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April 24, 2007

Personalization and the Death of SEO

… as we know it.  On February 2, 2007 Google launched its big push into personalized search results.  This was, to many, a dark day as SEO’s scrambled to determine exactly what this meant for the industry and for our clients.  Different results showing up for different people?  What are ranking reports if what you see differs from what I see?  Who’s right? And of course, how do I prove it?

I’ll admit it; my first thoughts at the launch of personalization were not necessarily along the most positive tangents.  Upon further reflection (and much of it) and after wading through seven patents to get a better feel for the variables and what they mean (and might mean down the road) I came to one conclusion, coincidentally the same conclusion I consistently come to after each major algorithm update or search technology advancement:  Anything that improves the search experience improves the SEO industry.  This may seem an obvious statement but when the search engines (especially Google) throw a curve ball at us, one cannot help but worry. 

This article will focus on two tangents, what is personalization and how will the SEO industry evolve to accommodation this new feature?  The answer to the later is quite clear once one understands how personalized results are created. 

What Is Personalization? 

The most basic explanation of personalization is that it a system by which the search engines are able to extract patterns from previous search behavior and adjust present and future search results based on “learned” preferences.  The simplest example can be found in the repeated selection of a single site when it appears in the search results.  Ego drives many (present company included) to click on their own site when it shows up in the search results.  Once the site is selected multiple times it will rise in the results when the same or a similar search is run again by the same user.  Google has thus learned that you like this site and is now making it easier to get to it again. 

What we can see from the patents that are out there indicate that personalization is going to go MUCH further than this and get far more sophisticated.  Like any new technology, it is now in its first stages and as more data can be collected and more time put into tweaking the way personalized results are created and displayed the more factors they will be looking at.  The numbers of potential factors, as with any algorithm, are virtually endless in theory however there are some key factors that come up repeatedly in the patents that are sure to hold weight as personalization evolves.  They are: 

Your personal search history.  What you look for and the sites/ads that you select will affect the results you receive when you search.  Right now this seems to primarily be restricted to increasing the position of a site that is selected multiple times when it appears in a set of search engine result however as this technology evolves your past behaviors and the types of sites you select in the results will surely be applied to new searches, increasing the positions of sites that have similar characteristics to ones you have selected in the past for completely different queries.

Your behavior on a selected site.  What you do on a site and how long it takes you to return to the search engine is or soon will be a factor.  The search engines have clearly stated that their main goal is to deliver a positive experience to their users.  The more readily a searcher finds the information they are looking for in a set of results, the better the experience and thus, the more likely that searcher is to continue to use that engine.  If Google discovers that when a visitor lands on a site they are likely to stay for only a couple of seconds then that site can reasonably be considered less relevant for a specific query than one who’s visitor’s remain on their site for a minute or two.  The former site will thus lose position for the phrase and the later will increase.  All indications are that if this is the case for a single phrase, that the rankings for other phrases the site ranks for will not be affected however I would speculate that if visitors react poorly to a site for multiple phrases, that the value of the site as a whole will be reduced and the rankings will be affected globally. 

Your location.  Especially important for mobile search but sure to gain importance for specific, localized phrases – your business location relative to the searcher will gain importance.  A search for a phrase such as “seo services” is likely to be unaffected by such factors (unless the searcher has a past history of selecting sites from his/her own region for multiple phrases) however if a searcher searches for “pizza victoria” and the engine is able to pick up that the searcher is from Victoria, Texas and not Victoria, BC those sites that promote a pizza restaurant in Victoria, Texas will be increased in the results. 

The patterns of similar searchers.  And now it gets even more complex.  It does not appear that at this time the search engines are yet grouping users together to find common search patterns however there are multiple references in their patent applications that Google will be looking for ways to group users together by search patters, interests, or memberships in communities to provide personalized results based on what others with similar interested have selected.  For example, if I as a searcher am looking for blue widgets and after looking at a number sites I spend a few minutes on site and you do the same and then a couple days later I am looking for green gromits the search engine will reference your search patterns.  If you have looked for green gromits in the past the engine will use your experience (i.e. which sites did you visit and for how long) to affect my rankings based on our past similar behavior.  Now, when we’re dealing with just two people searching there isn’t a lot of information to affect the rakings however when the engines are looking at global rules across millions of searchers they are able to determine which types of searchers are selecting which types of results by grouping users with similar interests/patterns together and increasing the position of those sites that the majority of the group has found most desirable.   

The engines can also use memberships in communities and bookmarking similarities to establish common interests and patterns to increase and decrease a site’s position for specific phrases or to raise the sites value as a whole.

