Mark Schaefer wrote up a very thoughtful analysis of an SEO framework I did recently, and he pointed out that cumulative advantage (both the sociological concept and the title of his new book) makes life difficult if you’re competing against a well-established competitor in SEO. But is all hope lost if you’re David and you’re up against Goliath? What do you do if you have to win even when the odds of winning are against you?
Let’s look back at the comprehensive mathematical formula, called a status resource interaction model, for cumulative advantage to discern some clues. For a much more in-depth explanation, check out this blog post I wrote exploring the topic.
Point 1 is your – or your competitor’s accumulated advantage. In SEO terms, this is your ranking history to date.
Point 2 and 3 is the current advantage you have at this moment in time.
Point 4 is your level of activity. In SEO terms, this is the content you’ve generated.
Point 5 is the change in your status over time. In SEO terms, these are intangibles that affect human behavior, like your brand and reputation.
Point 6 is the distribution of resources you’re putting towards the problem – money, time, people, knowledge, skills.
Point 7 is stochastic shock, unanticipated changes.
When you put this all together, a competitor who is strong has existing advantage, likely a high degree of activity, strong brand over time, and has allocated resources to shore up their advantage.
So what’s an underdog SEO strategiest to do when faced with such a challenging opponent?
Get A Lay of the Land
One of the metrics Mark mentioned in his post is domain authority. Be very careful with this number! It’s not necessarily a reliable indicator of a brand’s SEO strength. Search Engine Journal did a great roundup piece on why this is the case. So let’s look at a basket of metrics.
Let’s say I’m the SEO manager for TrustInsights.ai (I am). And let’s say there’s this competitor I want to take market share away from, ChristopherSPenn.com. When we check that domain rating/domain authority number, it doesn’t look good, does it?
Woof. A 68 domain rating versus a 57. But that number, as the Search Engine Journal article states, isn’t the end-all of SEO. Domain authority/domain rating isn’t a number generated by, used by, or even proxied by Google. It’s something only third-party SEO tools have come up with, and it doesn’t always have a relationship to rankings. That’s our starting point.
Determine The Advantage
When we look at that basket of metrics and we examine our cumulative advantage mathematical formula, we’re going to look at points 4 and 5, as these are some of the factors that are most influential to the formula. First, what activities have each site accrued?
There’s definitely a content advantage for ChristopherSPenn.com. It has 18,485 crawled pages, whereas TrustInsights.ai has 2,283. That makes logical sense; ChristopherSPenn.com has been online and creating content almost daily since 2007, whereas TrustInsights.ai came online literally a decade later, 2017. So there’s an activity advantage there.
But… that’s not the only activity. TrustInsights.ai publishes content that tends to get shared and linked to much more, like our posts about Instagram Brand Metrics. We see this reflected in our backlinks count, which is higher than the backlinks count for ChristopherSPenn.com.
So why is that other site still winning? It’s partly because of linking diversity – ChristopherSPenn.com has more than double the referring domains. TrustInsights.ai gets lots of links, but from fewer sources, so part of our activity in our cumulative advantage formula has to be to diversify where we get our links from.
Once we start to dig into various SEO metrics, we see that not all accumulated advantage is the same – a real danger with an overly simplified measure like Domain Authority. And these aren’t all the metrics we could look at. Based on what we know about how Google crawls, indexes, and ranks sites, other aspects are also at work, such as mobile-friendliness, page architecture, and content.
The last part is critical; measures like domain authority are supposedly indicative of a site’s ability to rank. The measure says nothing about what the site ranks for.
Winning at the Wrong Things
Let’s take a look at the keyword overlap for these two sites.
We see the cumulative advantage pretty clearly – ChristopherSPenn.com has a substantial corpus of things it ranks for and gets traffic for compared to TrustInsights.ai. Should we abandon our SEO efforts, when faced with such a challenging competitor?
Not so fast. Let’s dig in some more. Here are some of the terms that ChristopherSPenn.com exclusively ranks for:
Uhh… most of these aren’t relevant and terms we wouldn’t want to compete on except maybe the definitions of synergy and value. Soda maker? No thanks.
What about TrustInsights.ai?
This is a lot more relevant – more marketing terms, more relevant content. Things we actually want to be found for.
Suddenly, the domain authority advantage that ChristopherSPenn.com looks a lot less intimidating. When your competitor is winning at the wrong things, you don’t need to worry nearly as much about competing with them.
When Advantage is Relevant
Let’s say that wasn’t the case, that ChristopherSPenn.com and TrustInsights.ai were true competitors and the advantage was relevant. What do we do then? We look back at our status resource interaction model:
We have control over our activities. We have some control over our status. We have some control over our resources. We don’t have control over point 7.
So what would be most impactful, if our resources at point 6 in some ways govern what we’re able to generate for activities at point 4? There are two key answers here. First, status at point 5 is a significant multiplier. What could we do to affect change in our status?
Brand building. This is grabbing mind share in the heads of our most valuable audience so that they think of us and search for us by name. Remember that of the two types of search, branded and unbranded, branded search is more powerful because it demonstrates a much more clear intent. Someone Googling for “analytics consulting” is less valuable to me as the SEO manager of TrustInsights.ai than someone Googling for “Trust Insights consulting”. So activities that generate brand power would have a multiplicative effect on our ability to accumulate advantage.
Stochastic shocks. This isn’t under our control, but our ability to be agile, to react faster than a competitor, is. Every so often, Google and other search engines roll out a significant change to how search works. The most recent groundbreaking change was Google’s rollout of the BERT natural language model. That stochastic shock – random events, from our perspective as SEO managers – created an opportunity to seize advantage from others.
Imagine a competitor that had no understanding of how BERT works, of how search has changed. Point 6 are the resources you bring to the party. Point 7 is the stochastic shock. Someone who doesn’t know how SEO works now with these advanced AI models would have point 7 be negative for a little while, but that knowledge deficit would create a negative resource at point 6, because knowledge is a resource.
That outdated knowledge becomes a drag on their ability to accumulate advantage. If they stayed behind the curve badly enough, for long enough, points 2 and 3 would eventually plateau or decline instead of accrue, and they’d lose their cumulative advatnage.
You might be saying, “that’s great, but we can’t depend on random events”. You’d be correct. But recall that the status resource interaction model isn’t about advantage at a single point in time. It’s about how advantage works over time – and that means if you are behind and you stay behind, your advantage depletes until it’s gone unless you change what you’re doing.
How many SEO practitioners, departments, and agencies are working with old, outdated knowledge of SEO? How many marketing managers, CMOs, or CEOs have no clue about how SEO actually works in the modern-day? They are perpetually keeping that old knowledge ball and chain around their ankle, and it’s disrupting their ability to accumulate advantage by doing things that don’t work. If they’re winning, it’s only because other factors like brand power are keeping them afloat. They reacted poorly to the random event and continue to do so by not updating their knowledge – and knowledge is a resource at point 6 in the formula.
No amount of budget or manpower matters if you’re working with the wrong knowledge, just like the most expensive car and the fastest driver don’t matter if you’re going in the wrong direction.
How to Disrupt Competitors’ Cumulative Advantage
This is the sum of disruption: find the weak point in a competitor’s status resource interaction model. It might be their brand building. It might be their SEO knowledge. It might be any combination of things, but if you’re in a fight that you have to win no matter what, there’s an opportunity somewhere. Improve your own knowledge and skills so that you maximize the parts of the status resource interaction model that are under your control, all the while searching for gaps in your competitors’ armor.
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