A growth strategy trumps a narrow ranking strategy in a no-growth environment.
Among a wide variety of insightful catchphrases you'll hear from conversion optimization guru Bryan Eisenberg is: "You don't have a traffic problem. You have a conversion problem!" I always cheer when I hear my friend say this, but he's only about 52 percent right (that still makes him right).
Nearly every company today also has a traffic problem.
Decline in Organic Search Referrals
A big traffic problem is looming for merchants and sellers of services, as search engines gradually but inexorably send fewer and fewer unpaid organic search referrals to these kinds of companies.
If your industry or firm is the exception that proves the rule, bravo! But on average, traffic growth today needs to come from extraordinary and broad-based effort - not yesterday's narrow SEO effort that many seem to think can continue forever.
Many in the SEM industry fixate on anecdotal evidence that some companies see big drops in the wake of a certain version of Penguin, and that a few come out ahead. But this fixation actually masks the secular trend of anemic or negative traffic growth in the traditional stream of organic search referrals. The narrow focus on Penguin fallout and the like encourages firms to continue clinging to outdated ranking strategies as if they were growth strategies.
What about Bryan's assertion? Does it mean that we're out of line to be fretting about drops in traffic? Unfortunately, no. While it's true that a business generally wants traffic to perform, you could be facing serious trouble if you do indeed have a traffic problem. What if you are gradually moving toward a state of affairs in which too few people can find you, and too few people have heard of you?
Overall site traffic can be a pretty helpful indicator of the future viability of a business. Many third parties (investors, analysts, management consulting firms, etc.) are skeptical of firms that show weakening online traffic patterns. An analogous phenomenon is the company that beats estimates on profit but misses on revenues, and gets killed on its stock. That's because revenue weakness raises doubts as to a business' total potential going forward. There isn't much space in the lexicon of business for 0 percent growth.
Google organic search is getting harder for most businesses to hitch their growth wagons to, for two reasons: 1) most businesses selling products or services aren't naturally suited to creating informational resources of the kind that search engines believe many users want much of the time, and 2) Google is devoting more and more search-page real estate to paid listings, product listing ads, Google local results, Google partner sites, media such as video, new forms of information like curated "one boxes" for things like weather and factoids, and so on.
Growth Strategy Defined
If a company is looking for a growth strategy, then it needs to map out just that. A growth strategy outlines multiple means of gaining customers in the coming years, and breaks down into three areas: 1) tapping new traffic streams that are over and above the sit-back-and-enjoy-organic-SERP-love strategies; 2) investing deeply in forms of online infrastructure and various markers of business quality; and 3) becoming remarkable through differentiation. You can probably get by with just two of the above, but one or none won't get you where you need to go.
Consider this argument: your company needs to get bigger so that your competitors get smaller by comparison. This growth strategy is probably the best ranking strategy you can pursue. A ranking strategy alone is a prescription for flat or negative growth.
Don't underestimate the importance of growth in overall traffic. If enough people have heard of you, there may be a tipping point at which the snowball effect of word-of-mouth propels some of your business growth at no additional expense. Free isn't free, as always. The question is how much you should spend on rocket fuel in order to reach this lift-off point.
How to Implement a Growth Strategy
Below are four examples of significant online investments that you can make as part of a broader growth strategy. As your rank rises as an overall business in its category, you'll be on a firmer foundation to legitimately expect increased organic search referrals.
Bite the bullet and change your name (or at least your domain name).
Names usually don't matter nearly as much as people think, but in competitive, commodity fields, your name and identity may not be positioning you well for future growth. One of our clients paid mid-six figures for a short, memorable URL. For several reasons, direct traffic then skyrocketed 90 percent year-over-year. Over the same period, organic search traffic fell 10 percent after years of growth. The latter is disappointing, but not catastrophic. E-commerce revenues are up 28 percent year-over-year, and many marketing costs have actually fallen. For a business doing over $25 million in annual e-commerce revenues, improvements in response across millions of annual user interactions meant that the name change investment paid for itself in less than a year's time.
Completely overhaul your website.
