Summer Stories: How I Almost Got Busted by the St. Louis FBI

First published August 6, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

This week, the latest in my “fireside chats” (phrase courtesy of Aaron Goldman) about past SEM memories.

In the early days of our search marketing business, our collection of SEO clients ran the gamut from slightly off-white to shades of gray approaching black. Yes, back in the day we too did some stuff that wasn’t smiled upon by the anti-spam gods of the search universe. Of course, it was (and still is) sometimes difficult to determine where the line between white and black could be found.

Desperately Seeking Sublets

One of the more interesting groups we dealt with was a network of apartment-locating services. Prior to working with them, I had no idea that apartment locating was such a hyper-competitive business, but these were voracious adopters of search at the very earliest stages of the industry. The goal was to position all 10 of their various “doorway” domains in the top 10 for the prime keywords, essentially shutting out the competition. And for some reason, Texas was the hotbed of apartment finders. In 2002, if you had searched for apartments in Dallas, Houston or Austin, you’d have seen our clients.

These independent Web-based businesses formed a national association, effectively creating their own link farm. And soon after forming the association, they decided to have a meeting. The location was set to be St. Louis because it was the geographic center of the country,  And, for the first time, my company’s co-founder, Bill Barnes, and myself were asked to fly down and make a live client presentation.

My Laser Focus

As we started to work through the logistics, we realized we had no way to show the presentation slide deck we had put together. We didn’t have a projector, and the hotel meeting room we were to meet the clients in didn’t have one either. I quickly scoured St. Louis and found an AV rental shop that could provide us with a projector for the day. I arranged to have it waiting for us at the hotel when we checked in. At the time, a projector was more than a business essential; it was a cool toy that we could use to project a movie on the hotel wall, giving Bill and I our own big screen experience the night before the meeting. But the projector also came with a laser pointer, the first time I had ever encountered one of these nifty little gadgets. For regular readers, you might remember that I’m still fascinated by them, a personality quirk that came to light at the last Search Insider Summit.

Soon, a fully grown man was running around a hotel room in St. Louis, shining the little red dot at anything he could find. Bill cowered in the corner, covering his eyes for fear of inadvertent laser surgery. Being a scientifically curious type of individual, it became vitally important to me to see just how far the range of my pointer was. I ran to the window to find some targets further afield.

Could it hit the car in the parking lot below? Yes!

Could it hit the opposite wing of the hotel, some 150 feet away? Yes!

Next door to the hotel was a large, featureless office block. I had to see if the laser’s reach extended that far. The little red dot traveled along the wall, hundreds of feet away. In fact, you could see it go right through the window, shining on the interior walls of the offices inside the building. Bill, only half jokingly, said, “For God’s sake, shut that thing off, before someone thinks you’re a sniper.” Reluctantly, I hit the off switch and settled down to watch Julia Roberts in our makeshift hotel cinema.

From the Files of the FBI

The next morning, we had a few hours to kill before the presentation was scheduled. We decided to talk a walk in the bitter St. Louis cold to check out some of the surrounding area. We started walking past the office building next door that had served as my target range the night before. There, at 2222 Market Street, St. Louis, we discovered we were next-door neighbors to the headquarters of the FBI.

To this day, I can imagine the scenario: Two FBI agents, putting in extra hours to finish paper work, heads down in the nearly empty office. Suddenly, one raises his head to grab his coffee cup and is somewhat startled to see a small red laser dot moving along the wall and slowly coming to rest on his partner’s forehead. Somewhat shakily he says, “Ed, I think we may have a situation.”

Nope, not a terrorist.  Just a search marketer.

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