SEO and OODA Loops


Rhea here with some nerdy thoughts on decision-making.

Sometimes it’s difficult for me to decide what I want to eat for lunch. By comparison, making a large SEO strategy decision for a client or business decision for the company can feel downright crippling. What makes it easier for me to get through the tough decisions is the OODA loop, which I discovered after reading, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War and over coffee talk, Ric Dragon convinced me to share it with the rest of you! Hold tight, it’s worth it.

The book is the biography of Colonel John Boyd, arguably the greatest fighter pilot and one of the most brilliant military strategists who ever lived. I’m going to take a guess that most of you (like me) have never heard of Boyd or an OODA loop. So, why would I read the book? I had raving recommendations from five different men in my life and each said the same thing — good read, fascinating business applications.

It took the flight to the latest Pubcon Vegas for me to finally crack open the book and it may have been the fact that I was flying in the same air space that John Boyd once broke barriers in, but I couldn’t put it down. I’m not a military strategist or a philosopher, so I’m not even going to attempt to explain the finer points of Boyd’s OODA loop, but let’s try the basics and feel free to chime in, in the comments if you have a better understanding or interesting applications:

What does OODA loop mean?


In its earliest form Boyd used the OODA loop to explain why American fighter pilots consistently overtook technically superior enemy planes in the Korean War. The mechanics of the Russian MiG-15 should have made it the clear winner when it came to dog fights, but the inferior American planes had a 10:1 victory. What Boyd discovered was that American pilots were better equipped to observe-orient-decide-act on what was happening around them. Their training enabled them to get into their enemies “loop” faster and win because they could adapt more quickly even though they had a plane that on paper should have lost.

Since its inception the OODA loop has been applied to many industries. Venture Hacks wrote a post on the OODA loop and startups and it’s been covered by Fast Company.

As marketers and business owners we’re trying to gain an advantage over the competition. For us that competition can come in a variety of forms because of the complications we face with search engines — real world competitors are not always SERP competitors. For example, if a client sells crock pots and there are only a handful of high-quality crock pot makers in the world, the client would consider those makers to be their competition. But the SEO sees the competition as anyone out-ranking the site in the SERPs. This may include, but is not limited to — shopping sites, affiliates, directories, article sites, blogs, news, images, videos and the search engines themselves.

By understanding the competition and being able to execute the OODA loop, we can “win” the SEO battle. The tactics a search marketer employs may vary, but the concept remains the same. Results don’t happen until we make them happen.

Tom Critchlow recently did a Whiteboard Friday for SEOmoz on How to Make SEO Happen, which I found to be a simple breakdown of what can feel like a complex problem. His second point in the video was how important it is to create processes that make it easier to get things done. This is best accomplished by making things actionable.

Let’s try to do that here. Below are my action items for you if you want to improve your OODA loop in whatever situations may arise.

Get Trained

There’s nothing more frustrating than being faced with a decision that you don’t have the knowledge to address. This is where many novice and even seasoned search marketers get hung up. The industry is constantly changing, what are we doing to keep our SEO consulting brains in shape?

You don’t have to be an expert in everything, but know enough to stop being dangerous and know where you should turn for more information on a specific subject. Not sure where to start? You’re reading this post, so you must know about some of the best SEO blogs, subscribe to your favorite industry insiders, as well as, their sources (like Google’s Official Webmaster Central blog or Bing’s blogs).

Also, check out educational opportunities and certification programs like MarketingProfs University, Market Motive and Google Analytic’s Conversion University.

Develop your circle of trust. Is that a close group of other search marketers you trust? Maybe a local meetup group or professional association? Maybe it’s a virtual community like SEO Book, the SEO Dojo, Webmaster World or Sphinn.

Use the Best Tools

I use a lot of tools in my day and my Mac hates me for it. What makes my day easier? Let’s go with the most heavily used tools and services:

  • Basecamp
  • Raven SEO Tools
  • WordPress and pretty much everything from Yoast
  • Spyfu
  • Xenu
  • Excel
  • Firefox and Chrome
  • Google Webmaster Central
  • Google Analytics

For the most part I love the tools we work with, but I’m always looking for new ones, because there’s nothing more frustrating and costly than having a tool I rely on crap out on me (I’m looking at you Google Docs and Quickbooks).

Which brings me to the most important (and cheesy) tool — our brains. If a tool isn’t working, fix it, create a better one or rethink the process. It’s very easy for us to get accustomed to doing things the same way we always have even if that method is absurd and costly. But, it’s impossible to make an informed decision if our tools are compromised or underperforming.

