WhiteBeardedMan.pngMy sixteen-year-old son posed a riddle for me the other day: "How does a white beard work?" When I gave up, he revealed the answer: "A hobo." (Should I have mentioned that my son has Down Syndrome?) Anyway, if that riddle made sense to you, then you probably love to analyze the inscrutable world of search metrics. I got a search metrics question from someone this week that brought to mind my son's riddle. I was asked what the right percentage of visitors to your site should be from search engines. A simple question, really, but just what is the simple answer?

No, it's not "a hobo." (Nice try.)

When people ask me what percentage of your site's visitors should come from search engines, it reminds me of how we started search marketing on IBM's Web site. At the time we started, the average Web site received 7% of its traffic from search, and IBM was getting less than 1%. So, I wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, but knew that we should be doing better. I didn't know whether a site as well-known as IBM's would reach the average of 7%, because I reasoned that we had lots of returning customers that bookmarked the site or knew to type "IBM.com" so they might search for IBM less frequently than for lesser-known companies that would get 70% of their traffic through search.

But I was faced with the question, "How much of our site's traffic should come from search?" Now, my answer to this kind of question is usually, "More than we had yesterday." But I didn't think the boss would approve the project unless I put some stake in the ground, so I said "3%."

I didn't have any reason to think there was any right number. I knew that 1% was embarrassing, but didn't know what was right. And, honestly, who cares what percentage of people come from anywhere? What you really want is for more people to come—more people who are qualified to buy your product, that is.

Focusing on the percentage of visitors that come from search seems to me to be the wrong metric. Now today IBM gets 25% of its visitors from search, so that certainly sounds a lot better, but it's only because that has produced a huge increase in real traffic and sales that I know it's really good.

Focusing on percentages is always tricky. Take conversion rate, for example. Raising your conversion rate is only important if you are raising your conversions. If one person comes to the site and buys from you, you have a 100% conversion rate, but you don't have a very large business. I've seen conversion rates go up because traffic from new customers tanks, so it's only the loyal repeat customers coming to the site. That's bad.

So, there's no secret percentage of visitors coming from search that tells you that your search marketing is doing fine. For some sites, repeat customers are unusual and they are unknown, so they need 70% of their traffic to come from search. For others, a far lower percentage is just fine.

But you'd be better off counting the total number of visitors coming from search (adjusted for seasonality) and trying to make that number go up. Or better yet, counting the number of sales that result from searches. That's the real number you want to increase. If you do, you're less likely to end up a hobo, although you're welcome to grow the white beard, I guess, but I don't really know how that white beard works...

June 6, 2008

Mike is an expert in search marketing, search technology, social media, publishing, text analytics, and web metrics, who regularly makes speaking appearances.

Mike's previous appearances include Text Analytics World, Rutgers Business School, SEMRush webinar, ClickZ Live.

Mike also founded and writes for Biznology, is the co-author of Outside-In Marketing (with James Mathewson) and the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (now in its 3rd edition, and sole author of Do It Wrong Quickly, named by the Miami Herald as one of the 11 best business books of 2007.


The more people come from search engines the lesser advertising costs the company has made.
If then the number of visitors is sufficient, then every dollar less is a dollar gained.

There are several type of sources for your visitors:
- Search engines: natural way: a lot of work as content is required.
- References from website: like directories: you have inserted the link:free or paying or reciprocal many directories thus also a significant amount of work
- Blogs: somehow you convinced a blogger to write about the company or product. How to "sell" your product or service to a blogger
- Forum: you have obtained an advocate who does the marketing for your product o company for free! .
- Advertising: you just pay for the link - simple and easy but costs money

Well it depends on what you're doing. If you want to be "read" then who cares where they come from. But if you want to make money I think search engines are better because those people are trying to get something done/to buy/answered. Basically, resolution.

If you've got a link visible on a forum or in somebody's blog comments you're kind of creating curiosity. "Hey, what's this guy about?" So if you're very astute at that type of leading you can create a need and then fill it. Congratulations you've become an under arm deodorant or frizzy hair shampoo. Possible to do, but a bigger hurdler to overcome than somebody typing into google "fix my stinky feet" and your site comes up number 1 for "Let me tell you how to get rid of stinky feet."

You're both making good points. It's not what percentage of the traffic you are getting from search, it's what is the total amount and what do you do with it. Yes, traffic good, loneliness bad, but also traffic that buys good, traffic that does not buy, bad. Regardless, the percentage of people that comes from search engines is neither good nor bad--what you care about is how much money you are making and how you can make more.

