… as we know it. On February 2, 2007 Google launched its
big push into personalized search results. This was, to many, a dark day as
SEO’s scrambled to determine exactly what this meant for the industry
and for our clients. Different results showing up for different people? What
are ranking reports if what you see differs from what I see? Who’s right?
And of course, how do I prove it?
I’ll admit it; my first thoughts at the launch of personalization were
not necessarily along the most positive tangents. Upon further reflection (and
much of it) and after wading through seven patents to get a better feel for
the variables and what they mean (and might mean down the road) I came to one
conclusion, coincidentally the same conclusion I consistently come to after
each major algorithm update or search technology advancement: Anything that
improves the search experience improves the SEO industry. This may seem an obvious
statement but when the search engines (especially Google) throw a curve ball
at us, one cannot help but worry.
This article will focus on two tangents, what is personalization and how will
the SEO industry evolve to accommodation this new feature? The answer to the
later is quite clear once one understands how personalized results are created.
What Is Personalization?
The most basic explanation of personalization is that it a system by which
the search engines are able to extract patterns from previous search behavior
and adjust present and future search results based on “learned”
preferences. The simplest example can be found in the repeated selection of
a single site when it appears in the search results. Ego drives many (present
company included) to click on their own site when it shows up in the search
results. Once the site is selected multiple times it will rise in the results
when the same or a similar search is run again by the same user. Google has
thus learned that you like this site and is now making it easier to get to it
What we can see from the patents that are out there indicate that personalization
is going to go MUCH further than this and get far more sophisticated.
Like any new technology, it is now in its first stages and as more data can
be collected and more time put into tweaking the way personalized results are
created and displayed the more factors they will be looking at. The numbers
of potential factors, as with any algorithm, are virtually endless in theory
however there are some key factors that come up repeatedly in the patents that
are sure to hold weight as personalization evolves. They are:
Your personal search history. What you look for and the sites/ads
that you select will affect the results you receive when you search. Right now
this seems to primarily be restricted to increasing the position of a site that
is selected multiple times when it appears in a set of search engine result
however as this technology evolves your past behaviors and the types of sites
you select in the results will surely be applied to new searches, increasing
the positions of sites that have similar characteristics to ones you have selected
in the past for completely different queries.
Your behavior on a selected site. What you do on a site and how long
it takes you to return to the search engine is or soon will be a factor. The
search engines have clearly stated that their main goal is to deliver a positive
experience to their users. The more readily a searcher finds the information
they are looking for in a set of results, the better the experience and thus,
the more likely that searcher is to continue to use that engine. If Google discovers
that when a visitor lands on a site they are likely to stay for only a couple
of seconds then that site can reasonably be considered less relevant for a specific
query than one who’s visitor’s remain on their site for a minute
or two. The former site will thus lose position for the phrase and the later
will increase. All indications are that if this is the case for a single phrase,
that the rankings for other phrases the site ranks for will not be affected
however I would speculate that if visitors react poorly to a site for multiple
phrases, that the value of the site as a whole will be reduced and the rankings
will be affected globally.
Your location. Especially important for mobile search but sure to
gain importance for specific, localized phrases – your business location
relative to the searcher will gain importance. A search for a phrase such as
“seo services” is likely to be unaffected by such factors (unless
the searcher has a past history of selecting sites from his/her own region for
multiple phrases) however if a searcher searches for “pizza victoria”
and the engine is able to pick up that the searcher is from Victoria, Texas
and not Victoria, BC those sites that promote a pizza restaurant in Victoria,
Texas will be increased in the results.
The patterns of similar searchers. And now it gets even more complex.
It does not appear that at this time the search engines are yet grouping users
together to find common search patterns however there are multiple references
in their patent applications that Google will be looking for ways to group users
together by search patters, interests, or memberships in communities to provide
personalized results based on what others with similar interested have selected.
For example, if I as a searcher am looking for blue widgets and after looking
at a number sites I spend a few minutes on site xyz.com and you do the same
and then a couple days later I am looking for green gromits the search engine
will reference your search patterns. If you have looked for green gromits in
the past the engine will use your experience (i.e. which sites did you visit
and for how long) to affect my rankings based on our past similar behavior.
Now, when we’re dealing with just two people searching there isn’t
a lot of information to affect the rakings however when the engines are looking
at global rules across millions of searchers they are able to determine which
types of searchers are selecting which types of results by grouping users with
similar interests/patterns together and increasing the position of those sites
that the majority of the group has found most desirable.
The engines can also use memberships in communities and bookmarking similarities
to establish common interests and patterns to increase and decrease a site’s
position for specific phrases or to raise the sites value as a whole.
