This guest post is by Gary Arndt of Everything-Everywhere.com
As a blogger, you probably do not have the luxury of having a staff of people to work for you. As such, your time is very valuable and you need to spend it where it will do the most good. We have reached a point in late 2010 where the work required to generate traffic for a normal blog via search engines is much greater than that required to generate an equal amount of traffic via social media.
My thesis is simple: for the majority of bloggers, the time and effort invested on social media is better spent than time spent on SEO.
This post will probably generate controversy. There are an army of people out there who make a living selling SEO products and services. To use an old adage, when you only tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail. To them, SEO is the beginning and end of traffic generation.
To be sure, search engines do drive a lot of traffic, however, with the increasing pollution of search engines with content farms, Google’s love of big brands/big media, and the increasing amount of work required to rank for ever longer keywords, SEO is no longer worth the effort for most bloggers.
The power of brands
Google loves brands. The reasoning behind this actually makes some sense. An easy solution to the problem of spam websites was for Google to give extra authority to sites that have large, established brands. This doesn’t bode well for bloggers, however.
To given you an example of how much authority brands are given, several months ago I conducted an experiment. I had an article that I had done some link building on. After several months the article ranked #3 for the keyword I was targeting (behind two large media properties). I had an opportunity to put some content on the website of a very large media brand. I put that article, word for word, on their site to see how they would rank for the exact same keyword. Within an hour, they were ranked at #4, just behind my original article. In a day, they were ranked above me, even though the same content had been on my site for months and I had gone through the effort to do link building.
I realize there is a new content bonus that Google will give articles for a while, but the fact they were able to rank so high, so quickly, even against a previously indexed article with links, shows just how much the deck is stacked against blogs. Google can’t easily tell the difference a legitimate blog from a made for Adsense spam site. If they could, there would be no spam.
If you are in a niche that doesn’t have a large traditional media presence (niches like Internet marketing, SEO, or social media) you might not notice this because there is little media competition. However, if you are in a niche with a large traditional media presence (like travel, politics, news, sports, or food) you might see on a regular basis how difficult it can be.
Brand vs. individual authority
You might think that Darren Rowse has a great deal of authority on the subject of blogging. You would be correct. However, in the eyes of Google, Darren doesn’t have any authority; ProBlogger.net does. This is a fundamental problem with how Google works. People invest trust and authority in other people while Google puts authority in URL’s.
As a thought experiment, lets say Darren sold ProBlogger.net and started up a new blog called The-Blogging-Pro.info (a horrible domain name, but just stay with me). Everyone who reads this site, subscribes to the newsletter or follows Darren on Twitter would know to now go to the new site to get Darren’s advice on blogging. The authority that Darren has developed over the years would stay with him, even if he moved to a new domain. Google, however, would still put its trust and authority in ProBlogger.net, even though the real authority has moved to a different domain.
Social media solves the authority dilemma. You know who is authoritative and isn’t. I often ask people how many people they can name who have written an article for National Geographic in its 122-year history. Most people can’t name a single person. Yet, if I ask them who is behind their favorite blogs, almost everyone can give me a name. We trust the New York Times or National Geographic because of the reputation the brand has developed over the years. Even if the author of a given article knows nothing about the subject (which does happen), they are assumed to be authoritative just because of the brand they are writing under.
Writers will usually give a list of the publications they have written for as their credentials. Their authority is a second hand authority derived from the publications they have written for. (“I am a successful author because I have written for large, successful publications.”)
Blogger authority is first hand authority. It comes directly from the reputation they have developed over time from their audience.
The power of individuals
The fact that people know who bloggers are is exactly the reason why blogs have a comparative advantage in social media. The New York Times Twitter account might have millions of followers, but they can never do more than pump out links to articles. It can’t have a conversation, talk or listen. If it did, who would be the one doing the talking on behalf of the brand?
The part of social media that actually builds trust and authority is totally absent from most large media properties. They are simply not able to engage in a conversation as a brand. Some companies like ESPN have banned their staff from using Twitter precisely because they didn’t want their employees to develop their own authority outside if the network. If they did, they’d become too valuable and they would have too much leverage when it came time to negotiate contracts.
