Unearthing SEO Gold: Avoiding Survivorship Bias to Increase Organic Traffic

SEO Gold SEO Tips

During World War II, the Statistical Research Group (SRG) at Columbia University examined the bullet-riddled aircraft that had survived the missions. They recommended reinforcing those areas that showed the least damage. This seemingly counterintuitive approach was rooted in an understanding of survivorship bias, which has valuable lessons for today’s digital marketers and SEO experts. You can unearth SEO gold by breaking free from the limitations of survivorship bias.

Picture this: Warplanes come back after a tough mission, and they’re all battered with bullet holes. Now, instead of focusing on the damage, they focused on the spots where the damage wasn’t so bad. This might seem backward, but here’s the logic: Those planes that safely made it home were hit in the ‘safe areas’. So, they thought, “Let’s reinforce areas that have no bullet holes.” They figured that if planes were hit in those areas, they wouldn’t survive, so instead of reinforcing areas with bullet wounds, areas with no bullet wounds needed fixing.

Now, let’s connect this to the world of SEO and digital marketing. Just like in the war, marketers often get fixated on keywords and pages that are already doing a good job at bringing people to their websites. It’s like reinforcing the areas with the most bullet holes because they seem to be working.

But here’s the catch: This can lead to a kind of survivorship bias in SEO. When you only pay attention to keywords that are already working, you might miss out on many other keyword opportunities that could bring even more visitors to your site.

Survivorship bias in SEO
Martin Grandjean (vector), McGeddon (picture), Cameron Moll (concept), CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

SEO Gold – Uncovering Keyword Opportunities

The connection between the wartime strategy and SEO is pretty clear. Just like those planes that didn’t make it back, there are lots of keywords that websites haven’t explored yet. These untapped keywords could be the key to getting more people to your website.

Keyword Research:

    • Start with Existing Data: Begin by looking at your current SEO data, such as the keywords that are driving traffic to your website. This is akin to examining the surviving aircraft in the survivorship bias analogy.
    • Identify High-Performing Keywords: Just like the areas of an aircraft with the most bullet holes, identify the keywords that are performing well. These keywords have shown their potential to attract organic traffic.
    • SEO Tools: Google Keyword Planner, Ahrefs, and SEMrush can help you identify keyword opportunities and assess their competitiveness. This information can guide your content strategy.

Explore Beyond the Obvious:

    • Long-Tail Keywords: In SEO, long-tail keywords are like the less-damaged areas on the returning aircraft. These keywords are more specific and often have less competition. Use keyword research tools like Google Keyword Planner, Ahrefs, or SEMrush to find long-tail keywords related to your niche.
    • Related Keywords: Think of related keywords as areas on the aircraft that haven’t been directly hit but might still be vulnerable. These are keywords closely associated with your main topic. Google’s “Searches related to…” section at the bottom of search results is a good place to start.
    • Semantic SEO: Survivorship bias in SEO also means looking at the broader context. Consider using semantic SEO techniques by including synonyms and related terms in your content to capture a wider audience.

Competitor Analysis:

    • Analyze your competitors’ SEO strategies. Identify the keywords they are targeting successfully and the ones they might be overlooking. Tools like SEMrush and SpyFu can help with competitor research. Analyzing competitors’ strategies can reveal insights into what’s working in your niche.

Content Gap Analysis:

    • Look for content gaps on your own website. These are topics or keywords related to your niche that you haven’t covered yet. Addressing these gaps can attract new visitors and improve your SEO.

User Intent Analysis:

    • Understand user intent behind keywords. It’s like understanding why some areas of the aircraft were hit and others weren’t. Tailor your content to match user intent, whether it’s informational, transactional, or navigational.

Backlink Analysis

  • Tools like Moz and Majestic can help you evaluate your backlink profile and identify potential areas for improvement.

Monitor Trends and Seasonality:

    • Keep an eye on trends and seasonal changes in your industry. Just as warfare strategies changed during WWII, the search landscape evolves. Anticipate and adapt your SEO strategy accordingly.

Regular Audits and Optimization:

    • Continuously audit and optimize your website. What worked yesterday might not work tomorrow. Regularly review and update your content and keywords based on performance metrics. Conducting regular site audits using tools like Screaming Frog can uncover technical SEO issues that may be hindering your performance.

User Feedback and Analytics:

    • Listen to your audience. Pay attention to user feedback, comments, and questions. These can be a goldmine for finding new keyword opportunities and content ideas.


