For new businesses, web traffic has become what physical location used to be: paramount to success. As a result, whole industries have sprung up offering products and services that promise to bring more of it. Books and blogs offer pages upon pages of advice on how to maximize it, constantly adjusting for new revelations in analytics and the inner workings of search engines.
Unfortunately for many entrepreneurs, this creates the impression that traffic is something that can be conjured up like a spirit. The experts promise strategies and formulas that will send traffic streaming into your little back-alley of the web, if only you’d trust in their incantations. The premise is that traffic-building is a speciality skill in and of itself, like graphic design or coding.
This is only partially true. While there are certain basic strategies that any business person should employ, they’re no more than that- basic. Anyone can master them in less time than it takes to decide on a font for your home page. What really drives traffic is something much more fundamental, yet impossible to encapsulate in any formula.
What really drives traffic is quality content.
The Myth of SEO
Feathers, prepare for ruffling. Established dogma, your time is at an end. What I say now, I say knowing it would have me pilloried by the defenders of conventional wisdom. I say it nonetheless: SEO is bunk.
SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is the collective term for all the different ways one can allegedly cause a given website to climb the rankings of Google and other search engines. The higher the rank, the more people searching for information will see your website in their results, and the more they’ll visit. The more visitors come, the more popular your product becomes, the more you succeed, and the brighter the future for you and all the coming generations that bear your mighty name…or so the theory goes.
In reality, this approach is at best outdated and at worse a fool’s errand. Years ago, when search engines were simply keyword-searching services, SEO was a worthy pursuit. The Internet was young and malleable. Formulas for manipulating search engines were simple and likely to work, because search engines were simple and likely to cooperate.
No more. Then was then, but now is now, and Google will not be manipulated.
Search engines have become so sophisticated in their ability to decipher search entries and find truly relevant results that trying to “crack the code” is about as useful as putting one of those inflatable flailing tube-men from your local used car dealership on your laptop, hoping it will bring passersby to your website. The way search engines rank results these days is a complex process that goes far deeper than the frequency and placement of keywords; it analyzes the entirety of the content and assesses its substance with frighteningly Skynet-esque critical thinking. The future is here; the machine is alive, and it laughs at your paltry human tricks.
Ranking Via Substance
With modern search engines so refined, the old SEO strategies have outlived their usefulness. While basic steps like using the appropriate keywords in titles and introductions are still good practice, they’re not going to make it rain clicks.
Current SEO experts describe the only really valid keyword strategy in terms of the “long tail,” or the ability to use keywords in very specific, very substantive contexts that search engines recognize as aligning with very specific search goals. This is not a sign of progress for SEO. It’s quite the opposite.
More and more sophisticated SEO strategies are being concocted, but not because SEO strategy can somehow “catch up” to Google’s ability to discern. It’s because we’re nearing an event horizon. We’re reaching the point where search engines are going to look for exactly what human beings are looking for: actual substance. Chasing rankings and trying to alchemize a perfect combination of words requires time and effort that would be far, far better spent on simply producing better content.
I know this from experience. Years ago, I was consumed by the search for perfect SEO. I tailored every bit of content to the strategies and formulas that were promoted as guaranteed traffic-builders, and in some ways it worked. The strategies had their uses, uses that are now built-in features of any decent content platform like WordPress or Yoast. But no strategy, no hack, was ever able to bring me the traffic I built when I finally settled on the ultimate SEO strategy: no SEO strategy.
By focusing on the quality, originality and value of the content, I discovered that the only real way to guarantee traffic was to earn it. The way to earn it is to produce valid, truly substantive content that doesn’t read like click-bait or try in vain to pander to the latest search engine algorithms.
The value of my expertise and experience is what brings traffic, because it’s something worth having, not just something worth clicking on. The irony is that once I took this approach, everything I had worked for in my SEO-obsessed days came to pass, without a single keyword stuffed. Since then, I’ve been asked in conversations and interviews with colleagues about my SEO strategy, and what the “secret” is to scoring page after page of Google results. My answer is always the same: there is no secret. You just have bring the goods.
Once you have a quality product, a clear and valuable message, and the time and will to produce content, a few good practices will best ensure that your website gets the traffic it deserves. None of them can compensate for a lack of quality in content, but they can maximize the returns your content brings.
First among them is volume. One thing high-traffic sites like Forbes.com and Fast Company have in common is sheer breadth of content. These are full-time big businesses, so they have the resources to pay high-powered writers to produce 5-to 10 articles or more per day. Independent entrepreneurs may struggle to produce on that level, but it’s imperative to produce as much as possible.
Fresh content keeps the public in conversation with your business, and a website that hasn’t been updated in months is destined to be forgotten, even if its now-stale content was revelatory when it was posted. That doesn’t mean churning out filler just for content’s sake; it means staying committed to the constant production of whatever your target audience wants. It’s important to create and maintain a production schedule, allowing ample time to create, review, and edit new content in order to fulfill your publishing calendar.
It’s also important to make use of social media, but not just by automatically posting links to your website’s content. Maintain an active, not passive, social media presence by interacting regularly and genuinely with followers. A Facebook or Twitter feed that simply throws context-free links into the din is unlikely to drive any significant amount of traffic, so take the time to chat. When you post links to your website, do so with a message that puts it in context and gives potential readers a real reason to click.
Lastly, another high-yield traffic tactic is guest posting. Everyone in your professional network needs content just as much as you do. The more diverse the content, the better and more interesting the website. By offering a guest blog or other content, you boost the quality of a colleague’s site and expose yourself to a whole new audience. Allowing others to return the favor and post on your site adds to your content, and can also bring new readers your way.
In the end, the best strategy is an honest one. Creating original, genuinely valuable content (and lots of it), from a place of honesty is the only way that’s guaranteed to work consistently. No tricks, no formulas. Hacks are for hacks. Trust in the value of what you have to offer, and you’ll find that web traffic makes a far better byproduct than an end in itself.