Fishing for traffic

I was watching The Office the other day – well, re-watching The Office – and came across an idea we should probably talk about.

I was watching the episode where Ryan is trying to get into business school. He reveals this to his (very insecure) boss, and as part of a funny back-and-forth between the two, Ryan ends up asking the question:

“Is it cheaper to sign a new customer or to keep an existing customer?”

Ah, yes. Wisdom from unexpected sources. My favorite. It’s like Mr. Miyagi sneakily teaching Daniel-san how to block judo chops by having him wax cars.

So, the answer is it’s way cheaper to nurture existing relationships than to build new ones. This is kind of intuitively obvious.

I mean, which one sounds less expensive – being married to the same person for the 23rd year and chilling at home with Netflix and pasta or having to go out on a bunch of dates to restaurants, concerts, bars, etc as you build a new relationship?

Like I said, intuitively obvious.

But sometimes funny things happen when we take an idea that we already understand and try to apply it to new and unusual circumstances. Our brains kind of short circuit, and it’s not always super obvious how lessons we already know apply to novel situations.

Read More: Did you know that how much cows weigh is related to making money from your blog? Truth.

It strikes me that this short-circuiting is happening en-mass when a million blogs all publish the same outdated lists of link building tactics and old tips for building “more traffic(!).”

Everyone is chasing traffic, more traffic, and more-more traffic without stopping to think about why they’re doing the website/business equivalent of two new dates a week.

Who Cares About Traffic?

To dig into this topic, we have to think about why people chase traffic.

This seems so obvious that it shouldn’t require a full-on discussion, but it’s actually not. It’s kind of tricksy.

I mean, can you – in three seconds – clearly articulate why you want more visitors to your site? Unless the answer is something like “Money!,” then probably not. I mean, you can spit out some kind of answer, but it’s probably not very good. Don’t sweat it, my answer was bad, too.

But, because I have the infinite benefit of being able to think about my words for as long as I want before hitting “publish,” I have a better shot at explaining what’s actually going on in our brains when we get all “More Traffic! RAWR!”

Here’s what I think:

  • Traffic is intrinsically a measure of success, which we all want. More traffic means more success. It’s a nice, concrete metric
  • Everyone who comes to your site can potentially earn you some money, so more traffic means more money
  • Big “important” sites get a lot of traffic. Because we all want to be important, getting more traffic must mean that we’re on our way to being more important

Each of these points is pretty easy to understand, but at least a little bit wrong. When you add all those little wrong bits up, they start to make a bigger point – traffic isn’t our ultimate goal, and we should stop chasing it just to have it.

Chasing traffic for traffic’s sake is misguided, expensive, and unlikely to bring success.

Put another way, any mistakes you’re making with 1,000 visitors a month will be five hundred times worse with 500,000 visitors a month.

What Does “Traffic” Even Mean?

Let’s think a little bit about how we chase traffic.

If you read search engine optimization forums, tier-2 marketing websites, or any of the millions of blogs that just repost the same handful of ideas over and over (and over and over) you probably know a lot about link building strategies, ego-baiting, and doing interviews with “influencers.” Don’t get me started on what the heck an “influencer” even is, we’ll save that for another time.

If you’ve moved into the intermediate skill level, you probably also know about things like managing a social media presence and building pay-per-click (PPC) advertising campaigns.

Read More: Stupider Like a Fox – How to Fail Like a Boss With Google Ads

But hold up there partner:

Why do any of these things matter?

At the end of the day, the only reason these things matter is because they bring in more traffic, right?

Building backlinks helps you rank higher in search results, which brings more traffic. Ego-baiting and interviews help build backlinks, which helps you rank higher in search results, which…brings you more traffic.

Even social media management and PPC campaigns are just “get me more traffic” dance moves set to a different song.

But there are two big problems with this whole “traffic chasing” idea.

First, unless you know what to do with traffic when it shows up, the only thing more traffic will do is cost you money. Second, most beginner and intermediate “strategies” for generating traffic are equivalent to tossing a trawl net into the ocean – you scoop up everything at once and most of what you catch is totally worthless.

Worthless Traffic vs Worthy Traffic

Tossing your trawl net out into the internet might bring you more traffic, but unless you’ve spent tons of time choosing the perfect link sources and have a whole lot of luck on your side, most of that traffic isn’t going to make you any money.

It’s not targeted, it’s not screened, it might not even be particularly well suited to your niche. It’s just traffic. Boring.

This fundamental fact is why some keywords on PPC campaigns cost thirty freaking dollars per click – because they convert! Traffic from these sources isn’t “just traffic”, it’s way better. Smart people in secret internet labs have used their best nerdy spreadsheets to figure out that certain keywords do reach people who end up converting, so they’re willing to pay an awful lot of money for that targeted, screened traffic.

Make sense?

