Without Trying - 5 Principles for Smarter Search Engine Marketing
By Andrew Goodman, July
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:
- 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."
- 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.
- Blow up a dress. Consider publicity stunts, tricks, and guerrilla tactics, but use sparingly
and at your own risk.
- Manufacture reputability. Get links into your site from highly impressive,
reputable, outside sources. Newspapers, even.
- 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.
In the second part
of this article, I'll elaborate on principles 1 through 5.
Goodman is Editor-in-Chief of Traffick.com and principal of Page
Zero Media, a Toronto-based consulting firm which focuses on search engine
optimization and related marketing services.