I’ll never forget my first ‘lesson’ in Molecular Biology, a class filled with aspiring medical students. The professor walked to the front of the classroom…waiting for 150 students to quiet down. He then widened his arms, sectioned off a few people in the first row, and said, “You will one day become doctors.” He then waved his arms over the remainder of the class and said, “The rest of you will have very interesting cocktail conversations.”

After not showing up to medical school while starting Slingshot SEO, I found myself among the students in that latter description. However, I believe I have transcended the ‘cocktail conversation’ and have applied what I learned in biology to business networks.

As it turns out, the behaviors of biological ecosystems are not far removed, in an ideological sense, from business ecosystems. In the book “The Keystone Advantage,” authors Marco Iansiti and Roy Levien provide an interesting comparison of roles in a biological ecosystem to those within a business ecosystem. Three main roles found in both ecosystems are defined as Keystone, Dominator and Niche Players.

A Keystone Player is one that supports a biological network. An obvious example of a Keystone Player is the variety of grass species which provide a reliable source of food and oxygen for a multitude of animals and insects. It grows in drought, underwater and even in times of food scarcity where it serves the greatest support. A business example of a Keystone Player is Microsoft, which provides a support system for software developers in the form of a cutting-edge operating system with wide user adaptation.

An example of a Dominator in nature is the kudzu, a fast-growing vine that chokes out all other plants. This obviously weakens the ecosystem and, in turn, weakens the kudzu. When threatened by a stronger player from a neighboring ecosystem, the kudzu is unable to take advantage of defense mechanisms it lacks which would have otherwise been provided by other species within a diverse ecosystem. A business example of a Dominator player is Enron or even Yahoo! in the late 1990’s. These companies extracted too much value from their users, thus ensuring their demise when their respective ecosystems were subsequently abandoned.

Niche Players lie on the ‘fringe’ of an ecosystem where most innovation and adaptation occurs. A biological example is Darwin’s famous Galapagos finches, which adapt their beak size to the type of food available. Many start-up companies and other ‘critical drivers of innovation’ are examples of Niche Players in business.

For further analysis on each of these roles, pick up a copy of “The Keystone Advantage.” However, this two-part blog will focus on the role that today’s search engines play: The Keystone Player.

At its core, a Keystone strategy is one that works as a central hub within a business ecosystem in which many other players rely upon as a platform from which to operate their own value-add businesses. Examples of Keystone strategies in today’s marketplace include obvious companies such as Microsoft and eBay, as well as less obvious players like Walmart and Google. Each of these companies provides value to its user base. In the case of Microsoft, the value-add is providing software developers with a cutting-edge platform that has a large existing network of users. For Walmart, it is providing CPG companies a cutting-edge supply chain platform for cost-efficient national product distribution.

Understanding the Keystone strategy and its role in what is considered the world’s largest business ecosystem is essential for any business owner, executive or sales person to gain a competitive edge. Read Part Two of this blog next week for an in-depth look at Google’s role as a Keystone Player and how organic SEO companies enhance its role.