Can SEO Exist Beyond Google Personalization?

Speculation in the search industry is rife this week with claims that Google Search Personalization has changed the SEO playing field. But has it really? Or are people freaking out for no good reason? To find out, we’ll look at how it impacts SEO in the negative and positive. But first, let’s have a quick refresher on how Personalized Search works.

What is Personalized Search?

For the past few years, Google has been monitoring what you search for when logged into your Google account and in particular, what sites you click on in the SERPs. If you favor particular sites, Google takes note and customizes future searches to show you more results featuring your favorite sites, more often and in higher positions.

For example, if you like t-shirt shopping online and are a regular visitor to Threadless as a result of logged in Google searches, Google would feature pages from Threadless more in the SERPs you see for t-shirt related search queries than would normally be featured in SERPs shown to others for the same search queries. Likewise, pages from Threadless would be pushed higher up the search results than they would normally be.

Personalized Search has been in place for signed-in users for years, but this month Google rolled out personalized search to users worldwide, whether they are signed in to a Google account or not.

Apart from privacy concerns, the announcement has prompted the inevitable “SEO is dead” claims that always seem to surface whenever Google announce a change to their search functionality.

So let’s take a look at how/why personalization might influence search engine optimization.

Why Personalization DOES Impact SEO:

  • If everyone sees different SERPs based on their searching patterns, how can you measure a consistent ranking? How can you reach an audience if their search queries are already *rigged* to show your competitor’s brand?
  • On page optimization and link building will no longer have as much influence on your site’s rank for competitive search queries.
  • Clients who opt-in to personalization and visit their own sites may have a false impression that their sites are ranking well in the SERPs and cease or refuse SEO services.
  • Clients who opt-in to personalization and visit their competitor’s sites may have a false impression that their sites AREN’T ranking well in the SERPs and blame their SEO.
  • Companies / brands with more traffic have a better chance to gain new business because searchers will see more impressions of snippets to their sites. This creates branding opportunities via snippets.
  • Webmasters will start optimizing more for other search engines like Bing where they can have more of an impact on organic results.
  • It will become even more difficult to rank for generic keywords and search phrases (as larger brands will tend to dominate based on market search share), meaning long tail search queries will become much more important in an SEO campaign.
  • Search spam should start to be filtered out as very few people will be revisiting spammy pages. That should eventually push more relevant, naturally optimized pages higher up the SERPs, particularly those in competitive industries.
  • Fresh content will give sites an advantage because new pages are more likely to stand out to searchers in personalized SERPs. Same goes for real-time content generated by Twitter, Facebook etc. Static sites are going to fall to oblivion.
  • Audience targeting and snippet relevancy will become more important when optimizing web pages.
  • PPC ads will have to try harder to compete with increasingly brand-biased SERPs.
  • PPC will become more popular as people find organic SEO too complex and abandon it.
  • Personalization should help normally lower ranked sites to get to the top a little faster via loyal customers and visitors.
  • Titles, META descriptions and text snippet optimization will become SEO priorities.
  • Top SERP performers will fall down the ranks if their snippets and offerings are not competitive enough, allowing lower ranked sites to take over.
  • Manually checking your site rankings, or those of your clients with personalization switched on will result in skewed, inaccurate SERPs.
  • Rank checking tools like WebPosition will no longer be accurate. Clients will stop asking for ranking reports (hooray!).
  • Some think that Google could be using personalization to monitor user-driven search in order to tweak the PageRank algorithm based on what users actually search for.
  • Brand new sites targeting competitive search queries have very little chance of appearing in SERPs customized by personalization, even with SEO.
  • If you don’t rank well now for your target search queries, you might slip further and further off the radar as searchers refine their SERPs by clicking on the higher ranked sites.
  • If clicking on SERPs begins to impact what users see, hackers may develop malware etc. that automates SERP clicking.

Convinced that SEO is dead yet? Hold your horses. Let’s aim for some perspective here.

