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How and Why Viral Marketing Kicks the Crappy Traffic Out of SEO

An important comment was posted on an internet forum in regards to SEO versus Viral Marketing. Here is a paraphrase:

“Social media might get loads of traffic but their conversion rates are very much dismal. I’ve had sites/stories which made the front page of and surpassed our website’s usual monthly traffic in just 3 days. However, earnings only went up by 12% which actually is nothing great and a waste of time and resources.”

Having been in web development since 1998 and business development since 1993, I have noticed a problem faced by most small business owners. This problem is generally in regards to the ROI of marketing efforts and specifically in relation to making money via the internet.

There are two major issues that many website owners do not factor into account in the various types of web campaigns designed to generate traffic, and the commenter touched on them both by using the term “conversion”.

Website traffic alone is meaningless if it does not “convert”. In other words, visitors should take the desired action directed by the site owner. The desired action normally is for the visitor to make a purchase, but could be anything, like signing up for a newsletter or registering for a free membership.

The two issues many site owners’ face and often do not realize are:

1) “Targeting”, “Identity” and “Positioning” are important aspects of all areas of their marketing efforts.


2) “Instant conversion” is only a small portion of total conversions.


I won’t go into detail on this, but all marketing should start with a PLAN. The plan should include the Target, Identity and Position of the brand among other things. The vast majority of internet campaigns fail from their start because they do not even have the simplest of marketing plans. (Saying your strategy is “getting more customers” or to “make money” is not a strategic “plan”!)


To say a web surfer is searching for “cheap jewelry” is one thing, but to say a website sells “cheap jewelry” is another thing altogether.

What exactly is your “cheap jewelry”?

Is it costume jewelry?

Is it Movado watches at wholesale pricing?

Is it knock-off name brand jewelry?

Is it Jewelry for men? For women? Sophisticates? Costume? Bling?

Exactly what KIND of jewelry is it and it’s “cheap” in relation to what?

The fact is, the phrase “cheap jewelry” will mean different things for different people.

Any site owner who has ever PAID a search engine for every click into their website (whether the visitor buys or not), knows these kinds of phrases bring a ton of untargeted people who never buy or should never have even been a visitor at the website in the first place.

Let’s talk a minute about the facts of web traffic and conversion. Especially in relation to search engines.

According to the Internet Retailer Survey published in May 2010:

72% of Internet Retail Merchants said LESS THAN 25% of their website visitor traffic comes from paid search and 48.5% said less than 25% came from natural search.

Only a mere 30% can say they attribute more than 40% of their sales to Search Engine Marketing (SEM).

61% of site owners say less than 30% of their sales come from search engine based marketing.

For 70% of online merchants, search engines can only produce a maximum of 40% of sales volume as a result of their marketing efforts. 37% generate less than 15% of their total sales through SEM.

Here is the worst part of what the survey shows:

94% of web retailers see a conversion rate of LESS THAN 15%! 59% see less than 2% and 39% see a 0.5% to 1% conversion rate.

39% of webmasters who market through PPC say LESS THAN 1 person out of every 100 visitors makes a purchase.

How do you like THAT stat for traffic that does not convert?

This is not a fluke either, in the last year, for 55.1% of retailers, conversion rates stayed the same or WENT DOWN by up to 25% or more.

So we are not only seeing a trend of less and less traffic coming from engines, but also seeing fewer people coming from search engines making a purchase. I bet your PPC sales person won’t tell you THAT!

I run across merchants all the time who spend 5, 9, 14 and even $20,000 or more on pay-per-visitor (PPC) search engine marketing. Only to ultimately find themselves extremely disappointed with the results. Words such as “failure”, “dismal” and even “crap” have been used in response to me asking how their PPC efforts went.

Granted, there could have been issues with their landing pages, using good keywords or even writing a proper ad could cause low conversion. However, this is the apparent trend, not the exception to the rule as the survey also pointed out the vast majority of respondents were making strong efforts to improve conversion rates.

If you think this does not apply to you, know that 44% of these businesses make less than $1 million in annual sales and 69% make less than $5 million. Also, 67.3% of these are web only-merchants, letting us know that the bulk of PPC is done by small business owners.

Considering the fact 37.7% of them spend 50% to 75% or more of their total online marketing budget on PPC, it is discomforting to know the vast majority of them will never break even, much less make back their advertising investment in the form of sales.


Website owners end up with “non-converting” traffic because they get people who do not know enough about their brand before visiting the website. This is why you have to know the identity of your own brand and then make that position clear to consumers before they visit your website.

Consumers do not know enough about a brand’s identity because it has not been expressed to them properly by the brand managers (and often even the site owners themselves are not clear on this point.)

Because brand managers have not properly established their identity in the websphere to the masses, in the broader search patterns (whether viral or engine-based), the website receives unqualified, untargeted people visiting their site. These visitors end up as looky-lou’s who realize there is nothing of interest to them and leave.

