Confirmation Bias — What People are REALLY Searching for

Sarah Presch April 29, 2024

There’s more to search intent than informational, transactional, navigational, and commercial keywords. Psychology has shown that people are actually looking for information that confirms their existing beliefs. This phenomenon is called confirmation bias, and I’m going to walk you through what it is, how it feeds into online misinformation, and why we, as SEOs, are responsible for doing something about it.

Part 1: A Short Psychology Lesson

We’re going to start off with a short psychology lesson. This isn’t because I want to bore the socks off you, but understanding some of these basic concepts will help give you a lot of context for the rest of this blog post.

What are cognitive biases?

Cognitive biases are errors in thinking, which we’re often unaware of, which impact our ability to make rational judgments. There are hundreds of cognitive biases, and we come across them in pretty much every single aspect of our lives. But why do they happen? To put it simply, as humans, we are not very good at making quick rational decisions. If we debated every single decision we made, from opening the fridge to deciding what book to read, we’d never get anything done. So, to help us out we use something called heuristics. Heuristics are mental shortcuts that help us make decisions faster. They’re good enough for quick everyday decisions, but because they work so much faster than rational decisions, they’re often prone to error, which is where biases come in. Now, you may be thinking that you’re not biased – but unfortunately, everyone is. And by recognizing these biases, you can do your best to mitigate the impact they have.


To help us make sense of the world, humans categorize everything from objects to people. These categories are called mental schemas, and every time we come across something or someone new, we categorize them and update our existing mental schemas.

A good example of a mental schema is trees. You categorize different types of trees into your tree schema, so while apple trees, Christmas trees, and oak trees are all different, your brain knows that they’re all trees.

Categorization and schema

Social identity theory

Social identity theory is a social psychology theory by psychologist Henri Tajfel and this links in very closely with categorization. Social Identity Theory states that people have their personal identities, and on top of this, they have their social identity. It’s no surprise that people’s identities are a vital part of what makes a person unique. To take this a step further, people get a sense of self-worth from their social identity which is why people go to great lengths to cement their social identity amongst friends and online.

With these identities, people categorize themselves and each other into different social groups, and this is where the us vs them rhetoric comes from. People have a preference for their social groups and people like them (in-group preference) but dislike people and groups they perceive as different (dislike for out-groups). This is where comparison and stereotyping come in and lead to conflict between groups as we saw with vaxxers vs antivaxxers during Covid. If not dealt with, this us vs them rhetoric can lead to disastrous consequences like the Holocaust, the war in Yugoslavia, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and many more modern-day catastrophes.

social learning theory

How search works

As SEOs, we all know search works. However, from a psychological perspective, we need to look at that a little differently. The cognitive process is as follows:

diagram of how search works

How content is distributed

To understand what sort of an impact search has, we need to look at SEO within a much larger context. We can see that SEO sits at the intersection between owned media, earned media, and paid media. This may sound like it’s stating the obvious, but it’s vital we keep this in mind when we’re creating SEO content that has the potential to be seen by millions of people.

And this is where the problem starts.

Online marketing content distribution

Part 2: Confirmation Bias Case Study

What is confirmation bias?

Confirmation bias is the human tendency to search for, interpret, and remember information that confirms our existing beliefs.

what is confirmation bias As humans, we are tuned to dislike what we don’t know. Having your views challenged is uncomfortable, and people will go to great lengths to avoid these kinds of feelings.

Online information, vaccinations, and misinformation

When you create content for SEO, you never really think about the long-term impacts your content has. SEOs just tend to focus on getting as much content out there as possible and increasing our online presence. The issue is that these kinds of strategies, especially when you add AI into the mix, have very real consequences.

Vaccinations have seen their fair share of debates, especially since the covid pandemic. From people not vaccinating their children due to fears injections may cause autism (which was proven to be untrue) to fake news about the covid vaccine, vaccination rates are at an all-time low. This is especially dangerous not just for unvaccinated children, but vaccinated populations and has led to the return of diseases that were previously eradicated by vaccinations.

But how does this link to online information? Studies have revealed that:

How come online information is making such a big, and sometimes dangerous, impact?

Let’s look back to how people search. We looked at people making a search, evaluating what they want to read, evaluating all the info, and then making a decision based on what they found.

In reality, however, the processes that go on inside people’s brains are powered by confirmation bias. When it comes to selecting which information they want to look at, people choose sources purely based on their personal values and goals. This leads to searchers exploring irrelevant sites and looking for information that confirms their beliefs. People are not motivated to critically verify online information and rely on subjective characteristics to evaluate said content.

This is problematic because users tend to share information without checking its credibility. Users also knowingly share misinformation because it confirms their pre-existing views, and uncritically accept friends’ recommendations as a form of self-justification.

the psychology behind how people search

This happens because of:

Google’s role in the spread of misinformation

Before the days of the internet, the only place people could get information about vaccinations was through their health provider, with information written by a health expert. However, with the growth of the internet, it’s given rise to a plethora of information that isn’t centrally controlled. This causes problems because anyone can just become an author, and these unqualified articles can be shared on a very large scale.

