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  • Eli Schwartz

What is Blue Ocean SEO?

In their bestselling book Blue Ocean Strategy, authors Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne promote a creative approach to marketing. They contend that when companies compete in different markets in different ways. SEO can have similar dynamics.

The Red Ocean

When companies are in a known market space with defined boundaries, this situation should be a termed a Red Ocean. In the Red Ocean 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.

The Blue Ocean

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 first. There is always a 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 the Blue and the Red industries. While Uber started as a car service dispatch company, Lyft created a brand-new industry in ridesharing.

With Lyft, 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. Lyft was 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. 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 who dove into this market. Ridesharing became a classic Red Ocean.

Red Ocean SEO

I think the idea of Blue Oceans vs Red Oceans is 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, tools available to anyone. What “available to anyone” means is that literally anyone with a browser can find these keyword ideas, and then write content targeted at the listed search volume keywords.

Content of the Red Ocean type becomes a race to the top (but in reality, it’s a race to the bottom) of who can write longer, have more research, build better links, and dominate search.

The focus of the Red Ocean SEO isn’t really on the user, even though everyone claims to be user centric. The goal of a Red Ocean SEO strategy is to be valued by Google. The content begins and ends the creation process with keyword research. Yes, it might be written in tone and quality that’s supposedly geared to the end user, but if the content never achieves its predicted ranking dominance, it is deemed a failure. Google is the audience.

Blue Ocean SEO

On the other hand, Blue Ocean SEO is the complete opposite. A Blue Ocean-type SEO strategy would begin with a hypothesis about users and their potential demand. There is no keyword research to support the marketing effort, and only customer research can be relied upon.

The content is then created completely with the user in mind because the marketing team knows that the users will find the content, and appreciate it. The content creation can be written manually, targeting a keyword, or better yet, 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. No one could be certain that there would be any marketable search volume for anything in particular on the Internet.


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