The headlines are in.
The world is dumbfounded.
The stock markets are reacting badly.
Google is out of business!
Let's suppose that tomorrow the governments of the world decide that search engines illegally use other people's content without consent in an effort to enrich themselves. (Wait, I might be onto something there... Nah!) And let's suppose that, in response, the governments outlaw all web crawling, effectively killing the search engine as a business model. Google would shut down pretty quick were that to happen. Would you be out of business, too?
Before you answer that question, think about the businesses that would not go under. One big one came to my mind immediately when I thought about it: Amazon.com.
Amazon doesn't have a brick and mortar business, but despite that they don't rely on search traffic to fuel their bottom line. I'm not sure if you've noticed, but Amazon's inner pages aren't nearly as prominently featured in Google's search results as they used to be -- and yet in the third quarter of 2011 they did almost $11 billion in revenue. It wasn't quite what the analysts expected from them, but I'm sure you'll agree that it's not exactly chump change.
You see, Amazon's got something that's far more valuable than the visitors Google can send it. It has a well-known brand.
When I want something from Amazon, I don't search for their web site in Google. I don't search Google for the product name. No, I go to the URL bar in my browser and type out: A-M-A-Z-O-N-.-C-O-M. I ignore Google completely and go straight to the source. That's brand loyalty, and that's what you want for your website.
Now, you might be thinking, "Are you kidding me? Are you telling me I need to compete with sites like Amazon? They have billions! I'm on a shoestring budget here!"
That's a fair point, so let me use a smaller example that probably fits your circumstances much better.
My wife goes to a hair stylist that used to work out of a salon that was in a great location for lots of walk-in traffic. The problem was that the salon wasn't very good, even though the stylist is great, and that was affecting her clients negatively. So she pulled up stakes and moved into a better salon that's located in a far less walk-in friendly location. The new location is about twice as far away, and takes half an hour for my wife to drive to. But when the stylist left the old salon, guess who followed her there? My wife (and most of the stylist's other clients).
How'd she manage that? Brand. My wife and the other clients have learned to trust this stylist. They know her, they like her and they're happy with her work. So when it comes time to get her hair done, my wife doesn't check the yellow pages (online or off). She doesn't shop around for the best value (even though this stylist is not cheap). She skips the "search engine" and goes straight to the "URL bar" -- the number programmed in her cell phone. You see, her stylist has built up a personal brand. So even if this stylist lost all of her walk-ins, she'd still be doing fine.
Well, my friend, Google is only sending your site "walk-in" business. It's your job to convert those walk-ins into long-term, repeat customers. Do that enough times and it won't matter if the search engines got shut down by the government. You'd still be in business, because you have a brand. People would still be typing your domain name into their browsers' URL bars, and you would be fine. Your revenue might take a hit (as would Amazon's), but your business wouldn't shut down.
So ask yourself: when you build a site, is it just to try and rank for a specific set of keywords for the purpose of generating some AdSense clicks and sending the visitor on their merry way? Or are you creating great content to get those "walk-ins" engaged? Are you enticing them with discounts and freebies to get on your mailing list, or to connect with you via Facebook, Twitter, Google+? Are you offering something nobody else in your market has? Do you have a forum where customers (or readers) can go to ask questions, make suggestions, connect with each other? Are you converting those walk-ins into clients and building brand loyalty?
I'm not saying you should never build sites just for the purpose of earning revenue from advertisers (though Google would probably disagree). I'm well aware that you can generate a significant amount of short-term income from those kinds of sites. What I'm saying is don't let that be the only basket you've put your eggs into. Google is a fickle beast. Its algorithm changes often, and each time it does thousands of businesses get destroyed because they relied too much on search traffic and didn't work hard enough to build brand loyalty.
Google doesn't care about your business. Repeat that with me: Google doesn't care about your business. In fact, I'd argue that in order for a search engine to be unbiased and fair, it should not care about what its algorithmic changes do to any specific website's business. Whether or not Google will ever actually achieve that goal isn't the point. The point is that you should not, no -- cannot -- rely on search engine traffic alone in a long-term business model.
For example, last month the search engines sent this blog traffic for 618 different sets of keywords, but the keywords that sent it the most traffic (by far) is my name: Jonathan Leger. Why? Because that's my brand. On top of that, this blog got visitors sent from 1,946 other web pages that aren't search engines -- significantly more traffic than was sent by the engines. But an even larger share of my traffic came from people who either typed in the URL directly or clicked-through from an email I sent them. Chances are you're one of those people. Why did you click through? Why did you read this blog post? Brand.
The same holds true for all of the products and services I offer. The web sites for those products all rank well for the keywords I optimize them for. That's great, because walk-ins do help business. But a lot more visitors are sent by people typing the product names into the search engines, or being referred by affiliates, or typing the domain name directly into their browser. That's important, because if the web sites lost their brand-unrelated rankings tomorrow, I'd still be fine.
Can the same be said about your business? If not, it's time to get to work on your brand.
Please post your thoughts and questions in a comment below.