In 2001 I launched my very first website — a small, online game, programmed by a hesitant child. Within six months, it had hundreds of paid users. This was not because I was a prodigy, it was because the virtual world was much smaller then. It was also much easier.
In those days, there was no “search engine optimization.” You submitted your website manually to directories, much like phone directories. You were guaranteed to be on this list and were easily discovered by those who were looking for your product. Users loaded up their homepage, browsed “games” or “shopping,” and there you were.
Over the past two decades the landscape has radically changed. Yet most of the advice we get for launching a website, optimizing our search engine results, and creating content marketing has not changed in the past few years.
In 2012, I launched a small fan site about a niche topic — and within a few months, I was getting considerable traffic with no effort at all. This was after one of the large scale Google updates designed to promote premium content. Content that was lengthy and unique was being pushed to the top, and it looked like a very optimistic solution for “content marketers.”
Content marketers work with SEO, but in reality, they are designed to be the antithesis of SEO. Rather than artificially boosting signal, content marketers are intended to create content that is genuinely valuable to the audience — with the idea that this will always rise to the top.
So when I launched a similar website in 2018, I expected a fairly similar result. But I found something very interesting: that search engine traffic was almost impossible to get organically. In fact, my website didn’t even start getting organic traffic until after I initiated a paid advertising campaign — and it became very difficult for me to distinguish my paid traffic from my organic traffic.
These discrepancies don’t seem entirely unintentional. On my paid ad campaigns, Google would often show a number of clicks — say 80. On my analytics, Google would show 40 clicks and 40 organic. One could assume that this was from bounced traffic, but once my paid campaigns would end, all the traffic would bleed off.
This is strange, because if you’ve done an ad campaign with Google, you know that clicks are tracked with tokens that are passed through the URL itself — not cookies or any other type of hidden tracking service. You can either assume that Google is intentionally showing paid clicks as organic or that, for whatever reason, a paid advertising campaign somehow boosts organic traffic.
Or that their analytic system is broken. Either way, I found that search engines are next to useless today. In reality, the entirety of the focus is now on social media — and there’s an emphasis on media. Videos, podcasts, streaming; these are the things that a content provider now needs to do. It’s a new world.
Yet many online marketers are still churning out page after page of written content — content that is now unlikely to be seen by anyone. We are now at a time when a single clever tweet is probably worth more than 20 blog posts, and where interacting directly with your customers on Facebook is probably worth more than even having your own website.
It’s an interesting shift — and, perhaps, one that many marketers are not able to make. You see, it’s a very “television killed the radio star” premise. Not every online marketer or content professional is an expert at engaging directly with their audience. It’s not a surprise that Amy Brown, the mastermind behind the Wendy’s social media strategy, ultimately quit her job.
What happens when you take people who are essentially writers and tell them that they need to perform live? That they need to engage directly one-on-one with customers? That they need to start live streaming video? That they can’t churn out 1,000 pieces of content hoping that one will hit: that they need to invest time into creating and building a rapport with a unique audience?
It’s no wonder there’s been resistance to this, and there will likely come a shift. Online marketers are already being slowly supplanted by social media influencers, and the very interesting thing about these influencers is that many of them never even intend to become what they are. Instead, they have the soft skills built in — the skills that are now valued in this changing landscape.