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9 Ways To Sell In China: Tips For Ecommerce Marketers

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9 Ways To Sell In China: Tips For Ecommerce Marketers

You don’t have to have an MBA from Wharton to spot the opportunities the Chinese market presents for ecommerce.

The world’s most populous nation, the People’s Republic of China, has the world’s second-largest economy, with a GDP of nearly $16 trillion. And what’s truly astonishing is that most of its economic growth has occurred over the last three decades.

If you’re like most foreign (i.e., not based in the PRC) companies, this potential probably has you licking your chops.

But unfortunately, this is a notoriously difficult market to enter for Western companies because it presents several unique challenges. These often include:

  • Difficulty navigating a complex and inconsistent bureaucracy.
  • A poor understanding of consumer buying habits.
  • Governmental challenges include corruption and a lack of transparency.
  • Sourcing local labor and managing employees.
  • Intense competition (and rules that favor domestic companies).

That said, it’s not impossible, and the possibilities far outweigh the cost and time required.

In this piece, we’ll discuss the unique challenges of doing business and look at nine things ecommerce companies can do to not only get their foot in the door but also thrive.

Ecommerce Tips For Marketing In China

1. Understand Chinese Consumer Behavior

Chinese digital shoppers do not behave in the same manner as their American and European counterparts.

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For one thing, thanks in no small part to censorship laws, Western search engines have no significant presence in the PRC.

Instead, the Chinese have several home-grown search engines, each with its niche in the market.

And the vast majority of shoppers are using these on mobile devices, with 99.7% of Chinese internet users accessing the web via smartphone. 

But, those are far from the only differences in consumer behavior.

Chinese citizens also prefer single-entry-point shopping, where they can choose between brands rather than visiting a shopping platform of a single company.

For example, they’re more likely to buy Nikes from Tmall (an Amazon-like store) than from the Nike site itself.

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Chinese consumers are also heavily swayed by influencers and social media.

Chinese companies actively encourage celebrities to use their apps as a channel for product launches. And direct links from social media posts to online stores make it easy for shoppers to find and buy the exact shoes their favorite star was wearing.

Additionally, the vast economic growth the country has undergone led to an increased emphasis on quality, convenience, and customer service when making decisions.

2. Select The Right Products

Whereas previous Chinese generations may have valued collectivization and sought benefits for society, modern Chinese consumers have moved into a more individual mindset.

In a whitepaper entitled “Chinese Consumer Insights 2022,” Ireland-based professional services company Accenture found an 11% increase in consumers willing to buy products that highlight their identity between 2013 and 2021.

This should come as no surprise in a country that now boasts more than 700 million middle-class citizens.

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To ensure the success of your ecommerce marketing in the PRC, you need to sell the type of products they’re looking for.

Goods for leisure activities, technology, beauty and makeup, and clothing remain hot items on the Chinese digital market.

There is a high demand for foreign products, but they must be considered premium alternatives to domestic items.

According to the South China Morning Post, an English-language newspaper owned by Alibaba, China claimed 32% of the global luxury goods market in 2020.

This is a huge opportunity for foreign companies looking to expand into the Chinese marketplace.

3. Set Up Local Hosting For Your Website

Chinese search engines tend to prioritize websites hosted on servers within the country. Launching a Mandarin version of your existing online store alone will not cut it.

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To show up in the searches of Chinese consumers, you need a site hosted in China. But it’s not as simple as clicking a few buttons and filling in your credit card information.

Before any website can be hosted in the PRC, you must apply for an Internet Content Provider (ICP) registration with the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).

Depending on which industry you fall under (e.g., education, healthcare, financial services), you may have to receive permission from a relevant government agency before applying. 

You need to receive your ICP commercial license, as well as an Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) if you plan on processing data and transactions.

However, if you plan on having a physical presence in China, you may not need an ICP.

Just be aware if you do need one, the entire process may take several months.

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4. Use Trusted Payment Processors

The way payment works in China differs from what you’re probably used to.

For one thing, the model varies depending on the type of transaction. You could try to navigate these complex requirements on your own, but it’s recommended that you work with a third-party online payment platform like Alipay or Tenpay.

Alibaba’s Alipay is the primary payment method for major Chinese ecommerce platforms, TMall and Taobao. It offers escrow capabilities to reduce risk when receiving payments.

