How search engine optimization leaders use empathy to win technique, efficiency, and groups

The longer we work in SEO, the more we tend to look at it in terms of numbers and dates.

We measure and report on the effectiveness of our work by merging metrics from on-site analyzes, Google Search Console and rank trackers.

We share monthly keyword research with content writers, and many of us even analyze our character and word counts.

There’s nothing wrong with that – the combination of data sets is incredibly powerful.

And for a lot of us (myself included), this ongoing analysis is what we love most about SEO. It is an ever-evolving puzzle that we try to solve every day.

It also gives us fascinating insights into human behavior. After all, SEO is about people.

During a recent SEO round table event I hosted with JC Connington, Senior Search & SEO Strategist at Cancer Research UK, he summed up our work in a way that got me completely off the rails: “At SEO is about empathy. “


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Over the years of talking about how SEO data enables us to understand people, I’ve gradually come to believe that we instinctively use our emotional intelligence to supplement and interpret these numbers.

JC’s perspective inspired me to examine and shed light on the critical role empathy plays in effective SEO.

In this column, you will learn why it is so important for SEO professionals to recognize, appreciate, and develop empathy in ourselves and the teams we are building.

What is empathy?

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, identifies three basic types of empathy.

Each one is critical to effectively anticipating user needs and working well with colleagues:

  1. Cognitive empathy: Put yourself in other people’s shoes to understand their point of view.
  2. Emotional empathy: Feeling what another is feeling.
  3. Empathic concern: Feel what others need from you.

The division of empathy into these three types is useful in realizing how we use each type in our work, both in thinking about the users and in effectively collaborating with our fellow human beings.


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Read on to learn more about how empathy of any kind makes great SEO professionals and teams great.

1. Cognitive Empathy and SEO: Building Collaborative Relationships

To maximize the number of SEO opportunities and mitigate as many risks as possible, SEO teams need to be able to work closely and consistently with other teams.

Cognitive empathy is particularly valuable when it comes to working with other teams in our company.

To achieve long-term benefit, we need to build strong, mutually beneficial relationships. That doesn’t go well without putting ourselves in the shoes of our colleagues:

  • Understand your goals.
  • Identify where we can add value.
  • And recognize where we are asking for a compromise.

While it is possible to create consistent cooperative working methods through consistent process management alone, full awareness of the dynamics of the working relationship promotes trust, real collaboration and a basis for development.

2. Emotional empathy and SEO: Understanding what triggers search queries

Through topic and keyword research, we can identify the most frequently searched search queries.

Some enterprise platforms are also getting incredibly adept at suggesting how best to use them within metadata based on the top ranking pages.

Without emotional empathy, we can follow this data-driven approach to rank well and get clicks, but for what purpose?

Behind every search engine query there is a real person driven by a real need and emotion.

And unless the page that you’re building answers on is what you need, you’re not adding value to your customer or business – and your bounce rate will reflect that.

It can be difficult to infer the intent behind individual searches. Furthermore, looking at the top ranking results only tells you how Google and other search engines interpret them, which is not always clearly defined or accurate (and sometimes problematic – see Safiya Umoja Noble’s “Algorithms of Oppression”).

This is one of the times when empathy is not only valuable, but essential. And it is a thorough understanding of your company, your industry and your customers that defines this empathy.


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Once we understand the likely intent of a search, we can infer the emotion that led someone to type that query into a search engine, and that’s where empathic interest comes in.

3. Empathy and SEO: Meeting users’ needs

Once we understand what prompted a user to search, our empathic concern helps us effectively infer what type of content would meet that need – and most importantly, whether it is compatible with the purpose and areas of credibility of your website is.

In many ways, empathic concern skills are the strongest type of empathy for SEO professionals. They enable us to anticipate the needs of others and understand if and how we can meet those needs.

In addition to creating content that effectively answers users’ searches, we use this skill every time we develop a content topic that we believe will be of value to our users.

Sometimes this is the starting point for doing keyword research. But when it’s an emerging trend for which little to no data is available, we may have to rely entirely on empathic guesswork.


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We saw a great example of this in early 2020 when suddenly there was a need for content related to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak.

This need has been derived both from the public information standpoint and from individual companies having to inform their customers of the impact on their business.

Without data from the search history and without established user search trends on this topic – and thus also without an estimated monthly search volume (MSV) – the only way was to enable us to enable our users to anticipate their needs and create content, to meet these requirements.

“So what?”

These examples represent a tiny fraction of the ways we can use empathy in our work.

The more we think about it, the more we realize that we are employing empathy every time we use our gut instinct to validate MSV data while refining target keyword lists or writing a meta description that anticipates which Content a user hopes to find in the SERPs.


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So does this change our attitude towards SEO? What do we do with this perspective?

First, when hiring people to build our teams, we should consider the benefits that emotional intelligence can bring to not only team dynamics but the quality of performance as well.

This is especially true for entry level positions as it is much easier to impart SEO expertise and data literacy than empathy.

Second, we should talk about empathy when teaching other teams in our company “what SEO is”.

The misconception that SEO is all about meeting the requirements of an algorithm is persistent, and to overcome this we have to portray our work as people-centered because it ultimately is.

In the past, I’ve relied heavily on talking about the amount of data we have about users to change that perception. But it turns out: “It’s not about algorithms, it’s about data!” Is not the humanizing attitude I thought.


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Describing SEO as data-driven empathy is probably a much more effective way to improve our PR with content creators and copywriters.

Ultimately, we should recognize the difficulty of our own empathic abilities, understand their worth, and develop them on purpose.

We often put ourselves in other people’s shoes, but do we assume that they are all like us?

By diversifying our understanding of other people, we can question our assumptions and improve the accuracy of our conclusions.

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Featured image: Paul Craft / Shutterstock


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