How Badly Do People Want Personalized Search?

Does Personalization Improve Relevance?

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Let me start off by saying that I have no problem with my search results being personalized, because I understand that search engines want to deliver the best user experience so that users will keep using them. If I get results that are personalized well, that means I don’t have to look too far for what I’m trying to find. However, not all users are so thrilled with the evolution of search results pages, particularly with the personalization aspect.

This week, Google announced the launch of a new feature that lets users star their search results for ones they like. This would lead to the starred results appearing at the top of the SERP in future searches, when appropriate. The feature is still rolling out, so if you don’t see it yet, you should see it soon.

Google adds starring to search results pages for personalized search

After reporting on this change, we received comments from readers like:

"I really am getting hacked off with this bloody personalised search thing… the serps are full of bloody crap for 50% of searches and ultimately less relevent than before."

"I think that if they take into consideration the stars for serps everything will be a mess…"

"I’m getting tired of Google forcing things on me. Over and over and over after I have said I do not want to be recognized for my geographical locations, it keeps asking me."

I’m guessing comments like these aren’t limited to this particular instance. I doubt that they represent the majority of opinions about Google’s SERP changes, but it does raise an interesting question: Is Google trying too hard to improve? To answer this with a yes, would indicate that Google’s results are already perfect (or were at least), and while Google has had a pretty good reputation for delivering quality results (and the market share to back it up), I don’t know if anyone would go so far as to call them perfect, including Google itself.

There is always room for improvement. Things can always get better. Some ideas work, and others don’t. Sometimes you don’t know until you try, and if certain concepts don’t go over well with the majority, sometimes they are scrapped. In fact, the very release of this starring feature also represents the end of a less successful feature in Google’s SearchWiki.

As for personalized search itself, I wouldn’t count on it going away anytime soon. I wouldn’t count on Google (or the other search engines for that matter) spending less time trying to improve in this area. Why would you want them to? If your results are tailored to you specifically, does that not increase their chances of being more relevant to you?

If privacy is a concern, remember, you can always look at the Google Dashboard and look at everything Google has stored about you from each of the company’s products that you may use.

Do you like personalized search? Should search engines continue to innovate in this area? Share your thoughts here.

How Badly Do People Want Personalized Search?
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  • http://www.spiderwritingseo.co.uk Bill Marshall

    To me (as a user rather than just as an SEO) personalised search is a faulty concept. The point of search is that I’m looking for something I usually don’t know much about – why would I want sites that I already know about appearing in such a search. It only really makes sense if you use search merely as a navigation tool rather than a search tool.

    As regards real-time search I only see the point in it for news-based queries – otherwise being new doesn’t make something any more relevant or carry any quality signal, so why focus on it? The appearance of Twitter or Facebook entries in search results are completely irrelevant for the sort of searches I make, and most of the time so is video. I’d like to be able to turn them off and only nlcude them on the rare occasions when I think they are relevant. I already use a Firefox add-on that kills Adwords for my personal searches since I *never* use PPC ads. Sadly Google seem determined to show me what they think I should see and not what I want to see. Yet the quality of the organic results is probably worse now than it was 5 years ago and they seem to be unable to filter out obvious spam of a type that we ethical SEO’s have been railing against for years.

    The end result is a low quality experience for many users. I would say to them to concentrate on quality and simplicity and give us a choice of what we want to see in the results rather than foist unwanted “features” on us.

  • http://picturemousemat.com mat

    when i find a site i like, i add it to favorites. If my favorites don’t deliver the goods.. i search. I want results that are based on quality and authority not what i searched for last week.

    Google has seriously lost the plot. It was made great because it was simple and delivered quality. Today its not simple and and does not deliver quality.

    Today i use Bing far more often than google.

    RIP Google, you were good, but now you have been killed by greed.

  • http://www.blackballonline.com Pittsburgh Online Marketing

    I read your article and I read the comments (which were both great) and being in the Search field myself I gotta say, 2 thumbs down. Google has been getting more and more intrusive with their products. Buzz, which is Big brother packed in a neat albeit not very original name, is the most intrusive so far. Not so long ago I was able to think for myself. What happened – Google. If The Big G has the most relevant search delivery at it’s core then wouldn’t I know this over the algo? Is Google to think for me? Not in this life. One other point is that Google seems to unveil a product a minute without testing. When its all said and done they have hundreds of orphan products that suck. Call me crazy but I still believe in fundamentals such as testing and listening to the customer.

  • http://www.standardsgirl.com Kristine S

    I agree completely with Bill Marshall. And I would like to add that I believe that it should be an opt-in ONLY and an opt-in you understand.