Why Personalization DOESN’T Impact SEO:

  • The main Google PageRank algorithm still applies, it’s just the delivery of the results that has changed.
  • Any SERP emphasis is user-driven rather than algorithm driven and personalization changes only relate to search queries closely aligned to your web history.
  • Most non-personalized SERPs are not identical these days anyway. There is evidence of changes even based on the same search query on same PC in the same location a few minutes apart. Different datacenters and Everflux between them mean consistently shifting SERPs.
  • SEO isn’t just about SERP ranking. Think usability, keyword selection, conversion design, branding, social media, online reputation management etc.
  • Even if a searcher’s favorite brands come up in the SERPs and even if they visit them, they won’t always find what they’re looking for and will keep looking through and clicking other results, leveling the playing field eventually.
  • People won’t necessarily visit your site based on rank – if it’s relevant, it will get found.
  • Real Time Search and Universal Search are pushing the organic results down the SERPs anyway. Personalization is unlikely to have as big an impact as those factors.
  • Personalization will encourage repeat visitors for sites that can attract clicks. In this way, customized SERPs act as a search engine based bookmarklet.
  • Web history only lasts for 180 days if you’re not signed in, so unless searchers do multiple related searches and click on results during that time-frame, personalization may not even apply.
  • Although they are not revealing the percentage of search results impacted per page by personalization, Google keeps harping on about wanting diversity in the SERPs so they are unlikely to allow personalization to skew your search results too much.
  • You can tell if personalized search has influenced the SERPs you’re viewing by the *customizations* link at top right when logged in. You can view the same search without customization to see how the SERPs look to persons who have opted-out of personalization.
  • You can switch it off permanently!

Get a Grip, People

Personalization has been in place on Google for over 4 years. This isn’t a new algorithm, it’s simply a new delivery mechanism. It’s important to remember that a large number of Google users are logged in to a Google account of some kind when conducting searches anyway, so they won’t even notice the difference.

The other thing to keep in mind is that personalization is all about relevance and usability. Webmasters have been focused for too long on rankings and trying to crack a spot in the Top 10 search results for their target search terms. Similarly, searchers have been too lazy to look beyond the first page or two of search results. The rollout of personalization hopefully sees relevancy start to influence and drive our search behavior more so than rankings.

In some respects, Google has simply handed users the steering wheel and encouraged us to drive their search engine. So my conclusion is that while personalization does impact SEO, it is not a SEO killer so much as a search rank killer.

Rankings are dead. Long live Relevancy!

Real Time Search Has Arrived!

Google drastically changed the way we search the web this week with two major changes to their Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).

The first big change was the rollout of personalization to all Google users, whether they are logged in to Google or not. [Editor note: I’ve written a longer article about Personalized Search if you’re interested].

The second change is the introduction of Real Time Search (RTS). Google has added live scrolling web data to the SERPs for timely or popular search queries.

That’s right – you can now view web data, as it is published globally on blogs and social media sites IN REAL TIME.

From the official Google blog post:

“…we’re introducing new features that bring your search results to life with a dynamic stream of real-time content from across the web. Now, immediately after conducting a search, you can see live updates from people on popular sites like Twitter and FriendFeed, as well as headlines from news and blog posts published just seconds before. When they are relevant, we’ll rank these latest results to show the freshest information right on the search results page.”

To enable Real Time Search to become a reality, Google has been working hard for months on partnerships with major social sites such as Facebook, MySpace, FriendFeed, Jaiku and, as well as Twitter, with whom they partnered back in October. Although they haven’t confirmed it, word on the street is that they are paying Twitter for access to tweet feeds.

Not to be outdone, Yahoo announced a similar deal with Twitter this week, to include tweets in their search results.

So what SERPs include Real Time Search? Google says searches for things like your favorite TV show, sporting events, breaking news stories or the latest developments in politics will trigger RTS.

I ran a couple of test searches and timely topics such as climate change and entertainment-related search queries such as movie titles and celebrities also triggered Real Time Search.

You can see my test tweet including *Michael Jackson* in the Real Time Search results under the heading “Latest Results for Michael Jackson” below:

That’s right, I was able to get featured on the first page of Google results for the search query *Michael Jackson*, simply by including that query in a tweet.

To get an idea of the searches likely to be impacted by RTS, visit Google Trends and view Hot Topics, which is a new feature added today to coincide with Real Time Search going live.

As exciting as Real Time Search is in terms of technological advancement, the real story is how easily RTS can be exploited. You can see how easily I featured on the first page of Google for the year’s most popular search query!

I’m working on a major article about this, but in the meantime, a read of Sebastian’s spam recipe and Sugarrae’s post should be enough to make your eyes widen in alarm.

For more detailed coverage of Real Time Search and screen grabs of it in action, see Danny Sullivan’s two excellent articles on the subject.

Well Done Search Engine College Graduates

On behalf of staff and tutors at Search Engine College, I’d like to offer congratulations to our most recent graduates.

All students named below have successfully completed a course at Search Engine College and attained official certification status (requiring a passing grade of 70 percent or higher.)

