A couple of days ago I wrote about my reservations with personalized search. I even called it dangerous. Most people won’t have reservations, though. In fact it’s unlikely the majority of people will ever realize they’re getting search results tailored to them. Like it or not personalized search is here and here to stay and it’s time to start discussing what the implications of personalized search are for SEOs in the days ahead?
Just in case you missed it here’s Danny Sullivan’s overview of personalized search. I still haven’t found anything better to fill you in on the new system.
But First A Caveat
Before getting into what personalizing the search experience means for seo let’s keep a few things in mind. First this is a Google phenomenon. As I’m writing nothing has changed at the other search engines. I have no doubt the other engines will incorporate personalized search, but for now we’re talking Google.
Second Google’s personalized search hasn’t even been out a week yet. It’s way too soon to say much concrete about how it works from either an end user or seo perspective. A lot of what you’ll be reading in the coming days is going to be speculation. Also keep in mind that the way personalized search works a year from now may be different than how it works now. I would assume as with most things Google, personalized search is in beta.
And finally we don’t yet know the what the affect of personalization on the results will be. There will undoubtedly be a ranking boost based on your personal interests, but how much of a boost. Are we talking 10 spots in the results? 20? 30? Will personalized results be completely dominated by your past searches? Will your personalized experience be based somewhat on the personal experience of others?
If you and I both spent a lot of time at SEO Book, will Google send you a few more results from SEOmoz, because I also visit there frequently? Will this be similar to the way Amazon recommends books? “People who visit BobsCustomLamposts.com also visit Sally’sHomemadePatioFuniture.com so we’re going to start showing you more of Sally’s pages?
Just remember we’re still dealing with a lot of unknowns here. We can all make some good guesses, but no one’s really seen enough to know at this point.
Got Google Account?
I can’t imagine too many SEOs not having a Google account, but if you are one of the few never to have signed up for any Google services you probably want to get an account right now. The only way you’re going to be able to see the difference in the results that the personalized and general search deliver is to be able to check for yourself. Getting general results is easy, but you’re going to need to be able to log into at least one Google account to see the personalized results.
If you don’t already have one you’ll also need to build a history of searches for yourself. Unfortunately for me I’ve hardly every been logged into Google when searching. I’ll now be staying logged in all the time, at least until I can build up enough of a history to notice the difference in the two sets of results.
Google Services Optimization
Nick Wilson posted earlier today his 3 Ranking Survival Tips Google’s New Personalized Results and his first tip was to optimize for Google services. Makes a lot of sense if Google is going to base results on these services it would be in your site’s benefit to maintain a presence in those services.
Google says information from three services currently contribute to personalization:
If you read Danny’s article he mentions
From talking with Google — and from my own experiences — personalized search reshapes your results primarily by noting the types of sites you select from the search results. That allows Google to look at those sites and then give them a boost in the rankings, especially if you visit them often. In addition, Google can determine sites and pages that seem related to those you are already visiting, in order to give them a boost.
The above would seem to indicate you’ll want to see more clicks on your pages whenever they do appear in results. Nothing unusual with that as we all want that now. Time to brush up on writing titles and meta descriptions and gear them a little more toward getting a click.
It also indicates that it would be a good idea to show topical relationships with other sites in your industry. You want to show up in the results for a search on seo you better make sure Google thinks you have pages about seo. Reciprocal linking to unrelated sites now be getting another knock against it. If your own pages aren’t getting seen enough to get clicked then making sure they are related to sites that are getting clicked might be your best way into someone’s personalized results.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Google also uses your history to build a profile on what you might be interested in. If you perform a lot of searches for guitars you’ll probably get some results for them when you search for ‘bass’ while you’re friend who performs a lot of searches for rods and reels will see fishing results for that same search for ‘bass.’ There’s only so much an SEO can do to change what people search for though.
If Google is going to give ranking boosts to sites and pages in Google Bookmarks then it only makes sense you want to see your pages bookmarked as often as possible at Google. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never bookmarked anything at Google. I suspect that’s true of a lot of people.
That should change in a hurry. Expect to start seeing more and more little chicklets and links for Google Bookmarks alongside all the chicklets and links to Digg a post or bookmark it at del.icio.us. Google may have just started to take a little market share in the world of social bookmarking.
Personalized Home Page
Naturally you’re going to want to appear on the home pages of as many people as possible. Blogs and other RSS content are going to be more desirable to have on your site. You may want to start creating more widgets that are easily incorporated into Google’s personalized home page. You’ll likely also want to encourage people to add all this content to their home page.
Suddenly it becomes very important to show up in the results for things you can add to someone’s personalized home page. If you search for ‘online business blog’ you’ll find TheVanBlog on the list so feel free to search and add me to your home page anytime you want (< = shameless plug)
A couple things stand out in all of the above. To get a boost in personalized search it helps to promote Google services on your site. Smart move Google getting us all to once again promote something Google. How much are site owners going to want to do this though? Sure making it easy for people to bookmark your pages and add your feed to their home pages is going to give you a ranking boost, but will all that Google love on your site hurt conversions? Probably not too much if it's not overkill. The more visible you can make it of course the more likely you will get bookmarked at G so there's going to be a balance you'll need to reach for.
