How to Build a High-Traffic Web Site (or Blog)
by Steve Pavlina (stevepavlina.com)
Since posting my 2005 traffic figures recently, I’ve received many questions about how I was able to start this web site from scratch and build its traffic to over 700,000 visitors per month (Jan 2006 projection) in about 15 months – without spending any money on marketing or promotion. Building a high-traffic web site was my intention from the very beginning, so I don’t think this result was accidental.
My traffic-building strategy isn’t based on tricks or techniques that will go out of style. It’s mainly about providing genuine value and letting word of mouth do the rest. Sadly, this makes me something of a contrarian today, since I happen to disagree with much of what I’ve seen written about traffic-building elsewhere. I do virtually no marketing for this site at all. My visitors do it for me, not because I trick them into doing it but simply because they want to. KEEP READING TO LEARN THE TOP 10 WAYS TO BUILD HIGH TRAFFIC
Here are 10 of my best suggestions for building a high traffic web site:
1. Create valuable content.
Is your content worthy of being read by millions of people? Remember that the purpose of content is to provide value to others. Do you provide genuine value, and is it the best you’re capable of providing?
When I sit down to write, I sometimes imagine myself standing on an outdoor concert stage before an audience of a million people. Then I ask myself, “What shall I say to this audience of fellow human beings?” If a million people each spend five minutes on this site, that’s nearly 10 person-years total. I do my best to make my writing worthy of this differential. I don’t always succeed, but this is the mindset that helps me create strong content.
Think about the effect you want your writing to have on people. Since I write about personal growth, I want my writing to change people for the better. I want to expand people’s thinking, to raise their consciousness, and to help them eliminate fear from their lives. If my writing doesn’t change people’s thinking, actions, or awareness, then my value isn’t being transferred well enough.
When you focus on providing real value instead of churning out disposable content, your readers will notice. And they’ll refer others to your site – in droves. I typically see at least 10 new links to my site appearing each day (mostly via trackbacks but also via vanity feeds). I’m not going out and requesting those links – other bloggers just provide them, usually because they’re commenting on something I’ve written. Many fellow bloggers have also honored StevePavlina.com with a general recommendation for the entire site, not just links to my individual blog posts. It’s wonderful to see that kind of feedback.
Strong content is universally valued. It’s hard work to create it, but in the long run it generates lots of long-term referral traffic. I’d rather write one article I’m really proud of than 25 smaller posts. It’s been my experience that the best articles I write will outperform all the forgettable little posts I’ve made. Quality is more important than quantity. Quantity without quality, however, is easier, which is one reason so many people use that strategy. Ultimately, however, the Internet already contains more quantity than any one of us can absorb in our lifetimes, but there will always be a place for good quality content that stands out from the crowd.
If you have nothing of genuine value to offer to a large audience, then you have no need of a high-traffic web site. And if there’s no need for it, you probably won’t get it. Each time you write, focus on creating the best content you can. You’ll get better as you go along, but always do your best. I’ve written some 2000-word articles and then deleted them without posting them because I didn’t feel they were good enough.
2. Create original content.
Virtually everything on this site is my own original content. I rarely post blog entries that merely link to what others are writing. It takes more effort to produce original content, but it’s my preferred long-term strategy. I have no interest in creating a personal development portal to other sites. I want this site to be a final destination, not a middleman.
Consequently, when people arrive here, they often stick around for a while. Chances are good that if you like one of my articles, you may enjoy others. This site now has hundreds of them to choose from. You can visit the articles section to read my (longer) feature articles or the blog archives to see an easy-to-navigate list of all my blog entries since the site launched.
Yes, there’s a lot to read on this site, more than most people can read in a day, but there’s also a lot of value (see rule #1). Some people have told me they’ve read for many hours straight, and they leave as different people. I think anyone who reads this site for several hours straight is going to experience a shift in awareness. When you read a lot of dense, original content from a single person, it’s going to have an impact on you. And this content is written with the intention to help you grow.
Although I’m not big on competing with others, it’s hard to compete with an original content site. Anyone can start their own personal development web site, but the flavor of this site is unique simply because no one else has had the exact same experiences as me.