Bloggers have the ability to do an end run around traditional media precisely because we are capable of having a conversation. That is something a faceless brand can never do.
SEO is time consuming
Critics of this article might point out that if you just worked harder, you could rank for anything you want. They are probably right. It isn’t a question of what is possible. It is a question of the return on your investment. The concept of time ROI is absent from almost any discussion on SEO.
As I stated above, the deck is stacked against the little guy in SEO. Google loves brands and can’t associate authority with individuals. To just keep pace with media brands, you have to put in much more work. The New York Times doesn’t have to bother with link building. You do. That alone should tell you how fair the playing field is.
Bloggers have a comparative advantage in social media. We can appeal to human notions of authority, not algorithmic notions. We can have discussions and conversations, and brands can’t do that. Moreover, it isn’t hard to do. All you have to do is talk and most of you are probably doing that now.
Already you are seeing a shift in some media outlets to superstar journalists. What is happening is the same thing you are seeing in the blogging world. People are putting their trust and authority into people, not the brands they work for. It will only be a matter of time before the superstar journalists realize they don’t need their media masters anymore.
Writing for humans vs. writing for machines
Despite what Google says, the key to good SEO isn’t writing for good content for people. This is a bald-faced lie which anyone who has spent time trying to rank for a keyword knows. Human beings enjoy alliteration, puns, jokes and other forms of word play, which are totally lost on an algorithm. What makes for a good article from a content farm is exactly the thing, which you should not do if you want to covert readers into subscribers. Content created with SEO in mind is more often than not fun to read.
Google’s original rational for the “create good content” argument was that people would naturally link to good content. That is no longer true. People share good content on Twitter and Facebook, which is either closed to Google, labeled as “nofollow”, or doesn’t have anchor text. The world Serge and Brin wrote their seminal paper for in the 1990’s doesn’t exist today.
Traffic as a means vs. traffic as an end
Newspapers have developed an obsession with visits and page views. Many bloggers have the same problem as well. They view raw traffic as the end game because they view the world though an advertising model. Under this paradigm, the more traffic you have the better, regardless how you get it or for what reason, because it will lead to more ad clicks.
Many bloggers have wised up to the fact that advertising isn’t the best way to make money. CPM rates keep falling and will keep falling so long as ad inventory grows faster than online advertising budgets. It has reached a point where to make money via advertising you have to either have an enormous media property or have an incredibly targeted site devoted to a very niche keyword.
Most blogs don’t fit into either category. They don’t have millions of page views per month, and they don’t niche themselves into talking about only instant coffee makers. In this middle space, what matters aren’t raw page views to generate advertising revenue. What matters is growing a loyal following of people who view you as authoritative in your area.
In this model, traffic is just a means to an end, not an end in itself. The real end is getting traffic to convert to subscribers and loyal followers. You will be more likely to get a follower from someone who views you as having authority rather than someone who is just looking for bit of information with no idea of who you are.
Google changes their algorithm all the time. There are companies who have been destroyed by changes made at Google. Fortunes rise and fall based on how Google decides to rank sites. A major question you have to ask yourself is “how dependent do I want to be on Google?”
All the hard work you put into SEO can be destroyed, or at least significantly altered, but changes at Google. Authority and reputation with other people, however, doesn’t change on a whim.
Also, knowing that Google is going to change in the future, in what direction do you think it is going to change? My bet would be towards a greater reliance on social media and less reliance on links. I’m sure there are engineers at Google right now trying to figure out how to translate the authority and trust that individuals have into their search results.
Choose social media for greater ROI
I am not saying you should block Google from indexing your site. I am not saying search engine traffic is bad. In fact, there are blogs out there that would be best served by an SEO strategy.
What I am saying is that outside of a few things you can do in the creation of your blog, don’t worry about SEO. Make sure your permalinks make sense, create a site map, install the appropriate plugins … and then stop worrying about it.
Invest your time where it will give you the highest return. Today, I believe that place is in social media. Do you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Since March 2007, Gary has blogged from over 70 countries at Everything-Everywhere.com. He was also named by Time Magazine as one of the 25 Best Blogs of 2010.
UPDATE: Darren has added his thougths on the SEO vs Social Media debate here.