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SEO and Zero Sum Games
Over the years, I’ve heard many SEOs talk about “zero sum game” aspect of SEO. “SEO is not a zero sum game” is often proffered. Is it true?
A zero sum game is a game where the winnings are equal to the losings. In other words, in order for the winner to get 100 points, the losers must lose 100 points. Everybody can’t win.
SEO is a zero sum game. In order to move up in rank, someone else must move down. To the extent that traffic follows position (however it might), the traffic that goes to the winner does not go to the loser.
But is Winning “Everything”?
Those who state that SEO is not a zero sum game, are usually pretending that other factors are also important (not just ranking or traffic) and that therefore, when you consider those other factors, SEO is not a zero sum game.
Consider growth, for example. IF every piece of excellent content contributes to the appeal of the internet, and therefore helps grow the internet’s adoption by the public, THEN it could be said that good content — even if it doesn’t rank — adds value to the SEO prize (increases audience size).
Therefore, the winnings get bigger, and thus, SEO is not a zero sum game.
As long as you play, there is a prize available for you. In other words, even your loser portion of the traffic INCREASES, thereby helping you be a little winner if not an actual winner. A rising tide floats all boats.
Second Place is the First Loser?
Growth was a common excuse, years ago. If everything is growing rapidly, losing looks less like losing… to many “professional SEOs”, losing was more winning than they had encountered in their other activities, including real estate, outside sales, writing, call center work, and even “design”.
And then there was segmentation within the industry. Some SEOs claimed that you were a winner even if you didn’t rank, because you were getting segmented traffic and thus, winning at something. This is a version of Google’s “Rainbow Sandals” argument:
As I have said many times, SEO is about achieving business goals. Without digging in to do a lot of work on someone’s random SEO theory, I’d have to guess that this is a suggestion that you’re tracking the wrong SERPS wondering why our legitimate shoe store is failing, and that you’re actually a winner (since you are ranking for Rainbow Sandals, and getting free traffic). Or something.
Long Tail Losing
But I prefer to just consider those loser arguments, like the Long Tail Strategies pushed by marketing companies that couldn’t rank competitively on Money Terms. If you can’t sell SEO to rank, sell SEO to collect traffic on lots and lots of non-competitive terms.
As long as the web is growing, and Google is inhaling a larger and larger portion of the total search space, you’re losing looks like winning.
Many met their monthly nut with those long tail profits for years, and consumed in-house technical, seo, content and management hours digging through charts and graphs, and coming to conclusions. The long-tail strategy wasn’t seriously challenged as often as it should have been… losing looked like winning, to the losers. But that wasn’t winning.
20 Millions is Nothing
In the news today, the US Customs people proudly announced they had interdicted $20 million worth of undeclared goods. Wow… that’s somebody’s twenty million dollars worth of stuff, now forfeited and destined for government auction.
That’s gotta hurt. Twenty million dollars.
But, no…. it really didn’t. The Customs & Border Patrol included a photo of the goods. A set of diamond and platinum jewelry from Harry Winston, sent by courier to an undisclosed address in Detroit. It wasn’t a large haul. It looked like it would fit in a medium-sized Fedex box, after being placed into a velvet gift box and generously padded with bubble wrap. His and her paired necklaces, a couple of matching rings, and one or two smaller pieces.
As if someone was getting decked out to go to the Academy Awards, or perhaps host a Drug Dealer Thanksgiving. Clearly, $20 million was spent rather casually, with no regard for the risk of receiving it from overseas via courier, sans required paperwork.
Somebody has been winning, and has the bank account that reflects that success.
We Define our own Success
In America, prior to 2021, we have been a free people. We defined our own individual success.
For many in the SEO field, that success had for years been a bigger paycheck than I ever got in my other insignificant careers. You could query a handful of “SEOs” at a search conference and quickly learn they were new to the field, having previously tried real estate, insurance office work, sales, teaching, or any of many other junior positions that did not pay out, and for which they discovered they were not destined for promotion any time soon.
Sadly, the tone of many Googler comments over the years has been rude and insulting to those achievers — as-if they were in fact parasites living off of Google’s innovative and astounding talents, hard work, and success.
But some were wildly successful. They seemed content, engaged into their work, and were actively building empires. They could answer questions with factual answers. And they clearly had expense accounts. It was obvious which ones were actual expense accounts driven by success, and which were “expense accounts” funded by clients, PPC floats, or Amex Cash Back rewards programs.
Ever experience the “hey you wanna come with us to Nobu?” invite that 2 hours later landed you at a table of 12 now-full diners negotiating a game of credit card lotto, because 8 of the 12 are much happier taking a 1:12 risk of paying the entire tab than paying their own tab?
And there’s always the desperate one who insists that spouses put in a card of their own, because they count, too… lol. Playing the odds. Like a true loser.
Winners define what success means for themselves. They know when they’re winning, and that when they’re not winning, they’re losing.
You may like.. this old post on winning at SEO.