Google as a hungry child, and you’ll probably pick up what I’m laying down. Keyword stuffing makes Google happy, or tries to, by giving it all the keywords it could possibly want. The goal of this is to make Google as satisfied as it can be with your website content, so it thinks highly of your site, and hopefully displays it first in search results. There are a few issues with this concept, though, and while Google has created methods to ignore keyword stuffing, the primary concern many have, myself included, is the inevitable creation of an inhuman brand.
Successful digital strategy is more than showing up on the first page of Google. It’s a balancing act of representing yourself to search engines algorithmically well, while also creating and maintaining a human element of trust and reliability. Real content is king — content that informs, describes, and engages an audience. Attention, importance, and emphasis should not only be placed on your search results or rankings, but also on how you communicate, illustrate, and even create the needs of your audience, and how well you meet those needs. That’s what will sell Google on the authenticity of your website, and that’s what will convert your visitors into customers.
When my grandfather published a recount of his work with Aeolian, he closed with a charge: “Every product has its Capo d’astro bar. And if it doesn’t, you must create it. Not in an ad, a jingle or a tag line. But in the value you add for your customer. It needs to be something that makes your offerings unique, meaningful and real. Something that separates you from your commodity competition. That adds customer value in a way that others have yet to think of.”
When you really look at the past 50 years, not much has changed. Sure, today’s digital world may call for a multi-phased web project, requiring an agency to design and develop a website, optimize for search results, while incorporating sound strategy, but the meat of it is the same, and probably always will be. Genuine, undoubtedly unique, engaging content will grab your audience’s attention, and a humanistic strategy around your brand is required to make that happen.