Google Takes it Personal

Posted by Patrick Marshall, Analyst & Paul Williams, Analyst

Underreported by Google, but definitely of importance to anyone with a website was a recent announcement by Google on personalized search. Google has been using personalized results, that is using historical search information associated with a logged-in Google account, since at least 2007. The big change announced is that personalized search will be extended beyond signed-in users, so that anyone using the Google Search engine can view personalized results. To quote the Google blog:

"What we're doing today is expanding Personalized Search so that we can provide it to signed-out users as well. This addition enables us to customize search results for you based upon 180 days of search activity linked to an anonymous cookie in your browser.”

Speculation on why Google does anything can always be a little dicey, but based on the information Google appears to be collecting (search history and click-through rate), it’s easy to see why Google has chosen to extend personalization. By modifying results based on what people are searching for and navigating to, Google can ensure that they continue to serve their users relevant content. Google is finally coming around to accepting that search activity (e.g.  click-through rates) provides its own form of relevance.  Possible positive outcomes of Google extending personalized search include:

  • Reduction of spam listings and poor landing pages for queries as personalized results focus on click-through
  • Increased importance of the power of recognizable brands for generic terms
  • Potential higher importance on customer loyalty if click-through rate is measured

However, Google’s extension of personal search does raise questions and uncertainties. Most important is that Google will be serving inconsistent results. If search results are served based on a user’s personalizations, two users could potentially have different results. The importance of ranking could be diminished, and marketers may have to realign priorities and KPI.

If click-through matters, then the content elements that display on the Google results page become even more important. Poorly designed or messaged landing pages, including copy elements such as meta descriptions, could threaten a site’s ranking in personalized results. Simply boosting your site to the top through link acquisition won’t be enough.

This emphasis on personalized search results raises other tactical questions about how Google may associate websites with certain keyword clusters. Let’s say for example a user searches for “hiking boots.” If a user searched for “black boots,” three days ago, would a page with coverage for both terms have an advantage? Or if a user searched for “black boots” three days ago and clicked through to site, would that site have an advantage for the related term “hiking boots” in the user’s personalized results?  Only Google truly knows, but marketers should take initiative by expanding keyword coverage on important landing pages and emphasizing keyword clustering. 

For marketers and advertisers, however, the central premise of SEO still holds: If you create relevant content optimized for targeted keywords, your site should continue to rank highly as users continue to click through Google results to your landing pages.

In addition, the four pillars of natural search still hold strong. Each site needs proper visibility through indexation, relevant content, link popularity and effective distribution to rank well when a keyword is queried. Mixing these principles with a renewed focus on capturing users through effective SERP messaging should be the focus of marketers moving forward from this announcement.

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