The Online Marketing Sanity Test: Is Your Website A Waste of Money?

‘Cause only one thing counts in this world: get them to sign on the line which is dotted.

– Glengarry Glen Ross

Here’s one simple question that will identify about 85% of the completely worthless website and content development efforts out there:

Does Google show your site to people who don’t already know your name?

You can assess this in about 30 seconds. Pull a free keyword traffic report at Semrush for the domain. This free tool spits out a list of all of the major keywords they are currently ranked for – along with some statistics (monthly volume, Google AdWords cost-per-click).

Count the number of results in the top 10 searches (which should represent most of your inbound organic SEO traffic) which meet the following criteria:

  • On the first page (top 10 results)
  • Does not mention your brand / founders
  • Are relevant to your business

In other words, how many of them are likely to help grow your brand or your traffic?

Most experienced SEO people are probably laughing at me right now. They’ve probably got hundreds keywords ranked for their money sites. This isn’t a challenge for them…

However, I’m constantly amazed by the large number of corporate and start-up marketing people who fail this simple little quiz. Most small business “brochure sites” get crushed.

I’m not really worried about the actual traffic for a site at this point. Semrush is a great tool but doesn’t have visibility into many great traffic sources like social media, links, affiliates, email, long tail searches, repeat visits, etc. This blog gets more traffic than the Semrush estimates: our organic search traffic is easily an order of magnitude greater due to long tail searches and repeat visits; organic search only represents about 5% of our total traffic. However, if you look at the sites which generate a lot of traffic via social media, links, or other means – they usually still get traffic from Google too. Since Google watches links and social signals!

What I want to see is evidence that you dented Google’s universe.

So What Does Good Look Like?

This article is about more than building e-commerce and business sites. The same principles apply to your personal blogs, side projects, and any non-profit adventures. Websites are made to be looked at. For fame and karma if nothing else 🙂

So what should the traffic pattern for a well promoted website look like?

Let’s start by examining a couple of corporate sites:

  • First up is! In addition to a huge base of branded traffic from their loyal fans, they pretty much own anything related to shoes. They ranked #1 in boots and had the #2 position for many major brands (Vera Bradley, Vans, Steve Madden, and Ugg). Very impressive – they’re getting in front of a ton of relevant customers.
  • Moving back to my own space, enterprise analytics, I took at look at the corporate site for Revolution Analytics, who makes a commercial version of the R statistics package. They are solidly ranked for a number of keywords related to the R language, including integration points with related technologies. They also rank at the top of the the second page for analytics, right next to SAS. The latter is actually a pretty big win: BI is a brutal niche ($30 CPC) and Google decided to award all of the real estate on the first search results page to website analytics (Google Analytics).

Blogs are a bit different – since many bloggers focus on building social capital vs. directly monetizing their traffic. Here are a couple of blogs which do a good job of helping their owners:

  • For our first blog, I’m looking at Kalzumeus Software, the home of SEO expert and founder, Patrick McKenzie. Semrush indicates the site is ranked for about 250 keywords – including ranking one of his case studies in the top slot for SAAS pricing and SAAS pricing model. While this isn’t a huge search, it is perfectly positioned to help him generate consulting leads in this high value niche.
  • One of my favorite technical blogs is Doug Hellmann’s Python module of the week series. Several years ago, he started a weekly series that walked through how to use a different Python module. These articles are a big help to the community and ultimately became a book. They also generate a ton of long tail traffic about Python.

For the other side of the coin, lets take a look at some less productive sites. I’m going to withhold names to protect the owners and reduce my health insurance premiums…

  • Site A – rather nice upscale coffee shop in a suburb of a big city. Great coworking space, also a nice place for book clubs, bible studies, and other small meetups. Very pretty site design; ranks on the second page for two very small searches.
  • Site B – small coaching business. The owner is very knowledgable and speaks regularly. Nicely designed site, only ranks for consultant’s name.

So You Think You Can Rank…

The successful sites I just profiled were not built in a day. They didn’t cost $200 to build at some discount web design shop. Their authors developed rich libraries of content which took months to write; the skills required to generate this content took years to acquire.

I’m not saying you can’t do likewise. You can! But honor this undertaking with the level of investment and commitment required to be successful. That $200 site isn’t going to do much for you…

If you want to rank for something useful, you’re going to need content. Original content, preferably stuff which solves a legitimate problem which is relevant to your audience.  Content which real humans will read, like, link to, and legitimately share on social media.

Judging from my work on this and other sites, I’d estimate it takes a minimum of 40 hours of work to generate and promote a set of knowledgeable content for a low competition topic. Significantly more time is needed if you’re trying for a highly competitive/ technical topic. If we assume a reasonable bill rate, this project needs a several thousand dollar budget.

Can you cut corners with cheap labor? Sure. Will the resulting content do as well in social media and earn links from authority sites? Probably not. The web is a winner-take-most game – remember you’re trying to beat every other page on your target keyword. Perfect content generates 10x more traffic and links on social media than merely “decent” content.

The best way to cut corners is to learn to write or learn to code (or manage your CMS). My incremental cash cost to build a new site is $20. Everything else is labor. And there are other economies of scale in this business once you get going.

Is it worth it? Absolutely.

For those of you with an offline business or professional services practice, how much would another 10 to 50 qualified prospects per month be worth to you?

For those of you in regular jobs, you can raise your profile in your professional community by blogging on relevant topics. How much is getting 3 – 4 good job leads a year worth?

Join us. Learn.

Just stop thinking that building a useful web presence is a $200 quick-hit.


  1. I’ve just recently started my site ( 2-3 months ago) and post a well-written (IMHO) blog post weekly, with pretty decent reception. What are some things I should be doing to improve my rankings? I’ve done a lot of research, and I realize the age of the site plays a large role, am I just not posting new content often enough? Or should I just be patient and keep doing what I’m doing?

    1. Appreciate the comment – I took a quick look at your site. You’re posting about a fairly broad set of topics (fundamental business skills) where there is a huge body of existing material with lots of backlinks and social validation. I’d pick a single narrow topic where there isn’t a ton of existing material, identify keywords for that topic with even less material, and hammer that topic with your next 4 or 5 articles. Cross-link the articles on your site using the target keywords as your anchor text (make sure this looks natural and relevant to the linking article).

      For example, in the two topics that we rank for, we have at least half-a-dozen relevant pages on that topic and link to that content on another 10+ pages.

      Suggest you laser focus your next batch of content around on a single industry or process area… Google Adwords Keyword tool can be very helpful…

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