In Search Podcast: SEO Cognitive Biases

Are you aware of your cognitive biases that may be unconsciously influencing your content publishing decisions? That’s what we’re going to be discussing today with a lady whose LinkedIn About Section reads in capital letters, “FOR RECRUITERS: I AM NOT AVAILABLE FOR JOBS.” She’s a marketing trainer, an SEO consultant, and a conference speaker. A warm welcome to the In Search SEO podcast, Myriam Jessier.

In this post, Myriam shares five SEO content biases to watch out for, including:

  • Anchoring
  • The illusory truth effect
  • Authority bias
  • The bandwagon effect
  • The Google effect


5 SEO Cognitive Biases in Content Marketing

Myriam: Bonjour. I’m excited to talk about cognitive biases.

David: You can find Myriam over at So Myriam, what are cognitive biases?

M: Well, the world is incredibly overwhelming to us as humans. So what do we do? We take shortcuts, mental ones, and some of these mental shortcuts are not necessarily the best for us. Meaning, some of these tendencies we have to understand things a bit faster can perhaps negatively impact us. So the best definition of a cognitive bias is that it’s a mechanism that we use, or a tendency that we have, that may not lead to the proper conclusion. And these things may happen every day in our lives, we just don’t notice them. However, they do impact our decision making, our everyday thinking. So let’s see how we can lean into them to improve our SEO.

D: Well, today, you’re sharing the five cognitive biases that may be unconsciously influencing your content publishing. Starting off with number one, anchoring.

1. Anchoring

M: The anchoring effect is a cognitive bias that I absolutely love to use with a few folks, including my agency partner when we make decisions because I know that he has a very strong tendency to rely on the first piece of information that he hears to actually help shape his decision making, but also how he processes the next piece of information he gets on the same topic, and the one after that.

So if we apply this to SEO, very often, the first results in the SERPs for a main query will absolutely shape and impact the decision-making of many folks out there. As a marketer, you have two scenarios. Either you fight very hard to be the benchmark, the anchor, the first brand that people see in those results. Or you have to fight against it and set yourself apart. You have to genuinely step up to that benchmark and have a strong, unique differentiator for your offer. You will stand out and people will consider you. Meaning, you will overcome this anchoring bias.

D: Superb, and that brings us to number two, the illusory truth effect. What’s that all about?

2. The illusory truth effect

M: This one hits close to home. This cognitive bias is the tendency to believe that a statement is true because it’s easier to process. Or if it’s been stated multiple times, regardless of whether or not it’s actually true. One of the best ways to explain this specific bias that we have is LSI keywords. People are not letting them go because it seems to be the thing everyone keeps talking about. It never goes away.

D: Latent semantic indexing. I remember when it first came out.

M: And it still persists to this day. We can actually make quite a few parallels regarding this cognitive bias to our day-to-day life outside of SEO. We do notice that a lot of conspiracy theories are traveling out there. A lot of disinformation is traveling out there. If it’s easier to understand, or if it gets repeated over and over again, we have this tendency to think that we keep hearing it, and it is easy to grasp, so why isn’t it the truth? This is something that we all have to work very hard to fight against. Fighting against stereotypes or myths is something our industry does quite well, but we may not apply this to our clients. Myth debunking, for example, is something that you have to keep in mind, you should not discount it. You have to stay vigilant and keep in mind that we’re all human. And sometimes we fall for these types of statements that are not necessarily true.

D: I think it’s easier to myth debunk when you’re a few years into your career, and you’ve got a bit of experience and you know what’s more likely to be truth or fiction. How would you debunk myths when you’re just starting out in your career? When you don’t know what’s true and what’s false.

M: One of the tried and trusted techniques when it comes to content marketing is to create a guide, an FAQ, or a glossary. It’s your opportunity to shine, explain things, and position yourself or your clients as the experts in that niche. This is a genuine thing that can help because remember that when we first get started in anything there is a lot of information out there, and not all of it is up to date. Not all of it makes sense and not all of it is easy to understand so we get discouraged and have a tendency to fall back once again on old tendencies. And these illusions that if it’s simple then it must make sense must be considered. As specialists, the more we get to experience, the more we fall into the curse of knowledge, which is why we’re convinced that everybody knows what we know.