    When I tell clients about the (forced) personalized search on their SERPs the first thing they always ask. “How do I turn it off?” Followed with a “Why?”. If people understood the forced changes in their results, I think you would see many, many more people outraged and just as many turning it off for the exact reasons Bill outlines in his post (believe it will post two below me).

    Also, I don’t understand why it was needed in the first place. If 90% of users never went past page one, then doesn’t it reason that they were finding what they needed in the top ten results? If this is the case, then what good does personal search do them except bring a result from #9 to #1.

    Again I agree with Bill, I go to search for what I do not know which means I do not want to see the last thing I searched for showing up. Otherwise I would just type in the name of the site. Finally on this topic, I have to believe that there is a negative to this implementation and that is the transfer of information offline. IE how do you tell someone about a great website you found? Do you tell them by name? Sometimes, but often don’t you just tell them to Google “THIS” and they can find it too? I think in the long term personalized search damages search with little benefit.

    As for real-time I agree wholeheartedly!! I find them useless for searches. I do not understand Google’s fascination with them and if I read one more person write about will Facebook replace Google, I think I will think of turning in my geek card ;)

    Cuz Really? When is the last time you did a search for something on Facebook? Me… never…my friends.. never… my colleagues.. never.. I wish that all these companies would stop trying to be what they are not and go back to being what they are good at. I have never seen companies so fail to understand their own brands. It has become a schizophrenic environment.

    Go back to where you were great, so you can be good again..

  • http://www.ifactfinders.com iFactFinders

    In my opinion, personalizing search results for a user query is equivalent to censorship. When I query a search engine I WANT to locate those listings not associated or familiar to me. In theory, the concept might be well intended. Yet, in actual application these ideas parallel content filtering in China.
    My point being ‘personalization’ removes my ‘user’ freedom in the interest of Internet findability. And, once my freedom is erased, the search engine imposes its own will on my own by deeming what is in my interest.

  • Applet

    In some cases having my search results crafted to my searching habits prove useful, such as finding sites I frequent for various information. In others, relevancy would prove more useful a search tool than visiting sites I already KNOW do not have the info I’m looking for.

    However, like Facebook, the Google site has become more and more tedious to work with and thus it’s [once] innovative functionality is at last losing it’s grip. I remember reading on once a many occasion that Google likes to keep it clean and simple. It is straying farther and farther away from that. Perhaps, and this is my own humble opinion/suggestion, but maybe it would be wise for Google to invest in starting a New web service, as it is with Youtube. Google was, and still is to certain respects, a great internet tool developer – and I think that assisting Internet users in their browsing experiences is by far the best feature for a search engine provider. But now, the interface is becoming too cluttered. At one time, I could think “Google” and remember just about every Tool Google had, in conjunction with searching features. Now there’s Buzz, something akin to Reader except for emails; Docs and Notebook, which are both useful but too much alike IMO; in Personalized Search the option to “Star” your favorite results, which also IMO is sort of a downgrade from being able to “Select” the best result YOU choose and place it at the top; amongst a few other things I have come to dislike about Google.

    And I concur with the above Users! Google has been a tad bit “pushy” in recent times, instead of consulting with Google’s community about changes to the site, about what could make it better or if an idea is good or bad. And as the result, we are coerced to accept what Google has to offer with little to nigh say over what we are to experience.

    If things are to continue the way they are, it will be a slow transition but I may begin to use Google less and less and so will be the same for other users. Someone will take Google’s place, it’s only a matter of stubborn time. Maybe they should take notes from Apple. It’s just like Google, with their themes of simplicity and innovation, except Apple is nigh immune to demographic influence. Maybe they can create the search engine and web environment Internet users are looking for.

  • http://www.targetwebs.com Target Webs

    Similar to many others, I’m not happy (at all) with the invasion by Google of my search history.

    Kinda like being “guilty” of a crime mostly because you may have once committed a crime so you’re stuck with that ghost for the rest of your life.

    Just because I “clicked” on a site once does not mean that I favor that site, yet as far as Google goes, now I’m tagged as having visited that site and the site will now always rank high in my “personalized” search results.

    Most disturbing is that the general public doesn’t have any idea what’s really going on and that their search results are being tampered with. They can’t figure out why their search results are different on their computer at home opposed to their computer at work when they’re trying to find a site that showed up in search results at home but they can’t find it while at work. Most disturbing.

    My search results should be the same regardless where I am or who’s computer I’m using otherwise the reliability of my search is null when attempting to find the same results or website I found from a previous search on whichever computer it may be.

    I believe that it’s an outright invasion of privacy for any company to be “inside” anyones computer regardless of their intent!

  • http://www.clicksweeper.com Jennifer

    Not to be cynical, but by personalizing search, Google is also giving advertisers a pretty good reason to use pricy PPC advertising rather than rely on organic search results. I wonder if that entered into its motives behind rolling our personalized search?

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