SEO is A Tricky Business – Small Things Can Have Huge Effects

SEO is a tricky business – small things can have huge effects, and it’s not entirely predictable if you know what I mean… It has struck me that SEO bears some similarities to chaos theory in that regard.

Before your eyes glaze over, I’m not about to throw maths (or “math” for the benighted Merkins who may read this) at you – no, it’s a game. You place the little orange ball, and it gets pulled around the screen by the “planets”. It has to survive for a certain amount of time for you to go to the next level, which has more planets, making the problem more complex. Try it, it’s fun.

If you don’t want any philosophical mumbo-jumbo thrown at you, stop now. Play the game, and tell me what level you reached. For reference, I reached level 13, but it took me about 30 – 45 mins to beat level 12, and it was a cast-iron bitch.

Still with me? Good-oh. OK, so why is chaos theory like SEO? Why is this game like SEO? I still don’t want to bore you with equations – for a start, I don’t really get them anyway. I do grasp, in vague terms, what the practical effects of those equations are. Essentially, chaos theory states that in an iterative system, even when the rules are very simple, complex behaviour can arise, making a prediction of the end state of the system difficult or impossible, even when the starting state and the rules are known.

Consider the example known as Langton’s ant. The ruleset is very simple :

1) Change the colour of the square you are standing on – (if the square is black change it to red and if it is red change it to black)
2) Now walk forward to the square in front of you
3) Look at the colour of the square you are standing on. If it is black turn left and if it is red turn right
4) Return to step 1

Start with a board totally one colour or the other (it doesn’t matter which). What do you think will happen? Maybe try a little experiment, draw out a grid, and move the Ant for a few moves. Its behaviour looks random, but in fact, after quite a large number of moves, something odd happens. You can see an image and lots of other stuff about the Langton’s Ant here. Note particularly the “highway”, the repeating pattern that will stretch out to infinity. If you are familiar with Conway’s Game of Life, you may recognise the behaviour – both belong to a class of things known as “cellular automata”. For the bizarrely interested, more similar stuff can be found nearby, up to one directory.

Now, cellular automata are fun and all, but they aren’t as complex as the Orbit game. They just have a ruleset, and a set of initial conditions, and they go. Orbit has (for a given level) a number of attractors (planets), and a mobile object (the orange comet) which is affected by the attractors proportionately to their “mass”. At the start of a run, the comet has 2 variables, its position and its initial velocity. Whilst in theory identical starting conditions will produce the same result every time, in practice, a human is unlikely to perfectly duplicate the initial conditions, so you can consider those to be “random”.

Often, you can produce similar results from similar starting positions, but eventually, you’ll radically different results, however close to the “normal” pattern you start out. You’ll also see the comet do weird figure 8 orbits, fast “horseshoe” passes on large planets, and watch it snake between two close planets at high speed – it’s fun if you like that sort of thing.

Orbit is as perfect a visual representation of chaos theory as I’ve ever seen – fractal generators are fine, but Orbit moves. It’s the dynamic quality that reminds me of SEO.

When you place that little sucker and let him go, I defy you to predict exactly what will happen, especially once you are a few levels in. Once you’ve had a few goes, you may start to see patterns and get a feel for it. Even though you know it’s a strictly deterministic system, where the initial conditions determine everything, and you even have (theoretically) perfect information on those conditions, you still get surprised.

SEO in many ways reminds me of playing Orbit, without being able to see the attractors, or even knowing exactly how many there are, although you can guess. You learn about where the big attractors are (trusted domains). When you’ve been playing Orbit for a while, you’ll come to be able to estimate how close to a mass you can start, and bend a shot around it, just as an experienced SEO can often make a good call on how close you can get when “sampling” another data source, and duck a dupe content penalty.

Few people can work out complex gravitic equations in their heads on the fly, yet we can learn to play this game. Few people can work out repeated calculus in their heads, yet we can catch balls in flight. A lot of SEO is instinct, being able to recognise a pattern and make a prediction. Sometimes you’re wrong; you learn from those. But it’s nice when you’re right :)

And let me know what level you get to. My hypothesis is that SEOs should be quite good at this game, as it requires similar skills and abilities to SEO. I showed Orbit to a PPC player today, and he’s still going at level 9. I wouldn’t play him at the pool though… think on that one.


Actually, I think SEO has much more to do with Complexity Theory, as promulgated by the participants in the Santa Fe Institute. There are distinct elements of Cooperation, Adaptability, and Luck when one applies the evolutionary model to which websites are more successful overall than others.

Good analogy. Sure, it’s a mite debatable that mathematical chaos theory actually comes into it in any critical way: After all, while SEO may be based entirely on deterministic rules (if we ignore human editorial intervention), a major part of the problem is constituted by the fact that most if not all players aren’t even aware of which exact rules they’re actually dealing with.

Even the search engines’ engineers themselves can’t reliably predict what precise their their continual Algo tweaks will affect.

However, high complexity does not a truly chaotic system make. Of course, web content itself may reasonably be deemed chaotic.

Still, at the end of the day, your post illustrates the fact that SEO is very much an art, not a science, with all the intuitive, instinctual faculties this demands. Groping in the dark and making it up as we go along for fun and profit …