Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Myth Of Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

A funny thing happened to me this month. Not funny ha-ha, but funny WTF?!

As you probably already know, the launch of Publetariat, a new online news hub and community for indie authors and small imprints I've founded, was announced on 2/11 at the O'Reilly Tools of Change (#TOC) conference. Okay, I say "announced", but this wasn't any kind of onstage, glitzy, fire-the-confetti-cannons-and-t-shirt-bazookas announcement. It was more like the site URL appearing under my name on a conference session slide, and me talking up the site and handing out cards with the site URL to everyone I met. I also announced the launch on Twitter that day.

I'd poured considerable effort into making Publetariat as appealing as possible to indie authors and small imprints, recruiting subject-area experts to write articles for the site, and spreading the word on writer sites and discussion boards where indies seemed to congregate. However, I hadn't poured any effort whatsoever into Search Engine Optimization (SEO)---gasp! SEO is the process of optimizing your website's text, titles, tags and metadata to make your site pages appear with a higher frequency and rank in search results.

Any internet marketing wonk will tell you SEO is important to any website's success, and absolutely critical at launch. In fact, given that I'm a virtual nobody with no access to mainstream publicity and had a marketing budget in the tens of dollars, I'm sure any internet marketing wonk worth his salt would've said SEO was practically the only means at my disposal to drive significant traffic to my site. But he'd be wrong.

One week later, on 2/17/09, out of idle curiosity I ran Publetariat's URL through The report showed Publetariat had achieved a 3-month average Alexa traffic rank in the top 6.92% of all websites—but Publetariat had only had its beta launch the first week of February and its public Go-Live on 2/11. When I scaled the average down to a one-month average instead of three, I found Publetariat's Alexa rank was actually in the top 2% of all websites for the month. I knew the site had been doing well in its first week, but this didn’t seem possible.

I checked traffic stats on the site’s web server and found that on 2/17 alone, the overall site had indeed received 9,046 hits, and the site’s RSS feed had received over 1,200 hits. I'm just not accustomed to traffic success on that scale and still wasn't buying it, so to verify the results further, I went to the Alexa site and punched Publetariat into their traffic ranking search box myself. What I got was an unequivocal confirmation of what websitegrader had told me. Hence, ha-ha WTF?!

I knew the site's community-friendly design and features, my grassroots promotional campaign and my staged rollout strategy (pre-launch, beta launch, go-live) would pay off, but I had no idea how well until I was looking at those first week traffic stats with my own eyes. SEO, Smesh-E-O, I thought. As it turns out, the search engine traffic you're hoping to get with SEO can be matched and even exceeded by reaching out directly to your intended audience. The direct approach gives a site its best shot at going viral, because it taps into the social network of users on a more personal level than a set of search engine results can.

(Granted, my strategy is probably best suited to a brand new site launch. Once a site has been out there for a while, search engine hits may well be the best way to drive new traffic because it's too late to employ teasers and whisper campaigns to build anticipation for the site.)

It hadn't escaped my notice that while the buzzword of the #TOC conference had been 'community building', attendees had come away with very little in the way of concrete advice and steps to follow in launching their own community-building initiatives. Since I'd just accomplished the very thing they would all be shortly setting out to do, I decided to write a book about it.

From Concept To Community: How I Built An Online Community And Took It Viral In 25 Days With Little Money And No SEO is a small book, just 80pp, but that's enough to explain exactly what I did and how I did it. It will be out in various electronic formats on Smashwords and in Amazon's Kindle store by the end of this week, and will be released in trade paperback early next month.

I've set its retail price at $29.99, higher than any book I've published previously, but there's a method to my madness there. First of all, this is a book aimed at businesses that can write off the expense---all those publishers that were in attendance at #TOC, for example. Secondly, compared to all the classes, consultants, SEO services and other books they were going to pay for in their quest to build successful online communities, $30 is a pittance. Thirdly, Amazon typically discounts any Kindle title that's priced over $9.99---and even though my book isn't actually available in the Kindle store yet, I see they've already discounted its selling price by 45%, down to $16.49. Fourthly (is that even a word?), this book may be my best shot at actually earning enough money with my writing to match an actual, respectable salary. Finally, I can honestly say the book is worth $30, if not more, given all the great information and concrete advice it contains. Time will tell if would-be community-builders agree with me on that point.


Alan said...

My novel, RealmShift, was released at US$3.99 on Kindle and Amazon reduced it to $3.19, so it appears they reduce pretty much anything regardless of price!

Great idea on the book - best of luck with it.

April L. Hamilton said...

Thx, Alan!

Great thing about the Kindle store is that your royalty on each sale is based on the price you set, regardless of the price at which it eventually sells. So you're still getting your percentage based on a price of $3.99, and I'll still be getting mine based on a percentage of $29.99!

Anonymous said...

Good content.

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April L. Hamilton said...

Jay -
To this very day, the only SEO employed on the Publetariat site is tagging with keywords on articles. I don't alter the content of the articles themselves to optimize SEO, or take any other special, SEO-based steps. Yet Publetariat has remained in the top 2% of all websites worldwide since its launch, and its audience continues to grow.

Too often, sites put so much focus on SEO that it ruins the content. I'm not going to keep coming back to sites that place SEO over content and connection with the audience, because the priority on such sites (SEO, *not* providing me with the content I would value) is clear.

SEO can help to drive traffic, yes. But in my experience, once a site admin becomes focused on SEO he/she loses sight of everything else that's important to draw and keep an audience.