While I think sites that mainly post content from others have the potential to build traffic faster in the beginning, I think original content sites have an easier time keeping their traffic, which makes for a more solid, long-term foundation. Not everyone is going to like my work, but for those that do, there’s no substitute.
3. Create timeless content.
While I do occasionally write about time-bound events, the majority of my content is intended to be timeless. I’m aware that anything I write today may still be read by people even after I’m dead. People still quote Aristotle today because his ideas have timeless value, even though he’s been dead for about 2300 years. I think about how my work might influence future generations in addition to my own. What advice shall I pass on to my great grandchildren?
I tend to ignore fads and current events in my writing. Wars, natural disasters, and corrupt politicians have been with us for thousands of years. There are plenty of others who are compelled to write about those things, so I’ll leave that coverage to them.
Will the content you’re creating today still be providing real value in the year 2010? 2100? 4000?
Writing for future generations helps me cut through the fluff and stay focused on the core of my message, which is to help people grow. As long as there are people (even if our bodies are no longer strictly biological), there will be the opportunity for growth, so there’s a chance that at least some of what I’m creating today will still have relevance. And if I can write something that will be relevant to future generations, then it will certainly be relevant and meaningful today.
In terms of traffic building, timeless content connects with people at a deeper level than time-bound content. The latter is meant to be forgotten, while the former is meant to be remembered. We forget yesterday’s news, but we remember those things that have meaning to us. So I strive to write about meanings instead of happenings.
Even though we’re conditioned to believe that news and current events are important, in the grand scheme of things, most of what’s covered by the media is trivial and irrelevant. Very little of today’s news will even be remembered next week, let alone a hundred years from now. Certainly some events are important, but at least 99% of what the media covers is irrelevant fluff when viewed against the backdrop of human history.
Ignore the fluff, and focus on building something with the potential to endure. Write for your children and grandchildren.
4. Write for human beings first, computers second.
A lot has been written about the optimal strategies for strong search engine rankings in terms of posting frequency and post length. But I largely ignore that advice because I write for human beings, not computers.
I write when I have something meaningful to say, and I write as much as it takes to say it. On average I post about five times per week, but I have no set quota. I also write much longer entries than most bloggers. No one has ever accused me of being too brief. My typical blog entry is about 1500-2000 words, and some (like this one) are much longer. Many successful bloggers would recommend I write shorter entries (250-750 words) and post more frequently (20x per week), since that creates more search engine seeds for the same amount of writing. And while I agree with them that such a strategy would generate more search engine traffic, I’m not going to take their advice. To do so would interfere too much with my strategy of delivering genuine value and creating timeless content. I have no interest in cranking out small chunks of disposable content just to please a computer. Anyone can print out an article to read later if they don’t have time to read it now and if the subject is of genuine interest to them. Part of the reason I write longer articles is that even though fewer people will take the time to read them, for those that do the articles are usually much more impactful.
Because of these decisions, my search engine traffic is fairly low compared to other bloggers. Google is my #1 referrer, but it accounts for less than 1.5% of my total traffic. My traffic is extremely decentralized. The vast majority of it comes from links on thousands of other web sites and from direct requests. Ultimately, my traffic grows because people tell other people about this site, either online or offline. I’ve also done very well with social bookmarking sites like del.icio.us, digg.com, and reddit.com because they’re based on personal recommendations. I’ve probably had about a dozen articles hit the del.icio.us popular list within the past year, definitely more than my fair share.
I prefer this traffic-building strategy because it leaves me less vulnerable to shifts in technology. I figure that Google ultimately wants to make it easy for its visitors to find valuable content, so my current strategy should be in alignment with Google’s long-term strategy. My feeling is that Google would be well-served by sending more of its traffic here. But that alignment simply arises from my focus on providing value first and foremost.
5. Know why you want a high-traffic site.
I write because my purpose in life is to help people become more conscious and aware – to grow as human beings. I don’t have a separate job or career other than this. Because my work is driven by this purpose, I have a compelling reason to build a high-traffic web site, one that aligns with my deepest personal values. More web traffic means I can have a bigger impact by reaching more people. And over the course of the next few decades, this influence has the potential to create a positive change that might alter the future direction of human civilization. Most significantly, I want to help humanity move past fear and for us to stop relating to each other through the mechanisms of fear. If I fail, I fail. But I’m not giving up no matter how tough it gets.
