humanizing SEO strategy

Humanizing SEO Strategy With a Psychological Approach To Search

Becky Simms explains how humanizing SEO strategy via psychology can significantly influence your approach to SEO with your audience, research, and tools.
Reading Time: 11 minutes

In 2011, Becky Simms launched Reflect Digital, a UK-based agency that’s won 26 awards to date, including, in 2019, Wirehive 100s, “Best Use of Search” and “Agency Leader” awards, as well as the Drum Search Awards “Best B2B SEO Campaign” and “Best E-Commerce Campaign.”

Behind all those awards lies a way of thinking about search and conversion that uses data but reaches beyond it, too. Becky dives deep into the way people think, and uses that information to create campaigns that are fresh, bold, and engaging.

This Q&A is full of actionable details which will help you do the same.

Understanding your client's audience

Raney: One of the things you’ve talked about, in the past, is the need to really dig deep into a client’s audience to understand where they’re coming from. What are some of the steps you take to understand audiences better?

Becky: Recently we became part of the LAB Group. LAB is an agency in London who really specializes in human behavior. We’ve been upskilling in all their ways of working.

They’ve got a brilliant model, and what it’s called is quite funny. It’s called “Monkey, Lion, Dog.

I love it. It makes sense of profiling and understanding people.

For so long, we’ve gone with demographics. We’ve said, “Our audience is more female, and it’s this age to this age, and they’re likely to earn this amount of money.” It’s all very statistic based.

That doesn’t help us understand what motivates those people. LAB used about 5 different psychology models to help us look at what people’s drive is. 

A “Monkey” is a contextual thinker. They think about their position in the world, and the difference they make. They like to be at the forefront of everything and are quite loud. In-your face.

“Lions” are real rational thinkers. When they’re making decisions, they want to understand the statistics behind the issue, the reasons behind the decision. They don’t want to screw up. Their big motivation is making sure they’re doing the best job and proving they’re doing the best job.

“Dogs” are all around emotional connections. They want to feel connected to their colleagues, to their family, and to their friends. They’re motivated by what people think of them.

We’re all a bit Monkey, a bit Lion, and a bit Dog, but you’ll tend to be more skewed to one than to the others. 

So, understanding that, you can look at your messaging. At how you’re speaking to your audience. You’re trying to understand the frame of mind they’re in when they’re buying a product or service. You’re trying to appeal to what drives them, to understand what fears they have, and what they might be looking for.

Raney: Now, you can’t just give all your customers a personality test, right, so how are you determining whether you’re speaking to Monkeys, Lions, or Dogs?

Becky: Start with a bit of customer research.

If you can, take a sample of the likely audience. You can do it completely remotely if you don’t have physical access to them. If you can, start to do a bit of research. Speak to members of the audience. Draw their type out of them. 

Or look to your team, who might have more access to your customers. You can draw it out of your team, if need be.

If you can’t, you just need to start thinking about who it is you’re targeting.

So, for example, if you were targeting a B2B business, and you were going in at the C-Suite level, and you know it’s actually the financial person who will be making the decisions, then it’s important to realize they’re more likely to be a Lion. 

They’re going to be real rational thinkers. They’re going to be less emotional and a lot less worried about how good they look. They are going to be asking, “What do the numbers tell us?” Meanwhile, the CEO of a business is more likely to be more Monkey-driven. 

So you can start to make determinations without having to quiz specific audience members. 

This works really well with paid search advertising, because you can actually start to split-test and do a Monkey ad, a Lion ad, and a Dog ad to see which is resonating more.

Applying psychology to SEO and search strategy

Raney: How does that fit into your approach to organic search? I know at Brighton SEO you talked a lot about how the future of search is understanding human psychology. Are you doing the same sort of split tests with your content? Is it a keyword thing? How do you incorporate that on a practical level?

Becky: The #1 part of my talk at Brighton was around trying to get people to remember that Google is thinking like humans more than ever before.With the BERT update starting to roll out, that’s going to start to happen even more.

Google doesn’t read content the way we used to think Google read content. It may not understand context quite as well as humans, but it’s getting there.

So we need to start writing for the human, and we need to forget we’re trying to trick an algorithm. Because we’re not anymore. 

So how can we look at what makes good content? How can we be really good copywriters thinking about humans? I showed 4 different neuro-driven psychology models that we’ve started to use in the content we’re writing.

We’ve developed a free tool (completely free, you don’t even have to put an email address in) called “Rate my Content.” It looks at the four different principles, and is meant as a fun way to see what people are getting right, and what they’re not getting right.

