While we were reading this article from SEJ, it occurred to us: there’s a familiar fallacy afoot, so maybe it’s time we called it by name. It’s a logical fallacy all people—but especially SEO people—need to know about.
The fallacy’s Latin name perfectly encapsulates its error: post hoc ergo propter hoc, which means “after this, therefore because of this.”
In plain English: just because B happened after A doesn’t mean that A caused B to happen.
Call this the downside of humankind’s storytelling instinct: we’re a little too quick to assemble information into a “meaningful” story where one event seems to cause the next.
Our brains don’t often question the gaping plot holes in the stories we tell ourselves. We just try to make sense of things as fast as we can.
Mainstream Plot Device 🔪 Innocent person discovering dead body is framed for the murder (e.g. Fugitive, Shawshank, Max Payne for any gamers). In plots like these, there’s always one “straight” character seeking or offering the truth while everyone else acts out what we’re thinking—which is basically “the dude sure looks guilty, amirite?” 🤠
That blaming, nagging feeling is related to the post hoc propter hoc fallacy; we automatically assume that there must be a causal link in situations of this structure. There must be some “connection” that “explains everything,” right? But just because Someone’s Presence came shortly before Victim’s Murder, or vice versa, doesn’t mean that one had anything to do with the other.
Anyways, back to SEO!
Anyone engaged in SEO is more prone to this fallacy for natural reason: by definition, SEO is built around something it does not control, namely Google’s search engine (which is a black box even to its foremost experts). In some way, SEO folks are bound to grab hold of things that resemble “ways of controlling my results even a little bit.”
This means a lot of discussion (much of it heated). This also means a lot of testing. What happens if I do ABC? What happens if I do XYZ?
Seasoned SEOs have had years to learn from this everyday habit of experimentation, some of it formal and some of it informal.
This experience is irreplaceable… but experience can also create blind spots. It can harden intuitions (which may or may not be correct) into superstitions.
And so the SEO version of this fallacy often looks like this:
ILLUSION: Do This ➡️ Get Result
REALITY: Do This ➡️ Googlebrain (???) ➡️ Get Result
If we’re making this seem like common sense, it’s truly not—especially not in the day-to-day trenches of the work. After all, part of the reason we raise this subject is that we have to listen for faulty logic even when our lizard brains scream that “they know the truth when they see it.”