Those are big stakes, and it might sound like I’m exaggerating, but this is the level at which I think about my work today. Everything else I do, including building a high traffic web site, is simply a means to that end. Today I’m just planting seeds, and most of them haven’t even sprouted yet. A high traffic web site is just one of the sprouts that came about as a result of pursuing the purpose that drives me. But it is not an end in itself.
What will you do if you succeed in building a high-traffic web site? If you someday find yourself in the privileged position of being able to influence millions of people, what will you say to them? Will you honor and respect this position by using it as a channel to serve the highest good of all, or will you throw that opportunity away to pursue your own fleeting fame and fortune while feeding your audience disposable drivel?
Although I launched this web site in October 2004, I’ve been writing articles since 1999, and feedback has allowed me to understand how small slices of my writing have affected certain people in the long run. After reading something I’ve written, people have quit their jobs, started their own businesses, changed religions, and ended relationships. While some people might find this level of impact ego-gratifying, for me it intensifies my feeling of personal responsibility for my writing. I’ve seen that I’m able to have an impact on people, so I damned well better make it a good one.
This “why” is what drives me. It’s what compels me to go to my computer and write something at 3am and not stop until 10am. I get inspired often. The #1 reason I want more traffic is that it will allow me to help more people. That’s where I direct my ambition for this site, and consequently I’m extremely motivated, which certainly plays a key role in taking action.
6. Let your audience see the real you.
My life and my writing are intricately intertwined, such that it’s impossible to separate the two. When someone reads this web site, they’ll eventually come to know a great deal about me as a person. Usually this creates a skewed and inaccurate impression of who I am today because I change a lot over time – I’m not the same person I was last year – but it’s close enough. Getting to know me makes it easier for people to understand the context of what I write, which means that more value can be transferred in less time.
I’ve told many personal stories on this site, including my most painful and difficult experiences. I don’t do this to be gratuitous but rather because those stories help make a point – that no matter where you find yourself today, you always have the opportunity to grow in some small way, and no matter how small those changes are, they’re going to add up over time to create massive lifelong growth. That’s a lesson we all need to remember.
When I find ways to turn some of my darkest experiences into lessons that might help others in similar situations, it actually transforms those painful memories into joyful ones. They take on new meaning for me, and I can see that there was a positive reason I had to endure such experiences, one that ultimately serves the highest good of all. Oddly, I now find that it was my darkest times that help create the most light for others.
With respect to privacy, I don’t really care much for it. I do respect other people’s right to privacy, so when people tell me personal stories via email, I don’t turn around and re-post them to my blog. But I’m OK with being rather un-private myself. The need for privacy comes from the desire to protect the ego, which is a fear-driven desire, and fear is something I just don’t need in my life. My attitude is that it’s perfectly OK to fail or to be rejected publicly. Trying to appear perfect is nothing but a house of cards that will eventually collapse.
I think allowing people to know the real me makes it possible to build a relationship with my audience that’s based on intimacy and friendship. I dislike seeing people putting me on too much of a pedestal and using labels like “guru” or “overachiever.” Such labels create distance which makes communication harder. They emphasize our differences instead of our similarities. Communication between equals – between friends – is more effective.
More genuine communication means better connections with your audience, which means more repeat traffic and more referral traffic. This isn’t a manipulative game though, and excessive or overly dramatic self-disclosure for the purpose of linkbaiting will only backfire. Your reasons for storytelling must be to benefit your audience. The traffic benefits are a positive side effect.
7. Write what is true for you, and learn to live with the consequences.
If the stuff I’ve written on this site means I’ll never be able to run for a political office, I can live with that. I’m willing to write what is true for me, even if it goes against my social conditioning. Being honest is more important to me than being popular. But the irony is that because bold honesty is so rare among civilized humans, in the long run this may be the best traffic-building strategy of all.