There have been several experiments done to explore the connection between confirmation bias and online searches. So, I decided to replicate a number of these to see if the way you phrased a certain keyword would give you different results. And as you will see, the results are shocking.

I started off by researching the link between coffee and hypertension. The first time around, I searched for “no link between coffee and hypertension”. You can see that the featured snippet reflected my search, confirming that caffeine doesn’t have a long-term effect on blood pressure.

SERP for the link between coffee and hypertension

Next, I decided to see if it would give me the same results if I switched the search term to “link between coffee and hypertension”. Here you can see another featured snippet, saying that caffeine may cause a short but dramatic increase in your blood pressure. Once again, the SERP has confirmed my existing belief. However, something seems a bit off – both of these results are from the same URL. So, what’s correct?! To answer this question, I decided to dig a little deeper.

SERP for link between coffee and hypertension

Can children get seriously ill with covid?

This time I wanted to look at something a little bit more black and white – Covid. I chose something close to my heart as my daughter (8 at the time) ended up in intensive care after catching covid. She was symptomless and had no underlying health conditions, but it spread to her heart. I remember being so angry whenever anyone told me that children can’t get covid.

The first keyword I looked up was “children not getting seriously ill with covid”. As you can see, this featured snippet confirmed the searcher’s belief saying that children rarely develop serious cases of COVID-19, and those who do often suffer from other serious medical problems.

SERP for children not getting seriously ill with covid

I then looked up “children getting seriously ill with covid”. While there was no featured snippet for this keyword, it clearly read that some children can develop severe or life-threatening conditions, once again confirming what the user searched for.

SERP for serious side effects of covid in children

You can probably see by now, that things are getting a bit dangerous.

Does sugar cause ADHD?

To really test this out, I decided to search for something that many people believe but has long been proven to be untrue. When I searched for “does sugar cause ADHD”, you can see that Google’s put up a warning saying that sugar does not cause ADHD which is great. However, it goes downhill when you read the featured snippet which says that people who eat more sugar have more ADHD symptoms. Psychologically, people will ignore the warning, and confirm their existing belief that sugar causes ADHD.

SERP for is sugar caused by ADHD

Looking at it the other way around, I searched for “ADHD not caused by sugar”. Here the featured snippet reads that studies have found little to no evidence that sugar influences ADHD symptoms.

Which featured snippet is correct?! Obviously the scientific one, but why is Google showing two completely different featured snippets, featuring the same URL? It’s especially worrying that Google will feed the searcher misinformation to confirm their existing points of view.

SERP for adhd not caused by sugar

What about non-English results?

I wanted to check if the same warnings we saw in my previous example worked in foreign languages, so decided to do a search in Czech. I searched for “the link between ADHD and food” and as you can see, I didn’t get the same warning as I did in English.

This is even more problematic because my home country doesn’t have as much awareness around ADHD as say in the US and UK, and rumors are rife blaming sugar for ADHD. It’s no surprise that the first result stated:

“Are you energized? Or, on the contrary, depressed, tired, and irritated? Sugar is to blame for everything. One rule is certain, the higher the blood sugar rises after a meal…”

If you believed the rumors and then read that sugar is to blame for everything, this SERP would confirm your existing belief that there’s a link between ADHD and food/sugar. This is extremely worrying because people don’t have the knowledge about ADHD to form a more informed judgement about the topic and this once again leads to the spread of misinformation.

SERP for link between sugar and adhd czech

What if I did another search for “no link between food and ADHD”? Unsurprisingly, that search revealed that there is no link between food ingredients and ADHD according to official studies. Again, Google has featured exactly the same website but served me a completely different result.

SERP for No link between sugar and adhd czech

This is not only worrying, it shows that the content we create can so easily feed into people’s beliefs and have extremely serious impacts.

What can we do to combat confirmation bias and misinformation?

While I personally believe that Google should be doing so much more to combat the rise of misinformation, we must be realistic and understand the limitations of the internet. The internet is funded by advertising revenue, technologies such as social media have been designed to retain our attention, and sadly, money is what matters, and sensational content sells.

Quote the structural features of the internet will always encourage the circulation of content not on the basis of truthfulness but on its capacity to generate more revenue

There are a number of techniques that psychologists have tested to try and curb the spread of misinformation, including:

What can we do as SEOs

As SEOs, we create a lot of the content people find online and are the ones directly responsible for it showing at the top of the SERPs. Therefore, we have a responsibility to ensure that we’re not feeding into misinformation.

We can take steps to combat this by firstly, improving our own media literacy. We can do this by:

We can also take a number of steps, including:

Final thoughts

As you can see, we are often the last line of defense between the user and misinformation in the SERPs. If we educate ourselves on the dangers of confirmation (and other) bias, we can not only become better SEOs, but we can make the internet a much better place. As I finished my brightonSEO talk with, let’s work together to save the internet rather than ruin it.