3 metrics for thriving despite lower organic traffic

Google keeps more traffic in the search results instead of sending it to websites. By optimizing for these 3 metrics, you can still thrive.

Google’s annual Search On 2021 event had impressive new features that showcase technological advancements but also keep visitors searchers in the search results for longer. Some potentially even making it redundant for searchers to click through to websites, which is a big problem for businesses, webmasters, and SEOs.

One question I get a lot is what SEOs can do about the growing number of SERP Features that drain organic traffic. After all, organic traffic is still one of the most scalable and attractive traffic channels on the web but also one of the most difficult ones to crack. My answer is to optimize for three metrics.

Direct traffic - a proxy for a strong brand

Direct traffic can be a reflection of your brand strength. Users coming directly to your site either want to login to your app, have seen one of your ads (more about that in a bit) or heard of your product through word of mouth. The latter is a strong sign that your product provides a great, maybe outstanding experience and has Product-Market Fit. That’s exactly what you should capitalize on to drive more direct traffic!

In content moats, I write about creating content others can’t replicate paired with an outstanding experience. Hubspot has built a big body of marketing and sales content. Investopedia created a massive glossary with in-depth explanations. Nerdwallet deployed many helpful consumer tools with a great UX. That’s content that’s hard, though not impossible, to replicate and provides a good enough experience for users to seek those brands out specifically for certain topics. They become destinations.

Ad campaigns impact direct traffic, too. The best way to figure out how sought-after your brand is without advertising is to run a full-on blackout period in either your core market and/or secondary markets.

Another way direct traffic can be inflated is if users go to your homepage to log in. A good way to circumvent this is to put your app login on a subdomain and subtract searches for “{product} login” keywords.

Lastly, keep in mind Google Analytics and other web analytics tools cluster unattributable traffic sources under “direct” as well, for example, referral traffic from Whatsapp or Slack.

Referral traffic - leveraging the web as a platform

Referral traffic is a good indicator of content quality because high-quality content earns more backlinks. In reversal, the traffic coming through a backlink is one of the best indicators of a high-quality link.

If the worst-case happened and Google completely deindexed your site, you would get traffic from referrals. It’s the optionality that makes it so powerful.

Similar to the Google search results, referral traffic comes with a certain user intent, which should not be confused with the user intent we speak about in SEO. However, given the context of referral traffic, users click on a link to learn more about something or maybe even buy a product. They don’t have to be persuaded by an ad but might already be in the market.

To understand intent better, segment goals by traffic channel and look at how referral traffic converts compared to other channels. Even further, you can look at which sites send the most valuable referral traffic, form a stronger partnership with them, and personalize traffic coming from that site to improve the conversion rate even more.

Returning visitors - building a superior experience

While new visitors are Important, you only need to win returning visitors over once. If users come back, they tend to have had a good experience, and more returning visitors means less dependency on Google and higher chances for word of mouth.

Optimizing for returning visitors means giving your audience or customers good reasons to come back. I already mentioned user experience, which covers the look and feel of a site but also the usefulness of a tool or information. Good UX design is a major factor here because it goes beyond how something looks and into how it works.

Establishing your site as a trustworthy and reliable destination can also drive returning visitors up. I wrote about how expert vs. amateur content can make a big difference. In part, because for Google, it’s easy to replace replicable content and show key information in the search results. But expert content also goes a long way for your audience.

Note that the numbers of returning vs. new visitors will look different based on whether a site is an e-commerce store, publisher, SaaS company, marketplace, etc. When analyzing returning visitors, SaaS businesses should exclude the homepage because it’s typical users who want to log in while marketplaces, publishers, and e-commerce businesses should monitor returning visitors to the homepage.

Another metric you want to get to is how many visits it takes on average (and the median) for users to convert. It can vary from page to page, but if you aggregate it on a page template or folder level, you win valuable insights that allow you to shorten the time to conversion because you can serve visitors with more relevant information faster.

Cutting the Google dependency

In The nasty side effects of Google search traffic, I write about how organic traffic can make or break a business. As a traffic channel, it’s uniquely scalable and low-cost at the same time. But it’s also more volatile than scalable channels or product-led growth.

One problem connected to driving the three metrics up that can help you thrive in a SERP Feature world is organizational responsibility. In other words, who owns these metrics? I would argue SEO, but opinions might differ and the size of the SEO team is a deciding factor. Either way, someone needs to take ownership or else it’s hard to drive them up.

You noticed that none of the three metrics actually deliver more traffic from SERP Features, and that’s the point. They help you depend less on organic traffic from search results.

As a community, we have a chance to redefine organic traffic. In essence, it’s any source of unpaid traffic but often conflated with traffic from Google’s search results. Even unpaid social traffic should be factored into organic traffic. We tend to ignore it because organic reach basically died around 2018 when Facebook significantly trimmed the visibility of unpaid posts. Similar to Google, social networks have become pay-to-play aggregators, and the best way to react is not having to react at all.