Web traffic is the marketplace talking to us at a click level.

This is true both pre and post the social web.

But just about everything else has changed, including the very nature of how SEO works as a traffic driver in a world reconfigured around the social web.

Two guys who really get traffic, Henry Blodget (CEO of Business Insider) and Kevin Krim (Head of Digital, Bloomberg) were on a panel at Media Summit 2011 recently talking about traffic. I sat in and per them, the traffic growth breakdown looks like this for content sites:

  • Direct  =   40-60%
  • SEO    =   30-40%
  • Social  =   20-35%

This looks textbook perfect but to most of us is more aspirational than a reflection of what our own stats look like.

Content rich sites are finding themselves challenged by traffic growth, especially in natural search. At one level, this stems from a crowded and competitive keyword universe. Domains are scarce and most common category keywords wildly competitive and seemingly impossible to show above the fold where it matters.

But more than keyword competition, the seemingly counterintuitive connection between success in natural search and success in driving community and social traffic is at the core of the new search order and at the heart of the traffic challenge.

I advised a client on this recently and it afforded me the opportunity to vet my search assumptions to a handful of highly referred, smart people and agencies in the SEO field.

To be clear, I’m not an expert. I’m the customer of SEO services. I don’t need to understand everything at an atomic level but I need to feel informed to the point that I’m comfortable making the tradeoffs in schedule and budget to get the best traffic results.

Understanding the changes in search in a social world took more work than I imagined…and the comfort with vendors and their approach has not been easy. Every business owner and marketer must be facing the same choices when noodling over how to grow their traffic and their businesses because it is they, not the experts, who need to make these resource and business decisions.

To help myself understand, and with some guidance from smart people I bumped into, I built three thought categories that helped me, even though they broke the mold somewhat of how traditional agencies service their clients.

How to decide what really matters to drive more traffic in SEO?

Brad Prescott, an organic search publisher who thinks at the intersection of social, search and lead gen, shared the following with me as a guideline to rank search activities in order of contribution to traffic.

  • Content  = 40%
  • Backlinks  = 40%
  • Spider friendly code = 20%

I view these as a virtual slider to help make decisions and develop qualifying criteria of what makes sense to do and when.

For example:

-Great content with spider friendly code won’t have a great ranking without strong backlinks.

Translation:  the proof of the quality of content is the quantity of links that get shared. Your market is guiding you on what they like. Code is irrelevant at this juncture.

-Great content with strong backlinks will rank well without spider friendly code.

Translation: If the content is interesting and shared, you can still rank well even without spider friendly code on your site. You can compete in the rankings war even without the pain and cost of massive code changes.

-Great content with strong backlinks will accelerate in rankings greatly if you clean up the code.

Translation: If content is great and humming, you’ve got approx 20% of upside cleaning up the code level. This is tough work, involves engineering and for small companies is a tradeoff between building out the product or fixing the plumbing. Sometimes it’s right. Rarely ever the first step. A great first step when starting from scratch, harder the more the site gets iterated together.

You might think these simple conclusions are obvious. From the conversations I had and quotes I took, they are not.

For example, if you have seemingly topped out in SEO-driven traffic growth but have low social and SEO sources, what is the first activity?

  • Fix the code because while not easy it is a discrete action that is knowable?
  • Reconfigure your thinking and content approach to discover how to turn your customers interest into sharable information bits to drive more unique traffic?

People often choose what they know and avoid having to do what they don’t have a clear scientific path for. This happens all the time. It’s the wrong choice.

I’m a believer in an integrated marketing and search approach. Everything does tie together at its core. But the argument that you need to do code level work at the same time as content and backlinks is misguided logic to my thinking. This is text-book not the priority driven real world. Certainly everything contributes, but you should choose what is most pertinent not what is most familiar nor discrete.

Part of the problem with traditional approaches to SEO at an agency level comes from a seeming mismatch between how search used to be and how it is today.

There is a skill set for understanding how to create spider friendly code. A skill set for thin slicing the world into keyword matrices. A marketing strategy to build partnerships for backlinks. And the hard and critical and unchartered work of creating socially interesting and shareable content.

No one individual can do these all. I question whether all four can exist within an agency that is targeted towards and affordable by a small or mid sized company.

Thinking of the world from a keyword perspective matters…and is learnable.

Keywords, as Joel Greenberg, a marketing pro told me, are one of the spices that SEO offers to the traffic equation. And keyword knowledge is key. It used to be considered SEO DNA. It’s less overtly critical now but still important. Search and marketing and even social activities are more coherent and directed when you have this keyword map of your business ecosystem.

SEO experts think in a matrix of keywords. Translating and slicing your business goals and product strength into market terms that the search world defines for you is a powerful asset.

Mapping words against competition. Mapping words against the reality of garnishing that competitive traffic. And then teaching your writers and content curators, your community managers and tweeters, how to think about and use the terms, matters.

This is a learnable and teachable skill.

This is expertise that you need to find a way to acquire. If agencies won’t work ala Carte, find individuals with credentials to help you plot this out.

Social and search, in today’s world are more alike than different.

This is the big aha that stunned me and shone a light on where natural search is today and how to harness it for your company.

The key for both search and social is that your content needs to be interesting and relevant before it can shared and liked and referred. Very simple. Very powerful. Very difficult for many companies to do.

The good news is that the tools and networks for sharing are everywhere. The challenge is that being interesting and relevant is certainly obtainable but not trivial and is not something that a search expert or most experts can teach you.

As an example–not everyone can tell a joke but everyone likes to laugh. Therein is the situation for producing content. You need to be able to tell a joke or become the curator of the comedians, because that laugh is what is shareable. That laugh is the link that drives unique traffic.

That is why social is hard for companies. You can’t buy it. You can’t hire a proxy. You need to keep peeling back the layers between yourself and your customer till you connect. And build from there.

This is true for search as well. Google has access to all Twitter data and some of Facebook’s as well. And per them, your popularity, gauged by network chatter is part of your natural ranking.

The great post that gets retweeted and shared. The post’s comments that get shared and retweeted create both social referrals and social proof for Google’s engines.

And backlinks, whether they are a referred link on Twitter or part of a syndication out to your network, to Google are just backlinks.

It’s harder to tell how search and social are different than to list how they are alike.

This is a changed…and much more interesting world where the categorical relevance of SEO intersects with the personal communications of social.

Wrapping up

As business owners and marketers what we do, all day every day is figure out the connection between our products and the marketplace. How to grow and create value is our job description.

Over the last few posts, I’ve dug into how the social web has moved the customer into the center of the commercial bulls eye. How marketers are the connectors of customer and market value. And how human behavior broadened and found areas of expression on social nets that simply wasn’t able to be seen prior.

Honestly, I usually think of search and social as distinct, even competitive approaches to providing relevance to the customer. The Facebook <-> Google standoff.

I’m sure that exists to some degree; not so in the SEO and the social worlds.

Search informs the efficiency, especially through keywords, of social spread. And social proof  has changed its value scale and transformed the core of how search engines rank value, and create rankings. That’s what drives traffic and what determines, to a large part, your business success.

How powerful is this? How radical a change is this?

When the answer to how to increase your search rankings on Google is to write interesting content that engages your customer’s values and interest and incites sharing…everything is different.

Search and social start to dance to the same drumbeat and the customer’s satisfaction is the drummer.

And just like you need marketers and product coders to really build a winning product that organically can find its early market, you need a partnership between SEO scientists and great communicators to really crack the SEO and social code conundrum

This is a better world. More challenging in some respects, more approachable by all.