SEO is Overrated

No GoogleI 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 “” 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.


  • Bill Slawski

    January 19, 2011
    at 12:48 pm

    Hi Shane,

    Thanks for the thoughtful response to my post comparing search rankings between Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

    Of course Borders has more problems than whether or not they are found in search results for some of the top bestsellers of the last year, but looking at their search results and what they offer on their website, it appears as though the Web is more of an afterthought to them than an effective marketing channel, as if they thought they needed a website, but had little idea what to do with it now that they have one.

    Search by itself isn’t the only answer, but it definitely looks like Borders isn’t even really trying to compete online.


  • Shane

    January 19, 2011
    at 1:11 pm

    Thanks for the response, Bill. And thanks for understanding that I wasn’t trolling you 🙂


  • Bill Slawski

    January 19, 2011
    at 1:25 pm

    You’re welcome.

    There are a number of steps that Borders can take to bring their existing customers to their site and their storefronts more often, and to retain the customers that they have.

    For example, Borders does have booksignings on a regular basis at different locations. It would be great to log into their site and be notified about who might be appearing at a nearby store, or what kinds of special events they might be having.

    That by itself is a fairly simple step and example but one that could get visitors to return, and bring people into the stores. They already have the events. Their website should help inform people about them.


  • Shane

    January 19, 2011
    at 1:31 pm

    I completely agree. Borders does so much right. I definitely prefer them when I’m shopping for books without knowing specifically what I want, and they have such a great foundation to build on. I just wouldn’t want to see them become another company that thinks SEO is the solution to all their woes.


  • Mark Riffey

    January 20, 2011
    at 10:00 am

    Right on target, Shane.

    As Bill notes, there’s not much doubt that a serious online effort would benefit them, especially since all they’ve done is make the classic business website mistake of tossing up a website and treating it like a billboard.

    His suggestion about event publication is just one of many things they arent doing.

    While people are buying online more than ever, the stores’ problem is that Borders just isnt crowded these days. That’s a change from the past and it isnt because their SEO is poorly done.

    And now, Im off to read Bill’s original post:)


  • Hardfluff

    July 29, 2011
    at 12:50 pm

    Thanks for this article, it’s great. But how do you propose people go about retaining their visitors? I assume that it’s relative based on what type of site you have, but do you have some general tips? Thanks.


  • Shane

    August 1, 2011
    at 2:03 pm

    You’re right, it does depend on the site. In general, though, I think people leave for one of two reasons: They found what they were looking for, or they didn’t find what they were looking for.

    In the first case, can you entice them with something in addition to what they were looking for?

    In the second case, why didn’t they find it? If they should have, that’s the first place I would start.