Mark Higginson

How attention flows on the web


21 November 2011

Elephants in the room

Seth Godin notes that Quantcast will show you the top one million websites in the US ordered by volume of traffic received. He also reminds us that because attention on the web follows a power law distribution “the top 100 sites account for a huge amount of overall web traffic; probably more than the next 900 sites combined.”

This is significant because it is easy to see how the majority of available attention is concentrated in relatively few places.

I first witnessed the consequences of this first-hand on a project from about five years ago. We built a site and people didn’t come. In the immortal words of a past client: “This ain’t no field of dreams.”

What I’ve seen in agency-land is an evolution of the ‘landing pages for SEO’ approach into something called content strategy. Elements of this are fine; the thinking about what you want to say should come before deciding how you are going to say it. The reason for saying it on your own website bears closer analysis however, especially if “the purpose of content strategy has also been described as achieving business goals by maximizing the impact of content.”

We went through a period where the notion that ‘freshness’ counts for search rankings resulted in a lot of pages being generated that were at worst designed only to be read by spiders and at best only got read by spiders, no matter how ‘useful’ or ‘relevant’ to its intended audience they were.

Unbranded search term rankings, the type of visibility for which this tactic was devised, only takes you so far. In these days where engines can take social signals into account your website had better be good enough to win attention from people; in fact if it’s doing well socially the search benefits become a bonus rather than the goal as people will find and share your stuff and the links will start to accrue.

Unfortunately, as the long tail demonstrates, the likelihood is that no one is looking at your web pages, especially those generated by businesses for out-and-out marketing purposes that are only hosted on a corporate site.

The golden rule is that the energy returned by a marketing activity must be greater than the energy invested. What this means for a website designed to attract attention rather than of the FAQ variety is a topic of great interest to me and requires a complete rethink.

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