SEO and Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why”

Simon Sinek raises a great point in his book Start With Why: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” or, in the related but different words of Neil Tyson in Cosmos: “We hunger for significance”.

Human beings are wired to seek out deeper meaning. That’s why companies who find ways to become more innately significant and meaningful can resonate more deeply with the human psyche. “Start with why” is an excellent explanation and mantra that helps us to solve for this tendency. We ourselves and those we serve feel happier if we feel our efforts carry deeper significance.

Visionary companies who “start with why”

In his book Built to Last, Jim Collins writes about several “visionary companies”. He dedicates an entire chapter to the subject of those companies existing for “more than profits”. He discusses how these companies had a strong idealogical background to the way they approach business:

Purpose is the set of fundamental reasons for a company’s existence beyond just making money. Visionary companies get at purpose by asking questions similar to those posed by David Packard earlier in this chapter. (“I want to discuss why a company exists in the first place. In other words, why are we here? I think many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money. While this is an important result of a company’s existence, we have to go deeper and and the real reasons for our being.”)

Though he discusses several companies, my personal favourite is Disney.

One of Disney’s most core purpose statements is “‘to bring happiness to millions’ and to celebrate, nurture, and promulgate ‘wholesome American values.'”. Disney had a fanatical approach to the importance of preserving the Disney “magic” image.

Did you notice in all of that terse visionary stuff about Disney, we’ve not even mentioned what they do? How different is that from saying “we make children’s movies”, “we make full-length animated movies” etc.?

This is the point raised by Simon Sinek so elegantly; people don’t by what you do, they buy why you do it. Some of the most successful companies in the world maintained a strong vision of their core purpose, the reason for the existence of the company, which was way more than just making money.

But what does that have to do with SEO??

There’s a fascinating intersection between this “start with why” concept and SEO itself.

Recently I’ve been consulting a company that has a deeply engaging marketing mantra / core purpose. In other words, they understand their why, and they start with it. Their marketing messages are clear in the sense that they start with why.

But a unique challenge presented itself:

Search engines deal with the “what”, they don’t deal with “why” (yet?)

Here’s an example. Disney’s “why” is to bring happiness to millions. Disney’s current “what” (how they currently go about achieving their why) is through children’s movies.

Now how does Disney go about SEO then?

You see when someone goes to Google and does a search, they won’t necessarily search for “something to make me happy”. They might indeed perform this search, but the scope and context of such a search is so broad that there’s not really a possibility that Disney’s movies would be the most relevant answer. Now that is a kicker indeed; imagine you Google’d “Something to make me happy” and Disney came up as the first result. Disney executives would probably pay heaps for that. (Hmmm, have I stumbled on something?)

But realistically, this isn’t how Google works. Google works with “what”. Disney would probably be much more capable of ranking for “children’s movies” (and many of their movies do rank for that) more than they’d be able to rank for a “why”, like “something to make me happy”.

What’s the solution?

Google uses the words on pages to understand what the content is about and to rank it accordingly. As sophisticated as Google is, it currently doesn’t understand human beings to the level of the “why”.

The solution I believe is not in a balance or compromise, but fully catering for both “what” and “why” in websites through plain old great marketing and smarts.

1. Structure according to “what”

First off website content needs to be structured according to your current what. If Disney had a website with a catalogue of all its movies (which they do) then it would be optimally structured according to the movies themselves; the characters, the themes, the chronology of release dates, etc. (P.S I genuinely don’t think they’ve done a great job with it here. There’s heaps of room for improvement, for example they could implement a custom search engine like this one to do real time filtered search of the movies in a database).

Given that all of the movies supposedly make people happy, the “why” is not the ideal way to structure a website.

But, once the overall structure is done…

2. Weave the “why” in at every level

Just because the site is structured according to the “what” doesn’t mean the “why” should be abandoned at all. Rather the “why” should be weaved into the tapestry of the website content on every level in accordance with super awesome marketing stuffs!

In the case of Disney — bright colours, happy faces, familiar characters (and please Disney, get rid of the stupid banner ads on the top, they really make people like me unhappy) and make the site friendly for kids to browse. Work the “why” in at every level of the website. Make it clear why you exist, while leaving what you currently do to be clear for both users and search engines.

So there you have it; SEO strongly involves the “what”, but Simon Sinek’s philosophy of “why” need not suffer if we embrace the genius of the AND type thinking.

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