Mental Models and SEO: It Is What I Think It Should Be

, July 31, 2014

Mental ModelsOver the last few years, the updates and commentary from the search engines indicate an increasing reliance on user experience (UX) for ranking. Why else would a heretic in both the UX and SEO fields be on the “Periodic Table of SEO” panel at SMX Advanced 2014?

While UX might seem like just another abstract ingredient in the chiffon pie of Web design, it does have a strong theoretical and data-driven foundation. That’s what I want to focus on in my next few posts, starting with this one about mental models and how they relate to SEO.

I Think, Therefore It Is (Apologies to Decartes)

Mental models are a favorite topic in the UX community. They were first introduced by Lord Kelvin in 1884, and first applied to 20th century psychology in 1943. This concept was made famous to user-experience professionals everywhere by Don Norman in his 1988 book “The Design of Everyday Things.” Norman describes mental models as: “The mental model of a device is formed largely by interpreting its perceived actions and its viable structure. Ideally, the user’s model and the design model are equivalent.” I know what you’re thinking…”Where are the links?” Sadly, no links, yet just as important.

As an American, when you drive somewhere in the U.S., your mental model puts you on the right side of the road. In other countries, this is not always the paradigm. Many an accident has occurred in the United Kingdom as a result of Americans mistakenly driving on the wrong side of the road, putting them at odds with oncoming traffic. This error is an example of conflicting mental models and it is what we want to avoid on our websites. When there is a disconnect between the user’s mental model of what the site’s content and functionality should be and what the user actually experiences, organic traffic drops while bounce rate increases.

Mental models are internal and personal beliefs on how technology should operate and, for the most part, this is realized. However, when innovation steps in, user mental models must be adapted. I experienced this first-hand when I moved into a new place with an oven that has a digital interface. My frustration and use of colorful language increased exponentially until I tossed in the “figure-it-out-on-my-own” towel and pulled out the user manual. When confronted with a similar situation, our website visitors don’t have a manual to reference. They will simply bounce back to the SERPs and move on to the next candidate.

Digital vs. Standard Oven

 

The Rules of Mental Models are as follows:

  1. 1. The mental model does not have to map to reality.
  2. 2. The mental model is similar in structure to what is represented.
  3. 3. The mental model is used to predict outcome, e.g. oven example: if I turn the dial, the gas burner will light, flame will appear and I will be able to heat/cook food.
  4. 4. The mental model is generally simpler than the concept represented. (This could be a loose application of Zipf’s Law of Least Effort.)

UX Designers and Information Architects gain insight into user mental models with personas, user interviews, behavioral research and (the SEO-focused ones) search behavior research. Given time and resources, a mental model diagram will be produced. This diagram maps user action and objectives to interaction points with the website. It can illuminate needs gaps, e.g. where the system is not responsive to a specific need, as well as over complexity.

Mental Models

Why Should an SEO Care?

Knowing user assumption as well as user motivation enables SEOs to participate in designing an experience that satisfies the information need while promoting engagement, two very big abstract influences on ranking. More specifically, mental model diagrams can:

  • Reduce bounce rate by meeting need.
  • Remove barriers to conversion by removing unnecessary steps, etc.
  • Open opportunity for cross-sell and up-sell with related content modeling by presenting opportunities that the user may not know about.
  • Bring users back to the site because it is so useful and they don’t have to work hard to figure things out.

So, take a user-centered approach to your SEO by finding out what your user’s mental model is about the site or the products. You will make a friend of your UX designer or IA. Plus, optimizing for mental models is a good for your users’ experience and that is relevant to Google these days.

Resources:

“What is Your Mental Model?” http://boxesandarrows.com/what-is-your-mental-model/

“Mental Models” http://www.nngroup.com/articles/mental-models/


Author bio: Marianne Sweeny is a Search Information Architect at Portent Inc. She is passionate about optimizing the user search experience on the Web or inside the enterprise firewall. Marianne’s last article for SEMrush was “PageRank, We Hardly Knew Ye.