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When Personalized Search and Relevance Collide

Personalization Sometimes Trumps Relevance on SERPs

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Not everybody is a fan of the increasingly personalized search results they get from Google. Some criticize them as a way for Google to give advertisers reasons to rely on PPC as opposed to the less predictable organic results, and others just find it disruptive to relevance.

Do you prefer your search results to be personalized? Tell us what you think.

In terms of relevance, I think it can work both ways. There are many cases, as I believe is the intention of Google, when a personalized result will simply be more relevant because of that personalization. This could be due to location, because it comes from someone within my social circle (a [arguably] trusted source), or from something I have bookmarked in the past (Google bookmarks are synced with the recently launched starred results feature).

Google adds starring to search results pages for personalized search

However, there are times when Google’s system of personalization does get in the way, particularly with that starred results feature. When they appear, the starred results are generally (though not always) provided above all the rest. In some ways, this makes sense, because if you starred them yourself, you likely found them to be quality results. However, when you starred that result, you may not have done so with relevance to a specific query or topic in mind. You may have just liked the site and wanted to remember it.

In fact, most of the starred results at this point (given how new the starred results feature is) simply come from pages that have been bookmarked in Google Bookmarks (if you have been a user in the past). If this is the case, chances are that when you bookmarked a certain page, say a year ago, you didn’t take into consideration that Google would one day use that bookmark as a personalized search result in a possibly unrelated query down the road. How could you have known?

There are plenty of times when these bookmarked/starred results do come in handy in a Google search. That said, they are not always the most relevant, and do not always deserve top rank on the SERP, even when they are given just that.

For example, if I perform a search for "matt cutts", his personal blog (which is the top organic listing) is probably the best result for that query, but since I have written about things Cutts has said in the past, and have a particular article bookmarked for my own reference, that article appears at the top of my results, over his blog. It’s not THAT big a deal really. It doesn’t take me long to look down and find his blog if that’s what I’m looking for, but it does push the more relevant result down, and that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Google is now testing some list sharing features within Google Bookmarks. Given Google’s increased focus on social web elements and how they fit into search (think social search, real-time search, Buzz, etc.), one can’t help but wonder if Bookmarks will play an even greater role in Google’s search product going forward.

Do you find Google’s personalized search to be helpful or hurtful most often? Share your thoughts here.

When Personalized Search and Relevance Collide
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  • http://www.u-need-ink.co.uk/ Guest

    Social Bookmarking is tricky, regarding Personalization google tries to capture the trends for Local customers by which relevant results can be shown.

  • http://nicknorris.net Nick Norris

    I can honestly say that I HATE the starred results that google comes up with. They throw me off. I know I was probably responsible for starring them one way or another, but when they come up, they’re usually recommendations from my own blog, or one of my many blogs. I’m not searching for stuff that I wrote, I’m looking for content from other people or sources.

    I’m not a huge fan of personalized search features (especially when Google implements them) because they throw me off. I really hate the fact that I can select which sites show up for certain search terms.

  • Guest

    I like the plain ol’ Google Search. It seems that all software developers (and I fight it myself) think the answer to success is adding features. I disagree these days. Google used to work just fine and now the top of the page is just junk.

  • http://sanfranciscosearchengineoptimization.com SF SEO

    Without a question, the majority of individual comments I’ve read and heard over and over again relating to Google’s “personalized” search are negative. Especially the fact that it’s not an “opt-in” option….. but rather an automatic that most of the public is unaware of. Most of whom would find it impossible to even figure out how to “opt-out” of the invasion and alteration to what used to be generic searches.

    There’s no question in my mind that it’s all about increasing revenues via PPC, Google’s main source of revenue. A very unfortunate affair for every small to mid size business attempting to utilize the internet via SEO as a feasable means of growing their business.

