Why Google’s personalized search means social marketing is more important than ever

A few days ago Google announced that it will be extending personalized search to all Google users, whether you are logged in to your Google account or not. Personalized search is not new, but until now it was only applied to users who were logged in. Now everyone will get personalized search results in their Google searches.

Personalized results are based on your previous activity, mainly what results you clicked on in the search results. Google gives the example of someone who searches for the term “recipes,” and clicks on the fourth result rather than the first, which is for epicurious.com. Next time this user searches for recipes, epicurious.com may appear higher in the results for them, but not necessarily for anyone else.

What this means is that we may all start seeing completely different search results. Watch the following video from Google for a short overview:

Personalized results are the default setting for all users, but users can choose to disable personalized results. However, considering that most people don’t even know what a browser is, I’m doubtful that people will be aware that their search results are personalized, let alone that they can opt out of these types of results or how to do so.

But why would people opt out of personalized results? They probably won’t want to. We have yet to see the quality of these results, but I’m assuming that results will be based on sites that Google has ranked as having adequate quality, combined with the personal preferences of the user. What this means is that users will still be choosing between sites ranked highly by Google, which isn’t so bad. I think we can assume that most people will continue to like the Google search experience.

What this means for SEO

I’m guessing here, but it is possible that if a user really likes a particular site, it will start to take up more spots in the search results, which means that other results will be pushed down and off the first page. You may have noticed that sometimes when you conduct a search, some sites have expanded results that also display further internal links and navigation to the user, like this:

New York Times search results

Or a site gets two spots like this:

illuminea search results

Maybe sites preferred by users will start to get expanded results, or multiple results.

But in any case, since most clicks happen on the first page of results anyways, chances are that most users will see some kind of varying order of the global top ten results, i.e. for John Site A is the first result and Site B is in third place, but for Jane it’s the opposite. In both cases, Site A and Site B stay on the first page of results. So in that scenario, site owners will still have to work on the usual things that help their sites rank (on-site factors like Title tags, off-site factors like inbound links, etc.) in order to ensure that their sites are exposed to searchers. As Danny Sullivan says:

SEO remains important to ensure that you’ve got that first shot at being considered.

What this means for social media…and SEO

At the same time, it means that site owners will have to work harder on the user-experience side of things to get people to click on their results in the SERPs. Sexier titles and meta descriptions will be necessary since these help the user decide whether to click through or not. And once a user clicks through, they’d better find themselves somewhere interesting and attractive, because if they click back right away to the search results, that’s a sign that the site was no good, and may affect that site’s ranking in future personalized search results.

It also means that social marketing should be taken more seriously by SEOs. Many site owners and search engine optimization professionals (not the great ones, I admit, but still there are lots of them) see SEO as all about getting their sites to the top positions in the SERPs – and that’s it. But Google’s goal is to provide the best user experience, and therefore is experimenting with, and adding, many social features to their search service, like:

  • “universal”, or mixed media search results – these results include non-traditional sources like video (most often from YouTube) and blogs
  • search results based on your social circle (Google doesn’t call it a social graph) – these results identify your social networks through your Google Profile and serve you links that they have shared or created. Learn more about Google’s Social Search.
  • real time search results – this is a search results page that is constantly updating with results from various social networks including twitter, facebook, FriendFeed and general news sites.

The reason for these new features are assumedly because Google figures that people will be most interested in, and most appreciate, results that are linked to trusted sources and connections. So site owners and SEOs will have to start taking user experience on their sites (content, navigation, and even design) much more seriously. Jill sums up the new SEO reality nicely on the High Rankings forum: “Good news…for moving people further and further away from traditional rank checking as a measure of success”; i.e. SEO can’t just be about ranking in first place anymore, it’s about results, conversions, and maybe even relationships.

It also means that with features like universal and real time search results, site owners should be optimizing social media activity for search engines as well. This means creating useful videos and uploading them to YouTube, creating fresh blog content, and using keywords in your tweets and facebook status updates.

And finally, long tail search rankings will play a more important role. Search engine ranking may become about diversity rather than laser focusing on particular keywords or search engines. The reason for this is that if you can’t know where your site is appearing in people’s search results, better to appear in more places where you have the chance of getting clicked on (pick me! pick me!). Creating new content for your blog on a regular basis that is related to a particular theme will help you rank for terms you would never have thought of.

In addition, social sites are becoming serious addresses for search. A recent Comscore Search Engine Rankings report showed that three of the top search engines in the Expanded Search Rankings category were social media sites: YouTube, MySpace and Facebook. Lee Odden at TopRank sums up what this means as follows:

Companies that focus their optimization efforts solely on Google.com will miss the continued trend towards social search or search within social networks.

So where do we go from here?

SEO professionals have had to evolve to meet new realities since the dawn of the search engine. What worked five years ago to get a site to the top certainly does not work today, and what works today won’t work five years from now. Barry Schwartz says he’s not worried (from Search Engine Roundtable):

Honestly, if this makes Google more relevant for their searchers – all power to them. I am not going to say I know what is better for the average searcher. They can quickly figure this out after days and decide to keep it, turn it down, or off completely. SEOs will adapt, like they always do – we are a strong and smart bunch – I am not worried.

SEO professionals will evolve to meet this new challenge. But it is possible that we are at a turning point regarding what SEO means. The goals will probably stay the same: increasing traffic and conversions. However, the ways that these goals are achieved may change drastically over the coming months to include social activity and improved online relationship building. All in all, I think that we’re talking about a better web experience for the end user.

Some questions

But there are still a lot of unknowns about the new personalized search feature, and here are some questions I have:

  • Ethics: Google is basically forcing all users to accept a new cookie and allow Google to track their search activity. Opt-out is only for the web savvy since most users won’t even know that Personalized Search exists. Shouldn’t people be given the choice whether they want to participate in personalized search or not by opting-in? Is this a sign that it’s time to move to Bing?
  • Will my personal preferences affect your personal results? If lots of people click on Site A in results, does that mean that Joe will start to see Site A rank high in his own results?
  • Are personalized results only affected when someone conducts the same exact search over and over (i.e. “recipes”), or will it affect related searches as well (i.e. “cooking,” “chocolate cake recipe,” even “buying new dishes”)?