Yes: organic traffic is sustainable, free (except for the time and money involved to write the articles), and can be done for any website in any industry.
Here's a screenshot of our our Google Analytics page for the period covering 2018.
You can clearly see that out of the 612K unique visitors we had, about 93% of those came organically, mostly from first page search engine results for keywords such as “dwi new york”, “speeding ticket hawaii”, “dui washington”, etc etc.
Before going straight to a discussion about organic traffic, I'd like to give you some context about how all of this came about, back to the beginnings of our journey with BernieSez 5 year ago, and how we came to know that long-form informational content is the most sustainable type of website traffic, bar none.
In the age of iPhones, why do we still receive a giant flood of letters in the mail from lawyers whenever we get a speeding ticket?
That's the question that Terence—pictured above—had more than 6 years ago that led him to start BernieSez, That was back in November of 2012. That single question led Terence—a criminal lawyer in Raleigh—on a hunt to find someone to help him build a speeding ticket app to replace all those generic and often really ugly letters you get in the mail from lawyers. Terence's idea was simple: take a picture of your speeding ticket, enter a few details, and show it to lawyers who then would make offers to the user to take the case.
Lee blew him off
Note: It's ironic and kind of funny that Lee is now pissed off at him for building BernieSez. And Lee is pissed off at me too. I've never even met the handlebar-mustached guy.
Then Terence reached out to Chris Heivly, famous for creating MapQuest and then the Startup Factory, which funded some startups but has since closed its doors.
Chris blew him off too
From what Terence told me, Chris's attitude during the meeting was sort of like “why am I wasting my time with this guy” kind of meeting.
Then Terence reached out to Merrill Mason, a standup guy who suggested he contact Bill Spruill, who happened to be my mentor at the time. Sidenote: Bill is a class act kind of guy. If you have a chance to meet him, do so.
Our first designs
I met Terence in February 2013 and listened to his idea. Surely someone had already built this traffic ticket app idea. Alas, nothing like what Terence had in mind existed other than TicketVoid—which lacked the picture taking aspect he had in mind.
After deciding to team up and build this app idea together, I started rendering some screens using Balsamiq, a pretty awesome low-fidelity wireframing tool. Here's an early rendering of the ticket upload screen, completed on February 19, 2013.
Take a look at the URL in the above wireframe: TicketRid.com That was a placeholder domain name that I had come up with during the initial design concepts. You can probably also tell from the above wireframe that BernieSez was designed back when desktop visits dominated, and were about double the volume of mobile visits.
TicketRid or BernieSez? What does BernieSez mean, anyway?
After showing these screens to Terence, we started discussing the name of the app. He mentioned that he had purchased the domain name berniesez.com I asked him what that meant, since that didn't sound at all like what the app was intended to do: get rid of your speeding tickets. Terence proceeded to tell me about a jazz tune called My Attorney Bernie. So I looked up that song, and we listened to a rendition played by Blossom Dearie.
Well, it only took reading the lyrics of that song to understand the genius behind picking BernieSez for the name of the app. Just read them for yourself. …”Bernie tells me what to do…Bernie says we sue, we sue…Bernie says we sign, we sign…” And hence the words “Bernie says” came into being “Bernie sez” and then “berniesez”.
The name of our app doesn't sound serious, legalese, or “attorney-like”. It sounds more cartoonish, with some levity and less seriousness Yea, true…but so what? After getting a bunch of shit from people about our app name, I wrote an article about why our name is what it is, and about being different, something that is concisely summarized by Youngme Moon, a Harvard professor that I had the privilege of seeing on stage at the Business of Software conference a few years ago. Here's a 3-min video from Youngme Moon that had a lasting impact on me and is core to BernieSez.
I still get goosebumps every single time I watch this video. It represents the core of BernieSez, about being different from everyone else, different from TicketVoid, OffTheRecord, Tikd, TicketPay, LegalMatch and the slew of other legal-sounding apps available today.
We all talk about being different, but are we really?
