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The SEO guide to Google personalized search

Written by David Harry   
Monday, 07 December 2009 14:18

Some facts to help keep your sanity

If there is one area I’d consider myself an authority on, it’s personalized search. Actually, behavioural signals in general (implicit/explicit) are an area that I do a LOT of reading (and research) in. We’ve gone as far as actually testing against Google’s personalized search (on two occasions) to see exactly how much it was being implemented (surprisingly little). It seems that the folks at Google are taking it to a new level.

On Friday the folks at Google made an announcement relating to Psearch

Today we're helping people get better search results by extending Personalized Search to signed-out users worldwide, and in more than forty languages. Now when you search using Google, we will be able to better provide you with the most relevant results possible.” - Google Blog

This is kind of interesting on a few levels;

  • We’re wondering (at the Dojo) if this really is something recent as we have been seeing evidence of personalization when not logged in for a short while now… so it’s possible it was rolled out on some data centers before others.
  • Deeper personalization requires more processing power; does that mean this is somehow related to the Caffeine update.

The main point here is that people know longer need to be logged into Google to see modified results. You will know when a set of results is modified when the ‘View Customizations’ link is inserted in the SERP. Like so;

Google personalized search for all
(care of Search Engine Land)

Dawn of a new age?

As I write this there are already visions of the spate of feckin’ posts that will come out this week with crap like ‘Rankings are dead’ – ‘Everyone gets a different SERP’. Let’s stop that one right here and now.... Let’s not start that funeral procession just yet my friends. You see in some of our past testing (can be found here) we established that;

For starters it is worth noting that we looked at a small set of related informational queries; there is more testing to be done. That being said, here are a few initial findings;

  • No 2 SERPs the same; of interest is that there was a constant state of flux and regardless of the searchers location (within the US) each set of results were unique.
  • No SERP unrest; with the above in mind, there wasn’t massive movement. It was often more re-ranking of the top 10 results than having totally different sets of urls in each.
  • Top dogs; while there was movement, the top 3-4 results were often very consistent with minor re-rankings. The 5-10 positions were far more likely to have larger re-ranking anomalies. 
  • Personalization is a kitten; not a dragon. Another interesting finding is that personalization wasn’t having as much of an affect as many have felt it would. Yes, there was evidence of high levels of re-ranking, but the re-rankings with PS off weren’t greatly different from those with it turned on.

The important take-way here is that this is NOT a wholesale change of SERP results from one user to another. This will obviously vary on different query types, but from what we saw, it wasn’t the SEO killer that some have feared. It is a far more subtle change and we should not start professing that the game has changed.
Let us remember, they are not saying that the way they calculate personalization has changed, merely the presentation (ie; logged in/out makes no difference).

Yes, me and the gang in the SEO Dojo will be doing some more testing to make sure… But my suspicion is that personalization levels haven’t changed from the testing we did earlier this year.

Google Personalized Search

Levels of personalization

Ok, so what exactly constitutes personalized search? For the sake of making sure we’re on the same page, let’s take a look at some of the common elements that play into personalization;

Types of Personalization


  • Localized TLD
  • IP address
  • Query analysis


  • Browser
  • OS capabilities
  • Cookies?
  • Toolbar?

Time based

  • Time of day
  • Time of year
  • Historical data


  • Query history
  • SERP interaction
  • Selection and bounce rates
  • Interactions with advertising
  • Surfing habits (frequent surfer – fresher results)


Possible personalizations

Social Search

  • Bookmarks (and sharing)
  • Reader (and sharing)
  • Voting/SERP manipulation/sharing tools

Demographic (including geo-graphic)

  • Service account (a profile on a search engine service)
  • Toolbar data (auto-fill)
  • Search patterns (query types)

Surfing history (implicit data)

  • Non search referrer
  • Tracked via toolbar/browser
  • Interactions with site
  • Personalized PageRank
  • Behavioural data
  • Categorized segmentation
  • HarmonicRank

Now this isn’t a blue print for Google. The above elements are simply some of the many that search engineers look at through various papers/patents I’ve come across. The main thing is that you understand better how search engines work. Personalized search can be about a great many factors, not simply ‘search history’ or ‘surfing behaviour’.

If you, the fastidious SEO, are to truly grasp the implications and applications you need to be wary of the many factors which are at play. There is no tool that will teach you about how they all work together and where they are going. Understanding personalization is almost a strategic or artistic endeavour.

