Questions, SEO and other people

More evidence is piling up to show us that search engines are not as valuable as we think they are. Research published by Artesian Solutions suggests that British businesses have been fooled by search engines. It transpires that compared with automated intelligence systems, searching for information using search engines takes – wait for it – 11 hours longer per week for a typical sales executive. Multiply that by the number of sales execs in the UK and how much they cost and you get the result that £4bn a year is wasted on search. To put that in perspective that’s almost 50% more than it costs the NHS to deal with alcohol-related problems each year. In other words, it’s big…!

Not only that, the study also shows that 36% of all searches are unable to find what the user wants. In other words, more wasted time in the office. Indeed, several people have shown that in the average office, the typical worker now spends one hour a day using search engines without producing anything useful from them. Search engines are eating up billions of potentially productive hours and when the history books are written we’ll probably find that search engines were one of the reasons why this recession was deep and difficult; instead of getting “out there” and cracking-on to raise cash, millions of people are stuck in front of computers in the vain hope that a search engine will throw up something valuable to them.

Of course, I’m being typically harsh on search engines here. But they are not all bad. After all, look at what happened to my web site in the space of 24 hours.

Last Friday was the official 20th birthday of the invention of the web; that’s because Sir Tim Berners-Lee said it was – and he should know, it was his idea. So I wrote about the birthday – and spent much of the day before recording radio interviews about it as well. But before I wrote the headline to my blog I wanted to try something – writing it as a question. Recent research suggests people are typing in questions in to the search box these days, rather than keywords and phrases. So, I wanted to make sure I’d use the right question.

I went to Wordtracker where I found that the question “When did the world wide web start” was indeed typed in; according to Wordtracker by as many as 65 people every 24 hours into Google. So, I chose that as my headline; there were only a couple of hundred of pages of competition, so the chances of a high Google listing were possible.


I wrote the article and published it. This automatically leads to the RSS feed of the article appearing as a headline on Twitter, as well as on Ecademy, Facebook, Microsoft Live, FriendFeed – and a host of other places. Twelve hours later I thought I’d better check things out.

My SEO skills obviously worked, as the article appeared 7 times on the first page of results on Google for “when did the world wide web start”. The article also appeared a further four times on the second page and two times on the third page of the Google results. Whoopee – 13 out of the top 30 results were me..!

So, over to the analytics to see what happened. With a potential 65 searches a day – and with my page having so many Google listings very early on in the result you could expect, within the first 12 hours, around 10 -15 searches leading to my site. My page firstly appeared third in the results list – and the first two spots get the lion’s share of those 65 searches. But did my predicted searches arrive on my site?

No. Plain and simple. One person (not 15, and nowhere near 65) got to my site using that search question. According to my analytics, in the first 12 hours of that article being published there were 222 unique visitors to that specific page. Hundreds of others would have read it directly on the blog page, no doubt. But out of the 222 only 24 had visited the page as their first entrance to my site. The other 200 or so had been on another page on my site and then switched across to that article.

Worse is to come. Of the 24 people who landed on that page only 3 had come via a search engine – and only one of them had used the specific phrase for which the article had performed so well in search.

So where had the other 21 people come from who landed directly on that page? Twitter, blogs by other people, Stumble Upon and Ecademy were the main referrers.

What does it tell us? Well, it suggests that Wordtracker’s notion that around 65 people a day might want to find out when the web began is in the right ballpark. It also confirms what we have known for ages, that you really need to be in the top 2 search results on Google to really notice any substantial traffic at all.

And I admit, it does show that if you match your keywords to what people are really searching for you can get very good SEO results on Google within a matter of hours. But don’t rejoice too loudly just yet you SEO fans.

These results also provide an example of how much MORE important blogs, Twitter, social networking and social bookmarking were in generating traffic. It takes time, effort, planning and often extra money to ensure that every page you produce performs well in search engines. But increasing numbers of people are coming to your pages in other ways.

This is not about how poor search engines are; instead it’s about how poor we are at really analysing our return on investment. For many businesses there is considerable cash spent on search engine marketing and many can show a return and an improvement on their business compared with their days pre-SEO. But the financial and time investment you make on social networking is often a lot less and can bring in just as many – if not more – visitors.

I know that one page, in one 12-hour test, on a relatively rare search term does not prove anything. I merely offer it as an example to show that even though you can get good search results with SEO it might not always be worth it; your time and money may have been better spent boosting your click-throughs from social networking sites. In other words, this can frequently lead to a greater return on investment. Ideally, if you had enough resource, you’d do both – SEO and Social Network Optimisation.

But when we come back to those history books looking at the role of search engines in a recession, we may well find that businesses did see sense by switching their limited resources to social networking sites. The historians may well tell us in the future that this was the time we all realised that search engines were a luxury, not a necessity.

Search engines can help and do help many, many businesses; but don’t be blinded by them. After all, like so many sales executives identified by the Artesian Solutions study, you could be wasting hours and hours each week using them. And you could be wasting hours and hours each week trying to boost your page rankings in the results – all to no avail because vast numbers of your readers get to you via other routes.

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