Personalized Search: The End for Some, but a Breakthrough for Most of Us

By Dave McAnally, Associate Director, Content Solutions

Last week, Google announced that it would be personalizing search results for all users in addition to those who have logged into Google. The intended purpose is for search results to be more relevant to each user by incorporating information Google knows about that user into their search results. Essentially, Google believes that by looking at things you've searched on in the past, it can better predict what kind of results you'll like in the future. Danny Sullivan goes into greater detail on how this is accomplished, and what privacy issues arise here. Go ahead and read it, I’ll wait.

There is definitely some controversy about this in the SEO community. It seems that if you hang your hat on rankings you achieve for a site, you are potentially out of a job. After all, doesn't a unique search result for every single user make SEO an impossible moving target? It certainly poses some extreme difficulties in tracking rankings. How could we possibly determine if our efforts are having an effect if we can no longer go check where a website ranks in Google and assert that our efforts can be attributed to that result?

Well these are certainly arguments made by some people.

So is this the death of SEO? At Resolution Media, we certainly don't believe so. In fact I'd go as far as to say that this represents a major breakthrough. Sure if all your value is placed on whether or not a website shows up in a search result when you punch in a given keyword into a given engine, you absolutely have reason to be afraid. If this is you, then repeat after me: You cannot pay your rent with a ranking.

You see what I'm getting at here is that a ranking is not the ultimate measure of success. Sure SEO by its name means we're essentially marketers working in the medium of search engines. But a ranking is a means to an end. Our ultimate success metric always has been and always should be whether or not our efforts enhance or do not enhance a website's ability to reach its intended goal (produce sales, engage people, drive people to a store, drive people out of the store, drive you crazy). Just because results are personalized doesn’t mean the functionality for the end user changes. They still use search engines to find stuff, and we’re still interested in putting your stuff where they can find it.

So what does this mean? It means that SEO's will need to be held even more accountable for their ability to drive towards a sites' goal. Fleeting are the days where ranking on a highly competitive term is the pinnacle key of success. We've always maintained that if a given ranking isn't producing sales or visits, then that ranking is a failure...regardless of how competitive that search result happens to be. This needs to be the mode of thinking in the SEO community. I think it always has been for most professionals who have a ROI to answer to.

SEO has a vital place in any digital marketing plan just as it always has. The value a SEO brings to the table goes far beyond a ranking for a given keyword. Furthermore, its effects (or lack thereof in some cases) can be measured in numerous ways. Here are some metrics/sources beyond rankings that can be attributed to SEO efforts:

  • Share of voice of natural search to overall visits (analytics) -Is this needle moving?

  • Top Query Stats (webmaster tools) - Google will still show you what queries you are showing up the most for. You did install that Google verification tag right?

  • Sales/Revenue/Goals reached from natural search (analytics) -Ah, let's not forget this 'ol chestnut! Now, theoretically, we should get BETTER performance here if Google is doing what it claims it can do. That is, if Google purports to provide more relevant results to a user, then if that user comes to your site, your site SHOULD connect with that user better than a non-personalized result...and ultimately that user should be more likely to take that desired action right?

  • Referring keywords (analytics) - We SEO's have always looked at these, personalized or not. However, since results will be more and more varied, this metric becomes more and more relevant in my opinion.

  • Interest in a given topic (Google Trends or Insights) - Again, this is something SEO's have long since looked at. As we move into an age where topical relevance is more important than keyword relevance, these tools are a vital key to understanding how concepts are perceived by Google (and by extension, its users). With both of these tools reporting data on most major websites, their ability to show us topical relevancy and their appeal can only increase from here.

  • Social media perceptions (sentiment tracking tools) - Many of these tools will show us what people associate with a brand or a concept. We can use this data to track our success (or failure) in reaching this audience in the way we intend. Ultimately, for branding, I believe this is actually more important than a ranking because it gets at the very root of branding in the first place. Marry this information up against your analytics (as Radian 6 is beginning to do) and a whole multitude of data driven strategic decisions can be made.

These are just a few ways SEO can be measured without relying on a static ranking on a search engine result page. You'll notice many of them provide more context and substance than a single ranking. As a result, I believe if Google achieves its goal of providing more relevant results to users, and SEO's do their job of developing websites and content that those same users want to see and interact with based on the data available to them, both sides will win.


Amber said...

Hi Dave,

Really appreciate your practical take on some of the SEO applications that are still valid on the social web.

Rankings are fleeting. What wins forever is *relevance*, and if better SEO can help people find the content that's useful and helpful to them, it'll function better to DRIVE really relevant social search results, rather than seeking only to be at the top of the list.

Thanks for the perspectives.

Amber Naslund
Director of Community, Radian6

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