Summary: Behavioural economics/biases are extremely prevalent within the strategies of other marketing channels, however not so much within SEO. This article looks at some of the ways various behavioural biases, such as social proof, can and should be incorporated into SEO strategies and implementations.
Behavioural Biases within SEO
As humans we’re not very logical when it comes to making decisions. We instead rely on mental shortcuts (sometimes known as heuristics) which we have developed over time; often due to the success of certain decisions. Brands that understand these biases and how to align information towards them have the opportunity to connect to their audience with greater success.
Emotions are Key
It’s important to touch on the science behind these concepts. Scientists have found that when we are making decisions our amygdala is activated (Source: Harvard Business Review); this is the part of the brain where we process emotions, memories and which gives us our motivation, therefore it follows that these play a part in our decision making processes.
What is a Behavioural Bias?
One of the best known examples of this in action is the recognition heuristic. We prefer brands/products that we recognise, even if the attributes of that brand’s products are worse than those of unrecognised brands.
For example, in one study, participants were presented with three peanut butter samples, each belonging to different brands. Two of the brands were unrecognised, whilst one was a more popular brand. When asked to choose which sample they preferred, the experiment participants were more likely to choose the recognised brand, and did so 93.5 percent of the time.
Additionally, it was found that even when varying the quality levels of the peanut butter, 73 percent of participants would still opt to choose the recognised brand, despite the fact it was not perceived to be the highest quality option available to participants. (Source: Hoyer & Brown, 1990)
This article will highlight some of these behavioural biases, and how we can align SEO implementations to our users’ thought processes.
“Following the herd”
Robert Cialdini wrote that “we view a behaviour as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it”. We value other people’s opinions perhaps more than we would like to admit. At a practical level, it’s a helpful mental shortcut for us to have when making decisions; rather than having to try every product, we can look to our peers’ opinions and reviews to make our decisions. We like to simply meet the social norm while not beating others.
A real-world example of this comes again from Robert Cialdini, who looked at a hotel chain who changed the messaging used in relation to the reuse of towels. One message in the hotel focused on the environmental benefits of reusing towels; 35% of visitors complied with this request. However, when the message included a social proof such as ‘x% of other people reuse their towels’, this increased to 44%.
So how does this help us with SEO? The key is trust – trust is vital both within SEO and indeed the wider world contexts, especially within online shopping. And one key way of exhibiting trust to both Google and users is through the positive opinions of others, as well as experts/authority figures.
In terms of implementing social proof within your SEO strategy, incorporating customer reviews are vital for a site. It touches on the very essence of why social proof works; we look at what other people are saying about a product or service before making a decision.
Findings from a study by Podium in 2017 found the following:
We can further enhance this from an SEO point of view by utilising review extension schema. We can make it simple for users to not only see our reviews, but more importantly, that we have reviews readily available for them to view.
Review Extensions within SERPs
Another finding from the Podium study was that the content within the review was seen as the most important element of the review rather than the star ratings, which were seen as the second most important. So it’s a great start to have those review extensions, but we need to ensure that review content is also accessible. One way of taking this to the next level is seeking out experts and those with authority and their honest reviews. Not only will this provide a high level of social proof coming from respective sources, it may also lead to a good backlink.
Mere Exposure Effect
Simply put, mere exposure effect is the concept that the more we see something the more we like it; i.e., seeing something repeatedly improves our favorability towards it. For example, how many times have you listened to a song and at first not particularly liked it, but after hearing it multiple times you come round to liking it?
This effect is interesting when we consider it in the context of marketing. In theory, it makes sense how other channels can talk about it, right? The more we spend on advertising the more our audience will like a brand.
However with SEO it’s a bit more tricky. Think about the last time you made a large purchase, such as a new car. Did you do that on the fly without doing any research? It would be unlikely that you’d take that risk.
Think about the traditional marketing funnel (Awareness > Interest > Consideration > Intent > Evaluation > Purchase). How many times do customers enter at the intent stage and make a purchase? Rarely, but this is where a huge amount of work goes in with our transactional (and sometimes vanity) keywords. With the understanding of the mere exposure effect, we’re potentially more likely to get cut through if we broaden out our content to more informational and longer tail keywords
By using this style of targeting, we are more likely to have a presence in SERPs throughout our audience’s decision making process. When it comes to those intent searches, our audience is familiar with our brand, and, as discussed earlier, this coupled with the recognition heuristic means our audience is more likely to either click through to our site, or even better, convert more easily.