In our case, we had quite a few people advise us—even in 2018—to change our name or else it would never work. That BernieSez was a stupid name, that it doesn't sound serious or legal enough, or connote what the app does. Well, if that's the case, then what the hell does Apple connote? Computers? What about Starbucks? Does that mean coffee in Esperanto? And what about Firestone? Well, fire and stones are things your car tires should avoid.
So we stuck to our guns, ignored all these “gurus” that poo-pooed our app name, and moved onto more important things, like picking a cartoon character to represent Bernie.
A cartoon character: definitely different
Here's the first rendering of the guy that became our spokesperson. Bernie, the attorney. He looks like a mild-mannered, meek lawyer from the Bronx. But he's foul-mouthed and tough in the courtroom. Someone you don't want to go up against. I”m not saying you should pick a cartoon character for a logo, but if you do, you then have the freedom to do all sorts of fun things with your character and logo. Like poke fun at ourselves and at the legal industry. No one else does that really. They are all super serious and use super serious legal symbols, like balances and gavels. That isn't different. It's more of the same. A sea of sameness. Except for us. Take a look at some of the different poses we have dressed Bernie with.
3 marketing things that didn't work for BernieSez
Some things that we tried but didn't work out well enough for BernieSez:
1. Radio ads
Yea we did this in 2014. Spent a substantial budget on radio including a very popular talk show. Yes, it drove traffic ticket case uploads and brand awareness. But the cost to acquire a user—about $30 each—was huge and unsustainable.
2. Boosted (paid) Facebook posts, Google AdWords, and other ad platforms like Taboola
Ads obviously work or else these platforms would die. But the user acquisition cost—about $20/user—was also too high for BernieSez, and the timing was wrong. We were doing all of this in the very early days of BernieSez, basically throwing mud on the wall and seeing what would stick.
3. Social media
Social media works, but it's A LOT of work. And it's fleeting: except for viral posts, a media post will get some level of activity, only to die off over the next few days. It's a blip, basically. Not to mention that getting someone to click the “like” button doesn't mean shit most of the time. What I've seen is that a lot of people will tap on the thumbs-up icon, but will not actually read the article…they will make the decision to thumbs-up something only by the heading they read. And what the hell is that worth, if they don't actually visit your website at all? It's more of a worthless vanity metric really.
The one sustainable marketing thing that has worked well: organic traffic
The one thing that has worked very well for BernieSez is organic traffic. That is, basically free traffic from Google search results for keywords like “speeding ticket [insert a state name here]”.
To illustrate the impact that organic traffic has had for BernieSez, take a look at the charts below (you can zoom in and view more detail if by clicking on the image).
By any measure, organic traffic to the BernieSez website is impressive. 50K visitors per month every month, and growing, is nothing to sneeze at.
I remember back around 2016 a local Raleigh company called WedPics (which is no longer in business BTW) was pulling in roughly the same web traffic that BernieSez drives now. But with a HUGE difference: WedPics paid Facebook over $40,000 per month for that traffic. More than what their monthly payroll nut was at the time, We pay $0 for that same volume of highly targeted traffic. Zero, zilch, nada, ni un coño.
Organic traffic = write a lot and then wait for a loooooong time
When BernieSez was just getting started, Terence wrote a huge pile of articles. He kept on writing, and writing, and writing. Eventually he got burned out from writing articles, so we bartered with and paid a few local lawyers to write more articles. 18 months went by with minimal improvement in web traffic and case uploads. That's a full year and a half of writing articles and seeing virtually zero results.
Half the battle is showing up and then not giving up
Most people would quit long before spending 1 and a half years doing something and not seeing any results whatsoever. But if you are persistent, have enough tenacity to stick with it, wait long enough, and just keep on writing solid articles, Google will reward you for that effort. Take a look at the screenshot below, which is from Google Analytics, a free tool, for web traffic to BernieSez in January 2019. Out of nearly 50K visitors we had in January 2019, 46K came at a cost of $0 from organic traffic.