You’ll need a Chinese phone number, bank account, and a Chinese business license to use it.

Tencent’s Tenpay also offers escrow and is simpler to set up.

To receive your license, you must prove to Tencent you want to do business in China and provide a foreign ecommerce website.

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This requires a China-visible WeChat account, a cross-border payment account, and a WeChat ecommerce website.

Note: You can apply for your WeChat account and foreign business license directly through Tencent, though this is not a standard process.

Minimize your payment risk with product inspection certificates that attest your items meet agreed-upon quality requirements.

5. Provide Exceptional Customer Service

Chinese business is built upon a concept known as guanxi. Roughly translated, this means personal relationships with an implied level of trust and mutual obligation.

Because this has historically been such an important aspect of how business is done, Chinese consumers have an ingrained expectation of hierarchy, negotiation, and customer service.

While the first two are not so important to ecommerce companies, the third is crucial.

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Competition in the digital marketplace is fierce, meaning Chinese shoppers are used to superior customer service.

They expect – and you should provide – things like fast delivery and returns, clear communications in Mandarin, and easy mobile payment options.

And they’re not afraid to share their opinions on social media sites, so bad customer experiences can have far-reaching effects.

6. Choose The Right Logistics Solution

Late deliveries, damaged items, and difficult return policies will turn Chinese customers off. That means your logistics must be iron-clad.

Unfortunately, finding high-quality providers can be difficult in mainland China.

This leaves you with three options: Build your own, partner with or acquire existing firms, or find a good third-party provider.

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The first two options are time-consuming and prohibitively expensive for most ecommerce companies, so that leaves only option number three.

Logistics providers in the PRC generally fall into two categories:

  • Companies compete based on their large network.
  • Companies that compete based on superior service.

Choosing which is right for you will depend on what you’re selling.

For example, if you’re selling pet rocks throughout China, size is more important than service.

Your product is unlikely to be damaged, and your primary goal is getting it into the hands of the buyer, wherever they’re located.

On the other hand, if you’re selling crystal birdhouses in the Shanghai metropolitan area, a smaller logistics company that can provide a higher level of care and service is probably preferable.

7. Reach More Shoppers By Using The Top Marketplaces

As was mentioned in the first tip, Chinese online shoppers prefer marketplaces to brand websites.

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While you can sell through your site, you’ll be exposed to a much larger audience if you’re part of one of China’s big online marketplaces, like Taobao, Tmall, or JD.

In 2019, Taobao surpassed $490 billion in gross merchandise volume. Tmall was second at $463.5 billion, and Jingding claimed third at $301 billion.

As you can see, the sheer volume of sales these sites account for is incredible. Taobao and Tmall are both owned by Alibaba. Jingding, or JD, is supported by Tencent.

Selling on these platforms usually requires your company to be registered in mainland China, though there are exceptions in some product categories.

These platforms are not interchangeable. Tmall is generally viewed as the luxury version of Taobao, and consumers trust it to find authentic branded items from abroad.

JD offers a wide variety of goods, from frozen foods to electronic books.

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8. Take Advantage Of Shopping Festivals

Like Western online retailers have Cyber Monday and the run-up to Christmas, Green Monday, and Amazon Prime Day, China has its major shopping festivals.

To maximize your sales, you should be aware of these and use them to your advantage. These include:

  • Pre-New Year’s (January-February) – Just like the days before Christmas see massive shopping numbers in the West, the months before the Nian Huo Festival or Chinese New Year are busy shopping times for ecommerce retailers.
  • International Women’s Day (March 8) – Called the “Queen Festival” by Alibaba and the “Butterfly Festival” by JD, this day and the day before (Girls’ Day, March 7) are big online shopping days as men give presents to their significant others.
  • Mother’s Day (Second Sunday in May) – Filial piety is a big part of Chinese culture, so it’s no surprise that Mother’s Day is a big deal, with a corresponding increase in gift purchasing.
  • Love Day (May 20) – An unofficial Valentine’s Day, Love Day falls on this day because “five two zero” is a homonym for “I love you” in Mandarin. Valentine’s Day is also celebrated on its traditional date.
  • Midyear Shopping Festival (mid-June) – China’s answer to Prime Day, this summer event was started by JD but adopted by other online retailers.
  • Golden Week (starting October 1) – Beginning with China’s National Day, this week-long holiday sees a massive influx in spending because of traditions involving travel, family reunions, and gift-giving.
  • Singles Day (November 11) – First celebrated in 1993, 11/11 has become a big online shopping day in which people celebrate being single. A month later is Singles Sequel, on December 12 (12/12), many online retailers run inventory clearance events.