I’ve listed a ton of other reading at the end… get to know this stuff!

The Spam Connection

One of the more interesting parts about implicit/explicit user feedback is that it can be VERY effective in dealing with spam. The more personalized the results, the less chance that spammy domains will be ranking. This is VERY important.

Not only will this enable them to help limit spam through personalization, it would also be a great source of query/click analysis for Google. Consider that the click data across multiple users shows that a given entry in a query space rarely is clicked, or shows a high bounce rate; they might just use that signal as a dampening factor for said result. Yes, I did say ‘bounce rate’ lol…

That’s what is VERY interesting for me. I have long had a love hate relationship with Google’s use of behavioural data – the main reason was spammability and processing power. I’ve long held the belief that we wouldn’t see them being adopted until those issues were dealt with.

Between deeper personalization and greater processing power (of Cafiene) we might just be at the dawn of a new age. That’s VERY exciting news for this geek.

What you can do

Obviously there will be lots of talk about what we can do to better align ourselves (and client’s websites) to make the most of a more personalized world. Here are some things to areas that will become increasingly important;

  • Demographics
  • Relevance Profile
  • Keyword Targeting/Phrase Strategies.
  • Quality Content
  • Search Result Conversion
  • Freshness
  • Print Page/bookmark me/social
  • Site Usability
  • Analytics

For more details on the above, be sure to read this post on the Art of Personalized Search Optimization (from 2007, still holds up tho’).

If you are already knee deep in Content Strategy, incorporating Social and otherwise maxing out engagement levels, I can’t see that you have much to be concerned about. Using implicit data gives greater insight into user satisfaction (on paper at least) and those already moving in this direction should be fine. If your Dont be confused still pushing borderline MFA sites and link spamming for love; it may be time to reconsider the approach.

As far as setting goals is concerned, let’s look at the take-away from our recent research;

  • Top 1-4 spots are safest
  • Top 5-10 are secondary targets
  • Check multiple geo-targeted data centers for rank checking
  • Rankings to traffic ratios are ineffective
  • Consider query revisions when targeting (Analytics/Google suggest anyone?)
  • Over-all search traffic growth is a more important metric than rankings (as always)

Remember, Google stated they’ve changed the presentation, not the processing. Until we have new data to the contrary I will still be working from that assumption. We’re not going to see major upheaval (yet?).

What’s next?

In researching this entry, I came across and interesting statement from the post; Beware: Google is watching you!


Imagine a world of Google Search where each person/computer received a different set of results? Or sets of query results that were fluid and more alive? No longer could the Search Optimizer simply use tried and true techniques to rank a given site, identifying probabilistic models, themes and demographics would become a talent to be learned.

The SERPs (search engine results page) would be a more fluid environment and rankings would be a moving target. All of a sudden end user behavioural metrics (bounce rates, conversions, frequency) would play a role in ranking of documents to individual users or sets of user groups” – yours truly, Dec. 2007


That was back some 2 years ago. Which was followed up with;

You see, there are many ways to aggregate data other than a logged-in Google Account user; such as the Google Toolbar, IP addresses, cookies and more recently, the Google computer and Google Mobile (dubbed Android) possibilities are endless. This proliferation of Google services embedded in such devices means there is even more access to conversion or performance data relating to natural search results.” – yours truly, Dec. 2007


Seems we’re getting there now… so let’s take that next step.

Social search meets personalized is something I think we’ll be seeing more of. If we consider an approach such as ‘user sensitive PageRank’ we see that search engines have an interest in not only singular personalization, but user categorized personalization as well (smaller aggregate sets of implicit/explicit user feedback).

Granted, I’m not sure such signals always do what they’re supposed to (show intent/satisfaction), but I believe there is a place for them.

The main problems with personalization signals was always spam and processing power, (beyond the afore mentioned noise issues). Google has recently announced infrastructure updates (Caffeine), social search and the desire to speed up websites (in an effort to free up processing power?).There are developments that give rise to what is in store.

Most certainly I’ll write more on that soon (being the end of the year and all)

Freaking out

Don’t freak out – m’kay?

Every time Google hiccups it seems the SEO world goes into spasms (and new crap services crop up). I remember a few short months ago how the ‘Vince update’ was going to mess everything up bla bla bla… Do we hear much about it now? Nope.

