Design a site like this with
Get started

Chaos Theory and SEO – Harness limitations to show true value

Author: Jack Telford

Before I start here, I know what you’re thinking. “Is he really going to shoe horn an interesting scientific theory into SEO to try and get our attention?”. I will try to prove to you below that there is some substance to this claim. I’ll argue that by accepting the limitations of our understanding, as well as getting to know Google as a chaotic and complex system, we can be more candid, cut down on false promises and renew the faith we have in SEO as a channel.

Limitation #1: We Don’t Fully Understand Google

We all understand the principles that Google works based on. Quite well actually. Travelling through links and with the help of weird robo spiders, the search engine crawls and indexes content, then serves it to users based on perceived relevance according to its ranking algorithm.

However, we don’t fully understand how a single one of these processes exactly operates in association with our site. How often is our content crawled and why? What about that of our competitors? How much indexed content does Google have in our niche? Which ranking factors exactly are used to determine relevance on a case by case basis? We don’t and will never know this. I would bet that no one at Google does either.

Limitation #2: We Don’t Fully Understand Performance and its Drivers

When you learn SEO, you learn the rules of optimisation. In the real world though, you can carry out perfectly “good” SEO work, and see no impact. You can see “terrible” sites do amazingly. You can see two seemingly synonymous rankings move in the opposite direction for no apparent reason in one day. There are a million possible data points to check. Even if you could check them all, they wouldn’t tell the same story.

Limitation #3: Our Forecasts Are Wrong

We’re often expected to fully understand & predict the behaviour of Google. So we build out complicated formulas with numerous variables and dependencies. But it doesn’t work so we make it “better”. The more complex the system gets, the more it becomes vulnerable to errors. We end up with conclusions that don’t make sense, so we tweak the formulas, but still we end up only at an approximation. We could have got that in 15 minutes, now we’ve wasted a day.

The Truth About Google

Kelvin Newman made a great point about Google in his 2014 Search Love presentation. Google is a complex and chaotic system. Like the weather, we know broadly the forces behind it, but we can’t fully diagnose and understand how it will behave. This is the central reason we face every limitation above. We look for a single cause and effect from something which is actually at the intersection of millions which we can’t possibly measure.

However, let’s not throw away our laptops quite yet. Weathermen amongst you, don’t discard your barometers. Allow me to stretch the weather analogy that little bit further.

“if we happen to rely on a sunny forecast to schedule a picnic, and it rains instead, we don’t condemn the entire field of meteorology, or dismiss it as useless guessing. We recognize that it is an imperfect science.”

Paul Halpern

Like our understanding of the weather, our understanding of Google is limited but useful. We must think in terms of trends rather than absolutes, of complex relationships rather than cause and effect, and of net gain rather than continuous improvement. Below are a few key ways that we can approach our work as such; fully cognisant of the limits of our understanding:

  1. Think Bigger Picture On Performance: Teams across disciplines are guilty of over-analysing incidental data. Most fluctuations in search data are just that. Diagnose quickly whether what you’re seeing is a sustained, meaningful trend. If it’s not, don’t waste your time looking for cause and effect.
  2. Use Standard Deviation: It’s so easy to look at data and think “that went up, great!” or “that wend down, oh no”, but what you really need to understand is statistical significance in what you see. Standard deviation is the tool for this. It tells you the extent to which what you see falls outside of the normal range. You can work it out in Excel, but online calculators help too. This is one of the ways we can make sense of the noise.
  3. Challenge Your Understanding: Sometimes, with the best of intentions, your SEO work doesn’t yield the results that all of the signs and research suggests it would. This is the time to go back to your original logic and scrutinise the basic principles. Is there really the interest we think? Is our content really good enough? If you really can’t see why you’re not performing, try taking a different angle, refreshing it or asking team mates for help. Luckily with SEO, there is always room for improvement.
  4. Trust in the principles: When work doesn’t work, remind yourself of all the times it has and move forward positively. We don’t have always have the luxury of diagnosing the specific causes of failure in SEO, but we do have the benefit of always being able to regroup, reiterate and plough forward. We know what works broadly, and can always do more of it.

Remember SEO Drives Returns

It can sound like a cop out to say that SEO professionals – and marketers more generally – shouldn’t be expected to succeed all the time. Why bother investing in the first place with no guarantee of delivery? The truth is that it’s the same reason we believe weather forecasters. We’re usually right. For every campaign that falls flat, there are another 4 which succeed. When they do, they deliver returns which can continue to give indefinitely, in a way that other marketing channels just can’t. Whatever we lack in guarantees, we can make up for in returns – a solid SEO strategy works.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below. Or if you’re hungry for more, take a browse through our main categories here.

Technical SEO

It’s the foundation that all SEO is built on, and can be a pretty useful extension too. Read our latest & greatest technical SEO articles here.

Content Marketing

If you want to diversify the entry points to your site, you’ll need to create and maintain great content. Check out our tips & techniques.


Catch up on strategy advice. However advanced your tactics are, without strategy your SEO won’t get you where you need to go.

Behind the Site

I’m Jack Telford, an Owned Strategy Director at Publicis Media. I’ve been in the SEO industry for the last 6 years and love the collaborative nature of the space. This site is my little contribution to the community.

Got any Good Ideas?

Always looking for new contributors to the site – and for feedback too. Feel free to get in touch if you’re interested in writing or have anything to share.

London, SW4 (or I will be again after lockdown)

About 100 SEO Ideas

The place to explore quick, easily digestible SEO and wider marketing tips and techniques. Sharing knowledge from professionals across the field, we aim to help each other achieve greater success.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: