For a long time, we have all brooded and marveled at how the entire Internet has been deformed by the enormous mass of Google at its center. Just last Friday, Google seemed to conclude that the size of the Web is no larger than the size of its index.
Websites aren’t built anymore for people to use, but for Google to index. As the New York Times noted earlier this month, every Google-optimized site is, in a way, a temple that reinforces Google’s power, built according to rules that Google, like some benign but distant god, has only vaguely outlined.
And let’s face it, without these rules, the Web would be a far less organized, interconnected place: Google favors websites built according to simple principles, whose pages can be updated by its audience, which get lots of links from other sites.
But any system can be exploited, and some popular sites have prospered in part by gaming the system: flooding the index with pages and creating fake links.
Sometimes at Redfin we try to figure out whether to spend our time building a good site for our customers, or for Google. Mostly we try to convince ourselves these are one and the same thing.
For example, we spent a few months re-mapping millions of URLs so they better describe the page they represent (such as http://www.redfin.com/WA/Seattle/2416-24th-Ave-E-98112/home/138344), a Google-driven feature that our users may appreciate but probably not as much as townhouse or parking filters.
And even though we’ve just scratched the surface of how we need to optimize our site for Google, we’ve recently begun to wonder — yes, this is heresy — if drawing lots of random visitors from Google should really be our goal.
Redfin isn’t like ad-driven sites, which make money from visitors regardless of whether they come from Google through some random carom or hear about the site from a friend and plunge in up to their eyeballs.
We don’t get paid until a customer uses our site to buy a house, which usually involves hundreds of visits over half a dozen months (hence our Freakish Depth strategy).
If Google sends the wrong people our way, our traffic may go through the roof but our business grows more slowly. Which is exactly what has been happening (that is, we’re growing, but not as fast as our traffic). So we’ve begun to wonder if Google’s visitors ever stick around long enough to become Redfin addicts.
So we formed a theory, that as the percentage of visitors coming from Google increased (excluding folks searching on “Redfin” and similar terms), more would bounce off. The table below maps some key stats through the first half of 2008; the “bounce rate” on the last row is how many visits end with only one page being visited.
|Growth in Unique Visitors||29%||14%||18%||12%||18%||17%|
|% Redfin’s Visits from Google||14.6%||14.4%||16.6%||18.7%||20.3%||21.2%|
|Bounce Rate, All Visits||3.50%||3.59%||2.52%||3.33%||2.44%||2.48%|
As you can see, as more visits come from Google, fewer of them bounce off. Which basically tells us that Google not only sends more people our way, but sends people our way who apparently decide they’ve come to the right place. What a great search engine! So much for our theory that traffic from Google is lower quality.
In fact, when we survey Redfin’s visitors, 15% say they come to us via a Google search on a non-Redfin term, vs 18% of the people who ultimately buy a home through us. Which is just to say that I should have never doubted Google (traffic stats courtesy of, you guessed it, Google Analytics).