The Finite Game of SEO

09 Feb 2020, 3 min read.

Have you heard of Simon Sinek? Maybe read one of his books? You may know him from his famous Ted Talk about starting with a golden circle and the question: “Why?”. In Simon’s latest book, the Infinite Game, he talks about two types of mindsets and games in business.

There are finite games like board games, sports, or essentially any type of friendly competition we engage in regularly. On the other hand, there are infinite games. Infinite games keep evolving, changing, and reimagining themselves. Infinite games have no end. Some companies and leaders play the finite game, while others — the successful ones — play the infinite game.

As SEOs, we thought not only that we were playing a finite game, but that we were winning that game. We thought that if we climbed the search engine results page, earned all of the top rankings, and even position zero above the top organic results, that we would “win”. Yes, then there would be vertical search experiences like local search, image search, video search, and even voice search — but these were also finite games. Search engines are constantly changing their algorithms, so we could trick ourselves into thinking we were playing an infinite game by constantly chasing the algorithms tail around and around in a cat and mouse game.

In every search vertical or algorithm update, there was still a winning answer or search result, and we could “win” that answer. However, there is a bigger game out there — beyond search engines — an infinite game of delighting consumers in any and every industry, category and vertical. I’m interested in that game.

I have always been passionate about business and about solving problems for businesses. I couldn’t even wait a few more months to graduate college in order to get started in the working world; so, I spent my senior spring semester taking an MBA class at night and working full time during the day. My “end game” or career goal was to be someone who would go into a company and figure out how to turn it around. I loved the ideas of improving processes, optimizing and finding hidden opportunities.

This was a perfect match for SEO. However, although it certainly fits like a glove, SEO is not my end game. SEO is a balance between creativity and technology — it’s dynamic and ever-changing — it’s exciting and rewarding — but, ultimately, it’s a finite game.

SEO is not the end, it’s a beginning. In fact, it’s a wonderful foundation to build from. If you are just starting your career and considering a field to start with, consider SEO (and, separately, data science too). Once you have established yourself, and accelerated your career by immersing yourself in this finite game, you can start to apply your craft more broadly.

Over the past few years, my focus has broadened. I am still pursuing my original intent — to go into a business and turn it around — but I have refined the focus from the business to the user. I am passionate about taking a consumer touchpoint, a user’s experience, and figuring out how to make it truly the best around. In turn, that will drive disproportionate value for the user and the business solving that need, and on we go.

In a way, this is what SEO is all about. The number one ranking is just a snapshot. It’s like Google saying, right now, based on the current algorithm, and the current state of competition, that you are the most relevant and helpful option for the user’s search query. SEO is like an incubator, and the great part is that you get real-time feedback along the way. Now, we take that knowledge and expand it. We must turn that incubator into an accelerator, and emerge from the finite game of SEO to the infinite game of business. Who wants to join me?

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