Is it Possible to get Traffic Without Rankings?

Have you ever seen a top ranked site on the Google SERPs which seemed totally out of place? I mean, it probably looks bad — it’s extremely static with poor navigation links and "decidedly fuggly." And yet it’s the top site, and has been for years, for a very competitive key word which bigger and better funded sites rank fourth and fifth for (since our ugly site takes not only the top ranking, but the second and third ones as well).

This scenario is what made me write this article. After running into it a few times since the beginning of my search career, I became intrigued. The first time I started delving into PHP scripting, apart from http://www.php.net/, I discovered that the top five sites in the SERPs contained three separate pages from www.phpjunkyard.com. Recently when looking at the results for "Java certification exams" on Google, the top ranking site was http://www.jchq.net/; believe me, you have to see this site. Sun’s official Java tutorial page was delegated to number three, though fortunately it came up as the top site for "Java Tutorials."

Pure Organic

Upon further research I discovered that http://www.jchq.net/ was founded by a Java programmer (who has a regular job) as a way of beefing up his resume. It includes no deliberate SEO, no marketing arm, no Google AdSense and no professionally written content if you don’t count all the code. What’s more, as a matter of deliberate policy he routinely links to his competing sites. Yet he has advertisers buying up text links and, more importantly, he ranks number one on the Google SERPs for the keyword "Java certification exams."

This kind of result from sites which are commonly run by one individual who has a day job is a miracle of performance. Sun Microsystems with their budgets and web savvy could not bump this site. Even Amazon has to be content with paid listings.

How did he do it? Note that the question this article asks is "can we get traffic without rankings?" The answer is "not quite," but not in the way you think.

This could get tricky, but follow me closely. Simply by examination, I found out that what happens with these sites is that they simply "were." By obeying the natural rules of getting traffic, they got rewarded by the search engines for their efforts. This is contrary to the view of SEO as a deliberate manipulation of the search engine results pages. What happened was that these individuals created a resource, naturally generated a network, got back links, and the search engines now ranked them based on their performance.

What the Search Engines Really Want

When search engines started writing ranking algorithms, they did not plan for search engine optimization (that has since changed). They built their algorithms to reflect the knowledge of the herd. The page rank algorithm was designed to reflect natural qualities; you have a good resource so people link to you.

The search engines never imagined that people would actively shop for links from other webmasters. Likewise, they never thought that things like key word spamming and link spamming would require the services of Matt Cutts and his web spam department.

The search engines want good listings, not manipulated listings. Without good listings they don’t get repeat users. And without repeat users their businesses fail. The search engines want relevant content with back links (votes) showing that the Internet community believes in the relevant content provided. I am stating what the search engines want because from this we will be able to show that these small, low budget sites satisfy these needs. That is why the search engines reward them.

Users want their needs met, without much fuss and as quickly as possible. Webmasters want to provide their users wit content that meets their needs. A web site that fails to deliver resources to its users will soon lose those users. Sites like Jchq.net and Phpjunkyard.com meet the needs of their users first, webmasters second and search engines last.

Plenty is only found in empty places.         Poju Oyemade

Traffic First, Always

You really want traffic? Then there is only one way to generate constant traffic: look for where there is a need. The founder of http://www.jchq.net/ finished his Java Certification exams and was "appalled" at the lack of material online on Java certification exams; he also wanted to fast track his programming career. With no previous experience in Java and an obvious need for Java certification material online, he decided to create a recourse for individuals going for their certification. The presence of Sun Microsystems and various computer science departments did not make "Java" a niche key word, so it was not just a case of picking a variation of a popular keyword. With no deliberate thought, and no concern for monetary profit, he moved into an empty space and filled it.

The traffic came flooding in, taking advantage of this "one stop shop" which contained tons of relevant resources, mock exams and whole books teaching Java (totally free of charge). If you are wondering at how the traffic found him without his getting top rankings, consider that the best evangelists are always satisfied users. Word of mouth alone would have made him a cult figure in programming circles. After the traffic came the web masters, and with the web masters came the links. And of course, finally the search engines gave him his due.

Sleeping With the Enemy

The above sounds easy, but not quite. Users are encouraged to drop links to other Java certification resources; these links are checked and are added to the list of resources that jchq.net offers to its users. This is more or less giving votes to their competition, but this trend of supporting the competition is one I see on a lot of top ranking web pages; just check out all those Wikipedia pages.

Apart from the out bound links counting as positive marks  with the search engines, users are relieved that they don’t have to go anywhere else. Sites like emulatorzone.com and even blogs like searchengineland.com have quite a comprehensive listing of "competing" sites on their blog roll.

Traffic First, Rankings Later

This is the trend that occurs with all organically optimized sites. Rankings are a reward for their efforts, and not the end in itself. Search engine optimization is all about the search engines; hence it’s all about rankings. But why are some of the best optimized sites owned by stay at home moms, young men who dropped out of graduate school, or programmers with day jobs? Simply put, they give users what they want, then give search engines what they want. And when all is said and done, it’s all about the content.

I talk about content a lot, and I write about it more. I give it various names; I write it, I edit it and I read it. I am fascinated with its various forms: multimedia, image and text (if I had only a passive interest in content I wouldn’t be in search optimization). I sincerely believe that the best thing you can give any one apart from a library card is an Internet connection; now of course you can get both for the price of a library card. 

All the sites I mentioned above give their users unique and proprietary content, which is similar to what is done here at Developer Shed. Content attracts users, links from other sites and bots. Your keyword density is all well and good, but you need to ensure that your content is readable to your target audience and is not just spider food.

The point here is that sometimes people forget the reason search engines were created. They’re just a means of retrieving information from the Internet. Search engine help people find "content," and are not the point. A purely organic site which is a resource would get listed no matter the means or portal by which it is retrieved. And it would always be found on the web; someone or the other will link to it, or will know about it if asked. People take the SERPs as the whole point, when the main point is getting your resource to the people who need it. Webmasters love proprietary content; your hardest job would be to watch for scrapers.

One thing is sure: bots notice activity. Bots notice when a site is getting linked to and they notice traffic (especially if you have open server logs). Now note that Google have admitted to as many as 200 different factors that are factored into their algorithms. Traffic coming down the lanes could very well be one of them. It’s certain that you cannot escape getting high rankings on the search engines if you get traffic referred from other sites.

The Good Parts

Google has spent the better part of its time between April 2006 and now making small changes to its ranking algorithm, for reasons ranging from bugs to lack of server space. What used to be number one a few months ago on the Google SERPs may no longer be on the first page. These are just the results of small changes (and major changes are the norm with Google).

Contrary to popular opinion, it is not common for you to get top rankings on the search engines via SEO and go off to sip margaritas in Miami. More likely than not you will come back to see a definite change. Some site owners whose sites rank high on the SERPs watch Google like a hawk, simply because a large percentage of their site’s traffic comes from the search engine. 

A site that generates traffic organically is sure to thrive in bad seasons and in good seasons. And even if there are dips in traffic, the basic shape of the site will make it evolve appropriately no matter what method is used for information Retrieval.

In conclusion let’s look at two tech news aggregators, www.slashdot.org and www.digg.com. Slashdot.org came first but Digg.com is more successful. Does this mean Digg.com is killing off Slashdot.com?  Traffic has not declined for Slashdot.org, registered members are not moving anywhere and Slashdot’s readership shows little or no signs of declining. There are a lot of people searching for content out there on the net, and synergy (mutual support and linking) instead of competing may actually grow the market instead of just chasing the "declining" numbers of users.

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