A Brief History of Blog Gimmicks and The Problem of Cheap Traffic

This history of blogging is full of gimmicks to draw cheap traffic. And I’ll be the first to admit that over the last 10 years I’ve been influenced by these gimmicks, tried them out, and ultimately gotten better at recognizing that they aren’t part of my strategy.

What is “cheap” traffic?

Cheap” blog traffic is non-organic traffic to a blog drawn by gaming the system to get more pageviews while failing to convert visitors to invested readers.

Cheap traffic” impresses for all the wrong reasons. It’s all numbers and no real impact or quality. On the surface, it’s easy to get impressed with a blog boasting 100,000 daily readers. But when you look into the actual analytic data you’ll see that most of those visitors are coming to a single page and not returning. Often times visitors aren’t even staying long enough to have actually read the post they are visiting.

Let’s say there is a blog post drawing 90,000 daily readers via referrals from Facebook. That is great, right? Maybe. But if the article is 1200 words and the average visitor is staying 9 seconds, only visited that single page, and then went back to Facebook, they didn’t read it and you didn’t gain a new reader. What did you get? Cheap traffic.

A Brief History of the Blog Gimmicks

  • Blogrolls – Before search engines really gained popularity there was a ton of effort to get people to link to one another in blog posts. You still see historical remnants of this on a lot of blogs. Bloggers would create a page or a sidebar that had links to all of their friends. (WordPress didn’t depreciate their link manager until December 2012)  These were basically recommendations. You’d read your favorite blogger and in their sidebar you’d discover and visit their friends blogs. There was a social dynamic to it because you always wanted to get linked to from someone’s blog. Why? That “recommendation” meant traffic. As this took off as a source of traffic people became more and more interested in making sure their blog got attributed in as many other blogs/websites as possible. Soon, tools were developed and companies started providing services to get your blog mentioned. But as soon as it shifted from an “organic” link in a blog roll or trackback to something “paid” people stopped trusting that blogrolls were legit and the inbound traffic from people’s blogrolls diminished greatly.
  • Blogrings – In the midst of the blogroll boom Blogrings emerged as one of the first sources of cheap traffic. One of my very first toes dipped into the youth ministry world came when I managed a blogring of youth ministry bloggers. How it worked was that you could submit your blog to the blog ring if you met the groups criteria (being a youth pastor) and agreed to post the blogring’s code snippet in your sidebar. So someone would read Marko’s blog and they’d click to the next person in the youth ministry blogring and land on another person’s youth ministry blog. The “cheap traffic” part started to emerge because of human behavior. People would just keep clicking without really reading. So bloggers would get excited that they were getting tons of traffic, but it wasn’t really good traffic, it was just blogring traffic. Really, blogrings were pretty important as far as gimmicks go. And why did you want to manage one? You got to game it so that your blog got the most traffic from the ring… DUH!
  • Google & Relevance – This is really when search engines started to take off. The internet was truly a web of somewhat arbitrarily socially connected websites and blogs. But then Google came along and their technology started to crawl servers, cataloging everything, then sorting content into an order based on relevance. They defined relevance democratically… if a lot of people linked to a single source, it must be the most relevant page on that topic. So when you searched “youth ministry” you landed at “Youth Specialties” because they had the most links for the word “youth ministry” on the entire web. So then the game became, how can I get the most relevant site to link to me… so that my own blog will show up higher in search results. This lead to trackbacks.
  • Trackbacks – Because Google was indexing things based on relevance and links, linking to a source became more than a recommendation… it became almost life & death for bloggers. You wanted to write something that other people had to respond to or write about… and then link back to you. Trackbacks (still part of WordPress core) were a way of your blog automatically alerting another blog… and posting a link back to you… that you’d mentioned their blog. This was a HUGE source of cheap traffic for bloggers in the mid-2000s. I’d read something on USA Today and write a quick response to it with a link back to the USA Today article. That trackback would appear above the comment section with a title like “Why ____ matters to the church” and I’d get hundreds of inbound links from visitors who wanted to read that response. I can’t tell you how many times I did that, sometimes on purpose and sometimes on accident. Trackbacks were crazy because sometimes your blog would even get mentioned on air as some radio host blabbed about the USA Today article. On a smaller scale, trackbacks became about etiquette. It was considered good form to mention several other bloggers in each post and if a blogger mentioned something you wrote or said, you expected a trackback. And, as Google became “the Google” links became more and more important.
