The Zen of SEO

August 1, 2014

To understand the Zen of SEO and online marketing you must understand a simple truth. Give people something what they want and what they are looking for.

All the techniques and SEO tricks in the world don't mean anything if you don't give people what they want and what they are looking for. In fact, any technique that circumvents that basic principle is not going to sustainably grow your business. So don't bother.

What do people want?

Satisfying human desire and trading value for value is what business is all about. Figuring out what people want and how to deliver it to them is the name of the game. SEO is very much the same principle.

You figure out what people want and then you give it to them.

It's not about what you are trying to accomplish with your business or how cool you think your product or service is. It's not about you, it's about your customer. What do they want? What are they looking for?

Marketing is an empathy problem

If you don't start with empathy, you won't get people's attention. If you don't get their attention you don't exist.

The reason most websites don't get much traffic is that not enough people get what they want from the website. Therefore there is no value exchange. No linking, no sharing, not word of mouth.

You have to make people care by giving them what they want. If you give people something valuable, they will trade value in return. That can be links, that can be word of mouth, that can be social shares, that can be money. All of those are valuable.

You only get value by giving value.

Build On A Foundation Of Valuable Things

Value is a word that gets thrown around too much and it is very abstract, so a better way to think about it would be to think of it more in terms of the word valuable. Or maybe consider attaching a dollar value to what you would sell something for.

Think of a movie like Star Wars. How much is it worth to see it? $7 for a movie ticket? $15 to own it on DVD? The movies have made billions of dollars worldwide and the merchandise has made billions more. It's so valuable that Disney bought the Lucasfilm company for $4,000,000,000.

That is the kind of value you should build.

Then give them away…

What if you made a movie as awesome as Star Wars and you gave it away for free on your website? How many people would show up and watch? Millions right? This is a somewhat silly example because Star Wars already exists, but pretend for a moment that it didn't yet.

How would that happen? Well, first you make Star Wars, maybe you do the project on Kickstarter to raise money and get the word out. Then, you make it available on your website. Then you get it in front of sci-fi and action movie fans by sharing it on forums, related reddit sub-reddits, facebook groups, and so on. You might email sci-fi movie blogs about the project. You get the idea.

If the movie is awesome, people will naturally share it with their friends on Facebook, Twitter, Pintrests, various forums, and so on. They will tell people in real life about this awesome movie called Star Wars they saw for free on your website.

It would be a phenomenon and it would get you piles of attention, links, social shares, and your movie would get a lot of traffic from Google too. In fact, your website would become the authority for information on Star Wars.

You could have any number of pages on your website about Star Wars and you'd rank top of google for all of them. Star Wars shirts, Star Wars games, Star Wars dvd, etc. would be easy to rank for because you would be THE place for Star Wars everything.

Why? Because you gave away something so awesome that everyone in the world talked about it. Those links, tweets, shares, likes, pins, or whatever mechanisms it is have a considerable value. The attention you get in return is valuable.

YouTube was pretty much built around people making interesting and remarkable videos and giving them away for free. Take the Star Wars analogy and multiply it millions of times and you have YouTube.

Charging for Star Wars instead…

Now, what if instead of giving away Star Wars, you were selling Star Wars for $50 to watch on your website. The reaction would be completely different. You wouldn't have people sharing that with friends and telling people how awesome it is.

They would say, "$50? To watch a movie I've never heard of? I think I'll pass."

That is what I mean when I say you have to give away something valuable. When you want to get someone's attention you have to be remarkable. As Seth Godin would say, you need to be a Purple Cow. It has to be remarkable to be worth sharing.

Creating something amazing and giving it away for free is a sure fire way to be remarkable and get people's attention.

To have real success with SEO, you need to build foundation of remarkable content on your website and make it easy to share with other people. That can be videos, articles, photos, games, widgets, it doesn't matter. It has to be worth talking about or nobody will care enough to tell anyone else.

That is the foundation of your SEO efforts.

What are people looking for?

Once you have a foundation of amazing things that are worth sharing, you need to create content that answers your website visitors' questions. This is the content that people are searching for.

If you don't have content that people are searching for, they won't find it when they do a search.

This is where a lot of your long term traffic is going to come from. This is the content that gets you leads and sales.

Ask a Star Wars expert!

So let's take our Star Wars movie example further. People are going to have piles of questions or problems that need solving after that movie comes out.

  • When is the next Star Wars movie coming out?
  • What is a Jedi?
  • What is a lightsaber?
  • Is is possible to travel in hyperspace?
  • How do I watch Star Wars on my iPad?
  • Can I watch Star Wars on my Roku box?
  • How much does Star Wars cost?
  • Is there a Star Wars video game?
  • Who played Darth Vader in Star Wars?
  • Is Star Wars available on Blu-ray?

Those are all questions that people would be looking for answers to. People will take those questions and rephrase them in their own words to try and find an answer on Google, Bing, Yahoo, YouTube, Amazon, Siri, various App Stores, etc. They'll ask their friends. They'll go on IMDB. They might post a status update on Facebook or a tweet on Twitter.

You need to create content that answers those questions and make that content available wherever your audience congregates.

So, you might create pages on your website, you might create YouTube videos, you might create a podcast, you might do guest blog posts on some other website or you might even do things on traditional media or in person.

The point is, you take customer questions and you answer them on your website primarily or possibly other media channels where it makes sense.

If you do this, you will get plenty of traffic to your website and the people who show up won't be random people. They will be people with an affinity for what you provide.

You just have to give them what they are looking for.

Every question is an opportunity.

Every customer question is an opportunity to teach, to build a relationship, and to sell. There is a nearly limitless number of questions to be answered. The opportunity is much larger than our ability to answer every question.