The first is “uninspiring language.” It’s easy to turn users off a page if we’re not using descriptive language. We’re trying to be more colorful with the words we use. More descriptive language engages us more, and keeps us  more interested. Audiences want to see content that’s telling more of a story.

So on our Rate My Content tool, we’ve got a “Bore-o-Meter.” Which is a bit harsh, maybe, but it basically has 3 different scores: Unengaging, Okay, or Engaging.

We then look at the balance between “self-obsessed” and “selfless” language. It turns users off when your content is too self-centered. You can’t just talk about your brand and broadcast what you do. 

We talk about the idea of being inside-out rather than outside-in. Outside-in is, “This is what we do.” Inside-out talks about audience challenges and how we help solve those challenges.

You can still talk about your business, but you start by talking about the problems you solve and how you help your customers, or how your product helps your customers. Then you talk about yourself after.

The scores are: Selfish, Selfless, or Balanced. Balanced and selfless are ideal; selfish says you’re talking about yourself too much.

Static and dynamic language are the next things we look at, and you get a score for that, as well. There’s not really a right or wrong here. This is more about bringing awareness to how people think about content. Static is more detail-focused. In the now.  Dynamic is future-focused. It looks at the “what-if,” and the end result of buying your service or product.

Product-driven content tends to be a bit more static, and service-based content tends to be a bit more dynamic naturally.

You get two tarot cards on the score. You either see the present, or the future. The present is static, the future is dynamic.

Every human has a preference towards one of these modes of thinking. A good way to try and draw it out is to sit down with someone and say, “Can you describe this room for me?”

A static person will say, “Okay, right. Well, there’s windows, there’s a boardroom table, there’s chairs, and there’s a screen.” They’ll tell you physically what’s there. A dynamic person would say, “It’s really light in here, and it’s a really nice temperature. There’s a good feel in the room.” They look at it more contextually.

You want to have an appreciation, in your content, for the different ways people look at things with different lenses. It’s how you make sure your content answers what all of them need. It keeps us from being too biased to our own preference.

Putting people first in your SEO strategy

Raney: I’ve been beating a drum with people I’ve worked with for years saying, “We need to put people first.” It’s people who have credit cards. Robots aren’t going to buy your product. I’ve found a lot of resistance to the idea. Have you seen a similar resistance? Or are you hearing more openness to it?

Becky: I think we’re seeing more people open to it. I think they’re realizing, “Yeah, you’re right, actually, because we are all humans.”

At Brighton, we did a video of a colleague reading some web copy out on screen. When you read some of the stuff you find on websites out loud you go, “Nobody’s written that, surely. It’s horrendous.” 

It happens because people are writing it with the mindset of: “We must be #1 in Google for this phrase.”

It’s about trying to get people to think about, “Well, would you read this content?” If you wouldn’t read it, why would you force your audience to read it? We need to make sure it’s engaging, and it does what you want it to do: sell your product. Get them to buy something. Get them to do something.

There was a great case study I talked about, an experiment done back in 1996 by John Barre. It’s about the power of language.

He took two groups of young, healthy people, and put them both into two separate rooms. They were given pieces of paper with words on them, and they were asked to rearrange the words into sentences. Now, unknown to Group 2, their words were dotted with words that made you think of old people.

“Bald.” “Wrinkled.” “Forgetful.”

Just a selection of words that were more biased towards older people dotted in there in a way that kept them from noticing they were there.

When both groups had finished making sentences, they were asked to walk down the hallway, go into a room, sign a piece of paper, and leave. 

The scientists observed the speed that people walked from the room where they’d been organizing the words to the room where they were signing.

Group 2, because they’d been primed to think of older people, walked slower. They changed their behavior in response to the words they’d seen. 

The language we choose affects people’s position. It’s priming them for things. So, now we can make sure we’re putting them in a better frame of mind. That we’re using the language that’s going to have a positive impact on them, as opposed to a negative impact that might turn them off buying our product.

Effective methods for modern copywriting

Raney: Traditional copywriting, long before the Net, was very psychology-based. Do you find those methods still work, or is there a different approach for the modern mind that you’re having to adapt to reach your customers?

Becky: I think we’re trying to look at it as a blend of understanding as to what’s going to drive our audience. We’re in an advanced state where humans are moving quickly and opinions change quicker than ever. We can’t just rest on our laurels that we know what we’re doing . We always need to be testing to see what’s working and not working.

We also use things like Nudge Theory.

We’ve been learning a lot about how we can use “Nudges” to help people in their decision-making process. 

Raney: Is Nudge Theory the same as the power of language you spoke about earlier? Or is this a different concept?

Becky: Nudge Theory is slightly different.

