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The importance of familiarity and search engine marketing

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a mysterious mix of art and science, but for the purposes of this article, we can conceive of it as comprised of two parts. The skill of getting as high up as possible on the first page of the Search Engine Results Page (SERP), and the skill of getting searchers to click through.

Of course it is not quite as simple as just getting someone to click through. It is also about getting clicked by the right person, at the right time, and for the right investment of time and money. What we are really talking about here is either Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) or paid search (no acronym, sorry!). Whilst these disciplines are very different in practice, there is one important similarity that can guide strategy and help us to be more efficient marketers.

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Our brains love familiarity

Cognitive scientists broadly categorise memory into ‘recall’ – when we actively try to remember something from the past, and ‘recognition’ – when something in our immediate sensory awareness is recognised as being familiar. We hate recall. It is cognitively demanding and we are notoriously bad at it, no matter how good we think we are. Recognition on the other hand, we love and excel at. It was adaptive for us to be excellent at recognition back in our evolutionary history because it is a highly efficient way to quickly assess threats and identify food sources we like. In fact, what is important to the search engine marketer is a further subset of recognition: ‘familiarity’.

When someone has just made a search on Google, their search query is fresh in their short term memory – easily accessible. Of all the text on the SERP, those parts that most closely resemble the search query will of course be most familiar. This familiarity causes these areas of the text to jump out, and attract attention. All things being equal, this increased attention is going to bring more clicks, and more traffic. The traffic might also generally be of a higher quality, because it comprises of users who are getting exactly what they are searching for.

So what can we do?

How do we capitalise on the human brain’s joy of recognition? With SEO, it is important to target various search queries (choosing which ones is another issue), and optimise your site for them. This means putting them in your URLs, page titles, meta descriptions and body text – all the elements that can be shown on the SERP.

Google, for example, generally shows the page title, then a snippet, followed by the URL. Google chooses the snippet by looking in the meta description and the body text, attempting to show as much of the search query in the snippet as possible. If you have targeted a particular phrase and are ranked on the first page for it, you can maximise your clicks by having that exact phrase jump out at the searcher, tickling their sense of recognition.

As far as paid search is concerned, the task is easier as we have far more control over the text we show to any given searcher. By associating different ad copies with only small groups of keywords, we can ensure that when our ads are triggered, the copy contains a good proportion of familiar text. In some systems (such as Google AdWords) it is even possible to insert the keyword that just triggered your advert dynamically into the ad copy. This means that you can fine-tune your advert to include a high degree of recognisable text, increasing the chances of it being clicked.

With both SEO and paid search, these strategies are efficient because they work in harmony with our brains. Search engines will generally rank a page higher for a specific query if it contains a few instances of that exact query. Often the parts of the query that show up in the entry on the SERP will be shown in bold as well, encouraging further attention. Paid search systems such as AdWords reward relevant adverts with a discount on the cost paid per click. The relevance is determined largely by how familiar the ad copy would be to someone who has just searched and triggered a particular keyword phrase.

The bottom line is that to be an effective search marketer, you have to recognise the power of recognition. If you can do that then you will get more attention, drive more relevant traffic, and be more efficient with the resources you have available.

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