Search engine optimization (SEO) is the go-to business strategy for companies to attract people using sites like Google. Ranking number one on search engines is a competitive advantage, but can it happen without twisting both words and marketing strategy?


“I don’t read the script. The script reads me.”

(a movie character played by Robert Downey, Jr.)

The first person to read this essay will be a machine. The machine will impudently, implacably, and insistently insert itself between you, human reader, and me, human writer.

Human writers who want to reach human readers need a strategy. That strategy must use a special language to pander to the machine. It is called SEO: search engine optimization. It is a dreadful language. It relies on keywords, i.e., words for which humans might search the Internet. It requires that I make heavy use of key phrases — I repeat, heavy use of key phrases — so that my essay appears particularly relevant, in the machine’s icy judgment, to those who are searching for those key phrases.

The more I please the machine with my heavy use of key phrases, the better my odds of reaching humans like you who want to know about heavy use of key phrases. On the other hand, the process of pleasing the machine with heavy use of key phrases makes my essay less attractive to you, due to its heavy use of key phrases. In other words, the way I help you find me might make you unhappy that you did.

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Ben Gilad: Your new book, Left Brain, Right Stuff, places a sharp focus on a distinction be­tween events we can influence — directly or indirectly — and events we can’t. Analytics has a role in improving judgments in the latter case. Strategic decisions belong to the former – the leader has an ability to influence the outcomes. Analytics should not be confused, as it is in some large companies, with strategic vision. Is this a fair characterization of your thesis?

Phil Rosenzweig: My main thesis is that decision research has been immensely valuable in shedding light on the mechanics of human cognition, and has done so largely by conducting experiments that ex­amine choices among options we cannot alter, or judgments about things we cannot influence. The primary lesson has been for us to be aware of our propensity for common errors, and try to avoid them.

That’s fine for some kinds of decisions, but much of life is very different. Often we can alter the options we face and improve their terms. We can also influence outcomes, and for that high levels of confidence are useful. Many real-world decisions call for a combination of skills: on one hand a capacity of detached analysis, free of biases, which we associate with left-brain thinking, and on the other hand a willingness to push boundaries and act assertively, which I call the right stuff.

Strategic decisions, in particular, call for both. Deciding on a good strategy surely has to take into account many things we cannot influence, like currency movements, geopolitical trends, technological breakthroughs, and the actions of rivals. But setting a strategic vision and then carrying it out through the actions of others is not a purely analytical exercise. We also have to make it happen.

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Douglas Belton is a guest contributor to

“Big Data,” the story of Cain and Abel, a big green button, and an insurgent fighting force have something in common: they show us how and why ethnography[1] is helping businesses compete better.

The biblical account of Cain and Abel portrays human beings competing against one another, specifically for God’s approval and by extension for status in society as one favored by God. Other forces of Good and Evil fight in spiritual realms in one of the most classic cultural con­structs of competition. These exemplars teach and infuse the moral core of the human experi­ence. People from presidential-campaign strategists to savvy public-relations and advertising agencies commonly use the good/evil construct to create competitive advantage through emo­tion. We (or our product) are benevolent and wholesome. They (or their product) are malevo­lent and shady.

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