SEO is NOT Your Whole Marketing Strategy

I work with companies of all sizes in my job as an SEO Consultant at Distilled in New York City (the best city in the world). I have a Fortune 500 company that you have definitely heard of, a hotel chain you have definitely heard of, and two startups that you may not have heard of (yet). I love it when a company “gets” SEO and wants to bake it into their company. In fact, I tweeted this tweet today after spending a full day at one of my startup clients working with them:


I get stoked when companies start to get SEO, but I have one thing to say:

SEO is NOT your full marketing strategy

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE SEO. I gave up a lot to get here. But I get scared when I hear that people are putting so much weight into their investment in SEO, because when we take a long hard look, building your company being reliant on SEO is a fool’s errand.

Have you ever heard the saying:

Everyone therefore who hears these words of mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man, who built his house on a rock. The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat on that house; and it didn’t fall, for it was founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of mine, and doesn’t do them will be like a foolish man, who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat on that house; and it fell—and great was its fall. – Matt 7:24-27

Let me qualify what I mean by this.

Building anything based on a third party is dangerous, because that third party can, at almost any time, change. Now, that third party cannot change completely, because they are also somewhat reliant on you (like Google is reliant on your Adwords spend, so they cannot just do away with Adwords all of a sudden), but they can change their algorithm and your business can be hurting.

What if you saw this in your Analytics one day?

That's a big drop!

Would your business be able to survive?

SEO’s Role

SEO is one avenue of search. Given, it can be quite a lucrative avenue as it is often known as “free traffic”, though I prefer to call it “passive traffic”. There’s nothing passive about working to earn it, but it’s still not active traffic like email or paid search. You earn your rankings, you maintain them, and traffic keeps flowing.

SEO can be baked into all parts of your marketing, though. It can, and should, be included in the following avenues:

  • Email
  • Social
  • Business partnerships
  • Content development

You can embed SEO into your emails by directing people to linkable pages and encouraging them from there to link to your pages through blog posts or other content (blog competitions work well here). You encourage them to do this by creating great content, which is informed by your keyword research and market/competitor analysis, which are both instrumental parts of SEO. Your social strategy gives you a lift in traffic, which can often result in links (for more check out Why You Should Guest Post for statistics on links). Your business partnerships should provide you with quality sites from which you can at least get a branded link, if not a consistent column from where you can get targeted links.

What’s a Decent Traffic Spread?

You’re probably thinking now: “Alright, so this is great, but when should I be concerned?” Well, you should always be concerned about relying too much on one avenue for your business, but I’d say that you should really be concerned if over 70% of your traffic is coming from organic, or any channel to be honest.

Think about Mahalo and eHow. They built their businesses off of thin content that ranked well because of weaknesses in Google’s algorithms. I’m not saying this was not necessarily smart as they made a lot of money, but they put all of their eggs into one basket. They were all-in on organic, and once the Panda update rolled around, their businesses tanked.

For example, organic is about 33% of my traffic to this site each month. I have clients whose organic traffic is 25% of their total, one that it’s around 30%, one that it’s 18%, and so on. SEOmoz’s is only about 20%, by the way. That should tell you something right there.

This is healthy:

My site

This is dangerous, precisely because an algorithm update could tank you:

An actual site

SEO professionals have an obligation to manage the expectations of their clients and tell them when their expectations are off. Screw satiating your clients when they are wrong; sometimes we have to stand up to them and tell them that they are wrong. If they give wrong numbers and set bad expectations, reset them. If they are throwing everything at SEO, encourage them to invest in other areas as well, without working yourself out of a job. We’re around to build businesses, not sucker people out of their money.

What’s your take? Should SEO have a bigger role?

24 thoughts on “SEO is NOT Your Whole Marketing Strategy

  1. I think your examples of a ‘healthy’ traffic source mix is actually not healthy at all. The only sites where I’ve seen search traffic as anything less than 50% are those sites that are entirely new and not yet ranking for their own brand terms.

    It’s much more instructive to segment that search traffic out further in to branded & non-branded, and to make sure there’s a good mix of both keywords and landing pages from search traffic. (And of course segment paid & organic.)

    Realistically, search is bound to be the core traffic driver for all successful websites. For big brand names branded search will be key, for smaller businesses long-tail traffic might be vital. As long as your business doesn’t hinge on a small subset of keywords pointing to a small amount of pages, you’ll be OK.

    1. I suppose I should’ve clarified that SEOmoz is not a representative example as it’s a community site, so you’d expect a lot of Direct traffic & traffic from referrals.

      1. Thanks for the feedback and comments, Barry. I actually disagree with you on this one. If you’re putting all of your success into one source too much, I think you are walking a very fine line. This is why Panda affected so many people so hard.

        I wonder what others think? Maybe I should do a poll.

    2. Do you think or any social site have over 50% search traffic? I doubt it.

      I agree with John. A good mix of traffic sources is the best strategy.

      1. Facebook is probably 90% direct traffic and very little from organic search. Same with twitter, linkedin, etc.. the only one I could differing is Google+ because of SPYW.

        With that being said, they are putting all of their eggs in one basket – a brand – and it works. Sites that have an established brand are far off from start-ups and small businesses. Two different sets of rules apply.

  2. Hi John. thanks for the reply.
    Personally I work a lot with the social media guy and I’m really happy about that. But I have the feelings, being part of a very big inhouse SEO team, that SEOs tend to stay only in the SEO field, and they are not even curious of trying something new, doing all the stuff by the book.
    Don’t get me wrong: it’s cool to be focused on something, but at the same time it’s even cooler to know how the “whole” is working.
    I like to have an open-minded attitude to the SEO world, it’s evolving a lot and very fast, and I like the idea to be prepared to things.

    thanks for sharing this!

