The Ties Between Emotional Design & SEO

Shari, are you crazy? Search engines don’t have emotions! What does emotional design have to do with SEO? A lot more than you might think.

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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:

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About the author

Shari Thurow
Shari Thurow is the Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive Omni Marketing Interactive and the author of the books Search Engine Visibility and When Search Meets Web Usability. Shari is currently a contributing editor for the ASLIB Journal of Information Management. She also served on the Board of Directors of the Information Architecture Institute (IAI) and the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA).

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