Social proof and search marketing – winning the click

What is social proof?

Social proof is when people in ambiguous social situations have their actions guided by the assumption that other people are better informed about a situation than them.

There are countless examples of social proof in action offline:

  • While people hate canned laughter in TV shows research has shown that a programme with canned laughter is perceived by the audience as being funnier than the same programme without it. 
  • The entire sponsorship industry is based around social proof. By associating itself with Lewis Hamilton, Santander is making an explicit attempt to appear successful, important and dynamic. The implied cognition is 'if Lewis Hamilton is aligning himself with Santander it must be a great company'.
  • Bar staff will often 'seed' their tips jars so that patrons can see that others have contributed money, making them more likely to follow suit.
  • In one famous experiment a man gazed up at the sky while passersby ignored him. When four more 'sky-gazers' were added passersby stopped and looked at the sky too. The experiment had to be aborted when the crowd of sky-gazers swelled to traffic-halting proportions.

This surrendering of personal will and the inclination towards herd behaviour and positive association is incredibly powerful. The phenomenon of social proof can be equally as powerful if used to attract more customers through search.


Social proof in search

When a consumer conducts a search in Google the action is by its very nature ambiguous. After all, if the consumer knew what and where they wanted to buy it's likely they'd have taken the direct route to the vendor's site, and skipped search. With the initial search the consumer demonstrates that they need more information about products or vendors. They are at a stage in the buying cycle where they have more questions than answers and are therefore more susceptible to persuasion.

At this point, then, everything your brand and site communicates to that searcher either moves them closer to or further away from choosing to buy from you. 'Choosing' in this context refers to a searcher selecting and clicking on your listing in a search engine results page (SERP) and deciding to buy from you.

Example - Direct Line

Let's use the car insurer Direct Line as an example of how social proof can be used in search marketing to alleviate this ambiguity and compel a searcher to choose a product.

Direct Line's paid search ad copy (figure 1) focuses on a 10% cost saving. But this isn't very compelling as it simply states Direct Line is 10% cheaper than Direct Line used to be, which only compels people to compare prices elsewhere. They might go to, for example, which doesn't feature Direct Line (the insurer only engages with consumers directly).

Fig 1 Paid search


The copy in the natural search advert (figure 2) is even worse, saying nothing about why you should consider Direct Line for your insurance needs. Neither of the ads make a consumer think Direct Line is worthy of their consideration.

Fig 2 Natural search


Direct Line would do well to explore alternative ad copy using social proof as the influencing concept. This would communicate to potential customers that people in their position are all choosing Direct Line. Remember, people assume other people in the same situation have more knowledge than they do about areas they aren't experts in. So demonstrating that Direct Line is incredibly popular would work extremely well.

Put another way, doesn't the fact Direct Line sells a policy every 10 seconds and is the largest direct insurer in the UK make it a company you'd want to consider? Direct Line should use these examples of social proof in their paid and natural search ad copy. 

The comparison between Direct Line's current paid and natural search ad copy - and how it might read if it contained social proof - is striking.

Figure 3 Paid search


Figure 4 Paid search with social proof


Figure 5 Natural search


Figure 6 Natural search with social proof

Figure 7 Natural search with social proof


The social proof is used to excellent effect, with the emphasis on Direct Line's pole position in the marketplace. Popularity promotes popularity and if people are buying something en masse it convinces others that it's likely to be the right option for them too. A further point is that price competitiveness is implied here rather than explicitly stated, in direct contrast to nearly every other search ad in the space.
You should also acknowledge the greater character length afforded by natural search listings and ad copy when you're selecting which pieces of social proof evidence to use. Google allows 25 characters for a paid search title versus 60 for natural search, and 70 characters for paid search ad copy compared to 150 for natural search.

Social proof - the click through and beyond

So you've demonstrated enough social proof to win the click-through. The next step is demonstrating even more social proof in your page content to persuade the visitor to transact with you. You'll find the methods of displaying social proof within your landing pages - be it to win the click or win the conversion - below. You could wax lyrical about being:

  • award winning
  • a member of an important club or group
  • the fastest-growing organisation in your industry
  • endorsed by famous celebrities or by experts
  • the most subscribed-to organisation (if you were an online magazine or discount code site for example)
  • the longest-standing organisation
  • the most positively reviewed by consumers
  • the most editorialised
  • the manufacturer of a bestselling product
  • partners with a better-known company
  • featured on an important league table
  • heavily embedded in your sector's community (user generated content on your site for example)
  • much loved by your clients (client testimonials)
  • considered a thought leader (if you have a blog get important people to guest contribute).

Given the character limits, you should use no more than two statements aimed at harnessing social proof in your search ad copy. So, select the two most powerful examples and make them central to your ads' messaging. However, you need to include as many social proof angles as possible within your site - and its core landing pages specifically - to lead the potential consumer reassuringly to the point of conversion.

Internal and external social proof

The compelling things you say on your site and in your ads represent what at Greenlight we call 'internal social proof'. That's because you have complete control over what you say, and how you say and demonstrate it (through awards and testimonials etc).

There is, however, another equally powerful type of social proof. External social proof is instigated by third party publishers i.e. people you do not directly employ but who run other sites, such as review sites, blogs and newspapers.

If you were trying to decide whether a particular restaurant was appropriate for a special dinner you might look at their site and discover it was a celebrity's favourite restaurant (great social proof). To confirm you're making the right decision you might take a look at third party sites such as and, and if you found that ordinary diners hated the food and service you'd be unlikely to book the restaurant. So the restaurant in question had demonstrated enough internal social proof to achieve the click-through, but had failed to demonstrate enough external social proof to convert the sale. Don't make the same mistake!

The moral of the story is you need to be proactive about generating both internal and external social proof. Utilise your social proof artillery in your search campaigns wherever possible but also defend yourself from anything that diminishes its impact. Because if you don't have external social proof covered your excellent internal social proof will have been in vain.

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