As Marcus Sheridan at The Sales Lion says, "If they ask, you answer."

Build a relationship, sell something amazing

While it all starts with a foundation of content worth talking about, and you take it to the next level by answering your customers, if you don't capture the value of someone's attention you don't have a business.

That means you have to build a relationship and sell something amazing.

We are all selling something. To pretend otherwise is a lie.

To sell anything to anyone, you need to build a relationship with them. Them interacting with your website is just the first step. You have to take it further.

Every single thing your your business creates should give your customers the opportunity to grow the relationship they have with your business.

Selling to humans means acting like humans.

You don't have to be best friends with your customers, but taking a genuine interest in them is the best way to create a profitable, long term business relationship.

If you are selling from your website, you need a way to build a relationship beyond the initial visit.

The best option for a lot of businesses is some form of email newsletter or drip email course. These build trust and make closing sales easier. It also lets you send out new content as you create it.

The most important rule in any relationship building tool is that it has to be valuable to both parties in the relationship. Otherwise neither side benefits.

It's not about you, it's about them.

So, eventually you will take the relationship to the next step and sell someone your product. It better be something awesome or this whole effort was pointless.

Your product has to be amazing.

There is no other kind of product worth building. If you aren't interested in selling something amazing, please stop reading this now and don't do anything that I said because it is not going to work.

The whole effort depends on you having a product that is amazing.


If your product is not amazing no amount of marketing will make your business a long term success.

You can see examples of this over and over again. In movies there are always big budget blockbusters that have a great trailer and are terrible movies. After the first weekend and the millions of dollars in marketing, it tanks.


A bad product is the worst kind of problem.

Because if the product isn't great people won't talk about it. Even worse, if the product is terrible, people will go out of their way to tell other people not to buy it.

Look at Yelp, Amazon, or Twitter. If someone goes to a restaurant with terrible food, horrible treatment from the staff, and maybe gets food poisoning, they will tell their friends right away on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Vine, Snapchat, and Email.

They will do everything they can to spare their friends the misery of that experience.

So a bad product is actually the worst kind of problem, it will get people to actively prevent other people from buying your product. Whole tribes form up around people preventing other people from using terrible products.

You don't want to be BP

Think about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a few years ago. Whole groups formed to stop not just BP but pretty much any other oil company from drilling, making pipelines, or doing anything that might possibly relate to another oil spill.

Groups now lobby governments to stop oil companies because they believe what they do is a bad product or service. They tell other people to not buy oil or gas from BP.

Before the oil spill, BP was to most people just another oil company. Now, to a lot of people BP is the enemy and so are other companies like BP.

That is what a bad product gets you - the combined rage of everyone affected by your terrible product.

On the other hand, an amazing product has an equal and opposite effect. People share it with their friends.

Build the iPhone of your industry.

The iPhone is probably the textbook example of what happens when amazing marketing meets an amazing product. An entire industry changed pretty much overnight.

The iPhone was such a revolutionary product when Steve Jobs announced it that product teams and executives at Blackberry and Microsoft held meetings after the announcement where people discussed if what Apple announced was even possible or if Apple was lying and the demos were fake.

Before the iPhone, the majority of people who bought data plans and smartphones were business users who bought Blackberry phones to do email. Data plans were not common at all, it was all about voice and text plans.

Now just about every phone in the U.S. is a smartphone with a data plan. Phone companies compete on data plans, family data plans, 4G LTE speeds, and data coverage.

People buy phones to use apps, watch movies, surf the web, read email, and sometimes even make phone calls.

The iPhone transformed Apple into the most valuable company in the world. It is the most amazing product created in the last ten years.

What if the iPhone wasn't amazing?

What if I told you that the iPhone could have flopped? The same year that Apple announced the iPhone it released a product that bombed - the iPod Hi-Fi.

It was a $350 speaker dock for your iPod. People didn't like it, it was too expensive, other speaker docks were better, and they didn't buy it.

Apple put marketing muscle behind it. They had a product launch event. People didn't like it. It wasn't anything special.

The same product designers that brought us the iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad designed the iPod Hi-Fi. I'm sure they thought it was pretty great, maybe even "insanely great". However, it was a dud and less than a year later it was discontinued.

What if the iPhone was like the iPod Hi-Fi? What if the "smartphone revolution" didn't happen?

The only reason we all carry smartphones in our pockets is the iPhone was an amazing product that changed the world.

The other phone makers weren't amazing and here's what happened.

Blackberry didn't have an amazing product anymore and they eventually ran out of money and are no longer a strong competitor in the smartphone business.

Microsoft didn't have an amazing product and they had to buy Nokia to have something remotely competitive, but their sales are still incredibly small.

Nokia didn't have an amazing product and they got sold to Microsoft and make Windows phones now.

Motorola didn't have an amazing product and they got sold to Google and then Lenovo.

If the iPhone stops being an amazing product, Apple will collapse in on itself too.

No amount of marketing can save a company with a bad product.

SEO and other forms of marketing are dramatically easier when you have an amazing product. People tell their friends, they share their experiences, and they even build tribes around amazing products.

So, you have to have an amazing product.

The Zen of SEO

Give people something what they want and what they are looking for.

The way you do that is to…

  • Give away something remarkable
  • Answer customer questions
  • Build a relationship, sell something amazing

Everything you do with your website should revolve around those three things. If you find yourself doing something that doesn't support those things, stop and reconsider what you are doing.

- Brian

About The Author

Brian Knapp is one half of the dynamic duo that runs Retro Mocha. You can follow his hilarious puns on Twitter.