Personalization And The Death Of SEO

… 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

again.

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

    engines.

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

important.

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

of us.

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.

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