Search Engine Optimization 101

  • Travis Plunk
  • Sarah Taylor-Salamaca
  • Julie Gilbreath Otten
  • Louisa Misrahi
  • Gwen Lombardi
  • Dave Lobo
  • Kate Rickard
  • Victoria MacGregor
  • Jyl Weeks
  • Larry Clark

Search Engine Optimization 201

  • Mary Kaufman
  • Mohammed El Hakawati
  • Louisa Misrahi
  • Dominique Neveling
  • Dave Lobo
  • Midulapriya Sundararaman
  • Craig Bollig
  • Asher Elran
  • Bill Montaruli
  • Larry Clark

Pay Per Click Advertising 101

  • Louisa Misrahi
  • Dave Lobo
  • Patrick Bugeja
  • Debbie Naugle
  • Asher Elran
  • Adam Traver
  • Larry Clark

Pay Per Click Advertising 201

  • Julie Chaloner
  • Megan Ball
  • Louisa Misrahi
  • Dave Lobo
  • Rob Gibbons
  • Victoria MacGregor
  • Asher Elran
  • Larry Clark

Web Site Copywriting 101

  • Megan Ball
  • Steven Morris
  • Louisa Misrahi
  • Bill Montaruli

Web Site Usability 101

  • Julie Chaloner
  • Dave Lobo
  • Kevin May
  • Larry Clark

Link Building 101

  • Justin T. Gerald
  • Asher Elran

Copywriting for PPC 101

  • Alexander Bruce

Certified Search Engine Optimizer

  • Steven Morris
  • Debbie Naugle
  • Bill Montaruli

Certified Search Engine Marketer

    • Julie Chaloner
    • Megan Ball
    • Louisa Misrahi
    • Dave Lobo
    • Asher Elran
    • Larry Clark

      Well done everyone! Please contact your tutor if you haven’t yet received your hard copy certificate, Status Page or certification seal.

      Also, don’t forget to join become a fan of our Facebook page and follow our Twitter profile @secollege for College announcements such as lesson updates, press releases, new courses, events and milestones.


      Like to learn more about our online training courses? Download our free SEO sample lesson. No catch!

      Google Home Page Turns Minimalist

      Visited lately? If so, you might have spotted something a little different about Big G’s home page.

      Remember back in September when I blogged about Google increasing the size of the search box? Well it turns out that Google have been experimenting quite a bit with the layout and design of their home page, playing around with different versions of it, visible only to a handful of guinea pigs in their control group and users of a few select data-centers.

      A major feature of the home page testing (and one that exists in the final launched version) is a fade-in effect where the content on the page “fades in” over a few seconds. I had noticed the fade-effect a couple of times during October and wondered if it was a glitch. TechCrunch noticed too and blogged about it quickly.

      With the testing period over, Google officially launched their new home page across all datacenters and most regional Googles this month. When the page first loads, it shows only the Google logo, buttons and the search box. The remaining links appear only once the user moves the mouse over the page.

      Google’s VP of Search Products Marissa Mayer says this design provides a focus on site usability:

      “For the vast majority of people who come to the Google homepage, they are coming in order to search, and this clean, minimalist approach gives them just what they are looking for first and foremost. For those users who are interested in using a different application like Gmail, Google Image Search or our advertising programs, the additional links on the homepage only reveal themselves when the user moves the mouse.”

      Google hopes that the minimalist page will soon become second nature to users and encourage them to use the home page features more efficiently.

      Google Now Helps You Improve Your Site Performance

      A new addition in Webmaster Tools this week sees Google becoming your own personal usability and accessibility consultant.

      Site Performance, an experimental feature added to the Webmaster Tools console courtesy of Google Labs, provides detailed information about your site’s load time and gives suggestions for speeding it up. It includes a chart of your site performance data over time, which can help determine latency triggers.

      As explained in Google’s official blog post about it, the Site Performance console includes examples of specific pages and their actual page load times, plus Page Speed suggestions that can help reduce latency.

      I was pretty shocked when I logged into Webmaster Tools today to find my blog pages take an average of 6 seconds to load. Google states that this is slower than 83% of sites! The Example Pages and Page Speed Suggestions revealed the culprit was a banner ad that was not optimized and a couple of extra DNA fetches on some pages so I was able to fix the issues pretty quickly.

      The load time data is apparently sourced from aggregated information by users of the Google Toolbar but it’s important to remember that it’s all averaged. A specific user may experience your site faster or slower than the average depending on their location and network conditions.

      As a Labs tool, Site Performance is still under development and Google are seeking feedback on it via the Webmaster Tools Forum.