Robots Don’t Read, People Do

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“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

I don’t remember exactly when I first heard that phrase, but something about the work ethic implicit in it spoke to me at my core, even as a child. And now, years later, it still does. Yet, I’ve learned something new in the intervening years that serves as a counterpoint worth considering when the all-nighter impulse kicks in. Our failures aren’t as often due to inadequate effort as they are to imprudent motives. Many of the ineffective things we do fail at inception simply because we’re doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons. Our blind ambition leads us to set goals far more easily than we determine how to actually achieve them, and to incredulity when we don’t succeed.

This truth is at the core of why many companies struggle with maintaining a web content strategy: They have a sense for the results they’re after, but don’t know the best way to achieve them. As far as online engagement is concerned, the simplest equation seems to be that a higher volume of traffic will somehow equal higher revenue. Unfortunately, that kind of thinking only maintains the chaotic status quo of constant and ubiquitous content focused on search engine optimization alone. I’m sensing that people are increasingly aware of the futility of this strategy, yet capitulate to it anyway with a shrug. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” So we do, creating plenty of meaningless content and burning out in the process. There has got to be a better way!

I want to share with you the conclusions I’ve come to after years of practice about the right way to conceive and execute a web content strategy. If you want the elevator pitch, it comes down to the answer to one question: Who are you speaking to? Only by clearly identifying your prospects can you go about creating content that is truly valuable. Oh, and despite the obvious importance of search engine optimization, please don’t misidentify search engines as your prospects. Robots don’t read, people do.

What is Valuable Content?

What is valuable is entirely subjective, so for the purposes of this article, I’d like to define what I mean by valuable content in this way: Valuable content is material created for your prospects that engages their need and brings them into relationship with you. This definition may require you to completely rethink your content strategy. Or it may simply merit a subtle tweak in factors like the type of content you’re creating, messaging, or frequency. Either way, if you focus your strategy on this idea of value, your content will be more in tune with the needs of the people you are positioned to speak to by your expertise, and therefore much more likely to convert them from passive readers to real prospects. I’d like to demonstrate this principle by sharing with you some web analytics data from my firm’s website.

When asked how they initially found out about us, many of our clients-to-be will recall searching for something online and finding our site among a search engine’s results. Great, SEO win! But that’s not really the full story. They usually go on to say that landing on our site began a long relationship with our content—sometimes lasting years—that preceded them reaching out to us. This long-term use of our site by our prospects speaks to the high value of our content to them. But what this ultimately shows is that, no matter how long their vetting process, visitors to your website offer very little value to you until they have converted to real prospects. So, think about this in terms of your website: How much of its traffic is actually converted, and where does it come from?

More conversions come from human referrals than from search engine traffic.

Take a moment to let that sink in. More conversions come from human referrals than from search engine traffic. Knowing that our site received the vast majority of its traffic from search engine referrals, and that we performed quite well for phrases directly related to what we do, like “defining a web content strategy,” “how to do SEO,” or “website development pricing,” I would have assumed that most of the people subscribing to our newsletter, registering for our webinars, or requesting meetings with us are referred by search engines. But after reviewing the data, I have concluded that this is not the case at all.

Referral Traffic Statistics

The image above depicts the 9 top referrers of traffic to our website (from a 6 month time period beginning in late 2009), and shows how many unique visits and eventual conversions came from each one. As expected, the top referrer to our site, exceeding direct visits by almost 5 times, was search engine traffic (Google, Yahoo, and Bing). However, out of the 71,233 visitors who came to our site from a search engine, only 333 of them ended up converting to an actual lead. That’s a paltry fraction of a percent (.47%). Our miscellaneous referrals, on the other hand, which include any other website on the web that has chosen to link to us, deliver far fewer visitors by comparison to search but far more conversions. Out of the 10,350 visitors that came from direct links to our site on other websites, 475 ended up converting to actual leads. That’s 4.5%- almost 10 times the percentage by proportion of conversions originating with search!

Though the numbers of visits and conversions has increased in the year or so since this data set was captured, the trends exhibited have not. That doesn’t mean we’re focusing less on search engine optimization, it just means that we’re prioritizing the right kind of reader when creating our content, then framing that content for SEO. The reader first, then the robot.


While I can’t say for certain that my conclusions about our site traffic would apply to every other company like ours, I’d bet it’s pretty likely. When you stop to consider why search traffic delivers fewer conversions than other referrals, the data makes perfect sense. Think about it: When you search for something online, you scrutinize the results for relevance before you choose one to click, and even then, you often realize that the site you’ve visited isn’t quite what you’re looking for. No hard feelings; you don’t expect search engine bots to organize the web based upon just what you want. That would be like going to your local library and finding a card catalog with your name on it. But when a site you trust links to another site, you do expect that recommendation to be much more closely aligned with your interests and intent than a search engine’s results to your query. You assume that the people behind that website are like you, and when they link to another site, it’s for a really good reason. They’ve read its content and found it valuable enough to recommend to you.

Put simply, people trust people and people act upon trust.