SEO is NOT Marketing: It’s time we dispelled some myths about website traffic

I hear from clients all the time that they’re looking for other ways to improve their SEO, and that’s a laudable goal. However, in many instances, the question they’re actually asking is “How do I improve the traffic to my site?”. While making sure that your site conforms to the appropriate schema and markup for search engines is definitely a necessity, SEO is not in itself a traffic funnel. It’s a crucial aspect of your site’s overall marketing strategy, but with fifty thousand other sites in your space all optimizing their SEO as well, clearly there can only be so many winners, and so many ways to divide the eyeballs. At the end of the day, your web marketing strategy has to be comprehensive to stand out from the crowd.

With that in mind, let’s examine some myths about SEO, and shed a little light on them:

Myth 1: If you optimize it, they will come.

Apologies to Kevin Costner, but the “Field of Dreams” approach to launching a web presence simply doesn’t work for most websites. While you may be able to temporarily hold a variety of front page positions on a limited set of keywords, that in itself doesn’t get you the click throughs. You have to step back and look at your audience, and ask yourself how you think they’re really likely to see you. Are they going to search for your topics, or are they most likely to see a link shared by a friend?

For most blogs, the single highest traffic sources are social media and news aggregator sites. Both of these drive so much traffic because they are sources of authority. Social authority comes from the endorsement of a friend or other followed content source. News aggregators provide qualitative authority through community curation. Spending thousands optimizing SEO beyond the industry standard best practices is generally a waste of time and money if search is not your primary traffic source.

Speaking of which…

Myth 2: Search will be your primary traffic source.

To quote Eliza Doolittle: “Not bloody likely!” Why not? Because when people are searching, their needs are generally highly specific, and there are thousands of alternatives to your site which are all competing for the same space. What’s more, multiple search result types are all competing for the same space. If you’re a retailer, you’ve got blog posts (content) competing for the same keywords. If you’re a content creator, retailers and aggregators are fighting for the same results. All of those content types are mixed together in the same space, which stacks the odds against your audience finding specifically your result when they’re looking for your result type.

On social and news platforms however, the stream is much more focused (by communities, topics, friend groups, etc.). It’s easier to shine in a smaller pool than it is to be seen at all in a larger one. Managing smaller efforts on multiple fronts also has the benefit of creating cross platform awareness, which in turn, can help drive the social and community authority of your content (which then help drive your search placement. Win/Win). Managing a complex marketing strategy like this does take time and focus, which can be challenging for a small business owner, especially if they think…

Myth 3: Successful websites all sit at the top of Google’s search results

No. Flatly, completely, blindly wrong. Successful websites convert business. They sell a product, or support ad sales, or drive subscribers, or entertain an audience. They provide a useful tool, or a helpful resource. The measure of success is not your placement in Google search results, it’s how much money did it make, or how many readers does it have. Reddit.com serves up a billion pageviews a month, but it’s not because of search placement; a search for “news aggregator” shows they’re not even front page results. They are wildly popular, however, because they provide a service that resonates with millions, and supports a rich community of users.

I decided a while back that I would target the keywords “web guy”. I’m a web guy, it was sort of our branding thing, and it was a neat party trick. “Do you have a business card?” “No, just search web guy, and I’m right on the front page.” For a couple of years, depending on Google’s personalization, I’ve been able to maintain a fairly high position for those keywords. Do you know how much traffic they bring? Less than five visits a month. Where do I get most of my traffic/business? Through personal referrals and social media. Despite my being highly ranked for what seems to be relevant keywords for my business, people don’t just go searching for web developers on the internet. They reach out through friends, family, and professional contacts.

And that’s the point. 

SEO is a starting point; a simple toolbox which assures that your content is well organized, presented, and indexed. That’s not the end of the marketing plan, it’s the beginning. Once you’ve covered the basics, you have really honestly ask yourself, “Who are some other people on the web in my space, and where/how did I find them?”. Really spend some time on it, and write down your answers for each. While search certainly can be a strong vector for discovery, it’s far more likely to be effective in recovery; that is, they’ve heard your name somewhere else, and now they’re trying to find you. That’s when SEO becomes really important. However, if you’re not effectively marketing through the established social and news platforms, they’re not ever going to hear your name to begin with.