The Psychology of Search

This article is for the non-SEO gurus out there: for those of you who have been thrown into the pit of SEO pandemonium and are desperate for some kind of foothold to get your bearings. If you’ve ever caught yourself staring blankly on as your co-workers natter away in an elaborate code language about meta tags, SERPs, spiders, CRO and link building—I feel your pain.

With the continual release of new search technology and tech blog posts circulating throughout the office email that seem to contradict each other daily, maintaining an expertise in Search Engine Optimization seems nearly impossible. However, no matter what new restrictions Google announces or revolutionary device Apple launches—there is one thing about search that will always remain the same. Behind Siri, Talk to Type and semantic search, there’s a human brain on a quest for information. It seems elementary, but you’d be surprised how often this is forgotten when companies are planning huge, complex SEO plans. By taking a step back to examine the psychology of the human search process, you’ll be able to better predict search queries and keywords, correctly identify searcher intent and meet or exceed searchers’ expectations. If you can tackle the psychology of search, you are well on your way to becoming a successful Internet marketer—even if you haven’t mastered the secret SEO code.

Why do people go to a search engine in the first place?

In order to get any kind of foothold on a web searcher’s thought process, we need to go all the way back to the root of the issue. Why did the user turn to the search engine in the first place? It’s a simple question with an even simpler answer that’s often forgotten in the midst of the chaotic, ever-changing SEO playing field. People don’t go to search engines to aimlessly browse the web. They direct their cursors toward the search bar because they have a question or request and want an immediate, satisfying answer.

Where’s the nearest gym to my work?

Is it cheaper to buy a swimsuit online?

How long does it take to drive to the nearest beach?

What does a Cane Corso puppy look like?

What am I hungry for?

I have a can of beans and half a box of pasta in my pantry. What can I make?

Do sea cows have stingers?

Each question stems from an event or scenario that is currently affecting the searcher’s life. And although they are limitless in variation, all share an underlying commonality: there’s a piece of information missing and someone wants to find it.


People typically don’t think in clear, concise keywords or complete sentences. Most of us think in concepts and pictures. So, in order to successfully determine how a searcher will translate their thoughts into a search query, you need to gaze into their minds during the “Pre- Population Stage.”

The “Pre-Population Stage” is the point just before the search query is typed into the search engine bar, when the searcher’s intent or request only exists as a blip of brainwaves. This is right before the thought “I wonder if there are any happy hour specials tonight?” is regurgi-typed into the search engine bar as “Tuesday happy hour Nashville” or “cheap drinks Nashville” or “best sushi deal Tennessee.”

This stage is all about the details: the what, where, who, when and how of the searcher’s situation all factor into the searcher’s query. Take a step back and fill in the blanks of the scenario. The ability to get a true feel for your searcher’s initial thought process during this stage is the next best thing to keyword clairvoyance.

To demonstrate, let’s use the previous example of the hungry Tennessean on the hunt for a great dinner deal after work…


Our guy, we’ll call him Max, tends to frequent the ‘trendy’ local eateries and bars, and considers himself to be a bit of a foodie. His desire for getting the most bang for his buck is only trumped by his inability to sacrifice quality—especially when it comes to wining and dining.

It’s 4:45 PM on a Tuesday. Max is just finishing up work in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, when hunger rumbles and the beginning blips of a search engine query start sparking his radar. Whether his mission is to plan a spontaneous, romantic night with his lady or to catch a beer and decent tasting dinner after work, he’s looking for a fast, easy, satisfying answer before 5:00 PM. His mouse ventures to the magnifying glass at the top right corner of the browser window and his fingertips are poised to type…


Now that we’ve ventured inside the hypotheti-cal mind of Max and gained a little insight on his lifestyle, personality type and preferences, we can start compiling a more effective list of potential search queries.

Keep in mind how the details of his scenario will affect his query. Where is he located? What device is he using to conduct the search? In what part of town does he work? What kinds of cuisine suit his palate? What type of atmosphere is he looking for—romantic, casual, eclectic? Does he want to make a reservation? If so, would he prefer to do it online? Does he want to see a menu? More specifically, does he want to see a happy hour menu? Is he interested in reading reviews or blog posts about the restaurant? What are the popular methods of viewing restaurant ratings in the area— Urbanspoon, Yelp, Chowhound?


