The Psychology of Search

The Psychology of Search

21st May 2012

Next up on the coverage of the 2nd day of SAScon is a talk by State of Search’s very own chief editor Bas van den Beld, who talks about the psychology of search.

Bas starts of by showing a picture of his children, and then pointing out that this is the homepage of his browser – a Google search page with a custom background. Bas says that a lot of the things Google have been doing is about making search personal.

Bas lists a number of aspects of human psychology that affect how we behave: We are very open to trust towards people of authority – we trust the opinions of authorities, which explains why advertisers look for celebrity endorsements. We also rely on the opinions of people around us – social recommendations, which sites like TripAdvisor tap in to very effectively.

Word of mouth is also a very important factor, and Twitter is sort of an online version of that with its retweets and online gossip. Sometimes this can be inaccurate information, which then gets widely distributed. Another factor is that we want what other people have – the ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ effect.

Another thing we’re very susceptible to is peer pressure, something which I can personally attest to when the huge Icelandic viking Kristjan Hauksson made me drink a few more rum & cokes at the SAScon speaker’s social event instead of just letting me retreat to my hotel room. 🙂

We also can’t resist our kids – what our kids want guides our purchase decisions. Bas gives an example of some football stickers his son wanted, and which ended up costing Bas quite a lot of money. If children are happy, their parents are as well, something which big retail chains are catching on to by making the shopping experience child-friendly and using subconscious methods to influence children’s – and thus, by extension, their parents’ – behaviour.

Bas continues with an intruiging statistic: 36% of young people check social media sites after having sex. Social media has replaced the post-coïtal cigarette.

Coming from a background as a historian, Bas says that the study of history is not about learning facts but about understanding why things happened. He gives an example about two history books about the same World War 1 battle – Dunkirk – one written by Germans and one by the English. In the German book the Germans won the battle, while in the English version of events the English were victorious at Dunkirk because Churchill managed to utilise it as a propaganda event.

And here is where we get Bas’s signature slide: Jesus was the first social marketer. He had 12 followers, and ony unfollowed him. Jesus’s message was spread around the world to billions of people.

Now on to digital things. Bas shows the failures of Google’s previous social endeavours such as Orkut, Wave, and Buzz. While these were failures, they were signs of a deeper trend: Google’s ability to recognise connections between people. This then leads to social search, which is what Google+ is all about.

Bas explains that Google+ is about understanding who we are and who we are connected to – it’s an identification tool. All the data that Google gathers this way is then used to personalise our search results. It starts with identity and profile, expanded upon with our social connections – friends and contacts. Then Google looks at what we do, and which entities we are connected to.

All these social signals are then used to show social elements in our search results, including G+ results and Google Suggest, and now also feeding in to Google News in the US.

So how does this help us? It’s about marketers tapping in to the potential of social search. Bas says that marketers are often like Dutch tourists who try to communicate in their own language when abroad, and end up speaking increasingly louder without ever making themselves understood. That’s what old-school marketing does: messages get louder and louder without ever properly registering.

Effective marketing nowadays is about knowing who to target, and about making it personal. Bas shows the example of the Austrian town of Obermutten, who used Facebook to boost their local tourism by orders of magnitude.

Bas says it’s about not just targeting your clients and potential clients, but also about the people who talk about you. That’s the sort of message that people trust – target people who will tell your story in a personal way. Stop selling, start sharing.


Written By
Barry Adams is one of the chief editors of State of Digital and is an award-winning SEO consultant delivering specialised technical SEO services to clients worldwide.
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