In Defense of Narrow-Minded SEM Shops

As a whole, the SEM (define) industry frequently takes some undue criticism. The reputation that precedes us is one of narrow-minded reliance on search traffic and a calculated avoidance of other avenues of traffic generation.

This is similar to my walking into a transmission shop and asking the owners why they don’t seem too concerned about my car’s brakes.

To be fair, some SEM firms probably do tout organic or PPC (define) traffic as “all you need,” but not very many. Most reputable firms understand that search traffic is one slice of a very large pie of on- and offline marketing. But as specialists, they promote their own fields. Why wouldn’t they?

Is Search Traffic Even Necessary?

The backlash of this mindset is people not only question SEM motives but also whether SEM as a field (and the traffic associated with it) is even necessary or helpful.

In a recent post, Mike Markson (who works in business development for Topix) questioned whether top sites actually need search traffic: “Not so coincidentally, if you actually look at the recent successful sites over the past few years — YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, etc. — none of them got there by Google traffic. They created a product and figured out a way to get mass appeal outside the Google regulatory system.”

Yes and no. I agree with the idea that with many viral sites don’t owe their initial popularity to search engines. For example, I don’t think the Facebook phenomenon owes much success to the masses searching for “social utility to enable me to connect with others.”

Search Engines’ Secondary Role?

On the other hand, what this post ignores is the secondary, societal role of Google and other engines. In most cases, engines like Google aren’t involved in creating branding success, but they’re critical to maintaining online brands. While people think of search engines primarily in the role of retrieving information they don’t yet know, it’s crucial to understand that engines serve a secondary purpose: retrieving information users already know about, because they found it there previously and expect it to be there again.

Simply put, the biggest social bookmarking sites in the world are not del.icio.us, StumbleUpon, or Ma.gnolia. The world’s biggest social bookmarking sites are Google’s and Yahoo’s search boxes.

It’s funny that Markson’s post mentions Facebook and YouTube. In 2007, both of those terms were on Google’s list of the 10 fastest rising queries. And both sites appeared in Yahoo’s 2007 list of the most popular tech queries. These rankings account for literally tens of millions of visits each year. So while these sites may not have engines to thank for their initial popularity, they do owe thanks to them for a significant delivery mechanism for that continued demand.

User Behavior Proves It?

I’m continually amazed at one aspect of user behavior at the search box. First, it’s quite odd for me to see “yahoo” as one of the top search queries at Google and “google” as one of the top search queries at Yahoo. They’re not in the top 10, but they’re very large.

Second, people don’t just search for site names at engines. Year in and year out, people search for entire URLs at the search box. Go to Google Suggest or use Yahoo Search, start typing “www,” and see what comes up. Your own site’s search logs probably reflect that habit. (I’m not sure whether people know they can actually type URLs into a browser’s address field or they know but are more comfortable searching for it.)

Conclusion

Search engines aren’t just for the initial search. Right or wrong, they enable users to “store” information for later use. If you maintain a big brand’s presence, it’s critical to know and utilize this.

But for popular sites, social or otherwise, that are growing weary of annoyingly high search traffic levels, fear not: there’s a solution. It’s been around for several years as a longstanding test of whether sites truly need search traffic or they’re simply trying to make a grand statement.

If search traffic really doesn’t matter to a site, the simplest solution is to exclude the entire site via the robots.txt file so it can no longer be crawled and indexed by engines. This isn’t a perfect solution, however; because of external link popularity, the site will still likely show up in search results for its name.

A better solution, if search traffic really doesn’t matter, is to choose a deserving charitable or nonprofit site and configure the server to redirect any traffic from Google, Yahoo, or Live Search to that deserving site.

Join us for SES London February 19-21 and for training classes on February 22.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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