Sep 11

The Behavioral Psychology of SEO

"Ending the Management Illusion"

"Ending the Management Illusion"

I was reading a book by a friend, Professor Hersh Shefrin of the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University, on how managers in companies can apply principles of behavioral finance to make better decisions,  and came across a *great* table.  In it, Prof. Shefrin lists all of the common sources of behavioral bias that people commonly find themselves subject to.  Much of the book is about forecasting, which is actually a critical part of the SEO process; forecasting the potential for a website gives an indication of  how valuable SEO efforts will be, and puts some boundaries around what constitutes a reasonable amount of effort.

With his permission, I’ve reproduced the table below with an additional column that suggests how these biases are relevant to our industry.  Overall, it makes for a cautionary warning – before diagnosing a website, perhaps we should diagnose ourselves…


Behavioral Bias
Definition SEO Industry Example
Unrealistic Optimism Are we looking at the world through rose colored glasses? I think we’ve all known businesses, or friends, that think “I’ll just get free traffic using SEO techniques”.  The reality is, SEO=Hard Work, and I’m finding myself having to correct people’s overoptimism fairly frequently on this point.
Overconfidence Are we as good as we think we are?  Are we too sure of our views?  Are we underestimating the risks? Ever have a few SEO successes (which convinced you that you’re pretty good at this), then work on a different website where you just could not move the dial at all?
Illusion of control Are we overestimating how much control we have over the way things turn out? The Panda change was a big wake-up call for the industry that disabused many of the notion that we are in control of our destiny.   The bottom line is, we are all dependent on one company’s algorithm, which could change at a moment’s notice.
Confirmation bias Are we downplaying information we don’t want to hear, and playing up information that we do want to hear? It’s exciting to think about Google+, and spend time checking it out, because it will make our jobs more interesting and provide another channel we can work on.  It’s not exciting at all to think about how Google is increasingly pushing organic results right off the front page though – perhaps the industry should be focusing more on Universal Search than on social signals at this point.
Planning fallacy Do we realize that we have tended to be late and over budget in the past, but with no reason to believe that this time will be different? I know I tend to perpetually under-budget efforts on a time basis.  Maybe we should all be a little more like Scotty here.
Inside view Are we too focused on the specifics of our decision task? Maybe the web page you’re optimizing isn’t as important as telling your company or client that they need to start a blog, yesterday!
Outside view Have we taken appropriate account of our past success rates? Going back and comparing traffic increase estimates you’ve made before doing SEO work, and the actual results afterwards, can make you a much better forecaster going forward.
Loss aversion Are we being too conservative because we are extremely sensitive to the pain of loss? I avoid paying for links but sometimes feel like a dope for doing so, given the prevalence of the practice, especially when I frequently come across so many blatant examples in competitive SERPs.  Often I wonder if it would be worth the risk.  Does anyone else feel this way?
Aversion to a sure loss Are we reluctant to accept losses, instead taking chances where we have to beat the odds in order to be successful? I think all of us have worked at one time or another on a website where we put far too much time and resources in, beyond what was sensible, hoping things would eventually turn our way.
Anchoring bias Are we using judgements that start with an anchor from which we make adjustments? If so, are we adjusting enough? Estimating traffic based off of existing traffic, for a small website, can be an example of this.  If someone has 1,000 uniques, then shooting for a goal of a 50% increase isn’t much of a goal; maybe for their niche their traffic should really be more like 10,000.  It’s important to step back and think beyond the current metric levels sometimes.
Availability bias Are we placing too much weight on evidence that is in front of us, or easily recalled, but insufficient weight on information that is harder to obtain, or less easily recalled? Reliance on toolbar PageRank is a great example of this.  I predict the new capability of reporting detailed SERP anchor text metrics in SEOMoz’s LinkScape service is going to correct much of this bias over the coming year.
Hindsight bias When we look at events in hindsight, do we mistakenly think that what actually happened was inevitable? How many people are kicking themselves for not buying Google’s stock after they went public?  It was obvious, wasn’t it?
Narrow framing Are we so narrowly focused that we fail to see the big picture? Do you find yourself performing SEO services for someone who could be benefiting far more by spending that money on some other element in their marketing mix?
Groupthink As a group, do we play devil’s advocate enough? Folks that think keyword density doesn’t matter are, in my, opinion, guilty of this bias somewhat.
Information Hoarding Are we keeping valuable information from each other? If you come up with an advantage, you don’t want to publicize it, or Google might change things and ruin it for you.  This is unfortunate for the industry and makes real progress much more difficult.

Source (first two columns): “Ending the Management Illusion”, Hersh Shefrin, Page 300, Table 8-1
Copyright The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.  Reproduced here by permission.

If you have any good anecdotes about any of these biases, by all means, drop a comment below!


  1. Dan Shure says:


    This is a fascinating look at SEO from a psychological perspective. Interesting because most “psychology of seo” I am aware of has to do with that of the person searching the net, not the SEO themselves!

    At any rate, I think these are the types of things we struggle with every day just as humans, in all types of relationships, and much of it has to do with trying to maintain an objective, non-tainted point of view. That is, trying to see things clearly for what they are in reality, and not distort that reality with emotional or psychological filters.

    Great read, thanks!

  2. Ted, thanks for publishing this in such a useful table format. I’ll direct our followers to it. People think of behavioural economics as a ‘new science.’ In fact while Adam Smith wrote Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nationals in 1776, he had previously written The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759. Too much of modern business and financial thinking is based solely on homo economicus (rational, self-interested man) when we know from robust research that our decisions are fundamentally affected by context.

    I’d be reading Shefrin’s book already if it was available on Kindle. Again thanks for posting.

  3. Ted Ives says:

    Thanks Chris. Shout-out to Bastiat and Hayek as well 😉

  4. Nice scheme! I especially like the Groupthink row!

  5. Thomas says:

    Great table. I love the “Illusion of Control” row. It kinda ties into a lot of them. Ultimately, we have very limited control over our successes and that’s kind of a scary thought. In some cases, we can’t even be satisfied with success because it’s not sure to always last, as we’ve seen with Panda.

  6. Jon cooper says:

    The table can’t be read on a mobile device 🙁 but I bet it’s great!!

  7. SEO-talk aside, I loved the use of a table to show the application of a certain field to another. Cross-discipline comparisons are extremely effective teaching tools, especially when the two areas are somewhat related. You taught me something here that I plan to use. Thanks you.

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