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Don't become an SEO junkie

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Back in my days as an editor at an Internet company, I learned to live and die by traffic. Page views, unique visitors and traffic growth were our gods, and we became very good at driving the numbers.

Too good, in fact. Our editors discovered that there was an assortment of cheats and shortcuts they could use to create traffic spikes. Top 10 lists, stupid customer tricks, contests and "was my face red" anecdotes were guaranteed hits that could ease the constant pressure to achieve number goals.

The problem was that the traffic was junk. Visitors came, but they didn't stay or register. There was no way to monetize their visits, other than with a few low-cost banner ads. Worse, overindulgence in these tactics made a site look shallow and juvenile, which actually drove away the serious businesspeople we were trying to attract. Most of these practices were eventually discarded.

That experience came to mind recently as my inbox and RSS reader filled up with an assortment of "Best of 2007" collections. Hundreds of these articles dealt with traffic optimization strategies, everything from headline writing to tricks for driving visits from Digg.com and StumbleUpon.com. One blogger posted an impressive 8,500-word list of the top marketing blog posts of the year, most of which dealt with traffic strategies.

A lot of this advice was very good, but I shudder to think that marketers may take it too much to heart. Today, they are at an intersection of opportunity and challenge. Their opportunity is to become content producers on par with the mainstream media that have long been the gatekeepers. The challenge is that the online marketing world still lacks consensus on how to measure online success.

With no agreement on metrics, many marketers will fall back to Web site traffic as the gold standard. But this puts them at the risk of resorting to gimmickry and sensationalism in order to get attention. When everyone else is shouting, the urge is just to shout louder.

The ever-increasing influence of search and recommendation engines only raises the stakes as Google has become the universal home page, an army of consultants has sprung up to figure out how to beat the system. Marketers that hew too closely to their recommendations risk delivering boatloads of traffic to content that is, well, junk.

It will be years before the industry hammers out a consensus on metrics, so don't wait. Have a discussion with your leadership about the need to measure success with factors that really count: registrations, repeat visits, sales orders and whatever else affects the bottom line. Make sure your goals and compensation are tied to meaningful results. Learn from the search optimization experts, but don't let them run your life.

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