Made to Measure


It's been well-known for many years that  Google periodically alters its search algorithms. These changes are made for two reasons: to improve the quality of search results, and to push back against those sites that it believes are gaming the system. To Google, gaming the system means that a website operator has divined in part how the Google search algorithm prioritizes results, and uses that knowledge to improve its own search results rankings.

This fear of websites finding tricky ways to inappropriately push themselves to the top of search results is why Google keeps its search algorithm secret, and why it is periodically changed. At some level, this stance sounds fair and makes sense. After all, it is in the interest of both Google and its users to have the most relevant sites appear earliest in search results rankings. And now Google is arguably upping the ante with a plan to penalize those sites that it deems "over-optimized." Yes, if your SEO efforts are too good, your search rankings may be at risk.

The downside of these efforts is that they create winners and losers. Your site can be one of the most visited on the Web one day, and fade into obscurity 24 hours after a Google algorithm change. And with this new policy, even an honest, useful site with valuable content can inadvertently cross a secret Google threshold and be penalized for "too much SEO."

How does one build a business in such an arbitrary, frequently shifting environment where you can be severely penalized all with no notice, no explanation and no appeal? Guess what, you can't.

This is a huge point for content companies. That's because at this late date, most of us remain focused on undiscerning, top-line measures of online success: total visits and total uniques. Frankly, it's like a retailer deciding it's more insightful to count the number of people who look in the store window as opposed to those who enter the store and buy something.

Publishers all know that a significant percentage of their monthly visitors hit their sites, look at a single page and disappear within seconds. Nothing wrong with that. The web is a huge discovery tool: web users find your site, take a quick look, and the relative few who like what they see stick around. It's just like a sales funnel. Yet we persist in focusing on the top of the funnel, not the bottom. Publishers also know how many of their visitors come to them directly, and how many come via search engines. But it's only a handful of publishers who attach any strategic importance to trying to build direct traffic. And that again is because everyone is competing to show the biggest overall traffic numbers. I will admit that the market supports this sloppy view of things: a lot of advertising is still sold based on these meaningless metrics.

But as long as we retain this orientation, our businesses remain totally exposed to Google's latest algorithmic whim, and now we risk having our visibility reduced simply because we were trying to maximize our visibility. It’s time we wake up to the futility of the traffic-based economy, and, luckily,  many advertisers are at the same point.  The savvy ones now could care less about our monthly uniques; they want a certain number of sales leads. Since we'll never turn one-page, one-time visitors into qualified leads, why measure them? And once we stop measuring what doesn't matter, we can start focusing on building quality, recurring, direct visitors that will reduce our exposure to the vicissitudes of search engine algorithms. What's not to like?

 

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