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Google Gets Personal with Everyone

John Fairley

google personalized searchGoogle has rolled out a dramatic new feature called “Personalized Search”. This new feature impacts all users, even if they are logged out, on the most popular search engine in the world. Search Marketers and Search Engine Optimization practitioners need to take notice and potentially adjust their search strategies.

What is Personalized Search?

Google’s Personalized Search attempts to tailor the search results for a query to each individual based upon the information Google has previously collected for that user. Collected information includes, but is not limited to a user’s geographic location, past search history and websites visited.

For example, if I live in New York and search for "Pizza Restaurant", with personalized search, the results will skew towards websites that have a physical presence in New York. Any California pizza restaurants in the results are less relevant to the New York searcher and thus will rank lower for the user’s search.

But personalized search goes beyond utilizing a searcher’s location. Take the classic example of a search for the word “Java”. Is the user searching for information about the country, computer programming language or coffee? If many of the user’s past searches and websites visited are programming language related, then Google can factor that information in and include more Java programming related websites in the results for the search.

What does this mean for me as a user?

As with almost any change, there are positives and negatives. As long as you don’t deviate too far from your prior web usage behavior, your search results will be highly targeted towards what Google has already learned about you. But if you share your computer with someone, have a change in your life such as losing a job or you tell a friend to search Google for something that you just found there, the results may be less than ideal.

If I am a business user, will Personalized Search help or hamper me in discovering new business opportunities or threats via Google’s search engine? This is a big unknown right now. Businesses use search as an intelligence gathering tool, but Personalized Search may devalue or inflate the perceived value of a business or solution that was found through search. Is Google returning the best results for a search for a “Data Backup Tool” or one that’s more appealing to me based upon my prior web activity?

Privacy and Potential Lawsuits?

The publicity around Google’s Personalized Search will also bring more scrutiny in the area of privacy. People are already concerned that Google knows so much about them based upon their usage of search. But most web users have no idea that because of the widespread use of Google’s free analytics tool, that is already embedded into the majority of websites, that Google knows which websites they visit, what content they look at and how long they visit each website. Once this information becomes more widely known, expect lawmakers and privacy advocates to push back.

Will end users file lawsuits based upon their perceived discrimination of results in search queries? This last point may be far fetched, but I wouldn’t put it past someone to argue that Google’s Personalized Search kept them from accessing/discovering information that put them at a disadvantage.

What does this mean for SEOs?

Over the years, major shifts in how search engines rank results have regularly led pundits to claim that SEO is dead. Personal Search being rolled out to everyone won’t kill SEO, but some search strategies may have to evolve.

SEOs that encounter more difficulty in delivering quality search traffic in the age of Personal Search may begin to shift more dollars to paid search. Conspiracy theorists may say that this was Google’s intention all along.

In addition, the days of measuring SEO results by checking website rankings are generally over. Tracking ranking results with Personal Search deactivated can still provide a somewhat useful baseline, but there are more relevant metrics to focus on.

The metrics SEOs should be focusing on are traffic, bounce rates, engagement, loyalty and ultimately conversions on search traffic. The smart SEOs started focusing on these metrics long ago. These metrics tell a better ROI story than measuring search rankings for industry terms.