When I say that people are unimaginably weird, I mean it quite literally.

How would you feel if I said you’re incapable of making an unbiased decision? What if I told you that we’re all fundamentally illogical; and the more logically we try to think about it, the more illogical we get?

It might be hard to accept, but we’re not the logical beings we like to think we are. At least not consciously.

What is cognitive bias?

In a nutshell, a cognitive bias is a quirk in our decision-making that stems from the subconscious or unconscious parts of our mind. These unintentional biases influence the way we think, act, respond and feel.

Some cognitive biases have their roots in human evolution. For example, our drive to make risk-averse decisions when we feel safe, but to take risks to avoid danger, is clearly a behaviour which has given us an evolutionary advantage. Don’t leave the cave unless you need to, but run through the fire or climb up that cliff to get away from the sabre-tooth tiger.

Cognitive biases can also be learned, ingrained and passed on socially, having more contemporary roots. Our growing inability to remember anything that we can Google is a pretty obvious example.

It might be hard to accept, but we’re not the logical machines we think we are. At least not consciously.

So what does this have to do with SEO? Well firstly, when you do your keyword research it can pay off to understand the fundamental emotional drivers that influence the words people put into Google. Secondly, as you create content, especially if it’s aimed at ZMOT conversions, you might want to consider which types of content are most likely resonate with the weird way your customers weigh things up.


This is the name given to our tendency to make risk-averse choices when we feel safe, but risk-seeking choices when we are focussed on avoiding a negative outcome.

Traditional marketing philosophy is to never talk about risks or negative outcomes to a potential customer. We want to focus on the positives, right?

But when times are tough for your customers, or they are in a tricky spot that you are helping them to get out of, it is actually better to talk openly about the risks involved. Not only is this more ethical than sweeping them under the rug, but you are also likely to sell more!

Most psychologists would agree that fear of failure is a stronger motivator than the desire to succeed. Selling on positives is easy when there is no risk – you just talk about the USPs and positive selling points. But when your customers need or want to seek risk, you should face that head-on. Create content that addresses the risk, and include SEO focus on keywords that tie into that mindset.

Distinction Bias

When we’re told to consider two or more options but none of them are right in front of us, we tend to focus on the similarities between them. We build a mental picture of the common ground and then weigh up the relative differences from there. Are they 10% the same with A and B being the main differences, or are they 90% the same with only X and Y being different?

By contrast, when all the options are laid out in front of us, we look for differences first. We don’t need to waste energy building a mental Venn diagram to find the overlap. We just want to know the benefits and drawbacks of each one. We create mental lists of pros and cons, and we trust our 5 senses for the rest.

coke and pepsi

For SEO, you should consider how and where comparisons can be used within your strategy. If you’re eager to differentiate and stand very much apart from your competitors, or if you think your customers are unhappy with the options currently available to them in the market, make sure you create a lot of content that compares you directly to your competitors.

If, on the other hand, you want to be seen as similar to your competitors, avoid making direct comparisons and let the customers build that picture for themselves.

The Goldilocks (Decoy) Effect

Moderate decisions are subconsciously favoured, particularly if we feel under pressure. They are easy to justify because taking the middle road feels safe and less risky.

If you offer three price-points, most people will go for the middle. It can, therefore, be worthwhile adding ‘decoys’ at the higher-end (even though few people will buy them) simply to add perceived value to the middle price-point, making it seem more attractive.

This is actually a specific example of ‘distinction bias’. When we have three options side-by-side, we fixate on the differences (price-point being the most obvious) rather than similarities between the products.

When you’re making landing pages for product-focused keywords, make sure you promote lower and higher-priced options to show the user that what they have found is indeed the middle ground. This could be done by showing related products, by arranging products tactically on a category page or by creating blog content or articles.

Framing Effect

The medium is the message. We naturally frame all information within the context we receive it in. This makes perfect sense on a logical, conscious level… but the bias occurs when we subconsciously judge that context, so our opinions on the information become biased too.

We naturally frame all information within the context we receive it in.

