When Google Changes, SEO Takes It Personally

The big news in search circles this week is Google’s mass rollout of personalized search results, as well as the range of reactions it’s earned. By now you’ve probably at least heard about the personalization changes. If not, Danny Sullivan explains them in a depth and manner we’ve come to expect.

Because the technical details are a matter of record, let’s move beyond them to the actual ramifications. While both critics and proponents have valid points in their dissection of personalized search, I predict the issue will have very little effect on most businesses.

Legitimate Personalization Issues

Early critics worried personalized search results would limit the choices searchers have when making similar queries over time. Michael Gray is one example. These concerns have merit. No one wants to be forced into receiving results from any particular vein of site. I don’t want to worry someone else is getting hotter, fresher choices than I am for exciting queries like “super bowl commercials” or “http header codes 302 307 contrast.”

One personal example of failed personalization is TiVo’s method of making recommendations based on my viewing habits. Though some people use the feature to find gems they’d otherwise miss, I’ve never been satisfied with what it finds for me.

On the other hand, early proponents, such as Gord Hotchkiss, claim personalization is inevitable. Further, they say, if SEO (define) professionals are honest with themselves, they’d admit the majority of their concerns are due to their no longer having universal control over the Google results page. As an SEO professional, I plead guilty to the second charge.

The Problem With Rankings

In a world where algorithms shift frequently and with varying levels of complexity, rankings have always been a buoy SEO professionals could grab because they provided a commonly shared experience. The result you saw in Tucson probably matched the result your client (or boss) saw when she conducted the same search from office headquarters. A nice security blanket.

Reliance on rankings has always been a crutch that keeps both search marketers and their clients from learning the complex navigation through statistical analysis of search traffic, depth of referring keyword lists, and, most important, conversions. I’m tired of answering questions about phrase-by-phrase rankings to prospective and current clients, so I welcome anything that helps nudge them toward more meaningful analysis of their sites’ performance, even if it means totally abandoning the terra firma of common SERPs (define).

What Personalized Search Means for Your Company

Personalization is only the latest in a long list of oncoming tornadoes that in retrospect will look more like cool summer breezes. Following, a list of developments that promised to revolutionize search and to change the face of organic SEO as we know it:

  • Google adding paid ads to the right margin of the results page
  • Google adding premium paid advertisements above the first organic results
  • Google inserting Froogle results between paid and natural results
  • Yahoo using Google to bolster its natural search results
  • Yahoo no longer using Google to bolster its natural search results
  • Google migrating from the monthly Google Dance to the Everflux (define) model
  • Google adding One Box results of every imaginable flavor
  • Google inserting local results between paid and organic results
  • Google inserting “See Also” results in the middle of organic results

For most businesses, personalized search will mean surprisingly little. Think outside the macroscopic, continuous growth of search as an entry point and the increasing number of Internet users. Instead, within the microscopic snapshot of search engine use today, remember that search results are a zero-sum game. You lose two clicks to a Google One Box, and another site gains them. You move up three spots in the SERP for an important phrase, so three other sites move down. If you focus on content and have even a vague semblance of a comprehensive marketing plan, personalization will likely show you modest benefits in the long run.

Algorithms, SERP layouts, and the ratio and placement of paid and organic listings are always changing. But while new changes might appear ominous, they rarely cause more than a ripple. Corny as it might sound, designing sites for users has never been more important for search marketers than it is today, if for no other reason than the single algorithm you’re chasing now will soon be 500 million little ones.

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