I have recently been thinking about why SEO is so hard and the best way to explain it. It's because it's mostly a zero-sum game.
A zero-sum game in game theory is where all the payouts in the game equate to a fixed amount. One person's gain is another person's loss.
There are games where everyone can win. Completing a marathon is a game where there are multiple winners. One person completing the marathon doesn't mean no one else can. However, if the game was, winning the marathon, then that's zero-sum. Only one person can win a marathon. Everyone else is a runner up!
On an individual simple SERP, there are 10 blue links. For you to rank, you have to knock someone out of there. On more complex SERPs with ads, one box and knowledge panels, there are more than 10 blue links so the game is actually harder.
The counter is that SEOs make Google search better so people search more. That's true but is of no relevance to me. I don't really care if people do 10% more Google searches. All I care about are the SERPs I want to rank in and the revenue I can extract from them.
Why it matters
Being zero-sum is what makes SEO so difficult. Paddypower is an online gaming company that dominates the SERPs for gaming terms. In order to rank for these terms, you would need to outrank Paddypower and similar sized sites. Paddypower have a dedicated SEO team, PR team and 20+ years of SEO experience. Are you really going to be able to out-compete those?
There are many SERPs like that. They are dominated by large, well-established companies, which quite frankly, do deserve to rank. In order to displace them, you have to be of similar size and have a quality website/ brand. This is very expensive and more of a general marketing problem.
Wins from search are also Pareto distributed so the majority of the wins go to the top spot. Often that top spot is a paid ad. It gets worse, the top 4 slots are paid ads. It gets worse still, as those top 4 ads have site links. Your number 1 organically is really the 10th link on a page to click. In a Pareto Distribution, the traffic drops substantially after positions 1-3.
Google really does know how to extract the money from the SERPs. Having 4 ads with site links is optimal for them. It's not good SEOs in competitive industries though. Not only is it a zero-sum game, but the game is also rigged by Google so that you can't even be the number 1 link on a competitive SERP.
This is not to say don't do SEO. It's an important part of online marketing. You really need to make sure you rank number one for your brand and related keywords in your conversion funnel. You just need to be realistic about what generic terms you can rank for. For some terms, the opportunity has gone.
Ben has a BEng (Hons) in Computer Science and 20 years of experience in online marketing, specialising in SEO, lead generation and affiliate marketing. After spending over a decade as an igaming affiliate, he has decided to concentrate on GA4 training and SEO Audits.