Thus I ask that we keep our heads on, do some due-diligence testing, and continue on with the job at hand. Once more this does highlight how SEO is most certainly, not dead. Over the last month we’ve had; Social Search – Load Speed – Deeper Personalization and more. As they evolve, so do we (as SEOs).

Stay tuned for more once we’ve done some testing… If you’d like to take part, be sure to join the SEO Dojo today! (he he… shameless plugs are fun)


More reading

If you sit down and read ALL of the following… patents included… you will be one serious assed search geek when it comes to PS… Dig in!

On the Trail

Personalized PageRank: a user sensitive affair
Why Googles behavioural targeting should creep you out
Is Google REALLY using bounce rates as a ranking signal?
Your favortite sites could rock the SERPs
Yahoo, Page Rank and Teleportation Oh My!
What every SEO should know about Personalized Search
I have seen the future and it is VERY personal
Why Google Personalized Search is Important to You
Personalization through application focus
Query analysis confirmed as Google ranking signal
Taking off my tin foil hat

Marie Claire-Jenkins recently posted; 10 research papers on Personalized Search

Related Patents –

Systems and methods for analyzing a user's web history
Systems and methods for modifying search results based on a user's history
Systems and methods for providing subscription-based personalization
 Systems and methods for managing multiple user accounts
Methods and systems for personalized network searching
Personalization of placed content ordering in search results
Systems and methods for providing a graphical display of search activity
Systems and methods for providing subscription-based personalization
Systems and methods for analyzing a user's web history
Systems and methods for combining sets of favourites
Systems and methods for modifying search results based on a user's History
Variable personalization of search results in a search engine

From Google

Personally Speaking 
Personalized Search and Privacy
Google Puts users in charge
Talk on your personalized Home Page
More of the world in your pocket

SEO training community



+1 # Jaan Kanellis 2009-12-08 01:03
As usual awesome write up man, now tell us about real-time search
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0 # dhiraj 2009-12-08 05:37
Excellent articles on Google personalized search specially Slides are too impressive... it express everything...
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+1 # Alex 2009-12-08 09:23
Personalized search tips are uncommon - i can't remember any good sources covering this topic. thanks.
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0 # richardbaxterseo 2009-12-08 14:55
Brilliant posting and food for thought. Echo the comments on this entry being informative and genuinely insightful. The 'rankings are useless' and personalised search scaremongers better run for the hills!
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0 # Digital Success 2009-12-08 15:07
Good article covering a lot of ground on personal search.
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0 # Dave 2009-12-08 16:04
@Jaan - thanks brother, it was an easy one to write as the juices started flowing after the announcement, just KNOWING there would be a bunch of 'doom and gloom' posts this week... As for RTS, I did a series of 4 posts in the fall on it... but am workin a new one now that G is in the game... stay tuned.

@Richard... I am actually going to post the white paper publicly today so peeps can read more about the results of the rounds of testing we did earlier this year... Seems it's needed.
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0 # SEO 2009-12-08 16:20
I feel that Google is following Microsoft's footstep.At least when Bill Gate was stealing ideas from Apple,he wasn't denying it.
Google has been hiding behind the Open Source Softwares to trap everyone in their web to steal everyone's private data.I have switched to Yahoo since this morning the search results are not the same but still I know my privacy is not shared with Multi Million advertising companies.
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0 # Hillary 2009-12-08 17:30
Well written article.Thanks for sharing such a useful post and related links too.
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0 # Ed Fry 2009-12-08 17:58
Thank goodness for finding this article. Personalized search could be interpreted as a death nail to small scale brands or new and fledging websites.

Stumbled this!
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0 # Tom McConnon 2009-12-08 19:30
I appreciate your wisdom in urging people (SEO's?) not to adopt a "sky is falling" attitude with PS, Caffeine, etc. SEO might evolve to the point that it will be unrecognizable when compared to its current state, but there will always be a need for skilled individuals that know how to make a website play nice with search engines and potential visitors.

Excited to read more on the testing...keep up the great work.
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0 # Oliver 2009-12-09 03:23
Personalized search is a great way for google to engage their audience. It really does make it a little harder for us SEOs.
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0 # Waterfront 2009-12-09 14:51
So the bottom line is that content is still king?
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+1 # Dave 2009-12-10 15:43
@Ed - I have heard that perception a few times over the last few days. We will have to see how it all plays out. Let us remember a lot of people have Google accounts and as such much of this has already been present the last few years. Once I've done some testing, the maybe a judgment. I can say, yes, there is the potential for things to be a little harder for smaller/newer entities.