Your value as a visitor.  A colleague of mine and a brilliant reporter on the industry, Jim Hedger brought a point to my attention that snuck past me the first time I read it but which now jumps out as both interesting and important.  An engine can (and likely will) assign users with their own PageRank.  What this basically translates into is a value that your vote will have when you visit a site and its effect on the overall results of the many.  If Google decides that I am a lack-luster searcher and seem to select sites that others with similar interests do not then my personal PageRank will be decreases and thus, the sites I visit will be given less of a boost than those of a user whose selected sites match those that others find favorable.  That user will then receive an increase in their personal PageRank as their voting power will be deemed higher than others and their decisions more reflective of the most-desired-results. 

As noted, there are a wide array of factors covered in the patents and only through research, testing, watching and waiting will we discover the true nature of the evolution of this technology.  This doesn’t mean that all we can do is sit and wait.  There will be sites that do well as personalization evolves and sites that do not.  So what do you do to help hedge your bets and increase your chances of being on the right side of the winners-losers table? 

How Will The SEO Industry Evolve? 

As with any evolution in the search engine algorithms, the addition of personalization into the equations means that the community needs to adjust what we’re doing and how we rank websites.  This has ramifications for SEO’s and for website owners alike however one of the differences here compared to past changes is that some of the changes will affect only one of the two groups.  Usually what affects SEO’s will affect the website owner and vice-versa.  This is not necessarily the case with personalization. 

Let us take for example a scenario in which algorithmic updates outside of the personalization realm affect the site in a negative manner but at the same time changes from within the personalization realm affect the site positively.  This would result in a scenario where the global results would show decreases in rankings but where members of communities, regions or other relevant groupings would find the site appearing higher in their results.  A ranking report would show decreases but a traffic and conversion report may well show increases due to the site appearing high to users who are likely searching for the type of information your site provides.  This is where much of the concern and confusion lies in the minds of those offering SEO services. 

From this one thing is clear, SEO as we know it will be coming to a slow but sure death.  The rules that once applied, those that were universal, will no longer apply.  New ways of conducting SEO campaigns need to be developed that don’t just target the universal algorithm but also take into account the factors included in the personalization components. 

While currently the effects of personalization have not been widely recognized, this is due in large part to the fact that the majority of search users are not searching Google with the personalization turned on (by remaining signed into a Google service such as AdWords, GMail, Blogger, etc.).  This will change.  Here are ways that more and more of the search population will be added to those receiving personalized results (note: this is far from all of them and new ways to track user behavior are sure to be developed): 

  • Toolbars added by default to installed browsers on new computers as is the case created in the recent agreement between Google and Dell in May, 2006.
  • Toolbars being included in browsers such as Firefox as was established in an agreement between the two in August, 2006.
  • Search engine produced browsers installed by default into mobile phones as was agreement upon in a deal between Google and LG in March, 2007.

Some other factors that are going to increase the number of searchers affected by personalized results: 

  • New methods for tracking visitor behavior developed.
  • New engines providing personalized results.  Yahoo!, with all their social properties, is well positioned to expand into this area and Microsoft, with their control over desktops and browsers, is in a highly superior position in the area of visitor behavior and site selection, even from competing search engines.

Basically we’re heading into a world where more and more people will be receiving personalized results and in which more and more people are being tracked to provide superior sets of data to base group-based personalized results on.  So what do we need to plan for and what can SEO’s do to prepare their clients and the websites they optimize to rank highly in the face of personalization?  To be sure, new tactics will be developed and resources made available as the technology matures however here are some steps you can take today to help promote high rankings in personalized results.  Below you will find them listed based on the criteria we listed above as being measured: 

Personal search history.  Having a website that ranks for multiple related phrases and which provides valuable content for all of them is a great way to affect a visitor’s search history. If a visitor goes to your site multiple times and remains on your site for a reasonable period of time then your site will be given a boost when future search queries are performed that include your site in the results.  As a bonus, this is just a best practice regardless and will provide more high quality traffic in-and-of itself. 

Behavior on a selected site.  When visitors land on your site, the time they spend there can be tracked by the engine.  This means that if your site has stickiness and searchers spend a reasonable amount of time there when it shows up in the results, the rankings will increase for that phrase.  Basically, the better designed your site is to provide visitors with the information and experience they are looking for the higher it will show up in the results in future searches.  The only tip I will give here on how to accomplish this is to make the information that a searcher is likely looking for when conducting a specific search easy to find.  Past this we are getting into a variety of usability and copywriting issues.  These are definitely important for SEO and for your site health and will only become more important over time however they could not possibly be covered adequately here.  As an added bonus again, changes made to improve the visitor behavior on your website is going to increase conversions and keep the visitor there for longer periods of time. 

