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How SEO leaders use empathy for winning strategy, performance and teams

How SEO leaders use empathy for winning strategy, performance and teams

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

We measure and report on the effectiveness of our work and link metrics from onsite analytics, Google Search Console and rankers.

We share keyword research full of monthly search volume numbers with content writers, and many of us even analyze our grade and word counts.

There is nothing wrong with this – combining datasets together is incredibly powerful.

And for many of us (including myself), this ongoing analysis is what we love most about SEO. It is a puzzle in constant development that we must try to solve every day.

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

During a recent SEO roundtable I hosted JC Connington, Senior Search & SEO Strategist at Cancer Research UK, he summed up our work in a way that stopped me dead in my tracks: “SEO is all about empathy.”


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For all the times I had talked about how SEO data allows us to understand people, I had gradually begun to take for granted the extent to which we also instinctively use our emotional intelligence to supplement and interpret these numbers.

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

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

What is empathy?

Daniel Goleman, author of the book “Emotional Intelligence”, identifies three basic forms of empathy.

Each one is crucial for effectively anticipating user needs and collaborating well with colleagues:

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

Breaking empathy into these three types is helpful in recognizing how we use each type in our work, both when we think of users and work effectively with those around us.


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Read on to learn more about the key ways in which each type of empathy makes good SEO benefits and teams good.

1. Cognitive empathy and SEO: Building collaborative relationships

To take advantage of the greatest 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 especially valuable when it comes to collaborating with other teams in our companies.

To enable long-term benefits, we must create strong, mutually beneficial relationships. This can not be done well without putting us in the positions of our colleagues:

Understanding their goals. To identify where we can add value. And recognize where we are asking for a compromise.

Although it is possible to create consistent collaboration methods only through strict process management, it encourages trust, real collaboration and a foundation from which one can fully develop knowledge about the dynamics of the employment relationship.

2. Emotional empathy and SEO: Understand what encourages searches

Through topic and keyword research, we can discover the queries that are most often searched for.

Some enterprise platforms also become incredibly adept at suggesting how to best utilize these within metadata, based on the best-placed pages.

Without using emotional empathy, we may be able to follow this data-driven approach to ranking well and getting clicks, but for what purpose?

Behind every search engine query stands a real person, driven by a genuine need and emotion.

And unless the page you are creating answers to needs, you are not adding value to your customer or organization – and your bounce rate will reflect that.

It can be difficult to assume the intent behind individual searches. What’s more, looking at the top-ranked results only tells you how Google and other search engines interpret them, which is not always clearly defined or precise (and sometimes problematic – see “Algorithms of Undression” by Safiya Umoja Noble).

This is one of those times where empathy is not only valuable but also essential. And it is a thorough understanding of your organization, industry and customers that informs about this empathy.


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Once we understand the probable intent of a search, we can derive the emotion that drove someone to enter that query into a search engine, at which point empathic concern comes into play.

3. Empathic concern and SEO: Meeting user needs

Understanding what prompted a user to perform a search helps us to empathize with the need to effectively deduce what kind of content would respond to that need – and whether it’s compatible with your site’s purpose and areas of credibility.

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

In addition to creating content that effectively answers users’ search queries, we use this skill every time we think of a content topic that we think our users would find valuable.

Sometimes this will be the starting point for conducting keyword research. But when it’s a new trend for which there is little or no data available, we may have to rely entirely on empathic assumptions.


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We saw a good example of this in early 2020, when there was a sudden need for content related to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This need stems both from a public information point of view and from individual companies that need to keep their customers informed about the impact on their operations.

With no search history data to draw on and no established user search trends on the topic – and therefore no estimated monthly search volume (MSV) – the only option was to put us in our users’ shoes, anticipate their needs and create content to meet those requirements.

“So what?”

These examples represent a small fraction of the ways in which we utilize empathy in the course of our work.

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


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So does that change how we think about SEO? What do we do with this perspective?

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

This is especially true for entry-level positions, as it is much easier to teach SEO expertise and computer skills than it is to teach empathy.

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

The misconception that SEO is solely about meeting the requirements of an algorithm is persistent, and to overcome this we must present our work as people-focused, because in the end it is.

In the past, I have relied heavily on talking about the amount of data we have about users in an attempt to change this perception. But it turns out that “it’s not about algorithms, it’s about data!” is not the humanizing recording I thought it was.


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

Finally, we should recognize the heavy lifts performed by our own empathic skills, understand their value, and develop them on purpose.

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

Diversifying our understanding of other people will allow us to challenge our assumptions and improve the accuracy of our conclusion.

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Featured Image: Paul Craft / Shutterstock

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