Passing the Tactical Torch to the New Kids

First published November 29, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

After the recent SMX show in London, I had a chance to have a wrap-up dinner with conference chair and Search Engine Land Executive Editor Chris Sherman. Chris and I, both feeling a little long in tooth, realized that there’s been a generational transition in search. The new generation is taking over the tactical stuff. As Chris said, “This blows away the traditional block and tackling stuff we used to do.” These are hotshots that live and breathe social media optimization, get a visceral rush out of an elegant link baiting campaign and measure their prowess through the number of Diggs they collect. They’ve taken organic optimization to a new level.

The Slow Surrender of the Sluggish Synapse

It was somewhat ironic, as I spent my sessions at SMX talking about things like bounded rationality, working memory and satisficing. To me, the working of the human mind is infinitely fascinating and that’s where I’ve been spending my free hours. I’m quite content to leave it to the up-and-comers to scramble up the listing hierarchy to grab the top slots. I’m more interested in what happens from the user side when they’re presented with those listings. Of course, I have the luxury of having a talented team working with me that can focus on the tactics while I play in my little strategic sandbox.

It reminded me of a passage I remember reading somewhere. A mathematician’s washed up by the age of 35 (I know, this is a point of controversy and I’ve read arguments on both sides, but I’m just using it as an example, so don’t get all worked up about it) but philosophers only hit their stride well into middle age. There’s a difference between sheer mental acuity and wisdom. Now that my synapses are slowing down, wisdom is really the only option open to me, so I’m grasping at it with both hands.

Wisdom: The Consolation Prize for Growing Older

I think it’s generally true that younger people tend to flex their mental muscles by solving puzzles of defined scope. They concentrate on the question ahead of them and revel in pushing the limits, punching holes in traditional thought and taking on risk that would prove unpalatable to a more pragmatic middle-ager, all in search of a solution that allows you to say, undeniably, that you’ve won. There are definitely winners and losers in the game of SEO. Number one is a winner. Everybody else is a loser, although in this case, the degrees of losing increase as you move down the page. It’s like sports. Nobody remembers second place. This appeals to the bravado of youth. SEO is for the young, and the young at heart.

But the question of who wins is a little more difficult to determine if you’re asking “why” questions. Why do people do what they do on search engines? Why do they make the decisions they do? Why do they pick certain brands over others?

I think unraveling the answers to “why” questions require patience and a more seasoned world view. There are fewer “aha” moments that signal victory. Answers are teased out little by little and added to the general body of knowledge about why we do what we do. The qualities that lend themselves to this approach come with age. They require being students of human nature. I’ve found that as I’ve grown older, I’ve become less frustrated with human frailty and more fascinated by human complexity. Of course, I’ve also become crankier. All of which makes me difficult to live with.

Search’s Big Picture: Step Back and Refocus

This trend also speaks to a maturity in the search space. It’s encouraging to know that search has started to develop a “big picture” that allows for strategic thought. Search was exclusively tactical in its early days, because its limited, siloed scope made it so. But now, search has become so integral in so many activities, we find overlap in almost everything we do. I can find much common ground in how we make decisions and how we use search engines. The top of this particular box is starting to open. And the broadening of approaches to optimizing search both as a marketing channel and as a human activity is healthy. As author Daniel Pink said, we need to develop our right-brain skills, “such as forging relationships rather than executing transactions, tackling novel challenges instead of solving routine problems, and synthesizing the big picture rather than analyzing a single component.”

So, as we walked down Edgware Street in London looking for a restaurant (we ended up finding quite a good Lebanese place), Chris and I talked about this passing of the torch and came to the conclusion that we’re okay with it. To be honest, I really don’t have a lot of interest any more in the tactics of search. That doesn’t diminish the importance of them; it just means that I’d rather do something else with my time. “What” doesn’t really capture my attention anymore. But “why”? Now there’s a question I can sink my teeth into. At least, while I still have teeth.

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