The Five Whys: Critical Thinking for SEO

Clients are constantly challenging me. And it’s good. If I’m being honest, I may sometimes find it aggravating, but it’s good, because it helps me focus and think critically. And critical thinking is the backbone to SEO success. If you don’t know why you’re doing something, you shouldn’t be doing it.

Have you ever heard of The 5 Whys? It’s a problem-solving technique innovated by the good folks at Toyota in order to determine the underlying causes of technical issues with their cars.

While there was a bit of criticism as to its practical application for Toyota itself, I think it definitely applies to online marketing in general and SEO specifically. Online marketing is not one-dimensional; it’s both a science and an art. Without the data and statistics to back you up, you’ll lose clients and you won’t have any rationale for what you’re doing. But you also need to be creative in order to truly achieve visibility and to stand out in the loud, busy webosphere. And I think that the 5 Whys can contribute toward both.

Let’s use as an example. (No, that site doesn’t actually exist, nor are they a client.) is not doing particularly well in terms of their organic search rankings. Now the nice folks at D-F-G are new clients, so they’re not upset with us, they’re upset at their previous SEO company. Yay. Nevertheless, since D-F-G has been burned in the past, they’re more cautious, and less likely to be impressed by the services and results that we promise them.

In order to make them happy with us, we need to produce results. In order to produce results, we need to understand the underlying causes behind the rankings that are tanking. (And the chalice from the palace…)

So here we go…The 5 Whys:

  1. Why are my rankings decreasing? Because Google is finding my site less relevant than it used to.
  2. Why is Google finding my site less relevant? Because there are competitors that Google is finding more relevant.
  3. Why are my competitors more relevant? They’ve created an active Google Plus account, not to mention a couple of great Facebook contests and giveaways. Plus they do Pinterest. Other than that, they have zero backlinks, and their on-site SEO is meh.
  4. Why is social content worth anything from an SEO perspective? Google has started to take social signals into account more for ranking factors. Google values fresher content. And of course, let’s not forget the absurdly disproportionate impact that Google Plus has on rankings. Also, the coolness factor of having their faces showing up in Google’s search results can impact their CTR. (Go Google Authorship!)
  5. Why has illuminea not done this yet for D-F-G? Up to this point we were getting the lay of the land, trying to understand what your position is versus that of your competitors, and what your competitors are doing that you aren’t. Now we know!

Please note – the above was just an example. It’s possible that D-F-G in the past implemented a terrible link building strategy where they hacked strong sites and redirected pages to their site. Or it could be that their content sucks. Or they’re a local business and so they’re not ranking on a national level anymore. Etc.

Whatever the specific scenario, the principle still remains – know why you’re doing something before you’re doing it. Knowing why provides the framework for your work and your strategy. And since the same central answer applies throughout the campaign, it’s available for you whenever you need to answer a client.