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February 23, 2010

Is personal search about semantics?

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I was recently reading an interview with a director of Bing, Stefan Weitz about the future of search. Stefan has said that one of the biggest problems that search engines have is trying to ascertain the intent of the searcher. This problem has been around for ages and the example we use at Bruce Clay to properly illustrate it is; if you type in java in the search box, are you trying to find information about the coffee, the programming language or the county? Without any additional keywords within the search query, that intent can be difficult to discover.


personalised search

Photo by dullhunk via Creative Commons

The next minute I was reading yet another article on personalised search and had a thought, maybe the predominant reason Google instituted personalised search was to better understand the intent of the searcher based on previous searches in terms of language surrounding the query. For example if your personalised searches show 20 previous queries relating to programming language with no queries relating to coffee or an obscure Indonesian island, then it could be assumed your single “java” query would in all probability be related to the programming language. Stefan argues for the need of the search engines to put context around the language and perhaps Google is using personalised search to do just that.

In fact, in the Google video announcing personalised search, they mention that one of the things they hope personalised search will improve is the ability to better determine the searcher’s intent. The point I’m trying to make is that with all the negativity surrounding personalised search, perhaps its benefits, particularly surrounding the better identification of intent has been glossed over.

During the course of a regular day I run alot of queries through Google and although I dont have any concrete evidence, I do feel that since personalised search has been turned on by default, my SERP’s have got a little better, especially with the search engine seemingly reading my intent better.

While we are on the topic of personalised search, Rand over at SEOmoz had an interesting idea; essentially, he says, “Personalized search is now on by default. This means that every click, branded search, and expression of a “brand preference” or “brand affinity” in Google’s results is likely to result in preferential biasing towards that domain in future searches. A “Google” Pontiac message during this Superbowl wouldn’t just send users to their site, it would also mean that tens of millions of searchers would now be “personalized” towards that domain.”

It’s an interesting idea, if you were sure that your company comes up first for a brand search i.e. Nike, then maybe these big corporations should start having “Google Nike” instead of the URL on their brand messaging. This would lead to more people searching Nike and therefore possibly meaning that the Nike web site would come up tops for the search “running shoes” due to your personalised search history.

There are a few caveats for recommending this:

1. Google can decide that personalised search is actually making things worse as supposed to better and just turn it off
2. Users who are not logged in will only have their history tracked for 180 days so you may need a sustained advertising campaign to take advantage of this
3. If you don’t appear for your suggested keywords in the organic listings you risk sending a different site your traffic
4. If you are paying for your clicks (eg “search potential” by AmEx) then the traffic to your site is costing you twice (once for TVC, once for adwords click)
There has been a lot of debate within the SEO industry as to what personalised search means. I think anything that helps match a query with better SERP’s, is a good thing and to be honest that’s why I think Google turned on personalised search for everyone.





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