On top of using typical human search tendencies to predict the query, we also need to factor in how certain search engines have retrained our brains during the web search process. For instance, unless the user has otherwise specified, Google automatically uses location-based customization to provide searchers with the most relevant results. Meaning, if the particular searcher is familiar with this automatic result filter, he or she assumes Google already “knows” where they are located.

Max’s potential search queries:

  • Happy hour special Nashville

  • Best happy hour menu

  • Tuesday dinner special Nashville

  • Best happy hour Nashville

  • Tuesday drink specials downtown Nashville

  • Date night downtown Nashville

  • Craft beer specials

  • Nashville Urbanspoon

  • Happy hour reviews

  • Nashville happy hour ratings

  • Happy hour 37201


Another important factor to consider is whether the searcher is using a mobile device or voice recognition software (such as Siri) to conduct their search. Mobile users have to type their queries onto a tiny keyboard or touchscreen. They also have an array of apps at their fingertips that use GPS to help them conduct their search—such as Urbanspoon or Google Maps. Due to these factors, mobile queries are typically short and direct. Searchers using Siri tend to have longer, more interrogative queries because they are searching in natural speech.

Max’s potential search queries:

  • Happy hour

  • Sushi

  • Where can I find the best sushi?

  • Gastropub


Correctly identifying a searcher’s intent is key to providing a great search experience. In general, web searchers can be classified into three categories: informational, navigational and transactional. Knowing which category of intent a searcher falls into allows you to direct them to the best answer to their question or request. If your website is full of high quality, relevant content, you won’t need to use any tricks or funny business to get to the top of the SERP (that’s code for Search Engine Results Page.)

Informational: The Generally Curious (search term: sushi making)

This type of web searcher is seeking to gain general information about a particular subject. Perhaps they heard about the topic in passing, heard a quick story about it on the radio or simply want to impress their friends with their unending wealth of knowledge about the preparation and consuming of raw fish. They know enough about the topic to be interested in it and are looking for the basic facts. Typically, the “Generally Curious” searcher will use broad terminology—no brand names or specific details—in their search queries.

Exceed their expectations—Be the Welcome Mat

This is your opportunity to nourish the searcher’s interest in your particular product or service by providing them with the high quality, educational information they are looking for. Invite them in and make them feel comfortable while you pique their interest about your product. At this point, they’re most likely not ready to buy—so don’t scare them away with a pushy sales pitch. Instead, ease them in with the basics—think FAQs and Product Overviews. If applicable, invite them to sign up for an informational e-newsletter or to contact you with any questions. Wow them with your expertise and willingness to help, and when the time is right, they’ll come back to buy from you.

Navigational: The Plural Gatherer (search term: sushi making kits)

Notice the plural form “kits” used in the search query. This searcher is obviously comfortable with the subject matter of sushi making and is most likely in the process of information gathering. They might want to know more about the common types or brands of sushi making kits or which kits best fit their skill level. Should they buy an expert sushi kit or will a beginner’s kit suffice?

Exceed their expectations—Be the Informer

You’re the informer. Help this searcher get a feel for what’s out there and make an informed choice by providing them with detailed, thorough product information. Clearly state the differences between the levels of service or membership your company offers. Help them weigh the pros and cons with product reviews, price comparisons and benefits.


Transactional: The Singular Buyer (search terms: find sushi making kit, sushi making kit for sale, where to buy sushi making kit, buy sushi making supplies)

This searcher has the facts and is motivated to buy—if the price and information is right. Oftentimes, you can sense this breed of searcher by his or her bold, singular search query. The Singular Buyer’s search queries may also contain these words or phrases: listings, where to buy, for sale, buy, best price on, pricing for, etc. Search engines like Google and Bing make motivated buyers even easier to spot by allowing them to add a shopping filter to their search query.

Exceed their expectations—Be the Friendly Cashier

Your job is to make the shopping and purchasing process as easy and convenient as possible. Make their online shopping experience as tactile as possible, by allowing them to zoom in on detailed product pictures or providing them with a 360° view of the item. The more the shopper feels like they know what they’re getting, the more likely they are to buy.

Understanding the psychology behind the search gives you the sturdy platform you need to dive into the world of SEO—whether your goal is to become an SEO guru or simply increase your site’s visibility and conversion rate. Always remember that there’s a human behind the search who is looking for high quality content and a pleasant experience, and you’ll stay ahead of the game—no matter what those crafty search engines throw at you next.