Don't get burned by Google — how to diversify your website traffic

Overreliance on any one source for online traffic is never a good thing for website operators, but a dependence on Google search results can be particularly damning. SEO experts offer best practices to help make sure your business isn't at risk of being sunk by a change in Google's search algorithm.

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Many companies aim to get as much nonpaid website traffic from Google search results pages as possible. But is that putting all the eggs in one basket? Is there an ideal percentage of organic traffic you should seek from Google? What are some other traffic referral sources brands should target in an effort to diversify? asked these questions of search engine optimization (SEO) experts (via email), and each answered with best practices and real-world advice on how to diversify website traffic referrals.

Is it a real risk to depend on for Google search results for organic (nonpaid) website traffic? 

"Relying too heavily on Google is akin to relying too heavily on one revenue source, such as having one big client," says Brian Patterson, partner, Go Fish Digital. "If things go bad for that client, things go bad for you."

Google is continually updating and refining its search engine algorithms, says Brett Bastello, SEO manager, Inseev Interactive. "By investing too heavily in Google, all it takes is one mistake, penalty or algorithm update for [all of] your organic traffic to crash."

Google algorithm updates, including the Panda and Penguin changes, and most recently, tweaks to its mobile-friendly algorithm, adversely affected companies both large and small. 

[Related: How voice search and Google 'direct answers' are changing SEO ]

In 2014, for example, Google hit eBay with a "manual penalty," meaning a human being (as opposed to an algorithm) decided eBay needed "some type of slap," according to Search Engine Land. The Panda update also apparently affected eBay. "Because eBay was relying so heavily on organic traffic from Google results, the company estimates the [penalty] cost it around $200 million in lost revenue," says Scott Knox, director of search marketing, Fruition

"Organic traffic is extremely important when it comes to a successful online enterprise," Knox adds. "But the eBay case shows how drastically a shift in Google's algorithm, or a manual penalty, can affect businesses."

However, some SEO experts say that as long as websites play by Google's rules, they shouldn't worry too much.

If sites strictly do white-hat SEO, or above-board, by-the-rules SEO, to increase search engine result page rankings (SERPs), "there's no such thing as relying too heavily" on traffic from Google, according to Ronald M. Sinai, principal and vice president of business development for SEO and website promotion, Nova Legal Funding. White-hat ranked sites have little chance of being penalized by Google, he says, and those that rely on black-hat techniques are more susceptible "to a penalty and a sharp drop in ranking."

What percentage of organic traffic referrals should come from Google?

SEO experts have different opinions on this subject. Many say there's no real sweet spot and the percentages of organic traffic referrals sites should receive from other Web entities, such as Facebook or Twitter, depend on the business.  

"This is a difficult question to answer because it can vary based on so many different things, like the type of industry you're in, the competition, your location, the age of your website and so on," says Kiyo Wiesnoski, SEO specialist, adlava. For example, a retailer may expect about 40 percent of its website traffic to be organic "because the competition is usually fiercer and paid ads are the norm. Meanwhile, a toddler dance class or daycare center may get 70 percent or more in unpaid traffic, since these types of businesses see so much traffic from social sharing, tagged posts, and reviews on platforms like Yelp." 

Other experts say a company's percentage of organic traffic referrals from Google should be comparable to other referring sources. Tom Smykowski, CEO of Websoul, says ideally, website referrals should be evenly distributed among five sources: Google, social media, non-social referrals, paid ads (including display and search ads), and direct traffic (e.g., visitors arrive by directly entering a site's URL or by clicking on link in a newsletter).

Levent Gurses, founder of Movel, thinks 30 percent of traffic should come from Google; 20 percent from referrals from other sites; 20 percent from social channels; another 20 percent for direct traffic; and the remaining 10 percent from other content venues.

[Related: How to prepare for Google's next major search update ]

Others search gurus say organic traffic referrals form Google shouldn't be higher than Google's own share of the search engine market, which was 64 percent as of July 2015, according to comScore.

For example, JotForm, an online forms design site, receives 50 percent of organic traffic from Google, according to Chad Reid, the company's director of communications. Another 10 percent comes from Google AdWords; 2 percent from Facebook; 5 percent from Twitter; Medium (a blog platform) drives 5 percent; Bing another 5 percent; and 3 percent comes from other social media networks, such as Google+, Instagram, and Pinterest. The remaining 20 percent of referrals come from online media articles in which JotForm is mentioned.

Chuck Sharpsteen, founder of marketing firm Whiskey Neat, studied referral numbers from his firm's top 10 clients looking for patterns. Google referrals ranged from 73 percent to 96 percent of the clients' overall organic search traffic, with an average of 82.4 percent, he says.

Ultimately, somewhere between 60 to 80 percent of organic traffic referrals from Google is about right, according to Anthony De Guzman, SEO specialist, Saatchi & Saatchi Canada. That's because the organic traffic sites receive from Google search results is often targeted and comes from motivated visitors (or "low funnel," in marketing terms). That type of traffic is more likely to result in lower bounce rates and "a better quality of targeted exposure," Guzman says. 

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