9. Promote On Chinese Social Networks

Chinese citizens love their social media platforms like the rest of the world.

And while none of these have direct correlations with more familiar platforms like Facebook or Instagram, many share similar features – including paid advertising. 

In tip #1, we mentioned these sites’ role in online sales.

The ability to click on an item in a Chinese social post and be linked directly to that item in an online store allows influencers to wield massive influence over purchasing decisions, which is a good reason to foray into this market.

Additionally, just like Westerners, the Chinese spend a good portion of their daily lives on these sites, which means well-placed products will generate a lot of exposure.

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Here are some of the most popular social media sites in the PRC:

  • WeChat – Sometimes referred to as the Chinese Facebook, WeChat is more accurately a combination of Facebook, WhatsApp, Google News, and a dating app combined. It has 1.2 billion monthly active users worldwide. An all-in-one messaging app from Tencent, it also has games, shopping, and financial services.
  • Sina Weibo252 million people use this micro-blogging app every month. It is most similar to Twitter in that it has character limits while allowing the posting of videos, images, and gifs.
  • Tencent Video – The fourth largest streaming service worldwide, Tencent Video has 1.2 billion monthly active users. China’s online video market is highly competitive, but Tencent Video is the leader, outpacing rivals IQiYi and Youku.
  • Xiao Hung Shu – A hybrid ecommerce/social media site, this platform allows users to post reviews, participate in discussions, and post content. Most content is focused on product photos and shopping experiences. It has 100 million active users each month.
  • Douban – With 200 million monthly active users, Douban is a social networking platform dedicated to lifestyle content. The platform has integrated functionality allowing users to download ebooks, listen to music, and buy tickets for movies and concerts.

Chinese Ecommerce Is Worth The Work

As you can see, getting into the Chinese digital market requires a fair bit of work. But because online shopping is a huge piece of the Chinese economy, it’s worth the effort.

Be aware that you will probably face legal, cultural, and digital hurdles. And the process of getting set up will take much longer than you’re accustomed to.

With that said, if you have the time, patience, and language skills to navigate the complicated bureaucracy and develop a strategy that may feel alien initially, you’ll be gaining a foothold in one of the world’s biggest online markets.

Chinese citizens are strongly interested in international brands, particularly those perceived as high-end. But if you’re not a luxury goods company, don’t let this dissuade you.

The Chinese online marketplace provides a tremendous opportunity for businesses of all types and sizes.

Do your homework, follow the proper channels, and you’ll become a successful ecommerce player in China.

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10 Completely Free SEO Training Courses

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10 Completely Free SEO Training Courses

Learning SEO doesn’t have to break the bank. There are plenty of quality free SEO courses teaching everything from the basics to keyword research to link building.

Here are ten that won’t cost a dime.

Course provider: Ahrefs

Duration: 2 hours

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Instructor(s): Sam Oh

Level: Beginner

Link: SEO Course for Beginners

What you’ll learn

  • The fundamentals of what search engine optimization is and how it works
  • Why SEO is important
  • How to do keyword research
  • How to optimize web pages for search engines
  • Beginner-friendly link building strategies to get backlinks to your site
  • Technical SEO best practices for beginners

This comprehensive course is ours and covers the fundamentals of SEO, including keyword research, on-page SEO, technical SEO, and link building.

SEO Certification Course by HubSpotSEO Certification Course by HubSpot

Course provider: HubSpot

Duration: 3 hours 51 minutes

Instructor(s): Rachel Sheldon, Matthew Howells-Barby

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Level: Beginner

Link: SEO Certification Course

What you’ll learn

  • How to evaluate and improve your website’s SEO
  • How to build backlinks to your website at scale to increase your website’s visibility in organic search
  • How to use insights from keyword research and reporting to improve your search performance

HubSpot’s SEO Training Course is tailored for marketers, content creators, and anyone looking to enhance their website’s visibility. Through practical lessons and real-world examples, the course participants will learn how to build a robust SEO strategy, analyze their website’s performance, and adapt to the changing algorithms of search engines.

