Thinking about thinking – can metacognition help us develop better marketing strategies?

May 24th, 2018

As has lately been the case, this blog is being written because it’s a question I wanted an answer to, but couldn’t find one. Whether I can answer it, however, remains to be seen

The term ‘metacognition’ – or the process of thinking about one’s thinking – has been part of academic parlance since the 1970s (with thought on the general concept predating the coining of the term by centuries). It has informed various educational strategies and has become a primary component of some approaches to artificial intelligence (AI).

I’ve been reading bits and pieces about metacognition for decades – it crops up in areas of interest to me, such as psychology, technology, philosophy and literature – but it has lately begun cropping up more and more often when I’m planning out various articles and resources (lately occurring to me during a conversation that will at some point be released in the podcast feed).

While Click Consult spends a lot of time on the resources and posts it hosts – and that one of the reasons for the existence of these resources is a genuine commitment to furthering the general knowledge of our newsletter and blog subscribers and the industry as a whole – as a brand, Click Consult is best served by a wide range of topics, with a variety of unique keywords, within the reasonably narrow focus of search marketing.

That’s great – it’s how that specific part of SEO works, you provide your consumers with useful knowledge, you allow Google’s various spiders and robots to infer the context and usefulness of your site to a particular niche, you earn links due to high relevance and usefulness, your rankings climb, your visibility improves, your traffic grows, your profitability multiplies.

That’s great – and it works for everyone, in varying degrees. In addition to this, search marketing is almost unique in its decision to offer content that attempts to create a level of transparency around the industry’s best practices, new and emergent techniques – a sharing culture which almost certainly grew out of its origins on various fora and, until fairly recently, the lack of formal qualification in the subject.

digital degree interest over time

Recently, marketing professor Mark Ritson lamented the lack of trained, qualified marketers in search marketing – giving examples of leading influencers who tended to be programmers, mathematicians and other non-marketing specialists.

While anyone who has spoken to me on the subject will know that I see broad education to be more useful than narrow focus (in areas that don’t absolutely require narrow focus – medicine for example) – the reason, I feel, that the Renaissance saw such an explosion of innovation, was that there was little pressure for people to specialise – artists were scientists, poets were engineers, and Isaac Newton thought he could somehow practice magic.

Search marketing, while beginning as a roiling mix of disparate disciplines, in order to claim its seat at the table alongside traditional advertising and PR, began to narrow its focus. It chose, I use this verb lightly as it’s been more of an evolution, the thing it could do well – it chose measurement, tracking and targeting.

In the intervening years, search marketing got really good at this – it has pitched its stall on the basis that it can provide the best possible ROI with the greatest possible accountability.

This has undoubtedly been a boon for digital marketing – the ability to accurately assess the return on investment, not just for paid advertising but for technical and creative endeavours, has no doubt been at least partially responsible for the incredible growth that the industry has seen over the last decade.

What led me to this article, however, was the concern that the wealth of tools and the accuracy of reporting led some sections of search to become two dimensional in their approach – following tried and tested techniques (though regularly tweaked and updated). In short, the concern that some sections of the industry have stopped thinking about our thinking.


Just as traditional marketing practices failed to fully embrace diversity, leading to a failure to reach certain demographics, and took too long to realise the potential in online marketing (leading to later surges in traditional marketing agencies adding or acquiring digital arms), search marketing has perhaps been hoist by its own petard.

It may be an instance of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon – due to the fact I’ve been thinking about it, I begin to see it everywhere – but there seems to be an increasing number of agencies which prioritise artificial intelligence and machine learning in the decision making process. This has the potential to be an amazing leap, but as with past iterations of Google’s image search – which has historically returned racist results – artificial intelligence can be as biased as its creators.

A human ability that AI – to my knowledge – has yet to master is the cognitive leap from insufficient data. While this can lead to all manner of errors (no machine, for example, could have created an ad that suggests a soft drink delivered by a Kardashian could resolve US race tensions), there has to be room for the leaps that the human brain can make – especially when it comes to strategy.

While we may be able to earn great returns through full automation of paid search, while we can trust AI to iterate and test, and even to write articles (some, by this point, may well be wishing I had), I think there remains a need for human ideation in search marketing – something which traditional marketing has prided itself on since the inception of mass communication.


That is, however, going to require the industry to think about the way it thinks and for that reason we should be grateful for GDPR and the coming voice revolution, and for the moves by Google that suggest it is looking to be an answer engine rather than a search engine (looking increasingly to remove the need for a click to a website, instead seeking to answer queries directly in SERPs).

There are major changes coming to the way search and other online marketing is going to be executed, but if the industry focuses on improving the offering it has presently, then it may be left behind by agencies yet to come.

The answer, in my opinion, has to be a broadening rather than a narrowing of perspectives. While marketers should be up to date on the latest research and developments in their industry, we need to ensure that we are developing a breadth of cultural experience and academic expertise in the hope that we are responsible for and not caught out by the next big thing.

This is by no means an ‘SEO is dead’ article – it has a long and healthy life ahead of it – but I do think that there is a change coming that we may not be ready for – while we have many successes to boast about as an industry, we need to find our flaws and broaden the talent pool we draw from rather than reduce it.


The above diagram shows something referred to as the ‘Metacognition Cycle’ – something which, from my brief research tends only to be mentioned in relation to learning methods – and shows a much more reflective approach to development of strategy. This is something I came close to incorporating in to various search skills in two eBooks which sought to use the scientific method in planning and execution of strategy (The Science Behind Content Marketing), but this would take things a step further if incorporated – in that not only do we need to research, plan, execute, measure and reevaluate the approach, we also need to reflect on the task and each of the subsequent phases.

When we achieve success, it can be easy to assume success will continue – but without constant learning and reflection, it is easy to be overtaken by new developments. Search is an industry that has cemented itself as an industry which can be account for every pound spent – it needs to retain this, but it also needs to make sure it doesn’t doesn’t miss out on the next frontier. It can do this by embracing lifelong learning and, above all, by thinking about our thinking.

Click Consult prides itself on keeping ahead of the curve, trying to shape the future of search rather than chase it – it is for this reason that you’ll regularly see members of the Click team at industry conferences, and why we run the Benchmark Search Conference. To find out what we can do for your brand – contact us today.

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