The Ties Between Emotional Design & SEO

Recently, one of my SEO colleagues contacted me to learn how website usability and SEO are related — more than what you can get from online reading. “I’m all for expanding my knowledge and agree this is the best place to focus,” he said.

He asked for some books to read, online courses to take, webinars to attend, and so forth. I gave him a partial list as a solid starting point.

When I sent him an upcoming webinar list (with descriptions and agendas) that had me excited, he replied, “I looked at these agendas, and I didn’t see anything related to search engines and SEO.”

My heart sunk. Smart man…very smart man…stuck inside of a SEO bubble.

As SEO professionals, we have conditioned ourselves to believe that if a document (webpage, image, video, webinar, etc.) contains a keyword phrase, then that keyword phrase must somehow describe the document and/or that document’s content.

SEO bubble

As SEO professionals, we have conditioned ourselves to believe in, "No keywords? Not related!" Sometimes, there are connections we do not see because we view websites inside of an SEO bubble.

And vice versa—if a document doesn’t contain a keyword phrase, then the keyword phrase must not be applicable to that document.

One usability topic, in particular, might not seem as though it is related to search engine visibility, but it is: emotional design.

Visceral, Behavioral & Reflective Design

One of my favorite usability books is Donald A. Norman’s Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things.[1]  In his book, he discusses 3 different aspects of design:

  • Visceral design
  • Behavioral design
  • Reflective design

According to Norman:

Visceral design concerns itself with appearance. The visceral level is fast: it makes rapid judgments of what is good or bad, safe or dangerous….  (p. 5 and p. 22)

Behavioral design has to do with the pleasure and effectiveness of use. The behavioral level is the site of most human behavior…. [It] is not conscious, which is why you can successfully drive your automobile subconsciously at the behavioral level while consciously thinking of something else at the reflective level. (p. 5 and p. 23)

Reflective design considers the rationalization and intellectualization of a product. The reflective level is the contemplative part of the brain. We can remember previous experiences and tell others about our problems. (p. 5 and pp. 22-23)

Usability professionals are mostly concerned with behavioral design. And Web designers are concerned mostly with visceral design. Interestingly, users/searchers are more tolerant of errors in attractive designs than in ugly ones.

“…although poor design is never excusable, when people are in a relaxed situation, the pleasant, pleasurable aspects of the design will make them more tolerant of difficulties and problems in the interface.” [2]

As a pioneer of search-engine friendly Web design, I have not focused primarily on aesthetic design. I have not focused primarily on accommodating search engines only because optimization involves both searchers and search engines.

Visceral Processing & Google Gullibility

I constantly observe 3 levels of processing all of the time when people interact with search engine results pages (SERPS) and websites.

The visceral level is hard to ignore on a Web SERP because of our instinctive human perceptions. If a site’s listing appears at the top of search results right now, it must be the most relevant, right? And if Google or Bing put that listing there, the link(s) must be safe to click, right?

How many times have we, as searchers, been constantly inundated with inappropriate search listings? Was it the searchers’ fault because we did not formulate an accurate query? Or is it the search engine’s fault, not able to filter out search engine spam? Or both?

Website usability guru Jakob Nielsen stated his article, User Skills Improving, But Only Slightly:

When it comes to search, users face three problems:

  • Inability to retarget queries to a different search strategy
  • Inability to understand the search results and properly evaluate each destination site’s likely usefulness
  • Inability to sort through the SERP’s polluted mass of poor results, whether from blogs or from heavily SEO-optimized sites that are insufficiently specific to really address the user’s problem

Given these difficulties, many users are at the search engine’s mercy and mainly click the top links — a behavior we might call Google Gullibility.

In Emotional Design, Norman said that the visceral and behavioral levels are about the “here and now,” a user’s feelings and experiences when he/she is actually seeing or using a product. In our context, that product is a web search engine. What do searchers see? What do searchers do based on what they see in SERPs?