Your value as a visitor. A colleague of mine and a brilliant reporter on the
industry, Jim Hedger brought a point to my attention that snuck past me the
first time I read it but which now jumps out as both interesting and important.
An engine can (and likely will) assign users with their own PageRank. What this
basically translates into is a value that your vote will have when you visit
a site and its effect on the overall results of the many. If Google decides
that I am a lack-luster searcher and seem to select sites that others with similar
interests do not then my personal PageRank will be decreases and thus, the sites
I visit will be given less of a boost than those of a user whose selected sites
match those that others find favorable. That user will then receive an increase
in their personal PageRank as their voting power will be deemed higher than
others and their decisions more reflective of the most-desired-results.
As noted, there are a wide array of factors covered in the patents and only
through research, testing, watching and waiting will we discover the true nature
of the evolution of this technology. This doesn’t mean that all we can
do is sit and wait. There will be sites that do well as personalization evolves
and sites that do not. So what do you do to help hedge your bets and increase
your chances of being on the right side of the winners-losers table?
How Will The SEO Industry Evolve?
As with any evolution in the search engine algorithms, the addition of personalization
into the equations means that the community needs to adjust what we’re
doing and how we rank websites. This has ramifications for SEO’s and for
website owners alike however one of the differences here compared to past changes
is that some of the changes will affect only one of the two groups. Usually
what affects SEO’s will affect the website owner and vice-versa. This
is not necessarily the case with personalization.
Let us take for example a scenario in which algorithmic updates outside of
the personalization realm affect the site in a negative manner but at the same
time changes from within the personalization realm affect the site positively.
This would result in a scenario where the global results would show decreases
in rankings but where members of communities, regions or other relevant groupings
would find the site appearing higher in their results. A ranking report would
show decreases but a traffic and conversion report may well show increases due
to the site appearing high to users who are likely searching for the type of
information your site provides. This is where much of the concern and confusion
lies in the minds of those offering SEO services.
From this one thing is clear, SEO as we know it will be coming to a slow but
sure death. The rules that once applied, those that were universal, will no
longer apply. New ways of conducting SEO campaigns need to be developed that
don’t just target the universal algorithm but also take into account the
factors included in the personalization components.
While currently the effects of personalization have not been widely recognized,
this is due in large part to the fact that the majority of search users are
not searching Google with the personalization turned on (by remaining signed
into a Google service such as AdWords, GMail, Blogger, etc.). This will change.
Here are ways that more and more of the search population will be added to those
receiving personalized results (note: this is far from all of them and new ways
to track user behavior are sure to be developed):
- Toolbars added by default to installed browsers on new computers as is the
case created in the recent agreement between Google and Dell in May, 2006.
- Toolbars being included in browsers such as Firefox as was established in
an agreement between the two in August, 2006.
- Search engine produced browsers installed by default into mobile phones
as was agreement upon in a deal between Google and LG in March, 2007.
Some other factors that are going to increase the number of searchers affected
by personalized results:
- New methods for tracking visitor behavior developed.
- New engines providing personalized results. Yahoo!, with all their social
properties, is well positioned to expand into this area and Microsoft, with
their control over desktops and browsers, is in a highly superior position
in the area of visitor behavior and site selection, even from competing search
Basically we’re heading into a world where more and more people will
be receiving personalized results and in which more and more people are being
tracked to provide superior sets of data to base group-based personalized results
on. So what do we need to plan for and what can SEO’s do to prepare their
clients and the websites they optimize to rank highly in the face of personalization?
To be sure, new tactics will be developed and resources made available as the
technology matures however here are some steps you can take today to help promote
high rankings in personalized results. Below you will find them listed based
on the criteria we listed above as being measured:
Personal search history. Having a website that ranks for multiple
related phrases and which provides valuable content for all of them is a great
way to affect a visitor’s search history. If a visitor goes to your site
multiple times and remains on your site for a reasonable period of time then
your site will be given a boost when future search queries are performed that
include your site in the results. As a bonus, this is just a best practice regardless
and will provide more high quality traffic in-and-of itself.
Behavior on a selected site. When visitors land on your site, the
time they spend there can be tracked by the engine. This means that if your
site has stickiness and searchers spend a reasonable amount of time there when
it shows up in the results, the rankings will increase for that phrase. Basically,
the better designed your site is to provide visitors with the information and
experience they are looking for the higher it will show up in the results in
future searches. The only tip I will give here on how to accomplish this is
to make the information that a searcher is likely looking for when conducting
a specific search easy to find. Past this we are getting into a variety of usability
and copywriting issues. These are definitely important for SEO and for your
site health and will only become more important over time however they could
not possibly be covered adequately here. As an added bonus again, changes made
to improve the visitor behavior on your website is going to increase conversions
and keep the visitor there for longer periods of time.
