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how do users make decisions online?

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

(Part 2/3)

Note: this is part 2/3 of Neuroscience of Search, an article based on my industry talks where we cover how to turn a user into a customer based on principles of neuroscience and cognitive psychology.

I most recently talked about this at BrightonSEO. You can see and listen to the full talk on the BrightonSEO vault, from May 4th.

In the last article, we covered how we can use certain elements to draw the attention at the top of the funnel; in this part, we're moving past the SERP and see how cognitive biases and heuristics can shape the way users process information on a page and when they make a decision.

Table of Contents

4. Recap: Nine things your brand can do to facilitate decision making



When we've successfully gained a visit by getting the user’s attention on the SERP, we enter the phase where they are consuming our content and doing research based on the information available on our website, a stage that's influenced by cognitive biases and mental schemes.

A cognitive bias is considered to be a systematic error that affects the way we process and interpret information, and can also affect persuasion and decision making.


There are a number of biases that come into play when we process information - in fact, the list goes on and on, but I'm going to focus on a few of them in this article:

All of these biases affect the way we consume content, interpret it and make decisions upon it.

1. The serial position effect

The serial position effect is a common example of cognitive bias. It is made of two sub-effects which are known as primacy and recency effects. An example of this bias is when we hear or read a list of words and we tend to remember best the ones that are presented at the start and at the end.

Primacy and recency effects have been shown to affect persuasion, too: the first piece of information (or the first argument) we receive and the most recent one have the highest impact on forming our overall impressions and lead our decision making in a number of domains.

From a content perspective, this means that we need to place important information at the top and at the bottom of our page if we want the user to remember it. Lead with the information that you think it's most important for them to know about that page, and wrap up with a recall or a CTA.

Does placing content at the top and at the bottom affect rankings?

With search engines becoming more attuned to the human experience, it's fair to wonder if they might be influenced by some of our own cognitive biases to establish rankings.

It's hard to say if that's the case, given the number of signals that influence positions on the SERP.

However, a case study by showed better positions for pages that mentioned the target keyword in the first and the second-to-last paragraph, seemingly mirroring primacy and recency effects.

While it's hard to isolate the effect of a single variable on rankings, it might still be an interesting test to run for some.

2. Anchoring and Compromise effects

As we've seen, the primacy effect doesn't only impact our recall ability when we read or hear a list of words, but can affect the way we make decisions based on how certain elements are placed on a page, too.

Anchoring is when we rely on the first piece of information we receive to form our overall impression and use that as a baseline to evaluate all of the other options.

This can be experienced on category pages for e-commerce, for example: if the first option presented is the most expensive one, a visitor will use that as a reference point for all the other options, and will tend to assume that's the expected price they'll have to pay for products of that range:

And because of their natural tendency to stay away from the extremes in a selection of choices (compromise effect), the anchor will make them feel better about going for the median option, even if it's slightly more expensive than what they initially set out to spend.

3. Numerical Biases

When users are evaluating prices, there are two more biases that can affect the way they compare two measures in the numerical domain:

  • The Distance effect shows that given two numbers, it’s easier to judge which number is larger if the distance between them is bigger.

  • The Size effect shows that given two numbers, it’s easier to judge which one is bigger when numbers are small relative to large, even if the distance between them is the same.

The distance and size effects have been linked to theories on the visual representation of numbers on a mental number line, and what we need to remember is that in both cases, judging differences becomes harder as numbers become bigger.

This means that the user will be much faster at accurately judging differences in prices when they're expressed in smaller magnitudes, like percentages or fractions.

So, in the example below, it's much faster for a user to appreciate the value of 'Save 34%' rather than 'Save £581' on a £1700 sofa, even if both options express the same price difference.

And that's the reason why in advertising, we often hear that we should prioritise showing bigger numbers: since we're slower at making accurate judgements with larger magnitudes, it's a tactic to trick the user into thinking they are saving more than they actually are.

While techniques like this one can sometimes work to drive conversions, other times they can massively backfire if the user feels deceived.

So let's talk about that...

4. Negativity Bias

If the user feels tricked, they'll tend to remember the negative part of the interaction rather than all of the good you've done to drive them to that point. This is due to the negativity bias, our natural tendency to place a higher value on negative stimuli as compared to positive ones that carry the same emotional load.

In other words, humans display a pattern of 'overattention' to the negative side of things.

(Credits: Nick Seluk, @theawkwardyeti)

Think about it: when you're travelling and someone asks about your journey, are you more prone to remember the loud seat neighbours or the fact that you made it to your destination on time?

While research on its origin is still ongoing, the negativity bias has been explained with evolutionary theories related to the survival of the species, and it is reflected at the cortical level from a very young age, with higher activity recorded for negative stimuli versus positive or neutral ones.

