I’ll be the first to admit that I totally missed the bigger picture when Google first released it’s “+1” button. In fact, I went so far as to say that I was going to ignore this new feature entirely…
So here I am, ready to eat some crow… 🙂 The importance of this move finally clicked for me when Google’s new Plus social network launched. Despite some of their earlier, disastrous forays into the social space (ummm… Wave or Buzz, anyone?), Google+ appears to be a game changer, not just in terms of providing a legitimate competitor to Facebook but also in the way all of these new elements tie together to affect search results.
What I’m talking about today is personalized search – the idea that a person’s social network contacts could influence the results that are served up through the Google search tool.
Now, personalize search isn’t a new concept, as Google has been publishing updates designed to bring about this end result since 2005. However, the launch of the “+1” button and the Google+ social network over the last few months dramatically increases the amount of data Google is able to analyze in order to serve up personalized results, which means that we’re likely going to start seeing these integrations occurring more often.
Here’s what you need to know about personalized search:
1. Traditional SEO becomes less important.
On Monday, I mentioned that traditional SEO becomes less important as a ranking factor when additional social signals are added to the equation, but it also decreases in importance when the natural SERPs are being overridden by personal recommendations.
As an example, if I’m logged into Google and search for the phrase “affiliate marketing”, a link to my “Getting Started with Affiliate Marketing” article shows up on the first page of the SERPs because the post was found in my Google Reader. Clearly, my site isn’t strong enough to rank for this incredibly competitive keyword on its own, which means that personalized search bumped a site that would have ranked according to traditional SEO out of its rightful place.
Now, as you might expect, not all marketers are pleased with this change (although I’ll admit to getting a pretty big thrill out of seeing my site there, even if I know that others aren’t seeing the same SERP). The person whose site I bumped out of the Top 10 likely spent tons of time and money to reach that coveted first page ranking probably isn’t too happy that Google has prioritized network recommendations over traditional SEO.
This doesn’t mean that traditional SEO is out of the picture entirely. As we’ll discuss later, it’ll always have a place in defining at least some users’ search experience. However, it does make it less of a factor in what sites are displayed in the SERPs, giving rise to the new importance of social networking…
2. Personalized search makes social networking a necessity.
Let’s think about this for a second… If Google is delivering results based on what content others in your social network are sharing, then your recommendations are showing up in your network’s searches as well. And since these personalized results have the power to bump sites out of their traditional rankings, Google’s giving you a pretty amazing opportunity to get your content seen for keywords that would otherwise take years to rank for naturally.
Of course, this only occurs if you’ve got a large, engaged social network. As SEO strategist Leo Dimilo points out in a guest post on Kikolani:
“Personalized search is a game changer and should help shift focus away from marketers gouging search with meaningless links in an attempt to rank for their keywords. If this is the case, the ones with the largest engaged social following will win.”
I’d expand on this statement slightly and say that the ones with the largest social networks and the best content will be the ones to win out. Even if you’ve got a huge social network, if you aren’t putting out content that’s good enough to be shared on Facebook or Twitter, or “+1’ed” in Google, you aren’t going to benefit from personalized search.
So now, I’m not going to bore you with yet another diatribe about how you need to get out and start engaging with social networking if you haven’t already. Go do it, do it now, and start putting out content that you can be proud of if you want to succeed in this new atmosphere.
3. Avoiding personalized search is difficult.
So obviously, there’s some huge potential here for lesser-known bloggers to get their sites seen with personalized search. But on the other hand, it does make determining if all of your traditional SEO work is paying off or not more difficult when you can’t get an unbiased look at the rankings.
Keep in mind that not everyone is going to engage with Google’s new tools, meaning that there will still be people who see the traditional SERPs, as well as terms that don’t lend themselves well to serving up personalized results (for example, if I’m looking for reviews for the best toilet bowl cleaner on the market, it’s highly unlikely that anyone in my network will have recommended content on this topic).
There will certainly be times when you want to see what the traditional SERPs look like, but unfortunately, there’s no good way to turn off personalized search. Sure, you can log out of all your Google profiles, delete your browsing history and clear your cookies (oh wait – who wants to do that…?!), but even if you go through all of these steps, you won’t be able to use Gmail or other Google services while you’re logged out.
According to SEOMoz:
“The “simple” Google solution is to type &pws=0 at the end of your search query, which turns off personalization. This method has the disadvantage of being time consuming and, for beginners, difficult to remember.”
Alternatively, if you don’t want to have to remember to append this string to every search for which you want to see the natural results, check out Yoast’s “Disable Personalized Search” plugin. It works with both Firefox and IE, and adds Google’s code to your searches automatically.
4. Personalized search makes it harder to sell SEO services to offline clients.
Consulting for offline clients is an area that I’m only starting to get into, but I know a lot of you reading this earn money this way. So it’s important to note that these personalized search results could present an additional challenge when selling your services.
Say you’re the owner of a local business who wants to know if your company is ranking for some arbitrary keyword you dream up. Without realizing that you’re still logged into Gmail, you navigate to Google and enter your search phrase. Surprise, surprise – your company pops up (due, in no small part to the fact that you’ve entered this search phrase before and clicked on your own company’s like, boosting your CTR in the SERPs…)! You’re pleased with the results and tell the little SEO consultant who just turned up on your doorstep to piss off.
Of course, it doesn’t occur to you that other people might not be seeing the same results that you do – after all, you’re an expert in your business, not SEO!
Clearly this is only one possible outcome – you’re just as likely to get a business owner who’s receptive to learning about personalized search and how it impacts the SERPs – but it does mean that you need to be prepared. Understand that you may face this objection in future consultations and have an explanation ready for clients who aren’t as up-to-date on search changes as you are.
5. Google thinks this service is improving its search results.
Finally, keep in mind that Google’s goal is always to provide the best possible search results, and it sees personalized search results as an improvement on the somewhat arbitrary traditional SERPs. But while most marketers are up in arms about their traditional SEO work counting for nothing, I disagree for a different reason.
Personally, while I love the potential that personalized search offers in terms of getting my site seen without having to spend years of my life building backlinks, I dislike the automatic integration and the difficulty involved in turning off this new feature. Personalized search makes it tough for me to find new sites and new resources on my own, which is a problem given how political and incestuous the internet marketing world can be.
So for now, I’m waiting to see how this all plays out. I imagine we’re going to see more changes before we see anything scaled back, but in the end, I hope that Google is able to reach a balance in terms of providing both objective resources and personalized recommendations.
Have you noticed a difference in your rankings or traffic due to personalized search? Or are you planning to adjust your marketing strategy differently to cope with these changes? Share your thoughts below in the comments!