People often warn me not to write things that might alienate a portion of my visitors. But somehow I keep doing the opposite and seeing traffic go up, not down. I don’t treat any subjects as taboo or sacred if they’re relevant to personal growth, and that includes diet and religion. It’s no secret that I’m a vegan ex-Catholic. Do I alienate people when I say that torturing and killing defenseless animals for food is wrong? Perhaps. But truth is truth. I happen to think it’s a bad idea to feed cows cement dust and bovine growth hormone, to pack live chickens into warehouses where the ammonia from their feces is strong enough to burn their skin off, and to feed 70% of our grain to livestock while tens of thousands of people die of hunger each day. I also think it’s a bad idea to pay people to perform these actions on my behalf. It really doesn’t matter to me that 999 people out of 1000 disagree with me. Your disagreement with me doesn’t change what went into producing your burger. It’s still a diseased, tortured, chemical-injected cow, one that was doomed to a very sad life because of a decision you made. And you’re still responsible for your role in that cow’s suffering whether you like it or not.
That last paragraph is a good example of the kind of stuff I write that makes people want to put me in a cage, inject me with hormones, and feed me cement dust. It wouldn’t surprise me terribly if that ends up being my fate.
I write what is true for me, regardless of public opinion. Sometimes I’m in the majority; sometimes I’m not. I’m fully aware that some of my opinions are unpopular, and I’m absolutely fine with that. What I’m not fine with is putting truth to a vote.
I take the time to form my own opinions instead of simply regurgitating what I was taught as a child. And I’m also well aware that there are people spending billions of dollars to make you think that a burger is not a very sad, diseased, tortured, chemical-injected cow. But I’m going to keep writing to help you remain aware of things like that, even though you may hate me for it. That defensiveness eventually leads to doubt, which leads to change and growth, so it’s perfectly fine. I’m good at dealing with defensiveness.
I don’t worry too much about hurting people’s feelings. Hurt feelings are a step in the right direction for many people. If I’m able to offend you so easily, to me that means you already recognize some truth in what I’ve written, but you aren’t ready to face it consciously yet. If you read something from me that provokes an emotional reaction, then a seed has already been planted. In other words, it’s already too late for you.
My goal isn’t to convince anyone of anything in particular. I’m not an animal rights activist, and I don’t have a religion to promote. My goal is to awaken people to living more consciously. This requires raising people’s awareness across all facets of their lives, so they can make the big decisions for themselves. It requires breaking social conditioning and replacing it with conscious awareness and intention. That’s a big job, but someone has to do it. And if I don’t do it, then I have to admit I’m just part of the problem like all the other hibernating bears.
A lot has been written about the importance of transparency in blogging, and truth is the best transparency of all. Truth creates trust, and trust builds traffic. No games, no gimmicks… just plain old brutal honesty. Even the people that say they hate you will still come back, and eventually those people will become your most ardent supporters. Even if they don’t agree with you, they’ll learn they can trust you and that your intentions are honorable, and trust is more important than agreement.
8. Treat your visitors like real human beings.
Even though I’m sitting at my computer writing this, seemingly alone, I know you’re a real human being reading it on the other end. My apologies to sentient androids who may be reading this years after it’s been written. You aren’t just a number in my web stats. Despite the technology involved and the time-space differential between my writing and your reading, there’s still a human-to-human connection between us that transcends time and space. And that connection matters to me. I feel its presence whenever I do my best writing.
While I imagine being on a stage in front of a million people when deciding which topic to write about, once I actually get going, I imagine having a one-on-one conversation with a friend. This means revealing some of myself and being honest, as the last two points already addressed, but it also means genuinely caring about you as a person. And that’s perhaps one of the best kept secrets of my success as a blogger. I actually care about helping you grow. I want you to become more conscious and aware. I want you to experience less fear in your life. And my concern for your well-being isn’t conditional upon you liking me.
I happen to think we have a lot more similarities than differences. Based on what I know about myself, I imagine you’d like your life to be better tomorrow than it was yesterday. I imagine you’d like to be happier, more fulfilled, and more at peace with yourself. I also imagine you’re living below your potential and could use some help overcoming fear and solving certain problems to enable you to tap more of that potential. And finally, I imagine you wouldn’t believe me if I said you can have it all for only $19.95 (as well you shouldn’t).
The reason I work so hard to create original content and then give it away for free is because I want to help as many people as possible. I genuinely care what happens to this beautiful planet and to the people who live here. It’s possible I actually value your life even more than you do. This is the kind of motivation that never wanes. I sometimes lose sight of it when I get caught up in the details, but the connection is always there, waiting for me to tap into it whenever I want. This provides me with a wellspring of creative ideas and an inexhaustible passion for contribution.
