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December 13, 2012


The Machiavellian Guide To Search

by Anthony Verre

Machiavellian SEO GuidelinesIn the era of “Big Data” and fast technology, it’s hard not to see HISTORY as the long chalk-smeared blackboard we want it to be. A relic of fragmented of letters. Broken thoughts and speech unlearned. We’re so intent on making up the “new rules” on the underpinnings of the “new marketing”, that we’ve thrown HISTORY to the dogs. They can’t teach us, because they don’t know.

Data-driven marketing is indeed smart, timely, and prudent, you’ll get no argument from me. We’d be foolish to abandon and squander the opportunity. But, I’ve given to thinking about data and people in the following way: like the double-slit experiment people behave differently when they know they’re being observed. Insomuch the data is blur of what’s real behavior and what’s not. Before we could ever calculate what a human interaction was worth, we were left with observation of interaction, sans data, in order to manifest strategy. It’s the one big problem with Big Data, everyone has access to it. Whether you can interpret and analyze that data is another question.

The Prince is the quintessential playbook on political strategy, and you can see its footprints and fingerprints throughout the 20th and 21st century political landscape. It altered the status quo going forward. It’s been adopted beyond the the political arena much like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has been incorporated into business strategy and maneuvering. And, while the connotations of “Machiavelli” make you think of Evil Spock, and generally despicable-mad-genius behavior, it shouldn’t. Machiavelli had the gumption to unfold the dark-side of the human condition in a way that Shakespeare never could, and for this he’s been persona non grata in both strategic and literary circles for centuries, until his revival about century ago. So what’s the point, Tony?

All the Big Data and data-driven decisions in the world are just numbers, independent of relationship or action, without first defining a set of strategic rules in which to leverage all this data to create personas, paradigms, and models. While Chapter 7 in “The Prince” is most often referenced, I believe it is Chapter 3 that provides the greatest deal of insight. It’s this chapter that explains how Louis XII lost his hold on Italy and the five mistakes he made. These are five rules that every SEO and digital marketer can use as a guidepost to conduct search.

The Five Guidelines of Machiavellian Search

Machiavelli touted that Louis XII made five mistakes that proceeded to be the catalyst to his loss of Italy:

  1. He had crushed the smaller Powers
  2. He increased the power of a single person so that it became supreme
  3. He brought in a very powerful foreign ally
  4. He ruled his conquered land from afar
  5. He established military presence before colonies

These five costly mistakes can be transposed as rules or guidelines to help us engineer solid SEO and Search strategy.

1: Never Disregard Topical Niche Sites

While the largest hubs on the web cater to variety of people, personalities, and interests, and consequently provide the largest funnels of traffic, it’s the niche/small sites that can become your greatest champion. Niche sites serve people who are dedicated and fanatical about the topic (whatever it may be). They provide high rates of conversion, high levels of engagement, higher rates of shareability to other like-minded users. Take the time to do the research and find them for your target segments and forge relationships; they’re likely the ones peppering the first couple pages of results for terms and phrases your client wants to be seen for too. Forsaking the niche sites in favor of aggregation-esque sites may drive traffic, but won’t lend itself to long-term loyalty.

Data-driven marketing decisions are likely ignore the niche sites. The numbers would likely tell you that more wide-reaching, heavily trafficked sites bring more (but not necessarily of what matters).

1 SEO is a House of Matches2: Never Give a Single SEO/Search Strategy All the Power

It’s the common adage: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”. If you’re locked into a single way of doing this or doing that, you had better know that it’s going to work like gangbusters. The danger of a single strategy is that it perpetuates lock-step thinking; no one is allowed to move beyond a certain space as it must be able to tie back to THE STRATEGY. Whether it’s a content strategy, a link building strategy, or optimization schema.

Diversification of SEO and search strategies, like portfolios, helps to create balance, helps to target different segments and personas, and helps to lessen the effect of a single strategy that tanks. Moreover, strategy diversification helps to foster unconventional thinking that can snowball into new strategies that can measured with data.

3: There’s No Turning Back From the Dark-Side

As an SEO/Search Marketer once you slide into the place where ethics become “flexible”, it’s difficult to turn back from that. Each step takes you a little further down the slope, and before you know it, it’s become the way.

Following Data Blindly4: Never Follow the Data Blindly

Data is the best tool you have and it’s also the worst enemy you have. As I mentioned up top, the massive influx of data points has helped engineer more laser-guided strategy. But, it’s also that influx, the tsunami of data points, that can cause hesitation, and frankly voltage overload. The moment you stop analyzing and interrogating the data, tearing it down and unpacking it, and point to it as all the proof you need, is the moment you need to stop using it. Anyone can build a story around a number, bend it however they want to (just take a look at the latest political season); it’s not going to help you create a great search strategy.

5: Core SEO is at the Heart of Strategic SEO

When I say Core SEO, I’m referring to things like technical website architecture, information architecture, taxonomy, PageSpeed, canonical domain, etc. These are the lifeblood of every single strategic SEO campaign because without solid foundation no search strategy will perform as optimally as it could. To bring it back to Machiavelli’s 5th mistake, crafting a potent, kick-ass search strategy to funnel people onto a busted site is to militarize your new found land before you have a base of people to support you.

Data is good, great even, it’s become the status quo. As my friend Hugo Guzman says,” is redefining what it means to be skilled marketer in the digital age“. But don’t be so quick forget that strategy was built long before “data” even had a definition, built off the back of hypothesis, observation, testing, and postulation. Don’t disregard historical observations and behavior just because there isn’t a percentage you can attach to it.

“I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it.” – Niccolo Machiavelli

  1. Dec 13 2012

    Excellent post, Tony – both as valuable advice and entertaining reading.

    I especially like point #4 – there’s a line drawn between using the data and the data using you. And the closer one comes to that line, the more vague it becomes.

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