The only thing I'd watch for, Mike, is if the percentage of traffic from search engines - or any one source for that matter - skews too high. For instance, a site I know receives almost 70% of its traffic from search, and almost 80% of that from paid. That's called having too many eggs in one basket. Should customers' media habits change dramatically (say, to natural search or social recommendations, for instance), the site in question risks losing a large source of its traffic. So, the key isn't only whether your site gets sufficient growth from all channels (natural search, paid search, email, typed/bookmarked and referred). It's also whether you have a sustainable balance among those.

That makes sense, Tim. And you can make the argument that the percentage tells you to diversify. So maybe that is a good use for this metric.

Interesting issue that I have wrestled with when I look at my blog statistics. I like to see the regular people coming from the email links and the RSS feeds but then I worry when the Google searches fade away.

I suppose the metrics have to be overall traffic, signs ups for new visitors wanting to subscribe, the extent to which everyone wants to engage in the conversation ...Just like the way I feel about this site.

I only find it today but i have taken the RSS feed and I'm going through reading the articles and commenting when I feel I have something to say.

Great job

Getting to much traffic from search is risk. You never want your traffic to "top heavy". As most know relying on search traffic only is dangerous no matter what your conversion rate is. You should always be looking to lower the % in search traffic in case Google decides to shift your placements one day.

Paul said something that resonates with me. I too am not really happy to see all my traffic come from one place. In fact I almost get angry when I see a bunch of traffic come from one source, especially if it's just to one post and they don't explore the rest of the blog.

On the other hand, Jaan, could you please explain these search engine traffic "risks?"
Will my blog explode?
Will my Adsense money stop trickling in?
Will I have to start spelling my name Daave instead of Dave?
Who are these "most" that know about top heavy search engine traffic being "dangerous?" In what sense is it dangerous?

I'm just poking fun-but I THINK what you're saying is that a website should not rely on 100 percent of it's traffic coming from exactly 1 place-Google. But I would argue that "most" people know that is impossible to do anyway. Traffic comes from all over, and if you've got a few bucks you can even determine the exact source if you want via PPC.

So I'm just kidding around-a little-I would like to know who has told you these things and why you believe them.

Dave I dont think it is "impossible" at all to focus your marketing efforts (for traffic) at other niche websites/forums/blogs that can provide you with just as much traffic as Google

I think something got lost in translation.

People often wonder what percentage of visitors to a site should come from search engines. To answer the question, it’s necessary to take a closer look at buying online traffic in the first place. The primary consideration is search engine marketing. Search engine marketing or SEM, as it is often referred to, has been an advertising option for several years now. Going way back to when the process began, one search engine marketing guru reminisced about promoting the IBM web site.
Social Media Marketing

Nearly 90% of traffic to most web sites is found by using a search engine or directory.

* Anyone finding your web site through a search engine or directory is a potential customer because they have decided before finding your web site that they need what you are selling and are looking for you specifically.

* Studies have shown that search engines and directories provide better results than other forms of online advertising.

* Search engines are the primary interface between people using the Web and websites. So if you’re not found in the top 30 rankings when someone conducts a query for a keyword that discusses your product or service that ought to bring your site up, you’re really invisible on the Web.

Funny I should read this article now because I just read one that said you should try to lower your search percentage!


Different circumstances, but still interesting

My site www.taxguru.in was getting up to 60% traffic from search engines which currently reduced to 25%. Can you guys let me know why this occured. I also like to mention although search engine share reduced but my visitors shown a growth of 40% on month on month basis.

From the sound of it, your volume of search traffic has dropped somewhat, but the bigger story is that your traffic from other sources seems to be growing rapidly. If you're getting more visitors, you're doing something right, as long as your sales keep increasing. Some would tell you that your business is healthier now that you have a more diverse source of traffic and are not so reliant on the search engines.

I get about 1% percent of my traffic from search engines. I guess I have a long way to go!

Interesting article, I have a long way to go only about 12% of my visitors come in through search at this point in time.

My website gets less than 10% of it's traffic from search engines. I get more traffic from promoting the website and signing up to different forums. SEO is a whole new world to me and it's been something new to learn for a while. It doesn't seem to help very much since my website is newer, but hopefully in the long run it will change.

Nice article

I have about 9% from search engines, and 97% from it are Google users.

9% seems low to me, Edvard. And 97% from Google seems high, unless you are in a Nordic country where there is no competition.

I'm from Armenia and my domain is in .AM zone. My site's main traffic come from referring sites about 82%. My website's Alexa rank is about 47Ks.

Don't know how can I make other search engine to play nice with my website... I'm sure that Google doesn't have 97% of the search engine market. What the number should be to be normal?

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