Make sure customers find you online by Google SkillshopMake sure customers find you online by Google Skillshop

Course provider: Google

Duration: 3 hours

Instructor(s): Google

Level: Beginner

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Link: Make Sure Customers Find You Online

What you’ll learn

  • How to get started with search
  • How to make search work for you
  • How to get discovered with search
  • How to help people nearby find you online

This free course from Google Skillshop helps businesses discover ways to reach and connect with more customers online. It covers improving SEO and using online advertising (SEM) to boost sales and awareness.

Google SEO Fundamentals by UC Davis on CourseraGoogle SEO Fundamentals by UC Davis on Coursera

Course provider: University of California, Davis

Duration: 28 hours

Instructor(s): Rebekah May

Level: Beginner

Link: Google SEO Fundamentals

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What you’ll learn

  • How to complete a competitive analysis on a webpage
  • How to interpret brand recognition through social media
  • How to create sitemaps and robot.txt files, plan redirects, and manage site errors
  • How to use a variety of SEO tools to conduct an audience analysis and develop personas of your ideal buyer

Offered by the University of California, Davis, this course on Coursera delves into the fundamental aspects of SEO, including how search engines work and how to implement effective SEO strategies to attract more organic traffic.

However, due to its length (28 hours), it may not be the most suitable if you want to learn SEO fast.

SEO for Beginners Training by YoastSEO for Beginners Training by Yoast

Course provider: Yoast

Duration: 2 hours

Instructor(s): Joost de Valk

Level: Beginner

Link: SEO for Beginners Training

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What you’ll learn

  • What SEO is and what Google does
  • Tips for quick wins to improve your site
  • Insights into the content and technical side of SEO

This free course discusses what SEO is and how it works. Some of the important points from the course are how to use keywords to optimize your website, how to write content that Google likes, and how to make your website crawlable by search engines.

Keyword Research Course by AhrefsKeyword Research Course by Ahrefs

Course provider: Ahrefs

Duration: 2 hours

Instructor(s): Sam Oh

Level: Beginner

Link: Keyword Research Course

What you’ll learn

  • How to do keyword research and drive targeted traffic to your website

This is our specialized course that focuses specifically on keyword research. It covers topics such as how to choose keywords, how to analyze search intent, and how to find low-competition keywords.

Technical SEO Course by AhrefsTechnical SEO Course by Ahrefs

Course provider: Ahrefs

Duration: 1 hour 21 minutes

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Instructor(s): Sam Oh

Level: Beginner to intermediate

Link: Technical SEO Course

What you’ll learn

  • The fundamentals of technical SEO
  • How to run a technical SEO audit
  • How to optimize your website’s technical SEO

Another specialized course from us, this course is designed for those looking to dive deeper into the technical side of SEO. It covers advanced topics such as site audits, page speed optimization, and how to resolve common technical issues that can impact search rankings.

Technical SEO Certification by Blue ArrayTechnical SEO Certification by Blue Array

Course provider: Blue Array

Duration: 7 hours

Instructor(s): Damion Edwards

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Level: Beginner to intermediate

Link: Technical SEO Certification

What you’ll learn

Aimed at professionals seeking to certify their expertise, this course covers a wide range of technical SEO topics, including crawling, indexing, ranking, and on-page optimization. From site architecture to schema markup, it equips learners with the skills to tackle technical challenges and improve website performance.

Local SEO Course by AhrefsLocal SEO Course by Ahrefs

Course provider: Ahrefs

Duration: 44 minutes

Instructor(s): Sam Oh

Level: Beginner

Link: Local SEO Course

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What you’ll learn

  • How to do local SEO
  • How to do local keyword research
  • How to do local link building

Ideal for businesses targeting local customers, this course teaches the basics of optimizing for local search. It covers essential tactics for improving local visibility, such as Google Business Profile optimization and local keyword targeting.

Advanced Link Building Course by AhrefsAdvanced Link Building Course by Ahrefs

Course provider: Ahrefs

Duration: 1 hour 48 minutes

Instructor(s): Sam Oh

Level: Intermediate to advanced

Link: Advanced Link Building Course

What you’ll learn

  • How to find prospects with the “seed and lookalike” approach
  • How to validate link building campaigns with a “blitz list”
  • How to craft personalized and benefit-rich outreach emails
  • How to create, structure and manage a link building team
  • How to scale your link building operations

Focusing on one of the most challenging aspects of SEO, Sam shares his years of experience creating campaigns, sending outreach emails, and building teams. This is a must-finish course if you need help building and scaling your link building operations.

