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Is Search a Zero Sum Game?

12:56 pm on Dec 1, 2010 (gmt 0)

I've seen a few people state recently that one persons loss is another's gain. For instance your small e-commerce site is hurting at the expense of Amazon.

Personally I'm not convinced. Just for claritys sake: a zero sum game is an environment where assets are just passed between players. Futures and options markets are a zero sum game. Taxes and public spending are a zero sum game (you are just redistributing wealth). I don't really see that search is a zero sum game, primarily because there are nearly always alternative choices / strategies.

For instance, I'm searching for some help with coding perl, and Google fails to return me any good results. One alternative here is I just suck it up and work it out myself. This has two losers; I lost because of the extra time involved, and the person who owns the perl tutorial site also lost my visit.

Another example is travel. I'm looking for a weekend break destination on a tight budget. There may be many deals on the internet within my budget - but if they fall outside Google's results I may fail to find them and just decide not to go on holiday at all.

I don't see search (especially broken search) as a zero sum game. What do you think?


1:35 pm on Dec 1, 2010 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member sgt_kickaxe is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 5+ Year Member

I think it's a zero sum game actually.

You've have to differentiate between the two issues you describe, getting the click and converting it into a happy visitor.

Fall out of the rankings, someone else will gain from your loss, at least as far as getting the click is concerned but search has nothing to do with what happens after that :-)
2:04 pm on Dec 1, 2010 (gmt 0)

Yea but what if no-one gets the click? That is my point. There are lots of scenarios where this could (and probably does happen). E.g. I go to Google looking for some help with Excel, Google does a bad job, so I then try to use Excel help instead.

A similar example is Amazon. If Amazon was broken a lot of people would just buy less books. Ok, maybe someone gains (the pub where I spend my book money instead), but the net effect in many cases will be negative, especially if I waste hours of my time looking for the book elsewhere (assuming my time has a monetary value).
2:58 pm on Dec 1, 2010 (gmt 0)

But then you're not talking about Search, are you?

I think the question most people ask is "where can I invest time/money to sell product" and if a search strategy doesn't play out, or doesn't provide sales then the smart person tries another channel.

If I have to move to affiliates or TV ads to push product because I can't compete in search or the traffic isn't there then Search is zero-sum, there's only so many sales to be made in that channel.

Marketing in general always has alternatives, and isn't zero-sum but if you're just talking about search it's a pretty real possibility that it's zero-sum.
6:25 pm on Dec 1, 2010 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

When talking about straight SERPS it is 100% zero sum, for every move up someone has to move back...

as far as income there are to many factors involved for it to be clear cut zero sum, in a sense our economy is zero sum if you look deep enough but enough in the way that so long as the flow is kept in tact it doesn't show up... The search is it's own sense of an economy, so long as things are distributed it is not zero sum... That is exactly why Google makes changes and always has to keep up with "it's" economy.

In another post someone mentioned why Google filters out affiliates and it isn't fair... That is the exact reason they do.
7:03 pm on Dec 1, 2010 (gmt 0)

Clearly the SERPs are zero sum, unless Google just stops working entirely and returns no results. But the click throughs aren't zero sum in that if the results are bad then one possible scenario is that the intended purchase / action doesn't happen AT ALL. I.E it is not necessarily true that one click lost is another click gained, because if the results are bad I wont click on them.

Seems pretty clear cut to me....
8:36 pm on Dec 1, 2010 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

Ahh, gotcha, I think I miss read your question...
8:49 pm on Dec 1, 2010 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Yea but what if no-one gets the click? That is my point.

Logically you are correct. This is one of the many faulty arguments I have seen through the years. The assumption that because one site is moving down and the other moving up does not necessarily mean the higher ranking site or site that moved up is magically bestowed with more business. In fact the demotion of a few sites or the promotion of a few may completely contaminate searches for the particular keyword or phrase driving business away altogether for everybody.