Online, the negativity bias can affect every part of the user journey, as early as they're scrolling on the SERP: SeoClarity ran a study that showed significantly higher CTRs for headlines that contained a negative superlative rather than their positive counterpart.

And, as users proceed on their journey through the website, the negativity bias will affect the deeper stages of the funnel too, so being aware of it is crucial to prevent abandonment.

As a matter of fact, if your user has a flawless experience until a certain point, but then gets stuck on a 404 page that makes them get back at the start of the journey, they'll likely remember the ‘bad’ portion of their experience on the website rather than all of the good content they've read, or the enticing deals they've encountered or even the fast page load. That's why our job doesn't end with traditional SEO tasks and we have to work cross-functionally to make sure we can lighten any points of frustration for the user.

A 2022 study by Baymard on US online shoppers showed that negative elements like an overwhelming flow, unclear or contradicting information and page errors made up almost 50% of the reasons why users abandon the website at the checkout stage, when they've already invested time evaluating what brands have to offer.

Trust is hard to earn, but easy to lose.

5. Confirmation Bias

And finally, this brings us to a bias we're probably all familiar with: the confirmation bias, which happens when we favour information that supports what we already believe.

This bias can influence the way we process certain information at the sensory level, but can also affect the deeper stages of cognition, driving our choices.

A popular study by McClure and others, for example, showed the effect of confirmation bias on the perceived preference of Pepsi VS Coca-Cola: during a blind taste test, participants' reported preference for one brand or the other matched the 'preference pattern' of activation displayed at the neural level via fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), corroborating their choice; however, when the test was branded, the preference was significantly skewed towards Coca Cola, both in taste tests and in imaging.

In short, the confirmation bias coming from the common cultural belief that 'Coca-Cola is the best' was enough to modulate (and sometimes override) the original preference for Pepsi at the cortical level.

Why should SEO care about confirmation bias?

As we've just seen, brand authority and cultural perception are key to driving preferences - and a way that SEOs can help build on that is by addressing the informational queries that might have been overlooked.

An example of this comes from the travel industry in the post-pandemic era: in 2022 there was a massive surge in travel-related queries, some of which were linked to the reliability of providers:

In this particular example, Expedia did not rank for the query.

Why is this a problem?

If a brand doesn't rank for reliability queries, users will have to depend on someone else's result on the SERP to form their impressions, and the existing beliefs that they bring to the search will determine what kind of content they’ll trust the most, due to confirmation bias.

If someone is looking into reliability information, it means they've already consumed your content and are evaluating deals that they find enticing enough - but they need to be reassured, because they don't know or trust your brand yet. Leaving that task up to someone else is a risky bet to take, especially seeing the natural tendency to weigh the negative more than the positive when there’s a lack of an authoritative point of view.

Confirmation bias is one of the reasons why brands should focus on proactively addressing prospective customers’ concerns, whether they are related directly to reliability, or even to the process of ordering and transacting.

These queries can easily be found on Google Search Console isolating questions (for example, using regex as explained in this article by Arman Mathur) and prioritising anything that has high search volume but low rankings and/or CTRs.

While these might not be your traditional 'money-making' terms, they're crucial if we want a new user to trust us enough to become a customer.

Remember that what it’s obvious to you, might not be that clear to a new audience who’s unfamiliar with your brand.



When a user has evaluated all the relevant information available on page, we most likely enter the stage of 'active' decision making which is where heuristics come into play.

We've seen already in the previous article that our cognitive resources are limited, and we can’t realistically analyse in full every possible opportunity and their outcomes, so we rely on heuristics, or rule of thumbs, that allow our brain to skim down most of the options even if this might mean we don’t always take the most logical or rational decision.

And online, with tons of decisions to be made fast, we are even more prone to use heuristics.

The most common heuristics I want to focus on below are the availability, scarcity, risk-aversion and familiarity heuristics.


Do you judge plane journeys to be more dangerous than car rides?

Technically they’re not, as there are statistically more car than plane accidents. However, if you tend to answer yes to that question, it’s a common display of availability heuristic, which is when we judge a situation based on the information that is readily available in our mind (maybe because we were recently exposed to it, or because it’s associated to a very vivid image in our memory), even though it might not be the most representative reference.

Another example is when we hear on the news that a certain delivery brand has been losing parcels, so we decide not to consider it as an option for our own deliveries, even though the likelihood of that happening to us is realistically much lower than we estimate it to be.

What does the availability heuristic mean for brands?

That they need to become more visible and memorable in order to be chosen.

