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A breakdown of organic search traffic costs

Why it costs $300 per click from Google search

Google recently ruined our startup launch with a 'false positive' phishing warning that coincided perfectly with our launch announcement to 4500 existing customers.

The article I wrote about that hugely damaging mistake attracted the attention of John Mueller, who responded sympathetically and said he would 'let the team know' about the problem.

Good to his word, I noted a few hits from Mountain view, California on the affected site and at the article, and a few hours later the erroneous phishing message was removed.

Of course, the damage was already done, and many previously happy customers asked to be removed from our list after being shown a notice that, in essence, informed them (with all the gravitas of a red Google warning) that my small business launch was a criminal enterprise designed to steal their credit card information.

While I appreciate John's individual effort, obviously it doesn't undo the damage - they may as well leave the notice up there since no-one is going to touch the new service with a barge pole.

But this got me thinking about Google, this blog, and the Internet in general, so I thought I would share what I think are some quite poignant things I've learned over the years.

My credentials

Here are my credentials as someone who runs a blog aimed at helping people become entrepreneurs and small business owners by starting and operating a business - with a focus on the Internet and online technology.

  • I have a cum laude science degree with a double major in Mathematics and Applied Mathematics.
  • At the same time I was obtaining my degree, I also wrote a Web development book that, arguably, became de facto book on Drupal 6. It was translated into something like 10 different languages sold around the world, and used a recommended reading at a few places like MIT.
  • I wrote, advised, edited and contributed to more than 30 technology books ranging from PHP and Linux programing, to Web development with Drupal, to online business and marketing - over the course of about 12 years.
  • I am currently involved in 3 technology startups - one of which is sustainable and has been generating profits for about a year now. Another has just signed its first client (a FTSE 100 company), and yet another is being integrated into a satellite tracking firm's system to provide services to 60 000 clients around the world.

Through all this, I have also maintained this blog (in various different forms over the years) partly because I am so used to writing about stuff, and partly because there is so much wasted opportunity out there that I thought I would try help others starting out.

Make no mistake though, I expect to make a return out of this blog. I am offering value in the form of information, support and advice, and want a return in ad revenue and affiliate commissions. But this is the fundamental nature of business, right?

Current status quo

Ok, so I'm happy to concede that my experience and skills don't necessarily make me a great writer with anything useful to share with other entrepreneurs.

This must be the case, because, after years of writing articles, posting answers to questions, and researching and writing reviews of business technology, this blog (with over 500 hand crafted pages) attracts about 40 - 80 visits a day in Google organic traffic.

Of course, it used to attract much more than that. Overnight, coinciding with Google's Hummingbird release (which was not even an algorithm update per se) it lost 90% of its traffic.

The decline in search visibility, seems to coincide with an earlier Panda update - although, as mentioned, the drop in traffic only became noticeable during Hummingbird:

Graph showing website algorithmic penalties

When querying this on Google's free support forums I was criticized with a surprising amount of vitriol by a number of their top contributors (I think it is because I have the audacity to offer some SEO advice on this blog - offensive stuff, like research your articles, write for humans, don't go against the rules, etc).

In fact one of the main trolls, called lysis, even told me, one on occasion, to go 'learn the Internets' - complete with plural to indicate how stupid and ignorant I am.

Wow, they offer a free help forum, but let me tell you, they make you pay for it.

To be honest, it's mind blowing that this is the best a multi-billion dollar company can do to support the Webmasters who generate the content Google uses to generate its own profits.

Anyhoo, the problem must lie with me. From Google's perspective, I am obviously out of my league and need to spend more time learning the Internets.

Fair enough.

Algo penalty?

So, I actually managed to press JohnMu for a hint, anything, about why a 500 page blog attracts less organic traffic than one of the my other business sites, with no content and only 16 pages (thank goodness, that business model doesn't rely on Google).

Here's a copy of the conversion:

David Mercer
Thanks Google for ruining our startup launch! … #startup #smb #sme @googler @johnmu

John Mueller
@smepals @googler I'll check with the team, sorry to hear about that!

David Mercer
@JohnMu Thx. Any help appreciated. Poss problem with the server - has been penalized since hummingbird. Any idea why?

John Mueller
@smepals It's essentially just ranking where it normally would. Fluctuations & changes can happen, certainly no penalty involved.

David Mercer
@JohnMu Thx John. At least I can stop going crazy over why it lost 99% Google traffic overnight. Phishing warning gone from other site - ta.

David Mercer
@JohnMu Sorry - meant 90%. Would have saved me a year of work to know there was no penalty involved in the huge drop. Something to consider?

So there's no penalty involved. The site took a 90% plunge into oblivion overnight after experiencing normal fluctuations. The quality of my writing didn't change, so Google must be prone to some pretty big mood swings.