On the flip side, the reflective level is long term. On the reflective level, users/searchers remember past experiences with SERPs and corresponding websites.

Therefore, to overcome Google gullibility, we have to rely on a different part of our brain: the reflective level.

Reflective Design In Search Listings & Landing Pages

In Emotional Design, Norman said:

Of the three levels, the reflective one is the most vulnerable to variability through culture, experience, education, and individual differences. This level can also override the others. (p. 38)

I observed reflective processing in full force in the last month on an ecommerce website.

The searcher task was to purchase a box of blank-ink markers from a particular brand. Interestingly, one persona in their target audience loved this particular brand of markers so much that they constantly wrapped the markers with colored tape (so no one else in the lab would steal them). And they kept secret stashes in their lab stations.

I understand. I worked in biochemistry labs for about 10 years. These markers are perfect for labeling test tubes, Erlenmeyer flasks, beakers, and the like.

The brand owner of this marker created a separate website for these markers. And guess what searchers clicked on when they viewed the Google SERP? The mini-site’s listing, of course.

Searchers thought that going right to the source of their prized markers would save them a lot of time and (hopefully) money instead of browsing through a bunch of online stores.

However, the homepage of this branded marker site was a Flash-based splash page. I will summarize the basic response to the landing page:

“Oh hell no!” (Immediately clicked the back button)

This response clearly shows a reaction to reflective design because the searchers remembered what it was like to experience Flash-based splash pages. They didn’t want to watch a Flash movie in order to buy their prized markers.

Throughout the month, we performed other search tests. Do you know what happened when the searchers saw the mini-site’s listings appear in search results? Again, I will summarize the basic response:

“I’m not clicking on THAT link again!”

Search engine optimization isn’t only about the here and now. SEO is not a quick fix or a flavor-of-the-month set of strategies. SEO is about consistent, long-term findability.

Emotional design is an important part of the searcher experience from the very first to query to subsequent queries months later. Search engines do not have emotions…but searchers do.


  1. Norman, D. A. (2004). Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things. New York: Basic Books.
  2. Norman, D. A. (2002). Emotion and design: Attractive things work better. Interactions Magazine, ix (4), 36-42. Retrieved at:

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Content | Search & Usability


About The Author: is the Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive and the author of the books Search Engine Visibility and When Search Meets Web Usability. Shari currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Information Architecture Institute (IAI) and the ASLIB Journal of Information Management. She also served on the board of the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA).

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  • James Hu

    nice post. I think the reflective process is probably an indication of interruption between impulse buy signal and the emotional signal that reflects their particular brand choices. You experience it all the time at Costco.  Now, just take that experience online.

  • GambleIrma29

    like Anita responded I didn’t know that any one able to get paid $9717 in a few weeks on the computer. have you read this site===>>⇛►  

  • Eastern Eye

    i liked the post, very nice, most important thing in this article is that keyword phrase must somehow describe the document and/or that document’s content.

  • Jim Huinink

    Your inital reaction to your colleague is reasonable but I think you’re ignoring the fact that SEO and design are almost always seen as separate entities. For example, I’ve worked inside a company for the last four years and have hammered away trying to make a culture change to the point where only in the last year and a half do they not ‘design first, SEO later.’ I work for another company that is primarily a design company and thepreconceptions of everyone completely segregate SEO considerations. I.e. let’s make a cool Flash site then see what  the SEO guy says. Google says focus on user experience but we all know that that does not work. In fact, I would say that thanks to Google, SEO rules the web and user experience is an industry fighting for its life.
    So your colleague is right in looking for something like, say, “Integration of SEO and User Experience.” It isn’t there because it doesn’t exist. I have never been part of a design meeting where the site owner or company president says, “Okay, SEO team and design team, get together and build me a website that is a state-of-the-art user experience and gets optimal traffic from Google.” SEO has won the day and truly compelling user experiences get little or no traffic other than direct traffic. Truly emotional design will almost never make it to position one in Google. That’s usually reserved for wikipedia or the site with killer SEO.


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