The Psychology of SEO

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How far can you take a web site using SEO?  On the surface, that depends solely on your ability to implement strategies and tactics to overcome the competition.  Yet when you peel back the curtain, you realize there’s a lot more going on requiring you to have what essentially boils down to a psychology degree.

PragmatismFrom helping site owners deal with an unfocused business offering all the way to understanding what goes through the minds of users performing a search, it’s a psychological process. In many ways it’s also an emotional thing.  And if you don’t grasp these factors, you yourself are going to need a psychiatrist.  πŸ™‚

This article isn’t a how-to as far as overcoming psychological issues – I’ll leave that for a future article.  Because that alone could be book-length.  Instead, this is more about waking you up if you’re not already awake to the fact that psychology is a critical aspect of what we do.  And to get you thinking about it.

Lack of Focus

I stopped counting years ago the number of site owners who THINK they have a well defined business model, only to have me rip that notion to shreds with just a few questions during our first meeting.  What are your services?  Who is your market?  Do you have different types of customers?  What are your immediate business goals?  What are your long term business goals?

The Not So Unique Offering

Just one out-cropping of the lack of focus issue is where you’re dealing with someone who swears what they’re doing is unique.  They will jump up and down with passion, throwing a plethora of buzz-words that (they think) proves what they’re offering is unique.  Which may be possible. Except if so, they’re still going to need to use phrases that other people use when looking for things.  And that means competitor results even if they’re just perceived competitors. Site owners don’t like hearing that.

Or it just may be the case that no matter how it’s communicated, the perception of users doing a search that this site’s offering is just like all the others out there, could very well be so insurmountable that you have to help the site owner accept this reality.  And help them find a way to adapt or adjust. Even when they’re emotionally attached to that “you won’t believe how great and unique this is” mentality.

SEO is Easy / Instant / Voodoo / Bogus…

We all know about these. They’ve been discussed over and over.  Yet the reason they’ve been discussed so much is because they’re now standard fare.  And it’s up to us to understand how to break through that thinking.

The Evolving / Changing Business

Many of my clients come to me at a time when they’re hovering over keeping what works and scrapping it to offer something new altogether.  Maybe the owner’s burned out.  Maybe their market dried up.  Maybe they think this is the perfect time to shift focus.  Whatever the reason, you’re going to have to help them break through the indecision and commit to one path.  Otherwise you’ll never be able to truly optimize the site.  Because it’s going to be a moving target.

Grieving Clients

All of this just becomes exponentially more challenging when you come to find out that the SEO is being seen as a savior to an already dying business.  That it’s a last ditch effort to bring in revenue before the creditors bang down the doors at your client/employer’s offices.  Especially when they’re still in the denial or anger stages.  Because if they are, they may not even see that it’s hopeless.  Because if they did, why else would you be in dialogue with them? Or maybe they’re in the last throes of false hope.

Whatever the stage of grieving they’re in, it just might be up to you to wake them up to reality.  Unless you want to take on yet one more client who will work you to near death then inform you that they can’t pay you what you are otherwise owed.  Because they just reached acceptance that their business is dead.

User Mentality

Even when all else is in alignment with the site owner, as an SEO you need to understand user mental models.  You need to get into the mind of the user for all sorts of reasons related to Information Architecture, yet just as vital, you need to do so because only then will you be able to help determine the best keyword phrases for this unique site.

How well can you delve into the minds of users?  Especially when it’s for a market you have no previous experience working in.  Can you step into the shoes of a victim of mesothelioma?  If not, you’re going to miss 80% of the people who are really looking for an attorney specializing in that highly niche field.  Because it’s not all about “mesothelioma lawyer”.  I know.  Been managing one of those sites four years this November.

The Observer Self

Seriously though – how good are you at getting out of your own mind and into the minds of your client/employer, the marketing manager, the developer(s), the graphic designer, hosting provider, product manager?  And how good are you at looking at things from the eyes of the site’s ideal client or customer?  Without polluting your thinking with your own experience/linguistic bias, intellect, emotional filters?

The better you are at detaching from your own inner mind and emotional filters, the better your chance of seeing things from and knowing how to reach the mind/emotional buttons of those people.  And THAT is quite often much more important than knowing when to use h1 tags or how to get back-links that count…


Image of William James (Pragmatism) provided courtesy of

Alan Bleiweiss
Alan Bleiweiss is a Forensic SEO audit consultant with audit client sites consisting of upwards of 50 million pages and tens of millions of visitors... Read Full Bio
Alan Bleiweiss
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  • David Iwanow

    Awesome SEO can save my business… and you have 3 weeks till the creditors turn off the server…. the wonderful world of me too sinks so many projects if they are just wanting to you to replicate their competitors website look and feel and even content word for word, that is doomed to failure but trying to communicate the value of USP (unique selling point) can be hard at times.

    Another point which is not often talked about is working with the client to find the budget, check they are not over paying for hosting, spoke with one client that was paying $1500/year for a shared sever and they had maybe 5 visitors a day to their 10 page website… they can move hosting providers and pay $90/year and u get an extra $1410 u can invest in content creation.

    Smart moves to help a client out can reduce some of the other roadblocks and increases your project budget.

  • jimrudnick

    Um….spot-on Alan! Especially your wrap-up last paragraph, eh…and thanks for this muchly! πŸ™‚ Jim

  • Vinicius B. Peixoto

    Great content! Another “SEO-psychology thing” is managing customers' anxiety and expectation.

    “How good are you at getting out of your own mind and into the minds of your client/employer?”
    Figuring them out is the key to understand what and when data should be presented.

    Another one is networking (???).

    “How well can you delve into the minds of users? Especially when it’s for a market you have no previous experience working in.”
    Networking is golden! People is golden!

