Traffic Without Trying: Five Principles for Smarter Search Engine Marketing


Something strange has been happening to the owners of web sites lately. Maybe it’s been happening to you. They’re getting traffic without even trying.

Viewed from the experiences many webmasters have had in the short history of the game of marketing one’s web site to the search engines, this seems somehow wrong. Out of whack. Shouldn’t victory come to those who work the hardest? Amazingly, the opposite is often true. That could mean, unsurprisingly, that victory awaits those who work smartest.

Of course, the current state of the search engine marketing game is still not great. In many ways, webmasters are continuing to put in a lot of unrewarded effort. When it comes to the Excites, the Lycoses, and yes, even the AltaVistas of this world, you can beat your head against the wall and optimize until your face turns blue, and yet it never seems to translate into more than a couple of hits. That’s never seemed fair, and it still probably isn’t. But life isn’t fair. The fact that in the past one could expect one’s site traffic to be roughly proportional to the raw effort one put into optimizing the site for search engines doesn’t change the fact that today’s reality is much different.

And now there are those galling folks who are getting traffic without trying. Maybe you’re one of them. If not, believe me, you want to be one of them. There is only so long anyone wants to beat their head against the wall. Too many of us got burned out doing just that during the .com gold rush.

When I wrote a series of articles on evolving search engine technologies in the spring of 2000, the idea was already in the back of my mind; the idea, that is, that good sites would be rewarded with more visits without having to go through all kinds of contortions figuring out what each search engine’s secret was. I was particularly impressed with Google, because its attempt to objectively measure a site’s reputability meant that in the future, the “secret” to getting traffic is more or less exactly what the Google brass tell us it should be: “build a great site that people like.” (I hope I don’t need to tell you that a flashy site doesn’t equal a “great site.” File that one under the 1001 Lessons Learned from the Dot Com Boom.)

I was also intrigued by the concept behind Direct Hit – the idea of measuring a site’s popularity relating to certain keywords by tracking user activity after the user finds the site in the search results. The technology still doesn’t work well – the chicken-and-egg problem is one stumbling block for sites which have yet to be noticed by any but a few surfers – but the idea is important. Today, Yahoo lists “most popular” sites in some of its directory categories, though it’s difficult to know how they measure this. And AOL reportedly uses user tracking. After all, AOL users are a captive group, and their actions can be followed by AOL. Web sites which are being found by AOL users on AOL Search might move up the search rankings if the user tracking shows a particular site to generate repeat visits, long stays, etc. Of course we’ll never know for sure how they track it. It’s based largely on rumor – pieces of facts put together by some astute observers of what AOL’s been up to of late.

The primary place that many webmasters are getting traffic from “without trying” is Google. Google isn’t tricked by very many clever search optimization techniques. Its algorithms try to measure reputability and topical focus by using a link analysis of the entire web. Most of us now know this. But few of us realized just how low-maintenance the promotion of our site could be. Not only don’t you have to submit every page of your site to Google, it is such a voracious indexer that many pros recommend that you not submit your pages once Google is aware of you.

The situation with AOL is heartening, also. Speaking from personal experience, in the past we’ve tried and tried to figure out how to get better rankings and more traffic from AOL Search. At some point, we stopped trying. In spite of this lack of effort, in recent weeks we’ve noticed that our site is ranked very highly on very popular keywords (one of them is Yahoo). Need I remind you that this is free traffic? Yes you can and should get AOL users’ attention by paying for GoTo keywords, but in this case, people are coming to our site on a search for “Yahoo” – and we’re not paying a penny for the traffic. This is search engine optimization at its best. Only one problem with that last statement… after doing all the required work a long time ago, we haven’t done any “optimization” to merit these recently improved rankings! We assume that AOL’s user tracking is working as it should – allowing frequently-used sites to rise up through the ranks, and less-travelled, infrequently-updated, “near dead” sites to trickle down the list.

So what am I trying to say? That you shouldn’t do anything to promote your site? No. But if you do the “right” things at the outset, you will basically have to stop puzzling over what to do from week to week. The “right things” today are different from what they were several years ago. If you’ve got a good site, or even just a narrow topical or e-commerce site that is somewhat unique in its niche, I believe that there is a strong chance that you will be getting more search engine referrals without doing anything. The two keys that will help you in this effortless effort are:

  • (1) the fact that engines are trying to use “off page factors” such as link analysis and theme analysis to determine rankings and relevancy; and
  • (2) the increased use of user tracking to boost sites which seem to have a consistent following on given keywords.

Of course, reputability and popularity don’t just “happen.” Many well-known “spontaneous” moments have been orchestrated to a much greater extent than many realize. Most people know of Marilyn Monroe’s dress billowing up in the The Seven Year Itch. But the signature popularity of the moment was orchestrated before the film was ever released. A large crowd gathered (not spontaneously but rather created by the studio’s publicity department) to watch Monroe do takes of the scene in midtown Manhattan. The high-flying photos (higher than appeared in the movie) made the newspapers, and the film was a big money-maker for the studio. The impression created was that a large crowd was transfixed by the unfolding event, but the financial success of the movie was no accident. Marilyn’s movie studio got a lot of bang out of relatively few bucks, albeit with Marilyn herself to add sizzle.

Along the same lines, it’s not a stretch to suggest that reputability and popularity are fairly strongly correlated with a web site’s budget, or in some cases, the presence of a strong existing brand. The real question is, if you’re going to set a budget to give fate a push and get your site up into the ranks of the “reputable and popular” sites that the search engines want to reward, how do you allocate that money? Are there shortcuts? What is the least amount of money you can spend and still achieve the results you’re looking for?

The creation of a “spontaneously reputable and popular” web presence can be broken down into five basic principles:

1. Pay the bribes (at least some of them).

1.a. Corollary: don’t feel compelled to pay for too much traffic. You can get away with a basic minimum of “search engine and directory bribery.”

2. Get in people’s faces… any way you can, especially new people who might become regulars. Yes, Virginia, you must advertise. Even if you need to sell the family dog, and eat his food for a few weeks, to pay for an inexpensive campaign.

3. Blow up a dress. Consider publicity stunts, tricks, and guerrilla tactics, but use sparingly and at your own risk.

4. Manufacture reputability. Get links into your site from highly impressive, reputable, outside sources. Newspapers, even.

5. Install a moat. Understand that many of the pathways to free traffic are “grandfathered.” Figure out how you can win an advantage over competitors by hooking into traffic streams that will in the future have prohibitive costs attached to them. Barriers to entry are better when you’re on the good side of the barrier. Many of you are already on the “good” side of the “moat.” It gets tricky – and expensive – if you’re not.

Breaking it down in this manner will allow almost any business to self-promote according to their budget. #3 above can actually be the cheapest method, but it also carries with it the most risks. It also probably doesn’t work very well unless you have a base of credibility built on the other four principles, which all cost money. But given the potential spillover effects of a deployment of strategies 1, 2, 4, and 5, they are surprisingly inexpensive means by which to establish an ongoing traffic stream for most any web site. And the beauty of deploying these methods is: by next year, you’ll be getting traffic without trying. You might be getting so much free traffic that you’ll be calling AOL’s and Google’s offices to thank them.

Traffic without trying, I think we’d all agree, is better than trying and trying, and not getting traffic.

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