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The Personalization of SEO and Search

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Personalization of Search and its implications for SEO…

The personalization of search alters search results from user to user based on the history and profile of the searcher. Note that the following query for “search engines” shows a 90% change in ranking positions between personalized and non-personalized results.

Search query is search engines in Google
Personalized Result Non-Personalized Result
1. searchenginewatch.com
2. cui.unige.ch/meta-index.html
3. www.searchengines.com
4. www.searchengineshowdown.com
5. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Search_engine
6. www.dogpile.com

7. www.searchengineguide.com/searchengines.html
8. www.lib.berkeley.edu/TeachingLib/Guides/Internet/SearchEngines.html
9. www.google.com/
10. www.metacrawler.com/
11. searchenginewatch.com/showPage.html?page=2156221
12. www.go.com/
13. https://addons.mozilla.org/firefox/search-engines/
14. www.altavista.com/
15. www.noodletools.com/debbie/literacies/information/5locate/adviceengine.html
16. www.searchenginecolossus.com/
17. allsearchengines.com/
18. www.ask.com/
19. search.ask.com/
20. searches.rootsweb.com/
1. cui.unige.ch/meta-index.html
2. searchenginewatch.com
3. searchenginewatch.com/showPage.html?page=2156221
4. www.searchengines.com/
5. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Search_engine
6. www.dogpile.com/

7. www.lib.berkeley.edu/TeachingLib/Guides/Internet/SearchEngines.html
8. www.google.com/
9. www.metacrawler.com/
10. www.go.com/
11. https://addons.mozilla.org/firefox/search-engines/
12. www.altavista.com/
13. www.noodletools.com/debbie/literacies/information/5locate/adviceengine.html
14. www.searchenginecolossus.com/
15. allsearchengines.com/
16. www.ask.com/
17. search.ask.com/
18. www.searchengineshowdown.com/
19. searches.rootsweb.com/
20. www.searchengineguide.com/searchengines.html

The only ranking positions that do not differ are shaded in aqua. Ranking positions that exhibit some of the largest variation are highlighted in red, green and plum. Personalized results for different users can yield even more variations in the results returned.

“Widespread personalization will doom traditional rank checking. The question won’t be Does my site rank No. 1?’ but rather For what percentage of searchers does my site rank No. 1′ or What was my average ranking yesterday?’ . . . [I]t’s the biggest change in search marketing since paid search.”

- Mike Moran (Search is Getting Personal, Revenue January/February 2007)

An essential component of natural search is the research that informs decisions regarding search engine optimization. Central to that component of natural search, is traditional rank checking. If traditional rank checking is doomed, then traditional search engine optimization is equally doomed.

I agree with Mike Moran’s assessment that this is the biggest change in search marketing since paid search. In traditional SEO research, rank checking is the means by which the leading competitors for a keyphrase are recognized. This then becomes the raw data from which attempts are made to discern key elements of the search engine’s ranking algorithm resulting ultimately in key decisions for the search engine optimization campaign. Rank checking is also the means by which success or failure of the optimization decisions is gauged.

Without a reliable means of rank checking, traditional SEO loses its foundations for optimization decisions. They can’t tell who the leaders are. They’ve lost sight of the bellwethers. A bellwether is any entity in a given arena that serves to create or influence trends or to presage future happenings. Without a bellwether, for example, sheep might be left to wander aimlessly.

Without a reliable means of rank checking, traditional SEO also loses its metrics for determining its success or failure regarding changes made for the sake of optimization. Traditional SEO is a process the methodology of which is predominantly trial and error.

“The fact is, search engine optimization is far from perfect. To be perfectly honest, SEO is all about intuition grounded by years of experience.

In the end, any given approach can miss the mark. And that’s OK. This is marketing – where the mantra is “test and adjust.” Or, you can consider it a trial and error process.”
- Michael Murray (SEO and the Perfection Fallacy, WebProNews 01/11/07)

Without a means to determine what to adjust or whether to adjust your tactics and strategy, this methodology is dead in the water. With widespread personalization on the rise, traditional SEO can be aptly characterized as a dead man walking.

