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February 5, 2007

Google forces Personalized Search

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I hate personalized search results. I’m sorry, but I have been silently fuming over this all weekend and I had to let it out. I feel much better now. [Sing it, sister. --Susan]

If you’ve logged into your Gmail account recently, read TechMeme or visited any of the other dozen or so search blogs you read on a daily basis, you know that Google has taken major steps to personalize its search results. And by personalize, I mean ruin restructure results so that the sites Google deems complementary to your personal search tendencies get a special boost in the rankings. Right now the boosts are subtle, but expect them to become more pronounced as Google collects more data.

Danny Sullivan commented over at Search Engine Land that Google will also be looking at the gadgets and feeds you have installed on your Google Personalized home page in order to target your results even more. That’s unique.

The way it stands now, personalized search is the default option for any searcher logged into his or her Google account. Going even further, anyone who creates a Google Account is now automatically signed up for Google Search History, a personalized Google home page, and personalized search results. Before you had to opt-in to these services, now you’re forced to opt-out.

[If you don't want Google keeping track of your search history, Danny provides a very detailed overview on how to disable this feature over at SEL. I disabled mine this morning.]

Now, I’m not a straight-out personalization hater. I don’t have a problem with personalization for users who actually want it. I think services like Collarity that target results based on community interests are great for users who like searching with the aid others. But personalization should be an option, not the default. And users should know in advance that they are using it. I fear under Google’s new system, most users will never realize they’re not seeing true results and that poses a problem.

I don’t know what the numbers are for how often users are logged into their Google account when searching, but for me it’s 100 percent of the time. The only time I am NOT logged into Google is when my computer is turned off. And the only time my computer is turned off is when I’m asleep.

Google’s new personalized focus makes me nervous for two reasons. First, my searching preference is NOT to be delivered personalized results. In order for this to happen I can’t search while logged into Google. That means I either stay logged out of all my Google services (Gmail, Writely, Blogger, etc) or I search on a different search engine. Right now I’m torn.

Second, it makes me nervous from a security standpoint. If being logged in means that Google will personalize and monitor everything I do, then I think users should have to re-sign in every hour or so. I realize this is an annoyance, but I never log out of Google manually. That may be user error on my part, but I don’t. What if I head out for lunch and a crazy guy wanders in and sits down at my laptop. [It's not very nice of you to call your coworkers crazy, Lisa. --Susan] — I didn’t mean our crazies. I meant the crazies that lurk outside. He’ll realize my computer password is taped to my desk lamp and he’ll have access to my complete search history and personalized search results. That’s not safe. If you’re going to make information tracking the default, then you need to be more proactive about protecting users’ security.

Obviously, this also impacts search engine optimization. If users are being delivered search results based on search history, then optimization becomes less about algorithms and more about understanding searching behavior and targeting specific users. (I can hear the usability champs cheering.) Also, getting users to your site becomes more important than ever now that the engines will see multiple visits to the same site as a sign of higher relevance. This means you should be concentrating creating better content, as well as more engaging titles and site descriptions, in order to entice users to your site.

In that respect, I’m not too worried about how this will affect search engine optimization. These are all things you should be focused on anyway. Sites that are ranking well today because of excellent content and usability will have no problems.

What is curious is that the Google Personalized Home Page, once reserved solely for silly widgets and snow globes, now has actual importance. If you want your site to be ‘relevant’ to a searcher, your URL needs to be intertwined into their daily life. This means they need to be using your widgets, reading your RSS feed, and bookmarking your content. Personally, I think that’s stretching the importance of a personalized home page. Mine is certainly not a clear representation of the things I’m interested in.

I understand why people are in favor of personalization, but I still prefer objective results. I don’t want yesterday’s searches to impact today’s unless I specifically ask for it. It hinders my ability to find new, unique information and it puts far too much power in a search engine to determine what I am or am not interested in. I trust Google today, but it’s too easy for "what I am interested in" to become "what I should be reading" to turn into "what I’m allowed to read". I know, I know, I’ll get my tinfoil hat.

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One response to “Google forces Personalized Search”

  1. graywolf writes:

    Makes clicking on the goofy humor sites that you non internet “friends” send have much longer term implications



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