The Psychology of Search


Tapping into the human aspect of this unique user-initiated marketing channel

The following is based on a chapter in my new ebook, Ever Seeking: the History and Future of Search. For more thoughts like these, as well as to read the rest of the book, please visit my website here:

While much attention is paid to the technical components of search, in order to better understand how to help audiences that rely on search to solve challenges and find products, it’s important to discuss the psychology behind search, and the way we can tap into this in order to help our customers by connecting customers with our brands.

In a post titled “The Psychology of Search Engine Marketing,” Max Crowe[i] puts it like this:

New moms are individuals; they’re not their kids.  They’re young, strong women with their own unique interests.  Brands should treat them as such instead of targeting them as if they are their kids.  We must become the problem solver for each new mom. Help guide them through their search with relevant, intriguing content that is relatable not only to the problem they’re trying to solve, but also to each of them as individuals.  If agencies and advertisers can understand the emotion behind each search, we can create a completely unique search experience for each user.

Think of search as a means to solve problems. Your search marketing approach needs to be focused on people that are seeking an answer, a fix, or something that can help them address a challenge they currently have. Advertising and other methods can be used to plant the “seeds” of interest in a product or service, but search is all about getting results (no pun intended) quickly.

This also means that, because the user is actively seeking a solution to a challenge, we can base our approach and reactions upon their intent.

Understanding User Intent

It is one thing to simply provide a one-to-one match of a keyword and a page result. It is quite another to truly understand what a user is looking for, and what they need in that precise moment. As the leader in search, Google tackled this problem in a unique way.

In September 2015, Google unveiled the idea of “micro moments” on its Think with Google blog. The idea was that consumers, or people, were no longer living their lives according to what generation they belonged to, or deciding what to do year by year. Instead, their lives were defined by a series of moments, sometimes dozens or 100 a day. And what was found was that people from all types of backgrounds, regardless of age, sex, race or other traditional demographic factors, shared many things in these moments.

This created a shift away from targeting someone because they are a certain age in a certain city, to developing content and marketing approaches that focused on the need someone has at a certain time, and the intent they are showing. By feeding this user intent meaningfully into a search engine, very interesting things can happen.

Google defines these in 3 ways:

  • I want to know, or wanting to learn more information about something

  • I want to go, or wanting to know where something is, when it takes place, or how much it costs to attend

  • I want to do, or wanting instructions on how to do something or the means to figure out how to accomplish something.

This focus on user intent can help any marketer reach audiences better and understand the content that is needed for each step in their customer journey.

The Endowment Effect and Search

The last point in here is actually a hypothesis I’d like to make, and in full confession, there is not a lot of research behind this topic. But I’d like to pose it anyway.

Psychology and behavioral economics both share a concept called the “endowment effect,” or as it sometimes known, “divestiture aversion.” The idea behind the endowment effect is that we tend to disproportionately value something if we already own it[ii].

So what does this have to do with search? After all, we are generally searching for things we don’t own already, particularly when shopping. It all comes down to how finding just the right thing, and having the right experience can bridge the gap between hypothetically owning something and feeling ownership of it.

Paul Marsden in Digital Intelligence Today[iii] puts it this way:

“Touching creates a (mis)perception of psychological ownership (probably because we can control stuff we touch) and ownership creates a perception of increased value.

This tendency to value stuff we own more than identical stuff we don’t own is known as the ‘endowment effect’, and it’s part of a general ‘status-quo bias’ and aversion to giving up stuff (‘loss aversion’). But psychobabble aside, the bottom line is that if you touch something you like, you’ll want it more. Especially, as this new research found, if that touch experience is via a touchscreen (compared to a mouse or touchpad). The effect is particularly strong for sensorial things that we want to touch pre-purchase  (like sweaters, as opposed to intangible services or experiences).”

As Paul states above, the closer we can get customers to feeling and experiencing something before they buy it, the more they start feeling like they already own it. Touching is believing. Tools like augmented reality or virtual reality, which allow you to put yourself into a situation or experience, are literally the next best thing to being somewhere, owning something, or experiencing it. Research has shown this works regardless of the “market value,” and is often more pronounced for things with a more abstract value[iv] such as experiences or other intangible things.

In addition to augmented reality or virtual reality, voice search is another way to bring customers and consumers closer to brands. By interacting in a more personal, direct way, the relationship and ownership model is perceived to be different.

[i] Crowe, Max. “The Psychology of Search Engine Marketing” Performics. November 30, 2012.

[ii] Carey K. Morewedge, Lisa L. Shu , Daniel T. Gilbert, Timothy D. Wilson. “Bad riddance or good rubbish? Ownership and not loss aversion causes the endowment effect.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45. 2009.

[iii] Marsden, Paul. “Smart Psych: 3 Practical Ways to Use the “Endowment Effect” to Drive More Sales with Touch Devices.”. Digital Intelligence Today. November 28, 2013

[iv] Kahneman, D., Knetsch, J., & Thaler, R. (1991). Anomalies: The endowment effect, loss aversion, and status quo bias. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 5(1), 193-206.

The above is based on a chapter in my new ebook, Ever Seeking: the History and Future of Search. For more thoughts like these, as well as to read the rest of the book, please visit my website here:

Greg Kihlstrom