Posted by Sam Battin, Senior Search Specialist (Natural Search)
You may have noticed that Google is now, in some cases, customizing search results based on recent search activity, even if you’re not logged into Gmail or another Google product. A snippet of text on the right side of the Google results page identifies pages that contain customized results, as shown in the screenshot below:
If you click on the “More details” link, Google offers more explanation and allows the user to click to the search results page that would have shown had the search not been customized. Below is the text that Google displays when you click “More Details”:
"The following information was used to improve your search results for travel credit cards:
Recent Searches You or someone else recently searched for business credit cards using this browser.
If you’re curious, you can see what a search for travel credit cards looks like without these improvements"
In displaying the recent search customized results, Google only figures in the previous queries entered by the user during the particular search session. If you are logged-in, Google will also customize your natural search results based on your web history (e.g. frequently visited sites will get more natural search results) and your location (e.g. some sites for businesses or services located near you may get better ranks).
According to Google’s support page, they’ve started customizing results based on recent searches for users who are not logged in “because recent search activity provides valuable context for understanding the meaning behind your searches.” Will this change the results for previously optimized sites? Our testing indicates Google’s customized natural search results are not greatly changed; if your site usually ranks high for its targeted keywords, you’ll most likely maintain your natural search visibility, even on customized results pages. Instead, customization will most affect the user.
To find a customized results page, I performed a search for “business credit cards” and then searched for “travel credit cards” in the same session. These back-to-back searches may indicate to Google that I’m looking for results that reflect some combination of the two separate queries. Google customizes my search results based on the two queries. Notice the AmericanExpress.com listing:
In this instance, the first page of results has not changed for customized searches; the customized results only changed the order of the sites on the first page. It’s possible that the AmericanExpress.com title tag had some relation to its position change. This page’s title tag, “American Express Credit Cards, Business Services, and Travel Services” is the only one in the results that contained both the words “business” and “travel”. Since my first search was for “business credit cards” and my second was for “travel credit cards”, it could be that Google slightly bumped up the AmericanExpress.com position because the AmericanExpress.com page contained information about both of these topics.
If I run the search for “travel credit cards” without the recent search customization, I see that the first page natural results are largely similar, except that the American Express listing has moved down from #7 to #10:
Not all customized results are this subtle. I’ve seen results from the second and third Google search results page show up at the bottom of the first page due to customization based on recent searches. Seeing the above example may lead you to believe that stuffing your title tags or trying to optimize your pages for as many related keywords as possible may help you gain rank in searches that have been customized based on recent search activity. The truth is, however, that this practice is likely to dilute what your page is really about and end up hurting you in the rankings.
Performics believes that the key to natural search success in an increasingly customized search landscape is relevancy. With more relevant search results comes the chance for marketers to capture more qualified natural search traffic. Trying to be everything to everyone is not going to work. Keyword research is instrumental in developing a strategy to deal with increased customization of search results. Web sites have to understand what keywords their qualified consumers are using on the engines. This is more important than keyword volume or keyword competitiveness. Once targeted keywords are determined, the Web site landing pages must be optimized in a way that lets the engines know they are the most relevant result for the qualified query.
If a searcher happens to use two of your targeted keywords in a customized search, your landing page is likely to rise in the rankings. If the searcher ends up searching for something not relevant to you on the heels of another query, or isn’t in a geography you sell to, or has a web history that indicates he never shops at stores that sell what you sell, then he’s not a qualified consumer worth optimizing for anyway. You can only target so many keywords. The only thing non-qualified traffic does is cost you money.
The challenge is discovering and optimizing for the targeted keywords used by your qualified prospects. Once you have that down, the increasingly customized search engines will do the work to deliver you increasingly qualified traffic.