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PSYCHOLOGY OF SEO & Search Intent

SEO meets the minds of the visitors with actionable insights

What we'll cover

Introduction to Psychological Search Intent

Why did someone choose to do that search today? Why did they choose to click one one link and not others?  

Find out how you can satisfy the true needs of your users, and win at SEO (while improving your social media game too!)

 

What is standard search intent in SEO?

SEO’s know that people have a search intent. Two common examples are transactional (buying) and informational (knowledge). 

However, ambiguous search terms like “shoes” – which could be both transactional or information – still have a lean towards a likely intent, and it’s deeper than these two options. 

In this case, you’re most likely to be a woman who wants to buy shoes. 

The search results back this up:

Search results for “shoes” show that the intent is likely to be a woman wanting to buy shoes

What is Psychological Search Intent?

SEOs focus typically just on the moment someone searches and onwards, without focusing on the needs that drove the search today. 

This is missing a huge opportunity because the Psychological Search Intent is reason that a woman wanted to buy those shoes today and if you can match that more effectively than your competitors, you’ll get the click, and a higher CTR means a higher ranking, and lots of other good SEO signals down the line. 

Women don’t want shoes, they want…

If you believe women (sorry .. I’m just going by what I’m told) she really wants:

  • To feel glamorous on a date
  • To make a good impression on her first day in a job
  • .. and a multitude of other reasons
This is a stereotype. It will be true for some women, and not true for others. It is likely to be true for a fair amount of men too! Not wanting to be sexist, let’s look at a “stereotypical male” example too. 

Men don’t want a Porsche, they want…
  • To feel more powerful
  • To impress their quarry on dates
  • .. and a multitude of other reasons
Comedians play off these kinds of stereotypes and psychological needs and drivers all of the time. sorry …

Stress is one of the common factors that leads to a purchase. The journey can start years earlier.

People search for complicated reasons

I’m clearly not in any way saying all women buy shoes to make them feel better or all men buy Porches to make them feel more powerful … but some do.

However, you’ll find shoes advertised towards women and Porches toward men for good reason – because the personas tend to suggest it’s more likely to be this way around.

If you can understand the reason that someone made a search today, you have the opportunity to meet their psychological desire either head on (which can be quite aggressive! So be careful!) or more subtly, demonstrating a level of understanding and support for their psychological need.

More examples of real reasons for purchases

Someone doesn’t want to paint their fence
… they want to finish their garden and have a party

Someone doesn’t want a holiday in Barbados
… they need to relax and forget about life for a while

Someone doesn’t want a new computer
… they need to become more productive

Someone doesn’t want a plumber in Liverpool
… they want someone who is reliable and available today

Someone doesn’t want a dog walker
… they want to make sure their beloved pet is healthy

Someone doesn’t want to know about entrepreneurship
… they want to make money

Someone doesn’t want to buy vitamins
… they want to feel less concerned about their health

Someone doesn’t want to know about printers
… they want to minimise wasting money on the wrong model

Someone doesn’t want SEO
… they want an increase in their business profit levels

Someone doesn’t want counselling
… they want to feel in control of their emotions again

Someone doesn’t want a plumber in Liverpool
… they want someone who is reliable and available today

Someone doesn’t want to know about Einstein
… they enjoy to learn about the world around them

Psychology 101

If you don’t know about psychology, you might be wondering why this all matters? And that’s a totally fair question!

Emotions are subconscious

Your emotions are generated in an area of the mind which you don’t have direct access to. It uses a lifetime of experience and patterning to help you navigate the world successfully.

Feel nervous? 

That’s your subconscious creating an emotion. It’s telling you that a similar situation has happened in the past and you should be wary. This happened without you needing to do any “conscious thinking”.

The subconscious (almost) always wins

So, you get an emotion. What does that matter? 

Well, humans take notice of their emotions. 

If we consciously think one thing, but our emotions are telling us something different, generally we’ll go with what our emotions are telling us because they’re uncomfortable and we want to “get rid of” that uncomfortable feeling. 

