I just read Michael Wolff's new article in Vanity Fair about the current travails of the New York Times. In this piece, one of his most trenchant essays in quite some time [a Michael Wolff tip -- if the article contains the word "mogul," it's not worth reading], he manages to brilliantly summarize the concern that's been nagging at me for several years now:

"...the Internet, once thought of as the ideal vehicle for reaching a targeted audience, is turning into a high-volume business, super-mass-media, dependent on cheap advertising. Success demands vast numbers: tens of millions or hundreds of millions of habituated users."

That, in a nutshell, is where things are going wrong, badly wrong. We are measuring success by the amount of traffic we get. It's the simple explanation for the recent spate of high-priced acquisitions of online propeties, among which was the acquisition of About.com by the New York Times. Wolff's blistering assessment of About.com:

"About.com may actually establish the baseline for the lowest level of information available on the Web (which is saying a lot): a multi-million-page mishmash of superficial, often out-of-date, dumb, frequently wrong info bits, a place you never go by choice, but only because a search engine has been "optimized" (that is, tricked) to send you there."

I don't know if About.com is as bad as Wolff represents, because I never go there except by accident, which of course only serves to buttress Wolff's point.

We're increasingly focused on site traffic, even though deep down we all know that traffic is not the same as audience, just as clicks are not the same as leads. Too many of us are giving away our best content, paying good money for contextual ads to drive traffic to pump up our counts, and paying talented programmers to game the search engines to improve search results rankings, even at the risk of looking stupid or misrepresenting what we do or sell. Overstated? Type "raw sewage" into Google and look at the eBay ad. And why did Google just do a $900 million deal with MySpace? In essence, to buy traffic. Yes, even Google is now effectively buying traffic.

Okay, in many cases there is an economic basis for all this. Attract enough traffic online, and you can sell a lot of advertising. But to a worrying extent, the companies buying the ads are trying to drive traffic to their own sites to sell advertising to companies trying to drive traffic to their own sites ... you get the point.

The secret to long-term online success (and survival) is not getting sucked into the easy money, perpetual motion machine that online marketing is becoming. Real value, real audiences and real leads will prevail, and those of us offering them will be insulated when the web traffic music finally stops, and there are far more participants than chairs. The long-term game is to get the right traffic, not the most traffic.

Want to read this Michael Wolff article? No need to subscribe, trek to the newsstand or even pay. Vanity Fair has thoughtfully posted it online for free, and I bet I know why: they want the traffic.