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SERPs Get Personal

Tony Goldstone

Personalised web searching is not something new. All of the major search engines have experimented with personalised search but Google is the only current operator to be providing this facility as standard.

What is personalised web searching? This is from Google:

Personalized Search is an improvement to Google search that orders your search results based on what you've searched for before. Learning from your history of searches and search results you've clicked on, Personalized Search brings certain results closer to the top when it's clear they're most relevant to you.

How does anyone access or make use of this facility? In the past you were required to sign-up for the service but not any more. If you are logged into your Google account then the search results returned to you are personalised. A quick way of turning the personalisation off is to add ‘&pws=0’ to the end of the search URL in the address bar.

What is the difference between personalised SERPs and the regular variety? Not a great deal. Google will attempt to present some search results, which it determines are most relevant to you, closer to the top of the list. At present the effects of personalisation are purposely constrained and maybe 3 of the top 10 results might be influenced.

How does Google know what is relevant to me? There are several mechanisms used by Google to gather information which can be used to personalise your search results. Your search history, the content of your Google personal home page, any bookmarks that you may have saved to your Google bookmarks and information gathered from Google desktop software and toolbars.

What is my ‘search history’? Search history is a feature that keeps track of every search that you have done with Google. To see your personal search history you must sign in to your Google account and then select ‘Web History’ from the list of services available. This will present you with details of the searches that Google has recorded. If you are thinking that this is all a bit ‘big brother’ and you don’t want Google recording what you are using their service for it is quite easy to pause recording or delete search results from your history. (See the options in the left hand column.)

Not everyone is happy to let Google gather data about their online searching activity and many are probably not even aware that this data is being gathered. The subject of online privacy has been in the news again lately with Google calling for a global online privacy standard. Google users should be aware of their web history, what is recorded and how it is used. This ‘Privacy FAQ for Web History’ attempts to answer these questions.

What does this mean for SEO? In practice it will mean that several people could enter the same search term but the results that each of them see will be slightly different. One person may see website ‘A’ at number 1 whereas another person may see the same website somewhere else in their personalised SERPs.

Measuring the effects of SEO by monitoring where a website ranks for various search terms will still provide an indication of how SEO efforts are influencing those positions. But having a good position in non-personalised SERPs for a particular search term will not guarantee that every user who enters that search term will see that site at the same position. To accurately monitor and measure the effects of an SEO campaign attention will need to be applied to overall traffic levels and, importantly, conversion rates.

Getting a site into the first few SERPs is obviously important but also, since Google personalised search results are influenced by clickthroughs, we need to present users with links that they will actually want to follow. This means paying attention to what is recognised as good SEO practice by providing accurate, relevant and appropriate page titles and meta descriptions.

Once we have managed to encourage users to visit a website then we need to persuade them to bookmark the website in their Google bookmarks as this will help raise the importance of the site. To do this we need to pay attention to another aspect of good SEO practice by providing quality, relevant, on-topic content that is engaging and compelling. The site content will need to encourage a visitor to anticipate that they will want to return to the site and therefore they will want to add it to their bookmarks. Providing them with tools that make it easy for them to add the site to their Google bookmarks and to potentially share their discovery with others through social bookmarking will also contribute favourably towards a site’s optimisation.

Personalisation along with localisation are hot topics of discussion and debate in the world of SEO, not least because of the privacy issues that are raised by the monitoring of service users activities. For many users, the benefits that personalised search can bring are outweighed by the need to disclose information which they consider personal and private.

References:

Google Search History and Privacy (www.somebits.com)

Google Ramps Up Personalized Search (searchengineland.com)

Personalized Search: Fear or Not (www.seroundtable.com)

Google Labs (labs.google.com)


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