It take a large amount of willpower to go against our emotions and it’s typically not possible to do in the long term. 

 

“JUMP! You’ll be OK, honest!”


Don’t believe me? Well, tell someone scared of heights that the bungee jump is fine and there’s only a 0.000001% chance of death. 

They still won’t jump because of that feeling in their stomach – the emotion. 

Their conscious mind will try to be rational with the knowledge of the tiny risk, but chances are they’ll listen to the uncomfortable feeling in their stomach and not jump.

(That would be me by the way!)

We will accept danger when it’s necessary though…

Of course we all will put ourselves in the path of danger at times, but it’s likely we’ll avoid it when there’s other options. 

And in SEO, there are. 

If your site doesn’t meet someones psychological need, there will be a dozen or a hundred or a thousand others which might do.

SEO and psychology haven’t been good friends

Advertising and CRO industries

The advertising industry has been using psychological drivers and needs for many decades.

Conversion Rate Optimiser researchers have also been looking out for customer needs and matching them for a number of years. Particularly, you’ll hear then talk about visitors becoming irritated or frustrated. In fact, “rage clicks” are a real thing and serve the purpose of allowing someone to release the frustration.

Those two industries have both been incredibly successful at achieving a larger amount of conversions by playing on peoples desire to be happy, their worries about work and relationships, their concern about being scammed and so on.

But, who is looking at psychology in SEO?

Who is optimising page title and meta descriptions and what they say about the company? 

Who is looking at the words on the page and how they match deep desires? 

Who is building the page to match the desires? 

Maybe copywriters or web-designers are thinking about this stuff, but not always.

Yes, SEO’s can make sure the necessary keywords are on the page, but how many are really looking at the entire proposition to meet the deep desire that a user has?

A less emotive example: dog walkers

Take dog walkers. Dogs owners love their pets. They are considered part of the family. Dog owners want to make sure they are looked after and healthy and happy – that’s the psychological search intent.

Maybe you don’t have time to do it yourself at the moment, so you want the next best thing; someone else who loves dogs and will treat them incredibly well, like you would.

So, for a site like DogBuggy, you’re immediately getting trust signals from the name – “Dog Buddy” sounds friendly towards dogs. 

Then if you read about them from their listing, you can see they’re rated by other people, and are fully insured. More trust signals.

The other dog walking sites meet Psychological Search Intent in other ways. One does background checks. The other has an app where you can follow the route your dog walker is taking, so you know it’s a decent walk, and not just 5 minutes. 

See the Psychological Search Intent there? 

You’re concerned that dog walkers will just take your dog for a quick walk and then go and sit in their car on Instagram (or whatever).

Every concern you can reduce will help them feel better.

Does psychology impact SEO then?

SEO deals with what people see in the search results, and also what’s on the page, and what the overall site is about.

If what SEOs are producing doesn’t “feel right” to the user, they’ll either not click in the first place, or they’ll click and back out and instead go to an alternative site, and in both cases you’re sending bad signals to Google that your site doesn’t satisfy users who search for this query.

If your rankings aren’t as high, you’ll also receive fewer natural links.

So does psychology impact SEO directly? Possibly not today, but it’s likely to have a fairly large indirect impact with certain search queries.

Machine learning and SEO

As time goes on though, we can all see Google using machine learning more and more to do the heavy lifting. I can see a time when the machine learning systems will (nearly) do as effective a job as humans at determining what a good site really is.

How long away is that?

At this rate of progress, my guess is no more than a decade.

Ignore psychology at your peril!

About 6 months ago I was contacted by an affiliate marketer who worked in providing analysis of companies. The business had been going well for a while, but they were noticing a drain in traffic and competitors starting to rank ahead of them.

I considered the needs of the market and came up with a general profile of the visitors which was largely based on trust, because people didn’t want bad information leading to poor investment and a loss of money.

This was the Psychological Search Intent: wanting to gain and not lose money.

They are very strong psychological drivers for this type of person!

