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Why Google Personalized Search is Important to You

Written by David Harry   
Monday, 05 November 2007 06:18

I know we’ve been down the road of fear and loathing with personalized search before. I know that most folks never felt the need to worry about it – all smoke and no fire it would seem. I know that once a year or so there are new concerns about what personalized search might someday mean to the average SEO practitioner, (back to 2003?). So why would I hammer the head of this well beaten nail yet again? I believe some events last week have brought new light onto this topic.

Hey Google! Can you hear me now?For the uninitiated, Google’s Personalized Search is a service that attempts to get to know you and your searching habits better, in hopes that it will be more relevant in the future from culling your ongoing activities. Or as Google likes to put it; “search algorithms that are designed to take your personal preferences into account, including the things you search for and the sites you visit which they believe ultimately will, “have better odds of delivering useful results”. I find the use of the term ‘better odds’  interesting, if by design or not, since much of the underlying technologies incorporate a probabilistic model for delivering results. You could call it ‘educated guessing’.

Getting signed up for a Google account is pretty easy as it is automatic across Gmail, AdSense, Orkut, Group Alerts, Google Analytics and many other services. Personalized Search is turned on by default and as Danny Sullivan put it, “I completely missed that this was added as a default choice to the new account sign-up page. In fact, I missed it twice, as I tested the system by making two different accounts.”

So what has changed you asked? Well, let's add to that mix the Google Computer and Google-Phone (OS and partners) to also consider.


The not-so-distant Future

Envision for a moment if you will, a time far, far away… 2 years from today (a long time in technology land), where we see this type of savvy consumer;

  1. Talking on their Google Phone
    1. Searches via Google
    2. Use G-mail
    3. Jacked up to Google Earth
    4. Other Google services
  2. Using their Google Computer
    1. Google Desktop installed
    2. Uses Google toolbar enabled FireFox for surfing
    3. Searches Google via multiple access points
    4. Uses G-mail
    5. Social activities (including Google properties and partners)
    6. Other Google services
  3. Logged into account at work (because it will be easy to synchronize)
    1. Searches Google
    2. Checks G-mail
    3. Social activities (even at work? Never)
  4. Has a Small Website (maybe a Baby Boomer AdSense Retirement Plan)
    1. Uses Google Analytics
    2. Uses G-Checkout
    3. Networks via Orkut/LinkedIn


Can you see this person? Or even a partial match? I can - and it has me thinking a lot more about personalized search and how it affects the process of optimizing a site. With these developments more and more people, if they realize it or not, will be logged into Google services than ever before. This in turn means targeting a given term becomes more elusive and fluid an undertaking. That is nothing new to those that have followed Personalized Search, what is new, is the delivery system or more appropriately, the collection system. With Google now mobilizing into more devices, users being able to track themselves across multiple platforms will be at a premium. I see a great deal of ‘personalized searching’ going on in the near future.

Further to that, these same methods can also be applied to which Paid Ads that the end user clicks on in order to adjust them according to perceived conversion preferences – behavioural targeting if you will. That means these issues apply not only to SEO folks, but the PPC crowd as well, and there is much to consider. I believe understanding aspects related to personalized search and user performance metrics will be important for the successful SEO/SEM consultant in the years ahead.


It’s time to get personal

The main thing to understand is that a given document in a set of search results can be valued or de-valued depending on;

  1. the number of times it is selected from a set of results
  2. the number of times it wasn’t selected
  3. sites with similar characteristics of a selected document
  4. amount of time and depth on spent a given selection
  5. bounce rates for selected items
  6. historical behaviour on the above (seasonal fluxuations?)
  7. location of result relative to searcher (especially important for Mobile)


No longer can the SEO think simply in terms of ranking for a main index query result since there are so many other potential rankings for documents that aren’t as readily available in the traditional sense. Theoretically rankings could seemingly drop a few places but traffic actually increase due to a niche crowd following that is assisting your rankings via personalized search activities and being popular among a given sub-set of users. We may have to gauge the efficacy of a SEO campaign by actual conversions (traffic) instead of merely achieving rankings in the main targeted index (.com , .ca , I would have to think that keyword research would be more important than ever.

Considering it is largely driven my user performance metrics, you can also assume that those able to write better Titles and Meta-Descriptions would have an advantage as getting the user to engage with the SERP listing upon initial presentation would be at a premium. Quality content as well would begin to take on a more meaningful role than it has in the past, as bounce rates and user satisfaction now starts to play into actual search results rankings.

Many SEO professionals haven’t given much thought to the ramifications of personalized search as it hasn’t developed much reach in the general public – until now. With the proliferation of Google services across multiple platforms and devices, more and more people will be using personalized search, if they realize it fully or not.


The Future


As one Googler put it;

“In the future users will have a much greater choice of service with better, more targeted results. For example, a search engine should be able to recommend books or news articles that are particularly relevant - or jobs that an individual user would be especially well suited to.” -

A sort of ‘Universal – Personalized Search’ if you will; At least this job won’t get dull anytime soon, huh?

I would like to take you a ½ step further. What if all of this data was also added to user performance data from the fortunate souls that managed to get away from the grasp of Google? You know, those of use without a Google Computer/Phone or Desktop rolling? No problems, they can be tracked via cookies, Google ToolBar, IP address and even cell tower triangulation (or so I heard Bill muse). Sure, the signal one would get from this data isn’t the greatest, but it does speak soft whispers in the search engineer’s ear I would have to imagine. By combining the known data and the unassigned user data we could certainly come up with some type of signal that would affect even the core organic rankings. This is not a wild stretch of the imagination either. There are a few recent Google patents that support such a system; but more on that another day. The main point is that recent activity in the form of the Google Computer and the upcomming Google Phone applications, will undoubtedly raise the number of Google Personalized searchers which is something to ponder.

If you haven’t started to wrap your head around the concepts of personalized search and user performance metrics, it may be time to consider it. The more avenues Google finds to acquire and track consumers, the more prominent a position personalized search aspects will play in the world of search engine optimization.

I will try and write some more posts in the future on how to best leverage personalized search in your SEO – stay tuned

ADDED; The Series 

Part II; I have seen the future and it is VERY personal – Looks at recent business moves by Google and touches on User Performance Metrics

Part III; What every SEO should know about Personalized Search – takes apart the various methods under the hood.

Part IV: the Art of Personalized Search Optimization - a look at ways to leverage it and beyond

I wouldn’t be much of a host if I didn’t give you some goodies to take with you – Enjoy;

Bill Slawski; Personalized PageRank and Personalized Text Scores  - Google Personalization Methods - Second thoughts on a G-Phone

Search Engine Land; Google Ramps Up Personalized Search - Personalized Search, Google Bookmarks and Link Building

Beanstalk; Personalization and the Death of SEO
Aaron Wall; How to turn off Personalized Search without logging out
SEO Roundtable; Your Search Results are Personalized
Search Engine Watch; Personalized Search Leaves Google Labs (2005)
Greg Linden; Personalized Search Primer And Personalized Search for Movies

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

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



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