You also may want to consider adding Google Analytics code to your site.  Here I feel it necessary to give a few clarifications regarding some of the common reservations with using Google Analytics.  The biggest common concern among web marketers in general is that Google will use the data obtained through Analytics (especially if you are using conversion tracking) to affect bids for those using AdWords at some point down the road.  I’m not sure if I entirely believe they would do this however it is definitely within their abilities.  They could also adjust the position of your paid add in the results based on how users react to your site once you give them the ability to view how visitors behave.  It’s on the tangent that we head into the effects Google Analytics could theoretically have on your organic results.  We know that Google wants to provide the best possible experience to their users (even more true in the organic realm than their paid).  When you use Google Analytics you are effectively telling them how visitors behave on your site.  If their behavior is not positive (low time on site or low page views) then Google could theoretically affect the position of your site in the search results based on this.  This is the area that most concerns me personally and relates to this article.  My rule of thumb is that it is best to use other analytics tools until you see that your traffic patterns are favorable and then install Analytics.  At this point you would actually want Google to see your traffic patterns and visitor behavior. 

Your location.  While you can’t affect the location of your business or your searchers you can affect how you rank for localized phrases.  The tactics here fall into standard SEO tactics, however the first step is outside of the traditional SEO realm and that is to be sure to get your business listed on Google maps.  Most of us have seen the map results showing up in the search results.  This gives you an opportunity to show up above the natural results for localized phrases or, in future, for generic phrases where the results are based on the searchers position geographically.  It’s also a great way to “tell” Google where you’re located so if localization becomes a defining characteristic of a searcher, your site will appear when relevant. 

You’ll also want to engage in traditional link building efforts from regionally specific resources such as city-specific business directories, and related business in the area.  There have been many great articles written on link building and there is certainly not space here to do it justice. 

The patterns of similar searchers.  When you know what searchers of specific criteria (such as search phrase) do when they enter your site you need to let the engines themselves know that these searchers like what they see (assuming you’ve already dealt with the behavior points noted above).  You need to associate your site with specific communities that you know your visitors are likely to be a part of.  You also need to try to get your site added to social bookmarking sites by people who are likely to have common bookmarks with others who may search your targeted phrases or related phrases. 

Basically you want to make sure that any connection you can help make between your site, your visitors, and other potential visitors with similar interests or patterns as your past/present visitors is established.  This can be done by asking visitors to bookmark you on social bookmarking site by providing links to some of the popular bookmarking sites such as Google Bookmarks and  This will help make bridges between your site and others by people with similar interests.  Getting links on industry-specific authority sites is another useful way to tie your site to other quality resources in your industry.  To illustrate how Google would view this: if authority site A links to related sites B and C and site D is not linked to by site A Google can assume that if a visitor likes site B then they are more likely to also like site C than the unassociated random site D not linked to by the authority site A. 

The value of a visitor.  So how to you get visitors that can positively affect the results to visit your site?  While there is no definitive answer to this question there are a couple actions you can take to hedge your bets.  The first is sheer numbers.  Not necessarily the most scientific of answers but effective nonetheless.  If you have 1000 visitors to your site your odds that you have visitors who have a high degree of PageRank assigned to them are much higher than if your site only receives 50 visitors.  Ranking for multiple phrases and pulling in traffic from social bookmarking sites and authority communities are great ways to help increase your visitor numbers from people interested in the topic of your site. 

Another way to attract high PageRank users to your site requires thinking like a high PageRank user.  What type of person would visit related websites and view multiple pages and/or spend reasonable amounts of time on those sites?  What are they looking for?  How do they surf?  What other sites do they visit?  If you can get an understanding of how they surf the web and what they do on websites you’ll get a feel for what you need to do in regards to site structure and keyword targeting to get them and keep them on your site. 

What Does All Of This Mean? 

To understand what this all means we need only reflect back on the title: SEO as we know it is dead.  SEO’s are going to need to develop new measurements for their campaigns that reside outside of the direct ranking-reports of old.  New strategies to tie sites together and ensure that websites are included in communities and that visitors react favorably to them are going to become increasingly important.

What this means to the website owners is that the workload on your SEO provider (or on you if you’re a do-it-yourselfer) is about to go up and like all things, so too is the cost.  On the other side of the coin, you’re about to get traffic from new sources and your site, by necessity, will be more visitor friendly so your conversions will go up.  So while the workload and cost may increase, so too will the ROI.

In short, while the lives of SEO’s are once again going the to get a little more difficult, the search engines will benefit, their visitors will benefit, website owners will benefit and so in the end, this is good for all of us.

Author:  Dave Davies is the CEO of Beanstalk Search Engine Positioning, Inc. He writes with 6 years of experience in SEO, link building and reacting to algorithm additions and updates. You can keep yourself updated on the latest goings-on in the SEO and search engine world on Beanstalk’s blog. Dave is also co-host of The Alternative on with editor, Jim Hedger