The psychology of search: Unleashing the power of connection

Why do companies large and small invest billions of dollars each year in search engine optimization (SEO) and other search marketing tactics? There is more to the answer than, “Because it just works.”

The truth is that there are a number of psychological principles that can explain why search is such an effective form of marketing. Understanding why users interact with some search listings and not others can help you craft a better user experience, from the initial click all the way through to the conversion.

Every decision we make based off one of two motivations: We are either looking to avoid or remove pain, or we are looking to gain pleasure. Pain and pleasure drive us to look for ways to make our lives better. Now, before you stop reading because you think I am getting a little too “unscientific,” let me give you an example.

At 2:00 AM, you wake up to a flood of water in your home. The water heater has broken, and now you are experiencing a ton of pain. What do you do?  You search for an emergency plumber in your area and give them a call. Why did you do that? You were experiencing the pain of your water heater bursting. If it didn’t cause you pain, you would have just said, “I’ll deal with this in the morning,” and headed back to bed.

Here is another example. You get a raise, and you want to “reward” yourself. There is this car that you’ve always wanted, and now you have the means to purchase it. This car has been the reason you’ve worked so hard in the first place. You know that getting this car, sitting in the driver seat, and cruising down the highway will make your life better. So you search for a dealership, haggle for the best price, and drive away in your dream car. Again, why did you do that? Because it created pleasure.

Pain and pleasure are key driving forces behind every person’s action. As search marketers, we can use this understanding to help us better align our products, services, website pages and search strategy to connect with people on a deeper level. As entrepreneur and digital marketing expert Neil Patel notes:

[U]nderstanding the psychology behind why people behave the way they do plays a crucial role in establishing an effective online marketing strategy.

Getting to know your users

You don’t have to have a psychology degree to better understand what motivates your users — you just need to be willing to do the work.

It starts with creating a detailed persona. A persona is a semi-fictional character that represents your ideal customer. When developing personas, many stop at demographic information. But the real power is uncovering the psychographics. One exercise we use when creating personas is empathy mapping.

Empathy mapping helps you step outside yourself and into the world of your persona. It forces you to experience the world from a new perspective. Often times when creating marketing material or planning a search strategy, we get wrapped up in the metrics and forget about the actual human on the other side of our strategy. Empathy mapping will help you detach from the technical for a bit and help you focus on the practical.

Why are they searching?

Before ever doing keyword research, you must understand why people are searching in the first place. User intent will help you define terms and phrases that lead to action. Here are a few questions you can use to identify user intent and uncover the “why” behind the search:

  • What are you promoting, selling, delivering?
  • What problem does your company solve?
  • What actions do we want a site visitor to take?
  • Why should a user visit your site?
  • What are users expecting from your site?

These questions will help you take your product or solution and discover why it’s valuable to your end users. Now, typically your business will have multiple personas, but there are usually a few key pain points that all you users share. If you can find, uncover and leverage these pain points, you’ll be able to create a search strategy that delivers results.

Creating connections in the SERPs

People trust Google. They trust that the results they receive after submitting a query are ordered that way because those sites deserve to be there. While the search engine results pages (SERPs) aren’t perfect, they are typically very relevant. This is how Google has built trust over time, by continually providing relevant results to its users.

Now, sites that earn these higher rankings also earn trust. But, if you abuse that trust, you will lose in the long run. This is why having a human-centric search strategy is important. Many try to take shortcuts with black-hat tactics that may drive them traffic for a short amount of time. But, if your site does not meet the needs (pain or pleasure) of the user that clicked your link, your site will not maintain that position or viability in the long run.

While we often obsess over the hundreds of different ranking factors (which are important), we often overlook the most important part of the equation: the end user. Because the user trusts the search results, we need to learn the real motivations behind their searches and build a strategy that speaks to them.


Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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