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Sun Tzu and the Art of SEO

May 9, 2017 - by Matt LeBaron

The legendary Chinese military strategist and philosopher, Sun Tzu, once counseled strategists seeking to dominate their rivals to “avoid what is strong, strike at what is weak”. This advice from the 6th-century B.C. treatise “The Art of War” holds true today in the battle for organic search rankings, an application Master Sun surely would have found fascinating.

Of course, it makes perfect sense that SEOs should identify opportunistic keywords and content, which have the greatest probability to quickly increase rankings, visits, and revenue. Given limited resources – time, not the least of these – successful SEOs know they need to focus their resources on those efforts that will deliver results, for with results come more resources and the opportunity to create a virtuous cycle.

However, I regularly encounter marketers – and the executives driving them – bent on targeting head terms with massive search volumes, strong competitors, and for which they have no rankings. While setting such ambitious goals isn’t a terrible thing in and of itself, I usually counsel SEOs to focus the vast majority of their energies on those terms they can expect gains from within a quarter or two, keywords where “the enemy” is weak. Achieving those short-term gains will improve the organization’s situation, grow the internal credibility of the SEO team, and ultimately free up more resources to throw against greater targets down the road. Plus, if these short-term target keywords are variations on a broader head term, you may find yourself naturally gaining on that head term over time, even without specifically going after it.

An example is IronKey, a company I worked with back in the late 2000s and early 2010s that sold password-protected flash drives (and whose technology was bought by Imation and ultimately Kingston). While it might have been tempting in such a company to target terms such as “secure storage” or even “data security”, we instead started out targeting much more specific queries such as “secure flash drives” and “encrypted usb drives”. These were queries where we could win. By narrowing our focus we ended up not having to compete against the giants of the security industry and, in doing so, we won. Even today, six years after being acquired, I see IronKey listed in the top position for “secure flash drive” within the Google organic results.

However, I can’t count the number of times I’ve encountered SEOs who have been given goals by upper management to achieve certain rankings on certain highly visible keywords – even making their bonuses dependent on achieving these rankings – without consideration of which targets are strong and which are weak. This is the equivalent in Sun Tzu’s world of a king ordering his general to take all the highest hills held by the enemy, regardless of each hill’s defenses. Sound like a winning strategy? I’m sure Master Sun wouldn’t think so either.

I was once told by the CEO of a maturing Silicon Valley startup that he wanted to rank first on a particular head term so that his brand would start to be associated with that term. I explained to him that the search engine algorithms rewarded those web pages that were already associated with certain terms with high rankings for that term, and that without doing the heavy lifting of PR to build that association first (and seeing it expressed throughout the web via relevant inbound links) he couldn’t expect to see such rankings. Thankfully, he took it well, revised his strategy, and allowed me to suggest targets that were achievable within a quarter or two.

Beyond my general disagreement with ranking-based goals (a topic for another time), I believe setting overly aggressive and overly specific ranking goals hinders an SEO from going after targets of opportunity that may arise, targets that would actually drive revenue and success. In the language of Sun Tzu, SEOs are the generals in the field and he would agree that they are best suited to determine the disposition of their forces, the allocation of their resources, and the specific targets to pursue. It is the SEO, using effective and revenue-driven SEO tools, who should be informing management of which opportunities are priorities and how best to go after them, demonstrating by their results that the trust placed upon them is justified.

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