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Search Traffic Declining? You're Not Alone (and What to Do About It)
Posted on September 10th 2013
According to research from BuzzFeed, “Search traffic to publishers has taken a dive in the last eight months, with traffic from Google dropping more than 30%…While Google makes up the bulk of search traffic to publishers, traffic from all search engines has dropped by 20% in the same period.” Organic search visits have fallen significantly to A-list publishers like Time, Sports Illustrated, Us Weekly and Rolling Stone.
It’s not quite clear why this is happening. BuzzFeed mentions changes in behavior, greater use of social networks for content discovery, and a 52% increase in traffic from “‘Dark social,’ that netherland of direct traffic” (i.e., unknown sources), and concludes “We can draw a lot of assumptions but few conclusions from the drop in search traffic.”
The Tutorspree blog offers another possible answer: Google is intentionally de-emphasizing organic results (free clicks) in favor of search advertising results (for which it gets paid). While there’s no before and after (which would have been very helpful) and results will vary, obviously, based on the nature of the search, this example shows how organic results can comprise only a quarter or less of total screen real estate on a commercial search, with paid results accounting 60% of the visible display, and other results like maps or images taking up the remaining screen area.
And it’s not only Google. Both Google and Bing are now displaying fewer than ten organic search results on certain queries: eight, seven, even as few as four in some cases. That means organic results which used to appear in the middle or lower half of page one in search results are now banished to page two, significantly reducing the likelihood of attracting the click.
Finally, algorithmic changes implemented by Google (and subsequently mimicked by other search engines) over the past 18 months have impacted traffic to b2c and b2b websites. Much has been written about how Panda and Penguin may negatively impact rankings of commercial websites in search results.
Given that b2b websites attract, on average, more than 40% of all traffic from organic search (and close to 90% of that from Google), the results above are clearly of great concern. But what does it mean?
Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” What’s happening today, however, is that many b2b vendors, news publishers and other commercial website owners are doing the same things in the same way and actually getting different (worse) results—because the environment has changed.
So in order to maintain and grow website traffic, online marketing practices have to change as well. Companies need to take a broader view of their overall online visibility and embrace a web presence optimization (WPO) approach.
Why the WPO Model is Important
With potentially less future traffic available from search, given changes in both technology and user behavior, the WPO model is valuable because:
- • WPO is about total online visibility—not just search. Yes, SEO (which increases website visibility) is a key component of WPO, but it’s only one component. WPO is about creating valuable, highly relevant content and then leveraging across multiple channels. So if your prospective buyers are relying less on search but more on social media, or established industry news sources, or on expert “influencers,” or even on advertising, WPO is about making sure your brand is visible in all of those places.
- • WPO is about helping, not manipulating. Google wants (or at least claims to want) to provide searchers with the most relevant results for their queries. Searchers want to find the most relevant results. The WPO model is about creating the most relevant results for buyers looking for what you are offering, but also about being linked from, quoted in, recommended by, or sponsoring other relevant results.
- • WPO is Google-proof. Because it’s designed to help and not manipulate, the concepts of WPO should (theoretically at least) never run counter to Google algorithm changes. And if your prospective buyers are using Google less, WPO maximizes your brand’s visibility in whatever channels, media or sources they are using in its place.
How to Get Your Traffic Back
Here are a few concrete steps for using WPO principles to adapt to and counteract declining search traffic.
- • Figure out where your prospective buys are looking, and be there. Use social media and news monitoring tools to identify the online venues where your prospective buyers are hanging out, discussing your company, your industry, and your competitors.For many b2b companies, LinkedIn Groups are a rich environment for discovering and participating in these conversations. If your buyers are highly technical however, they may be more likely to hang at sites like Stack Overflow, CodeGuru or Spiceworks.
- • Experiment. Go beyond the “big three” social networks (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter) and check out avenues for sharing like exploreB2B, Quora, Scoop.It, and for blogs specifically, Triberr.
- • In terms of generating “social shares,” either correlation doesn’t equal causation or Matt Cutts is being…at best misleading, at worst duplicitous. While social signals are a factor in search rankings, it’s much less clear how important they are.But in the end, it doesn’t matter—garnering social shares is valuable for web traffic and credibility-building regardless. What matters is knowing how to drive more traffic to your content from social networks and how to drive direct and search visits through social media optimization.
- • Use news releases for exposure, not backlinks. Until fairly recently, common SEO guidance was to “Create backlinks from (press releases) to…supporting pages on your website. Make sure the anchor text of the hyperlink is the keyword phrase you are optimizing for.” But Google now frowns on anchor text links in news releases.That doesn’t mean that news releases now have no value in driving site traffic, but it does change the strategy.First, make sure your news releases are truly newswortthy, and worth sharing. Second, optimize news releases themselves for search. Third, use news releases as part of an overall strategy to build and develop relationships with journalists, which over time can lead to citations and even backlinks which actually are valuable for driving direct and search visits to your website.
- • Use directories based on their relevance and value, but as with news releases—not just for backlinks. In early 2013, Google devalued general directory links for search rankings. That is, the old SEO strategy of improving search ranking simply by building or buying lots of links from broad-topic web directories is no longer effective. That does not mean, however, that all directories are worthless.
- • It’s still worthwhile to seek out backlinks from quality, human-edited, industry-specific online directories, such as vendor directories published by trade publications and industry associations. The two key questions to ask are 1) would your prospective buyers actually be likely to find my site and visit it from this directory? And 2), do you feel good about your company being listed in this directory (or does it feel a bit sleazy to be listed alongside online casinos, web pharmacies, miracle weight loss, make-big-money-now schemes and the like)?
- • Use guest blog posts for exposure (and if you get a backlink–that’s a bonus). Guest-posting is still a viable SEO practice, for the moment at least. But it is commonly abused through poor approaches. Best practice is to develop a relationship with the blogger before asking for the guest post opportunity; asking for the opportunity with a personal note; understanding their audience and proposing a topic that is suitable; and not requesting (or worse, requiring) any specific quid pro quo.
- • Finally, don’t over-rely on paid advertising but do make it part of your online marketing mix. Experiment with AdWords, social network advertising, Bizo, and other ad networks. Many offer pay-per-click or even pay-per-conversion options, so costs and results are controllable. While paid advertising has no effect on SEO, it does increase your brand’s online exposure and drives traffic to specific landing pages and offers.
In the end, no one knows whether the broad drop in search traffic is a temporary aberration or a long-term trend. But utilizing WPO tactics to broaden your brand’s online exposure and potential sources of web traffic is a winning strategy either way.