I don’t need to play stupid marketing and sales games with you. There’s nothing for you to buy here. Even if I add some products in the future, I’m not going to try to manipulate you into buying something you don’t need with a slew of false promises. I might make more money in the short-term by doing that, but it would sever our genuine connection, create a wall between us, and reduce the level of impact I’m able to have. Ultimately, that approach would lead to failure for me, at least in terms of how I define success. I can’t help you grow if I violate your trust.
I cannot force anyone to grow who doesn’t want to. But there are a lot of people on this planet who are now ready to let go of low-awareness living and start pushing themselves to the next level of human existence. And they need help to get there because it’s a difficult journey, and there are strong forces working against it.
Real human beings helping real human beings is ultimately what traffic growth is all about. That’s precisely what a link or a referral is. If you align yourself with the intention of genuinely helping people because you care, you’ll soon find yourself with an abundance of traffic.
9. Keep money in its proper place.
Money is important. Obviously I have bills to pay. Money pays for my computer, my high-speed internet connection, my house, and my food. I just returned yesterday from a vacation that money paid for. My wife and I had a great time partly because we didn’t have to worry about money at all on the trip. We did everything we wanted to do without being hampered by a lack of funds. And this web site paid for it.
It’s important that I generate some money from my work, but it’s not necessary that I extract every possible dollar. In fact, relative to its traffic levels, I’m seriously under-monetizing this site. But money is only a means to an end, not an end in itself. Making a positive contribution to the world is a lot more important to me than money. Money can be useful in achieving this objective, but human relationships are far more important. The funny thing is that the less I rely on money, the more of it I seem to have.
I’m already making more money than I need to pay my bills, and my income from this site keeps going up each month. If I simply keep doing what I’m doing, I’ll probably end up becoming fairly wealthy. But money is an extremely weak motivator for me. Very little of what I do today has a profit motive behind it except to the extent that money will fuel more important goals. That tends to confuse certain people because some of my decisions align with earning money, but many don’t. While I do consider myself an entrepreneur (at least it’s less isolating than “guru”), I only see money as a tool for enhancing and expanding my contribution.
While many entrepreneurs pursue money for the purpose of becoming wealthy, I chose a different route. I sought to earn money for the purpose of increasing my freedom. I don’t want to get myself stuck in a pattern of working for money, so I’m constantly turning down opportunities to make money that would restrict my freedom. For example, I don’t do any consulting or coaching. Consequently, my calendar contains very few fixed appointments. This doesn’t mean I’m idle. It just means I spend my time doing what I freely choose to do instead of what others would have me do. I require this level of flexibility to do my best work.
By paying close attention to how I earn money and not just how much I earn, I keep money in its proper place. This allows me to stay focused on my purpose without getting wrapped up in less important concerns like building a brand, closing sales, or doing phony marketing.
I dislike it when other people use one-dimensional sales and marketing tactics on me, so I avoid using these techniques on this site. I’ve sort of unplugged myself from the current capitalistic system and set up a side system of my own that I find much more congruent with conscious living. I would love for other people to have the same level of freedom I enjoy each day. I’m sure I’ll continue to improve my approach over time, but it’s working wonderfully so far. Imagine having a business with no products, no inventory, no sales, and no customers, but still generating an abundant positive cashflow.
Since the income generation is largely on autopilot, I can focus my time and energy on creating content instead of on doing marketing or trying to sell something. And being able to devote so much time to content creation without worrying how I’ll pay my bills makes it a lot easier to build high traffic.
Some business models make it very challenging to build traffic. You have to spend a lot of time and energy just on lead generation, and then maybe you try to monetize those leads by selling a product or service. It’s always an uphill struggle.
I give all my best content away for free. Word of mouth does the rest. So my traffic building strategy is more like flowing downstream. It hasn’t been a struggle for me at all. And once you have sufficient traffic, it isn’t that hard to monetize it without becoming an ogre.
We’ve all heard the expression, “Build a better mousetrap, and they’ll come.” And we’ve also heard marketing and sales people say that this is just plain wrong – you have to market and sell that mousetrap effectively too. I say they’re all wrong. My approach is the equivalent of, “Build a better mousetrap and give it away for free, and they’ll come – and they’ll bring friends too.”