But, since your trawl net tends to pull in “just traffic,” most of it is likely to be fairly worthless in terms of conversions. And it’s conversions that make you money, not traffic.

Video: A Beginner’s Guide to Free Keyword Research (Turn your trawl net into a laser beam that targets only the traffic you actually want)

Traffic vs Conversions: Some (not so) Boring Math

Let’s use some totally crazy examples to illustrate:

Let’s say that you have two websites.

Website A gets 5 visitors a month and manages to convert 1 of those visitors to a sale that brings in $50. Because you’re no dummy, you use a good WordPress host, which costs you $30 a month. You spend nothing on advertising and don’t really do any outreach to promote the site.

Website B gets 500,000 visitors a month and converts 10 of those visitors to sales, which brings in a total of $500. To support this site, you’re now spending $100 a month on hosting (see? mo’ traffic = mo’ problems). You also spent about 40 total hours writing outreach emails and $10 a day on Google PPC ads.

Assuming you couldn’t change anything, which of these two sites would you rather have?

Well, Site A brought in $50 and had $30 in expenses, so you made $20 – for basically doing nothing. That’s not a lot of money, but it took zero effort to make. It’s free money.

Site B brought in $500 and had $400 in expenses. You also spent 40 hours of time doing work on the site, which means you made about $2.50 an hour. Well, crap, McDonald’s pays 300% more than that.

In these crazy examples – yes, I know they’re crazy – 80% of Website A’s traffic is totally worthless. That sounds bad until you consider that about 99.9% of Website B’s traffic is similarly worthless.

The point is that traffic – by itself – isn’t worth anything. Your website isn’t a tollbooth, and nobody pays you a fee just to get in the door. It’s true that more traffic tends to form a positive reinforcement loop leading to even more traffic, but unless you can convert that traffic to money, who cares?

Conversion Rates – The Metric Worth Chasing

In our totally crazy examples, Website A was able to convert 20% of its traffic to money and Website B was able to convert 0.002% of its traffic to money. Yeah, I said our examples were crazy, and both of those conversion rates are bananas.

But, bananas or not, the ultimate lesson stands: We need to stop chasing raw traffic and start chasing conversion rates.

I’m fond of saying that building a successful site – one that generates revenue – is just a boring math problem. So let’s look at some boring math.

Earnings as a function of conversion rate and total traffic volume
Earnings as a function of conversion rate and traffic volume

Here’s a really simple table showing how earnings fluctuate as conversion rates change and traffic increases.

  • The first column shows our conversion rate
  • The second column shows that we hypothetically earn $35 per conversion
  • The third and fourth columns show how many conversions and how many dollars we make with a fixed traffic volume of 20,000 monthly visitors and a variable conversion rate
  • The fifth and sixth columns show how many conversions and how many dollars we make with a fixed traffic volume of 50,000 monthly visitors and a variable conversion rate

There’s nothing too interesting about this math. Doubling your conversion rate doubles your income. Doubling your traffic – while holding your conversion rate steady – also doubles your income.

It is interesting to see how quickly the dollars add up, though – even with really low conversion rates. If your goal is to earn $1,000 a month and you make $35 per conversion, then you only need a conversion rate of 0.15% @ 20,000 visitors and like 0.05% @ 50,000 visitors.

In English, that means if you can earn $35 per conversion (not crazy), roughly 1 out of every 650 visitors needs to convert in order for you to earn $1,000 a month. Well, that doesn’t sound too bad. It will probably take a little work, but it sounds like a completely obtainable goal.

But let’s take this a step further and look at conversion rates and traffic rates independently.

Effect of increasing traffic on earnings when conversion rate is held steady
The effect of increasing traffic on earnings, when conversion rate is held steady.

This table is similar to the first one, but here we’re changing our traffic volume while holding the conversion rate steady at 0.19% (roughly 1 conversion per 500 visitors).

As traffic rises, so does income. No big surprise.

The thing to see in this table is how much traffic it takes to actually drive conversions on your site. In columns five and six, we calculate how big an audience needs to be in order to send you the traffic in column 2.

In other words, if you have an ad, a link, a banner, or a happy group of fans all floating around on the internet and working to direct people to your site, how many people would the ad, link, banner, or fan need to reach in order for you to end up with X amount of traffic.

Well, in column five we pretend that 5% of that general audience will end up on your site – which is probably being a bit generous – and in column six, a more realistic 2%.

So, pretend that you went on a link building spree and managed to get 10 shiny new backlinks. Well, at a 2% click rate, each one of those links would need to be seen by 25,000 people in order for you to end up with 5,000 total visitors. If those 5,000 visitors converted at 0.19%, then you’d earn $332 – making each backlink worth about $33.