I suggested that, ahead of updating content, they change the domain name – which sounded really spammy – and update the design of the site. Both of these killed important trust signals of that market.

Over the coming months, traffic quadrupled.

Meeting customer desires helps CRO too

Optimising for Psychological Search Intent not only helps your search engine position, but Conversion Rate Optimisation too, leading to more business, which should be a core goal of every SEO campaign. 

Personas – knowing your customers better

If you’re not very knowledgable about a group of people, how can you get in the heads of those site visitors? Well, there’s plenty of ways, but I find personas can be useful.

Humans are surprisingly proficient at putting ourselves in other peoples shoes. 

We can conjour up a person in our minds and know what they’ll do or say in each circumstance. Therefore, we can create personas in our minds and “ask them questions” like “why did you search for this today?” and they will answer through you.

Of course, it’s not as good as doing full user research, but not everyone has that budget. 

How to build personas

Being accurate and detailed is important for building personas which are useful in determining Psychological Search Intent. 
 
If you can’t really visualise that person, you can’t dig down into their emotions to get an idea of what they were feeling when they’re doing that search.
 

How many personas?

Typically, 6 personas will capture a large amount of information and is often enough to understand what the user of a site really wants.

The goal is to build personas which are in the ratio of your real customers. So, let’s say your shop is 70% female and 30% male, you might build 4 female personas and 2 male personas.

Asking the business owner

It might be sensible first to ask the business owner.

However, in my experience they don’t always know about their customers, so be careful if following this path and try to use some other research methods too, in order to confirm their beliefs and assumptions about customers. 

This particular important with online businesses because we typically don’t meet our customers.

Personas from stereotypes

Often, we’ve had enough exposure to the world to produce personas without a lot of direct research. If we’re truly experienced with that persona type, our stereotypes might be enough.

Personas from research

If you need to add some research into the equation, how can you do it? Here are a few ideas:

  • Direct customer or previous customer polls / questionnaires
  • Polls / questionnaires on the site (using Hotjar or similar)
  • Polls / questionnaires on social media
  • Google search console data (sometimes real psychological search intent can come out in long tail queries)
  • Analysis of the SERPs
  • Asking friends

I’ve put together a video with an example persona in the luxury solo holiday industry:

See a few examples of personas for luxury solo holidays, and how to use them.

What information can you use in a persona?

The more detailed your persona, the more effective it will be at building the person in your mind. Here are some elements you can include:
  • What’s their gender?
  • What’s their name?
  • What’s their exact age?
  • What’s their job?
  • Length of time in that job
  • Career & education history
  • How does their job make them feel?
  • What’s their relationship status?
  • Do they have kids? 
  • What are their kids names and ages?
  • How does their life make them feel?
  • Where do they live?
  • What is their house like?
  • What do they do for fun?
  • Where do they go on holiday?
  • Do the have a lot of friends?
  • Where do they eat out?
  • Where do they drink?
  • What TV do they watch?
  • Are they close with their families?
  • Where do they shop for food? Clothes?
  • Do they prefer material things, or experiences?
  • What are their values?
  • What phone do they have?
  • What do they do most on their phone?
  • What are their vices?
  • What are their hobbies & sports?
  • How happy are they?

Process for producing a Psychologically Search Intent optimised page

Putting it all together, what are the most important steps that should be taken to build a page which is successfully optimised?

  • Research personas

    Find out what the users really want - what emotional need(s) they are looking to solve.

  • Build personas commonalities

    Determine the % likelihood of a particular psychological need applying to the audience.

  • Journey to search

    Build the journey the personas have experienced to reach that point.

  • Psychological assessment

    Look at their psychological state before the search, and how they want to feel afterwards.

  • Create page title & meta description

    Build the Google listing data based on the most common psychological needs.

  • Write a page lede

    The page lede should provide more detail about commonalities for the visitor, and introduce a few of the less likely persona desires.

  • Produce the page

    Consider carefully the remainder of the page and how it can subtly meet the needs, including in imagery and video.

