SEO sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? 

The prospect of seeing your brand rank on the top of Google search results for your favorite keyword is sexy. You’d certainly feel a swell of pride when you brag to your friends about it. 

“Hey Chris, Google this keyword and tell me what you see … yeah that’s me.” 

From a business standpoint, you would have a material edge over your competitors. From a personal standpoint, it would be an emotional thing. Coming in first place, with anything, comes with a sense of pride, cranking the ego up a notch or two. 

It makes a person feel as though they have an innate sense of business savvy that’s unreachable for the average Joe. 

And because of that emotional draw, people are willing to take a big risk on SEO. But the problem is that they don’t understand the extent of the risk. They approach SEO with the same mindset as an optimistic gambler walking up to the blackjack table—they imagine the win, never the excruciating loss.

They never walk up to the table knowing they already lost before they even sat down.  

The excruciating loss

Most of the time SEO doesn’t work. Full stop. But it’s not for any of the reasons you’re thinking, like:

“Doing SEO properly requires too much money.” 

“Only the top SEO agencies can do SEO the right way.” 

“We work in a super niche industry, so our SEO needs to be special.” 

All of these assumptions, of which I’ve heard countless times, are dead wrong. The correct answer is actually quite remarkable in its simplicity: There can only be a few winners. 

Imagine you’re watching the Olympics on TV. You see 30 competitors launching themselves hundreds of feet off a ski ramp, in search of the perfect flight path and landing. Only 3 of those competitors will find success; the rest will go home empty handed. 

SEO is exactly the same thing. 

But instead of 30 competitors, you could be going up against hundreds, or thousands of competitors all vying for the same keyword. 

For example: Googling the keyword “Data center power” results in 2.25 billion pages. Of the 2,250,000,000 websites competing for this keyword that’s searched 400 times per month, the prizes will be distributed as follows 

  • Position 1 will take 20% of the winnings (80 clicks). 
  • Position 2 will take 11.4% of the winnings (46 clicks).
  • Position 3 will take 5.9% of the winnings (24 clicks).

The rest of the competitors on Page 1 will fight for the scraps of errant clicks made by desperate searchers. 

As a matter of fact, no result beyond position 7 will take more than 4 clicks per month. The remaining competitors languishing beyond Page 1 will practice their best version of “Oliver Twist” in the porridge line.  

Any result beyond position 5 can hardly be described as an “SEO Success.”

If we agree that there can only be a few winners, then the overwhelming majority, by definition, need to be losers. 

The zero-sum struggle

SEO doesn’t work for most people for the same reason that aspirations of becoming a professional athlete doesn’t work for most people: There are only a few positions available, among countless competitors, and the top few hoard all the rewards. 

The available market of searches in your industry is a single fixed number, no more, and no less. The elite of the elite SEO and content experts will control the greatest market share.

Google separates them from the hundreds, thousands and millions of competitors who have all bought their lottery tickets, eagerly and fully anticipating a big win.

Elite experts don’t buy lottery tickets. They work for their winnings.

Why SEO works for the elite

The truly elite SEO experts I’ve met shun “best practices” because everyone follows best practices.

They burn down the house, envisioning a more inventive and creative design. 

They view “search” as a form of art, seeing music in the numbers and code on the page. Because without art, there is no creativity or curiosity, and all the layers of possibility blend together into an uninspired mess.  

They have a competitive bent about their personality that never lets them rest. The elite SEO experts have to win. It’s a tireless need to fix something that’s broken. 

The elite SEO expert brings skepticism and thoroughness to everything they analyze. They evaluate SEO potential the same way a C-Suite executive would evaluate a significant business investment, tying SEO to actual commercial value, not just web metrics.

The elite SEO understands how to create the most thorough and impactful content on the web, while generating commercial value for the organization.  

They strap on their boots and get to work. 

So where do we go from here? 

SEO success will increasingly elude the average competitor as more players continue to enter the field. Their odds will slip further and further south, yet their false optimism will be retained. 

Because of this, the casual SEO expert may continue to find success through enabling and even encouraging clients’ false optimism, but the house will inevitably win.  

The new brand of SEO elite understands the odds stacked against her. She will burn down the house and rebuild it anew. And she won’t stop building until it’s perfect. 

Jeff is the CMO for Brafton's marketing team. He specializes in SEO research and testing. In his personal time, he is a woodworker and jogger. He hosts a podcast that can be found below: