If you’re into business books, you will have heard of Good to Great, the seminal business book on how certain businesses went from being good to being a template for the rest of us. Since I’ve been a fan of this book are years, I thought you might find it interesting if I wrote this up around SEO.

This book is based on so much research and data crunching, it becomes an easy framework to rely upon, when thinking about any discipline within business.

I’ve used this summary as a reference point:


The nine headers are:

  • Good is the Enemy of Great
  • Level 5 Leadership
  • First Who, Then What
  • Confront the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith)
  • The Hedgehog Concept (Simplicity Within the Three Circles)
  • A Culture of Discipline
  • Technology Accelerators
  • The Flywheel and the Doom Loop
  • From Good to Great to Built to Last

So taking each header and applying it to SEO, I’ll do my best to unpack my thoughts around business strategy and SEO.


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Good is the Enemy of Great

There are lots of ’good’ SEO teams out there, but ranking on Google is a zero-sum game, in other words you rank and somebody else doesn’t. Therefore its a ruthless competition to the top and only the best will get there. That’s why being ‘great’ is the only reasonable objective here.

In the context of ’great’, broadly it’s having a deeper understanding of what actually affect rankings, applying those principles wholeheartedly to the project and actioning it through a team of inspired ‘mission’ led people.

Have you ever noticed how easy great SEO’ers make it all look. That’s because they’ve done the time, got the results and accumulated enough knowledge to have complete confidence in the path they’re taking. Of course great SEO is far bigger than any individual its transcending above the day-to-day algorithm back-and-forth, going to a place where Google will do whatever it can to rank you.

Tactical interpretation: think a little less about tactics and think more about being a great SEO’er

Level 5 Leadership

In the book, ‘ good to great’, Jim Collins the author talks about level 5 leaders who are this odd combination of highly determined and yet very humble. These people have a long-term commitment to the success of the company they work with. These people set aside personal ego and adulation in favour of the long-term benefit of the team.

In the context of ranking well in SEO, to be a level 5 leader it’s about looking at things exactly as they are. SEO is full of opinion, but data and accumulated circumstantial evidence is what should steer the SEO strategy.

Tactical interpretation: my site is ranking, not because I’ve pulled off some trick… It’s because I understood things exactly as they are and harmonised with users and Google.

First Who, Then What

In the book, Collins talks about great businesses hunting out the right people before an overarching strategy can be developed. He also talks about being ruthless with failing team members and getting rid of them promptly.

The context of SEO, when you break everything down into its components, it’s all pretty simple. The key is the right leadership who can lead a mission based on a strategy plan that’s got a foundation in logic and accumulated evidence.

Also, following the idea of ‘first who, then what’, ‘who’in this context is users and what they looking for and want from you. ‘What’ you have to get traffic from is Google. ‘Who’ always precedes ‘what’.

Tactical interpretation: always look out for talent. You might not need that person today, but may be you’ll need them in a months time. Writers are especially important because they can help make your website sparkle.

Confront the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith)

The title says it all… If what’s been done has been a fail, there comes a time to draw a line and change direction.

In SEO, it’s very easy to think about the vast amount of money that might have been spent on link acquisition, content and human resource to produce nothing.

But the facts are the facts when it comes to your circumstances and how you sit with Google. If the search engines have shifted, if you want to be in the game, then one has to cut free from the past and just move on.

In this context I’m talking about engagement as a ranking signal and how link acquisition in its old form is now obviously becoming redundant. If brands hang onto old ideas around rankings  having nothing to do with user engagement and experience, they will fail.

The Hedgehog Concept (Simplicity Within the Three Circles)

In the book, Collins companies think about determining what:

  1. You can be best in the world at and what you cannot be best in the world at;
  2. Drives your economic engine; and
  3. You are deeply passionate about.

In SEO terms, because Google is ultimately a question/need and answer framework, the question/need being the keyword, the answer/need fulfillment being the search results…

It’s a case of clearly determining how you can answer a user’s question/needs better than anyone else. Then it’s a case of deciding where you can get the greatest economic advantage from fulfilling needs and answering questions.

And finally, what do you care about the most? In SEO this is so important because Google is hugely driven by engagement and if you’re passionate and trusted in a particular area, you will get that engagement leading to rankings.

Bear in mind, if you also believe SEO is driven by engagement, then being unique and noteworthy is the difference between success and failure.

Tactical interpretation: do content about stuff you can be special on. Make sure your website fulfils the objectives of the user on that search query.

A Culture of Discipline

In the book, Collins shows that companies who have a culture of discipline are not authoritarian, but have people who are deeply motivated and will organise themselves to achieve their mission.

From an SEO point of view, discipline comes from objectives you have gathered from working through the hedgehog concept, i.e. knowing your strong points and doing everything you can to satisfy a user in the context of the question they ask, or the need they want fulfilling.

On a team level, this translates into everyone having a shared sense of mission and a deep desire to be resourceful as possible to achieve that outcome.

Tactical interpretation: believe in why you’re doing this, don’t get lazy, pay attention to the small things.

Technology Accelerators

Collins talks about companies often jumping on technical innovation as a fix for their problems. Winning businesses use technology as an amplifier for what they know best, i.e. the hedgehog concept.

In SEO terms, this is like buying into a fancy and expensive suite of tools hoping they will be the answer to your SEO problems. Most often the tools are too complex, they fit a business process flow that might not be right for you and ultimately end up being a massive distraction from what really counts: giving both users and search engines what they want.

Once you’ve defined your admission in SEO terms, it’s a case of picking the tools which fulfil those objectives. For instance we still need links, therefore a very strong link outreach tool like Buzz stream is foundation for link acquisition. It doesn’t do the content for you, but it makes it easy for you to socialise what great content you have. The same principle applies to every single SEO tool there is.

Tactical interpretation: take a good look at the tools you are using and ask yourself if they’re actually worth it. Just because they are reassuringly expensive, doesn’t mean they actually do anything for you apart from giving false hope.

Flywheel and the doom loop

Here, the author talks about how business decisions tend to accumulate either positively or negatively over time, ultimately leading to success or failure. By focusing on your core strengths, having great people on board, a business builds a positive momentum, a flywheel effect.

As with a flywheel, it gets easier and easier to spin faster and faster to get powerful momentum.

For SEO, I see this as starting with understanding what users and search engines want and working your way back so whatever direction you take, is the right one because it’s very hard to shift trajectory once you have momentum whether positive or negative.

Tactical interpretation: start looking at winners and losers in the search results. Build up your own view on why some win and some lose. This way you’ll start to have more confidence in your opinions.

From good to great, to build to last

finally in the book, Collins makes the connection between his the book were talking about ‘good to great’ and his previous book ‘built to last’. He suggests that if companies are going to be great and have real endurance, there needs to be a sense of higher purpose beyond just generating profit.

In SEO terms, it’s simple if you spend your life just trying to game the search engines, ignoring the greater dynamics in play: helping users achieve their objectives, then you will forever be battling against the latest algorithm change.

The fact is, Google desperately wants websites users want. That’s why so many websites with virtually no SEO rank in extremely competitive key phrases.

If you just think about giving users what they want and helping search engines along the way, you can go from being a good SEO to great one.

Tactical interpretation: SEO is an endurance game, where you really have to be very sure about what direction you are taking and then stick to it. Being great means you’ve done your time and you have a depth of knowledge which takes you down the right road.

Wrapping up

‘Good to great’ is such an epic book and seems to be a staple for MBA students. It’s surprising how well it overlays on SEO….

My high-level summary:

  • search engines want you to rank, if users want to you too.
  • define your mission
  • stick to it
  • always be objective with your SEO

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