So if you’re dealing with beginners in an industry, don’t forget that they don’t know everything that you know. You need to vulgarize and explain things. And on the other end, if you are a beginner in an industry, and you feel that this is creeping on you because you’re trying to learn something, I would highly recommend taking the time to break down the most basic elements to get started, fully understand them, and then venture out beyond so you feel confident instead of just parroting something that sounds easy to parrot.

D: Talking about someone who has more experience in the industry, your third cognitive bias is authority bias. That’s the tendency to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of an authority figure.

3. Authority bias

M: Yes, and this happens so much. In our industry, we have so many SEO gurus, it’s a genuine problem, and it’s very interesting because I’ve seen this evolve over the years. Now, I’m more considered an authority by some of my clients and students, and it feels strange because I have to be careful about everything that I say. And I must explain everything properly, otherwise, it may be misleading. Some people just want to say, Google said this, John said this, or whoever said this. This needs to be countered.

However, it’s very useful in content marketing. I have a clear example of that. Oprah’s Favorites lists carry from year to year a strong authority bias. When Oprah says, “I love this for Christmas,” you can be sure that these products are going to be bought by quite a few people in America. So one of my clients ended up on this list. And I noticed that there is a keyword in my data and it’s Oprah. What is Oprah doing in this e-commerce store? I asked my client what’s the deal with Oprah and she explained that last year they were on her favorites list and it helped us so much. And I’m thinking that we create a dedicated page where we tell people that we were on Oprah’s Favorite List. And to this day, it still drives traffic continuously year after year and encourages people to have that little question to buy this for Christmas. We see the Oprah effect via SEO and it’s incredible.

D: I love that example because I think it gives SEOs listening, a wonderful additional opportunity. Look through the keywords that are actually bringing in traffic to your site. And if you have random, unrelated keywords, have a conversation with your client about it, and why people may be searching for that particular keyword in relation to your business and discovering your web page because of it. Because you as an SEO don’t necessarily know straight away why that’s the case and you might discount it.

M: And in B2B, it works quite as well. Let me explain why. Sometimes I will see certain names and ask, “Who is this person?” And the client will answer, “Oh, that’s our designer. She’s famous for a few things.” And I ask, “Why doesn’t she have an author page? Why is she not getting her own bio on the team page?” Clearly, she has some authority, and some people will see her favorably when they’re looking for a solution. I know this has worked in my career, and I’m pretty sure in yours as well. Everybody should embrace it.

D: And bias number four is the bandwagon effect.

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4. The bandwagon effect

M: Yes, this one is something that speaks for itself. It’s our tendency to do or believe things because so many people around us do the same. That’s why it’s called the bandwagon effect. If I were to explain it another way, it’s the probability of individual adoption increasing with the respect to the proportion of folks who already have done so. It can be very positive in the sense that if enough folks have a tendency to believe certain things, we may see the opposite as being unacceptable.

So if we take this, and we apply it to content marketing, what does it look like? Well, we see quite a few articles that lean into this, especially in the beauty space. We have “I tried this sold-out product, and here’s my review.” Obviously, we’re just latching on to the bandwagon effect seeing so many people bought it that it’s sold out, let me tell you why it’s good. And this works quite well.

But if you’re not sold out, then you should aim to be a cult product. A cult product, or a cult favorite, is something that people really enjoy. And they believe that everyone buys this lipstick and it goes on all skin tones. It’s a cult favorite so I can’t go wrong trying it, I’m not taking a risk. And if you want to leverage this a bit more in terms of SEO, you should use the star ratings or the reviews to leverage it as this works super well.

Another element you can use is the meta title and the meta description. You can adapt these little messages to lean into the bandwagon effect saying, “Hey, this product is the popular choice of this many Americans.” Or say, “Hey, 50 other SEO specialists bought this product today.” This is a clear way to signal that other people are doing it so maybe you should be doing it too. Or the old classic, “Join 1000s of customers out there.”

D: I love how you allude to look at cult communities and leverage them by building up a following with them as well. It reminded me of the fact that several years ago, I was a digital marketing manager for a currency card company. And we managed to gain a lot of popularity among Disney board forums, and Disney board forums are so evangelical in terms of what you do and what they recommend. And that was incredibly successful for the company.

