Four Common Psychological Tricks Used to Keep You Online

Websites and apps regularly make use of psychological tactics to keep you coming back for more.
Christopher McFadden

Internet-based companies and apps have developed some very devious methods to keep you going back online. Whilst most of them are obvious, once you know about them, actually resisting them is a lot harder.

In the following article, we'll uncover four of the most common ones and explain how they work so effectively. You might want to consider integrating them into your own website if you have one. 


How do I keep visitors on my website?

Apart from the regular techniques of providing good quality information or great design, there are some other psychological tactics you can employ. You effectively want to create a space that people want to keep coming back to or stay on.

You should also strive to provide a solution to a problem or need. This is as true for any business as it is for a website.

A Stanford psychologist, BJ Fogg, explains, that you should aim to meet three basic criteria to make someone do something you want. These are: 

- You need to motivate them to action. Sometimes called a call-to-action, this will prompt a user to do what you want, in this case, stay;

- You will need the means to do something. This often means giving them the ability to do something, and "keep it simple stupid";

- You should provide some kind of trigger to prompt them to do what you want. 

Smartphone apps are a perfect example of exploiting the above. And, the more you think about it the more you'll notice similar mechanisms on other websites.

How long will users stay on a web page before leaving?

This will completely depend on your website. If it doesn't provide any quality information, decent products, or service they 'need,' it is unlikely users will stay for very long. 

The best way to keep people online is to follow one of the many guides online for a good website and content design. Make use of your website's analytics, or Google's, to get an idea of how many people visit, how long they stay, and which pages are most popular. 

Analyze why this might be and rinse and repeat for the poorer performing pages, products, and services.

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Can websites track your browsing history?

You probably won't be surprised to learn that they can, and often do. This is usually achieved using things called cookies, HTTP referrers, IP trackers, and others.

But they are not just for nefarious reasons. Cookies are also used to store small bits of information like login details etc. They are also used to track your personal usage on their website. 

The really problematic ones are third-party cookies. These are the ones that tend to be used for advertising purposes etc.

How do I stop Internet tracking?

There are various ways to stop internet tracking if it bothers you — these range from toggles on your smart device to tweaking settings on Google or websites.

You can also consider using other search engines like DuckDuckGo or make use of a VPN to prevent this from happening.

1. Mix things up - Using random rewards

keep you online reward
Source: Marion Doss/Flickr

One great tactic companies use to keep you online is to entice you to keep scrolling by using random rewards. If they can, at least in theory, keep the process relatively unpredictable you are less likely to become bored and click away.

The tactic is called "operant conditioning" and it is far more sophisticated than simple classical conditioning (detailed later). For this reason, it is highly effective and commonly employed. 

By way of example, many notifications will simply do that, give you a notification. It won't detail what has occurred, which piques your curiosity. 

In order to find out, you must click on the notification and be directed to the app or website to get your reward. This, like many, is a learned response and one that is reinforced over time. 


2. Look at the monkey - Decoy tactics

keep you online decoy
Source: Carl Vanhook/Flickr

This tactic, whilst not exclusively for keeping you hooked online,it is to attempt to persuade you to buy something. After all, for internet-based companies, no sales/income means no business.

This is a timeless classic in the world of sales. Let's say you want to sell a particular product or service. One way is to use another decoy product to make the one you are trying to sell more enticing.

An example was given in a TED Talk by a behavioral economist (yes they do exist), Dan Ariely. 

Let's say you produce an ad featured three subscription levels: $59 for online only, $159 for print only, and $159 for online and print.

By using the decoy method, the print only option only exists to make the online and print option look more attractive. 

You might want to consider a similar tactic yourself. If you have not got any sales from your higher-ticket priced items, consider adding a third dummy one to funnel sales to the one you really want to sell.

3. Get a hit with the trigger-action-reward mechanism

Web and app designers and online-based companies like to use strategies that tap into your innate compulsion to binge. It's the same mechanism that keeps you hooked reading a book or compulsively watch a TV series on something like Netflix.

By harnessing its power, developers have been able to keep you coming back for more on social media. You'll find yourself, usually unconsciously, constantly checking your updates, scrolling through news feeds, and clicking on content that catches your eye.

For smartphones, this trigger-action-reward system is very effective indeed:

- You receive a notification (the trigger);

- You then click on the app (which is the action);

- By doing this, you'll be given an instant hit of dopamine as you see that someone has liked a photo, replied to a comment, etc. 

By constantly building this kind of mechanism into apps and websites, companies ensure you keep coming back for more. 

4. Pavlovian dog techniques

This one ties into the trigger-action-response tactic mentioned above. You've probably heard of Pavlov and his famous dog experiments.

In his experiment, Ivan Pavlov found that by ringing a bell every time he fed a dog, they would eventually learn to make an association between the two events. It was such a strong learned response that dogs would actually salivate on hearing the bell. 

The use of noises and light notifications on your smart devices is a classic example of conditioning. What do you instinctively do when you hear your phone beep or buzz? 

That's right; you instantly reach for it to check what's up. Whilst you might not salivate, at least we hope not, it is a tactic widely used around the globe. 

These companies have effectively trained us to respond positively (for them) by checking your phone and go online. Despite the fact that the notification/event might not be that important or interesting.  

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