For example, when Claudia Winkleman tells us that certain shampoo ingredients are clinically-proven to do X, Y and Z, we take it with a pinch of salt. We assume she’s reading a script and probably doesn’t have any understanding of the science she is selling us. However, if Stephen Hawking were to do the same advert, we’d be more likely to believe the science.

Of course, conversely, Claudia Winkleman probably does know a lot more about shampoo. The point here is to remember that the medium is the message. As you conduct outreach and digital PR to build links, think carefully about what that placement can mean for your message as well as your brand.

The Endowment Effect & Irrational Escalation

People place more value on things after they have invested time or effort into them. They feel more attached to things that they have created or customised. They feel they have made it their own – and that feeling of ‘ownership’ makes them feel like they are losing something if they don’t buy it.

This is why personalised products sell so well online. If you can send your customers on a journey of creation, then you’re more likely to convert them. It can pay off to do keyword research around personalisation, customisation, and adjectives such as ‘unique’.

The ‘endowment effect’ is a similar cognitive bias. It describes how people tend to demand a lot more to give something up than they would pay for it if they had never owned it. Ownership imbues sentimental value.

If you can, look for keywords and content opportunities around things like ‘try before you buy’, free returns, no-obligation quotes or anything else that can delay the requirement for the customer to full commit until they already have something in their hands.

Bizarreness Effect

When we see something weird, unusual or otherwise bizarre, we remember it. Case in point: when I say ‘drumming gorilla listening to Phil Collins’, you probably get the reference and think about chocolate.

The Bizarreness Effect can be put to great use. It works best if you can be funny, or bold, and it has to be well-executed of course. But if you get it right, you can create an entirely new context all of your own.

That allows you to dominate a set of keywords and niches that only you operate in. Comparing meerkats might have seemed a strange thing to do before the financial crash forever changed the insurance industry, but that’s another reference you probably understood.

The Google Effect

We have access to the world’s information at our fingertips. We are not only getting used to this access, but we are even getting used to the increasing speed at which we can access it.

As a species, we have evolved to mentally ‘outsource’ whatever we can. There is a reason we naturally delegate, compartmentalise and specialise. We are innately aware that we each have our personal limitations, but that we also each have natural affinities to certain tasks.

We have evolved to mentally ‘outsource’ whatever we can

We seek out ways to offload what we don’t need to do ourselves, especially when we have a highly reliable option to turn to. This frees up more mental space for us to focus on other things. It’s just a survival tactic – it’s the very foundation of our culture. We find time to paint on cave walls, write symphonies and follow fashions because more important tasks get shared out efficiently, giving us more time to think and elevate our minds.

Google is our newest outsourcing partner. Why remember a phone number or an address when we can just Google it? Why commit mental energy to remembering anything if it can be Googled?

You need to make sure that you are not asking people to remember things that are now ‘trivial’ in the new norm. You also need to make sure these details can be found easily and quickly.

Don’t rely too heavily on product names as keywords – focus on ranking for descriptive long-tail keywords. And get your site speed up.

Empathy & Blindspots

Here’s the most frustrating part about cognitive bias – we are all arrogant enough to think we’re immune. That makes it very hard for us to guess how customers will react, think or feel. Our campaigns are based on our flawed logic, targeting people who can’t think logically either.

We all suffer from a blindspot when it comes to recognising our own cognitive biases. We each have false confidence in our ‘logical’ approach to life. In a way, to think that introspection would be easy would be to deny the very existence of cognitive biases – yet ironically, we can nearly always recognise them in other people.

As marketers, I think it’s important that we constantly work on this ego problem. Otherwise, every time we target a campaign towards certain audiences, we do it through tinted glasses and clouded judgement, resulting in misaligned messaging, destined to miss the mark.

self reflection

Another important bias we must wrestle with is the Empathy Gap; our constant tendency to underestimate the power of emotion when convincing somebody of something. We need to fight the urge to get bogged down with USPs, product specs and statistics, and instead appeal to emotional drivers.

It sounds so obvious but, in practice, most marketing focusses on facts and figures rather than feelings. And even when marketing does focus on emotions, that focus is rarely strong enough to resonate.

Our award-winning marketing experts can work with you to make your keyword and content strategies more human. Contact us today for no-obligation advice and support.