  • Backlinks – About the same time that Trackbacks became important, backlinks took off. Marketing companies, aware that Google placed a high value on who was linked to whom, started providing services where they could guarantee that your blog would get linked to by a more relevant website, theoretically meaning your blog would appear higher in search engine results. There was a lot of money exchanged over backlinks. I never really got into this because I always felt it was a little dishonest. But “organic” backlinks became social currency. You could get people to backlink to you with a small gift or service. So you’d agree to review a book if the author and the publisher linked back to you. Within a few years, Google started differentiating between organic and paid backlinks, punishing paid backlinks with lower search result relevancy… so this was a gimmick that was SUPER IMPORTANT for a short period of time, made a lot of people a lot of money, and got a lot of brands hooked on cheap traffic.
  • SEO – The next logical step of Google’s power over search engines had to do with Search Engine Optimization or SEO. There are lots of people (myself included) that think it’s important that your website/blog be optimized to take advantage of all that Google offers by making sure your site gets the right information to Google. That’s not what I’m talking about when I refer to SEO as a gimmick. Where the gimmick comes in is people adding content to their site solely driven and informed by search results. In the youth ministry world, the late 2000s saw several youth ministry bloggers emerge statistically simply because they learned to game Google’s search engines by writing content based on what youth workers would Google. So they’d use a various keyword tools to determine what youth workers were searching for and then write blog posts to capture that search traffic. This gimmick lead to endless blog posts on “youth ministry game ideas” or “youth group mission trip rules.” Again, this wasn’t about having something relevant to say or even writing something worth reading. It was simply about capturing cheap traffic by gaming what people were googling. It was a short-term strategy… and most of those people made good money on the reason Google was tracking keywords… placing ads for you to click on. And as Google has become less important you’ve seen those blogs fade.
  • Blog Contests & Reviews – Overlaying the SEO gimmick was contests and review sites. As brands began to see that cheap SEO traffic wasn’t impacting their bottom line, the pendulum swung back to desperately trying to get recommendations. They found a host for this gimmick in the mommy blogger community. Virtually overnight, small groups of moms who blogged suddenly had conferences at 5-star resorts paid for by Proctor & Gamble. There was no vetting to this whatsoever and no one seemed to ask if you were interested in a product or even if you wanted it. (We know this because Kristen was on a lot of these mom blogger lists, we got TONS of free stuff sent to us.) A company would send you two copies of a product, one for you, one to give away. You’d offer up a short review and you’d post a contest on your blog. Leave a comment and pick a winner. It was completely ludicrous! Kristen would receive 2 toys in the mail that were $200 each. She’d write a blog post about it, list her contest on a blog contest site, and several hundred random people would enter. She’d get TONS of traffic, it’d be fun, and that would be it. It’s funny, but this gimmick is alive and well. It has matured a little in that it most often now requires you to join an email list… so at least companies get something. But when it was hottest in the late 2000s it was a straight up gimmick.
  • Viral Lift – All of this gaming of Google, backlinks, SEO… it leads to where we are right now. The cheap traffic gimmick of viral lift. BuzzFeed is the king of viral lift. They aren’t interested in Google, it’s web crawl is too slow for them. Instead, their entire site is built on two principles: Link bait & social sharing. Literally, instead of gaming Google they are gaming your brain to get you to link to them on social media. So they’ll create a title like, “21 Kitchen Gadgets You Need to Buy Right Now.” Is that important? Nope. But BuzzFeed has learned that they can get you to click on something by mixing keywords and your inborn curiosity. It’s a genius gimmick. And while I tend to believe that it’s author, Tabatha Leggett, loses just a tiny bit of her soul wondering out loud… “I went to Cambridge for to write about banana slicers?” she is actually winning the cheap traffic gimmick war right in this moment. She’ll continue to write stuff like that because it works in the moment and BuzzFeed only cares about the moment.