    • Don’t be afraid to experiment. Try new keywords, content formats, and SEO tactics. Measure the results and adjust your strategy based on what works.

Stay Informed and Adaptive:

    • Survivorship bias in SEO is dangerous when you become complacent. Stay informed about SEO trends, algorithm updates, and changes in user behavior. Be ready to adapt your strategy as needed.

Google Search Console Tips To Unearth Keyword Potential-

Google Search Console provides valuable data on how your website is performing in search results, including click-through rates and keyword rankings.

      1. Click on the “Average CTR” column to sort the keywords by click-through rate. This allows you to see which keywords are getting the most clicks in relation to their impressions. Look for keywords with a high number of impressions but a relatively low CTR. These are keywords with potential for improvement.
      2. Click on keywords with low CTR but a significant number of impressions. These are your “survivorship bias” keywords – they’re still getting some clicks, but they have the potential to do much better.
      3. Once you’ve identified low-performing keywords, revisit the pages on your website associated with those keywords. Make sure that the content is relevant and engaging. Optimize meta tags (title and description) to improve their appeal in search results.
      4. Consider creating new content that specifically targets these low-performing keywords. Craft high-quality, informative articles or pages that address the search intent behind these keywords.

By actively seeking out and addressing survivorship bias in your SEO strategy, you’ll be better equipped to discover new opportunities and stay ahead of the competition in the ever-evolving digital landscape. SEO is a dynamic field, and what works today might not work tomorrow, so stay flexible and open to change.

SEO and Trap of Survivor Bias

Imagine you come across a website that appears to have cracked the SEO code. It boasts a high SEO score, impressive keyword rankings, and an abundance of backlinks. It seems like a model of SEO success, and naturally, you want to replicate its strategies.

Here’s where survivor bias and metric seduction come into play. You’re basing your SEO strategy on a survivor – a single website that’s prospering. But what you don’t see are the many websites that followed similar paths, investing resources and effort into the same tactics, yet struggled to achieve comparable results. You’re essentially gambling your SEO efforts on a single roll of the dice without considering the broader landscape.

Having one successful website as your benchmark is akin to examining only the aircraft that made it back safely during World War II and ignoring the ones that didn’t. It creates a narrow perspective that can blind us to the complexities of the digital battlefield.

Here are some key issues with succumbing to survivor bias in your SEO strategy:

      1. Incomplete Data: Relying on a single success story means you’re missing the broader context. You don’t see the websites that tried the same approach and failed or those that might have had different circumstances affecting their outcomes.
      2. Short-Term Snapshot: What if the successful website you’re emulating is experiencing a temporary spike in traffic? Without a comprehensive analysis, it’s challenging to differentiate between a lasting trend and a fleeting moment of success.
      3. Hidden Factors: Survivor bias often obscures other essential SEO considerations. Is the success of the example website solely due to the tactic you’re interested in, or are there other factors at play, such as a robust backlink profile, a strong social media presence, or impeccable technical SEO?
      4. Counterexamples: Are there websites out there employing the same tactic but failing to grow or even witnessing a decline in organic traffic? These counterexamples can provide valuable cautionary tales.
      5. Apples and Oranges Comparison: Is the example website in the same league as yours? Are they in the same niche, facing similar competition, utilizing similar technology, and targeting the same audience? Comparing drastically different websites can lead to misguided strategies.
      6. Efficiency and Feasibility: Can you implement the tactic with the same level of efficiency and expertise as the example website? What resources and capabilities do you have at your disposal?
      7. Opportunity Cost: Lastly, is this tactic the best use of your resources? Could there be alternative strategies that offer a higher return on investment for your specific circumstances?

Relying solely on the success of a single website without considering the broader context can lead to suboptimal decisions. Instead, take a holistic approach to SEO. Ask critical questions, analyze data from various sources, and consider the unique aspects of your website and niche.

SEO is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. What works for one website may not work for another. Embrace a data-driven mindset, and leverage SEO tools to gather insights, but always interpret the data in the context of your specific goals and circumstances. By doing so, you’ll be better equipped to navigate the intricate world of SEO and make informed decisions that drive long-term success.

Lesson from World War II about survivorship bias is super important in the world of SEO and digital marketing too. Just like how fixing the most-hit spots on planes made sense, it also makes sense to look beyond the keywords that are already working. To make your SEO strategy awesome, you’ve got to explore all the different keyword opportunities out there, just like in World War II they looked at all the damage on planes, including the ones that didn’t make it back. By doing this, you’ll be better prepared for success in the ever-changing world of online marketing.