And here's a screenshot of the last 28 days of organic search data, according to Google Search Console, yet another free and mostly underutilized tool.
In the last 28 days (January 2019), Google has displayed BernieSez pages on their search results 851,000 times, which were clicked and tapped on almost 39,000 times by humans! Take a look at the Position column on the far right middle of the screen. This is the position where Google placed our articles in the search results page for the queries humans entered into the Google search bar. Position 1 is basically the top of page 1. There are 10 positions per Google search results page, so a position of 5 means that your page was in the middle of page 1 of Googles search results page.
Whenever someone nowadays tells me that the name BernieSez is stupid, I just tell them to Google “speeding ticket hawaii” or “dwi new york”. Then I send them this data and tell them that Google doesn't think the name is stupid. In fact, Google likes the Bernie content so much that it has actually scraped some of our articles and used it for position zero. For example, if you Google “speeding ticket alabama” you will see our article in position 0. You can't get any better than that! Here's a screenshot.
How long does it take for pages to rank?
It depends a lot on the competitiveness of the keyword, and the volume of searches being done for that keyword. Think of it this way:
- When Google has a giant roomful of really good articles it can display to someone that searches for “cereal”, then when you write an article about cereal it will take a really really long time to show up on page 1, and your article may never show up there. On the other hand, Google probably doesn't have a lot of articles it can present to a user that searches for “organic cereal made with kale and spinach”. So if you write an article about organic cereal made with kale and spinach, it's much more likely that your article will eventually show up on page 1 when someone searches for exactly that. But you have to be patient. It doesn't happen overnight. It takes months, and sometimes years.
In my experience with BernieSez, the time it has taken Google to rank our content on page 1 of Google search results pages has depended on the keywords targeted in the article, as follows:
- missed court date: 3-4 months
- traffic tickets: 6 months
- DUIs and DWIs: 2 years
- personal injuries: unknown (but we will find out soon enough)
Can this organic traffic stuff work for any site?
Yes of course. I'm applying lessons learned with BernieSez to my XForms.co website. I know it takes many many months to rank, but I'm doing the legwork now, knowing that in a few months the results will appear. You have to think about this stuff the same way you would think about getting back in shape physically. You are not going to have a killer body if you go run and lift some weights once or twice. It takes hard work over a long period of time.
Make your content informative and super long-form
There's plenty of articles about how to write content, so I'm not going to repeat it here. Just 2 things you need to do:
- Write looong articles. At least 1K words. Preferably 2K words or more. And break up the text into short blocks, with images, headings, bullets, etc. Basically you want people to continue scrolling down instead of tapping on the browser back arrow.
- Make your articles informative, not “salesy”. Actually try to help the visitor with their problem. If you don't do that, they will click the back arrow of death quickly, and this is how Google learns how to rank your page. I wrote an article about that that you can read here.
*** BONUS *** Don't take advice given to you by “gurus” too seriously
Some people we've met along the way—like Bill Spruill, John Rosar, Jason Widen, Jason Caplain, and John Austin—have been great supporters and believers in us. Others, however, treated us like a couple of older, tech-unsavvy, uncultured idiots with a really dumb idea and an even worse name. I still remember hearing a well-respected angel investor say, under his breath, that we might as well put a fork in it and go home when he found out that my background was geology. WTF?
I'm not going to name any names here (hint: you can see some comments from some of these people in the “accolades” block of our home page) of the people that dissed us. But our dumb-ass BernieSez website and app are still here, with organic website visits growing slow and steady, while PredictifyMe, WedPics, and a large list of startups funded by NCIDEA and The Startup Factory are not.
But will BernieSez survive?
Our latest experiment is to charge lawyers a fee to send them a lead. The jury is out whether this new idea will actually generate enough revenue and scale, but—for the time being at least—I think we have proven that maybe us 2 older dudes have the tenacity, wherewithal to continue experimenting, frugalness, and cojones to keep on hanging tough, something that a whole slew of young tatted and bearded dudes with silver tongues did not.