SEO is Overrated
I talk to a lot of people who see search engine traffic as a magic bullet for their business — both online and offline. They think if they can just rank well in The Google, all their problems will be solved. (Most of the offline businesses seem to think that they’re the only ones who have figured this out, too.)
Bill’s post about why Borders is struggling reminded me of this. He says that “one of the biggest problems Borders faces” is that they don’t rank well in Google searches for books they offer. He may have some inside knowledge that I don’t have, but just from the outside, there are several reasons why I don’t think ranking well in Google would help them at all.
Why SEO Won’t Help Borders
Top 10 Rankings are Pretty, but They Don’t Sell Books
When Google started showing clickthrough rates in Webmaster Tools last year, the numbers came as a shock to many of us long-time SEOs. I had always believed that ranking in one of the top 3 positions for a search would give you a roughly equal shot at being clicked on. Across the board, though, what we all saw was the the number 1 spot had a significantly higher clickthrough rate, and that the rates dropped off precipitously after that.
So to have any solid impact, Borders would have to be ranking #1 for a number of different titles — not an easy task when you’re competing against the likes of Amazon.
Search Engine Traffic is Completely Unreliable
Building a business on search engine traffic is like building a house on sand. One good algorithm change can destroy a business literally overnight. I’ve been there.
It’s a Tiny Part of the Overall Traffic Universe
I don’t know how it is for books, but I know how it is for lots of other industries: Search engine traffic is an amazingly small piece of the traffic pie. At CareerBuilder for instance, we got a crazy amount of search engine traffic. We ranked great for short-tail and long-tail terms alike (and they still do). Even so, search engine traffic was a measly 5% of our overall traffic. 5%! And that’s including the significant number of people who typed “careerbuilder.com” into a search engine to get to us.
People just don’t use a search engine to find things as often as we think they do. Search engine traffic can be great (believe me, I know), but the vast majority of people will find your business some way other way. You can have a great business that never shows up in Google at all.
Just ask Borders competitor Books-A-Million (NasdaqGS: BAMM). They have a market cap almost 50% higher than Borders, and I’ve never seen them in a search.
What Will Help
Borders gets plenty of business. The challenge for them, and us, is twofold.
First, we have to do a better job at making money from the customers we already have. I have no idea how Borders makes money or how well they’re monetizing, but I see very few online businesses that are monetizing as well as they could be — mine included. We need to do a better job with what we’ve got.
Second, and maybe more importantly, we need to do a better job retaining customers. Take a look at the stats for your site. How many visitors to your site have never been there before? If you could retain just 10% of those who visit and never come back, how big would your customer base be a year from now? If you’re not following Mark Riffey, you need to be.
When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. I’m as guilty of that as anyone. I made all my money because of SEO, and it’s easy to think of every business idea in terms of how much search engine traffic is available. When we do that, though, we severely handicap ourselves.
Run your business like search engines don’t exist. You’ll be more successful in the short-term and the long-term.