There’s an amazing book, if you’re interested in this kind of stuff, called Nudge. The book describes how we all live by these rules of thumb.

If someone said, “There’s a really nice dress, you’d look lovely in it,” and it’s about $300, you’d immediately have an instinct about that drawn from your personal experience. That instinct would be based on what you’re used to buying and spending money on.

Knowing that, you can use nudges to help frame things better.

For example, there’s a nudge which is known as “anchoring.” Instead of leaving the consumer to be in charge of thinking whether something is expensive or not, you can use a narrative to actually tell them.

So, for example, if you were selling a product with a recommended retail price and you’re selling for cheaper than that, you’d anchor the consumer on, “Don’t pay $100 for this. We’re only selling it for $79.”

Straightaway, they think you’re cheap because you’ve anchored them with, “Well, other people are selling this at $100.”

“Loss aversion” is another nudge. When selling, if you can get your product into the hands of the consumer, whether through a free trial, or by making it easier to buy things and return them if you don’t like them, then you’re more likely to sell. People are much less likely to return things once they possess them and like them.

There’s tons of different nudges, all drawing on different psychological theories.

Psychology and gamification as a marketing tool

Raney: You’ve talked a bit about gamification as a marketing tool in the past, too. What does it look like for marketers to use that tool, and how are you incorporating psychology into that strategy?

Becky: Our use of gamification was born out of an SEO campaign where we wanted to drive links. The first one we did drove hundreds of them, and we realized, “Wow, we’re on to something here.”

The first game we launched was called “Find 50,” but it’s a scene of random clues, and they’re all catch-phrase style clues. They’re all say-what-you-see. This was football [soccer, for Americans] based. I’m not a big football fan, but some of the team here are. 

So, for example, at the front of the scene was a swimming pool with black water in it. So it’s a “black pool,” which is a football term. 

The audience loved it, and we reached a much larger audience than we expected. 

Gamification is totally un-sales related, or it should be. If a customer ever wants to sell on gamification I always push them back on it, because it should be about relationship-building.

As an audience, we’ve now got such a drive, and a want, to build relationships with brands we’re interested in. We get to see so much more content that takes us behind the scenes. We really get to know brands on whether we trust them or don’t trust them.

So you present the game, and you build data and grow your audience because people are going to share it on social media if you do a good job and create something fun. 

These games can be really simple. They don’t need to be high-graphic amazing types of games that you’d spend millions of pounds developing. These can be quiz-style games, even. Really simple stuff, which, used in the right way, connects with an audience.

The way we use psychology here is through audience profiling. Is this game going to work for this audience? What kind of thing will they be willing to spend their time on? Will they do it for fun, or will they need a prize?

We’ve learned about some drivers. For example, personality tests work because when you look at most humans and say, “Do you want to learn something about yourself,” they’ll go, “Oh, of course.” We’re intrigued, aren’t we? 

Another driver is if someone can go away having learned something, people are up for doing it. They’ll find time in their busy schedules.

Raney: With that understanding, have you found there are any industries that can’t use that on some level? Or is it something everybody can use because there’s always a way to work it in?

Becky: I think there’s always a way. We’ve not had a dead-end as yet. 

We’ve had some B2B businesses who don’t want to do it in such a fun way because it doesn’t fit with their corporate message.

But we’ve got a client who works in email security. We’re in the throes of talking about a game that helps users understand what a dodgy email looks like. For example, once you go into the game, it would pop up with an email and you’d have to say whether you think it’s real or not real.

Then, depending on your answer, it would show you why you’re right or wrong, and it would help you notice what you should have picked up on. So, it’s more educational.

Raney: Do the players of the game ever miss the brand entirely, focusing solely on the game in a way that defeats the purpose of the campaign?

Becky: I’m sure there are games where they’ve played them, and if you said to them a day or two later, “You played that game, what brand was that,” that they might not be able to remember. In some ways that good, because you don’t want the brand rammed down your throat.

Obviously, in a perfect world, they do remember what the brand was. But it’s everything else around it.

“Well, why don’t you follow us on social if you enjoyed this activity, and we’ll share the next game with you.”

Or having some form of data capture. You can at least start to tell the brand story after. We try and always have data capture.

So far, we tend to see about 10% of people who play games will sign up and hand over their data. Depending on the reach you get, that can still be a lot of data gathered. It’s just important to on-board that data properly.

If this is the first time you’ve ever spoken to the person, it’s a case of, “Great, I’m so glad you enjoyed playing our game, just so you know, this is what we do as a brand.” Not too salesy, but more “welcome to the fold.” 

Learn more about Becky’s work by visiting, or follow her on Twitter at @BeckyReflect.