The Art of War: Sun Tzu on SEO

In the world of SEO, there are a host of tools and strategies available to us, ranging from on page techniques to optimize our text, to on-site techniques to optimize our site as a whole, to off-site linkbuilding practices — something that has spawned a whole industry in itself.

Sometimes I think the wealth of tools, research, data, and speculation out there in the SEO community can at times be actually counterproductive. SEO professionals focus too closely on the trees and forget they’re in a forest; they focus too closely on the tools and techniques and forget about the website as a whole.

Sun Tzu, in his legendary philosophy on warfare, The Art of War, had many good points that are applicable to SEO. The reason The Art of War is so often applied to business is that at its most basic level, it’s about competition — basic tenants about how to succeed in a zero-sum game. And of course as we discussed in The Grizzly Equation, SEO is only about competition.

At one point in The Art of War Sun Tzu says:

The victories from those skilled in warfare are not considered of great wisdom or courage, because their victories have no miscalculations. No miscalculations mean the victories are certain, achieving victory over those who have already lost.

Therefore, those skilled in warfare establish positions that make them invincible and do not miss opportunities to attack the enemy.

Therefore, a victorious army first obtains the conditions for victory, then seeks to do battle.

Sun Tzu was big on the idea that great generals win only battles that everyone expects them to win — they never have impressive or amazing victories. They have 10,000 troops assaulting a class of kindergarteners, in the middle of the night, by surprise, with uzis. The kind of battle that isn’t even really a battle — the kind where you say of course they won! How could they possibly fail with those odds?

And of course Sun Tzu’s point is that wise generals fight this kind of battle by design — they spend a lot of time arranging things that are so disproportionately in their favor that the outcome is inevitable.

They first obtain the conditions for victory, then seek to do battle. This is the secret to SEO dominance.

Sun Tzu and SEO

I was talking to a friend once about a site I had built within a large niche community. My site was built with SEO in mind, but also with users in mind. I spent a lot of time creating relevant content so that the site covered nearly every aspect within its niche. All that information was well organized and easy to find, cross-referenced, and the site itself updated daily without fail. The site had usefulĀ  information that wasn’t available on the many other sites in the niche — but it also covered the information that was available on the other sites (something they often avoided because that information was “already out there.”)

The end result was a site that grew to be the authority within the niche, and ranks at the top of the search engines for nearly every broad keyword that’s relevant to the niche — almost always as number one, or even 1,2, and 3 — and receives in excess of 20,000 visits daily. Webmaster Tools reports over 400,000 inbound links: I never once paid for a link nor even asked for one.

As I talked about this SEO success, my friend was not impressed. “Of course that site ranks well — it’s the site for the niche. That’s not impressive.”

But of course as Sun Tzu would tell you, the site ranked well by design — because it was built to deserve to rank well. I had obtained the conditions for victory before ever going public with the site and doing battle in the SERP rankings.

Doing Battle without First Obtaining Conditions for Victory

Our society likes to focus a lot on those amazing victories — where a general is out-numbered and out-gunned and pulls of a spectacular reversal. Or in SEO terms getting a shallow 5-page site to rank well for fairly competitive terms.

The problem with these victories is that they are far and few between, and the techniques of success are not reproducible in the long term. For every time your house of cunning links succeeds in top of page placement for the shallow site, there are dozens (or thousands) of failures where you simply can’t get a site without meaningful differentiation to rank. And in the SEO world those few victories you do score can at any moment be erased by an algorithm update, whereas the site that is built to dominate is pretty much algorithm-proof.

Too often SEO professionals are caught up in the tools and tricks of the trade — working on precise linkbuilding networks and keyword density measures and linksculpting — that we seem to lose site of the fundamental method of ranking well: building a great site that is useful to the end user, and more importantly is more useful to the end user than any other site out there. Because it’s all about beating the competition, for which you have to have a site that not only satisfies the users, but does it in a better way than the other sites do (due to more information, better organized, more entertaining, easier to use, or just being prettier — or all of these).

In other words, a site that deserves to rank.