SEO Meets Psychology: 10 Principles of Influence

Posted Sunday, September 2nd, 2012 in Search Engine Optimization by .

SEO, internet marketing, and even marketing and sales in general, are really about things we don't have direct control over. We can't force people to link to us. We can't make people buy our products or services. We can't control the behavior of others. The world would be a scary place if we could.

Oddly enough, however, that's often exactly how we think about what we're doing. We may catch ourselves asking, “How can I make this blogger tweet me?”

What we're really doing, though, is looking for ways to remove psychological barriers. A person who would never buy from you, link to you, or share your content will...never buy from you, link to you, or share your content. It's the people who might take an action that really matter. It all comes down to removing the reasons not to.

And that's what influence is about.

That's why insight from Dr. Robert Cialdini, a professor of psychology, can probably teach us more about SEO with his book Influence, than most internet marketing books can, even though it's not an internet marketing book. Specifically, we really ought to take these 6 principles to heart:

  1. Reciprocity – If somebody does something for you, you're more likely to return the favor.
  2. Commitments – If you make a small commitment to somebody, you feel more inclined to trust them, and you're more likely to make more commitments in the future.
  3. Authority – You tend to trust the opinions and advice of authority figures more than those of “average” people.
  4. Social Proof – You're more willing to take an action if you can see that others have taken the action before you.
  5. Rarity – The more rare an opportunity feels, the more likely you are to take it up on the justification that you might not get another opportunity like it.
  6. Affinity – You are more likely to trust and work with people that remind you of yourself.

I would also add a few more principles from psychology called cognitive biases (this is not an exhaustive list of them and some of these names are “folksy” versions):

  1. Loss Aversion – When you compare a loss and a gain of equal size, the loss hurts more than the gain feels good, even if the outcome is the same.
  2. Status Quo Bias – We tend to err on the side of inaction rather than action, and the harder it is to do something, the less likely we are to do it.
  3. Default Bias – Similarly, if we face an overload of options, we tend to make no decision at all or go with what seems to be the “default” option.
  4. Availability Bias – We evaluate the likelihood of something happening by how easily it comes to mind, rather than by the actual probabilities involved.

SEO As Applied Psychology

We could literally make a book out of all the ways you can use these and other psychological principles to improve your SEO efforts, but a few simple examples should give you an idea of how to think about this.

  • During link building, the principle of reciprocity certainly comes into play. If you promote somebody, they are more likely to promote you. It doesn't need to be a link for a link, just an action of equal value.
  • In your content, you can source widely trusted people or organizations to make your points appear more valid and trustworthy
  • If we put too many calls to action on one page, default bias will cause most users to take none of them. If we provide only one call to action, or only one clear “default” action, we are more likely to get a response.
  • During outreach, getting a small commitment to take a look at your content increases the likelihood of a stronger commitment to link to it later on (or use it as a guest post, or whatever else you need).
  • If you have a particular skill set or product to trade for a link, the trade will appear more valuable if it feels rare, if the option of not taking the trade feels like a loss, if it seems obvious that others in a similar situation have chosen to take the trade, and if examples of this working out well are in recent memory.

Hopefully you can see now how these principles can be mixed and matched to break down all kinds of barriers people can have about doing business with you.

Have you thought about the psychology of SEO before? Do you have other insights to add?

Image credit: Ulisse Albiati

Carter Bowles


Carter is a writer, science blogger, and SEO enthusiast. He lives in Idaho with is wife and daughter, where he is pursuing degrees in physics and statistics.

  • http://twitter.com/teacherdegrees TCD

    I think the law of reciprocity works well when you are trying to earn a link from a site. If you help the site's owner out first, they are more likely to want to help you out in the future. I recommend the book Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive for more ideas on leveraging the research in psychology.

  • http://coolmarketingstuff.com/ Charles Sipe

    Another idea from psychology I recently read about is absence blindness. People have a hard time realizing something is important when it isn't there. For instance, potential SEO clients have difficulty realizing they have a problem due to not having any links.

  • Razempsycholog

    Hi

    thanks a lot for this post. Very interesting.

    • Carter Bowles

      Glad you liked it.


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