Take Advantage of Searcher Biases with Psychology-Backed SEO

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May 27, 2024

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Take Advantage of Searcher Biases with Psychology-Backed SEO

Take Advantage of Searcher Biases with Psychology-Backed SEO

Have you ever noticed how your search history is either spectacularly mundane or filled with some quirks that you’d never want to see the light of day? Well, I have. From toddler activities to Edison lamps to Garrett Sussman (yes, I Google myself – don’t act like you don’t too!), my search history is a wild rollercoaster.

And the funny thing is, I’m not alone. Our brains are funny little things – they play tricks on us, and as SEOs, we often get stuck in our own digital bubbles, forgetting how real people search. But the truth is, search behavior is one of the most fascinating practices in modern society.

Think about it – Google is going through an identity crisis right now. AI has got them puzzled, the Search Generative Experience experiment has been suspect, and they’re rolling out more updates than ever, all in a desperate attempt to figure us out. But the reality is, they’re the ones who need to go back to the fundamentals: understanding their audience.

The Psychology of the Search Journey

The tricky reality is that our audience brings a lot of context to the table. Our experiences, backgrounds, social lives, and beliefs – they all inform the way we search and how we choose information. And that’s where cognitive biases come into play.

Cognitive biases are the get-rich-quick schemes of the brain. They’re mental processes that mess with our memory, play tricks on our eyes, or make quick judgments about people, brands, or situations that aren’t always fair or accurate. As an SEO, it’s valuable to learn these potential biases that your audience uses in their searches, interpretations of your content, and evaluations of your message. You can use this to inform your SEO and content strategy.

These cognitive biases can appear in three distinct ways throughout the search journey: the searches we make, the results we choose, and the impact of content on our continued search journey. Let’s dive in, shall we?

Confirmation Bias and Search Engine Bias

Words matter, topics matter, and relationships matter. Google has become increasingly capable of understanding natural language as algorithms like BERT and MUM are integrated into search. It can deliver more nuanced results that satisfy our search intent. But that doesn’t prevent us searchers from inserting our own contexts, prejudices, and biases into the way we phrase our queries.

Take the most polarizing example in the history of humankind – who makes better pets: cats or dogs? If I’m a dog person (which I am), I’m going to ask Google, “Why dogs are better pets than cats?” and I’ll get back this beautiful result that confirms my existing beliefs. But if I were a confused and sorely mistaken individual, I’d ask, “Why cats are better pets than dogs?” and I’d get an inaccurate result that aligns with that belief.

This is confirmation bias and search engine bias at work. Confirmation bias is the preference for information that confirms our existing beliefs, while search engine bias means that top results are often taken as the best answer to a query despite potential editorial bias.

Leveraging Salience Bias

Now, say you do show up in the search results. What does it take to be selected in an ocean of sameness? There’s too much competition for attention – ads, featured snippets, image packs, video packs, people also ask, SERP-specific carousels and rich snippets, and soon, Google’s AI-powered search Generative Experience. And when you look at click-through rate studies, the drop-off for organic result clicks as positions go down the page is precipitous.

To complicate your challenges as an SEO, cognitive biases are present throughout the SERPs. One of these is salience bias – the tendency to focus on items or information that are more noticeable or emotionally striking, often at the expense of other, less prominent information.

Imagine that you run a vinyl record business and are launching a content marketing campaign. You look for the keyword “colored vinyl,” and this is what you see in the search results:

SERP Feature Presence
Image Carousel Yes
Side Widget with Dropdowns Yes
People Also Ask Yes

It’s crowded, right? In fairness, most SERPs aren’t like this, but it highlights the importance of actually looking at the search results to see what you’re up against and how you need to compete. Andy Crestodina put together a fantastic presentation on this very issue at MozCon 2022 – I highly recommend watching how he analyzes and commentates on the various attention-stealing features in the SERP.

You can expect Google to continue to add these features that seem to satisfy your searcher’s intent. It’s important to monitor as they impact the salience bias of your audience. And you’re also likely to see themes depending on your industry and audience – more image carousels for e-commerce, entertainment, cooking, and hospitality; more short videos for younger audiences; more review snippets for local.

If you have the opportunity to stand out in the SERP visually based on your target keyword’s features, you should capitalize on it. You can keep an eye on your keyword list at scale with MozPro’s SERP Feature tracker. Leverage online reviews to visually stand out in local and e-commerce queries, invest in high-quality images for your products, venues, and dishes, and combine your YouTube SEO strategy with your organic search strategy to appear in video carousels.

Authority Bias and Building Brand Reputation

Google (and SEOs) have been obsessed with four types of content that Google values according to their Search Rater Guidelines: Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (E-E-A-T). We trust authorities to steer us in the right direction, and earned or perceived credibility can influence our decisions.

A classic example of this bias being exploited was in the 80s – Vicks Formula 44 used to run commercials with actor Chris Robinson from the daytime soap opera General Hospital dressed in his full doctor’s costume. People were influenced by the authority bias created in the ad despite Robinson not being an actual doctor.

But many times, authority symbols are earned, especially for searches that impact your money or your life (YMYL). Think domains that end in .gov, .org, and .edu, or hospital websites for health queries. You can assess your Brand AuthorityTM on Moz Pro – they’ve calculated a metric that aligns with those trust signals that can evaluate the trustworthiness and authoritativeness of a brand.

The best thing you can do for your authority? Build your brand. SEO is one channel in a bigger marketing strategy, and all of the platforms should work together to compound the results. It’s not easy, but it’s necessary. Develop visibility across your channels with consistency and quality, or find organic viral opportunities to accelerate your brand reputation.

Familiarity Bias and the Halo Effect

We trust what we know. It’s safe and reliable. Familiarity Bias highlights how we frequently choose the recognizable option regardless of whether it’s the best. Giulia Panozzo recently covered the psychology behind familiarity bias and the mere exposure effect extensively, while Myriam Jessier provides a series of smart tactics to implement it at the local level for your SEO and content programs.

What’s important to remember with the familiarity bias is that you need to consistently maintain a presence for your audience at multiple touch points across the internet. Whether people encounter you via social media, influencer marketing, advertising, or any other channel, when they do see your brand appear in an online search during their search journey, they’re more likely to click on your organic listing.

Additionally, we have the halo effect – the tendency to attribute good feelings when we connect two entities. The New York Times has enhanced its brand via halo effect-powered, mutually beneficial acquisitions, like purchasing product review website Wirecutter and the internet phenomenon Wordle.

While you might not be able to grow your brand with acquisitions, you can leverage familiarity, mere exposure effect, and the halo effect with brand partnerships. Identify opportunities that are complementary to your industry or offering, and get on best-of lists to leverage surround sound SEO or barnacle SEO.

Putting It All Together

Confirmation bias, familiarity bias, salience bias, authority bias – there are hundreds of cognitive biases that impact how we search online. They’re a natural part of how we think, and they trick our hardworking brains. But as SEOs, we need to get intimately familiar with our audience, the way they think, and the way they search.

The next time you’re tackling your SEO strategy, meeting with the content and social media team, or searching for your personal needs, think about the cognitive biases at play. Understanding human behavior and psychology is one of the single most important pieces of knowledge you can invest in to level up your SEO career.

MozPro can provide you with the tools and insights you need to navigate the ever-evolving world of search. From SERP feature tracking to brand authority analysis, they’ve got your back. So what are you waiting for? Dive in, and start taking advantage of those pesky searcher biases!

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