Recognize Mistakes

There’s been a lot of conversation around mistakes and accidental tweets lately. I won’t dwell on the subject, but there is no more pivotal time than when I recognize I’ve made a mistake and what I choose to do about it. Learn from the mistake. Implement change. Keep moving forward.

In an agency, we have to refine our process and the tools we use. Identify problems, train everyone on how to avoid them, setup editable SOPs, and ask everyone to share their discoveries. At an agency, we offer a collection of knowledge and experiences about our services that exceed that of potential clients. The ability to effectively communicate with our team about their experiences is priceless.

Trust Your Gut

I try not to rely on my personal gut when it comes to client strategies, but there are so many little decisions in my day that don’t give me a chance to slowly weigh my options. Those times are when all of that training and my gut kick into high gear and I have to blindly trust that I’m making the right decision. To accomplish a higher purpose, action has to take place and that action can be scary and/or liberating.

Here are some of my favorite “gut” reactions from the industry:

  • Ian Laurie just wrote a post on the Potential Misery Index of Clients. He lists effective guidelines for assessing prospective clients. That’s his gut speaking and as another agency owner, I can absolutely sympathize with the list, but those are lessons many won’t trust until they’re in the same situation (been there, done that). It will be a costly lesson.
  • Remember that circle of trust? Wil Reynolds is in mine. When he wrote about his hiring fails I should have listened up. I read the post and absorbed it, but I’ve always been that stubborn type who needs to feel the lesson before I get it. These days, Outspoken Media is “getting it” more often than not and that’s a good pattern. We have the most incredible team and resumes are flooding in from incredibly talented local marketers. It’s exciting and assures me that we’re getting better with our OODA loop.

What does your loop look like? Is it a loop or more of a brick wall where action slams to a halt? What can you do to gain that competitive advantage for your clients and/or your business?

Final thought:

A friend pointed me to a post by Tim Ferriss on 6 Formulas for More Output and Less Overwhelm and in reading the post I came across a mention of the “The Paradox of Choice.” I read this book several years back and it really hit home for me at the time in a silly way. I was shopping for a wedding dress. I wanted THE dress. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew light would shine down from heaven on me when I put it on. What Mr. Schwartz’s (yes, Barry Schwartz, no, not OUR Barry Schwartz) book helped me realize was that as “choice” grows, it may actually be harder to make a decision. We feel like we’re missing out on something or making a mistake. That paralysis strikes fear in us over something as simple as buying a dress or a box of cereal. Interesting stuff, which has sparked a lot of debate over the subject. What do you think?

If you’re really interested in this subject, do grab a copy of Boyd and check out Mr. Schwartz at TED (I like this video from him at Google more, but since Google Video is dying as of April 29th you better hurry up and watch it, otherwise see below):

Your Comments

  • Dana DiTomaso

    This is brilliant. Nothing to add except thank you!

  • Alan Bleiweiss

    Rhea, this one is well worth every one of the 1600 words in it! Personally I didn’t have the fortune of being able to learn about the loop in a book about fighter pilots.

    Mine came from 12 step recovery, in a slightly different phrasing. “Take a step in the direction you think you want to be going. Stop. Observe. Did it take you closer or further away? Adjust. Take another step. Repeat…”

    Can’t count how many times over the years it’s pulled me out of choice paralysis.

    Another thing I’ve relied upon is coming to learn to recognize when that feeling of overwhelmingness due to choices or fear of making a bad decision is about to set in. The sooner I can recognize it, the sooner I can take that next action. And the less stress and ensuing chaos I need to deal with.

    • Rhea Drysdale

      Alan, I like how the 12 step process makes you look at where you want to be. It’s probably assumed with the OODA loop that you know your goal/vision, but having to stop and really think about it has to do wonders. Thank you for sharing that stage of your life.

  • james

    I stay away from WordPress if there is any development involved which is not specifically the front end. You can’t crack that monster in the back end and expect it to work a few months down the road.

    Other that than that HTML, php, css, mysql, linux seem to pretty awesome tools. And lets be honest, the largest companies of our time were built on them and they still keep coming…

  • Lalit Burma

    Would love to read more about OODA … please elaborate more in coming posts …

    Thanks for the nice 15 minutes read.

  • Amanda

    If you’d like to take your knowledge of OODA loops into the +1 realm, mastermind a way to apply Boyd’s “Theory of War” to business. He believed the way to win a dogfight, or a war, was to get into your opponent’s OODA loop and manipulate what he sees so that he orients himself into unreal conditions fabricated by you, makes decisions based on these conditions, and acts while you maintain control of the actual situation.

    If you can figure out a way to apply that to link building and SEO, I’m pretty sure you win the internet. It’s written in a handbook somewhere.