So stay relevant, keep your content up to date and make sure you leverage partners and digital PR to have more organic presence and be a leader in your industry.

(And maybe try to avoid negative press, but that’s a given 🙂)


Emily in Paris introduces this well: 'scarcity creates demand'.

Even if (spoiler alert!) she gets told off for saying something obvious when she dispenses this pearl of wisdom, the scarcity heuristic deserves a note of mention because it’s an incredibly powerful one - even when users are perfectly aware of it.

Based on the scarcity heuristic, we tend to place more value on something that’s perceived as limited or exclusive.

What does it mean for us? Highlight messaging like ‘last remaining’, 'only a few left’, 'exclusive deals' and similar - but only when it’s true.

You don’t want to trick your users: they’ll remember (and so will your lawyers, since deceptive messaging can lead to lawsuits under the Consumer protection from unfair trading regulations in the UK).


In a situation where two options have similar expected returns, we tend to prefer the one with the lower risk of loss even if it might lead to lower gains.

This happens for example when we choose to pay in monthly instalments rather than all upfront, or when we want to pay extra to get insurance on our travel, or when we select the ‘flexible fare’ even if it means it’s not discounted.

Have you got any of these flexible options available? Then make sure they’re visible at different stages of the funnel so the user knows you’ve got their back.


And finally, the familiarity heuristic is when we prioritise going for something we know already, as compared to something we haven’t experienced yet.

If I had a great experience with a provider, why change? Going for what I know already frees up my cognitive resources and saves me time since I can just skip all the intermediate decisions that are involved in evaluating unfamiliar options.

Familiarity is associated with a skin conductance response, a physical display of emotional arousal, which means we react with a 'gut feeling' to familiar objects, stimuli - and brands. And emotions have been shown to guide decision making, especially in the case of fast choices, which is a topic we are going to expand on in the final part of this article here.

However, the familiarity heuristic doesn’t only come into play when we compare a brand we know versus a new one: it can also guide decisions when we are comparing two new options, and in that case it can be favoured by how well your brand approaches local markets.

For example, if I wanted to buy a product and the only options available are two unfamiliar brands, I will more likely choose to transact with the one that is based in the same country and displays payment options in my currency, rather than something else which conveys more distance.

So, what can search marketers do?

On top of making sure you work with your team to keep providing a great product and experience that will make customers love your brand, you can focus on:

  • improving full localisation across all of the international websites (mind that microcopy too!)

  • highlighting the messaging around your local presence in the targeted country (curating local Google Business profiles, clarifying where in the country your branches are, and so on - your branded queries with low CTRs will be a clear indication of where to start).


In this article, we talked about cognitive biases and heuristics, which are often leveraged as tactics to get the user to make decisions that favour us. However, it’s important to keep in mind that at different stages, what users are going to be persuaded by is based on what’s at stake for them.

According to the Elaboration Likelihood Model, a theory on persuasion developed by Petty & Cacioppo in 1980, the level of personal investment determines if persuasion is going to be based on the quantity (low personal investment) or the quality (high personal investment) of the arguments presented.

This means that at the very early stages of the journey, when only time and attention are at stake for the user, they might rely more on a series of cognitive biases and heuristics to make a decision (the 'quantity' of our arguments); however, as they proceed through the funnel and invest more time and are looking to commit with a sign-up or a transaction, they will base their choice off the quality of what we have to offer, the expertise conveyed in our content and the authority of our brand.

The bottom line is, you cannot (and you should not) rely only on tactics to win your customers.


LET's RECAP: 9 things your brand CAN DO TO facilitate decision making

  1. Place important information and value props at the top and at the bottom of your copy.

  2. Choose fractions or percentages (e.g. '50% off', ‘1/2 price’) over numbers when showing savings.

  3. Test negative headlines (e.g. '10 holiday destinations not to miss' VS '10 best holiday destinations') - but avoid click-baiting.

  4. Work cross-functionally to provide a flawless experience throughout the journey to avoid negativity bias.

  5. Provide answers to potential customers' concerns addressing informational branded queries: what is obvious for you might not be for a new user.

  6. Leverage partners and digital PR to make your brand memorable and prominent in your industry.

  7. Use messaging that highlights scarcity, flexibility of payment and booking options or free returns, if available - but don't trick your users.

  8. Do not overlook localisation efforts as they can be a goldmine for familiarity-based decisions.

  9. At every stage, make sure your information is transparent and your messaging conveys trustworthiness and expertise.

In the next and final part of Neuroscience of Search you will learn about the role of social proof and emotions to connect with prospective customers.

In the meantime, make sure you follow @neuroscientive on Twitter to stay up to date with the latest news or subscribe to get a notification right in your inbox!

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