What Does This Mean for Bloggers?

As bloggers, we are all influenced by these trends. Whether we intentionally do it or not, these trends continue to emerge and we find ourselves mimicking stuff that seems like it works.

My point in bringing all of this up is to point out that if you are in this to write and establish a long-term relationship with your readers, you need to remember who your audience is. Getting hooked on drawing cheap traffic to look at an image or enter a contest or get “quick ideas” isn’t cultivating an audience that’ll convert into long-time readers. It might seem like it “could” but it doesn’t. I’ve simply seen it too much in both my own work and the work we do for our clients.

My advice is always the same: The biggest reward in blogging comes when you play the long game. Just write good content and the rest will take care of itself. 

What Does This Mean for Businesses?

You really have to know your business. Very few businesses can survive without establishing relationships. Sometimes you need a quick burst of energy that a promotion can generate. And sometimes you do need to do things just for branding or list building.

But long-term growth in almost any field has to do with excellence. A gimmick is just that. Look at a gimmick like Thanksgiving door busters. How many of those people who come at 5 AM to buy a cheap TV also buy something else? How many of those people come back in 2 months to buy something else? How many of those people are your best customers? How many of them become your best customers.

Just like I don’t see “cheap traffic” on blogs converting to long-term readers of a blog, you have to see gimmicks as a short-term strategy and a sign that something is wrong. A healthy business-owner isn’t opening up his shop at 5 AM the day after Thanksgiving. A healthy business owner is sleeping in, giving his workers the day off, and enjoying time with his family.

What Does This Mean for Churches?

Somewhere along the line churches started believing that “cheap traffic” days were opportunities for growth. With the Lenten season upon us we’re only days away from churches “announcing” their Easter gimmicks.

Just because you have high attendance on Easter doesn’t mean you have an opportunity.

But before you do that… stop and ask yourself three important questions:

  1. Where are the people you attracted with last years gimmick? If they are in your pews… awesome. But don’t mistake getting someone to show up one time with making an actual impression on them.
  2. What are you doing to make sure that your engagement is at an all time high… instead of all the attention on your gimmick? Just like the blogger can’t expect people to come back because they gamed Google, what makes you think someone will come back?
  3. What’s your real motivation for the gimmick? To draw traffic or to convert? No one thinks poorly of BuzzFeed for drawing endless millions on cheap traffic. But I think that in a post-Christian world the public cares a lot when they see churches pulling off the latest gimmick to draw an audience.

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando with their three children.

3 comments

  1. I’m looking at you Groupon, LivingSocial. With the glut of certs available in every metropolitan area you can go to a different restaurant every night of the week and not repeat a visit until a repeat offer swings around. I think local businesses get drunk off the activity and unless the numbers are sound, mistake it as sustainable. But this isn’t a story about that. My point is that cheap traffic is everywhere, and it comes and goes like a flash.

    1. @ansel – Yeah, but so many restaurants have built their models so that they aren’t dependent on return customers. So an endless supply of Groupon customers getting a discount… well, that’s still revenue. (I guess this is the logic.) I’ve always loved seeing things that shouldn’t be discounted. Like, do you really want half off a sky dive? What about teeth whitening? Sure seems like that’s worth full price. 70% off a brake job? Um, no thanks!

      I also laughed thinking about this post because these thoughts would NEVER be accepted as a talk at WordCamp. My last foray at WC San Diego was basically a 30 minute diss on SEO. I mean, I do the basics… I love Yoast’s plugin. But man, so much better for your soul to write something that you care about than for cheap traffic. 🙂

  2. Man…I have been guilty of a couple of those. I think “cheap” could be juxtaposed with authentic as you alluded when you talked about churches. Thanks for pointing these out.

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