Personalized Search: Fear or Not?

I’m considering getting a restraining order because Danny Sullivan has followed me into yet another session. This time he’s here moderating (read: blatantly stalking) the Personalized Search panel with Matt Cutts (Google), Michael Gray (Atlas Web Service), Gord Hotchkiss (Enquiro), and Tim Mayer (Yahoo).

Danny starts off talking about personalized search at Google. He says Google is starting to shape results based on users’ search activities, which is why we’re all here. It hasn’t reshaped everything (yet) but it could be more dramatic in the future. Danny jokes that the State of California law requires Wikipedia to be on the top of Google’s search results so that may never change. Hehe.

Personalized influences will determine where sites are ranked in your results. Google wants to know if you’ve add a site to your Google Personalized Home Page? Is it in your Google bookmarks, search history, Web history?

Danny stresses that Google is the only major search engine to be personalizing results. Yahoo and Ask are harvesting some information but have yet to launch a full attack. Google is likely to be even more aggressive with personalization over time.

In case you’re wondering why only Google and Yahoo are represented at today’s session, Danny says that Microsoft and Ask declined his offer because they didn’t have much to say about personalized search. Insert your own joke here.

Gord is up first to talk about search personalization.

In personalization, results revolve around users, not algorithms. It’s about their search history, current tasks, Web history, social patterns, etc. Today it’s difficult for site owners to look at an individual user. With personalization, optimization will happen around themes not keywords. It will be about the long tail and forcing sites to develop based around users. You have to know what your users are looking for.

Sites will have to become more sticky. Marketers must get people to their site earlier and make them want to bookmark and engage with it. Gord predicts we’ll see a lot of sites building up content and functionality. For every theme we’re going to see circles of importance. These will be inundated with offers for RSS content, widgets and gadgets.

Something else that will become important is user intelligence. We’re going to see an emergence of click stream-based intelligence tools. Engines will introduce more profiling tools for paid, which will be used by SEO. Social bookmarking sites will become even hotter as personalization will enable scalable social search. More use of profiles/personas in SEO.

On the blackhat side of things, Gord says they’ll start using more spy and adware in SEO to see where users are going and spending their time. They’ll study the next "hot buzz" and build interests around it.

Up next is Michael, who is a HUGE fan of personalized search. Only not really.

Michael says this is a really exciting time for blackhat SEOs. Not that there are any in the room. He argues that Google is making it really easy for SEOs to trick their clients. Clients will look at their sites while logged into their Google accounts, see their sites at number one, and be impressed by all the good work their SEO is doing. Heh.

Michael kids that Google is launching personalized search in order to help their PPC program. He says that PPC will offer a really safe alternative to companies who are looking for the stability that personalize search can’t provide.

The big thing with all of this, says Michael, is that it’s forcing customers to become Google addicts. By trying to take advantage of personalized search webmasters become dependant on all of Google’s services. The more users trust Google the less likely they are to experiment with other searches. He’d rather see users experiment with alternative engines and services.

To be fair, Michael offers some suggestions for how Google can improve personalized search.

  • Stop hiding that people are logging in in a very obscure part of the screen.
  • Be clearer on the SERPs when a result is a personalized search and not a normal result.
  • Make it easy for people to turn off or opt out of personalized search. Michael asks if anyone else had trouble signing out of personalized search and a bunch of people applaud.

Tim is up next to calm the audience down after Michael’s dramatic Google-is-going-to-kill-you performance. Tim talks about the ways in which Yahoo is using personalization.

Session-based personalization: Understand the intent of the users based on queries and clicks during a specific session. The challenge is figuring out when a session ends. When are they done doing research on topic A and heading to topic B?

Interest-based personalization: Understand the interest of the user based on their own declared preferences or user behavior inside or outside of the search context. The challenge users sometimes do searches outside their interest or normal behavior.

How will this impact search? Search queries will get shorter. More of the top ten should be relevant to the user, assuming a strict intent is extrapolated from the query.

Impact on SEO: A better matching of the results that appear. Give the search engines enough content per page to help it determine the topicality of that page.

Tim says Yahoo has taken a more social approach to personalization. Yahoo users active in social products, such as Flickr, Answers,, upcoming, etc can help them discover content that is interesting to them and their community. Social search applications can help you save, store and re-find information that is important to you.

Matt Cutts is up next.

The idea behind personalization is that Google wants to make the results better for our users. (Aw.) People think about things in different ways. Matt calls on Jane and says if he asks her what a Kiwi is she’d have a different answer than someone who doesn’t hail from New Zealand. Poor, Jane. She looked so startled when Matt called on her. Total high school flashback.

Matt makes some sort of Monty Python reference and says that personalization should not be a surprise. Google has been talking about it. Don’t pretend you didn’t know it was coming.

He then starts talking about the benefits of Google’s Web history and how it can help remind you of useful searches you did a month ago. Yeah, Matt, still not drinking the Kool-aid. Sorry, dude.

Matt asks who thinks personalization is the death of SEO. No one is brave enough to raise their hand. Matt says there will always be a need for sites to present themselves well. SEO will never die. Personalization may change the game a little bit. Whenever there is change there’s opportunity. If you’re the SEO who’s crying about progress and change, you’re doing a detriment to yourself. Instead, figure out how to make your site sticky and how to virally grow it. Matt doesn’t think SEO will be exactly what it’s been like in the past but personalization won’t be such a big change that people won’t recognize it.

This is very important: If you want to turn off personalized search for a particular query, just add this parameter "&pws=0" to the end of your query string. Write that down somewhere.

Matt tries to make us all less scared of Google and tells us that Greg Linden blogged that personalized news search improved click throughs about 40-50 percent. Poor, Matt. He’s really getting desperate. :)

Notable Q&A Moments:

What are you going to do about shared computers? People don’t know to log in and out of accounts.

Matt: It’s an interesting problem. If you look at Google’s Web History product it breaks things into sessions. If you wait long enough Google will break it into a session. The results will still be better overall even if they became muddied by two different searchers.

Personally, I think this is so not Google’s problem, but okay.

Tim says the best way to opt out of Google personalized search is to pick another search engine. Tim, 1: Matt, 0.

Lisa Barone is a writer, content marketer & VP of strategy at Overit Media. She's also a very active Twitterer, much to the dismay of the rest of the world.

See Lisa's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (1)
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One Reply to “Personalized Search: Fear or Not?”

Hey Lisa! This is the article I was referring to about personalized news and improved clickthrough as a result:

Greg Linden was disappointed that we only got a ~40% increase in clickthrough in personalized news.


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