Negotiation, Negotiation, Negotiation

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SEO – Zero-sum game explained

Posted by markharrison on February 28, 2008

A couple of days ago, I used the phrase:

SEO is inherently a zero-sum game

This got picked up in a conversation here about a specific SEO competion, and Knox commented:

That would be hard to explain to the millionaires we’ve created.

I think I’d better explain what I meant by the comment.

A “zero-sum game” is a technical term from economics – it’s a situation where, for every winner, there is a loser.

Two kids arguing about how to share a chocolate bar is zero sum – for every extra ounce that Bobby gets, Billy gets an ounce less.

By comparison, most types of business aren’t zero-sum… If you create a business, then (assuming you’re any good) there’s more wealth into the world as a result. Creating, say, a chip company that turns sand into microprocessors creates more wealth, because it turns low-value resources into high-value resources. (Most people would pay more for a bag of Pentiums than a bag of sand.)

It’s the whole “secret sauce” of the market economy we’ve had in the West for the last 2-300 years that value can be “created” like this.

No-one can create an extra slot on the first page of Google (OK, apart from Larry or Sergey.) So for every person an SEO specialist helps get onto that top page, someone else gets pushed down.

It’s that “Google ranking” that’s zero-sum.

Where SEO stops being zero-sum is in the money it can make. If someone who is better at creating wealth out of clicks gets a good slot on Google, the for the economy as a whole, it’s not zero-sum.

Which leads to the slightly odd conclusion than SEO is good for the world economy, but only if it’s used mainly by good value creators.

So, I have a plea… if you are considering using SEO in your business, then make sure that your business is good at making money from visitors first. It’s not only good for you, it’s good for the world 🙂


33 Responses to “SEO – Zero-sum game explained”

  1. […] you go then – Zero-sum game explained Filed under: Geek […]

  2. yungchin said

    Heh, I just clicked through to here from your comment on Scoble’s Tesla preview, curious who’d be driving a Bentley.

    Turns out I got rewarded with a nice economics primer! Honestly I had never thought about the concepts of creating value before – I should have taken an economics class back in school I guess… Thanks!

  3. Wow! There was about six weeks of course work reduced to a blog post and it was very informative at that. Well said Mark.

  4. Well.. How can there not be a winner if there isn’t a loser..

  5. SticKer said

    I know seo is important and it surely gets good traffic from search engines. I have done the basic seo work for one of my sites and i get daily about 100-150 visits from google alone.

    About the ranking’s one of my site ranks between 10-20 for a highly competitive keyword and another one has been ranking 1st for quite a long time. I hope it stays like that 🙂


  6. > How can there be a winner if there’s not a loser?


    The whole capitalist economy is founded on the idea of turning low-value stuff into high-value stuff.

    Sand is one of the cheapest things in the world, but silicon chips are valuable and needed to keep the Internet running. So if Intel pay someone to work in a chip factory, turning sand into Pentiums, who loses?

    If Steph the 18-year-old decides to train in medicine and becomes a doctor rather than going unemployed, who loses? Even if she has to pay for her education, does the University lose? Does she lose? Do her future patients lose? Even if the taxpayer foots the bill, do we all “lose” because we have a doctor rather than a beggar in the community???

    Take another example – my grandfather died before TVs were affordable. My friends grandfather had a black and white TV, and died before colour TVs were affordable. Now I have a 32″ telly, and he has a 42″ plasma – does that mean I’ve “lost” because my telly isn’t as big as his, or that we’ve all won, because both of us have far higher living standards that our grandparents?

    If you compare yourself to others around you, and focus on the few things they have that are better than yours, and decide that therefore you’re a loser, that’s very, very, sad.

    Been on holiday in the last 2 years? Did you fly? If so, you’ve had a standard of living that was restricted to Millionaires in the 1940s (which is when my parents were born.)

    Am I a loser because my brother flies more times a year than me? Or a winner, because for a few hundred quid, I can get to places that were just the stuff of books to my grandparents?

  7. Land Deals said

    In essence this is where the terms black hat and white hat seo come from. White hat seo refering to methods of making the website search engine friendly, whereas black hat refers to using specific tricks to move your site further up the rankings that it actually deserves (in comparision to the content on another website)

    In reality, most forms of seo are somewhere between the two.

  8. Michael said

    You’re dead right/ Get your site fixed and make it usabel for visitors – this gets you a better conversion rate of visitors into sales and as you direct more and mroe traffic to your site from any form of online marketing you will maximise your ROI and get far better results for your business than if you focus on getting traffic:be it SEO, PPC, Affiliates, Banners, etc , alone.

  9. […] by markharrison on April 25, 2008 Back in February, I wrote about the concept of the zero-sum game (specifically as it applied to SEO, which is such a thing.) That’s one of the most popular […]

  10. SEO said

    Thank you very much for the article. 🙂

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