6 key questions to help uncover psychological drivers

  • What is the impact to them of not achieving “this”?
  • Who else might they be trying to please by achieving “this”?
  • Are they in a rush to complete “this”? If so, why?
  • What level of perfectionism might be associated with “this”?
  • What will their emotional state be when they have “this”?
  • How will their life be different when they have “this”?

Psychological Search Intent in practice

Let’s take an example and see how it works in practice. Let’s say you were working on a jewellery site and were working on the engagement ring page.

The traditional SEO approach

The old SEO approach would be to title the page “Engagement rings – all styles | <brand name>” and to have a list of engagement rings on the page, with some text which you’d done some keyword search on, or even better, provided full topic coverage with.

Optimising Psychological Search Intent

Persona research

I’m not going to do the full job here, but let’s take two basic personas which are specific to this particular situation:

Persona 1

Dave is 23, in the army, and have been planning to pop the question. He’s a romantic at heart and really wants the moment to be perfect. 

His girlfriend, Janine, is 21 and they have discussed getting engaged and he thinks she knows this is coming. He’s a happy go lucky guy, but when it comes to Janine – his princess – he wants everything to be perfect. He has a budget of about £1000.

Persona 2

Steve is 33, and an accountant. He’s been married before and he last time he didn’t have much money to spend and he’d like to spend more this time. 

His girlfriend, Penny, likes the finer things in life and is picky with clothes, so he presumes she is with rings too. He’s a nervous guy at heart and he doesn’t want to mess this up, and he’s heard of girls that weren’t happy with their rings. His budget is £1500.

Persona commonalities

  • Both are between 20 and 35, and male. 
  • Both are nervous about this moment and getting the right ring is a key part of that. 
  • They both work. 
  • They both have budgets, so price is important.

Journey to search

Looking at their personas, they have both thought deeply about wanting this moment to be perfect and they don’t want the ring to be a disappointment. 

Even though neither of them think their girlfriends would turn them down just for a ring, they see this as a really important rite of passage and something they want to show they’ve put a lot of thought into.

Their journey, in brief, is:

  • Meeting their girlfriend
  • Getting to know their girlfriend
  • Growing to love their girlfriend
  • Recognising that she’s the one for life

Psychological assessment

Both of them are experiencing some stress and anxiety about getting the right ring. Guys aren’t well known for understanding female tastes, and they don’t want this getting in the way. 

They don’t particularly have any feelings towards price since their budgets are reasonable for this purchase (although some other personas with a lower budget may experience some shame).

  • Before searching today, they felt anxious because they were concerned they might mess it up.
  • They have built a picture of how the engagement moment will happen, and it ends with a really happy fiance. That’s the source of their anxiety.

  • After visiting a site, they would like to feel somewhat supported and then relief when they buy a ring and feel confident it’s correct.

Page title & description

From this assessment, a higher CTR could be achieved by offering support, so the page title could be:

“Engagement rings – style guides to aid your decision | <brand name”

… and the description could be …

“We know you care about this moment. Getting the right engagement ring is important to you. Our unique style guide and filters will give a 98% success rate in finding the ring which your soon-to-be fiance will love”

Page lede

To follow on with this theme, the page lede could be:

“As a man, there’s a few moments in your life you want to get right, and presenting your girlfriend with the ring which will make her your fiance is one of them. 

But if you’re not sure which one to choose, we’ve produce a fantastic buyers guide which will show you a selection of rings handpicked by our knowledgable and experienced stagg for different types of women.

You’ll find your girlfriend in amongst there .. and if it doesn’t end up being quite right, of course you can replace it, but we have a 98% success rate so you really shouldn’t worry.”

From there, you could carry on and produce the actual page and the buyers guide system or online app.

Summary

SEOs have typically been focused on matching keywords. 

However, with more choice in the market, the sites which match the Psychological Search Intent will get more clicks and conversions, leading to higher rankings, which will lead to more links and a higher trust level from Google.

Sites which don’t will find their competitors will slowly overtake them.

So start learning some psychology and get creative!

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