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As a company or business to fully understand the complexities of SEO, it is important to consider how it works upon the intended audience. Often, one of the desired results of effective SEO is increasing a product’s relative ranking in search engine results pages (SERPs) as a means of creating a degree of differentiation of their brand from their competitors. In measuring the success of a product’s position in SERPs, a 2010 study has looked at how individuals perceive a page’s SERPs ranking. Through the synthesis of relevant literature from cognitive psychology, marketing, and e-commerce, this study has identified key contextual factors that are favourable for creating brand positioning online via SERPs.

As humans, our personal environments have developed a contextual predisposition on the way we view most things.  For example, as an employer hiring a new employee, between two equally qualified candidates, you may be more inclined to hire the person who dresses more professionally than their counterpart, as we relate certain images with certain beliefs (like the correlation of being well-dressed and being successful). Such preconceived notions stem from everyday factors such as, what we have seen in the media, how we were educated, what music we listen to, and so on. We unconsciously apply such bias to things in life which consequently affect the objectivity of our perception. An example of this can be as simple as the display of the top and second-tier brands and their relative position to each other on retail shelves.  Often it is the case that the higher quality food is positioned on the top shelf, and the poorer quality on the bottom.  This stays true to the hierarchical construct, a system which ranks one above the other according to status or authority. It is believed that product placement can lead factions of the market to create levels of distinction between comparative goods.  Such principles can be applied to SEO with industry observers proclaiming the premise of the theory is relevant to consumerism as a whole.

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For example, in accordance to Ken Lee’s 2006 article, Paying for Shelf Space in the Search Supermarket, there is growing evidence that Internet users may hold implicit knowledge about the results rankings in SERPs, that display prominence and indicates brand strength, just as they hold a schema about the meaning of retail shelf displays. In particular, Internet users expect the most relevant sources to be listed at the top of a SERP and may have been conditioned to consider the ranking of search results as indicative of the degrees of relevance to their search terms. Such beliefs are further supported by iProspect, whose 2006 industry survey indicates that a substantial portion of Internet users believe that companies whose web sites appear at the top of SERPs are the top companies in that field.

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To establish the legitimacy of these theories, Professor Wenyu Dou and his associates from the City University of Hong Kong carried out two experiments focusing on web users and their SERPs preferences, which are discussed in detail in their 2010 publication, Brand Positioning Strategy Using Search Engine Marketing.

To establish the legitimacy of these theories, Professor Wenyu Dou and his associates from the City University of Hong Kong carried out two experiments focusing on web users and their SERPs preferences, which are discussed in detail in their 2010 publication, Brand Positioning Strategy Using Search Engine Marketing.  Initially, appropriate testing for the participants was carried out to determine their internet search skill.  The distinction of “high internet search skill” and “low internet search skill” was then used to identify groups within the sample to provide conclusive results.


The first experiment involved a simulated search engine where the participants ranked the quality of the product listed in the SERPs.  The participants were primed with a brand attribute and were asked to rank the products on said attribute.  They were also tested on their ability to recall/recognise the brand.  Four products were listed, three being well-known brands and one being a fake. Through the use of appropriate SEO techniques, the fake product was manipulated to appear first in the SERPs for one group of the sample, and fourth in another.

The results of this experiment showed that of the 63 participants that had the unknown brand listed first, 33 recognised the focal unknown brand, and the 61 participants that had the unknown brand listed fourth, 18 correctly recognized the focal unknown brand.  In regards to the primed attribute, those with lower search skills found the fake brand of a higher quality when listed first instead of fourth; however those with higher internet search skills showed no significant difference.

In summary, the authors established that when internet users’ bias about the display order of search engine results are triggered through feature priming, they will have better recall of an unknown brand that is displayed before the well-known brands in SERPs.


The way experiment 2 differed from experiment 1 is its requirement for the participants to provide a ranking for both primed and unprimed attributes of the products.  Similar results were echoed in both experiments in regards to the primed attribute ranking.  However, these findings did not recur with the unprimed attribute, showing that the interaction effect of search engine display ranking, search skills, and priming only emerges for primed attributes.

With suggestive results from both experiments, it was concluded that, “those with low Internet search skills tend to evaluate the unknown brand more favourably along the particular brand attribute that activates the search engine ranking schema.” (Dou. et. al., 2010).

Overall, these results provide useful information in comprehending the effectiveness of SEO.  It highlights the ability of SEO techniques and their potential to capitalise on impressionable markets and optimise the opportunity of capturing an audience.  By understanding what triggers consumer thought it can also assist in recognising what drives consumer action.  Through the control or partial influence of an initial thought, it can assist greatly in translating interest into desired results.

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