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An SEO Guy’s Guide to ‘Free’ Traffic (Hint: It’s Not Free)

Lots of places make a big deal out of ‘free’ traffic. If you’ve ever researched Internet Marketing, for example, the basic theory is ‘build website, engage free traffic, make money.’ That’s all well and good, but what they never tell you is that traffic, like everything else in life, comes in three kinds: the ‘good & cheap’, the ‘cheap & fast’, and the ‘fast & good’.

In other words, if you’re going for free traffic, you’d better be prepared to either wait a loong time for it to work, or be prepared for it to not work very well at all. Here’s a list of the most common free traffic sources and which category they fall into:

Fast and Not Very Effective

  • Comment Marketing — going to other sites that allow commenting, and putting comments in place that direct people to your site.
  • Social Bookmarking — Adding your site to places like Digg, Reddit, Pinterest, and StumbleUpon. Has a slim chance of going viral and creating a wealth of quick traffic, but only if your content is awesome, and even then, it’s like playing the lotto.
  • Q&A Sites — answering questions on places like Yahoo! Answers. Traffic from these tends to drop off very quickly.
  • Document Sharing — putting a white paper or other interesting element up on a place like Scribd.
  • News/Press Releases — submitting a story to the free news aggregators and hoping it makes it to Google News or a similar site. Again, traffic drops off very quickly.

Effective and Not Very Fast

  • Blogging/Podcasting — until you build up a decent base and some authority, blogging/podcasting isn’t going to do much for you. Once you do, it’s quite good, but that can take months or years.
  • Video Marketing — making a video and putting it up on YouTube or other sites. Great once the video is done, but scripting, filming, and editing a video so that it works well takes a while when you have a decent budget; doing it for free is going to take even longer.
  • Forum Marketing — going to forums and marketing your product on them. Most forums discourage this kind of behavior, so you’re going to have to become a valued member of the community before you start pimping your stuff. That can take months — it can be quite fun, but it can take months.
  • Webinars — gathering a bunch of people online to chat (or talk on a group call) with them about your topic of choice. Much like a video, webinars create good traffic the moment they hit, but getting one ready to put on is a long, somewhat hassle-filled affair.
  • Infographics — fun-to-read pictures that convey interesting information. Infographics are made to go viral and
    be shared, and they work — but they require a lot of time and effort both technically and creatively.
  • Whitepapers — highly technical papers describing intricacies of your industry that only other industry specialists or advanced consumers would be interested in. Generates highly targeted and purchase-ready traffic, but takes a lot of expertise and time to write.

Could be Played Either Way

  • Social Media — hanging out and talking shop on Twitter, Facebook, and so forth. If you invest a lot of time in it, the response can be a lot of traffic — or vice versa.
  • Email Marketing — gathering email addresses and sending emails out to your list that are designed to sell your products. If you slap together a 12-part series and then never contact them again, you won’t get much out of it — but if you
    want to get a lot out of it, you have to be prepared to write 1-2 fresh emails every week forever.
  • Linkbuilding — like social media: the more time you spend building links, the more traffic you’ll get, so this one can be either fast and weak or extremely time-consuming and quite useful.

All told, the best ‘free’ traffic probably comes from a combination of several or even most of these — but no one has the time to do all of that and still run a website that’s worth reading. That’s why SEO is worth a significant amount of money, even though the traffic is “free”: having someone else do all of the above for you brings a lot of value, indeed.

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