M: I’m excited to hear you say this. Here’s why. I have the same story. And I tell the story quite often. I worked at a big bank, and I asked them, “So the new credit card I’m supposed to promote, what are the good aspects?” And they said, “We’re not at the top. We’re not at the bottom.” I respond, “So you’re telling me that I should wake up every day trying to promote the mediocre card, that everybody wants a mediocre card?” And they said, “Well, that’s what we got.”

I said, “Okay, let me take you out of this. Let me check what people are saying about this card.” And we figured out they were on Disney forums because specific points could be acquired to go on the Disney cruise with the kids. This was the key element I needed to help me get started. And once you have the Disney bandwagon, it never lets you go, they love you.

D: Yeah, it’s significant. That takes us up to number five and the fifth cognitive effect, the Google effect.

5. The Google effect

M: This one is near and dear to my heart and you’ll see why beyond the name. This cognitive bias was defined as the tendency that humans have to forget information that can be found easily and readily online. If all it takes is a Google search, why would you even bother to remember this information?

This is what I consider the “How tall is Danny DeVito?” effect? Let me explain. Nobody bothers to remember how tall he is, we have a vague idea. We just say that it’s one Google query away. That’s why we also end up with a lot of subpar articles like a 2000-word essay on how tall Danny DeVito is. Nobody needs this in their life. This is one of the downsides of people trying to get into this.

One of the ways that you can leverage it is to analyze the People Also Ask questions, I recommend you use the tool to learn more about what people are asking in Google. However, while this one is super fun, and you and I could talk about leveraging it quite a lot, I have to say something. These cognitive biases, they really focus on certain tendencies that we have as humans. This is part of human psychology. Great. However, every time a new one is declared, it is backed up by a study. And this one is super fun because they really did try to replicate the study that was published in Nature magazine, a scientific magazine, in 2018. And the Google effect was one of the experiments in that study that could not be replicated. So maybe it’s a tendency we have, but not necessarily everyone has it. And I don’t think it’s something I would consider as a reliable cognitive bias. It’s an interesting way to think about things. It helps our content marketing as SEO. As experts, we are genuinely considering this. But we should also always keep in mind, it’s not because it’s easy to discuss, it’s not because it’s easy to explain, and it’s not because many publications have latched on to this fun name, the Google effect, but that it’s necessarily true. We have cognitive biases.

D: Absolutely. And it’s like saying, in terms of marketing channels, the easiest channel to measure is the one that most people gravitate to. It’s probably the most popular one. I.e., paid search over SEO. It’s easier to explain, it’s easier to measure, not necessarily the best ROI. But it’s hard to explain sometimes SEOs.

M: Absolutely. And for me, this effect is very important to discuss because very often as marketers we like this pseudo-psychology, but we don’t necessarily go into it in depth and verify these things. We don’t educate ourselves, we just believe, “Oh, someone published an article about this so it must be true.” Or, “Oh, it was published in this online publication, I can rely on it.” And what we’ve learned is, no, we need to check our biases at the door and really do the work. Go the extra mile to improve marketing, but also improve the quality of search results because, at the end of the day, we know what humans have a tendency to do. We know that as humans, we have some biases as well. And it’s important to keep in mind, we have to work with them when we are talking to our customers. But we have to fight against them when we are out there as marketers trying to create something because we may impact the end result as well.

D: Let’s finish off with the Pareto Pickle. Pareto says that you can get 80% of your results from 20% of your efforts. What’s one SEO activity that you would recommend that provides incredible results for modest levels of effort?

M: What I love to do is content tuning. I will keep harping on about this. Because once you publish your content, you have a tendency to go, “My articles are out there, my landing pages are out there, I hope it performs well.” And then you’re probably going to obsess over how to promote it and think about okay why it isn’t working, etc. The first thing I like to do after a month or so is to go back into Google Search Console, and figure out what Google has tested you against. What search intent did it think this piece of content could satisfy? Let me try it out. Or this has potential but the content is not quite aligned. So I’m going to show it but not in the top positions. Very often just tweaking your H1 or adding that little bit of paragraph for extra information that you see is needed will help you greatly. A clear example of this is if you have tutorials that explain certain things, many times people will search for whatever you’re explaining plus examples, they want to see it in action. So if you add an example to your tutorial or a list of examples, this will very often help your article.

D: Great stuff. I’ve been your host David Bain, you can find Myriam over at Myriam, thanks so much for being on the In Search SEO Podcast.

M: Merci beaucoup.

D: And thank you for listening.

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