    Kidding aside, OODA loops are a practicable method with snowball value for all small business owners. Wouldn’t every entrepreneur like to be able to make faster decisions and know how to alter course or adjust strategy based on their quick *actions* – not their pontifications and baseless theories?

    OODA loops are kryptonite to analysis paralysis.

    • Rhea Drysdale

      Blog post today, win the Internet tomorrow. :D

      Also, yes please to the rhetorical question. The hardest part for me is recognition of paralysis, which can sometimes be disguised as an attempt to collect more information and/or assure myself of something. That’s where trust comes into play and I know that’s a big part of the OODA loop in war, right? You have to trust the team to know the mission and move forward.

      An interesting example I’ve thought a lot about is a situation a few months back where an employee expressed concern about client communication and I didn’t act on it as much as I should have. I jumped into client cheerleader mode and trusted them over my team member. What I didn’t understand was that when an employee talks to a boss about anything, they’re going to do their best to be polite and restrained. That means any concerns they express should typically be magnified by five. The employee was struggling so much that they chose to come to me, which means it’s already a problem. I have to trust their experience with the situation. If I don’t, that’s a different problem.

      Trust. Communication. Somehow everything comes back to that.

  • Maciej Fita

    Everyone has a process to their madness. I like the approach above it seems very calculated and methodical. Will have to check out that book and see what it is all about.

  • Bill Garnett

    Great post, Rhea. I’ve been thinking about John Boyd lately. I first learned about Boyd in the mid-90s from an old Marine Corps buddy and read Coram’s book when it came out. It is well worth reading. Boyd was brilliant, if flawed, and his achievements went far beyond his skill as a fighter pilot. One thing that is particularly fascinating is how he went all the way back to classical philosophers and moved forward through modern physics in both his tactical/strategic concepts and in designing the F-16.
    A good roundup of his impact on the military, particularly the Marines who applied his ideas to ground combat, can be found at . There is a book that applies his thinking to business – Certain to Win: The Strategy of John Boyd, Applied to Business by Chet Richards. I haven’t read it but it comes highly recommended.

    Recently I heard Eric Ries talk about his new book The Lean Startup. Eric put up a diagram of his concept showing a loop of “Ideas > Build > Product > Measure > Data > Learn > Ideas…” The thought that came to mind was “that’s a Boyd Loop.” And it is, but adapted to product (in this case software) development. Eric advocates turning an idea into a “minimum viable product quickly, getting it out to users, gather in solid data about what users do or do not find useful about it, then quickly pivoting to a new idea when solid data tells you the original idea is not meeting user needs. Not exactly a Boyd Loop, but conceptually the same. There’s been a lot of discussion lately about ideas like this and your post is a valuable addition.

    • Rhea Drysdale

      Hi Bill, thanks for the link and the book recommendation, I’ll have to grab a copy. It’s really interesting to see how well the concept applies to product development and innovation. Glad to see it’s getting attention, because, to your point, Boyd really did incorporate some classic ideas. The “Tao Te Ching” is a personal favorite and the sections on enemies was a huge influence on Boyd. I find myself returning to it often for a variety of reasons. Along those lines, a friend recently recommended translations of Marcus Aurelius in the “The Emperor’s Handbook,” which I’m hoping to read soon, too. I’ve always liked being informed by the original concept of something and so much of modern business strategy is built on these ancient texts. Boyd had a great mind for connecting those dots, if only he’d spent some more time with his family. :)

  • Gabriele Maidecchi

    The human brain has the natural tendency to prefer breaking down complex situations into smaller actionable ones, which is why the GTD approach works so good. Without observing carefully you can’t plan a strategy which allows you to overcome the situation. And as you mention, you have to make sure you are properly trained for it, otherwise nothing of this even applies.

    The best point you make though is about admitting one’s mistakes. I see a lot of people approaching mistakes with denial, as they are some sort of god who can’t ever be wrong. Truth is mistakes are the fastest way to learn something, admitting you have the right mind-set for them. An open mind which can learn, adapt and act.

  • Daniel Hayes

    Fantastic post! I served nearly 27 years in the military and the OODA loop is a big part of the USAF culture and used far beyond the air-war spectrum it was conceived for. Another we use is See First-Understand First-Act First. They both strive to give the user an advantage by getting into their opponent’s decision cycle and you captured that brilliantly. Thanks!

    By the way, my Mom is a “Rhea” and my daughter’s middle name is, as well. Of course that doesn’t bias me toward the brilliance of your post at all… ;)

  • Kpop Starz

    Thanks for the link and book recomendation