The Psychology of SEO

By Rob Stevens.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is kind of a strange world. The entire practice is not much more than a series of web “best practices�? and some old wives’ tales about how to increase your search ranking. It’s full of acronyms and colorful personalities, but what it’s not is a book of rules; partly because the search engines are constantly changing, but also because people are fickle, and what’s popular one day could be gone the next.

In recent discussions about the kind of education someone in the SEO field should have, amongst all the talk of MBAs and on-the-job education, not once did anyone ever mention the one area that would probably be the most useful to a marketer focused on search engine results: Psychology. I’m not saying that companies need to start hiring people with doctorates to run their website, but a couple of classes in basic psychology (or even some textbooks) should give valuable insight into what makes people tick.

Ultimately, the search engines are all about people. They’re trying to create results for any search term that are more like what actual people would be looking for in order of preference. It stands to reason, then, that someone who is an expert in how people think and what motivates them would be an ideal choice for creating a campaign to build search engine ranking.

An excellent example of this is the trend of link “baiting�?, the process of getting other people and websites to link to you. There are lots of semi- or fully-automated directories that will put links up on sites designed to do nothing but link pages, but most search engine marketers (SEMs) will tell you that links on sites already placed highly in the search engines (for terms you want to improve your rank on) are far more valuable. How do you get those sites to link to you? A little dose of psychology: say something provocative, piss them off, butter them up, make them laugh … but the general rule is to get their attention with something that they would want to link to. Frequently, that requires a bit of investigation into the person’s personality and motivation, and that’s where your psychology expert would truly shine.

Similarly, the rise of social bookmarking sites (like Digg.com) are an area in which psychologists should do well. Many sites such as these have a “collective personality�?, a byproduct of any strong community. Much like with link building, writing and submitting an article to a social bookmarking site designed to appeal to that specific community yields the best results and the most traffic.

Of course, the single most important reason is that at the end of the day, you’re building your website for people, not for Google. All of the tricks that most SEMs will teach you (descriptive title and anchor tags, interesting summary text, etc.) usually boil down to one critical concept … build a website that’s interesting and useful for the kinds of people you want to attract, which should be the goal for anyone running a website. Are we on the verge of companies paying to send their webmasters to classes in psychology? Perhaps not, but it certainly couldn’t hurt.

[The above article is a submission for Marketing Pilgrim’s Search Engine Marketing Scholarship Contest. Each Monday in October, entries will be published and the most popular article of the week will qualify for the $5,000 grand prize. If you’d like to submit an entry, please view the contest entry-requirements and guidelines.]