The Art of War, 36 Stratagems and SEO | Wallaroo Media


It has been said, “Business is a battlefield.” This saying has created many interesting topics in the business sector, and many of these topics tend to agree that business is really the battlefield where, in order to survive, you have to conquer your opponents. There is also an argument against this by those who feel that the concept of a battlefield eliminates the win-win situation in the business world. That being said, both sides have their points – let’s not discuss who is right and who is wrong here, rather let’s discuss how to adapt war principles and strategies to SEO in a way that is best for business. Not everyone will play nice with you or your company, so you’ll need to prepare yourself for those situations where win-win is not an option.

The Art of War and 36 Stratagems

The Art of War by Sun Tzu, a famous strategist and general from the Spring and Autumn Period in China, discusses battlefield tactics and life lessons. Tzu only commands the Wu State’s army five times, however these five battles are famous in Ancient Chinese history. Sun Tzu later composed his knowledge and wisdom about war and politics into one book. This book has been translated into many languages and has been applied to multiple aspects of life. In fact, many Japanese companies require that their executives study this book.

The 36 stratagems have been attributed to Sun Tzu or Zhuge Liang; however, recent research shows that they have been compiled from several people throughout the history of China. These stratagems are different from strategies. While a strategy is generally a long-term plan, a stratagem is more of a ruse.

Application in SEO

Let’s take a look at the famous quote from Sun Tzu:

So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss. If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.

Imagine you have clients who need to boost or improve their SEO rankings (this should be all clients), how can you help them without at least knowing your strengths? You must know what you can do best with the resources you have within your company. Once you understand that, you can start to list possible tactics that can be applied to your clients. Now, would all of those tactics be the best for your client’s situation? Maybe!

The next thing you should do is research your clients’ direct competitors. You will find their marketing patterns and strengths. Once you have researched competitors, you can come up with a good solution for your clients. For example, if your company is good at writing articles and procuring links, then this is probably the best practice to improve a client’s SEO ranking. However, if a client’s competitors are doing the same thing, in addition to their already higher rank in search results, your solution may not be effective as you try to rise in the ranks. It would be like driving a car on the freeway at the same speed as your competitor, but behind them. Would you be able to catch up with them? Yes, but only when they slow down, and only if there is a passing lane open, and who knows how long it would take them to slow down. In many cases, you need to be the one to speed up. And remember, there is no HOV lane in SEO.

3rd Stratagem: Kill With A Borrowed Sword

This stratagem is all about using the third party to destroy your enemy. In Tzu’s time, some of the applications of this stratagem on the battlefield were to trick your ally into destroying your enemy, to bribe and cause internal conflict in order to create a traitor within your enemy territory, or to use his/her own strength against him/her.

In regards to SEO, Google is a good third party that you can rely on to punish your client’s competition. For example, if a direct competitor is doing some shady SEO work in order to beat your client’s ranking, don’t hesitate to file a complaint or to report that to Google. The playground has rules so people can fairly compete with each other. Therefore, and Sun Tzu would agree, those who are breaking rules must be punished.


Nowadays, creating conflict at your competitor’s company is not a real option, or at least not a good one. It can be done; however, wouldn’t it feel better to beat your competitor fair and square? Therefore, I would not recommend using this stratagem in that way.

12th Stratagem: Take the opportunity to pilfer a goat

This stratagem is about taking advantage of an opportunity that presents itself while you’re carrying out your original plan.


Be flexible and always look for opportunities. As you carry out your plan for your clients, other opportunities will present themselves along the way. You must not ignore those – even though they may not bring your clients great profit, they may come in handy for your future clients or for your own company.


For example, while doing blogger outreach for one client, you may find some interested bloggers, but you are not sure if they’re the best fit to your client. Don’t hesitate to contact them and begin a relationship with them. They may be a really great fit for your next client. By doing so, you’ll save time and energy going forward.

14th Stratagem: Borrow a corpse to resurrect the soul

This stratagem is about bringing back old ideas, technology, or methods by giving them new purposes that fit to your needs.


During brainstorming sessions for clients, we usually try to come up with new, exciting ideas. There is nothing wrong with that; however, we need to assess whether or not we can re-use ideas from the past. This can save lots of time and often be better than ideas we would come up with otherwise. It was once said “Don’t be afraid of using old strategies. Just be afraid of using useless strategies.”


The 36 Stratagems still have many other applications in the SEO industry. In the scope of this article, we mention just a few that can instantly help you to improve your way of thinking about doing SEO. We look forward to your comments and ideas for exciting ways to implement these classic stratagems into our industry.


Kyle Nguyen

Head of Wallaroo - Vietnam