SEO is now about the psychology of the searcher

Every time we used to create a piece of content for a website, in the past, we had the “keywords, keywords, keywords) mantra running inside our heads. If it was writing on a subject like search the obsession would produce such classic sentence constructions as:

“Search is one the key ways that search-sensitive material can appear on the web in response to search queries where the usefulness of search is evident to search users…”

It’s not 2005 anymore. It’s not even 2012! Over the last three years SEO has undergone drastic changes going from the application of fairly predictable on-site work that would help a site rank higher in the search engine results pages (SERPs) to relatively unique, customized work that needs to take into account online visitor psychology. 

 In a way the shift has been from one from purely function to one where the underlying function only works when form is taken into account. To give a practical example consider your website where you have all your lovingly crafted content about whatever you are doing as part of your online activity and now consider how the multiple steps required to get there: pop-up forms, too much advertising on the page, bad navigation, too much (or any) hoop-jumping in order to get to the content, become obstacles that lead to visitor abandonment of the page. 

Nothing under the sun is new of course. We think it is because every time a new format comes along we appear to forget every hard-earned lesson of the past and think that this is the time when the old forms don’t apply. 

Case in point the dot-com bubble at the end of the last century where:  

During the dot-com bubble of the 1990s, equity market valuation was a popular topic for investors, financial analysts and academics. Some questioned whether traditional accounting and financial information had lost its value relevance, as stocks traded at multiples of earnings well in excess of historic levels, leading Alan Greenspan to caution against irrational exuberance.

The study of why this happened in the first place, why so many seemingly rational individuals rushed to invest good money and start new businesses without going through the due diligence and sound business plan analysis that had been the norm up to that point is peppered with papers, articles and studies with titles such as: 

  • Behavioral Finance: Individual Investor Behavioral Biases
  • Why people act out of line with their beliefs (a study which interestingly gave further evidence on how cognitive dissonance works)
  • Power of Suggestion (which is a long read but totally worth your time because it shows just how subtle the entire subject really is)

Shopkeepers, retailers and department store teams haven’t been waiting for the science to catch up with what they already know. In the real world the navigation of a store, its layout, and overall experience affects consumers’ price acceptability  (take note those who are not yet convinced that “perceived value” trumps “competitive price”). More than that it establishes a positive overall experience that begins to build a relationship between shop and customer. 

The logic of the signs in the shop, the layout, the colour scheme, lighting arrangement, in-shop music (if any), smells, sounds and the attitude of the staff all play a pivotal role. As retail science expert Paco Underhill states in his bestselling book Why We Buy, “When we’re talking about signs it’s no longer a store, it’s a three-dimensional TV commercial.”

Let’s Go to the Web Then

So what does all this have to do with SEO? Plenty actually. The psychology of the searcher in information retrieval activities is now a pivotal area of connection, particularly where semantic search is concerned where websites can be presented as answers to search queries despite them not being optimized for particular search terms. 

It’s taken us the best part of two decades in a new century to understand the value of what we already knew from centuries of accumulated practical knowledge of offline behavior namely that to sell something you have to someone who wants it you also need to make them feel good about themselves in the process and convince them you’re a trustworthy source to buy it from. 

This is pure 101 human relationship building stuff done asynchronously and remotely on the web, which is where it gets really interesting. How your online business surfaces in search in response to search queries now becomes a question of overall set up, attitude, effect, style, context, relevance as well as content (the traditional “keywords” that you’d expect to see). 

More than that, because a website’s trustworthiness now also depends upon the independent sharing (and validation) of its content, the degree to which your content and activities become shareable in the social web depends upon your understanding of the psychology of your target audience. 

In other words if you think your audience are drones that need to be bludgeoned with “buy my stuff” messages in order to part with their money, you may be in for a surprise. 

It is ironic that we have migrated business to the web because it is “easier”, cheaper and allows us to work in a less intensive manner. Yet now we find ourselves with the need to work just as hard, intensively and in a personalized manner as we did offline. 

Irrespective of the environment you work in here are three things to keep in mind to help you out:

  • Humans are hard to reach and harder to connect with. If you do not provide a compelling reason for a connection to be made, it is unlikely you will find the audience you are looking for.
  • Relationships are difficult. They are hard to establish and really hard to maintain. Yet they are the most rewarding way of doing business.
  • Nobody ever just buys “stuff”. What they buy is a solution to a problem, the answer to a want or the means to an end. The experience here totally matters and Trust is key. Trust is still established in the four step sequence it always has: Contact, Perception, Assessment, Connection. 

Now, tell me SEO is boring. Go on, I dare you.  



Qualitative Research Methods in Consumer Psychology: Ethnography and Culture
The influence of in-store music on wine selections
The Influence of Background Music on Shopping Behavior: Classical Versus Top-Forty Music in a Wine Store
The Effects of Store Environment on Shopping Behaviors: a Critical Review
Window displays and consumer shopping decisions (pdf)
Studying Customer Behavior in Online Stores (pdf)
A Multidimensional Approach to the Study of Human Information Interaction: A Case Study of Collaborative Information Retrieval (pdf)
New Directions in Cognitive Information Retrieval
Psychology of the Searcher