Have you ever tried to put lipstick on a pig, especially if the website (er, pig) is more than seven years old? Piecemeal tweaking is a good idea if it can get you quick wins, but in some cases, the look and feel of a site - and the state of its technology - make it urgent to overhaul pretty much everything. This was the case for a client in the travel industry. Even if one major win is achieved as a result of this project, it will be worth the investment. An investment of under $50,000 that improves user satisfaction, positioning, image, and function is well worth it.
Our client had been narrowly focused on SEO, but with so much in disarray, Band-Aid fixes from the old SEO toolkit would have achieved little of permanence. A wide-ranging refresh, in contrast, will not only position a company for better organic rankings, but also increase conversion rates on paid traffic across the board, and lead to a higher likelihood of referral business. How can anyone expect a site to rank consistently and stably when, prima facie, it lacks credibility?
Have a thorough content strategy, not a "content strategy" employed as a euphemism for low-quality, barely concealed SEO.
Many merchants don't have great DNA for creating interesting content. They're often better off optimizing other aspects of the business and reaching for new streams of (mostly paid) traffic. That being said, no business wants to see its organic referral traffic dwindle. More to the point, a contemporary approach to communications will enhance a company's reputation and earn the trust of repeat customers. We found that one client in an art supply business had not only a bit of rich content (trapped in one channel, email), but also a helping hand in the form of a full-time content-production employee in another division of the company - a bonus, as many such companies have nothing like this in-house.
By modernizing how the content is propagated to various social media, and shifting to a planned editorial calendar, Twitter philosophy, etc., a company creates a more vibrant online personality. On this propagation issue, it's worth noting that many companies have been admirable in their efforts on Facebook. That's a good dry run for what is to come, but it's possible that too much of one's Facebook effort will lie trapped in Facebook. Embracing Google+ is a must in today's context. Influential Google engineers have stated that "Google+ is Google."
Accelerate your market share strategically by spending boldly when it counts.
Companies in an emerging category can spend in bursts to gain traction quickly. More members and customers mean more long-term interaction with the brand from a larger base of loyal users (and an expected snowball effect once the tipping point is reached). Yes, even the much-maligned display advertising channel has the power to achieve specific goals of brand recall and trust, if deployed strategically.
In truly embracing the value of content and resource creation (as opposed to tactically building link bait), some forward-thinking companies have had a long head start. For years, SaaS-invoicing firm FreshBooks has been creating a range of helpful resources for the small business community that uses its products, and it has backed a major marketing conference. On top of that, it focuses on making its product best-of-breed and interacting publicly with customers. FreshBooks is the perfect example of a company that has pursued growth strategies rather than a "ranking strategy."
Even when they don't rank perfectly, companies like FreshBooks fill in the gaps with paid search. While they may rank in the top three for many of their core, commercially viable organic search queries, what is the point of agonizing as to why they rank "only" number six for the term "online invoicing app"? They also appear as number one in the PPC listings, with a large amount of page real estate bolstered by Sitelinks. They're highly visible, reputable, and poised to win customers. Is there a problem? I don't see one.
The problem with tying too much of your business growth to one particular gatekeeper is that you keep waiting around to be picked. Pick yourself: start broadening your approach to growth. Invest in fundamental elements of content, quality user experiences, and even, if need be, a better name.
There has never been a better time to diversify beyond mere ranking strategies. Weirdly enough, once you do, you may find yourself ranking better. Goodbye, traffic problem.
Image on home page via Shutterstock.
This column was originally published in SES Magazine, Toronto, 2013.
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Goodman is founder and President of Toronto-based Page Zero Media, a full-service marketing agency founded in 2000. Page Zero focuses on paid search campaigns as well as a variety of custom digital marketing programs. Clients include Direct Energy, Canon, MIT, BLR, and a host of others. He is also co-founder of Traffick.com, an award-winning industry commentary site; author of Winning Results with Google AdWords (McGraw-Hill, 2nd ed., 2008); and frequently quoted in the business press. In recent years he has acted as program chair for the SES Toronto conference and all told, has spoken or moderated at countless SES events since 2002. His spare time eccentricities include rollerblading without kneepads and naming his Japanese maples. Also in his spare time, he co-founded HomeStars, a consumer review site with aspirations to become "the TripAdvisor for home improvement." He lives in Toronto with his wife Carolyn.
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