SEO is harder than you think

Here is a frequent advice for aspiring entrepreneur: even before you launch your product, start a blog. Blog about topics related to your product, the product itself, blog about anything.

It’s a good advice, I just wish it was followed with "but don’t expect miracles" qualifier.

Bad expectations

People giving this advice usually provide 37signals or Joel Spolsky as examples of bloggers that have hundreds of thousands of readers and who used that attention to launch very successful businesses.

The thing is: your blog won’t get hundereds of thousands of readers and you need more than than to build a successful business.

This is a common problem called survivorship bias: when we only look at successes, we only see successes. It seems like being successful is the only natural state of being. What we don’t see is thousands of other people who started blogs, put as much effort into them as 37signals did and don’t have much to show for it.

You're not a handsome billionaire

It’s true: 37signals and Joel Spolsky built huge readerships. It’s also true that they are incredibly good writers and you are not.

Another way to get lots of traffic is by being a celebrity. Ashton Kutcher doesn’t have so many followers because his tweets are so much better than yours or mine. Steve Jobs will get coverage on engadget based on enigmatic e-mail with few words.

But you’re not a handsome millionaire, you wont get attention of a celebrity and you’re unlikely to produce top quality content like Joel Spolsky.

How to attract traffic and why you shouldn't

There are ways to engineer your posts for maximum traffic.

One is to be controversial or polarizing. Few years ago I wrote a post critical of Google. For the proverbial 15 minutes it attracted the attention of blogosphere. Some were criticizing my arguments, some were agreeing but they all were linking. My RSS subscriber count shot up.

For a moment, I was living a dream but was this traffic really worth much as a way to promote a product or build a lasting, focused readership base? Probably not. Since I didn’t follow up with similarly exciting posts, I just earned a bunch of disappointed readers.

Another is to write inane, superficial posts. "5 ways to achieve long lasting success". "What I’ve learned driving Honda to work today".

Posts like that pretend to address a universal need (who doesn’t want long lasting success) or tickle innate human curiosity ("I wonder what did he learn") but they result in drive by traffic from ADD generation. You spent 5 minutes writing it, they’ll spend 1 minute reading it and will move to another inane, superficial post. Such traffic is not valuable to you.

The one way to attract traffic that I recommend is to write thoughtful, high-quality posts that provide useful information. That will build a readership base of people looking for thoughtful, useful content (as opposed to people looking for sensationalist headlines). More importantly, it’ll build your reputation and people will be more likely to listen to you when you have something to sell to them.

How to achieve mediocrity in eight years, just like me.

What kind of traffic can you realistically expect for your blog? I’ll use myself as an example, because that’s the only example I have.

I’ve been blogging for 8 years. I wrote ~650 posts. I have one popular open-source program (5k downloads per day) and a few less popular ones.

According to feedburner, I have 349 RSS subscribers. According to Google Analytics, I have 21k visits from 18k unique visitors per month.

I’m not a total looser but its not a smashing success either.

More importantly, even with this decent amount of traffic, I couldn’t make any given product a success.

You don't need a lot of traffic, or seed theory of success.

The reason why you shouldn’t get depressed right about now is this: you don’t actually need a lot of traffic to successfully promote your product.

A simplistic way to look at this is: the more traffic you get, the more people will know about your product, the more people will buy it, the more money you’ll make.

In reality the quality of your product is a very important multiplier of that traffic. If your product sucks, no one will buy regardless of how widely it’s advertised.

If your product is awesomely great, not only will everyone buy it but they’ll also blog about how great it is and tell everyone they know to buy it.

Hence my seed theory of success: you need only enough audience to spark initial interest in your product. How successful it’ll eventually be will be determined by how good it is, how close to totally awesome, not by how big the initial audience was. Due to the nature of compound interest, even a small change in the multiplier (i.e. quality of the product) will, over time, dwarf the importance of the size of the seed audience.

Your product is somewhere in between the extremes: it doesn’t totally suck but it’s also not totally awesome.

The practical consequence of seed theory is: don’t spend too much time blogging to build traffic. You only need a little bit. Spend the time making your product remarkable so that other people will blog about it.

Leave the pimping to pimps.

Ironically, because everyone else is obsessed with blogging for the sake of building traffic, they’ll do the blogging for your. They’re desperate for things to blog about, you just have to give them a reason to blog about your product. The best way to do it is to make it awesome.

Bend, the pudding with the proof

Don’t believe me? I give you Bend Editor as an example. As far as I can tell, it didn’t have a blog, its author didn’t make a single blog post about it. It was just CodePlex project with source code and a downloadable installer (curiously, it’s no longer available on CodePlex).

I found it the other day by browsing CodePlex projects that used WPF. I downloaded it and played with it. It didn’t have many features but it looked really nice, like a notepad after extreme makeover.

I didn’t blog about it but apparently I wasn’t the only one who serendipitously found it. Within days major blogs like lifehacker, appscout and downloadsquad did blog about it, along with many others.

This is an extreme example that validates my point: quality product will be noticed even with zero marketing effort on your part.