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Don’t Run From Personalized Search

Insights May 30, 2013

Just like life, the practice of search doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And despite the desire for some SEO practitioners to treat it that way, we need to wake up to the fact that the majority of the search engine users don’t view search engine results in the climate-controlled, incognito window, proxy-server petri dish like we do. Personalized search is not only not going anywhere, but to the contrary is getting smarter, faster, and better by the day. What search experts are now beginning to realize however, is that understanding personalized search and its implications for clients means understanding aspects of human behavior that cannot be bucketed into algorithmic weighting. Providing predictable and desired outcomes in the era of personalization is the new “science” of search, and at Terakeet we’re not running from it.

Understand that Personalization is Inescapable

We disable customized results as they relate to various social logins. We search from anonymous IPs. We analyze ranking sets from dozens of data centers to determine where fluctuations may occur. We may indeed practice and refine our art as search marketers in a laboratory, with controlled variables that mitigate our assessments of causation and correlation, but the reality is that the real world does not.

No, indeed if our client isn’t seeing what we are, the greater likelihood exists that neither are their clients or customers. And so, while certainly there is value in understanding how to isolate variables that we ourselves can control, we need to understand that personalization (in one form or another) is generally inescapable and rather than run from customization we need to find opportunities to thrive alongside it.

Location, Location, Location

More than just realtor sales jargon, location needs to be a very real concern of search marketers today. Local search, as a method of personalization, is likely the most difficult to wash our hands of as marketers.

It’s no secret that search engines will seek to customize a user’s search results based on their location, but how do we create desired outcomes for our clients as they relate to geo-targeted searches?

Success in local search begins with understanding local search intent, or more specifically geo-specific intent. It may be presumptive, but individuals familiar with specific locales generally do not query generic search phrases like “Syracuse restaurants.” These queries are going to be fed through the searcher’s Google+ local results that are marked with the appropriate structured data.

If the searcher is situated in the locale while performing the search, a restaurant listing with no markup may indeed find it’s way into the results. However, as this type of query is most often performed by those researching specific restaurants in anticipation of visiting one, it’s possible the search could be occurring anywhere on the globe. Listings which are structured appropriately using and other structured data language have a better chance of landing in that local result set for generic searchers occurring in any location.

Subjectivity, however, presents another challenge. The local game changes each time a searcher introduces a subjective appendage to the query, like “best Syracuse restaurants,” or “top Syracuse bars.” Google interprets these queries as searchers looking for objective opinions, and their results often satisfy this by providing review aggregators or positively-reviewed local listings.  In these cases, structured data becomes even more important. Aggregator sites like Yelp, Urbanspoon, and even TripAdvisor own the majority of the search real estate as user review hubs. In order to compete in the Google+ local results for these phrases, it’s imperative your listings include rich user reviews of your business or establishment.

Pleasing Your Frequent Flyers

Much has been made of the relative slow growth of Google+ proper as a social network, and while it still may have growing to do in terms of becoming a “network” in the traditional sense, it’s still having a tremendous impact on search personalization and customizations. Given the growing segment of not-provided traffic you’ll likely notice in your Google Analytics data, we can’t discount the population of searchers actively allowing their search results to be customized as they relate to their search and Google account histories.

The easiest way to compete in customized results is to create positive user experiences on topics for which you and your site represent the authority within, rank organically for those terms, and then cover your bases with appropriate subpages from there. In a sense, it’s important to gain the trust of your user for your hub topics, anticipate the logical information retrieval process for that which you monetize on, and reap the reward of the return user.

Let’s say your site represents a personal injury attorney focused on medical device torts. Your monetization terms include queries like “hip replacement attorney,” “DePuy hip replacement recall,” and others. However, it’s unlikely that a user’s first search will be one that you monetize on. In fact, a user’s first opportunity for interaction with your website may be terms like “hip pain” or “hip replacement pain.”

It’s imperative to rank organically for these terms based on the strength of your information and content, and to breed positive user experiences. (Remember* traffic for general terms is much less competitive to come by than that of your conversion terms!) If your site was able to satisfy the more general queries for a signed-in user, Google is more likely to customize that searcher’s results to rank your site for your money terms.

If we understand the learning process of our users as it relates to our site’s core topics and areas of expertise, it then becomes about having the right content to bridge the gaps to your areas of monetization. Cover your topics diligently (but not excessively to the point that your pages are never receiving traffic) and you’ll come out on top in most customized result sets.

Social Opportunities

While it can be argued that Google+, as a cross-disciplinary platform, may not ever live up to its potential as the penultimate convergence of search and social media, it obviously represents a tremendous opportunity (and challenge) for brands attempting to cater to personalized search.

Many brands were confused when the +1 function became integrated into search results, and imaginations ran wild as to how it may somehow impact their rankings. Many of us thought the signal would be too easy to game before realizing that the purpose of the +1 was larger than rankings, but served to connect members of a social circle to sites they liked. While Google’s “Search plus Your World,” created customized search engine results within a given circle, more powerful were the “stamps of approval” listed in the organic results (i.e. Jane Doe, John Doe, and Sam Smith +1’d this).

Terakeet’s own brand visibility guru, Angela Trapasso has already illustrated for us the power of social referrals or word-of-mouth as a differentiating factor in how people make decisions online today. Google appeared to be out in front of this as well, and created personalized ranking sets based on providing you the referrals of your friends and other social circles. So while direct impact on rankings is likely minimal, click-through performance of heavily +1’d sites is increased, particularly where Google is able to pull +1s from a signed-in user’s circles.

Lest we forget, even with just under 17% of the global search volume, Bing has access to data that Google can only lust after; Facebook. The integration of Facebook and its 1 billion users with Bing’s small, albeit loyal, user base creates formidable competition for Google and its own social efforts.

A Better Product for You = A Better Product

SEO-in-a-vacuum purists may be challenged by the growing presence of search personalization and customization, but search engines don’t design their products for SEOs. In the end, a more personalized search engine product is a better one for the great majority of its users. And when we really think about it, many of the methods we’ve outlined for competing in personalized search are simply extensions of the tenets of fundamental search success. Well-formatted websites, objective peer review, intuitive content structures and social proofing are all signals that we as earned visibility purists should swear by anyway.

Search engine engineers realize the capability limitations that machines possess as they relate to decision-making. Rather than attempting to recreate these experiences, they lean on elements of human behavior that they perceive to impact human decisions and provide them as much or as little information as the user desires. While traditional SEO, as a practice, clung to a user’s loyalty to what they perceived to be impartiality, many users have found personalized search to be a more comfortable bed to lie in. It’s just up to us now to fluff the pillows.

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