Free Traffic vs Gatekeeper Traffic


Usually I prefer to speak about visitors not traffic as in people visiting your site.

Why? The term “traffic” is too fuzzy.

It fails to really explain what is going on on the Web.

It’s a misleading metaphor when it comes to your site in particular.

It’s also dehumanizing. You treat people like an amorphous mass.

You don’t see actual individuals. You only see often meaningless numbers to stroke your ego. We call them “vanity metrics”.

To be able to find some common ground I have to make an exception and to speak about Internet traffic this time as if I would accept this word.

Why? I want to explain the difference between free traffic and gatekeeper traffic on the Web.

The Myth of Free Google Traffic Dissected

Today I will speak about traffic for the sake of simplicity. Why?

In order to dispel a common myth I encounter frequently: the myth of free traffic from Google.

Most people talk about free traffic and mean free as in free beer, not free press.

Free traffic in that case only means that it hasn’t been paid for directly by buying “pay per click ads”.

Yet I refer to both meaning of “free”:

  • free as in no money spent
  • free as in unobstructed by an outside entity.

Most people assume that search engine optimization (SEO) is about free (unpaid) traffic.

In contrast paid traffic is about buying so-called PPC ads on Google, Bing and elsewhere.

Free (as in unpaid) traffic is a myth by itself.

It costs a lot of money to push a site in organic search results!

Unless you do everything yourself. Then still it costs a lot of effort.

You could earn money from client work during that amount of time.

Thus it isn’t free either. That’s obvious though, isn’t it? It does cost work.

Let’s assume that you are the #1 super SEO guru!

That way you don’t need much time to achieve top rankings for your websites on Google.

The Google Gates

Then your traffic is still not free. It’s gatekeeper traffic.

There is a gate you have to pass.

You are not free to choose which gate you pass and how.

Someone else decides on your behalf. You can only optimize according to the gatekeeper’s rules.

Only then you get a better position while waiting in line at the gates to be let through.

Likewise your visitors have to cross the gate and are let through by the gatekeeper Google.

Google requires certain prerequisites to let people enter. Google looks at

  1. who they are
  2. where they live
  3. what they want

and then decides which gate and direction to send them too.

A teenager from the US searching for Madonna will not see the same results an elderly person from Ireland.

Google is looking at your search history, both the recent one and also the overall

It’s often helpful to have Google decide for you but it may be annoying in other cases.

That’s not the point of this article though. The point is simply that you have to understand that

Google traffic is by no means free!

Not even the so-called organic traffic coming from actual search and not ads.

The line is also increasingly blurring. Google displays fewer and fewer organic results and more and more ads.

Ads are by now are barely distinguishable from real results, especially in case when there are no organic results above the fold (without scrolling) visible.

They are also sneaking in Google own services that are nether really organic nor officially paid ads.

SEO experts call them SERP (Search Engine Result Pages) features.

Really Free Traffic

Where’s the real free traffic? This is the next question to answer.

How do we ensure that people can reach our site without having to click ads or to get obstructed by gatekeepers?

Google is not the only gatekeeper. Facebook is a walled garden type of service that is also a gated online community.

Most social sites are also to some extent limiting.

Some old school social sites like Reddit still consider business usage spam as long as you don’t buy ads. Organic reach is only for private use there.

Instead modern social networking and content sharing platforms like X-Twitter encourage business usage as long as they earn money with it:

None of these sites offers free traffic either. All of these services are middlemen you want to cut or gatekeepers.

Gatekeeper traffic is always risky, such services might

  1. close down
  2. get neglected
  3. demand payment

one day. Thus all your time investment in building an audience there results in a huge loss.

You want to make sure to get traffic directly, from sites you control or at least have direct influence on. Sites like

  1. blogs
  2. forums
  3. niche communities (like Product Hunt)
  4. q&a sites like Quora
  5. feedback communities (like UserVoice)
  6. microsites

Above all direct traffic without any proxies is the best. Thus when someone

  • bookmarks your site
  • subscribes to it
  • types in your address

or brand into address bar of their browser you have won.

The traffic is then both free for you and for the visitors.

There is no additional cost for the traffic when you have an audience waiting for your content.

The only effort needed is to publish new content regularly then.

You can also act freely independently of third parties.

* Creative Commons image by Josh Lloyd