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Personalized Search Results: Are Website Rankings Really Dead?

| Posted in category Search Engine Optimization

My friend's name is Amanda Cohen, which is quite a common name. One day she decided to look it up on Google and, to her utmost surprise, discovered she totally dominated the SERPS - the first page of search results consisted exclusively of her Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace and other accounts.

Very excited about the finding, she hurried to share it with her friends, including me. However, I told her it was only because Google must have personalized her search results. I said: "Google has become so smart nowadays it even knows what particular Amanda Cohen you are looking for".

Today Google, Bing and other search engines bias their search results to tailor them to a particular user. This means two searchers looking for one and the same term might see quite different listings.

To collect information about users, Google and Bing keep track of:

  • previous queries (for instance, if you look for "hotels" and right after that search for "Nevada", Google might include results for "hotels Nevada")
  • web history (queries made, search results clicked and websites visited),
  • geographic position (they identify your IP address)
  • browser language
  • social media connections (Google recently introduced Google Social Search that incorporates search results from one’s friends and contacts on Google accounts, Twitter or Facebook. Bing, in its turn, has been integrated with Facebook for quite a while now).

And you don't even have to be signed in to get custom-tailored results, because search engines also use browser cookies to record your web history, as long as your browser accepts them. It's also good to know that nowadays they deliver personalized results by default, unless you opt out of it.

Why are search engines doing this?

The official answer is "to provide a better search experience for the searchers". However, many advanced users question this explanation. They say that it is similar to ordering pizza at a restaurant and getting onions in it (even though you didn't ask for them), just because the chef saw you having onion soup the other day. Many do not want Google to make presumptions like that and say they are intelligent enough to type in "hotels Nevada" while looking for hotels in Nevada. There are also privacy concerns and a belief that personalized search narrows one’s search perspectives.

The truth is that the more Google knows about you - the better they can target their PPC ads. Google reportedly divide their users into gender, age, language and other groups, which allows them to advertise with higher efficiency. So, Google may tell you they strive for improved search experiences, but, in reality, it's all about the money 😉

How does personalized search affect SEO?

To what extent does Google customize results? Well, it depends - some results are more personalized than others. However, it is very rare that you get a whole page of biased search results (only if you look for something immediately related to you, like in the case with my friend Amanda). Google would normally throw in just a couple of tailor-made results per page. Besides, customization does not seem to affect 4 top positions.

Divergent search results may be quite a challenge for SEOs, when they have to explain to clients why website positions in their rankings reports differ from those clients see on their screens.

Website rankings - dead or alive?

Even though some people have been prophesying the end of website rankings, the latter are still very far from being dead.  First of all, in most cases, custom-tailored search results do not differ strikingly from "normal" ones. Second, personalization often means a bit more PageRank attached to a certain page, not making it #1. Therefore, website rankings are still a very important indicator of your website's success.

How does one get unbiased results?

It is now important for SEOs to be able to see unbiased, "normal" rankings to get a clue what a first-time user will see. Now, how does one turn personalization off?

That depends on whether you are signed in or not. In any case there’s always a way to opt out of getting personalized results. Not that an average user would bother doing it.

Signed-in users

1. First, you have to remove cookies from your browser. For example, if you use Mozilla Firefox, go to Tools >Options>Privacy and hit remove individual cookies to remove everything you got there from Google or Bing.

remove cookies in browserThen go to your Google account, select Manage Web History and click Pause Web History. You can also choose to Clear entire Web history - this pauses your web history automatically. Or you can just remove individual items from your web history, this way it won't get paused.

Signed-out users

Hit the small gear icon in the top right corner to deactivate Web History. Then remove browser cookies.

You can override Google's geo-targeting by either adding gl=US (or some other country indicator) to the URL in search results or you can use software for this purpose. There are several free tools that will do the job.

For example, the OpenSearch plug-in by Ready2Search.

It enables you to create your own custom-made plug-ins that will make your search appear as if performed in a particular country:

Localized SearchYou can add the plug-in to your Google toolbar and a blue magnifying glass icon will appear:

Localized Search  pluginOr you can use the Google Adwords Ad Preview and Diagnosis tool.

Moreover, the Rank Tracker tool by Link-Assistant.Com allows you to check rankings while working from behind a proxy server. Proxy servers are located in different countries and have correspondent IP addresses. Thus, using this option enables you to see search results tailored to a particular country. You can specify an alternative proxy address in Preferences > Proxy Settings.

For more accurate results, change your browser language accordingly.

Personalizing... websites

What can SEOs do in order to rank better in personalized search results? Well, just like search engines tweak their results to suit the needs of a particular user, SEOs can optimize websites by tuning them to certain segments of online audiences.

For example, you can specify the country your website is targeting by changing the settings at Google Webmaster Tools.  Drawbacks: 1) you can only use this feature for sites with a generic top-level domain, such as .com or .org, but not for sites with country-coded top-level domains (such as .ie) 2) you can target only one country at a time, 3) the change takes quite a while to take effect, sometimes months.

Anyway, here are the quick steps on how to do it:

  1. Go to Google Webmaster Tools Home page.
  2. Click Site configuration > Settings.
  3. Go to the Geographic target section and select the country you wish to target.

If you don't want your site to be associated with any particular region, select Unlisted.

Moreover, analytical data provided by the Google Analytics tool also helps you fine-tune your website for different categories of users. For example, if you sell shoes, you can mark visitors who click on, say, Women's Shoes on your website as women and those who go to Men's Shoes as men, using your Google Analytics account. And then you can see what keywords these groups have used to come to your website - they are likely to be quite different keywords. This way you can create two different landing pages and optimize them for gender-specific keywords. If you do that, it will help your website rank higher, in case Google personalizes search results based on the user's gender (and that’s what Google is believed to be doing).

To keep pace with the evolution of search engines, Link-Assistant.Com has incorporated analytical tools into its SEO software toolkit - SEO PowerSuite. It is now directly integrated with Google Analytics, which allows you to come up with better-targeted SEO strategies.

Besides, we have provided a good deal of advice concerning the use of Google Analytics on our company's blog. Check out the Google Analytics in Very Plain Language series.

Universal Search results

Optimizing your website for different sections of Universal Search results is another way to better target your audiences.

Nowadays, a lot of site owners would like to rank higher in particular sections like Google Places, Images or Videos. For example, let’s search for "hotels new york" on Google Places:

google places exampleHey, where are the Trump Hotel and Hilton? Never mind.

If yours is a local business, it helps tons to feature it on Google Places. It allows you to specify the range of your services (in case you deliver within a certain area), hours of operation and other info.

SEO PowerSuite has recently become the first SEO software to track rankings separately in different sections of Universal Search results in Google, Yahoo! and Bing. So now you can accurately estimate progress within its particular blocks.

Also, to learn how to optimize a video for better Videos rankings, check out our Four steps to online video success blog post.

Social Media

Now that search engines provide recommendations based on what people like on different social networks, it is crucial for a company to develop social media presence. Create corporate accounts on major social media websites and fill them with company’s news, your recent blog posts, special offers, etc.

Tip: An effective technique that helps you drive floods of direct traffic to your site and promote it in social media is link bait. To learn how it works and get some ideas, check out our Top 10 Out-of-the-box Link Bait Ideas Ever (and Why They Worked) blog post.

And remember, the first impression cannot be made twice. Nowadays, grabbing users' attention the first time they see your site in search results is more important than ever - you simply might not get a second chance.

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