Google's Personalized Results
Two years ago, Google presented a
personalized homepage for account holders. This weekend,
it officially rolled out personalized search results
as a member service.
Google account holders, (those with Google Toolbar, Bookmarks, Gmail, AdWords, and other Google member-based appliances) will now, by default, see results tailored to their own unique search histories whenever they are signed in to their accounts.
Personalization will subtly skew results in favour of documents or URLs visited regularly by individual users. If, for example, a user tends to visit a popular travel site when booking tickets and accommodation, results from that site are more likely to rank prominently in relevant travel related keyword queries.
According to Google's Web Help Center,
"Personalized Search is part of Google's ongoing effort to make your search experience more relevant to you. Using Personalized Search, you can:
Personalized Search orders your search results based on your past searches, as well as the search results and news headlines you've clicked on. You can view all these items in your Search History and remove any items you'd like.
Early on, you may not notice a huge impact on your search results, but as you build up your search history, your personalized search results will continue to improve."
Google is drawing user information from Google Search History, Google Bookmarks, and personalized Google homepages. A note on a Google Accounts page says they are not using personal information gleaned from Gmail or AdWords accounts. Though not used to affect personalized results, Google is also storing search results from Google Image Search, Google News, Froogle, Google Video and Google Maps in the Search History file of its individual users.
Being logged into any Google account triggers personalized results. Also, signing up for a new Google account automatically enrolls users in the three Google products personal information are being drawn from.
Users with privacy concerns can stem Google's collection of data by entering their user account and clicking off the default "Enable Search History" box-option. According to Danny Sullivan, who wrote a detailed review of the sign-up and opt-out process at SearchEngineLand, "You can override the decision to have Search History enabled, but honestly, you'll need sharp eyes. 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." (source: Google Ramps Up Personalized Search – Search Engine Land)
Personalization will alter the search results seen by unique users over time though people might not notice a huge difference in the first weeks. As a person's search history accumulates data, search references will increasingly show frequently visited sites and references to sites that share common links with pages in the user's search history and those of similar users.
For the SEO industry, the implications of personalization are both stark and subtle. While the trend towards regionalization has limited clear standards for judging overall Google rankings for the past few years, the advent of personalized results makes the standard website ranking report somewhat useless.
Personalization pretty much kills the ambitions of the simplest SEO shops. Successful SEO campaigns will never again be measured by strong rankings. SEOs will come to think about their services in a very different way than many do today. It's no longer about making a document or site rank high on results pages, it's now about making them rank well consistently.
Optimization techniques for personalized search results will include expertise in site usability, visitor retention, traffic funneling, bookmarking and social tagging, all of which entered the unwritten book of SEO best practices over the past few years. It will also involve a stronger dedication to content creation, document upkeep and overall resourcefulness.
Site usability has a direct effect on visitor retention. Websites with easily accessed, high quality information will likely see visitors stay on site longer and come back more frequently. Similarly, websites that move visitors from one page to the next in a logical fashion should (logically) tend to score better in personalized result sets. As Google records the number of times a specific user visits a site, those a person visits most often will score better placements in that user's personalized results.
Google Bookmarking, or prompting specific users to add a site or document to their Google Bookmark file, will become an integral tool for SEOs. Google draws information from Google Bookmarks to develop personalized sets of search results for each user.
Google supports its own custom bookmark system and stores individual user's bookmark files on its own servers. Getting users to add a site to their Google Bookmarks file isn't as simple as adding a Ctrl+D Internet Explorer "Bookmark Us" link, though adding that link is strongly advised. There are extensions available allowing individuals to copy their IE or Firefox bookmarks into Google Bookmarks.
A more direct Google Bookmarking method involves prompting visitors to include a RSS feed from your site to their personalized version of Google's homepage by placing an Add to Google button on the website. Another direct method is to use the Google Gadgets API to create customized content-feeds that visitors can add to their unique personalized Google homepage.
Please note, none of these methods actually gets a site or document into individual Google Bookmark files directly but serves to steer users towards including them. The last two will put site content directly on an individual user's Google homepages.
Does personalization mark the end of the spider? Absolutely not. Personalized results will rely heavily on data accumulated by Google's bots as they analyze content between linked sites. The inclusion of one document in several people's Google Bookmarks files will strengthen the chances that other documents sharing links from the one in several Bookmarks files will appear in those user's personalized results. Personalization will have a beneficial effect on the ethical side of the link building industry, starting with an immediate growth providing social search link building and bridging services.
As Google scans sites in its users search history and bookmark files, it will follow links it finds there. Many of those documents will also appear in that user's search history or bookmark files. They will also appear in the search histories and bookmarks of other users with similar search histories. Those documents are likely to fare well in searches conducted by numerous other users because Google will spot the shared interest by following links and matching search histories against each other.
Google will also be better able to spot and eradicate link spam by enabling Google to better analyze how individual users treat links as they come across them. Given the vast majority of users will tend to stray away from obvious spam, and links that do not get clicked will be less useful as time goes on, much of the incentive to try to manipulate results with spammy links is removed.
In all, Google's move towards presenting personalized search engine results will likely create a better search experience for its users. Though there are a wide array of privacy concerns Google will have to weave its way through and several assurances it will have to make, the creation of a truly effective personalized search engine ranks among the holy grails of geekdom for AI enthusiasts. This week, they took a big step forward. It will be interesting to see where this step leads us.
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