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The psychology behind search

Article highlights

The user behind the click

Google is talking about this too

Five ways to apply behavioural economics to SEO

Next Steps

Throughout the day we make innumerable decisions – far too many to weigh up the ‘perfect’ option each time. To save time and energy, we use mental shortcuts, referred to by psychologists as heuristics. These mental shortcuts help us make ‘good enough’ decisions and conserve our brain power for more important tasks.

Behavioural economics is the branch of psychology that considers how these mental shortcuts affect our purchasing decisions – how and why we decide to buy particular products and services. Understanding the (not always rational) influences on the buying process, can help us as SEOs to:

  • Get buy-in for SEO from the wider business
  • Make optimisation choices that increase the probability our site is selected by users in a competitive landscape

I’ve always been fascinated by the science of why we do things. Studying for my Masters in Psychology I focused my dissertation on consumer decision making, and how heuristics can influence people to buy products that are objectively worse than competitive options. In the competitive search landscape it’s often not enough to do ‘tick box SEO’. Expanding our understanding of user behaviour is one way to upgrade our skill set and along with it, site performance.
A cartoon of a man sitting behind a laptop with his hand on the trackpad.

The user behind the click

In SEO it’s easy to tend towards the technical. Whilst crunching data and worrying about ‘The Algorithm’ often serves us well, it can be easy to forget the people behind the clicks we’re chasing. People who won’t always choose what to click next in a rational way. If we fail to align with what users are looking for then our SEO interventions, however well executed, are likely to fall flat.

An example of this playing out in the real world, which you’ve probably done yourself, is ignoring the first result in the SERPs to click further down on a recognised brand. This behaviour is described by the recognition heuristic, which states that when faced with multiple options we tend to prefer an option, or in this case brand, that is familiar. Sometimes even holding position 1 isn’t enough.

Understanding why people behave this way obviously doesn’t solve the problem, but an awareness of the issue can help us to plan for it. In this example, how can we make sure our brand is familiar enough that it won’t be overlooked? Perhaps we need more content appearing at an earlier stage of the buying process? Perhaps this is a cross functional issue where other marketing or business teams need to be involved to improve brand awareness?
Instigating and participating in these conversations can help SEO to connect with wider marketing and business goals and improve the results we see from our optimisation efforts.

Google is talking about this too

In July 2020 Google’s consumer insights team published a document called Decoding Decisions on the topic of consumer purchase behaviour and decision making. The document highlights examples of biases and heuristics that influence the consumer journey.

Google ran a study that featured 96,000 simulations with 12,000 shoppers. The experiment was done in the context of paid search, but that’s not to say we can’t learn from it. The overall aim of the study was to understand what made ads and brands stand out in search, which essentially, is what we want to do in SEO.

In the study Google claimed they were able to counter the recognition heuristic, something that is rare in behavioural economics, at least in my experience, which makes their findings particularly interesting. The study stated that by using a number of different behavioural biases they were, “able to shift preference away from the shopper’s favourite brand. Even though, in some instances, the shopper had never even heard of the brand as it was a fictional one”. The behavioural biases that Google used were: the power of free, authority bias, social proof, framing and costly signalling.

Sadly, the Google document isn’t a ‘how to’ guide of how to apply these insights to SEO directly, but it gives us a window into some of Google’s thinking. One of the topics covered is the authority bias, which is our tendency to be, “swayed by an expert or trusted source.” An example of where this idea might be applied within Google’s algorithm is their focus on E-A-T (expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness). Pushing for a focus on these qualities taps into our very human tendency to find content from authoritative sources more compelling.

Five ways to apply behavioural economics to SEO

Considering user behaviour in this way is common within other marketing channels, but relatively new to SEO, and as such, there is no ‘right’ way to approach it. To get you started here’s my take on 5 common heuristics and how they could translate into day-to-day SEO activity.

1) Make your brand the preferred choice – mere exposure effect

The more we see something (for example a brand) the more attached we become to it and the greater our preference towards it. This is described as the mere exposure effect. It’s one of the reasons it’s important to be visible throughout the buying journey and not just appear in the SERPs at the point of purchase.

It’s tempting to focus on transactional keywords, where ROI can be more straightforward to calculate and the sell-in to other parts of the business easier to achieve, but overlooking informational terms means losing out on traffic. Not just because you’re covering less keyword terms overall, but because users not exposed to your site before the point of purchase are less likely to click your result in the SERPs, regardless of your ranking position.