“If traditional rank checking is doomed, then traditional search engine optimization is equally doomed.

A solution to this problem requires a new method for guiding optimization decisions and a new method for ascertaining the success or failure of those decisions. What can be used instead to drive the guidelines for SEO decisions? What can be used instead to determine the success or failure of those decisions? It is vital to the whole SEO endeavor to know how to improve a page so that it is superior to its competitors for the target keyphrase.

In the absence of having a reliable ranking determination, you must determine the strength of your competitors by a deep and broad analysis of their on-page and off-page factors. There also needs to be a multivariate analysis of those
factors so that you can ascertain the relative influence and importance of those factors with respect to each other. The competitors in a SERP (search engine results page) for a given keyphrase and the values of their various on-page and off-page factors comprise your competitive landscape for that keyphrase. The features, strengths, weaknesses, and contours of that competitive landscape ought to drive the detail SEO decisions as you target that keyphrase for optimization.

This is the process of SEO competitive intelligence and doing it properly will require, at a bare minimum, extensive data collection, quantitative analysis, qualitative analysis and multivariate analysis. There will always be an element
of art to SEO but now much more science is required than before. It is like a pilot who must make judgments based on readings from his instrument panels because of vertigo or because visibility conditions are too poor. Without instrument training, the chances of maintaining normal aircraft attitude in limited visibility are extremely rare. Furthermore, a pilot can overcome the effects of vertigo by relying upon the aircraft’s instruments.

We cannot say for certain what the adoption rate of personalization will be for searchers. However, if the 2006 ChoiceStream Survey is any indication, we can expect it to be very popular with searchers.

“According to The 2006 ChoiceStream Personalization Survey, the number of consumers willing to provide demographic information in exchange for a personalized online experience has grown dramatically over the past year, increasing 24 percent to a total of 57 percent of all respondents.”

(Consumers Willing to Trade Off Privacy for Electronic Personalization, MediaPost Communications January 23rd 2007)

According to the survey, 62 percent of all 18-24 year-olds expressed interest in personalization. With the information required from consumers for personalization being much less intrusive where search engines are concerned than the channels discussed in the survey, I would expect the number of searchers open to personalization in search engines to be at least as high.

The personalization of search has upped the ante for search marketing. The type of SEO competitive intelligence described above will reveal the true strength of your page and of your competitors’ pages. It will actually reveal more than a ranking number ever could. Robust competitive intelligence can tell you many things including:

  • what the strongest competitors are doing wrong and right,
  • who is and is not close to you in competitive strength regardless of what their ranking number would have been,
  • what SEO factors are more important for a particular competitive landscape
  • the true competitive nature of a keyphrase; not relying merely on the number of results returned for a search,
  • exactly which SEO factors you should work on to strengthen your position, rather than going on hunches or general guidelines,
  • how to prioritize which SEO factors to work on in what order,
  • what the semantic relationships are between your content, the content of your competitors, and the semantic nuances of a keyphrase related to the personalization of a searcher’s results. (This is a very important component of behavioral targeting.)

The industry must re-train itself to rely on such competitive intelligence in this new era. Each SEO practitioner will have a choice: Ante up or Fold!

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Michael Marshall is CTO/COO and co-founder of Fortune Interactive and has over 17 years experience in information technology covering a wide range of specialties including: web design, software engineering, e-commerce solutions, artificial intelligence, and Internet marketing. He has degrees in Linguistics, Philosophy and Theology. Before Fortune Interactive, he was working on a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Virginia working in the area of semantics.

The Personalization of SEO and Search
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About Michael Marshall
Michael Marshall is CTO/COO and co-founder of Fortune Interactive and has over 17 years experience in information technology covering a wide range of specialties including: web design, software engineering, e-commerce solutions, artificial intelligence, and Internet marketing. He has degrees in Linguistics, Philosophy and Theology. Before Fortune Interactive, he was working on a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Virginia working in the area of semantics. WebProNews Writer
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