top of page

Neuroscience of search: What does brain science tell us about the user?

Updated: May 4, 2023

(Part 1/3)

If you're here, you might have listened to my talk 'Neuroscience of Search' at BrightonSEO or WTSFest; if not, let me briefly introduce myself again.

My name is Giulia and I'm an in-house customer acquisition director and freelance SEO consultant today, but in my previous life I spent a number of years studying the human brain.

During my time in research, I learnt a lot of things, but what stuck with me the most is that humans make decisions all the time, even when they're not aware they are making one.

Think about it: today you woke up, decided what to wear, what to have for breakfast; right now, you might be choosing to pay attention to these words, or maybe something else completely different. A few of these choices may be conscious, but a lot of these will be so automatic they don't even feel like making a decision anymore.

That goes for every part of our life - and with the amount of time we spend online, it's only natural that a few of those automatic choices apply to how we navigate the search landscape and the websites we encounter while we try to achieve the goal of our search.

And as marketers, we have the mission and the duty to engage with the real people behind the screen to guide them through their quest, so in this 3-parts article I'm going to cover how popular concepts in neuroscience and cognitive psychology can help you understand how users think and decide when they are searching and interacting with a website (or many). Take these learnings as a toolset to connect with your customers to be at different stages of the funnel.



By definition, neuroscience is a wide field that studies the brain and the nervous system in the attempt of better understanding the neural substrates of how us humans think and behave.

It’s made up of several interconnected branches that use different methodologies to look into different aspects of brain functioning.

Neuroscience was my first love and one I was sad to leave when the academic opportunities couldn't match a career in digital, but I soon realised that there's so much from those learnings that can be applied to our day-to-day.

So, here's 3 main reasons why you should care, too:

1. To learn how to put the user back in focus

In our job, it’s easy to forget that we’re not only optimising ‘for Google’, but for the user in the first place. Customer centricity starts before the user even engages with the site, and search engines have increasingly been focused on getting more attuned to what a real person needs to find when they're performing a search.

All of the algorithms, in theory, serve this purpose, and we now have no excuse to drift away from a 'people-first' approach - even Google has been very explicit about this recently with their latest guidelines about helpful content and AI.

2. To understand how to win the user’s attention over rankings

Ranking before one of our competitors doesn’t automatically ensure us more traffic or conversions. In fact, while ranking first is always desirable due to the high CTRs in comparison to other positions, the user often browses for more results before landing on the page that most responds to their needs - especially when all results look the same.

So, how do we make sure that we stand out in the search landscape?

3. To increase engagement and become a trusted source

Our job doesn’t end when the user lands on the site: we need to keep them there to continue the journey, and to become the brand they go back to when they are looking for that something that we are able to provide.

So with this holistic approach in mind, in the next section we’re going to start our journey through the traditional funnel to see how we can make sure we tick these boxes at every stage to connect with our user and turn them into a customer.


Part 1 - Top of the funnel: How to capture the attention

If you feel like you can't focus the same way you used to, I'm afraid it's not only an impression: our attention spans ARE getting increasingly shorter.

In the last two decades, our attention spans have significantly reduced (from 75 to 47 seconds on average, which implies half of the times we fall behind that threshold), and exposure to short videos typical of platforms like TikTok has been shown to degrade our capacity to retain intention due to repeated context switching.

And at the very early stages of the funnel, it is all about capturing the attention on the SERP among other competitors, and maintaining that attention while the user is already engaged in a task – their own research - so that we can eventually get them to visit the site.

When we type in a query to start our journey, a lot of our searches force us to discriminate among results that look all the same, and sometimes it can be a little overwhelming.

The same competition for attention that we face at the early stages of search has a parallel in the world we live in, which is full of stimuli that are all potentially competing to being processed in our brain, at every moment of our lives.

However, our cognitive resources are limited and we cannot process everything at once, therefore we filter out only certain items to focus on and automatically label other as noise to ignore. This process, called selective attention, can be triggered by:

  1. Internal factors (dependent on individual goals and motivation, for example when you have a strict deadline to finish a task by);

  2. Cognitive biases (which we're going to expand on in the next article);

  3. External factors: these are the perceptual features of the stimuli, whether it’s auditory, sensory or visual, be it for example a loud noise or a bright flash of light. However, sometimes it's not the loudness or the brightness of a stimulus that catches our attention, but its relevance to us.

