I've seen the future of SEO and it's in the "messy middle" of the buying journey.

It is in the “chaotic middle” that people decide what to buy, according to research by Google's Market Insights team in the UK.

Now, I wish that this vision of where SEO is going in 2021 and beyond was mine. If I found that out for myself, I could ask for a lot of money to share this knowledge and wisdom with others.

Unfortunately, that blinding flash of strategic insight came when I read, “How people decide what to buy lies in the“ chaotic middle ”of the buying journey,” published in Think with Google in July 2020.

The article was written by Alistair Rennie and Jonny Protheroe who work on Google's Consumer Insights team in the UK. This 1,000-word article is a recap of her team's 98-page report, titled Deciphering Decisions: Making Sense of the Messy Middle.


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Here's the gist:

"People don't make decisions cleanly and linearly. A lot happens between the moment they realize they have a need or desire for something and the moment they make a purchase," write Rennie and Protheroe.

They call this "complex space between triggers and purchases, where customers are won and lost" the messy middle. They also report the results of their team's research on how consumers behave in this chaotic middle. And they conclude: "It's more important than ever that brands learn how to make sense of it."

I immediately realized that the "messy center" was a big idea.

And I quickly incorporated some key insights from Google's research – with the correct mapping – into a virtual class I taught at the New Media Academy in the United Arab Republic on August 13, 2020.

Now more than 20 years ago as Director of Corporate Communications at Ziff-Davis, I developed a model of how search works. In 1995, Ziff-Davis invested in Yahoo. As a result, I helped launch Yahoo Internet Life in the US, as well as Yahoo France, Yahoo Germany and Yahoo UK.


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In 1998, I found that the search had reversed Harold Lasswell's classic communication model, which focused on answering five questions:

  • Who?
  • Say something?
  • In which channel?
  • To whom?
  • With what effect?

Lasswell's classic communication model

To understand how the search works, I suggested a number of alternative questions:

  • Who?
  • Looking for what?
  • In which channel?
  • By whom?
  • With what effect?

Jarboe's alternative communication model

I still believe my model is right for 2021 and beyond.

But now I've put Google's new "messy center" model in the middle of my model – to explain why search is the channel people choose what to buy.

So, I've integrated what I learned from the Google Consumer Insights team this summer into what I've known about search for more than 20 years.


The first important result of the new Google study concerns consumer behavior: "While people research and evaluate in the chaotic middle, cognitive biases influence their shopping behavior and influence why they prefer one product to another," write Rennie and Protheroe.

While there are hundreds of such biases, Google's Consumer Insights team has prioritized the following six in its research:

  1. Heuristic category: Brief descriptions of key product specifications can make purchasing decisions easier.
  2. Power from now: The longer you have to wait for a product, the weaker the offer.
  3. Social proof: Recommendations and reviews from others can be very convincing.
  4. Scarcity bias: The lower the inventory or availability of a product, the more desirable it becomes.
  5. Authority bias: Be influenced by an expert or a trusted source.
  6. Makes you free: A free gift with purchase can be a powerful motivator, even if it has nothing to do with it.

Decipher the messy center

This particular finding will not come as a surprise to an accomplished content marketing strategist.


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But an accomplished SEO professional should also know how to apply these behavioral science principles intelligently and responsibly.

This means, for example, that we should create and optimize half a dozen different pieces of content, each taking into account the information needs and behavior of half a dozen different buyer segments, in order to win or defend our brand's market share on the messy middle.

So creating and tweaking a page or two for any product or brand is 2019.

Looking for what?

The second key takeaway wasn't actually a finding from Google's Consumer Insights team.

It was more like the "aha moment" I experienced when they casually revealed that they'd used Google Trends data to find real-world evidence of their "messy middle" model.

Hey, if you could use Google Trends to find this evidence, so can we!

The future of SEO lies in the “chaotic middle” of the buying journey

Now every well worth their money SEO professional knows that people use search to find information about a specific thing.


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However, because the amount of information available is so large, search queries are often modified with an additional word or phrase describing what the searcher wants to know about the matter.

We analyze these words or phrases to determine search intent.

Google's Consumer Insights team looked at seven key search modifiers:

  • "Ideas"
  • "Best"
  • "Difference between"
  • "Cheap"
  • "Deals"
  • "Reviews"
  • "Discount Codes"

They found that some have a more expansive intent for gathering information while others are more reductive and clearer.

So in the future, when we analyze queries to determine search intent, we now have two buckets to put them in: one for exploration and one for evaluation.

In which channel?

According to Rennie and Protheroe

“People look for information about the products and brands in a category and then weigh all options. This corresponds to two different mental modes in the chaotic center: exploration, an expansive activity and evaluation, a reductive activity. Whatever a person does in a variety of online sources such as search engines, social media, aggregators, and review websites can be categorized into either of these two mental modes. "


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They add

"People go through these two modes of exploration and evaluation, repeating the cycle as often as they need to make a purchase decision."

