Guide to Personalized Search Results

personalization SEO

Ken Colborn Aug 28 2014

If you grew up watching Sesame Street like me, you might have heard this song:

One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn’t belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?

The search results that you see within your browser are not the same as the others, each person is seeing different results. This is because those magic elves that place links on Google’s results pages knows that not everyone is that same and they customize your search results to better fit your needs. These personalized searches are created by multiple factors and from these sources, Google provides you with more relevant searches and gets you to the page you are looking for.

What affects my search results?

There are many factors that go into personalizing your search results, but here are some of the top ones:

Location

Google knows where you sleep. They also know where you work, go to school, and where you go on your weekends.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at this:
Google knows where you have been

This is the location data Google has collected on me for the past 30 days.

Of course, I have an Android phone and take Google everywhere I go, but have a look here and find out if Google already knows what you did last weekend:
https://maps.google.com/locationhistory/b/0

This precise location data allows Google to give you information based on your current location as well as the places you have visited in the past.

If you are not connected to Google via a mobile device, it will get your location based off your IP address of your internet connection. It may not be as precise as GPC, but it gives them the general area you are located.

This location data is used to help you find information on nearby restaurants or other local businesses. These custom results are very helpful to the user, but in my tests they caused the biggest fluctuation of the rankings.

portent-blog-local

You will also see local results from a couple different sources. One source is the content on your site. Google will look for the best content based on the location and the search query. These results will show up in the regular organic results (see the blue highlighted listings above).

There are still a section of local listings grouped within the search results. This data comes from Google My Business listings and finds local businesses near your location and places them on a map to help you find a store near you.

Search History

Google tracks the different terms that you search for to help understand the context of your search. Google first announced personalized search way back in 2005, which used your personal search history to influence your results. This was only available to users that had a Google account.

Then four years later, in 2009, Google announced that it was giving personalized search to everyone whether they were signed into their Google account or not.

 Previously, we only offered Personalized Search for signed-in users, and only when they had Web History enabled on their Google Accounts. What we’re doing today is expanding Personalized Search so that we can provide it to signed-out users as well. This addition enables us to customize search results for you based upon 180 days of search activity linked to an anonymous cookie in your browser. It’s completely separate from your Google Account and Web History (which are only available to signed-in users).
http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2009/12/personalized-search-for-everyone.html

 So you can see that Google remembers your other recent searches. The image below shows the same search query for ‘JavaScript,’ but you can see personalized results on the right based on previous searches.

portent-blog-javascript

In the search on the right I searched for ‘Programming Textbooks’ and ‘Books on HTML’ before I searched ‘JavaScript’. This changed the results by bringing in three book listings that were not on the original set of results at all.

Web History

If you are signed into a Google account and use Chrome or the Google Toolbar, your web history is being collected and stored in a vast Google data center somewhere. Google uses this web history to learn what kind of sites you like and base your search results on this.

When testing this, I saw Twitter rise in the rankings over Facebook since I tend to visit Twitter more often. Otherwise, I didn’t see any major changes.

Google+

When you create a Google+ account, you give Google a lot of demographic data on yourself including your age, sex, where you live, other places you used to live, where you work, who your friends are, what your favorite 80’s TV show is (mine is Misfits of Science).

You would think they would use this demographic data to target you, but during my tests I didn’t see any clear indications of this. The only major changes I saw based on Google+ was the additions of reviews or ratings by people I have in my circles.

portent-blog-reviews

I moved to Seattle about the same time that Johnathon Colman moved to California, but I have been followed by his ghost ever since. I have Johnathon in my Google+ circles and because of that he shows up every time I’m looking for local businesses.

I didn’t notice any of these reviews making changes in the position of the rankings, but they do make the site listing more visible which would likely increase the click through rate of that listing.

What does this mean to me?

There is no consistent search experience because of personalization. This means that you can track the keyword rankings for your site using generic non-personalized search results, but they don’t match up 1:1 to what your customers are seeing. It’s still OK to track your keywords, but you need to realize that it is not giving you the full picture of what is going on in the wild. You need to use these ranking to see how you are trending, not what place a specific keyword is ranking for this week.

When you are trying to increase the rankings of your site, it is best to take a holistic approach and include onsite and offsite optimization, localization, and social visibility. All of these factor into your rankings and will help you increase your search visibility in personalized and non-personalized search results.

tags : GooglePersonalized SearchSearchSEO

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4 Comments

  1. Maven

    Good topic. Google makes search results personalized and that can give a completely different picture between what I see and others see.
    I think we can use Chrome Incognito browser or Mozilla private browser to have a neutral search results if we need so.
    I have tested this many times and I got nearest results across different part of my country.

  2. Google is now officially the star of George Orwell’s 1984 – watching you wherever you are. I find it intrusive, not personalised, to visit a website and see an advert for something I’ve just been searching for.

    • Ken Colborn

      Ken Colborn

      It can definitely be a little (or a lot) intrusive. The good thing is that you can turn off the settings that you don’t want Google to collect, like location or web history. There is always incognito mode as well. There is always a creepiness factor when getting personalized results.

  3. Kinda spooky and very scary for us SEOs as this is not something we can really “manipulate” unless we help our clients really get the edge in a specific region. But even than everybody has different set of friends…

    Not a big fan of the friends influence search thingy (social search) as a large part of the “friends” people have on social media sites are only that: Friends on social media :D They have nothing in common and see each other either only once in life or once every 15 years.

    Happy not to have an Android phone but I am sure Apple is using my data only with the best intentions… not.

    Thanks for the sweet guide on Personalized Search Results!

    Greetings from Innsbruck,

    Alex

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