SEOs have been compared to “hackers,” “spammers,” “sumos” and even “ninjas,” but never “commandos.” Are there actual parallels between the activities of real-world commandos and today’s PageRank-sculpting SEO optimizers? Maybe so.

The most important thing to realize is that successful SEOs need to embrace a hacker mentality – get creative and figure out how to do a lot with limited resources. You need to embrace a mindset of a commando.

seo commando

This post was written by Stephen Baldwin, and originally published on Amazon Kindle as a bonus chapter to 2nd 2015 edition of “SEO Like I’m 5: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Search Engine Optimization.”

Don’t have Kindle? No worries, you can download and read Kindle books on ANY device by downloading this free Kindle app.

7 Tips to Embrace Hacker Mentality

Just to clarify, I’m not Stephen Baldwin the actor. I’m “the other Stephen Baldwin” the editor, who lives in Brooklyn, runs, and works in digital marketing.

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Credit: Death Squad

I have been involved in, and writing about, SEO before Google was born, since it was not actually the first search engine. My first two books, Netslaves (McGraw-Hill, 1999) and Netslaves II (Allworth Press, 2003), were about the emerging culture of digital work. Today, many “netslaves” who survived the 2000-2 “dotbomb” crash work in SEO and Internet Marketing (including myself).

Let’s map out the ways that SEO teams and commando teams are similar in operation and even mindset. Hopefully this will empower your own journey as titular or honorary “SEO commando:”

Observation and Intel-gathering

Commando missions vary widely in purpose and scope. Commandos are trained to be good observers, using field glasses and night vision scopes to identify local enemy positions and movements. SEOs spend hours looking for competitive vulnerabilities in keyword lists usage reports.

Patterns emerge out of the blue suggesting unexpected opportunities for content deployment that could open up a whole new front. Obviously, this intelligence can be of vital strategic importance. Sharp eyes are as important as sharp knives!

Use ahrefs, Moz’s Open Site Explorer and MozBar, and other free tools to determine the strength, position, and orientation of your competitors.

google serp seo

Communicate to management when you’ve found intelligence suggesting something important (for example that a brand’s messaging or even brand positioning is failing to resonate with searchers). Don’t worry – they won’t execute you.

Multidisciplinary teams

Commando teams typically consist of a small group of specialists, for example, experts in demolition, sabotage, mechanical engineering, communications, and perhaps a trained killer or two.

Today the work of professionals practicing “holistic SEO” similarly incorporates wisdom and talent from a wide range of disciplines, including semantics/linguistics, content, social media, story-telling, quantitative analysis, programming, data science and communications.

SEO is no longer a “one man show.” It takes a tight, efficient team of specialists to pull off any successful assault on the Google results pages (aka Google SERP)..

Your job as an SEO project manager is to synchronize the activities of your group of specialists. You must bond with these people, demand from their best but expect yourself to be resented.


Credit: Guns of Navarone (via

Relative Autonomy

Commando teams operate with relative freedom from direct oversight from headquarters. Once they’re plan has been authorized and they’re in the field, they’re on their own.

Each has limited time and defined objectives for their mission, and no patience for traditional bureaucracy. Like hackers and individual soldier of fortunes, the bias is toward individual action. Nimbleness and mobility are prized above process and checklists.

If you’re managing an SEO team, you must give them the freedom to formulate their own tactical plans without undue interference from above. At the same time, however, you must demand that they document their work. How you strike this balance is up to you. Just remember: these people are action-, not process- driven, quite unlike the “usual marketing troops” that spend a lot of time writing briefs and on conference calls.

Unusual and Colorful Personalities

Commando teams have to do a lot of dirty work, so sociopaths, thieves, and other interesting characters are part of the mix (watch “The Dirty Dozen” and “The Guns of Navarone” if you have doubts about this). In World War II, some commando units consisted entirely of enemy aliens. Experienced people who are good at SEOs may have shadowy pasts – often in the spam industry or those deemed ‘unemployable’.

Having this kind of real-world experience in seizing and commanding attention through “black hat” methods is useful in a pinch. Real-world experience is more valuable to both commandos and SEO than years at a formal military academy or business school.

SEO teams benefit when more than one character type is part of the operation. Tolerating those with “sketchy” pasts is part of an SEO team manager’s job. Any Internet marketer who has no familiarity with “the dark side” doesn’t have the curiosity needed to be a good SEO commando.

les canons de Navarone

Credit: Guns of Navarone (via

Psychological Warfare

Part of your job as an SEO commando may be to disrupt the morale of your competitor. For example, by demonstrating that a brand’s flank is exposed in a much-searched content category, an attack may be mounted on a particular flank, thus shaking the competitor’s confidence in his own media or content marketing plan. It can be hard to exactly quantify the value of these efforts with a simple tactical after-action report. But don’t underestimate their strategic importance to your brand’s long-term campaign for better visibility.

Don’t underestimate the ability of a successful SEO campaign to rattle your competition and panic its leadership. Be nimble and resolute at all times.

Stealth and Deception

Commandos and SEOs both practice deception. Commandos use camouflage, civilian dress, and diversionary tactics, and other tricks to fool the enemy.

The goal is to be an invisible influence on the global course of events, not the central actor. Many SEOs are familiar with targeted Adwords media buying techniques that can selectively boost search visibility efforts on a local level without ever notifying a competitor that a rankings attack was made. Stealthy tactics are what SEO is all about.

It’s about results, not winning awards or medals. The strength of every successful SEO process lies in its integrity (and exclusivity) so you will not read about or your next blog.

If your SEO team is doing something that’s working, avoid the temptation to overdo it. You’ll never know where exactly the “tripwire” is that will alert either the enemy brand or the search engine’s guards. Go slow and back off if detected.


Neither commando nor SEO is hired because they’re well-rounded, balanced, nice people. Even the quickest tour of the Web’s many repositories of “SEO black hat” will support this notion. The culture may appear tight-knit to the outsider. The best SEO forums are by invitation only.

Above all, it’s a community that rewards merit over self-promotion. You are judged by what you bring to the table, and you make a name for yourself by showing your work.

Are you ready for deployment?

Let us know in the comments below!

Steve Baldwin has been writing and editing technology content since 1990. He lives in Brooklyn, runs free parrot safaris at, and his personal site Steve is currently the Chief Editor at Didit, a digital marketing agency. He is the co-author of Netsleves (McGrow Hill) and the editor of Amazon-bestselling book “SEO Like I’m 5“.

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