Despite the infancy of the Internet, businesses routinely predict next year's Web traffic based on last year's growth. For example, if traffic grew at a similar rate in 2005 and 2006, you can assume the same trend will continue in 2007, right?
Stop-and-Go Search Traffic
Maybe not, especially if you're depending on a source of traffic that's beyond your control. We all know you can't control search engine traffic. That means traffic data for both organic and paid search listings could show volatility.
Organic search and paid search are common sources of traffic growth, but what happens when there's a change in an algorithm that may drop you out of favor with the engines? You could suddenly lose all your traffic. Alternatively, if the quality scores given to your paid search campaigns change dramatically, can you adjust your site quickly enough to deal with the changes and get back up to speed?
One can argue that paid search is an easy to regulate standard, and for the most part, that's absolutely true. However, with the rise in attacks against arbitrage and affiliate sites, the battle is no longer simple. These attacks are not just limited to paid search; they can be targeted toward natural search traffic as well.
How can you determine the best way to predict the traffic and revenue implications of the algorithm x-factor? This x-factor is the unstable nature of Internet search engines and represents what's beyond your control. Can you use a sliding scale to determine what your possible projections might be? In the business world, this isn't a normal strategy and will yield nothing but trouble. However, it's important to bake into your projections all traffic trends experienced throughout the year, including losses. Without taking the down side into account, you could wind up in deep water. Don't be afraid to report lower estimates than previously predicted.
It's also important to build any traffic trends experienced by your affiliate channel into your model, if you have affiliates. A loss in traffic to your primary site may not be isolated to your site alone. Diminished traffic could result in significant changes to many other sites that might be pushing your products as well -- especially with the way good duplicate-content pattern matching works these days. This loss could also be amplified for affiliates, depending on the extent of their reach and what they may be doing to trick or manipulate the engines. It's not a well-kept secret that a small percentage of affiliate sites don't play fair.
A few warning signs to look for: inexplicable lapses in traffic that occur for a few hours or even shorter periods of time. Traffic anomalies can be the best indicators of what might happen down the line. Search engines run tests to ensure their new algorithms are working properly on both their paid and natural systems.
Beware Holiday Updates
Some of the engines have even made huge changes right before the holidays, which is usually the time of year when change can be unwelcome -- at least, not in the negative direction. Recently I've seen organic search changes affecting ecommerce sites across-the-board that will dig into their projected Q4 profits. CFO's: sharpen your pencils and adjust for seasonality and search engine updates. We know you want to stop the red ink from flowing. Keep in mind, though, the more pressure you apply to recapture lost traffic, the less likely you'll stop the hemorrhaging. Plus, you'll not only lose traffic during the holidays by pressuring your staff. Before you ring in the New Year, they may already be celebrating -- at another company.