Never, Ever, Pay For Traffic

My phone just rang and I took the call. A very effective sales guy offered me traffic. Every functioning neuron in my under-caffeinated brain fired with the instinctive response ‘no no no!’. I resisted the urge to just hang up, because Dear Reader, part of my job is to listen to such pitches and sift through them on your behalf. Should I stumble upon a diamond, or anything else made of carbon, I’ll be sure to let you know.

I may well be packed-to-the-gills with hubris, but why am I so sure that paying for traffic is always wrong?

Well, let’s start with why SEM is so effective. When you buy keywords or hire SEO gurus, you are getting your message in front of the consumer at the exact moment where they are making a buying decision. Perhaps it’s one of many decisions they will make before the final purchase choice, but the inescapable fact is the visitor has some kind of intent. And that is the magic word. SEM professionals take this for granted because it’s worked so well over the past 6 years, since Google reinvented search results and PPC advertising. Google effectively taught the consumer that if they type their problem into the box, solutions appear.

Now, we also know that buying the same keyword in syndication (ie showing up in AdSense results) has a far lower rate of conversion, and therefore you should pay less for it. Around 1/10th the value is the consensus here at the office. This is because the visitor clicking the ads very rarely has intent. They are not so deeply interested in your product that they started out by typing some keywords into Google. They are in fact browsing. Just noodling around and clicky-clicky on stuff that seems interesting or at least diverting.

Nevertheless, for some advertisers it’s worth buying the adsense stuff for 1/10th the price and hoping some browsers come back sometime later with intent

So imagine seeing a business plan for a new internet advertising company. It might have these salient points:

  • PPC model where advertisers pay for traffic to their site
  • More clicks = more revenue
  • Search is hot, therefore we will be a ‘search engine’
  • Direct sales force that calls on SMBs

This has cashectomy written all over it. These advertising companies are not search engines because no consumers go there to perform searches. Most of them masquerade as search engines by having a box on the front page, but does anyone go there with intent? Nevertheless, by calling themselves a search engine they can get the advertisers attention, and it helps the sales force pitch. You trust Google to deliver advertising results, so you’re going to trust other ‘search engines’.

The more clicks = more revenue of course has many problems. It leads to click fraud, but worse than that, it leads to dubious methods of inserting the advertisers sites into the visitors clicking. Because of the desperate need to generate revenue via clicks that lead to your site, they will get in the visitors face so much that the visitor clicks by accident. This is not intent nor even browsing but is instead merely traffic.

So my advice is to never pay for traffic but to pay handsomely for intent and to consider paying for browsing

If you really must buy traffic then look very carefully for click fraud. Look very carefully for signs of zero intent (short average time on site) and ruthlessly kill all campaigns that don’t deliver within a couple of weeks. Don’t wait for ROI analysis to tell you the campaign isn’t working. ROI is often zero even for good campaigns, due to cookie deletion and latent conversions. You need to examine metrics like time on site and use that as a predictor for whether the visitors have intent or are behaving like traffic

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  1. Steve Mondazzi says

    I have my site for about 4 years and have been using Google PPC primarily for attracting customers. Your article appears to say that it’s good to buy keywords but not pay for PPC. Is that correct? If so, could you please explain the difference?
    Thanks very much,
    Steve Mondazzi

  2. Loretta Healy says

    I put my money on “i need hits” for SEO etc. and it has paid off over the years because of their professional approach. I am in the top 10 for several terms and in the top 30 for most of the rest. Here’s to organic advertising if I am using the term correctly. I used to pay for clicks but they became too expensive for such a small company as mine. Lori Healy

  3. admin says

    Let me clarify: I’m not saying that PPC is bad. Quite the opposite, in fact. Many bought keywords are money well spent. As long as the clicks you’re buying (or optimizing for) come with intent, you’re doing great. The problem comes when the clicks have no intent. In that case all you’re buying is traffic.

    Perhaps you’re buying the exact right set of keywords which have strong intent associated with them, in which case you can save away this article and not worry for now. On the other hand, perhaps some of your keywords have weak intent (browsing) or no intent (traffic). Examine them carefully.

    Finally, my last paragraph sums up what to do: pay handsomely for intent, considering paying for browsing, avoid paying for traffic. Exactly where an ad falls within this spectrum depends on the keywords you’re buying, the copy within the ad, and where the ad shows up. Search has much stronger intent than content.

  4. Steve Mondazzi says

    Thanks. I do try and keep up with my Google PPC to focus the keywords that I beleive to be creating the most intent. Driving the organic improvements have been the most challenging (and for most others too it appears) so I try to be reasonable with my PPC budget while still trying to drive more sales. Thanks for the great article.

  5. Rose Sylvia says

    The effective linkbait style title may cause some to miss the very perceptive true point that one should not pay for TRAFFIC as all traffic is not created equally.

    Steve wisely recommends paying for traffic when the real visitors have the intention of taking the action you are interested in having them take. In other words you are looking for traffic that CONVERTS.

    This is excellent advice and becoming ever more essential to online success as the ppc engines and especially Google are now manipulating the quality of the traffic advertisers using AdWords are buying. Buyer beware.

    I’ve been posting graphs showing what is going on and linking to other bloggers who have raised the same concerns. If you pay for traffic you better keep your eyes open and guard your wallet.

  6. Sam Freedom Internet Marketing says

    Your article body seems to conflict with the title. That’s why Steve is a bit confused. You begin by saying to never buy traffic. Then you say that ppc isn’t bad but one should test for click fraud. Then you “clarify” by equating keyword purchases with ppc advertising when we marketers use keyword purchases for other things, too, such as seeding our articles.

    It might have better been titled, “Why I Never TRUST Paid-for-Traffic” because it makes no sense to say “I never said ppc was bad” after the title says to “never pay for traffic, ever”

  7. admin says

    I really appreciate the comments.

    I did make the title provocative simply because I want people to think before they buy traffic. I am strongly of the opinion that buying traffic is bad. If you view your customers as traffic, it won’t be long before you view them as cattle (and I’ve heard that term used by low end PPC engines too). You must view your web site visitors as people, with desires and needs. Viewing them as traffic means to me that you don’t care. You need to care because that’s how you get inside their head, learn what they want, and deliver better quality products and services than your competition.

  8. Biju says

    Came across this site searching for Mr. Kaushiks’s works. Found lots of useful information for me, since I’m just beginning to learn SEO/PPC stuffs. Appretiate the works on this blog. I’m not a member now, since I can’t afford it right now. So please continue with the posts. Thanks so much

  9. Tandem Paragliding Tiger says

    I have work with clients who are lawyers that got ripped off by online yellow pages like and zero conversions sold in a bundle as Google and ” some other search engines” My experience is that other traffic sources are not worth spending time and money on compared to quality traffic for Google, Yahoo or MSN Live. Also find lots of local directories that are not worth fees they charge for a premium listing.


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