Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Personal Search

I like the phrase “Personal Search” at it seems to fit in with “Local Search”, “Mobile Search” and “Video Search” … and all the other searches we have out there.

I like the trend we are seeing towards Personalised Search Results / Personalised Search but many SEO agencies and individuals do not. I’m not surprised. Personalised Search Results threaten the concept of ‘high rankings’ as the single goal of search engine optimisation. High rankings should not be the only goal of SEO, though. If your focus is entirely on high rankings then the growth of personalised results threatens your focus. Personalised Search Engine Result Pages - PSERPS? – no, that’s a silly acronym and reminds me too much of Judge Dredd’s “perps”.

One of the reasons I like personalised search results is that it adds some marketing flare to search marketing. I don’t like link buying. In a heavily personalised search environment it is impossible to blast your way to the top for enough terms by link buying. Vanity terms start to count for less. The demographic tail of organic search counts for more. I dislike that “so-called” form of SEO where companies FTP up a bunch of pages to your site. That tactic barely brings in any traffic now. In the future it’ll bring in even less. With personalised results your ethical and clever ideas are even more clever. With personalised results then your savvy demographic targeting is a larger success than it was last year.

So perhaps I like personalised search because it does not harm my organic style of search engine optimisation. For me, SEO has always been about working with the system. Organic search is making sure your site achieves everything it should – and everything it could – in the search environment.

Above all; the thing to remember is that if your website cannot be found in search, in Google, then you’ll never be able to have searchers develop a personalised preference for your site. Organic search engine optimisation comes first and Personalised search engine optimisation is the next stage.

I’ve noticed that many clients and audience members in seminars are worried about Personalised Search though. Typically clients and seminar audiences are pro Google. If Google do something then they want a piece of the action too. The last time I witnessed a negative reaction to a Google offering was over Gmail – people really reacted badly to the idea of targeted adverts in their email. That was, in my opinion, an over reaction compounded by a lack of understanding. I’ve had some interesting questions regarding Personalised Search though.

What if I don’t want my results personalised?” asked one attendee. It was as if she was happy with Google and did not want it to change. My response to her was to log out of Google or not opt-in to the history recording option. From her reaction I could tell she was not impressed with the options. If you’re a frequent Gmail or Google Calendar user then logging in and logging out all the time is a pain.

What if I do a lot of online shopping for friends?” asked another. I saw her concern too. If I’m buying something for my mother than I really do not want Google to start personalising my search towards her tastes! This time my response seemed to satisfy the audience better. I spoke of trends and how one or two searches, especially out of character/out of trend searches, would not typically result in Google evolving your personalised preferences.

If I search a holiday in Greece in the winter and then start to research another holiday for summer… isn’t Google going to show a preference for Greek holiday results? I would want to go somewhere else.” I must admit – that was a good question. It is probably one of those times when personalised results might begin at a disadvantage but, if Google had the sensitivity right, begin to swing around to your way of thinking as you ignored the Greece holiday sites and started to show a preference for another. It is also likely that there would be strong “pro-Greek” signals in your winter search, especially if you knew before your research that you wanted to go to Greece, that would not be there in your summer holiday search.

There were the typical questions from marketers who have employed a search agency and wanted to know whether they could still see if the company was doing a good job for them. The log out and check the “natural organic” results option was there. In addition, search engine optimisation agencies doing a good job will tend to have a positive effect on traffic. Personalised search does not change how you record traffic and other web metrics from your site.

I do like personalised search results but I do wonder whether an opt-out more graceful than simply logging out might be a good idea. If Google’s users like the search quality they get from Google and understand how their results are being personalised to them then I can see why they would want to take an active role in preserving those search results.

Perhaps a “Personal Search” option should be considered by Google. A Personal Search would be one which you did not share with the search engine’s memory. A Personal Search, maybe Private Search is a better term, is one which did not influence your personalised history or search pattern.

I can tell this will be a subject which I’ll find my thoughts drifting back to again and again this year. It is also going to be one which remains a hot topic for a while to come. Just wait until the mainstream marketing media starts to write about it in force.

One final and ironic note, over at Google.co.uk, when Google personalises my results they say I'm getting personalized results. No. I don't spell the word that way. Personalised results but not localised results!

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