Google's Personalized Search Results
Why a well-designed/well-built website matters more than ever
Have you heard?
Google now personalizes all its search results based on your last 180 days of search activity linked to an anonymous cookie in your browser. You can read about it on Google's blog if you want to learn more about this important change to how Google operates.
What does it mean?
Say you search a particular topic like "computers" on a regular basis. In the past Google would deliver similar results to you as it would to everyone else searching on the same phrase.
With personalized search Google will consider your past search activity, the phrases you search on and the pages you click through in order to generate a user profile that will deliver more relevant results when searching for "computer hard drives" or some other component. If you click on ZDNET more often in search results then that site will be weighted in your personalized results...
Why does it matter?
It matters for at least two reasons: your website must address a specific audience to continue to be successful in ranking on search phrases (A), because Google's AdWords advertising offers a more targeted audience for contextualized search results based on user activity (B).
Natural search results have long been leveraged by SEO experts to deliver targeted results to drive traffic to optimized sites. As we all know just because a website ranks higher in search results doesn't mean that site's content is what we want. When search results lure you to an irrelevant site you hit the back button pretty quick to try another site from the list of results.
Check out your site's bounce rate in Google Analytics, specifically when reviewing traffic sources keywords. You'll get an idea of what keywords users are searching on to navigate to your site. Does your site measure up to how it ranked in search results? You can infer that a lower bounce rate means higher relevancy for your site.
A development that helped Google achieve search dominance was the concept of PageRank–something that helped Google determine the "worth" of a website based on the number of high quality links that pointed to a particular site.
PageRank weighting created a valuation of search results. Sites that offer intrinsic informational worth such as government, collectively managed indexes/encyclopedias and news media have a higher authority in Google's world view then your average website selling widgets. However, if the New York Times website covers that same widget-hocking site and links to it in the story, Google now considers that site a little less average in its world view, and Acme Widgets begins the long page results climb upward to top ten glory.
The early days of web optimization was a wild west of page link trading. When marketers figured out that they could game search results by reciprocal linking they traded links like hockey cards at recess. Google moved quickly to adjust it's formula to consider the relevance of those links.
Did it really make sense that a website about cats was linking to a website about hotdogs? Maybe, but that link no longer automatically carried the same weight as it did originally. That link from the cat website to the hotdog website needed context to be considered relevant otherwise it was discounted in PageRank importance.
With personalized search results Google has created a new weighting factor that, privacy considerations aside, should in theory deliver more useful search results for the individual and a more targeted audience for advertisers. A win-win for Google but what does it mean for your website and it's ranking in Google's world view?
It's too early to tell how much weight personal preference data carries with personalized search results. I'll be keeping an eye on this over the next few months to see how much of a game changer this is for search optimization. Whatever the case, following best practices for website search optimization will continue to be important. A clear navigational foundation, a clean and intuitive site design and content that is frequently updated is a good place to start.
Ensuring that your site's content is relevant and meaningful to your audience is key–as it should always be with any marketing tool.
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Clear Space Design & Communications