    • alanbleiweiss


      Yes – managing anxiety and expectations are a definite addition to the long list. That's probably the one aspect of SEO psychology I mention in most of my audit articles because it's so important.

      Networking is helpful in the SEO life cycle, yet that also relates to the issue of how well we can actively listen while we're networking.

      • Vinicius B. Peixoto

        100% agreed!

  • alanbleiweiss

    It's all about getting readers to think Jim. So I hope I've helped in that regard.

  • psissons

    What a great article, Alan!! It's so true… the perception of SEO as a marketing strategy has gone from one of skepticism toward a newfangled idea, to feeling as though it's the end-all strategy to save your business, (primarily due to lake of knowing anything about it..) to being the “old dog” as dynamic social media platforms emerged, to finally taking its rightful place as a highly important component of an overall marketing strategy.

    GREAT client analysis…

    • alanbleiweiss

      Thank you Pam – now if I could just follow my own guidance more consistently without first wanting to scream sometimes πŸ™‚

      • Pam

        Ha! Good luck with that! πŸ™‚

  • Jackson

    Great article. This is my first time visiting. The content here is amazing! I'm just starting out and am realizing that I need to step into my readers shoes a bit more. Thanks for the good read!

  • Travesti

    very good 100% agreed!

  • Web Promotion India

    Very good article, with amazing content.It's so true. Thanks a lot for sharing such a good read.:)

  • John Callaghan

    Excellent article. I was doing a degree in Psychology before moving into SEO and it provided an excellent grounding. Lots of cross-over.

  • Jpstauff

    I really enjoyed reading your article. I am presently in college and your “on the nail head” article will help as I attempt going into web design.

  • ronmorrison

    Absolutely spectacular stuff. I learned a great deal. I'm adding to my todo list today to research the availability of any books on the subject. You should too and if you don't find one I'd love to see you write one. “The Psychology of SEO”… wow!

  • Taysha M. Gregoire

    Great Article! Regarding this section: The Observer Self – do you have any tips for detaching our personal visions?

  • Ashley Bliss

    Great article…Something that I picked up from this is article is how every time I do a Google search, I instantly think about what my own thought process is that led me to choose those specific words and phrases. Through this mental process, I apply that knowledge when trying to analyze what clients would be searching. It isn't until I actually see search volume that I become aware at other's thought processes and how they differ from my own. This is when I need to practice stepping out of my predispositions and truly understand all possible thought processes of my target market, which can be difficult.

  • Megan Rozo

    As this article points out the importance of breaking into the psyche of the user, the client and all others involved in website creation and marketing in order to create effective SEO; another thought along these lines is that most people/clients don't equate the strategies of internet marketing with traditional forms of marketing.

    Of course, they are not the same, they are completely different advertising mediums, but how we achieve the results might be more similar than what most people think. One thing that they both have in common is that tapping into the psychology of the user/buyer/target market is one major component what makes a successful marketing campaign and so goes with how you can effectively drive traffic to your website and successfully retain the user.

    I think it is easy/common for people/clients to think that the internet is some magic portal where normal marketing/advertising rules don't apply. Like we wave our magic wands and suddenly your site is #1. When in reality – Integration, psychology, user experience, customer service, branding, repetition, up-to-date content – everything that you learn in Marketing 101 should and can also be applied to building a successful website and marketing strategy online than just implementing the right code and adding some crappy content.

    Nice article, good read. πŸ™‚

  • vinnylabarbera

    We talk a lot about understanding our customers and communicating what we can / cannot do for them in terms of getting their business exposure online. What is often ignored or pushed off as a secondary, and sometimes tertiary, priority is doing the necessary work to truly understand the psyche of the people visiting and using the website – the actual end user.

    If SEOs, and web designers / developers, spent even half as much time asking the right questions to actual end users as they do to the business owner about their business / product / service we would start to see a more positive trend in proper website design, development and optimization across the board.

    The psychology behind what drives these people to the website in the first place, what keeps them on the website when they get there, and what entices them to act is what needs a lot more focus from SEOs, designers, developers, etc.

    This is a whole other conversation / blog post, but great SEOs don't get the credit they deserve. Great SEOs are not just code optimizers, link builders or content developers. Great SEOs are business consultants. Often times the best work we do is helping business owners to truly understand their own business by asking the right questions and forcing them to commit to certain strategies.

    So, cheers to all the “great” SEOs out there. Fantastic article Alan! The SEO community needs more posts like these.

    • Social_Media_Consultant

      Great post

  • Daniel

    Great Article!

    What it reinforced to me is the notion any business needs to understand is SEO is not a magic bullet. We hear so much of, “I need keywords” or a personal favorite, “I NEED GOOGLES”. This is the psychology that needs to be overcome. With SEO it's not always about being on Google, but rather what this article reinforces – engaging that end user and how they think and search. Walk a mile in their shoes so to speak.
    Alan, the question I have for you is how do you engage clients whose mind set is you are providing that magic bullet?

  • Alison Baker

    After reading this article, it has made me take a step back and really think about the way I go about choosing specific keywords I recommend for clients. Since this is all fairly new to me – I have only been working on SEO projects for about a month – I realized that when I first started looking for the proper keywords to recommend to clients, I would try and think of everything I would search in Google if I were buying the product my client was selling. What I have come to realize is that what I search in Google isn’t necessarily what everyone else is searching for also.

    It is definitely a difficult thing to get out of my own mindset and think how the end user / consumer would search for a term, especially when you know certain terms have higher SEO value than others. My questions to this would have to be, “How do you explain this to the client?” The fact that, in the end, it’s looking at things from the consumer’s perspective and not necessarily just at what they think is “unique”.