This is an issue caused by the marketing strategy of the company (or lack thereof), not the vehicle or method used. Whether they use SEO, PPC or Viral methods, the end result will be the same: poorly converting traffic. The only variable will be how fast this phenomenon occurs.

The commenter felt that viral marketing just brings a lot of useless traffic. The reality is it simply bought a higher volume of traffic in a much shorter period of time than other methods previously used.

If your website does not normally convert incoming traffic, it will simply continue to “not convert” faster and in greater numbers through viral marketing.


Engine-based Search does not and CAN NOT alleviate the problem of an inability to express identity in short form advertising. All engine-based search marketing is designed to be a part of a media-mix. It requires other methods of consumer impression to augment the position and identity of a brand BEFORE a searcher sees them in the search results.

If a person encounters a brand for the first time through search results, outside of the scant description and information that can be provided with optimization, they know little of the identity of the brand. In order to find out if the site offers anything that appropriately matches their need, they must visit, if out of nothing more than curiosity. This increases the chance of the visitor being the wrong person on the wrong site and therefore not taking the site owner’s desired action once they visit.

The commenter mentioned they made it to the front page of That is a great place to be as it gives one plenty of exposure. And as they mentioned, it drove a ton of traffic. However, there should have been information within the article that would have assured only the target market was attracted to and bothered to visit the website.


In a properly managed viral campaign, an initial marketing plan would have been created, thereby assuring any creative pieces (like the DIGG article) would have reflected the identity of the brand. It also would have acted as a blueprint on what should have taken place on the part of the site owner to improve conversion on the backend.

“It is impossible to improve what you do not measure, and it is almost impossible to measure what you do not plan” – Maurice Evans, Business Coach

Viral marketing is not about simply having some eye candy for people to look at (like a game or a dancing baby) that drives a ton of traffic for the sake of traffic because it was “fun”. Even when attempting to drive massive traffic through “cuteness”, you should know how to tie the creative pieces to the identity of your brand (like Evian’s break-dancing babies ).

Most website owners have little education or training in marketing, so they do not even know what brand identity is, much less how to position their brand’s identity or how to express the identity of their brand to the marketplace.

Identity management is a key benefit of a viral marketing campaign. As word spreads, so does the identity of the business. As time goes on, the consumers spreading your message on your behalf for free are also spreading your brand’s identity. This causes an automatically increased market position. Your target audience gets educated (and even indoctrinated) each time your message is passed on.

Too many scam -uhm, er, excuse me – “gurus” – tell people that internet marketing is some kind of new and exciting business model. It is not. It is merely a means to market a product or service. The typical, time-tested and standard principles of business are still absolutely necessary for success 100% of the time.

Going back to the forum comment, if the article had properly emphasized the brand’s identity and maintained the brands position, the earnings of 12% increase would have been much higher. Proper viral marketing campaigns “filter” out the bad, non-converting traffic when done properly.

Although, I must say a 12% increase is great when you consider it came in a 3-day period of time. What if that happened every 3 days? 120% increase? Sounds like viral marketing did in fact, INCREASE your site’s conversion…in a big way!

But that is not the bigger issue I am concerned with, the real question is, what is this websites “normal” conversion rate? In other words, in relation to the previous traffic that came in, what was the rate of conversion for this new viral traffic by comparison? What is the site’s conversion percentage before adding the 12% increase? Does this site even create a conversion of traffic typically higher than 12% as a baseline?

The fact is there was an increase, but unless I misunderstood, the poster implied their previous conversion rates would produce something higher. Were the previous conversion ratios truly higher? Or was this simply the same percentage of conversion when you factor in higher numbers of visitors? Or did it actually out perform typical conversions as I suspect they did?

The actual answers are not as important as how we come up with the questions.

As the reader of this article, I want you to be able to gauge the performance of your own website. In our sample, did it receive good or bad traffic?

In other words to truly say this was “bad” traffic, you have to look at the simple formula.

Number of desired actions (conversions)

divided by

Number of Visitors


Conversion Percentage.

If on average out of every 100 visitors to your site, you normally see 12 desired actions taken, our formula would look like this:

12 / 100 =.12 which is 12%

So to clarify, if 12% of the people from a viral campaign “convert”, to know if it was better, equal, or worse than a previous campaign, you must compare 12% to what the previous percentage of conversion was.

Again, going back to the article that made it to the front page, they were clearly disappointed with their conversion rates. In light of the above information of what is “average”, a 12% increase over the normal (1%) is gangbusters, that is, relatively speaking of course.

Seriously though, here is the truly bad part, since the word “conversion” was mentioned in such a final form, I can tell this site also does not fully understand point 2.


