The Free Traffic Myth
The obsession over search engine result page (SERP) placement stems from the erroneous thought that traffic gained via this source is free. It isn’t.
The cost associated with ranking well for competitive terms is outrageous. Not only will you spend countless hours researching keywords, you’ll spend countless hours tracking your rankings, harassing other websites to link to you, creating content solely for the purpose of attracting links from “authoritative sources”, and countless other “tweaks” (think reconfiguring your entire directory structure to stuff more keywords into your URLs).
All of this is done under the pretext that it will help your rankings. Unfortunately, the search engines (rightly so) don’t reveal the signals that most affect their rankings. So, you’re constantly guessing and hoping that you don’t over-optimize lest you be severely penalized by an algorithm change.
SEO lovers are thinking, “Whatever, Jamie, you have no idea what you’re talking about. This is time well spent because moving from position X to position X-1 results in logarithmic increases in traffic.” That is true. But this assumes two things: one, that the time spent on these machinations will indeed result in said ranking increase. Two, that this time is an investment from which you’ll reap continuous benefits. For the first point, no one can predict the future. You never know how close you are to moving up in the SERPs, so you have no idea when to throw in the towel. It’s a black hole of time, energy, and effort.
Secondly, SEO is not an investment. It’s like paying rent. SEO “best practices” change over time. For instance, the huge costs involved with keyword stuffing your H1 tag are no longer seen as having the huge benefits they once did. In fact, Google now penalizes sites for what they see as unnatural over-optimization. Your SEO “note” will never mature. You’ll be paying forever.
I’m not advocating ignoring SEO best practices. Rather, I am advocating applying much more time toward building your brand and avoiding the pitfalls of SEO-itis.
SERPs are too valuable to the search engines for them to allow themselves to be manipulated for long. Therefore, you’re wasting valuable time building your brand by wasting it on wringing the final 5% of SEO optimization out of your website.
The worst waste of time, of course, is creating link-bait content that has little to do with the core message (selling stuff!) of your website. Remember when everybody said you had to have a company blog? Imagine if you had spent that time on building your brand instead of building low-value link-bait to a sub-domain or /blog/ area of your site and believing that internal links back to your high-converting e-commerce pages would be passing a ton of link juice. Yeah. Right. Of course, if your blog dovetails perfectly with your brand, sure, go for it; but most of us were doing it for the former (aka wrong) reason.
If your visitors come directly to your site, then you don’t need to worry about the latest search engine algorithm change. If you build your brand, then the most popular search phrase generating your traffic is going to be your company name.
I realize this may seem daunting, but it’s the only way to avoid the business-killing pitfall of relying too heavily on one source of traffic. If more than 25% of your traffic comes from a single other website, you’re essentially owned by that company. If that company is Google, pray that you can keep up with the SERP dance. If that company is one of your affiliates, pray that they don’t figure out how valuable they are to your existence. Pray doubly that one of your competitors doesn’t figure this out and offer that affiliate a better deal.
Most importantly, search engine traffic doesn’t scale. You can’t force more people to search for a particular keyword. So, let’s say that you finally achieve a #1 ranking for your keyword. Now what? Are you going to be satisfied with X amount of traffic for the eternity of your business? And what happens if you increase your staff to deal with this increase in traffic and one day your placement drops two places? Time to fire staff. That’ll keep you up at night... and make it difficult to attract smart and talented employees.
In my business, our #1 focus is upon building a brand. I haven’t checked SERP results in years. All I check is how much traffic is coming directly to my site and how much has that traffic increased. This is something I can control. This is something that reflects the value real humans place upon my website. Therefore, it is worth committing huge amounts of time, energy, and resources toward. Good luck!
I agree. Spending excessive time and cash worrying about SEO is like naming your business AAAA Auto Parts just to rank first in PBO...Phone Book Optimization. We spend some time and money on SEO, but it only accounts for about 15% of our ad budget. No, we don't rank well but we are number 1 by market share in our niche and don't worry or even care about the latest Google algorithmic change.
hi, Jamie, I decided to sign up to respond to your post.
Thanks for writing it - I enjoyed reading it. Here are some notes from my perspective, which differs from yours I think:
"The obsession over search engine result page (SERP) placement stems from the erroneous thought that traffic gained via this source is free."
