Personalised search, breaking the bad news

When meeting someone new, questions about what you do for a living will invariably arise. Of the 2 and a bit years I’ve been working in search engine optimisation, my reply to those questions was frequently met with blank stares, especially from the older generation (to whom I now just reply, “I work in IT”). However, in the past 6 months or so, I’m finding more and more less technically savvy people are becoming increasingly aware of the concept and need for SEO.

Personalised search, breaking the bad news

Photo by Search Engine People Blog via Creative Commons

I’ve recently spoken with some folks who have small businesses and websites advertising their products or services. Some of these people are rather pleased to inform me that their website is ranking quite well in Google for their search terms. In the past congratulations would have been in order, but now it’s at this point I wonder if the person I’m speaking with, knows about search personalisation, and if not, am I about to rain on his/her parade?

Google now stores 180 days of a user’s search history in an anonymous browser cookie, and based on previous searches and clicking preferences, may alter the rankings in future searches. That is to say, if you are checking your rankings in Google and then clicking through to your site, you are indicating you have a preference for that website. Your site may therefore appear higher in the rankings for future searches for that keyword. The effect of which is a false impression given to user checking search engine results pages (SERP) for their keywords.

The news that Google enabled personalised search results by default is not new. It’s been the topic of dozens of industry related blog posts and articles since the change went live in early December 2009. In fact, SEOs’ have already begun to examine and report on the effects personalisation has had on their and their clients’ traffic and conversions. While most reports admit there is not enough data for their tests to be conclusive yet, it is clear that personalisation is having a misleading effect on some website owners.

What can you do to get an accurate (un-personalised) search results?

There are several options available, pick and choose based on your needs:

1. Clearing browser cookies before checking your rankings
By deleting your cookies, you’ll get a fresh set of current results. Be careful when deleting private data as you probably don’t want to delete your browser history, saved passwords, etc. There are several add-ons for Firefox, such as Cookie Monster, that will enable you to sort and delete individual cookies directly from the browser taskbar.

2. Use a browser search plug-in to search un-personalised offers a selection of plug-ins for browser search bars that will enable personalisation-free searches from various geolocations including the U.S., Australia and the U.K. Their plug-ins are compatible with Internet Explorer and Firefox.

3. Use a proxy
There are many free proxies and free web based proxies available from which you can perform an un-personalised search. Take care when selecting a proxy as its server’s location will affect the results you get. If you’re looking for results from Australia, for example, then choose a proxy server that is also based in Australia.

4. Use an automated tool
This is probably the best option for those of you who need to check rankings without personalisation for large amounts of keywords. The ranking monitors at automate keyword rank checking and can deliver results targeted to whatever geolocations needed.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all available options, but it’s a good starting point for those who are in need of personalisation-free rankings.

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