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On one hand, you can never be sure your website isn't going to get booted by the SERPs. On the other hand, Google is almost necessary to get any significant traffic.
Is the compromise that you have to split up your website into many to ensure that you don't lose traffic? Or do you try to build a business that doesn't depend on Google SERPs?
It's much harder now than 3-4 years ago.
I'll give you the good news. If you are interested in a real business, and not a "take whatever you can get now" thing, and you're in it for the long haul, and want to work hard at it, AND have skills in web design, real content development, and real business skills (or can access those skills), then..
yes, it's realistic.
It would seem unwise to build a business on something that may some day disappear through no fault of your own. Some might say that a business model which relies on free traffic is no business model at all.
In my situation, my business is large enough that when traffic is 'on' it requires several paid employees to manage it. Because of the type of business it is, I could not pay for advertising and have it be profitable, but when traffic is 'on', it is a very profitable business. It would be insane to walk away from the money just to have a 'real' business plan.
The solution for me has been to run as clean of an operation as possible. I make sure my employees are constantly aware of the possibility that they could lose their job in a week if everything doesn't line up perfectly, but I pay them well so that if I have to lay them off, they have no regrets. In the event of a Google catastrophe, I would manage the business with just me and my wife, and then we could survive without Google traffic.
The idea of splitting a website to spread out the risk has been around for a long time. In my opinion, that idea has run its' course as it will make you more likely to be seen as black hat, or at the minimum dilute the popularity of your main site, subtracting from its position of authority.
If you want to spread out the risks, it is much better to have multiple unrelated websites, but it is hard for one person to manage more than one really good web site. Again, just my opinion...
If you have nerves of steel that will carry you through the more nerve racking moments, and enough skill or time, or both, to get enough natural rankings to begin with.
More realisticly might be a balanced act where you toss in a few traffic generating inbound links which, just by chance of course, might also help the search engines find all your pages.
In theory yes you should be able to build a business online in the same way offline - but we all know that sometimes it gets a bit crazy.
However, in terms of traffic - there are more search engines than Google.
If you build your strategy on all the majors, Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask - and you put your ROI figures in to your calculation (and it doesn't rely on one of them) then it will work.
When the going is good with Google then work hard at finding what works with the rest of them, don't wait for Google "update disaster" before you look at what you are doing.
But in general if you have the traffic now, you aren't taking a fine line, and you have spread your risk across the other engines - than why not?
If your strategy relies on Google - then you have to be a good player!
I have a pretty successful online-only mail order company. I, like many others, was suddenly dropped from Google one day. It comes and it goes. I use PPC to see me through the good and bad times.
I also started a 4 day a week job at the beginning of the year because I wanted the security that if the database died, site died or I was dropped totally from search engines I still had an income to pay the mortgage and feed the kids.
I work long hours and I work hard but I sleep easy at night which is what it's all about for me.
Starting completely new is about as risky. I have got about 5 projects on the side just to see if one kicks off.
Personally I would say, if webmasters can't rely on Google and other SE as a stable business model, than the SE have no stable business model either. Although they [the SE] are able to choose where traffic goes, our lack of trust shows their lack of delivering stable results and having a stable business model themselves.
1. Run it as lean as possible i.e., outsource everything you possibly can – UI, development, hosting, admin, book-keeping, etc.
2. Save as much money as possible for the rainy days (and there will be some given the instability of the SERPs).
3. Try to build it so that you can provide good customer service without hiring full-time employees.
4. Diversify via multiple sites.
5. Always be willing to sell any of your sites should someone knock on your door (which means keeping meticulous records for accounting, site stats & contracts).
6. Remember that time is your enemy. It’s the only finite resource you have and you need to manage it like Scrooge manages cash flow.
I’ve built and sold a half a dozen sites over the last four years and all relied on organic SERPs and they generated a nice return while I was running them. If you sell, pay the taxes and put the rest in the rainy day fund.
Personally I wouldn’t consider going back to work for someone else. I enjoy the freedom and the rewards belong to me but as Swanson said it does require somewhat of a “Poker Player” mentality which I think most entrepreneurs have.
You have to be very determined, have a high tolerance for risk, and be realistic about losing search positions in the future. Otherwise, you'll never get anywhere, go crazy, or turn into a big whiner.
Don't go out and get a new car on HP the moment the first $4k cheque walks through the door, but this model is the same with any business, you have to account for the unaccountable.
Make sure that if it all goes to pot, there are plans in place to make sure the mortgage gets paid one way or another.
I think that you have to have a plan B if it all goes wrong and also have a plan C and a plan D
100%. I always considered my online businesses as "the cream" and not "the bread and butter". I also do not have my eggs in one basket or industry.
It's therefore realistic to base multiple businesses on FREE serps.
