11. Personalization: Google’s Personalized Search Results

With Will, Stephen, Ned and Barry.

Barry Adams – Founder Polemic Digital
Every search result that you do on a search engine like Google is personalized to a certain extent. Based on your location, your search history, your click history and all the other factors – your social graph – that Google knows about you. So when I do a search for keywords and you were to search for the same keyword, we’re likely to see some differences in what we’re actually going to be presented with. Which makes rank-tracking for example quite challenging if you do that.

Now, I still use rank-tracking because for me it’s a very good semi-independent metric to keep track of the success of an SEO campaign, with the caveat that the rankings themselves are individual data-points you shouldn’t put too much stock in. It’s more about looking at the trends over time, to see how it develops and also looking at which pages show up for which kind of queries.

But sometimes clients can have a tough time wrapping their heads around personalization when they type in their one favorite keyword and their own website keeps popping up and they think they’re doing really, really well. Not necessarily realizing that’s because Google knows they like their own website. Keep clicking on it, it floats to the top of those search results.

So the fact that we understand personalization is so prevalent, is quite ironic because very few people who use Google actually have that realization that it is so heavily personalized.

Ned Poulter – CEO & Founder Pole Star Digital
Is that not the cruel thing about being an SEO anyway though? Yeah, I had a good example of this actually lately, where interestingly on two fronts. Really, really big kind of hero terms for a client. They ranked number one for a very, very long time, they see that as a real KPI, staying number one there. It’s got 30.000+ searches and them being there is a very important thing for their business, contributes a lot of revenue.

We, according to the rank-tracking solution that we use, dropped to number 2 and it was like World War 3 had broken out. It was awful, they were on the phone straightaway “What’s happened? What can we do to fix this?”. Then it so happened, other things had been meddled with – which I was unaware of – which were the cause, probably, of them dropping. And it was a temporary drop, I did say, “look, there may be some data-outages”, but one of the first things I said, was “What can you see? What does your SERP look like?”.

And, upon several of us sending in our SERP’s, none of them were even slightly the same, even in Incognito as well – a lot of people think that that strips all of that away, not at all – and the reason is because actually this keyword in particular, is being localized

So actually the client is ranking very competitively for the localized terms, but they’re the ones that are being served. So, it was kind of a good thing in a way, because everything in that kind of keyword-category that we’re ranking for was contributing, but that one kind of key indicator wasn’t. And I suppose the localized searches, more than that, is obviously personalization of the search results and it’s an example that we see a lot.

I know it’s something that we talked about earlier on, but that’s definitely something. And I think personalization, in general, is the way the web’s going because it’s what we expect as consumers. We expect to be served results, in whatever platform it is, in an app, in search, inside a website, we expect to be given what makes sense to us.

Stephen Kenwright – Director of Search Branded3
And that’s exactly kind of where a lot of particularly, weirdly, big brands kind of fall down. When you are serving – effective with the same website too, or the same results, whether that’s a website or not – to people depending on location, device, etc, the only thing you can really do, to protect against that, is to own all the data that you’ve got.

You need to make sure to claim your Google My Business listings, make sure that you have your phone number on the page and all that kind of things, that you know is going to be surfaced somewhere. Anything that you can control, that will be pulled into different devices, different locations, into the knowledge graph, whatever. If you know that that’s something that is influenceable, if that’s a word, you’ve got to own that!

Will Critchlow – CEO & Co-Founder Distilled
I think it’s only going to get moreso aswell. I think you see the mobile first, end of things and the most ground breaking into mobile you got the kind of natural language understanding, voice search, all those kind of things. And that’s where we see the more extreme levels of personalization, where the queries even differ depending on the conversational search.

The query is different depending on the search you’ve just performed, so you can do searches like “How tall is Barack Obama?” followed by “And what about his wife?” and the query “And what about his wife?” returns the height of Michelle Obama. And those kind of things are, that’s kind of the extreme end of, contextual end of personalization.