@Tom - Agreed; I've always been of the mind that as search engines evolve so will the art. I ever worried about the 'SEO is dead' crap. Although that really shouldn't be an oddity for SEOs... because they all study IR and CS right? erm... uh... Oh never mind.

@ Waterfront - well, sure, but I'd say more of a case of 'engagement'. Being able to engage users and give them a memorable (get it?) experience will be important as deeper implicit/explicit signals come into the mix. So think beyond mere content to actual engagement.

@ Hillary...thanks... Enjoy all the reading!
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0 # Chip Jones 2009-12-15 23:02
It would be interesting to see this same test at 30, 90, 180 days. The search data cookie is set for 180 days, and I read somewhere that the full impact of personalized search can take time (for each person) due to the amount of time required to capture adequate search data. (a few days of search data probably won't impact personalized search results much).

Assuming that many people have their cookies automatically cleaned by some sort of utility, I'm suggesting a test be done at 30 and 90 days. The 180 day test would be the best test, because this would have the most amount of personal search data as long as cookies were not deleted.
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-1 # J. Davis 2009-12-22 19:52
Our job as SEO's (once we get past the freak out and cry phase) is to figure out how to make Google changes help us most and hurt us the least. That hasn't changed in the last 10 years I have been doing this.

As a part-time in house SEO for a small, local injury law firm, I can see how this change might hurt me. For example, someone looks up a law on Findlaw when they first get injured, then later is driven to the lawyers who use Finlaw's re feral service when they are looking to contact an attorney. It may help me though too; we often hear (my favorite complement)"no matter what I typed in you popped up on top" and no, I no longer do paid search. So my thought is that once a potential lead looks on our site, should I be lucky enough to be the first they click on, then no matter what other search term the users type in I will get a boost.

Haven't done any testing with the local site since it makes me sick to do it, but, as a former scientist, I am glad to see someone who bases articles on testing rather than speculation.

As a PT national search affiliate marketer for shopping sites, I can see how this would only hurt me. Unless I can harness the power of big sites that people often visit (this is possible although not so easy) my little sites will drown even more.

I agree that personalization will decrease spam, what I worry about is that shopping online will become as monotonous as shopping at the mall with the big chain stores. If I want something from Target, I know to drive there, but I still want the opportunity to go to the fun street with the boutique shops and find something from a store I didn't know existed. I fear personalization will make that less likely to happen online.

Of course we always have Bing/Yahoo as a backup. Maybe Google will loose the shoppers this way.
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0 # John Serra 2009-12-23 04:09
Maybe I'm being naive, but I don't understand why it should be any harder for the smaller websites than it is today. If your competing head to head with the big websites keyword for keyword, aren't you already having a hard time keeping up. Personalized search might even give your website a boost thanks to some of the criteria that will manipulate the SERPS. Your operation might be closer from a geographical aspect, or the searcher might be clicking back from the larger websites and sticking on the smaller more niche sites.
Like it was mentioned before, most of us already have Google accounts, with extensive search histories. I don't believe you will get very different SERPS (as Dave has pointed out and tested) even if you pop open a brand new browser that you have never logged into Google with. At least I'm not in this neck of the woods.
Great post, and thanks for the extensive "More Reading" section. It will take a while to read through all those links.
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0 # Dave 2009-12-23 12:46
@J Davis - most certainly it does present a new set of challenges to SEOs... but considering more and more businesses are understanding the value of SEO, things have been getting more competitive for some time now. It also bears mention that we haven't seen a lot of movement above the fold (1-4) in our testing which means the rules of traditional SEO still apply - get to the top!

@John - yes, it has always been rather trying to get a new site into the thick of things and little will change there really. The geo aspect is a important one for sure. I consider the geo-local results to be a form of personalization and this is certainly an area people should be considering to try and make up space on the top sites in a query space. And enjoy the bring caffeine as they can put some folks to sleep :0)
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0 # Andy 2010-02-16 18:15
I want to ask/ensure few things, related to cookies.

1. If I disable customizations based on search activity (and never enable it myself) will it be automaticly enabled after 180 days (because this cookie is 180 day long)?

2. If I disable customizations based on search activity and after that I log in to my google account and log out and so on... does this have any impact to this "web history" cookie? (I have disabled web history and don`t delete cookies, but still sometimes web history is enabled, just wondering if that is the cause or maybe it´s just something else.)
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