In their bestselling book, Blue Ocean Strategy, authors Chan Kim & Renée Mauborgne promote a creative approach to marketing. They contend that when companies compete with each other in a known space market space with defined boundaries, this should be a termed a Red Ocean.
In this space, companies need to outperform their competition by differentiating on various points of value, offering, price and experience. As the market gets more crowded, the competition becomes even more fierce and profits decline for all players.
In contrast, Blue Oceans are wide open spaces where industries do not yet exist. In this space, demand is created by the companies that enter it and there is substantial profit potential. Within a Blue Ocean there is no competition and the market belongs to a single player. As the market matures, others will naturally become aware of the profit potential and the Blue Ocean could turn red.
Think of the ride sharing industry as a prime example of both of these industries. While Uber started as a car service dispatch company, Lyft created a brand-new industry in ridesharing. Quite literally as the term connotes, people were earning a few dollars to give someone a ride in the same direction they were traveling. Initially, this was a pure Blue Ocean and Lyft had all the advantages of owning a market. They were able to set prices, determine the rules, and build brand loyalty.
As customer adoption grew and this market expanded, other players – Uber included – decided to jump in too with Uber X. Competition grew incredibly fierce as both companies undercut each other on price, product and may have even used underhanded tactics (allegedly). Aside from Uber, there were other companies seeing the profit potential, dove into this market. Ridesharing became a classic Red Ocean.
Red Ocean SEO
I think this idea of Blue Oceans vs Red Oceans is so appropriate for how to think of the state of SEO and content marketing today. Too often SEO strategies begin with keyword research and then an approach for how much traffic the site will get by ranking on these keywords. The keyword ideas will typically come from one of the popular keyword research tools on the market – available to anyone. This means that anyone with a browser can find these keyword ideas and then write content targeted at the listed search volume. This. Is. A. Red Ocean.
Content of this type becomes a race to the top (but really a race to the bottom) of who can write longer, have more research, build better links and dominate search. The focus isn’t really on the user even though everyone claims to be user centric. The goal, if the content began creation process with keyword research, is to be valued by Google. Yes, the content might be written in tone and quality that’s geared to the end user, but if the content never achieves its predicted ranking dominance, it is deemed a failure.
Blue Ocean SEO
On the other hand, Blue Ocean SEO is the complete opposite. The strategy begins with a hypothesis about users and their potential demand. There is no keyword research to support the marketing effort, only customer research can be relied upon. The content is created completely with the user in mind because the marketing team knows that the users will find it and appreciate it. This content can be written manually targeting a keyword or better it can be built into the product in what I call Product Led SEO.
Obviously in the early days of the Internet, everything was Blue Ocean SEO as there was no keyword validation demand that there would be search volume for anything on the Internet. Jeff Bezos launched Amazon as a book selling website because he hypothesized that while there were dominant brick and mortar book retailers there would be demand for buying books online if the option just existed.
Amazon couldn’t do any keyword research to validate how they built SEO for Amazon.com, so they built it into the product. Every page is a template geared towards optimal SEO and it is up to the search engines and users whether the page will achieve its mark. Rather than measure themselves by individual rankings or pages they measure their reach in aggregate.
Many of the Internet’s dominant websites built the demand for their core product offering. As examples: TripAdvisor in hotels reviews, Yelp for restaurants, WebMd for health, and Zillow for home addresses. Before launching their products, there was no way to validate that there would be search volume for any of these categories. It simply did not exist.
With the Internet and search, there is most definitely a first mover advantage and while all of these category leaders have competitors, they are certainly in a dominant position. For as long as there is an interest in finding hotel reviews or restaurant reviews on search engines, Tripadvisor and Yelp, respectively, will have the upper hand because of their history, brand, and scale of reviews. (Note: The only threat to their dominance is Google’s own properties which is a whole different topic.)
Future Blue Oceans
The Internet is an infinite sea of possibilities and there can be Blue Ocean SEO opportunities created in every category. Not only that, there are categories that do not yet exist which will eventually become monoliths of SEO traffic. To illustrate just a few recent Blue Ocean and product led SEO examples, just look at the success of companies like Zapier, Giphy, and Retailmenot. The core driver of any of these products is NOT keyword targeted content.
Before Zapier created pages for integrations between two disparate tools there was no search demand. The creation of the page fed its own virtuous cycle of demand. Similarly for Giphy, there is search for a gif of every type because giphy has a gif available that we know can be found. Retailmenot does not build a deals page for a store because there is demand, they build the page because it’s a store. The idea of finding a deal for every store feeds the demand for searching for coupons.
Blue Oceans and you
The idea of not having search volume for a particular category should not deter but excite you. This means that there is an opportunity to create new demand for something in search, provided of course that there’s product market fit, and dominate the category. In this model, successful SEO begins with customer interviews and whiteboards, not on a spreadsheet with search volume and click curves.