Final thoughts

The best way to learn SEO is to do.

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So, don’t just go through the courses, take notes, and leave it aside. You need to actually execute to find out what works and what doesn’t. Create a website, implement the ideas you’re learning, and see if you can get more organic traffic to it.

That’s how you become an SEO pro.

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Google Answers A Crawl Budget Issue Question

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Google Answers A Crawl Budget Issue Question

Someone on Reddit posted a question about their “crawl budget” issue and asked if a large number of 301 redirects to 410 error responses were causing Googlebot to exhaust their crawl budget. Google’s John Mueller offered a reason to explain why the Redditor may be experiencing a lackluster crawl pattern and clarified a point about crawl budgets in general.

Crawl Budget

It’s a commonly accepted idea that Google has a crawl budget, an idea that SEOs invented to explain why some sites aren’t crawled enough. The idea is that every site is allotted a set number of crawls, a cap on how much crawling a site qualifies for.

It’s important to understand the background of the idea of the crawl budget because it helps understand what it really is. Google has long insisted that there is no one thing at Google that can be called a crawl budget, although how Google crawls a site can give an impression that there is a cap on crawling.

A top Google engineer (at the time) named Matt Cutts alluded to this fact about the crawl budget in a 2010 interview.

Matt answered a question about a Google crawl budget by first explaining that there was no crawl budget in the way that SEOs conceive of it:

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“The first thing is that there isn’t really such thing as an indexation cap. A lot of people were thinking that a domain would only get a certain number of pages indexed, and that’s not really the way that it works.

There is also not a hard limit on our crawl.”

In 2017 Google published a crawl budget explainer that brought together numerous crawling-related facts that together resemble what the SEO community was calling a crawl budget. This new explanation is more precise than the vague catch-all phrase “crawl budget” ever was (Google crawl budget document summarized here by Search Engine Journal).

The short list of the main points about a crawl budget are:

  • A crawl rate is the number of URLs Google can crawl based on the ability of the server to supply the requested URLs.
  • A shared server for example can host tens of thousands of websites, resulting in hundreds of thousands if not millions of URLs. So Google has to crawl servers based on the ability to comply with requests for pages.
  • Pages that are essentially duplicates of others (like faceted navigation) and other low-value pages can waste server resources, limiting the amount of pages that a server can give to Googlebot to crawl.
  • Pages that are lightweight are easier to crawl more of.
  • Soft 404 pages can cause Google to focus on those low-value pages instead of the pages that matter.
  • Inbound and internal link patterns can help influence which pages get crawled.

Reddit Question About Crawl Rate

The person on Reddit wanted to know if the perceived low value pages they were creating was influencing Google’s crawl budget. In short, a request for a non-secure URL of a page that no longer exists redirects to the secure version of the missing webpage which serves a 410 error response (it means the page is permanently gone).

It’s a legitimate question.

This is what they asked:

“I’m trying to make Googlebot forget to crawl some very-old non-HTTPS URLs, that are still being crawled after 6 years. And I placed a 410 response, in the HTTPS side, in such very-old URLs.

So Googlebot is finding a 301 redirect (from HTTP to HTTPS), and then a 410.

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http://example.com/old-url.php?id=xxxx -301-> https://example.com/old-url.php?id=xxxx (410 response)

Two questions. Is G**** happy with this 301+410?

I’m suffering ‘crawl budget’ issues, and I do not know if this two responses are exhausting Googlebot

Is the 410 effective? I mean, should I return the 410 directly, without a first 301?”

Google’s John Mueller answered:

G*?

301’s are fine, a 301/410 mix is fine.

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Crawl budget is really just a problem for massive sites ( https://developers.google.com/search/docs/crawling-indexing/large-site-managing-crawl-budget ). If you’re seeing issues there, and your site isn’t actually massive, then probably Google just doesn’t see much value in crawling more. That’s not a technical issue.”

Reasons For Not Getting Crawled Enough

Mueller responded that “probably” Google isn’t seeing the value in crawling more webpages. That means that the webpages could probably use a review to identify why Google might determine that those pages aren’t worth crawling.