And we talk about the implicit and explicit aspects of the query and the amount of implicit aspects are just exploding. Google is paying attention to so many more things, that aren’t the things that you’ve said or the things you’ve typed.

And that goes as far as some of the experimental searches they have, like “How tall is that?” which takes not just from your location, but which way you’re facing with your phone, so that it’ll be like “Well, probably talking about that tower over there, because that is the only high thing that somebody might be asking the height of in this particular location”. And some of that stuff is a bit flaky at the moment, but it’s…

Barry Adams
It’s all about context in which you perform a query, because that has always been Google’s Achilles heel. They don’t understand the context in which you perform a search, but now they have the data to actually, really accurately – within certain constraints – determine what the context of any given query is. And therefore be able to personalize it and make you a very happy user of Google.

Stephen Kenwright
I mean that’s the point, isn’t it? I mean, obviously searches prefer personalized results, but why do we necessarily stop in search results and not kind of personalize the experience on a website as much and as best as we can as well?

Obviously, you don’t have to serve a completely different page to people who stay in different countries, kind of personalization, that sort of thing. But at the same time, if you’ve got, say you’ve got first party data, you’ve got cookies, email lists etc, why aren’t you necessarily uploading those into a tool like Optimizely and serving a different experience to people who you know are repeat customers? You know, change your banners, that kind of thing, just to kind of welcome people back.

Barry Adams
I think it sort of breaks that magic spell if people suddenly see what they see as helpful, becomes creepy. Which is a very fine line and it’s always moving, moving more towards where it’s more and more allowed. Even the personalized stuff, you now take it for granted, whereas even five years ago, we would have seen that as creepy.

So it’s probably going to happen, it also has to do with technology and I remember reading a few years ago that Yandex was opening some of its own personalization system, open through an API to website owners. That’s the sort of stuff you actually want to be able to see.

Someone being able to literally plug their website into Google’s API and be able to personalize, based on what Google knows about the clients, so that you don’t have to, as a website owner, collect all the data yourself. You can rely on all the companies who already have the data, whatever form that has, to customize the experience for your users, without having to go through the entire effort of collecting the data in the first place.

Ned Poulter
I think we have kind of a customer-match and with Facebook Insights, as well and custom audiences, you can somewhat achieve that and I think it’s almost like an obvious thing – it’s what you were saying Stephen – there are ways of doing it, it’s just people almost think to get to full personalization as opposed to faking it to get part of the way there.

I think the problem with it aswell is that personalization done wrong is very quickly going to turn you off. I have seen it a few times, I bought a second hand phone, which really weirdly – iPhone – when you go into coffee shops in the UK and you have kind of the login to the local Wifi-thing, had cached the name, I think, of the previous owner. And so every day, every time I went in, it kind of said “Hi Stuart!” or whatever it was and I was like, “who the hell is this guy?”. it was really strange.

Barry Adams
Did it also cache his credit card details? Because that would be fun!

Ned Poulter
Well yeah, there is probably quite a lot of coffees on it. No no, I’m only kidding! But it’s interesting when personalization fails and that is the ultimate fail.

Stephen Kenwright
It’s a really good point what you’re saying about actually trying to go to full personalization, when the first step isn’t even necessarily a different experience for different users. It’s just taking into consideration that, “hey my target audience might be a little bit older” and therefore I might need to serve my website with a slightly different font to what I’ve got.

I might need to have different images etc. It’s not just personalization as in all of your different potential users, but actually who is my main user and how can I cater for that and it’s going to increase those engagement metrics which we discussed earlier.

Barry Adams
Isn’t that just called marketing?

Stephen Kenwright

Ned Poulter
Yeah, yeah. I think so. But the data is there, I mean just turn your demographic supports on in Google Analytics.

Barry Adams
It sort of scares me, because I am a huge privacy advocate, but in the same time I see the incredible power that data can have, if used appropriately. I think we risk a little bit using this data for purely commercial reasons and going too far in acquiring the data.

Not necessarily realizing that it’s not really our data but the user’s data that we just borrow from them, whenever we want to market to them, to a certain extent.