When a stimulus talks to us: The cocktail party effect

When a stimulus is particularly meaningful to us, it causes what's called the cocktail party effect, an attentional shift to the source it's coming from.

This phenomenon takes the name from its most common example: when you're engaged in a conversation in a party room full of people who are having other parallel conversations, you normally filter out the words your interlocutors are saying while ignoring all the rest of the 'noise' around you. But if in that noise you suddenly hear your name being mentioned somewhere else in the room, you will automatically start paying attention to that particular conversation, which doesn't happen for your interlocutors because your name represents what's salient (or relevant) to you only.

These unconscious attentional shifts determined by salience do not only apply to names, but also to certain keywords that might be relevant to us in a certain context - exactly like when we're doing a search and we spot our query of interest in an array of noise on the SERP. And being relevant targeting the query of interest is what every SEO aims for since the early days of the internet.

So let's go a little further...

Event-related potentials: the common ground we didn't know we had

While we automatically shift the attention to a particularly meaningful stimulus like our name or certain keywords that are relevant to us, there are other stimuli that can trigger an attentional shift regardless our names, backgrounds and interests. These objects can represent an additional tool we have at our avail to reach the user and grab their attention.

The presentation of these particular stimuli (also called events in this context) trigger a specific brain activation pattern which is observed in most participants in a test setting where their brain electrical activity is being recorded via EEG (electroencephalography). The patterns are therefore called Event Related Potentials (or ERPs).

Studies on attention and executive functions have isolated a number of ERPs, but there are two of them that I find particularly interesting for the world of search: the N170 and the Mismatch Negativity.

N170: The face erp

The N170 is an ERP that displays on the EEG graph as a negative deflection at around 170ms after the presentation of faces, so it’s a very quick, automatic response.

(M.Eimer, 1998)

And what's interesting is that this activation pattern has been recorded not only in response to human faces, but even face-like configurations like the one below:

This has been shown to apply to traditional emojis as well, which elicit an even more pronounced pattern of activation than human faces.

What does this mean for us? Emojis an additional tool that you can test in your titles or in the copy to drive the attention, and there have been a number of studies in the past that have measured better CTRs for elements that included them - but bear in mind that, if you're testing this on Google, they might not be displayed on the SERP if they don't align with your brand or your query.

Mismatch negativity

Another ERP that is particularly interesting for us is the one called Mismatch negativity (MMN), which happens when our expectations are violated.

As the name suggests, this is a selective pattern of negative activation shown when we are presented with a stimulus we don’t expect.

It can happen in different domains: in the visual and auditory domains for example, the MMN can be observed when we spot a dot in an array of squares, or when we hear a dissonant note in a song we know very well. In these cases, the negative deflection will be observed early on in information processing (between 120-350 milliseconds after the presentation of the 'odd' stimulus). However, this ERP can also be observed at later stages, at the semantic level, like we can see in the example below.

In this study, participants displayed a common response at 400 milliseconds after they read a sentence than ended with a word that was unconventional in the context presented. Specifically, they reacted with a MMN when they read 'He spread the warm bread with socks' but didn't display the same response when the same sentence ended with the word 'butter'.

So that's the reason why, at this stage, your aim shouldn't be to match everything your competitors are doing, and probably not even everything the user is expecting to find because you might risk getting missed as they scroll in a sea of repetitive results.

You can dare to be disruptive and use special characters, bolding and unconventional words to catch their attention.


  • Test emojis in your titles and descriptions to improve CTRs (this can be applicable to CRM, too).

  • Invest in SERP features that your competitors are not using yet: if all of them are using reviews and price schema, you can add FAQs mark-up for example (which also ensures more real SERP estate).

  • Include something that stands out in your title or copy: bold text, capitalization, unexpected wording and special characters are a few of these assets.

That's all for this time, but in the next few articles I'm going to cover more in detail the role of:

  • Cognitive Biases

  • Heuristics

  • Social Proof

  • Emotions

So 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!

513 views0 comments


bottom of page