You also may want to consider adding Google Analytics code to your site. Here
I feel it necessary to give a few clarifications regarding some of the common
reservations with using Google Analytics. The biggest common concern among web
marketers in general is that Google will use the data obtained through Analytics
(especially if you are using conversion tracking) to affect bids for those using
AdWords at some point down the road. I’m not sure if I entirely believe
they would do this however it is definitely within their abilities. They could
also adjust the position of your paid add in the results based on how users
react to your site once you give them the ability to view how visitors behave.
It’s on the tangent that we head into the effects Google Analytics could
theoretically have on your organic results. We know that Google wants to provide
the best possible experience to their users (even more true in the organic realm
than their paid). When you use Google Analytics you are effectively telling
them how visitors behave on your site. If their behavior is not positive (low
time on site or low page views) then Google could theoretically affect the position
of your site in the search results based on this. This is the area that most
concerns me personally and relates to this article. My rule of thumb is that
it is best to use other analytics tools until you see that your traffic patterns
are favorable and then install Analytics. At this point you would actually want
Google to see your traffic patterns and visitor behavior.
Your location. While you can’t affect the location of your business
or your searchers you can affect how you rank for localized phrases. The tactics
here fall into standard SEO tactics, however the first step is outside of the
traditional SEO realm and that is to be sure to get your business listed on
Google maps. Most of us have seen the map results showing up in the search results.
This gives you an opportunity to show up above the natural results for localized
phrases or, in future, for generic phrases where the results are based on the
searchers position geographically. It’s also a great way to “tell”
Google where you’re located so if localization becomes a defining characteristic
of a searcher, your site will appear when relevant.
You’ll also want to engage in traditional link building efforts from
regionally specific resources such as city-specific business directories, and
related business in the area. There have been many great articles written on
link building and there is certainly not space here to do it justice.
The patterns of similar searchers. When you know what searchers of
specific criteria (such as search phrase) do when they enter your site you need
to let the engines themselves know that these searchers like what they see (assuming
you’ve already dealt with the behavior points noted above). You need to
associate your site with specific communities that you know your visitors are
likely to be a part of. You also need to try to get your site added to social
bookmarking sites by people who are likely to have common bookmarks with others
who may search your targeted phrases or related phrases.
Basically you want to make sure that any connection you can help make between
your site, your visitors, and other potential visitors with similar interests
or patterns as your past/present visitors is established. This can be done by
asking visitors to bookmark you on social bookmarking site by providing links
to some of the popular bookmarking sites such as Google Bookmarks and del.icio.us.
This will help make bridges between your site and others by people with similar
interests. Getting links on industry-specific authority sites is another useful
way to tie your site to other quality resources in your industry. To illustrate
how Google would view this: if authority site A links to related sites B and
C and site D is not linked to by site A Google can assume that if a visitor
likes site B then they are more likely to also like site C than the unassociated
random site D not linked to by the authority site A.
The value of a visitor. So how to you get visitors that can positively
affect the results to visit your site? While there is no definitive answer to
this question there are a couple actions you can take to hedge your bets. The
first is sheer numbers. Not necessarily the most scientific of answers but effective
nonetheless. If you have 1000 visitors to your site your odds that you have
visitors who have a high degree of PageRank assigned to them are much higher
than if your site only receives 50 visitors. Ranking for multiple phrases and
pulling in traffic from social bookmarking sites and authority communities are
great ways to help increase your visitor numbers from people interested in the
topic of your site.
Another way to attract high PageRank users to your site requires thinking like
a high PageRank user. What type of person would visit related websites and view
multiple pages and/or spend reasonable amounts of time on those sites? What
are they looking for? How do they surf? What other sites do they visit? If you
can get an understanding of how they surf the web and what they do on websites
you’ll get a feel for what you need to do in regards to site structure
and keyword targeting to get them and keep them on your site.
What Does All Of This Mean?
To understand what this all means we need only reflect back on the title: SEO
as we know it is dead. SEO’s are going to need to develop new measurements
for their campaigns that reside outside of the direct ranking-reports of old.
New strategies to tie sites together and ensure that websites are included in
communities and that visitors react favorably to them are going to become increasingly
What this means to the website owners is that the workload on your SEO provider
(or on you if you’re a do-it-yourselfer) is about to go up and like all
things, so too is the cost. On the other side of the coin, you’re about
to get traffic from new sources and your site, by necessity, will be more visitor
friendly so your conversions will go up. So while the workload and cost may
increase, so too will the ROI.
In short, while the lives of SEO’s are once again going the to get a
little more difficult, the search engines will benefit, their visitors will
benefit, website owners will benefit and so in the end, this is good for all
If you have any questions about personalization or your website in general please feel free to contact us for additional information or sign up for our free search engine positioning review.