Getting Free Traffic is OK… Sort Of

ML Feb 26, 2007

SEO is a bad word. It’s loaded with baggage and means many things to many people, unfortunately, some of which include charlatan, snake oil salesman, overpriced consultant, and the like. It can be no other way, because of reasons laid out in my previous post about SEO being a subset of public relations. Search results are a form of editorial content issued by Google and Yahoo. Attempts to influence and alter these results is a form of corruption.

I was one in the early days of SEO that actually advocated the term SEO as an accurate description of what we did. We were indeed optimizing the search engines to show the results we wanted them to show. We did it through manipulation of our own sites, but it was the search engines we were optimizing none-the-less. And the acronym did stick, and a great controversy broke out once GoTo, then Google added pay-per-click, and the field of SEM broke off. It was much easier for the advertising people to understand, because it was basically just media-buying, and the second half of online advertising was born (the first being banner-ads).

Today, Google is the undisputed heavyweight champion of paid online search marketing. Google adjusts its products to optimize profits. Yahoo adjusts its products to stay in the game.

So, the paid-side of online promotion will be continuously tweaked by media giants until it resembles something that will keep them in business far into the future. But the magical detente that exists between editorial content and advertising will force these same media giants to begrudgingly allow “natural” or “organic” search results to continue to exist. I touch on this peaceful co-existence in the original HitTail demo. This is why something like SEO will continue to exist. But because the term is ruined, and the very practices are constantly in flux, it will probably get wrapped into the field of public relations, if many other follow the same enlightened path as Connors Communications, who created HitTail.

Let’s look at public relations for a moment. When PR mostly consisted of pitching stories to journalists, there was a lot of “push”. Journalists needed only sit there to find “stories” because exuberant, and sometimes obnoxious, PR people pitched story after story to them them via the phone. But time on the phone was a bottleneck, and time was the finite resource. You could only receive N-pitches per day. Now, thanks to email where no such bottlenecks exist, some journalists are worn down and have to sharpen their skills of filtering out the white noise, or risk being overwhelmed. Baseball isn’t the only industry with automatic pitching machines.

Contrast PR’s pitching process with SEO’s bait-and-wait process, where the business interest (or social interest) turns itself into the media, by way of blogging software. Google ensures distribution. But now, instead of merely journalists that are being “soft-pitched” in due course of them doing their research, also the entire consumer world is being pitched. But the pitch takes the form of getting in their way at the moment their interest turns to the topic, and they perform a Google search. The middle-man (being journalists and their publications) are potentially cut out of the picture, and a new middleman is inserted.

Yes, the world is a different place. As John Battelle infers, Google is a powerful company through arbitrage. They arbitrate which sites are found on which terms, and this is power. It’s the oil of the information age. It determines who gets what business. They are the ultimate middleman, taking their cut. It’s almost as good as the Credit Card business who gets their 3% on every transaction, then payments against interest. And it’s quite a bit better than protection rackets.

To live in the world of SEO means getting one over on this middleman. But they need you to get one over on them. They just want to make sure that those doing it are not intentionally trying to do so, thereby gaming the system, and unintentionally insulting the power broker. If everyone can game the system, the system is ruined. Gaming the system is a matter of getting the right sort of visitor traffic (potentially qualified customers) without paying for it.

Therefore, if you wish to get your traffic for free, you must game the system without overtly doing so. You must be a good neighbor, respectful of the system, and willing to pay your dues once in awhile. You must help keep the system stable, and still win at the edges. No one will begrudge you staying in business through your own hard work, so long as that hard work doesn’t cut into their interests. And if your hard work happens to result in getting more potentially qualified visitors to your website without paying for it, you win. If you produce truly quality content, that the power brokers actually NEED to keep the system stable, then everyone wins.

There is no product to let you live in this edgy moral high ground. No product, that is until HitTail. OK, this diatribe on the state of search instantly deteriorated into self-promotion. But people need to know that if you don’t get your traffic for free, then you have to pay for it. And all the paths leading to getting your traffic for free are full of pitfalls laid by big media companies, designed to make you pay anyway. So, you either need a pre-existing reputation to leverage, or you have to reach escape velocity on your own. Reaching escape velocity can be an expensive proposition if you pay for the fuel (advertising). But you can also take the slow and steady tortoise route, and reach orbit through a relentless series of strong platforms (blog posts). Some of the blog post topics are chosen with HitTail. Others are chosen as a result of your own strategies.

But in the end, you reach where you want to go. You’ve built an effective long tail marketing strategy, with one post standing on the back of the next. It’s turtles all the way down.

Sorry to the language purists. I never met a metaphor I wouldn’t mix.

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