Forget search engines – they are wasting your time

Search engines – where would we be without them? How would you find anything? Goodness me – how on earth would we cope with business these days if we had to go back to using a library…? It is difficult nowadays to imagine a world without search engines. Most of us spend about an hour of our time each day using a search engine like Google.

For us as websites users, they are fantastic. And for website owners, trying to get traffic and people to know about us, search engines are vital in attracting visitors. Everyone wants to be “number one on Google” for example. The power of search engines in gaining business is demonstrated by the global multi-billion pound “Search Engine Optimization” industry which has gathered pace in recent years. Even though Google’s own data on billions of website visits shows that on average only 27% of people end up on a web page as a result of search engines, most website owners still focus on SEO as their central online tactic.

Now there is new research which shows it really is not the good idea that we might think it is.

The well-respected Pew Research Center has found that for media sites the engagement that people have with a website is much, much lower for search engine derived visitors than for people who come direct. It also showed that visitors arriving from social media such as Facebook were also among the least engaged.

Infographic: Direct Visitors Are the Gold Standard for News Websites | Statista

You will find more statistics at Statista

On this website, my analytics show that the bounce rate is highest for search engine traffic and the amount of time spent on the website is highest for direct traffic who also read more pages per visit. Looking at several clients’ analytics, I see the same pattern.

Search engine traffic does not engage.

And what do you want – do you want mere traffic, to boost your ego, or do you want engagement to boost your bank balance?

Gaining search engine traffic may be a good thing, of course. It can produce visibility, it can remind people you exist, it can be valuable in getting recognition. But if it is not leading to the engagement levels you need, then you really ought to think again.

The data are clear – search engine visitors are curious, where direct traffic is really interested. And that’s what you need.

So how do you get interested, direct traffic? You focus your main efforts on offline branding, getting your products, brand name or company recognised in the “real world” so well that people type your website name in to the address bar in their browser or “bookmark” you because they love you.

The Pew Research Center study shows that people visit a news website because they already know about it from the real world. If you are a subscriber to The Times, for instance, did you subscribe as a result of a search engine visit or as a result of real world engagement with the newspaper? Do you visit the BBC website because you searched for a news item, or because you know and respect the BBC brand?

We tend to visit our favourite media sites because of pre-existing real world engagement. And it is the same with business. When people engage with a brand in the real world they become more likely to engage with the company online.

So, if you put all your eggs in the search engine basket you may well be attracting more visits than your competitors who do not do such good SEO. But at what cost? You might be getting lots of disengaged visitors. You can produce great statistics which massage your ego and show that you are indeed Number One on Google. But being “number one” doesn’t always pay the bills. What matters is that you engage people. And this research confirms plenty of analytics reports that engagement mostly comes from direct visits. And that means offline branding should be our priority, with SEO being lower down the list.

NOTE: I am not saying that you should not do SEO – I am just asking you to question the level of priority you place on it.

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