At any rate, there's no penalty and this blog is ranking normally. So let's look at the cost to benefit of this situation quickly.

Cost vs. return

There's no way I can give this a professional audit, so we'll use some pretty loose figures to get a rough feel for what's going on.

Let's say, a degree in a fairly technical field, and 15 years of decent experience (I mean, I have developed a hybrid ACO, genetic algorithm solution using aspects of simulated annealing and proprietary IP to produce what, in benchmarks, is one of the best systems that tackle real world vehicle routing problems (which are notoriously difficult, being part of a class of problems known as NP-hard (Non deterministic polynomial-time hard)).

I also work at the partner or owner level in all my business interests, so I have some experience there.

At a guess, let's say I could command a $60 000 per year salary if I went into the corporate world, and I've worked part-time on this blog for 4 years - let's say $30 000 per year.

There have been other expenses, but let's say that the cost to get here is:

4 x $30 000 = $120 000

So, an investment of $120 000 into online content naturally earns around 40 low quality, low relevance visits from Google organic search each day.

How do I know Google is sending me bad traffic, and not that my content is bad? Well, before the precipitous drop, my bounce rate on this blog stood around 50%. The traffic Google sends now bounces at around 80 - 90% - my content hasn't changed, so the traffic Google sends must have.

Bounce rate is determined both by the quality of your content and the relevance of Google's search results.

The revenue from Google traffic is negligible and can be considered to be 0.

So, assuming someone of my experience in writing, business, startups and technology, and a $120 000 worth of original content, you can expect around 40 visits a day of low quality traffic from Google - with $0 returns.

At $120 000 investment, we can calculate the cost to click ratio on a daily basis as:

$120 000 / 40 = $300

It costs a degreed person with 15 years experience an investment of $300 per click per day with a return of $0 from Google.

Thank goodness I don't rely on this blog for a living - but, assuming a level playing field, some of those high traffic sites must have invested trillions upon trillions to generate their organic clicks.

Really, $300 per click?

You got me. Taking the entire cost of the enterprise and deriving the CPC (Cost Per Click) over an arbitrary period (like a day) is not 100% correct. But, this is intended to demonstrate a concept, not be a watertight mathematical proof.

Of course Google's answer to this must be that I am doing something wrong. The fault must lie with me. I'm not popular. I don't spend hours and hours a day building up a presence on social media. I don't advertise. I don't market. I don't... you name it.

Yes, absolutely. I don't invest huge amounts of resources into generating bright, clear signals to Google that I am popular and worth ranking highly.

Instead, sites that syndicate content, scrape it, use low quality guest posts, etc, are the ones with the resources to do this.

I am busy. I love writing, so I share my experience, knowledge and skills such as they are. I really don't have time to become a media company just to give Google a clue about my intrinsic value.

I contest that it is Google's job to find quality and give the world access. But, that's just me.

In reality, Google can't make any judgement on the intrinsic quality of content - it uses popularity signals as a proxy for quality. So what Google actually does, on aggregate, is find the best networkers, promoters and marketers.

So what?

I wrote an article that used a gardening analogy to explain how Google and the Internet ecosystem work together.

In it I explained how Google uses organic traffic like a watering can, to nurture little sprouts (small business websites). I also acknowledged that it has a helluva time determining which are the right sprouts to water, and which are weeds. There are a lot of weeds taking hold all the time.

Yes, Google has a difficult job. They have also made an unparalleled contribution to the development of the WWW. They did it all without 'being evil'.

But, I think that perhaps, naively, many of us assumed that Google was nurturing the garden for the garden's sake - like some altruistic, benevolent grounds-keeper. When in fact it is harvest time for their investors.

So I wrote this article not to complain about my situation - I won't lie, it irks me that Google feels my offering is valueless, but I don't rely on this blog in any way. For me this is a debate about principle, equality, and the future of the Internet.

It is concerning when we have an entity with so much control over a business environment, and a direct financial incentive to generate profits from that environment.

Yes, they were innovative and better than everyone else, which is why they got where they are. But at some point, the wheels will come off...

In any business ecosystem, companies must compete fairly with each other - unless they can control the ecosystem itself. That is the situation we are in. It's not Google's fault, but it is everyone's concern.

So be careful who you choose as your champion of the 'free Internet' . It is not free now.

Genuine bloggers and businesses use high quality articles to build high page rankings in Google and generate plenty of valuable organic search traffic.

The problem is that the better the content, the more likely it is that others will duplicate, copy, or spin those articles and publish them on their own sites (without permission or attribution).

Most of the time this is not an issue because low quality, article spinning sites generally tend not to rank well in Google search results.

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