How SEO Leaders Use Empathy for Winning Strategy, Performance & 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, tying together metrics from onsite analytics, Google Search Console, and rank trackers.

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

There’s nothing wrong with this – combining data sets together is incredibly powerful.

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

It gives us fascinating insight into human behavior, too. SEO is about people, after all.

During a recent SEO round table event I hosted with JC Connington, Senior Search & SEO Strategist at Cancer Research UK, he summarised our work in a way that stopped me dead in my tracks: “SEO is about empathy.”

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 those numbers.

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

In this column, you’ll learn why it’s so important that SEO professionals 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 kinds of empathy.

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

  1. Cognitive Empathy: Putting yourself in other people’s shoes to understand their point of view.
  2. Emotional Empathy: Feeling what someone else feels.
  3. Empathic Concern: Sensing what others need from you.

Breaking empathy into these three types is useful for recognizing how we use each type in our work, both when thinking about users and working effectively with those around us.

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

1. Cognitive Empathy and SEO: Building Collaborative Relationships

In order to seize upon 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 particularly valuable when it comes to collaborating with other teams in our businesses.

To enable long-term benefits, we need to forge strong, mutually beneficial relationships. This cannot be done well without putting ourselves in our colleagues’ positions:

  • Understanding their goals.
  • Identifying where we can add value.
  • And acknowledging where we are asking for a compromise.

While it’s possible to create consistent cooperative ways of working through rigorous process management alone, being fully aware of the dynamics of the working relationship encourages trust, real collaboration, and a foundation from which to evolve.

2. Emotional Empathy and SEO: Understanding What Prompts Searches

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

Some enterprise platforms are also becoming incredibly adept at suggesting how best to leverage these within metadata, based on the top-ranking pages.

Without applying emotional empathy, we may be able to follow this data-driven approach to rank well and gain clicks, but to what end?

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

And unless the page you create answers that need, you’re not adding value for your customer or your organization — and your bounce rate will reflect that.

Inferring the intent behind individual searches can be difficult. What’s more, 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 is sometimes problematic – see “Algorithms of Oppression” by Safiya Umoja Noble).

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

Once we understand the probable intent of a search, we can infer 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 Users’ Needs

Once we understand what prompted a user to perform a search, being adept at empathic concern helps us to effectively infer what kind of content would answer that need — and crucially, whether that is compatible with your site’s purpose and areas of credibility.

In many ways, empathic concern skills are the most powerful type 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 answers users’ search queries effectively, we use this skill every time we ideate 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 is an emerging trend for which there is little to no available data, we may have to rely entirely on empathetic assumptions.

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

This need was derived both from a public information standpoint and from individual companies needing to keep their customers informed of the impact on their operations.

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

“So What?”

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

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

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

Firstly, when hiring to build out our teams, we should be considering the benefits that emotional intelligence can bring not just to team dynamics, but also the quality of output.

This is particularly true of entry-level positions since it is much easier to teach SEO subject knowledge and data skills than it is to teach empathy.

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

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

In the past, I’ve leaned 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!” isn’t the humanizing take I thought it was.

Describing SEO as data-supported empathy is likely to be a much more effective way of improving our PR among content creators and copywriters.

Finally, we should recognize the heavy lifting performed by our own empathic skills, understand their value, and develop them with intention.

We put ourselves in other people’s shoes frequently, but do we assume they’re all like us?

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

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