Certain popular SEO tactics tend to create low-value webpages that lack originality. For example, a popular SEO practice is to review the top ranked webpages to understand what factors on those pages explain why those pages are ranking, then taking that information to improve their own pages by replicating what’s working in the search results.

That sounds logical but it’s not creating something of value. If you think of it as a binary One and Zero choice, where zero is what’s already in the search results and One represents something original and different, the popular SEO tactic of emulating what’s already in the search results is doomed to create another Zero, a website that doesn’t offer anything more than what’s already in the SERPs.

Clearly there are technical issues that can affect the crawl rate such as the server health and other factors.

But in terms of what is understood as a crawl budget, that’s something that Google has long maintained is a consideration for massive sites and not for smaller to medium size websites.

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Read the Reddit discussion:

Is G**** happy with 301+410 responses for the same URL?

Featured Image by Shutterstock/ViDI Studio

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SEOs, Are You Using These 6 Mental Models?

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SEOs, Are You Using These 6 Mental Models?

People use mental models to comprehend reality, solve problems, and make decisions in everyday life. SEO is not an exception here, yet it’s not a topic you often hear about in this industry.

The thing is, you need to be careful with mental models because they’re sneaky. We tend to develop them during our lives, inherit them from our colleagues and mentors, and rely on them almost instinctively while not fully aware of their influence or the existence of better alternatives.

So, let’s talk about mental models you will find helpful in your SEO work and the ones you should approach with caution.

3 helpful mental models

In the noisy, uncertain world of SEO, these will be your north star.

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First principles thinking is a problem-solving approach that involves breaking down complex problems into their most basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up.

It’s about asking oneself what is absolutely true about a situation and then reasoning up from there to create new solutions.

Using first principles thinking to rearrange the same building blocks into a brand new shape. 

Uncertainty is a chronic condition in SEO. And it is so by design because the whole industry is based on Google’s secrets. Access to the truth is extremely limited. We got to the point that we got used to accepting speculation and theories on SEO so much that we started to crave them.

This is where the first principles come in. Whenever you need a brand new solution for a problem or when you feel that you’ve gone too far into speculation, come back to the first principles — things that have the best chance to be true in this industry. For example:

The Pareto Principle (aka the 80/20 rule) is about a disproportionate relationship between inputs and outputs, effort and results, or causes and effects. A small number of causes (20%) often leads to a large number of effects (80%).

The Pareto principleThe Pareto principle
The 80/20 rule: 80% of results come from 20% of the projects.

This concept was named after Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist who, in 1906, noticed that 80% of Italy’s land was owned by 20% of the population.

If we use this principle as a mental model in decision-making, we’ll find it easier to prioritize work. It’s ok to ignore some things because they likely won’t matter that much. The result that you’re after will come from focusing on the things that will likely have the biggest impact, and not from spreading yourself too thin.

For example, if you want to build links to your site, pitch your best content. That can be the content that has already proven to earn links in the past.

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Best by links report in Ahrefs.Best by links report in Ahrefs.

Or if you need to recover some of that lost traffic, home in on the pages that lost the most traffic.

Top pages report in Ahrefs. Top pages report in Ahrefs.

The key is to treat the 80/20 as an approximation, a heuristic, and not take the numbers literally. To illustrate, roughly 80% of our site’s traffic comes from no more than 6% of pages.

Total organic traffic breakdown in Ahrefs. Total organic traffic breakdown in Ahrefs.

But on the other hand, if we try to find the top 20% pages that contribute to the traffic the most, we’ll find that they bring not 80% but 96.8% traffic. However you look at it, the idea still holds — a small amount of causes led to a large portion of effects.

“It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

Sounds very much like SEO already, doesn’t it?

This quote comes from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass,” and it’s how the Red Queen explains to Alice the nature of her kingdom, where it requires constant effort just to maintain one’s current position.

It was used to name an evolutionary biology theory which posits that each species must adapt and evolve not just for incremental gains but for survival, as their competitors are also evolving. Sorry, we’re in an endless race.

The Red Queen Theory as an endless race.The Red Queen Theory as an endless race.
SEO is like a road with no finish line—the race continues forever.

You can probably already guess how this applies to SEO — rankings. If you want to maintain high rankings, you can’t stop improving your pages. There will always be enough competitors to challenge your position.

