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FEATURE FOCUS: The Impact of Personalization on SEO

by Claudia Bruemmer, February 15, 2007

Personalization of search has been a growing topic of interest for a while, but has stayed under the radar for most people until now. With Google's widespread integration of personalization into standard search results, search marketers' attention has finally been firmly riveted on the issue. Up until recently, Google provided two personalization options:

  • You could customize your Google Personalized Homepage for quick access to information of your choice (email messages, news headlines, etc.).
  • You could get automatic personalization from your search history.

Recently, Google started combining the above two options for users who sign up for services through their Google accounts. When you sign in, you get access to tailored results utilizing information from your search history and your Google home page. If you don't wish to see results based on your past searches, you simply sign out of your Google Account or turn the option to track your history off in your Account settings.

To quote Danny Sullivan, "...anyone who signs-up for any Google service using a Google Account (such as Gmail, AdSense, Google Analytics among others) will automatically be enrolled into three additional Google products: Search History -- Personalized Search -- Personalized Homepage." In the past, Google Accounts required you to manually enable Search History. However, with the recent change, personalized search has been enabled for all accounts, new and old alike. All accounts also automatically get home pages generated based on account information.

Widespread Personalization

We don't know for sure how rapidly search personalization will take hold. However, a 2006 Choice Stream Personalization Survey shows that consumer interest in the issue is strong, with 79 percent of respondents indicating a willingness to receive personalized content and more than half of the 18-24 year olds asked expressing an interest. The study also saw an increase in the number of people who would be willing to trade privacy for increasingly tailored results.

These findings can likely be generalized to search users because the information required for search personalization is less intrusive than the content participants were questioned about in the survey.

Benefits and Drawbacks for Users and Site Owners

Personalization benefits users because it can help make their searches more relevant based on past search behavior. It also can help Web site owners who have excellent content and well-written Titles, since the Web sites with the "stickiest" content will be weighted more favorably. However, in both cases there is also the possibility of closing out potentially useful resources because they do not fit a user's previous history.

In addition to good content, Web pages need good Title and Description Meta tags. Because these are displayed on the search results page, they represent the way human users will judge the site and decide whether or not to click through.

You can also gain by getting yourself on the Google personalized homepage of many search users. One way to do this is to offer users a feed, a Google gadget, or Add To Google buttons on your pages so users can subscribe to your content. Another tip is to put Google Bookmark buttons on your pages, such as those provided by AddThis. The more a visitor relies on your site, the better ranking it will receive when that user performs searches related to your keywords. The winners in personalized search are those who make a connection to their users because the results reward loyalty.

Implications for SEO

Increased personalization in search results has obvious implications for anyone performing search engine optimization since search results will now differ from user to user based on search history and user profile. Naturally, all queries will show a change in ranking positions between personalized and non-personalized results. Practitioners have analyzed this effect and found that results for personalized vs. non-personalized search can vary as much as 90 percent. Clearly, on page elements, particularly in the content and Meta data, will become extremely important again.

Rank Checking

The area most affected in the search optimization process is rank checking. An article by Mike Moran in Revenue January/February 2007 states, "Widespread personalization will doom traditional rank checking". Moran also asserts, "It's the biggest change in search marketing since paid search."

Extensive personalization will affect the traditional rank checking process because site rankings will differ based on users' idiosyncratic search habits. SEO analysts will be looking at average rankings rather than absolute rankings. This will force a change in search engine optimization techniques.

Currently, SEO requires decision-making based partly on researching targeted keyword phrases used by leading competitors. With personalization, it becomes difficult to identify the leading competitors because all search results will differ.

Therefore, new methodologies for making search engine optimization decisions will have to be devised. Traditional SEO and on page optimization will still be very important and SEOs will need to continue to improve pages, making them superior to other pages for specific targeted keyword phrases. This will require more thorough analyses of competitor on-page and off-page factors.

The process of SEO competitor analysis will require data collection, quantitative and qualitative analyses, as well as multivariate analysis. Multivariate analyses can help determine the relative importance and influence of multiple factors compared to each other, yielding the competitive landscape for your targeted key terms. The strengths and weaknesses of this landscape will help practitioners make the SEO decisions needed for targeting the right terms for optimization.

In-depth competitor intelligence will give SEO practitioners more accurate readings of how their client's Web pages compare to their competitors' pages, and the result will be more accurate information than we currently get with rank checking.

The Challenge of Competitor Intelligence

In-depth competitor intelligence can reveal what's working and what's not for a site's strongest competitors. It can reveal which sites are competitively strong (or weak) compared to the client's site, regardless of what the respective ranking numbers would show with rank checking.

New age competitor intelligence will tell you what optimization factors are most important for specific competitive landscapes. Technicians will learn the true competitive nature of a keyword phrase rather that just the number of results returned for a specific query. They will know exactly what SEO factors to work in order to strengthen their client's position rather than guesstimate based on general guidelines.

In-depth competitor intelligence will tell practitioners how to prioritize the SEO factors to be optimized, revealing semantic relationships between the client's content, the competitors' content, and the semantic nuances of a keyword phrase related to search personalization of user results. Optimization in the era of personalization requires robust competitive intelligence, and this will pay big dividends to those who master analyzing the competitive landscape.

It is undoubtedly true that search will change dramatically once personalization is widely adopted. However, SEO is an art that is extremely flexible and will adapt with widespread use of search history to affect rankings. SEO practitioners have always been creative, and we will develop new techniques to achieve search visibility for our clients as personalized search becomes more prevalent.