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Google Homepage Skins – Change of Note for SEOs

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I just had the official walk-through of Google’s recent announcement for personalized home pages. In a nutshell, they are allowing users the opportunity to skin their home page with one of six different themes. The goal, and I quote, is to "delight users". And they don’t just want to delight them in the short term. They want this to be a long-lasting love affair with the Google home page.

Actually, in the call, we got sidetracked a little bit with something that, to me, was far more interesting. I’ll get to that in a second but first of all let’s look at the noteworthy aspects of Google’s announcement. The theory here is that the more you can personalize your home page, the more likely you are to interact with it on an ongoing basis. And if there’s a certain amount of cool involved, it will hopefully keep you coming back. Of course, Google wants this implementation to be technically clean so they’ve approached it with their typical engineering anal-retentiveness.

The application of the theme is restricted to the top of your personalized home page. Google was very careful to make sure that the graphics didn’t impair either the performance of the page or your ability to get to the information on the page. They’ve taken some fairly ingenious workarounds to this. The themes are launched with a CSS framework and the foreground images are transparent gifs, layered over a tiled background that allows resizing of the browser without impairing the look and functionality of the page.

Google also, and again I quote, wanted this to be about "art and personality", not about a thinly "skinned" (if you’ll pardon the pun) advertising pitches. They’ve only released six themes in this first round because they wanted to set the bar high. They indicated that they would likely be releasing more over time. And they also indicated that they are considering opening up a skinning API in the future, but they would rather not have highly commercially oriented skins, i.e. promoting the launch of a new movie, suddenly intruding on the personalized home page user experience.


One feature that is pretty cool about the new themes is that they are location sensitive. When you load a new theme the first thing you’ll be asked to do is enter your zip code (right now this release is only aimed at the US, but a release for Google’s other localization areas should come in the near future. I did add one in Canada, but I’m not sure if it’s updating itself). After that, you’ll find your seeing updates itself reflect the time of day and, in some cases, the season and your local weather.

Here are some examples. In Bus Stop, the weather impacting the bystanders changes based on what you might be seeing your window.

In Beach, the time of day will change your view over the seascape. When the sun sets out side, it should also be setting on your monitor.

And, in the seasonal theme, you’ll not only see the theme change based time of day, you’ll also see the changes of the seasons.

Google also promises some Easter eggs, hidden in amongst the themes.

All in all, it’s a cool add-on to the Google personalized homepage. Of course the rationale behind this announcement is fairly transparent. Google is pushing hard to gain more face time with the average user, and this gives them a front to attack on. The more time you spend the Google home page, the more chance you will have to interact the other Google properties. Apparently, Google is seeing some very strong growth trends through 2006 with personalized homepage usage. They’re also seeing a huge ramp-up of content delivered for the home page through their Gadgets API.

The SEM Easter Egg

But what about the search marketing implications? There’s nothing about this particular announcement that should impact how the personalized home page could be used for personalized search, other than Google’s hope that the addition of a personalized theme would lead to more interaction with your homepage. But there was a functional roll out recently by Google that could have implications for the search marketing community. This is something that I wasn’t aware of and was lucky enough to get a quick walk-through.

When you sign in to your personalized homepage, you’ll now see a small "add a tab" link beside the tab at the top of your home page. When you click on this you’re asked to name your tab and if you leave the Feeling Lucky check box checked, Google will go out and find the content to put on your new page.

For example, I added a tab called SEO and Google automatically populated it with the latest headlines from SEOmoz, SEO News, Search Engine Land, Search Engine Watch and a number of other SEO sites.

I asked Google how it was determined what sites would be included in this set of default content. Apparently, it’s decided by the most common choices of other people who have added a similarly named tab. In other words, these represent the aggregate choices of an ad hoc community, defined by the people who are interested in SEO and have decided to add these sites as content to their home page. And the set of default choices will constantly be refined, based on the most popular choices of people who add that tab. However, once you’ve added the tab to your own home page, your default content set remains static.

Okay, that’s interesting. But let’s factor in Google’s other recent announcement, the fact that they now have an integrated personal suite that shares user data from search history and what you have on your personalized home page. It’s not clear right now how much of an impact the content you’ve chosen to include on your personalized home page has on your personalized search results, but Google has said they wouldn’t "preclude" the use of this information in the personalized results algorithm.

Let’s further explore the implications. In these areas of interest, what gets included in the default content set under a possible "add a tab" category might have a significant advantage for any searches that fall within that content area. The more people who leave the Feeling Lucky? check box checked, the more people that will have these default content providers represented on the homepage, which will in turn likely impact their personalized search results. As we start exploring personalized search more and more, we’re starting to see the possible tactics that are emerging for gaining visibility on a personalized search page.

So what’s the bottom line here? Google’s new themes are cute and will likely lead to a higher degree of usage, but they have little impact on the world of search marketing. However, the "Add a Tab" functionality could potentially have a lot more impact.

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Google Homepage Skins – Change of Note for SEOs
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