Now a savvy person could point out that those backlinks could yield $33 every month, and that building more and more backlinks could keep multiplying that amount. Ah so, grasshopper. Partly true – but you don’t really have any control over those links, and links disappear all the time. Plus, if you need to reach 25,000 per link, well, that’s a lot of people. A backlink from Bob’s Super Blog Link Page isn’t going to cut it. Getting more and more good links will become exponentially harder.

Ok, so back to our story. We built links, reached an audience of 250,000 people, got 5,000 of those people to actually come to our site, then converted about 10 of them to earn around $350.

What if we skipped all this traffic chasing and busted our butts on improving our conversion rate instead? I mean, we have a lot more control over our conversion rates than we do over how much traffic some other site gets, right? And our content won’t disappear unless we want it to, will it? Oh, and we can theoretically just keep adding content forever, can’t we?

Well, let’s look at our conversion rate and figure out how much we’d need to improve it to see the same earnings increase our 10 backlinks provided (10 backlinks, remember, that are getting 25,000 views each).

This table tells us that if our traffic was steady at 1,000 visitors per month, we’d need to improve our conversion ratio from 0.2% to 0.9% in order to earn the same amount of money all that traffic building gave us.

So you’d need to convert 9 of the 1,000 people who visit your site instead of 2. Because I’m a wizard with the maths, I can tell you that 9 – 2 =7 extra conversions per month.

So, 1.5 extra conversions per week would provide the same earnings benefit as getting your link in front of 250,000 extra people.

That’s crazy.

I mean, I hope you can really appreciate how crazy that is. It seems like a pretty clear indicator of how we should direct our energy.

An Aside: What’s a good conversion rate?

I don’t know. As high as you can make it.

There’s a lot of data out there on conversion rate by industry, but I’ve spent a long time looking at it and none of it is very generally applicable to a broad set of circumstances. There’s just too much variation in how people monetize and how people track their numbers for me to draw broad conclusions from the numbers I’ve seen. If you’re smarter than I am and know a good answer, or would like to tell me your conversion numbers, please do.

Most of the data is also getting a bit long in the tooth and isn’t being replaced with data of similar quality.

Overall, I’m of the opinion that – for your average, good-quality, blog-type website – if you can run general conversion rates of 0.5% to 1.5%, you’re doing well. That range would bring you between 1 and 3 conversions per 200 visitors. But take this range as a goal, not a given – there are some very big sites that only squeak out small conversion rates, despite good optimizing.

Read More: How Shoutmeloud Earns $40,000 a Month with a Conversion Rate of 0.1%

As my last point on conversions, remember that “making a sale” is not the only type of conversion you should care about. Getting visitors to sign up for your email list is a conversion. Getting them to subscribe to your YouTube channel, or Pin something, or Like something – those are all conversions. And yeah, if you’re running ads, sometimes just getting them to show up is also kind of a conversion, it’s just not a very good one.

Ultimately, your mindset should be to try and get every visitor to convert in some measurable way. (By the way, subscribe to our email list. Dooooo it!)

What to Do Now That Traffic Chasing Is Lame

Well, whew. If I’ve managed to sway you away from our natural instinct to chase traffic, what the heck should you do now?

No matter how much total time you’re investing in your project, I’d say 60% should go to creating and refining great content, 30% should go to optimizing your conversion ratios (for all kinds of conversions, right?), and just 10% should go to link building and traffic chasing.

While it’s not quite true that “If you build it, they will come,” there is some truth to that idea. Because, if you spend most of your time building great content and optimizing your site for conversions, here’s what will happen:

  • Your site will rock thanks to it’s awesome, useful content
  • Your site will be well positioned to convert whatever traffic comes your way
  • Your awesome site will build backlinks, search rankings, and traffic naturally -because it’s full of awesome, useful content that people will want to link
  • Your growing traffic will give you more backlinks, more exposure, and more traffic – a positive feedback loop that grows stronger over time

Can you just build things and never do any kind of outreach or traffic building? Probably not. Though I’ll admit that I’m actually pretty interested in trying and might give it a shot one of these days. Still, though you do need some effort at link building and traffic capture, most bloggers overestimate the importance of these things in the grand scheme of creating a successful product.

I know that Moz & Backlinko have both spent a lot time showing pretty graphs demonstrating the relationship between backlinks and search positioning. And it’s totally true – high ranking sites (i.e., sites that generate high amounts of organic traffic) have healthy backlink portfolios.

However, it’s also totally true that one of the huge things that high ranking, high traffic sites have in common is age. Yes, “Authority” sites rank well. They also tend to be authority sites – at least partly – because they’ve been around for a long time and have a lot of content.

If you give your site a reasonable amount of time, then the 10% of time you dedicate to traffic building will pay dividends down the road. It just shouldn’t be the thing that consumes 80% of your time.

Focus instead on building your site and shepherding as many visitors as you can into some type of conversion. That’s the strategy that’ll pay off – leave traffic chasing to the fuzz.

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