According to Benjamin Franklin, the only things that were certain in life were death and taxes. Had the great statesman been alive in this millennium, he would have surely added changes to search engine algorithms to the list.

About three weeks ago, Google rolled out the latest update to its search algorithm, code named Penguin. There is no definitive reason for the quirky naming convention that Google uses (the previous update was called Panda), but looking at the alternate name for the update – webspam algorithm update – we get a better idea of what is going on.

In a nutshell, SEO (Search Engine Optimization) falls into two camps – White Hat SEO and Black Hat SEO – the former is concerned with quality content, proper site architecture, and all-around goodness for the web going public; the later…not so much. It is more concerned with gaming the system and finding the easy, not-so-honest ways to rank high in search results. Penguin simply makes an attempt to clear out the Black Hat SEO that Google feels is prevalent on the web today.

Changes in the search algorithm always come with a healthy dose of ridicule and Penguin is no exception. A quick web search on Google Penguin returns scores of blog postings and articles from online marketers and webmasters who feel that maybe the world of SEO shouldn’t be so, well, black and white.

Google probably isn’t going to roll back the update and that is leaving lots of webmasters wondering how to reclaim the traffic they have lost and how to reduce their exposure to future updates. While the focus in the blogosphere regarding this issue seems to be on fixing bad SEO, which isn’t a bad thing, I want to take a different track and encourage you to revisit your acquisition strategy for website traffic, or develop one if should be the case.

Website traffic, much like an investment portfolio, is best when diversified. The key is in striking a proper balance between traffic you purposely lead to your site and traffic that is trying to find the particular product or service you offer. If changes to the search algorithm are beating you up and causing your traffic numbers to drastically fall off, that may be an indication that you are relying too heavily on search and not putting enough emphasis on acquiring traffic through other sources.

Avinash Kaushik, Google’s Digital Marketing Evangelist and one of the most respected authorities on the subject of digital marketing analysis, suggests the following broad guidelines for traffic acquisition, i.e., this is what we should aspire to:

  • 40-50% from search traffic
  • 20% from direct traffic
  • 20-30% from referrals
  • 10% from campaigns

Again, these are broad recommendations that aren’t meant to fit everyone’s business model or acquisition strategy, but rather a baseline to build from. The key is to avoid limiting your traffic to one or two sources.

I offer Kaushik’s recommendation because his primary reasoning behind the 40-50% range on search traffic is to limit your site’s exposure to changes in the search algorithm. In a simpler context: if you are relying on search engines to do all the work and be the sole provider of visitors to your website, you need to prepare yourself for some serious frustration and disappointment. Even if you are able to build heavy traffic from search alone, simple changes to the algorithm will magnify negative effects and major changes can and most likely will be disastrous.

Take the time to use your site’s analytics platform and look at the traffic data to get a good understanding of where visitors are coming from. If your numbers aren’t in balance then ask yourself the following questions: Are you developing compelling content that is in line with what your search traffic is looking for? Are you leveraging social media as a means to engage your audience and acquire referral traffic? Are you using more traditional forms of marketing to drive direct traffic and/or promoting your site via campaigns?

With the answer to these questions comes the realization that website optimization isn’t an easy task; it isn’t something that you do once and then sit back and watch the traffic roll in. The very use of the term “optimization” suggests that it is an involved and ongoing process that is, ideally, in a constant state of flux. One of the first steps in the process is not only knowing your visitors, but maybe more importantly, knowing what they are telling you by the data their visits leave behind.