Most companies I deal with pay third-party companies to handle their SEO activity. The usual KPI for this is ROI of traffic delivered by generic search terms.
They don't see it as 'free' at all. Most see it as a more complicated, longer-term, more volatile version of PPC.
"I am advocating applying much more time toward building your brand and avoiding the pitfalls of SEO-itis."
I don't think the two are opposing, or even mutually exclusive. I think if you do it right, the two support each other very nicely.
"Remember when everybody said you had to have a company blog? Imagine if you had spent that time on building your brand instead of building low-value link-bait to a sub-domain or /blog/ area of your site and believing that internal links back to your high-converting e-commerce pages would be passing a ton of link juice."
I only saw this at the productized end of the SEO supplier market, and in very, very small businesses. Most businesses who had blogs either totally neglected them, or wrote fairly good content for them too irregularly, or actually managed to pick it up & succeeded.
"So, let’s say that you finally achieve a #1 ranking for your keyword. Now what?"
An extension of this may be "don't concentrate on selling to humans; they are a finite market". In any marketing channel, there is usually a limit. Once it is reached, marketers usually seek to extend the ongoing value of customers acquired via the channel, to place more effort in other channels, etc.
"In my business, our #1 focus is upon building a brand. I haven’t checked SERP results in years"
Again, it would be useful to expand on "brand building". There are lots of tactics that could be used within that: one of them may be improving traffic from search engines; one may be blogging; etc.
I think this is probably at the centre of your argument. There used to be lots of 'brand marketing' vs 'direct marketing' arguments around. Perhaps this is something similar.
Thanks again for writing,
Excellent article. Excellent comments. Thank you!
Richard Brock says:
I would agree with the comments in the article. I think people spend too much time and money on SEO search results.
If people focus on understanding their target market, having a clear proposition on their site and engaging in meaningful conversation with their customers, increased ranking will occur.
I believe getting better conversation rates is just if not more important than optimising search rankings.
If you focus on looking after your key customers, that is 90% of the job.
Ed Klopfenstein says:
Great comments and wonderful article. I really appreciate "Practical's" approach to eCommerce.
Jamie Salvatori says:
@ Dan: "An extension of this may be "don't concentrate on selling to humans; they are a finite market". In any marketing channel, there is usually a limit. Once it is reached, marketers usually seek to extend the ongoing value of customers acquired via the channel, to place more effort in other channels, etc."
You missed the point I was making. It isn't about a finite number of searches. It's about a finite number of searches that can only go down - and rapidly - without warning and with disastrous consequences for your business. This rarely happens if you've built your traffic via other means. In business, you must always think of and prepare for the absolute worst case scenario. What happens if the power goes out during my busy season? What if my favorite affiliate dumps me? What if my internet connection or my shipping label printer dies on Cyber Monday? What if UPS decides to go on strike? If the answer to any one of those questions is, "I'm completely screwed", then you better come up with a backup plan or drastically shift your thinking and/or strategy to account for it.
Yes, SEO can be useful (sometimes) for brand building. But SEO should never been done at the expense of building your brand. This means creating an experience on your website that won't soon be forgotten. It's about customer service. It's about creating tools that make your customer's life easier. Sure, SEO can drive traffic to your website that you hope will transform into brand ambassadors for your site. However, SEO has a tendency to become a black hole of time and energy.
Frankly, I'd say you'd be better served to simply buy traffic via PPC or traditional advertising means and spend the rest of your time, energy, and money on converting this paid traffic into repeat customers and ambassadors of your brand. This investment will reap benefits for years.
Elizabeth Ball says:
I write a daily gift news blog to go with my gift website and to be honest, I rank on the first page for many searches, so in that way SEO works. And I agree Jamie, it is not free in time or money to do this.
Unfortunately, people who are reading blog posts where my SEO results are best, are not necessarily in a buying mode - even about gifts. I had an instant result, however, from changing the titles of my gift baskets on eBay - where people do "search" but who also have their wallets ready.
Carlos Rivera says:
I agree with Jamie. Obsession over SERP can be counterproductive to a startup merchant. Creating a cohesive shopping experience that caters to your audience is key. When you are ready to tackle SEO, you will know it.