Business > Merchant Voice

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!

Jamie Salvatori
Jamie Salvatori
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