10. If you forget the first nine suggestions, just focus on genuinely helping people, and the rest will take care of itself.
One thing that turns me off about typical self-help marketing is that authors and speakers often position themselves as if they’re the opposite of their audience. I’m successful and you’re not. I’m rich and you’re not. I’m fit and you’re not. You need me because something is lacking in your life, I have exactly what you lack, and if you pay me (and make me even richer and you poorer), I’ll show you how you can have it too. And if it doesn’t work for you, it just means you’re even more of an idiot than the people who provided my testimonials.
I’m sure you’ve heard this sort of nonsense many times before.
All of this I’ve-arrived-and-you-haven’t stuff is stupid. It suggests that life is about destinations and that once you’ve arrived, you’re done growing and can just relax and sip fruity drinks for the rest of your life. But there’s more to life than border crossings. If you go from single to married or from non-millionaire to millionaire, that’s fine and dandy. Crossing the border into parenthood was a big one for me. But that’s only one day of my life, and to be honest, I didn’t have much control over it except for a decision made nine-months earlier (and it seemed like a pretty attractive idea at the time). What about all those other days though?
Growing as a human being is something I work on daily. I’m deeply passionate about my own growth, so naturally I want to share this part of the journey with others. If I start marketing myself with the “I’m successful and you’re not approach,” I hope someone will come put me out of my misery, since that would mean I’m done growing and ready to die. I don’t expect to ever be done growing as long as I exist as a human being. There are always new distinctions to be made and new experiences to enjoy. And yes… plenty of mistakes to be made as well.
One of the great benefits of focusing on helping others is that it gets fear out of the way. Without fear you become free to just be yourself. You’re able to take intelligent risks and remain detached from any specific outcome because the journey is more important to you than the specific stops along the way. Personally it’s not the destinations that excite me but rather the unfolding process of discovery. I love the anticipation of wondering what lies around each new bend.
If we are to help each other, we need to be partners in the pursuit of growth, not opponents. So it makes no sense to put up fake walls between us. The ego needs walls to protect it, but if we can get past the fear-based needs of the ego, we’ll make a lot more progress.
There are plenty of things I could do with this site that would make me more money or grow traffic faster in the short-term, but I won’t do them because they’ll just put more distance between us. I’ll be on my side, you’ll be on your side, and we’ll each be slightly afraid of the other. I’ll be worried that maybe you won’t buy what I’m selling, and you’ll be worried about getting ripped off or taken advantage of. We’ll just be drinking yet another round of fear, which is exactly the opposite of what we need to grow.
One of my biggest challenges in life right now is figuring out how to help enough people switch their primary polarization from fear to love. Our emotions are an energy source for us (they drive our actions), and most of the world is still driven by fear energy. Watching TV news is a good example; we can actually feel energized by watching others suffer. Hurting animals is another example; we eat their fear for breakfast. But there’s another fuel for human consciousness, and perhaps the best way to describe it is unconditional love. This isn’t the squishy emotion of romantic love – it’s a sense of connection to everything that exists and a desire to serve the highest good of all. Unconditional love, when it becomes one’s primary fuel, cultivates fearlessness. In this state you still have the biological fight-or-flight response, but you aren’t driven by emotional worries like fear of failure or fear of rejection. You feel perfectly safe regardless of external circumstances. And when you have this feeling of unconditional safety, you’re truly free to be yourself, to embrace new experiences, and to grow at a very fast pace.
Personal growth is not a zero-sum game. If you grow as a human being, it doesn’t harm me. In fact, ultimately if all of us grow as individuals, it’s going to make this whole planet better for everyone. When enough people switch their primary polarization from fear to unconditional love, this planet will become a true paradise. That’s a good thing for all of us, one that’s more important than all the money in the world.
Perhaps you have a less ambitious goal for building web traffic than raising human consciousness and working towards world peace. That doesn’t matter. You can still make helping others your primary focus, and if you do that, you’ll find it relatively easy to build a high-traffic web site. If you align yourself with serving the highest good of all, you’ll receive plenty of help along the way, and best of all, you’ll deserve it.
Do your best to help your visitors out of genuine concern for their well-being, and they’ll help you build your traffic and even generate a nice income from it. It’s as simple as that.
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