Collision of SEO and Social – Where’s the Creepy Line?

The world of travel and the way travel brands interact with their customers is rapidly changing. Social media and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) are the fundamental methods that allow travel brands and products to be discovered by consumers without the travel seller investing directly in paid advertising.

High Pressure Situation - Photo Credit: ucumari |Flickr

Travel marketers must be prepared to endure external pressures from 3rd parties with vested interests in crossing the creepy line
Photo Credit: ucumari | Flickr

In my keynote presentation to the Association of Travel Marketing Executives 2012 Travel Marketing Conference, I explored the changing rules, or in many cases, a complete disregard for rules governing methods used to engage with search engines and consumers. A fitting title was The Collision of SEO and Social – Who Draws the Creepy Line? One hint: It’s not you and it’s not Google.

SEO has gotten a bad rap from many as a shortcut method to artificially improve search results by manipulating information to feed positive signals into ranking algorithms. Despite a herculean effort by Matt Cutts and the Google Web spam team, some black-hat techniques still help sites capture higher rankings than comparable sites built using quality content and white-hat methods. Higher search rankings clearly contribute to site traffic and, by extension, the prospect for monetization.

Social Media for years has been accused of not proving quantifiable ROI, but that is now changing as well. Being listed high on traveler review sites begins to mirror the impact of high search engine rankings. Brands now have evidence of positive consumer sentiment helping validate shopping decisions and improving conversion. This is where a problem arises. If gaming the search engines worked, the same approach could be applied to game the social media sites.

Welcome to the third component of the equation – the Creepy Line. Effective SEO practices provide the This provides the means. There is a lot of money at stake in online travel sales. This provides the motivation. As search transitions to context-aware platforms that utilize semantic technologies and social applications advance with new local and mobile dimensions, change is the one constant. This creates the opportunity.

Means + Motivation + Opportunity are the three factors juries look for when convicting defendants of crimes. I won’t call these practices criminal, but black-hat and creepy fit nicely.

As consumers trade privacy for convenience, opportunities abound for capturing actionable information. The question is if the customer and the business share a common vision for how that data is used. Perhaps even more unsettling is how the advancement of technologies to mash-up data fit into the mix. While the intended use of a data set may seem innocent enough, cross-referencing it with another innocuous data set can suddenly start transgressing fuzzy boundaries.

The presentation covers several issues to consider and what travel companies can do to engage customers while avoiding encounters with the creepy line – even when competitors are behaving badly.

The two videos embedded in the presentation include Google Chairman Eric Schmidt’s famed explanation of Google’s intention to approach, but not cross “the creepy line.” What most people do not know is that the topic arose when discussing neural implants. Neural implants cross the creepy line, primarily because the technology is not yet reliable. After a hard edit, the discussion continues with the assertion that Google has enough information to understand what people are thinking – and that Google will try to assess where the creepy line should be drawn.

The question of course, is what happens when technology gets used for an unintended purpose – perhaps one in dramatic conflict with the goal of helping people understand and explore their world more effortlessly and efficiently?

A particularly creepy example is the website The user enters the site using Facebook Connect – an increasingly popular method for users to sign into applications – and the resulting video-mash-up illustrates what sort of information may be made available to the application.

The point is that Facebook Connect is not an evil technology, it offers exceptional convenience. However, the burning question is how exactly will an app developer choose to utilize the available information? The app developer may not even intend to cross the creepy line, but it may enable users of the app to misuse the information to cross the creepy line.

The bottom line? Based on my experience with clients pitted in some challenging conflicts with competitors that are adept in black-hat techniques, travel marketers need to exhibit restraint when tempted with strolling down the path to the dark side.

While short-term gains may be available by compromising one’s principles, if doing so compromises a brands relationship with its customers, the result can create devastating damage.

The key to mid- and long-term success is to use social media and SEO intelligently to engage customers and prospects and provide a quality product at a fair price. The Golden Rule of treating others the way one would like to be treated themselves is the answer. One may need to present a strong defense against less scrupulous competitors, but taking the customer-centric, ethical high road will yield the greatest benefits over time.

There was great feedback from the session, but I am always seeking any new perspectives and questions are more than welcome. Add a comment or use the contact form to reach me.

And of course, please let me know if you would like me to come speak for your group – I won’t try to creep them out too badly 😉

About Robert Cole

Robert Cole is the founder of RockCheetah, a hotel marketing strategy and travel technology consulting practice. He also authors the Views from a Corner Suite Blog and publishes the Travel Quote of the Day. Robert speaks regularly at major travel industry conferences, authors articles for leading travel industry publications, advises travel-related startups and the equity investment community. He is an evangelist for the global travel industry.