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Some Things Are Just Bad Luck: Cleveland, SEO, and Statistics

Cleveland has a really bad rap in the news lately. It’s been called the serial-killer capital of the world (which is totally not true, by the way — the research is ambiguous, but points to either Seattle/Tacoma or a city in Australia called Adelaide, depending on whether you’re talking about greater metro area or strict city limits, respectively.) Murders, kidnappings, rape, imprisonment — the list of things that have come to light in Cleveland are staggering.

But here’s the thing — it’s not actually that Cleveland is any more of a cesspool than any of the other once-great industrial cities that was wiped out by the Great Recession. I’ve mentioned before that one of the most common pastimes in Cleveland is hating Cleveland, and that’s just as true of the local news as it is the people on the street.

The same thing, interestingly, is true of SEO people: we love to pimp ourselves and our 1337 skillz — but just as much, we love to talk about why SEO is hard and why it sucks. If any of our clients’ SEO returns weren’t what we expected, we have a ready-made list of excuses as to why. Competition, Panda, Penguin, the foibles of PPC, etc, etc. Here’s the real secret: sometimes, it’s just bad luck.

Did you know that if you flip a coin 100 times in a row, there’s a greater than 50% chance that somewhere in that set, you’ll get either heads or tails 5 or more times in succession? There’s this law in mathematics that most of us know called the Law of Large Numbers — it says the greater your sample size, the more likely it is to be statistically accurate. In other words, the more coins you flip, the closer to 50% the average becomes.

What we don’t pay attention to is the flipside of that same law: the greater your sample size, the more likely there is going to be at least one significant statistical anomaly somewhere in that sample. The more companies you do SEO for, in short, the greater the chances that you’ll either rock the ballpark and knock one over the fences or that you’ll have a client who simply fails despite your doing everything right.

Now, I’m not saying this because I recently had a client that failed — I’m saying it because I want my Cleveland (& SEO) brethren to understand that sometimes bad luck just plain happens. There’s no good reason to attach a stigma to Cleveland just because a few particularly grotesque criminals all surfaced within a short time of one another. There’s also no good reason to attach a stigma to a client (or an SEO company!) just because the work you did for them didn’t have the effect you expected it to.

If it keeps happening — if Cleveland pops up with a dozen more criminals next month, or the next four clients you have all sink like rocks despite your efforts — then there’s probably something wrong. But don’t let a single failure (or a single success!) have too much impact on the way you do business. In all likelihood, it’s just your one statistical anomaly, and everything will be back to normal before you know it.

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