In May of 2011, a team of 20-25 highly trained Special Forces troops landed in the middle of the night in a town outside Islamabad. They flew in undetected, and used their countless hours of training to take down the world’s most ruthless terrorist, Osama Bin Laden. They were SEALs, and the world finally got a close up view of what the most elite fighting team in the world could accomplish.
Even before that point, I became fascinated with Navy SEALs, and the rigors of SEAL training. Think about this statistic for a second. Only 15% of those trying to become SEALs actually make it through the training. That’s right, the training is so rigorous, so mentally tough, so physically extreme, that even the most athletic, strongest, and toughest trainees drop out.
That statistic is insane, but makes complete sense, when you think about what SEALs must do on a regular basis. They jump out of planes at 20K feet, with oxygen masks on, dropping in behind enemy lines, to complete dangerous missions to keep our country safe. They work in small, stealthy teams, and are called upon to tackle the most dangerous operations. Failure is truly not an option for SEALs.
SEALs and SEO
So how do Navy SEALs apply to SEO? First, a quick disclaimer. I am by no means comparing what Navy SEALs do with what we do as marketers. I have the highest level of respect for every person in our military. What they do every day enables me to play with websites, keywords, and search engines. But, I think businesspeople and marketers can learn a lot from understanding how Special Operations teams work, how they think, and how they execute.
When writing my post about Large Scale SEO and Failure, I explained that complex SEO projects are not for the faint of heart. There are times you are fighting an SEO battle on several fronts, including branding, technology, designers, PR, the c-level suite, etc. And then you have external changes to deal with, like Google’s algorithm updates, new technology emerging, new channels, platforms, or even mediums. And then you have the competition, which sometimes doesn’t play by the rules (understatement of the year). It’s during these times that honesty and integrity are tested, and decisions are made that could make or break a business.
Want Real Answers? Ask a SEAL
All of this led me to wonder how a SEAL would tackle SEO, and handle the challenges we face every day as an industry. That’s when I decided to reach out to an actual SEAL to find out. It ends up my wife has a good friend she went to high school with who became a SEAL. I messaged him to see if he had any insights for me. He immediately said, “Glenn, I’ve got the person for you” and connected me with Dave Rutherford, a former Navy SEAL with an incredible background in Special Operations training and behavior.
Dave served as a SEAL for 8 years through 2003, and participated in clandestine missions in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Afghanistan. He has served with, and trained, many SEALs during his career. Dave also runs his own motivational consulting business, Froglogic Concepts, where he works with companies to help their internal teams work at the highest possible levels in any environment imaginable.
Dave was nice enough to work with me on this post and explain more about SEAL philosophy, training, and toughness. In addition, I was able to explain more to Dave about the SEO industry, the challenges we face, and the ever-changing external environment. Together we crafted this post. By the way, Dave also provided some of the amazing photos you’ll see throughout this post.
My hope is that you can take SEAL philosophy and apply it to what you do every day in SEO. I can tell you first-hand that I’ve already made changes since speaking with Dave. Below, I’ve broken down several core topics that apply to SEO, and asked Dave for his input as a SEAL. Then I provided context based on my experience working as a consultant, in-house marketer, and from my time at a large agency (during my 17 year career). Let’s dive in, no pun intended.
1. Continually Honing Your Skillset
Dave: I am constantly being asked what makes SEAL Teams so good at what they do. The misconception is that we possess top secret technology and equipment that makes operating in the most extreme environments on the planet easy. That couldn’t be further from the truth. What really makes us the best is that we train 1000 times harder than our enemy does. We practice the basics to perfection and then apply those Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s) to the situation at hand. We maintain a flexible mindset grounded in sound tactics.
Glenn: In my opinion, you absolutely need a core SEO skillset to get basic projects completed, which includes a solid understanding of technical SEO, keyword research, content optimization, analytics, etc. But, the constant state of change in the industry leads to a need for continual learning. SEO has expanded beyond simply SEO, and now includes Conversion Rate Optimization, User Experience, Social Media Marketing, Content Development, Technical Development, Branding, etc. If you aren’t continually learning new areas of marketing as an SEO, while honing your skillset within those areas, then you’ll be left behind. Period.
In addition, new functionality and tools are released every week in this industry, and it’s up to you as an SEO to test them out, learn the right tools, and apply them to your current projects. I dedicate time every week to testing out new tools, applications, coding techniques, analytics packages, etc. To me, this is essential for any seasoned SEO. Like Dave said, train 1000 times harder than your enemy. Get the basics perfected, and be flexible when new technology or tools come out. Think like a SEAL.
2. Adapting to Change
Dave: Real-world operations almost never go exactly to plan. Murphy is always poised to make things as tough as possible for the good guys. There is no escaping the reality of the fog of war. However, because SEALs have logged thousands of hours training in every facet of our operational repertoire, and the fact that we always have a strong plan before we execute our objectives, we are mentally prepared for anything that should arise. The units that don’t prepare for realistic contingencies, and haven’t spent the countless hours honing their skill-set as a group, will be at a serious disadvantage right from the start.