Google's model of the chaotic center

Therefore, SEO professionals and content marketers should immediately replace the hundred year old model of the sales funnel (awareness, interest, desire and action) with this new model of the “chaotic middle”.

By whom?

The fourth key finding is also not a finding. Marketing professionals on Google's Consumer Insights team are recommended how to succeed in the chaotic middle.


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According to Rennie and Protheroe

"Although the messy center seems like a complicated place, it's important to remember that it feels like normal shopping for consumers. (So) the goal is not to force people to do the loop shown in the model rather, giving them the information and security they need to make a decision. "

They add, "Fortunately, the approach is the same whether you're a category giant or a challenger brand."

The goals of this approach are:

  • Ensure brand presence So your product or service is strategically in the foreground while your customers explore the area.
  • Use behavioral science Principles intelligent and responsible so that your assets and messages become more compelling as customers evaluate their options.
  • Bridging the gap between trigger and buyso your existing and potential customers spend less time with competing brands.
  • Building flexible, high-performance teams Who can cross-functionally avoid traditional branding and performance silos that are likely to leave gaps in the messy center.

With what effect?

Although page 92 of “Deciphering Choices: Making a Sense of the Messy Center” briefly refers to “the importance of measurement,” Rennie and Protheroe say, “Measuring advertising effectiveness is a big topic that is beyond the scope of this report. ”

However, this does not help SEO professionals and content marketers, who also need to combine their content creation and optimization efforts with relatively blunt metrics like revenue and revenue.


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Here are the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that you recommend until better ways to measure our results are found:

  • For a branding marketing campaign, use Google surveys before and after a campaign to measure brand recovery, including brand awareness, consideration, and purchase intent.
  • For a performance marketing campaign, you should use the Google Campaign URL Builder tool to add campaign parameters to URLs in your content so that you can track custom campaigns in Google Analytics.

For what it's worth, last year I used both sets of these KPIs to measure the results of a campaign to launch a new online Masters course for Rutgers University.

Using Google Surveys before and after our campaign, we found that the percentage of respondents who said they were “familiar” with Rutgers increased from 13.8% before it started to 18.5% after it started . And we found that the percentage of respondents who said they were "very likely" to recommend Rutgers to a friend or colleague interested in an online Masters degree from Rutgers went from 16.7% before it started to 19, 0% after the start.

With the Google Campaign URL Builder tool, we found the following:


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  • Our streamlined press release had 1% of new users but generated 8% of leads.
  • Google organic search had 3% of new users but generated 19% of leads.
  • Google Ads generated 11% of new users but generated 18% of leads.
  • LinkedIn ads generated 81% of new users but generated 37% of leads.

Our case study of this campaign was named in the "Best Integrated Campaign" category of the US Search Awards 2019 and was awarded for Best Use of PR in a "Search Campaign" category.

Yes, you can measure digital PR and SEO using the same metrics and KPIs that are used for digital advertising – including pay-per-click (PPC) advertising.

And yes, you can increase brand awareness while generating leads.

Better late than never

Now I apologize for not sharing my opinion on Google's research with you so far. I was asked to correct this oversight when I recently read "Think with Google's 10 Most-Read Articles of 2020," published earlier this month.

The second largest item on the list read, "How people decide what to buy is in the 'chaotic middle' of the buying journey."


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All I can add to their strategic insights is this little tactical advice:

If learning how to understand the messy middle is more important than ever for brands, the future of SEO lies in learning how to play a critical role in this complex area where customers are won or lost.

Yes, I understand that most of the technical SEO pros are currently focused on preparing the Google Page Experience update. And if they blast their humps sometime in May 2021 to avoid a nightly bump, they may even earn a "pat on the back" from a medium-sized manager in their company or with customers.

However, SEO professionals will find it difficult to build the business case for a larger budget after improving the Core Web Vitals Scores and Page Experience Signals of their company or their customers.

Heck, the vast majority of executives in the C-suite have no idea what these technical terms mean.


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Well, maybe CTOs will realize that technical SEO pros managed to avoid disaster when the big update to the Google algorithm takes place in May 2021.

However, if you mistakenly believe that this will give you a bigger budget, ask the veterans in the IT department what they got after fixing the Y2K error that should lead to disaster than the year 1999 turned up 2000 changed Null, Zilch, Zip.

This may seem unfair. However, the cost of technical SEO is generally seen as an expense – and any CFO well worth their money tries to keep the costs under control.

Therefore, the future of SEO lies in the “chaotic middle” of the buying journey.

CMOs know the importance of finding their brand's content when deciding what to buy.

When SEO professionals learn to explain the role they – as well as the content marketing and digital PR teams – can play in the complex area of ​​winning and losing customers, they can set the business case for a create bigger budget.


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And any CMO worth their salt knows how to set up the business model for “investing” in growth.

As companies and agencies close the books by 2020, the vision of SEO and content marketing, which will play a bigger role in growth in 2021 and beyond, has never been clearer.

More resources:

Photo credit

Author's in-post picture 1 and 2, December 2020
In-post picture 3-5: thinkwithgoogle


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