The other major thing that stands out is if you want your pages bookmarked and added to someone's home page those pages better be good. More than good they should be consistently good. This will be a positive step towards improving quality on the web and in search results. Better content gets bookmarked more and consequently shows up more on results pages. Should be a knock against spam pages too. Want to build an MFA site? You might need to start offering something more than the ads.
Are Gmail And AdWords Next?
While there are only three Google services mentioned as being used in personalized search at the moment it’s easy to imagine more services getting added. If Google is going to look at the feeds you add to your home page there’s no reason to think the feeds you add to Google Reader are far behind. And why not add Google Alerts to the list of things used to show what you might be interested in. I would think anything that comes with a Google logo may in time be added to the information collected to personalize your search results. Have the Google toolbar installed? The pages you frequent might start showing up more in search results.
There are two Google services in particular that I expect to see influencing personal search soon. The same page where Google mentions what services will contribute to personalization also says
At this time, your Gmail and AdWords information will not be used to personalize your experience.
Google has quite a few services so why explicitly mention these two? Can you think of anything more personal than your email? Have you been discussing with your friends how you might be thinking of proposing to your girlfriend of 5 years, perhaps during the Super Bowl or Veronica Mars? If you are, might you start seeing more results for wedding rings. Would you be surprised that just as you and your buddies are emailing back and forth about possibly going white water rafting you start seeing a few more results for white water rafting vacation packages?
If Gmail finds it’s way into the personalized search equation the rules of email marketing might change. Instead of the goal being to get your product in front of potential customers the goal may be to get those potential customers to keep your email instead of trashing it right away. Short emails may grow into newsletters. Better to send one email that sticks than 10 that end up in the trash bin.
By the way did anyone notice gmail is now available to anyone who wants it. No more invites of any kind.
Notice too the specific mention of AdWords information as part of the personalized experience. Your AdWords account doesn’t say much about how you search as an end user though does it? Something tells me much of this personalization has less to do with delivering a better set of search results as it does a more personal set of search ads. Contextual ads work great, but imagine the ads geared not so much towards what’s specifically on a page, but geared toward all the things you’ve been showing interest in lately.
Think again of that email you and your buddies sent back and forth thinking about taking that rafting trip. Now imagine you start searching for a little more info about white water rafting. It’s obviously been on your mind, but you haven’t quite booked that trip yet have you? You might be more likely though if you keep seeing ads for trips on most of the pages you visit, even if those pages have nothing to do with white water rafting.
Neither service is currently included in personalized search, but mentioning them as specifically not being included at this time seems to me an indication Google has some plans for both.
Social Media Optimization
One concern I’ve had with personalized search is how well new sites will fare. If your search experience is going to be based to some degree on your search history how will new sites find their way in front of you? Google can diffuse this problem in a number of ways, one being to give new sites an early ranking boost until they do show enough history. Sort of an anti-sandbox maybe.
More likely though, you’ll need to get your new site in front of people in other ways. Enter social media. Personalized search may lead to greater emphasis placed on optimizing for social media and social networking sites. I mentioned how this might play out specifically with Google services, but the other social media outlets should also take on a larger part of your marketing.
If you need to show some kind of history to get a ranking boost you need to create some kind of history. You need to build mindshare. Social media can do that for you. Start showing up on Digg and Reddit or finding your way into more profiles at del.icio.us and you may also end up getting bookmarked more often at Google. At the least people will be able to find you to add to Reader or their home page.
You’ll want to network more too so people can gmail their friends about you and maybe create a buzz so people start using your brand in search queries. You may also need to be more selective about which social media spaces you become involved in. It’s going to take more work to get someone to bookmark you or include you on their home page so you might want to target the social media sites where you get involved to reflect your target market.
More vertical social media sites are coming anyway, but now there might be more incentive to find the ones in your vertical.
A Few More Thoughts
Again take a lot of the above with a grain of salt. Personalized search just arrived and very little is known about how it’s working or how it will work. We can guess, but we don’t yet know. Google isn’t going to say any more than they have about how the algorithm’s been working all these years. It’s also going to take some time before they collect enough search history on everyone before we can see how the results are affected. And expect that the system in place now will change as it is understood more and manipulated.
It’s also not known how much of an effect personalization is going to have on results. Will this be a small boost? Are your personal results going to be made up of only sites you’ve shown interest in? There’s clearly going to be some changes in the results people see and it will definitely make seo more interesting. My guess is most of the best practices of today will still be best practices tomorrow, but there will also be some added best and worst practices.
So log into Google and start or continue letting them build a search history on you. When you have a search history and some bookmarks and have customized your own home page you’ll see better how personalized search will work. Don’t forget to make it easy for your visitors to add you to their Google services and get more involved with social media. You were going to do that last one anyway weren’t you?