Know Thy Enemy: Local SEO & The Art of War

SEO and the Art of War

The art of war is of vital importance to the state. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The Art of War is a book written around 500 BCE in ancient China. The author, Sun Tzu, was a military general, strategist and philosopher. As popular history would have it, the book has influenced many military operations and conquests over the years — from Japanese Samurai to France’s Napoleon Bonaparte.

Today, the book continues to hold influence in various spheres of modern life. A quick Google search will reveal many tales of the book’s use in the business world. One story that sticks out is when the fledgling Snapchat resisted an acquisition by Facebook, and the CEO, Evan Spiegel, gave all of his staff copies of The Art of War as inspiration to finish the fight.

Can lessons from military strategy really be used to inform our marketing and business strategies? It would seem so. In fact, if we consider for a moment some of the terminology associated with business  — “making a killing,” headhunter,” “captive audience” — we see that any of these terms have their roots in war. Their common usage in business implies that this is a battle — one that we, as business owners, must win.

This is where The Art of War comes in. I strongly believe that tactics can all be learned easily enough, but a good strategy and a winning philosophy are harder to acquire. If we can learn from great thinkers and strategists, then we can build a strategic foundation that will ensure the marketing tactics we use — whether local SEO, organic SEO, PPC or whatever else — have a far greater chance of success.

This post looks at five key lessons from The Art of War and explains how you can apply this wisdom to your local search and digital marketing efforts.


Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

Sun Tzu

SEO, PPC, social media, content marketing — the tactics for success in these channels are many. Yet when executed without an overarching strategy, these channels will never fully deliver on their potential.

Your tactics must be aligned and work together — as a team, as an army — to overcome the enemy, and this is only possible where they are governed by a single strategic approach. Your tactics will always be visible, but the strategy from which these tactics evolved will remain hidden, and it is this strategy that enables your tactics to succeed.

All too often, we see clients who have utilized a paint-by-numbers approach to their digital marketing. Then, these folks wonder why they are not generating business. They inevitably conclude that SEO does not work and that no one clicks on paid search ads.

Before you go ahead and execute given marketing tactics, ensure your strategy is clearly defined. Are you low-cost and define yourself by price? Or do you differentiate in some other way so that customers will pay a premium for your offering? If you are in a competitive niche and don’t have a real, workable unique selling proposition (USP), then some undifferentiated competitor will always be ready to price their offering slightly lower.

Your strategy is your strategy, and a winning strategy requires research. However, know this: the internet provides a highly competitive landscape where your competitors surround you on all sides. Being there is not enough. Be different. Have a better offer. Define your strategy to do better, and it will make everything else you do much stronger.

Strategy without marketing tactics will get us nowhere fast. Tactics without strategy will fail to have the desired long-term effect. Tactics led by strategy win the war.

All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.

Sun Tzu


The skillful tactician may be likened to the shuai-jan. Now the shuai-jan is a snake that is found in the Ch’ang mountains. Strike at its head, and you will be attacked by its tail; strike at its tail, and you will be attacked by its head; strike at its middle, and you will be attacked by head and tail both.

Sun Tzu

Tactics are where we must be most careful as marketers. It is all too easy to follow a checklist of supposed best practices and believe we are doing all we can. I must hear every week how some business has gotten onto Facebook and is writing a blog, and they expect that should magically improve their SEO.

This checklist mentality is understandable but largely counterproductive. Doing something is not enough. You must do it well — and with strategy.

Caveat: Marketing should still be conducted via multiple channels to be truly successful. Focusing on one channel alone in a rapidly-changing environment is risky at best and borderline suicidal at worst. The classic Guerrilla Marketing book states that businesses should have at least 20 marketing activities, and my experience with businesses across the UK certainly confirms this.

Be the shuai-jan — be visible in local search, organic search, paid search and elsewhere around the Web. If your competitor strikes at your local SEO, know that your PPC and Organic will strike back.

The Battlefield

We are not fit to lead an army on the march unless we are familiar with the face of the country — its mountains and forests, its pitfalls and precipices, its marshes and swamps. We shall be unable to turn natural advantages to account unless we make use of local guides.

Sun Tzu

We look at pages of Google search results every day and likely several times a day — but when we look, how much do we actually see?

Did you notice the recent shift from a 7-pack to 3-pack of local results? That one was pretty stark, so many folks probably did — but did you notice the removal (and replacement, and removal again) of phone numbers from local results?

Have you ever noticed the difference in the results when you are at home or at work? Have you noticed the difference in local search results on your computer when you are signed into Google on your phone?

That’s right — if you are signed into Google on your phone and your computer, Google will take the phone’s location history to further improve the localization of your results. It’s subtle. It’s brilliant. And it’s most likely not noticed by 99 percent of Google users.

Do you understand what parts of a Google search results page are ads? How many of the organic results are visible above the fold? How this differs on mobile, tablet and desktop?

Our knowledge must go beyond today’s search results; we must understand the industry we operate in, and we must keep abreast of changes. It is this very change (in a very changeable landscape) that presents the opportunities and threats we should focus on as smart search marketers.

To be able to effectively execute marketing tactics in local search, you must be familiar with every nuance of the search landscape across multiple devices — the ads and sponsored listings, the local and organic results, the knowledge cards and featured snippets, along with any changes occurring in the industry.

Know Thy Enemy

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Sun Tzu

To implement the most effective marketing tactics, you must know your own strengths and weaknesses and those of your competition. A simple SWOT analysis for yourself and key competitors is a good starting point here.

We have some crossover here with understanding the battlefield, as you can consider opportunities and threats on a per-competitor basis. Understanding where certain competitors are weak and anticipating and responding quickly to change can allow the development of tactics designed to avoid their strengths and strike at their weaknesses.

Likewise, it is important to critically evaluate your business to improve upon your own weaknesses. Is your offering too generic? Is it too expensive? How can you better serve areas of your marketplace that are not yet well catered to? Are there opportunities that your competitors are not looking at?

The main takeaway here is that you pick battles you can win with knowledge of your own strengths and your competitors’ weaknesses.

Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.

Sun Tzu


Earth gives birth to length. Length gives birth to volume. Volume gives birth to counting. Counting gives birth to weighing. Weighing gives birth to victory.

Sun Tzu

With knowledge of the enemy and the battlefield, we can more easily tilt the odds in our favor, yet victory in marketing can never be assumed. We must measure the success of our marketing tactics to review the strength of our strategy and iterate constantly.

Effective marketing has goals and a strategy to get there. Varying tactics (and combinations of tactics) can then be unleashed and measured to improve your results. Knowing what to measure is also important, and the relationship between goals, key performance indicators (KPIs) and tactics is essential to establish sensible measurement that delivers actionable information and results.

To be successful warriors, you must always measure your results and determine if your tactics are moving you forward.

The Supreme Art of War

The following is my favorite quote from The Art of War:

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.

Sun Tzu

In essence, this is saying that we should win the war without fighting, meaning we should craft marketing that does not even feel like marketing to the consumer and avoid petty, wasteful battles with our competitor.

Being highly visible across search and the digital landscape is one way to achieve this. If your customer has a question, have the answer. If your customer has a problem, be there when they need you and make it incredibly easy to contact you.

Today, 2,500 years later, there is still much to learn from The Art of War, and I strongly recommend it to all business owners — or at least those of you who want to win and win well.

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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