  3. Great post John, couldn’t agree with you more here. At Thunder we’re very much proponents of diversifying our clients’ traffic sources. From large sites to even smaller sites, we work to get search traffic to account for around 25-40% of overall traffic. Referring traffic is definitely another important metric that we work to boost during most of our SEO campaigns. I should note that we work with very few online-only businesses, like e-commerce, but not sure our processes would change much even if we did.

    1. Thanks Gary, and thanks for your insights. The referral traffic is an interesting metric to keep track of, but you’re right to do it because a lift in referral traffic can often mean a lift in search traffic, in my experience. Interesting that you wouldn’t change if you worked more in eCommerce, as others seem to think search can be more for eCommerce. Might be worth pulling some data to see the differences?

      1. Yeah, with the way Google is moving towards entities and favoring brands, direct traffic and branded search traffic has become an interesting part of our strategy. Referral traffic we really look to influence through our PR efforts and high quality link building. I think that for online-only ecommerce, we’d probably focus a bit more on search, but still wouldn’t want that to exceed 50% of a site’s traffic. Of course, every site, brand, and vertical is different so I wouldn’t want to make universal assumptions.

  4. Thanks John, agree with you. We Have tackled this question as well. We are over reliant on one channel currently. Organic traffic is rising albeit slowly. We are experimenting with email, direct mail, remarketing to our customers in order to reduce channel concentration. This is probably the most difficult and most important thing we are doing (long term).

  5. You are so right, John, about SEO being a part of an overall strategy, not the entire strategy itself. There are just too many variables and a comprehensive plan will include action in as many marketing methods as possible. Diversity builds a safety net that cannot be ignored.

    Love that tweet, too!

  6. Great article, SEO is not the main driver of any commercial campaign, but it can be implemented into many facets, even for the traditional marketing of media.
    with the current big trends in Social Media, SEO can be a part of this spere, but using SEO more on a social front.

  7. I totally agree with having a good spread of traffic across all sources. That’s the way I look at my own analytics pie charts! 🙂

    I have a couple of additional comments

    1) Referral traffic will also be, in part, a reflection of good SEO work. All the outreach work you do as part of your SEO strategy will give you references and mentions in external sites that will then drive referral traffic. So if you do good SEO work, you’ll never end-up in a situation where Search is 89% and Referral is only 3% (although I bet the bad scenario numbers are not real.. are they?).

    2) We must be careful about the search slice, since it includes both Organic and PPC traffic. For companies that have a solid PPC strategy to tap into new opportunities, the Search slice will tend to be bigger. It really depends on the lead generation strategy of the company, but I’d say that the Organic+PPC slice is usually slightly bigget than 30% for companies that use both PPC and SEO.

    Anyway, at the end of the day, I totally agree that the source mix must be as varied as possible.


  8. I totally agree with you on this one, John… but I think that the people who know me from my posts and comments may imagine it :).
    And sometimes I can be even more radical… don’t forget the immense power a well done offline marketing action can have to your online performance. I am not just talking about things like the Superbowl commercial (a classic example), but also of a good radio advertisement campaign for small local businesses.
    In that case is just a question of applying the SEO way of thinking in the offline action (maybe the copy of the slogan, which is used as main keyword in the copy of your landing page), and setting correctly your Analytic in order to segment the traffic – usually branded – generated by the campaign during the campaign life.

  9. An SEO suggesting that you diverse your marketing strategy who would have thought it 🙂

    But seriously, I whole heartedly agree, SEO is just one piece of the pie and as SEO’s it’s very easy to become blinkered to other marketing methods that sometimes may be better suited to a campaign. For example I still encourage some clients to stick with Yellow Pages advertising, despite what some snake oil salesmen tell them. The reason main reason I do this is because in some niches they have very little competition from other businesses, as they have left the listings so despite the smaller circulation enquiries are up.

    I have always encouraged my clients to build lists of customers. Whether that’s Email, Social Media or even RSS subscribers to their blog.

    It’s not just a case of an algo change but any change that could effect the site e.g. Malware attacks or hackers who could take a site down and incur penalty too.

    The other great thing about lists as I’m sure an experienced marketer, like Gianluca, will tell you is that it is a lot easier to sell to someone who you have a relationship with than land a brand new customer.

  10. The “SEO can be baked into all parts of your marketing” comment is definitely the takeaway from this post.

    Anyone who has actually had to manage an entire marketing effort that is the life-blood of the company’s survival knows that (no matter how profitable) diversifying your portfolio is the smartest way to mitigate external risks you have little influence to control.

    For those who are all-in and don’t agree, think about your time and budget as an investment. (Like an investment in the stock market)

    John’s argument which I agree with is.. have a portfolio to invest in long-term strategies with a portion set aside to capitalize on “quick wins.” That way if the MARKET crashes on one specific area, you are still around once the dust clears.

    If you know how to build marketing strategies that last, you should have a strategic plan to address the risks discussed in this post.

    Keep it up John! The more we can correlate the relationship between search marketing and stock market investment, the closer our SEO community will be to winning.

  11. I hate when I hear clients 80% organic 20% mix. It’s the worst strategy to put all your eggs into one basket. I have a website which had about 75% referral from YouTube. Since YouTube changed the way they are “suggesting videos” Dec. 14th 2011 the views/day dropped dramatically. The website lost more than 50% traffic just because YouTube changed the algorithm.

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  15. I have a question that I hope someone could answer. I do everything to optimize pages/post even for low keywords, but it’s been weeks and I don’t see my pages in Google. Is it because of the lack of links to my website.

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