Another scenario where the mere exposure effect can be useful, is for niche brands trying to reach a wider audience. How can you build a preference for your brand or product, when most people in your potential audience have no idea what you do? More content about your niche area doesn’t help, because that’s not what people are searching for. Instead, you can produce content about related products, how they are similar or dissimilar to yours, or other topics broadly related to your area of business. Appearing for these terms isn’t going to immediately translate to sales, but just appearing in the SERPs is enough to start to build positive user attachment towards your brand.

2) Help users remember key brand or product information – the primacy effect

The primacy effect describes our tendency to remember the things we see first. A study by Richard Shotton demonstrated this to great effect, by describing a fictional brand of vodka with the same words, but presented in a different order. The descriptions were:

  • Group 1: Award-Winning, Refreshing, Satisfying, Vinegary and Weak
  • Group 2: Weak, Vinegary, Satisfying, Refreshing and Award-Winning

When the words with positive connotations (award-winning, refreshing etc.) appeared first, the vodka was rated 11% more highly.

In our day to day SEO work this is useful when producing any sort of content: title tags, meta descriptions, H1s, first paragraphs… All places you expect to think about keywords, but where it pays to put extra effort into the surrounding words too.

User experience is also key, if a user’s first experience of your brand is a slow site, components jumping around and difficulty finding information, this reflects negatively on your organisation. Don’t give users a reason to judge you poorly in their first few seconds interacting with your site and brand. Google continues to place emphasis on core web vitals and page speed metrics, so if you’re struggling to sell-in fixing those issues, citing the primacy effect and how it affects users decision making could help add weight to your argument.

First impressions really do count.

3) Earn user trust – social proof

We gain huge reassurance from knowing how other people felt about a decision. Social proof describes our desire to look to others for behavioural guidance and in the context of SEO this can be boiled down to reviews. Buyers like reviews, Google likes reviews, your site needs reviews.

For ecommerce stores, make sure you have reviews on product pages and use review schema so the data is eligible to appear within a rich result. If your business doesn’t sell products but is in a position to write independent reviews, this can be a great strategy to attract traffic and build authority.

A carton sitting in a chair facing multiple computer tabs appearing in front of their face.

4) Stand out in a sea of options – choice overload

Choice is often a good thing, but too much choice is really stressful. The Google Search index contains hundreds of billions of web pages – filtering out options when shopping online can be a real problem.

We may have little control over our organisation’s range of products and we certainly can’t control what our competitors do. What we can influence within our SEO remit is how the products on our site are organised and presented. Can products be clustered or categorised better? Can the navigation be simplified? Creating a clear IA can help users feel less overwhelmed by their options, and guide them through the buying process.

From a content perspective, are there opportunities for a choice calculator or tool, reducing choice overload for users and creating an attractive page for backlink opportunities? Having a clear, well-thought out IA is always good practice. Understanding how choice overload influences why this matters to users, can help you create a site structure that is even more effective.

5) Make purchase options compelling – Framing

The framing effect is where we find information more or less compelling depending on how it’s presented. Framing elements of your site, such as product benefits, can help you create more impact and cut through.

As an example, from a conversion perspective, when talking about sale prices, always refer to the largest value. If you have a product that is £250 and you cut the price by 10%, make reference to the fact the product has dropped in price by £25 and not 10%. Whilst the cost saving is the same, the larger number makes the offer appear more attractive. While using framing in some contexts, such as CRO, may fall outside the SEO remit, knowledge of the effect can help you highlight and advise on opportunities for better site conversion potential.

Next steps

The potential for ideas from behavioural economics to boost the effectiveness of optimisation tactics is huge. With no defined pathway for how these ideas should be applied to SEO, you have the freedom to interpret how mental shortcuts and biases may influence behaviour online and come up with your own solutions.

This presents a great opportunity to work cross functionally, tapping into the knowledge of other teams such as UX, CRO, Content and Customer Service, who may be more familiar with this approach. If you want to better integrate SEO KPIs with other organisational goals and level up your site results, this is a promising area to explore.

For more on behavioural economics, take a look at the work of Rory Sutherland who co-founded the behavioural science practice at Ogilvy, and runs the annual Nudgestock conference. For those who prefer a book, The Choice Factory by Richard Shotton is a very readable introduction or try Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, for a more traditional look at behavioural economics.

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