This is not a post about how you can't trust SEOs who "guarantee" a place at the top of search results. (Does anybody actually do that anymore?)
This is not a post about how no amount of SEO knowledge will allow you to rank at the top for any search query you want. (No, you can't.)
This is not a post about how revenue and/or profit are more important metrics than rankings. (Because, duh.)
This is not a post about how there is no such thing as ranking #1 for a query, because everybody's search results are personalized and their are no universal search positions anymore. (Also true.)
This is a post about why you shouldn't always care whether or not it's possible for you to show up in the number 1 spot for a search query. It's a post about a common misunderstanding. Fail to understand it, and you could be missing out on massive opportunities.
The Competition Trap
Rankings or visibility? Which one are you trying to maximize? pic.twitter.com/ws6FJM78ON
-- Northcutt (@northcuttHQ) September 30, 2014
The SEO community is divided, in large part, into two camps.
On one side, you have the more old-school tacticians who believe in picking a highly competitive, very popular topic, and doing everything in your power to rank at the top of the search results for it.
On the other side, you have the more modern SEOs who believe in targeting a wide variety of search queries, with a focus on less competitive topics. (I lean toward this camp).
And, of course, you have some SEOs who do a bit of both. (You can also count me among them.)
However, at the end of the day, both of these camps usually fall victim to the same fallacy: that if you can't make it to the number 1 spot, or at least get close to it, you shouldn't bother.
This hurts the more competitive SEOs by encouraging them to continue sinking resources into link building and other promotional (occasionally manipulative) tactics into a single piece of content in the hopes of making it to the front page. As with anything, this strategy runs into diminishing returns eventually. Past a certain point, the number and quality of links start to become unbeatable, at least from the standpoint of your current business realities. In fact, you will typically end up shooting yourself in the foot with a penalty or some other mistake before you end up taking any more ground.
On the flip side, it also hurts the less competitive SEOs by encouraging them to avoid more popular topics. Rather than write about something that has a lot of interest, these SEOs will tend to choose subjects that they are sure they can rank well for with minimal effort. If they can't make the front page without building tons of links, why bother?
Both of these approaches are flawed.
SEOs who like to chase competitive queries need to know when to walk away and invest their resources elsewhere. When you are targeting a high traffic query, you don't need to make the top result or even the front page for it to send a fairly decent amount of traffic. The SEO who knows when to stop investing resources in one query and start investing them in a new one will end up making ground a lot faster than they otherwise would.
On a similar note, the SEO who prefers not to invest too many resources in promoting a single piece of content is often making a mistake when they choose to avoid a more competitive query. Again, high traffic subjects may be more competitive if you base your results on how long it would take to make it to the front page, but in many cases these subjects are actually less competitive if they are evaluated based on how much investment it would take to earn a certain number of visits per month.
In short, while the SEO community has moved past using rankings as a primary metric, many still think in terms of trying to maximize rankings, as opposed to maximizing visibility.
Image credit: Jeff P