I have recently been re-reading the business classic “Good to Great” by Jim Collins. This is an amazing book that studies a collection of companies over the last 50 years that have outperformed the market by 4-5 times for a period of at least 15 years. Companies featured in this book include Walgreens, Wells Fargo and Phillip-Morris. In the book, Collins proposes a series of traits and attributes about the companies and/or its employees that allow for sustained success. One attribute that Collins describes is the Stockdale Paradox (noted below). Upon reading this I realized that this mindset is perfect for a successful SEO company in the modern search landscape.
Retain faith that you will prevail in the end regardless of the difficulties.
And at the same time
Confront the most brutal facts of your current realty, whatever they might be.
In this post I will unpack just what I mean by the statement – “A great SEO company is one that at its core follows the Stockdale Paradox”.
Where does the Stockdale Paradox come from?
The Stockdale Paradox was created by researchers who studied the life of Admiral Jim Stockdale. Admiral Stockdale was a POW during the Vietnam War. While imprisoned Admiral Stockdale was tortured for military information and had no guarantee that he would make it out alive. During his time imprisoned there were a large number of other POWs that dealt with a similar fate, and many of these men did not survive. When asked which men made it through and which did not the Admiral answered that “men with hope” were the most likely to die. What he meant by this was that those that would say things like “We will be out by Christmas”, and then Christmas came and went and they were still there - these men were likely to die of a broken heart when their hope was crushed.
What made Stockdale different from these men was that he never gave up hope that no matter how difficult things became the war would end and he would eventually be set free to reunite with his wife. Also, while in the prison Stockdale confronted the brutal reality that he and others were going to be tortured. He realized that no one could indefinitely hold out while being tortured, so he allowed the men and himself to give small bits of information after certain time intervals. This provided a set-up that helped the prisoners coupe with the brutal facts of their reality. These two mindsets were the essence of what allowed the Admiral to survive. This later became known as the Stockdale Paradox and is now utilized as a business analogy.
What does a Vietnam POW story have to do with SEO?
As a white hat SEO the odds can often seem overwhelming because of evolving client needs, seemingly shrinking budgets and the relentless pursuit of Google to make results as “organic” as possible. However, the Stockdale Paradox reminds us that we need to retain faith that we will be able to prevail no matter how difficult a situation may appear. With this mindset the changing search landscape and pressing client requests will not become overwhelming. Your search team will be able to find security in their desire to succeed.
Once you are able to build a team that has faith in their ability to achieve results it is then time to face the facts. Algorithm changes such as Panda and Penguin need to be faced head-on. Here is a list of brutal facts that you can start with, but feel free to include others in your personal list.
- Search engines will not stop evolving
- Links should be generated by content that users care about
- Social signals impact search
- Author profiles will make a difference
- On-page optimizations are not going away
- Local search matters
Consistently face the brutal facts of our situation. SEO has changed so much over the last 10 years (even over the last 2 years!) and this progress is not going to change anytime soon. By facing the facts you are able to take an educated approach towards solving your clients’ SEO problems. As an SEO we are never able to rest on past success because what worked yesterday may not work in the future.
The Stockdale Paradox is an exercise in developing or nurturing the proper mindset as you approach SEO. This mindset can be applied on an individual basis or instilled by a company leader. This mindset can help ensure that your team stays relevant in an ever changing world and it will help you keep a positive attitude even when dealing with the most complex scenarios.
Good luck in applying the Stockdale Paradox to your work. In the comments, please feel free to share any experiences you have had that would be considered examples of leveraging the Stockdale Paradox.