So from an SEO perspective, focus as hard on those informational search terms as you do with the high volume ones. Using keyword tools and also content Google gives you with related searches can be a really helpful place to start.
Google Related Searches
The first impressions we make of something shape our thoughts and feelings of subsequent experiences with a brand according to the Primacy Effect. It turns out we’re prone to judging books by their covers.
From an SEO perspective this could be meta titles, descriptions, headings and the first section of the content. The primacy effect can work in multiple ways; either we remember these first pieces of information better, or they influence our perceptions of information presented later on.
A study which looked at this comes from Richard Shotton (author of The Choice Factory), who asked 500 participants to rate a new vodka brand that was coming to the UK. Half of the participants were told that the vodka was “Award-winning, refreshing, satisfying, vinegary and weak” while the other half were told that it was “Weak, vinergy, satisfying, refreshing and award-winning”. Although both groups were given exactly the same words to describe the vodka, the first group, who were given the “positive” words first, rated the vodka 11% higher.
By utilising the primary effect we can increase users’ perception of our brand and henceforth improve CTRs. Once on the site, the first content seen by the user in terms of headings and the first paragraph of content can then shape the perception of the brand as a whole. Pay extremely close attention to the words and phrases being used; naturally you want to ensure your keywords take priority, but what’s going on around those keywords? Are they adjectives that could be perceived as positive, negative or maybe they’re neutral? How do you want users to think about your brand? Look to utilise words and phrases which help enhance that.
A great way to summarise this is a quote from Solomon Asch who came up with the Primacy Effect in 1946, who said: “If a brand establishes a strong association with one positive characteristic it will colour other attitudes”.
Choice Overload – Keeping it Simple
Sometimes we are fooled into believing that having choice is a good thing, and that’s true to a degree. However, we reach a point where the amount of choice becomes too much. It means we aren’t able to rely on our mental shortcuts as efficiently as we should. This results in stress, as we have to revert to a more manual state of decision making, which is not something we enjoy. Pieces of work (Schwartz, 2004) have indeed found that overchoice can cause unhappiness and fatigue towards making decisions, which is not something you want associated with your brand.
This can cause something known as “choice deferral”, which means we actually end up not making a decision. Say you’re interested in buying your first bike and you look for some information about the best one to buy. You reach a page that has hundreds of bikes on it, crammed with loads of information – there’s road bikes, bmx bikes and mountain bikes of all colours, shapes and sizes. Chances are you get fed up wading through all of this information, so rather than decide on the bike you want you just give up and move on.
When you think about it, this is somewhat similar to Google right? Cram a page full of different information, and it’s not entirely sure what to rank it for.
It’s the same for people. Keep your information simple, and most importantly, easy to digest. The same goes for the content, the metadata, everything; basically, make it as simple as possible for a user to want to click on your website or buy from you.Neither users or Google like it when your website is needlessly complicated with too much choice.
A Note of Caution
We shouldn’t see these biases as tricks to exploit; instead, this is about how to better communicate our benefits based on what our target audience is looking for. We’re simply giving them a nudge towards what we’re offering, but we’re not lying and not deceiving. If our product or service doesn’t best appeal to that audience, they won’t be fooled and nor will Google, who are becoming far better at aligning the right results to the right people at the right time. It’s the same concept.
In conclusion, within the world of SEO, we can sometimes forget that it’s real people we are marketing to, not just an “entrance” within Google Analytics. Sometimes we can get bogged down with thinking SEO is simply algorithms, but this isn’t fully appreciating the real people who are making decisions on whether to click your result or whether to convert on your website. There are many more behavioural biases, but these few should get you thinking on how to improve certain aspects of your SEO strategy.
James would describe himself as ambitious, analytical and inquisitive. James holds a postgraduate degree in Psychology where he focused on the psychology of decision making and how this can be extended to marketing. Beyond this he is passionate about running, cycling and his hometown team Ipswich Town, being a season ticket holder at the club.