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Search engine optimization is misunderstood and despised by those who have had consistently failed at using it, or have been repeatedly beaten by those who were successful with it. These failures often stem from not understanding the dynamics of the behind the scenes battles that go on for search positioning. It is also a shame to see bright new folks not understanding the field in which they work. It is one thing to be ambitious and competitive – it is quite another to be outright delusional about what you can accomplish. Success is often created by knowing where to start, and how to scale, and which battles will be lost before they are ever fought. A smart general (or SEO) never fights a battle unless they KNOW they can win. This post is intended to be a guide to understanding the fight that takes place for every single search result, and how to know which battles have acceptable odds based on the competition.
Organic search results ARE NOT "free traffic". It is paid for in a much different way, with calculated risks and rewards. You WILL NEVER rank for the single term "mortgages". In fact, I give you very poor odds for every ranking for "Ohio mortgages" unless you are quite proficient at understanding competitive analysis and the playbook for SEO, and executing on the important elements of top rankings.
"There is no such thing as a good marketing strategy in the abstract. Good strategy is bad. And bad strategy is good. It all depends on who is going to use it." – Marketing Warfare
SEO can easily be substituted for "marketing strategy". There is no one size fits all solution to a good SEO campaign. Understanding the nature and intensity of the competition is as important as being able to compete for the top spots (Didn’t your mother ever tell you, "you have to pick your battles?) The intensity of the battle will be determined by the other players within the vertical space, and governed by the tactics deemed acceptable and overly aggressive within that marketplace (you’re not gonna rank for "mortgages" without buying some links).
Top rankings will always consist of 3 main points – The old stand bys (content, its’ structure, and inbound links), and one that is being somewhat overlooked as it creeps its way into the search algorithms (legitimate users’ clickstream data that verify the quality and integrity of a website through their actions). These are the goals of any SEO campaign. The methodology for obtaining these goals will never be the same, which is why it takes a creative mind to develop the strategy and understand the tools available to do so.
Concepts of Search Engine Optimization Warfare
1. The principle of force –
"SEO is knowing what the search engines want and giving it to them… so hard they f*cking bleed" – quote from DaveN
Aggressive tactics will always win. The main question is how long they will be successful (the risk associated with them). Thinking that a site will outrank others because it is better in terms of content, design, and usability is a mistake made by naive webmasters that have not yet figured out the competitive nature of search results, and their true value. These webmasters overpromise on results due to their inexperience, and this naivete then borders on negligence.
Search results prove over and over that the best sites are not always the top ranked sites. The BEST product, service, or website is NOT always in the top spot of Google. (Perhaps the data borg will someday change this) While we’d like to believe that relevance will be perfect, archaic aggressive tactics can constantly be found at the top of search results, and tend to maintain those high positions for extended periods of time until there is some type of human intervention (in the form of spam reports). This is not a knock on the ever increasing improvements of relevance, but only a caveat to those believing that these tactics will never again be effective, and drink the koolaid that these tactics have been remedied by solely algorithmic means.
2. The superiority of defense –
"Domain names may play a big roll not only in anchor text, but also in overall domain credibility, linkability, and defensibility." – Aaron Wall
Defensible traffic is a concept that will not go away in the world of search engine optimization, and why we will see the love affair between domainers and SEO’s continue to grow. When you’re doing lead generation like a profitable company like Quinstreet, you need to be able to have a thick site that will defend your rankings. A quality branded keyword domain will always be a defensible asset. No matter how algorithms shift, a keyword in the domain will always be effective to varying degrees. A site with thousands of quality inbounds links, or a loyal userbase will always be a defensible asset as well.
Buying a competitor has always been the quickest way to oust a competitor, and this is becoming increasingly true in search results. Even if you are number one on every major term, the other five sites that are consistently in the top ten represent a significant threat to that’s site marketshare (especially if they are truly defensible). Being able to defend with "checkbook SEO" will become increasingly prevalent, and make challenging for top money terms with new sites even more of an impossibility.
3. The new era of competition –
"I just hired a billion linkbuilders and I am not paying them a single cent!" – Brian Provost
Social media being highly effective for developing global link popularity is only one shining example of the battleground being shifted. Emerging tools and technology will shift the battlegrounds even further. Those who understand the strengths, weaknesses, and applications of these tools are the new era of competition within the industries that they affect.
The strategic square – Four types of warfare:
Offensive, Defensive, Flanking, and Guerrilla
Principles of defensive warfare
- Those in the top spots should play defense by constantly repeating the things that got them to the top within the acceptable rules.
- The best defensive strategy is to try to outrank your own sites with other sites.
Principles of offensive warfare
- The main consideration is the strength of the leader’s position with regards to historical data, user base, linkage, and content.
- The point of attack should be any angle that the leader is not leveraging – their strengths can be emulated and improved upon once they are in your sites
Principles of flanking warfare
- A good flanking move must be made into a niche that has not been discovered or exploited by the market leader.
- Your site should not be discovered until it is a defensible position within the niche.
- Learning from the process of high ranking is as important as achieving the top position itself.
Principles of guerrilla warfare
1. Find a search result small enough to make it defensible.
Example: When you become number one for "engineering jobs" don’t start emulating monster.com
The search result wars
Within any search results, there are war stories. Most of these battles are never heard about, seen, or understood, but the understanding of them, and experience in them for those that do is invaluable. These stories and experience are the basis for the future direction of search marketing strategy within many companies, and are shared over IM, and at conferences between those who have built rapports of trust much stronger than any NDA. Some of the more generalized stories, or less important stories come to light after the first few beers at a search conference. Many of the most competitive webmasters have become veterans to certain industries that thrive based off of their search results, and share stories of joy and distress based on the strategic direction decisions made long before the algorithm updates that can make or break revenues for months at a time. To hear your first SEO war story just ask anyone who was around for it how their site was affected by the "Florida update". Then ask them about it’s impact both before and after on their entire marketplace. Welcome to the battlegrounds – please don’t enter until you arm yourself with tools and knowledge.
Credits and thanks.
This post was based around the concepts presented in the book Marketing Warfare which is an excellent read for anyone in the field, and among my favorite books. A big thank you to Mikkel as well, for mentioning it was one of his favorites.