book cover zero degrees of emapthy

Define: Empathetic SEO

I’ve recently been inspired by Simon Baron-Cohen’s book Zero Degrees of Empathy to codify some of my thoughts about White Hat SEO in the context of many SEO’s having defective cognitive and affective empathy towards Google.


Keep your friends close and enemies closer; That’s the old cliché, but I want to redefine that in the context of a SEO mindset. How can being closer to Google and engaging your ‘empathy mode’ make you a better SEO? First lets define Empathy like this:

“Our ability to identify what someone else is thinking, and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion [ed: and action]”.

- Simon Baron-Cohen 

Lack of empathy in humans leads to narcissism, and Psychopathy among other things; while I’m not saying that Black Hats are Narcissistic Psychopaths, I am suggesting that if you objectify a person or entity (Google in this case) and don’t consider their needs, you will only ever propagate the destructive relationship which we currently see today.

Using empathy we can get the results we want, while starting to mend relationships between Google and webmasters.

What is Empathetic SEO?

Right now Empathetic SEO is not a well defined, or even well-known ‘thing’. But rather, it’s just one aspect of thinking I’ve cultivated over time.

A quick Google on “Empathetic SEO” turns up a related page by Dan Shure, called “The Underappreciated Aer of Empathy“, which is a good, but focused on empathising with clients and the SEO community, which isn’t my focus… I want to get rankings via empathy with Google.

Even on a purely game theory/economic level, If you think of what Google desires, and how it ‘feels’, that puts you in a more powerful negotiating position with them, makes sense right? The more your SEO understands and cares about Google’s business model and desires, the better of an SEO they will be. End of.

Knowing the story of Goolge/SEO from the start, from the front lines allows the experienced SEO empathise and more accurately foresee the many changes rolled out on a regular basis. Not only that but they can understand the reasoning behind the changes and empathise with the logic. If you can do that too you will be a better SEO.

How to do Empathetic SEO

Its quite simple really.

1: Recognise what Google is feeling

Use your cognitive empathy – that is your ability to recognise what someone is feeling/thinking.

“…“cognitive empathy,” simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called perspective-taking, this kind of empathy can help in, say, a negotiation or in motivating people.”

2: Respond Appropriately

2a: Evolve or Die

In Humans (even in monkeys) acting to the mutual benefit of all members of the economy evolutionarily speaking has been a way to ensure we developed into a planet conquering species. In the case of SEO’s the old days of Black Hat tactics went directly in the face of what Google was trying to achieve, effectually to circumnavigate what google was trying to do for your own exclusive gain (money via rankings).

That path, to a degree, has lead to a toxic relationship between Google and SEOs. We didn’t think about how google was feeling, or what they were trying to achieve, but rather only about our own needs. Eventually, as technology moved forwards and google grew, the only possible end game is being reached – google is winning the arms race against un-empathetic Black Hat SEO’s in both the PR world and the Technology world too.

Penguin, panda, and now javascript crawling are all moving us closer to the end game where those who are trying to cheat will fail, and those who understand and work WITH Google will be winning.

2b: Ask yourself WDGW (what does Google want)

A lot of what I’m saying bring us back to the type of ‘white hat’ and inbound SEO,  terms I think encompass a lot of the empathetic thinking, which Rand Fishkin and people like HubSpot espouse.

In short, Google wants high quality, engaging, well marked up, original, easy to index, quick to load, peer-reviewed, authoritative content and tools that solve problems and answer queries. Do your marketing well, and put a layer of SEO strategy throughout it like a seam of gold… help Google help you get recognised for doing the awesome things you do.

2c: Ask yourself WDUW (what do users want)

If you start thinking “What Does Google Want”, you will quickly notice its actually tightly correlated with what visitors actually want too. A bonus here is its actually even easier to empathise with Users wants and needs… try spending time talking to some of your users, survey them, call them and research your market. Empathise with their needs and you will not only make content that ranks well, but a product that might actually make a difference and help someone in the real world… and I don’t mind telling you that, this is the most effective SEO method there is long term.

Bear in mind your users are on a journey. Have empathy for the user when you are creating your keyword list. Create a list which caters for those at every stagtheirthere life cycle… begineers may be feeling trepidation, intermediates may be feeling frustrated with the market, advanced users may feel they are being ignored by your company after investing a lot of time in your tech.

How do you feel? who are you? I don’t really know…

  • If you are a black hatter, you might feel a little under attack, and so i’ve toned down my more emotive language around this topic
  • If you are New to SEO, you might not have a clue as to what half the words im using are and are confused, so i’ve included lots of links
  • If you are a White Hat I hope i’ve given you a new way to talk about SEO, and that i’ve renforced your sense of righteousness but kept that within a business/ROI context.

The Future for Empathetic SEOs

A final bonus to acting this way is your Sites will/should rank well forever, not just until Google figures out all your links are from link schemes relying on javascript rendered hrefs, in spun content, on ‘bought’ in high PR expired EMD domains.

IMHO, Google is only going to get better at kicking those whole don’t play nice. The days of the rouge SEO earning Millions from shady secret techniques are gone… they’ve been gone a long time now. SEO is now much more of a marketing optimisation and channel marketing function, respect the relationship between Yourself, Google and Users and you will reap the rewards long term.

Long term, empathy = ROI

Image Credit: Empathy | boxman| CC2

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