I often read post at WebmasterWorld when someone vanishes from serps and they are freaking out, other members always tell them that they should never base their businesses on free serps and that all traffic you receive from Google is not guaranteed and it's a bonus!
If you play by the rules, you can stay prominent in the serps.
I don't know anyone in my business that could really survive, at least at the smaller stage we're now in / morping out of - without natural search traffic. The nice thing is that since we're about good content, I don't think it's too much of a worry.
BUT, it is certainly something that the business types that I talked to always bring up. They're always asking what happens if we loose those number one rankings? I feel pretty safe with our rankings, but, it is a worry of course.
I think a really great side discussion for this is, what if you are truly in a business that CAN NOT exist with out free search traffic? I can think this is a huge questoin for a BIG Part of the web, really, anyone in publishing or information providing. I don't know any web publisher (I know quite a few) that I would say has "high-value" content that doesn't get at least 25% of their monthly visitors from search, and that number goes up to the 50s for refers?
I think some of the age elements that Google has introduced of late are actually a nice move for companies that are so dependent on search traffic. It's hard to knock someone who is number one. From a link perspective, the rich get richer by being number one which further solidifes their positioning.
One thing we're trying to do is develop our business relationship and paid traffic abilites. In our business model of two years ago that wouldn't have worked, but as the business has grown as has our ability to monetize our traffic, as has our ability to spend on traffic acquisition. I think this is a smart thing to try out. If you are dependent on search traffic, at least examine ways that you're only dependent for the first 3 years of your business' lifetime or something.
Is It Realistic To Base A Business Around Free SERPs?
In previous industries shopping comparison engines, online communities and local/national advertising were important alot of the time.
Although they are an entirely different matter!
As to the original question of breaking up a single large site into many smaller sites to leverage the risk; I faced this choice about 18 months ago. I decided to do both. I kept the large site and continue to improve and add to it. But I also started developing a network of smaller niche sites in the same market as my larger site. I also have a second site that is similar in scope to my larger site but not as developed. The idea behind the second site is if my first site totally disappears for whatever reason, I have an aged domain with a history of focus on the same market. Worst case scenerio with my main site and I could have the second site wide open in 4-6 weeks.
This approach might not work for a large high revenue website with a lot of employees. But it sure helps my wife and I sleep better. We recently went through almost 3 months not on page one for our main search terms on any of the 3 SEs and still did pretty well. Two years ago a three month stretch like that might have put us out of business.
If you play by the rules, you can stay prominent in the serps.
Isn't our job a bit like fishing? You can maintain your net, you can find out when to have the best catch - but you can't be sure to catch a single fish tomorrow. Still there have been fishermen for thousands of years.
This is a great analogy. Many business ventures have unforeseeable risks or are based on conditions that may change dramatically from day to day. The thing is to manage these risks by saving extra money and by diversifying as much as possible.
Now personally my family business is diversified into web publishing, real estate sales and home construction. Unfortunately the real estate and construction markets have tanked here and this time of year is when we normally see most of our real estate/construction revenues so the July 27th update really hurt as we were already suffering from other "legitimate" businesses doing very poorly.
So any business model has serious unforeseen risks that one needs to try to be as prepared for as possible. Building a business model on free search results is just as legitimate and no more risky than farming, commercial fishing, real estate, oil exploration, etc. With any of these endeavors the bigger you are the better you are able to issolate your self from short term down turns.
You shouldn't base a business with high fixed costs. You should build a lean, flexible business that will thrive on feast and survive famine. You should start small and only grow with reinvested profits.
Agree 100% & once you know how to make money with free traffic, what converts, and your ROI, unless you got hit with those minimum bid increases you can virtually always get traffic (even though it might not be a lot) and add at least an incremental amount of income by doing that.
You need to capture your visitors information, provide reasons for them to come back to your site on a regular basis to get off your dependency of free search traffic. Most of all, ya gotta keep those fixed costs low at least until you can buy luxuries with whatever money your make from the money you already have. PPC prices are probably in large part influenced by free traffic that websites and businesses get. In a sense, if businesses are looking at the big picture, you could think of the engines as getting paid for all traffic & Google has got to have some metrics that show how the two are related. If a company takes a big hit on free traffic, there is probably some kind of predictor as to how that will affect PPC spend.
If you've got the number one spot for widgets and that is worth $500,000 in profits a year, then you might be willing to run at break even (looking at immediate ROI) or a little below to grow your business on PPC. Once that free traffic stops or gets interrupted you can either spend more on PPC to make up for it in which case you may sustain business but lose money or pull back and start to whither away.
What does it mean to manage risk? Well, if you don't have some measure of how likely it is that the next algorithm tweak will destroy you (such as the Google Stability Number [webmasterworld.com]), then you're clueless when it comes to risk. You've got to constantly refine your risk assessment, and look for affordable means to lower the risk.