But in our world, pressure comes from competitors and the environment. Google keeps evolving too, pushing the bar for content higher, making elements that used to give you an edge a standard.

I’m sure we’ve all been there – even our top backlink-earning, top traffic-generating, most time-consuming content gets pushed down. But if you keep optimizing, you get a chance to come back to the top.

Position history graph in Ahrefs.Position history graph in Ahrefs.

This mental model is another way of saying that SEO works best as an always-on strategy without a set end date or final goal.

3 mental models to watch out for

It’s not so much about avoiding them but being able to spot them when they happen or could happen.

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A local maximum (aka local optimum) refers to a solution that is the best solution within a neighboring set of solutions, but not necessarily the best possible solution overall (global optimum).

Local maxima.Local maxima.

So if you’re feeling that you’re spending immense effort just to make marginal improvements, you have to be willing to assume that you’ve hit a local maxima. Then, the question to ask is: what can I do differently?

Here’s an example.

Until November last year, traffic to our site was a series of local optima. Our content marketing was delivering the results, but the growth was relatively slow. Obviously, we were doing the same tried and tested stuff. But then we launched two programmatic SEO projects that instantly elevated us to a level we’d have to work years for — look how fast the yellow line grew (pages) and how that corresponded with the orange line (traffic).

Organic performance graph in Ahrefs.Organic performance graph in Ahrefs.

The sunk cost fallacy is a cognitive bias that occurs when people continue to do something as a result of previously invested resources (time, money, effort) despite new evidence suggesting that the current path will not lead to a beneficial outcome.

Sunk cost fallacy as a graph.Sunk cost fallacy as a graph.
Sunk cost in action: the more you invest in something, the more attached to it you become.

We all know SEO is a long-term game, right? Strategies like these are crowded with long-term projects with big time and money investments. Sometimes, despite the investments, you just can’t go beyond a certain level of traffic, backlinks, etc.

Now, this mental model, this voice in your head, will tell you to keep going down the same path no matter what. Loss aversion kicks in, acting like a defense mechanism for your past selves and actions. And the more aggressive and blind the “hustle” culture is at one’s team, the harder it is to see clearly.

But, overall, it could be better for you and the company to let it go and focus on something else. You can even come back to it later with a fresh mind. But continuing something just because you’ve been doing it for some time is a losing strategy.

Example. Despite several attempts and time counted in years, Ahrefs doesn’t rank for “seo”.

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Position history for "seo" via Ahrefs.Position history for "seo" via Ahrefs.

Sad but true. And from our point of view, it’s frustrating. Almost like we’re the only ones not to get invited to the party, the only ones not to graduate from high school… you get the idea.

But not ranking for “SEO” hasn’t hindered our growth, so it’s better to cut losses and deal with unfulfilled ambition than to let that goal hold us back from other projects (like that programmatic project mentioned above).

Confirmation bias is the tendency to give more attention and weight to data that support one’s own beliefs, while simultaneously dismissing or underestimating evidence that contradicts those beliefs.

Confirmation bias - beliefs outweigh the facts. Confirmation bias - beliefs outweigh the facts.

We’re all guilty of this. It’s human nature. And it’s not exclusively a bad thing. I mean, in some situations, this tendency can keep us on “the bright side” and help us go through tough times or keep our motivation up.

So, I think that it’s not something to get out of your system completely. Just be mindful of situations where this can negatively affect your judgment:

  • Selective evidence in ranking factors. You see a page ranking high, and you think it’s because of an aspect you strongly believe in, disregarding all of the evidence against it (e.g., long-form content, social signals).
  • Bias in keyword selection. Your keyword selection runs along the lines of your beliefs about the audience preferences without substantial evidence to back up these beliefs.
  • Bias in strategy development. After developing a new strategy, you encounter a talk or an article advocating a similar approach, which immediately reinforces your confidence in this strategy.
  • Focus on confirmatory data during audits. During a content audit, you find a small piece of data that confirms your belief. As a result, you may prioritize minor findings over more significant but less personally affirming data.
  • Overconfidence in familiar tactics. Leaning on SEO tactics that have worked in the past, you develop a sense of overconfidence in them. You resist trying anything new or the idea that a dip in performance comes from an unfamiliar factor.

Keep learning

If you like what you’re reading, I think you will find other mental models fascinating:

Want to share models you find useful? Ping me on X or LinkedIn.



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