First published August 9, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider
Virtuous cycles are anomalies. They fight the universal law of entropy, and for that reason alone, they are worth investigation. Rather than a gradual slide toward dissipation and equilibrium, virtuous cycles build upon themselves, yielding self-sustaining returns cycle after cycle.
In marketing, there are not a lot of virtuous cycles. Most marketing efforts need to be constantly fueled by a steady stream of dollars. The minute the budget tap is closed, so is the marketing program. But there are a few, and SEO is one of them, if done correctly. Let’s take a quick look at the elements required to build a truly virtuous cycle.
The Power of Positive Feedback
Positive feedback is the engine of a virtuous cycle. It’s what drives sustainable growth. Think of it as the compound interest paid on your marketing efforts.
In an SEO program, positive feedback comes in the form of the algorithmic love shown to you by the search engines, dragging in an ever-increasing number of eyeballs. These eyeballs also contribute to the feedback loop, creating new links, new user-generated content, new activity, all of which continue to drive rankings, up, which drives new eyeballs, which… well, you get the idea. And the cycle continues.
Virtuous cycles require an upfront investment, and it’s usually a significant one. You can’t collect compound interest on a zero balance. Cycles don’t start from scratch.
In SEO, the investments required come in the form of content and an engaging user experience. You have to give a user a reason to come, to engage and to evangelize to really leverage the benefits of SEO. You can evaluate if you have the makings of a virtuous cycle by asking yourself the following questions:
– What are my users coming for?
– What will they do?
– How can they engage?
– Why will they care?
– Will their expectations be exceeded?
If you have a less than satisfactory answer to any of these questions, you don’t have what it takes to create a virtuous cycle.
Appealing to Human Nature
If your cycle depends on human behavior, as most do, you have to appeal to one of the basic tenets of human nature. As complicated as we can be, we are generally driven by a surprisingly small number of basic needs. Harvard professors Nitin Nohria and Paul Lawrence, in their book “Driven,” identified four fundamental human drives: We need to acquire, to learn, to bond and to defend. Examine any virtuous cycle, and you’ll always find at least one of these drives at the heart of it.
Ask yourself how your online presence contributes to these drives. Remember, for a cycle to begin, positive feedback is required. And positive feedback depends on engagement from your visitors.
Finally, a virtuous cycle needs to benefit all parties in order for it to be sustainable. It needs to be a win/win/win. If, somewhere along the line, someone gets screwed, the cycle will ultimately fall apart.
In SEO, this means you must play along with the algorithm rather than try to beat it. Short-term thinking and virtuous cycles never go well together. One algorithmic update to crack down on a SEO loophole will shut down your cycle in a heartbeat. But if you work with a search engine to make a great user experience discoverable, the cycle will begin.