Psychology of Search

Social is here to stay, obviously.  But why?  What does “social” give us that makes it worth such attention?

It’s all about human needs.

Maslow summed it up.  We need to cover five main areas to function and be satisfied.  His order is, from the bottom up:

  • Physiological
  • Safety
  • Love/belonging
  • Esteem
  • Self-actualization

Social fits into four of those, and potentially even the 5th one if you include recommendations from friends for places to eat and where the poshest restrooms in the world are.

For a lot of people, social helps fulfill these needs.  And as you know, if people like something online, the engines shall follow.

Social helps us understand more about the individual, and about groups of like-minded individuals.  It’s that understanding that helps us provide more accurate search results.

When you overlap this social involvement with search results, and the business of SEO, you start to see why it’s important for businesses to invest in both areas.  If SEO is the process of improving a website to make it better for visitors (crawlers are visitors, too), social is a means to connecting with those visitors on an emotional/personal level.

Here’s an example.  It’s widely known that when a searcher uses phrases in the plural, they tend to be researching.  Digital cameras is a good example.  When they start using the singular, digital camera, they are getting closer to the purchase funnel.  When you see them switch to brand names, they are almost ready to purchase.

From the searcher’s point of view, the internal dialogue might look something like this:

  • I want a camera.
  • What camera, thought?
  • What types of cameras are there?
  • How will I use it?
  • What do they cost today?
  • …and so on.

It occurs to them this is a complex problem and they’ll need help.  Luckily, they have lunch planned a week later with a friend who is a photographer.  They plan is, thus, to simply ask their friend for a recommendation.  Normally, and historically, this would be the case.
With socially integrated results in search, however, things change.

Now, as the searcher sees results, they also see their friends liking results.  This takes our shopper above into new territory in search.  Rather than waiting to ask their friend for a recommendation, they now see that very friend endorsing an actual product.  They now know what their friend is recommending.

Checking back with Maslow, we see that the water on the beans has changed.  Their Esteem need is now poised for a big boost, and the shopper knows it.  Instead of waiting to ask their friend which camera they like, they now know it.  The shopper can now leapfrog several steps ahead on the needs ladder by purchasing the product and taking it with them to lunch.  The conversation changes from “What do you recommend” to “Look what I bought! (Knowing the friend likes it.)”

The view from the storefront

As a business online, there are direct benefits to you with the integration of social.  Building your community is important, but how does it really benefit your business?

Well, ranking well is important, obviously, and is why your pursue SEO.  Now, when searchers see you, you rank well.  When that searcher’s social footprint is overlaid across search, they see you ranking AND they see their friends who’ve liked you.

Recalling the searchers potential reaction from the above example, for your business, this could increase the click rates you see, drive more traffic and could even drive revenue for you downstream.  Far better to be liked, than unknown.

It’s clear that, as humans, social fulfills some needs for us individually.  The trick for a business is to understand how engaging a searcher via SEO and social brings that searcher closer to the business.  It could be because you are directly engaged (Friends on FB, the searcher is already a customer, etc.).  It’s just as likely, though, that you’ll come to their attention because a friend recommended you.

What matters most to succeeding today, however, is that you place yourself in the shoes of your potential customer.  Our own view of the worlds of social and search tend to be slightly skewed as industry practitioners.  Be sure to put aside your own biases and view the world through the eyes of someone who is a normal user of social and search.  The average search is not a “power user”.

But we all have needs, and if you follow the needs, and fulfill the needs, people will recommend your business to friends.  It’s like good old fashioned word of mouth advertising, just on a global, near instantaneous scale today.