Conversion should not be considered a one time event or possibility. Many site owners are so focused on INSTANT conversion, they miss the big picture. Such instant-conversion focus only serves to make one solely concerned about the person who visits them ONE TIME, for the VERY FIRST TIME, and then makes a purchase after their first and only contact with the website. Instant gratification has no place in marketing ROI expectations. The big picture focus requires more of an understanding that every visitor is a potential convert, even over the course of time.

Whenever a business brings up the topic of sales or conversions or traffic, I often ask these specific questions in the following order:

1) How Much Traffic Did/Do You Get On An Average Month?

(The answer varies but is usually a decent amount.)

2) How Many (Percentage) Of Those Visitors Become Customers?

(The answer is normally very low.)

3) Why Didn’t The Other Visitors Become Customers?

(The answer is normally “I do not know.”)

4) Why Don’t You Ask Them The Reasons?

(The answer is “I don’t have a way to.”)

And there, in question 4 we see the real problem. People are coming to your site and leaving, yet you have no way of communicating with them. You are looking for instant conversion, and it causes you to ignore those who need more information, are on the fence or just not quite ready to buy from you…yet.


Many site owners send people to confusing home pages, with 4-20 different menu choices. The vast majority of these people came to the site as a result of something other than just curiosity. They read an article, did a search, got a recommendation or responded to social influence and are expecting to see more information related to whatever caused them to visit the site.

Instead, of more information, once they arrive they are greeted with a generic home page with too many options and very little direction on where to go or what to do next. Have you ever experienced that? What did you do?

Statistics show, when presented with too many choices, people generally just chose to not make any decision at all. On the internet this means they leave the site without taking any action (converting) other than clicking that little [x] in the top right corner of the screen.


Sometimes, people are sent straight to some sort of e-commerce page or shopping cart, asking for payment right up front. Imagine walking down the mall and deciding to stop in a jewelry store you are passing. Then the minute you walked through the door someone says “Hi! Come follow me to the checkout counter…this is $200, this is $1500 and this is on sale for $799…Now, which of these are you going to buy right this second? And will that be cash or credit?”

That scenario would be off-putting at best and considered overly rude and aggressive at worst. In either case, whether online or off, for the majority of the time the results are the same: no sale.

The bottom line is the visitor does not yet know if they trust you, or even if they want to buy from your site in particular, much less whether they want to buy anything at all right now or not.


Successful pay-per-click campaigns all have dynamic landing pages, and viral campaigns are no different. To create an informative landing page related to the lead-generating source is considered standard best-practice for any e-commerce venture.


In addition to the landing page there should be some sort of interaction that enables follow-up with the potential customer. An email list is the simplest way to do this online.

You want to hit them with your offer more than one time. In the advertising world, we use the term “frequency”. Without getting into it, the point of frequency is a person generally needs to be pitched or see an offer multiple times before responding with action. The more times they see it, the more likely they are to respond. Usually 5-7 impressions (or times viewed) is the sweet spot on the bell curve.

Think about this. How many times have you seen a website (or any piece of advertising) offer something for sale, and after seeing the offer only ONCE, you just stopped whatever you were doing and made a purchase that moment? Not very often, I bet. Unless, of course, you are a compulsive buyer, in which case there are help-groups and counselors for that. The truth is, the vast majority of people need to do research, be in a “purchasing” mood, and see the offer several times, etc. before making a purchase. On the net, this may mean they might wish to compare competitors or get recommendations from friends and family before taking action on an offer.


How many unnecessary “conversions” are lost by websites simply because a visitor comes just one time to the site, and then has no reminder to ever come back again? The site typically ends up getting lost in cyberspace like so many others in the ever growing interwebs. Only to have that same visitor later make the purchase at a competitors site who had better positioning or were in the right place at the right time.

Follow-up in some way, shape, form or fashion is a key to getting the first time visitor to turn into a later-time customer.


Because viral marketing campaigns start with a plan, and focus on pitching a brands identity to a specific target audience it has become the most cost-effective form of marketing.

The amount you pay over time for a SEO or PPC campaign that only wanes in effectiveness over time, costs much more than any viral campaign in the long run. Not to mention, the minute you stop paying for such efforts, any competitor willing to foot the bill takes your position.

From first point of contact through to the point-of-sale, viral marketing is a total approach to growing a business, online or offline. The beauty of a viral campaign is that it sends traffic long after you stopped paying for it. Plus it is difficult for a competitor to “out optimize” you. Efforts are usually permanent in a viral campaign.

Viral campaigns are magnets pulling in the proper target consumers, and it happens by design. The bottom line is a well planned viral marketing campaign automatically prevents the arrival of and kicks out any crappy traffic that may come to a website. The result is targeted traffic that takes your desired action, “converting” into customers. Bottom lines prefer Viral Marketing because it keeps things in the black.

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