    Google should consider some creative ideas for small to mid size businesses which tend to have limited budgets. After all, it’s small businesses that make up a sizeable portion of the employed in the United States. Many of which are having to close their doors due to their inability to afford the “cost” of advertising & operating anymore.

  • http://www.sitebyjames.com James

    I think it wold be prefereable if a personalized weight of sorts was indicated in the results.

    Much like sponsored results are indicated, a personalise result being indicated would really help smooth things over with the paranoid like myself who do not like information being controlled to such a drastic extent, and it would give the uber techs a reason to praise the engine for it’s advanced capabilities.

    This of course runs the chance of further mucking up the nice clean and rather clinical search results even further…

    But in the best interests of Google, and it’s future, and it’s seemingly transparent PR take on things in the past, I just sort of feel it would be best for them.

    • http://www.lexolution.in/blog Maneet

      I like this point! Google should consider having a separate column for Personalized searches just as it has one for Sponsored ones.

  • http://digitalweddingsecrets.com/ Daniel Green

    I think the search should be relevant rather than personalize it is good that personalize search provide more functionality but relevant can give you some best result.

  • http://www.thecollectorshub.com The Collectors Hub Collectible Figurines

    I don’t like personalized search. As a website owner, it makes it very difficult to rank with the most active online shoppers unless you’re one of the first they came across or unles you have a large PPC budget.

    Personally when I do a search it’s usually because I want to find sites that are new to me. If I want to revisit sites, I bookmark them. When Google blurs the line between bookmarks and relevance, their results don’t give me what I need and I’m less likely to use Google at all.

  • http://www.selfdefenseproductsflorida.com Cindy

    This is too funny. Yesreday I did a site command in google on our site www.SelfDefenseProductsFlorida.com and one page on Identity Theft
    had a star by it. I have been wondering what that star meant, now I know from
    reading your article sent to me this morning. Only thing is, I do not know how it got
    a star by it. I have not book marked it.. Any other ideas?
    Also, is the Star for my eyes only on my PC? Can others see it?

  • http://cjis.info SEO STR82U

    On that note…
    I was using the “other” laptop (that’s white meat) and found one of my sites had jumped to #3 – a whole 3 spots! Still, the “dark meat” laptop says 6. Took all of about 12 seconds to catch on. Our guest computer had search settings that were based on previous searches, like for my sites.

    A possible upside I see is this; If you can come up in natural results and get the original hit, then keep the visitor there for a PV or three, you might be more relevant to that user later on. Not to mention, Uncle Googie’s analyzing everything. If a site seems to be relevant to a large number of people, well, that’s like another PR value, ain’t it?

    Keep it Str8!

  • http://wehner.org Charles Wehner

    As I understand it, each user receives his own personal listing according to his tastes.

    What of Internet caf

  • Rob

    G. Caffeine, personalized results along with their big site big brands favoritism are turning what was a good search engine into crap. Yahoo gives me more relevant results most of the time. Also, I think the government should intervene and break up G. They are too big and abusing their power. They even had the nerve to tell the advertisers how to run their business.

  • Rob

    Big G. is turning into the eBay of search. They are adding crap nobody needs and only webmasters will use. What is does is bring more headaches to the regular users by providing irrelevant results, a lot of misses, and people moving to other search engines. What’s wrong with having darn plain search results? I’m a G. user but I’m starting to get whizzed off with their search results.

  • http://www.scholarsource.com ScholarInfo

    Anyway i love google :)

  • http://www.searchsquad.com.au Melbourne SEO

    I don’t search for the same thing all the time, so just because I spend a week researching computer prices that doesn’t mean I’m always hoping to find results from those sites.
    I think there are still bugs to work out in the personalised search system and unless google can follow me around to determine all the things I’m thinking about today I just can’t see them getting it right.

  • http://www.onlinemerchantforum.com Abound

    It is hard for me to track my site’s positioning in the search engines, if it is showing up on page one for me due to personalized search… I want to know my site’s relevance.

  • http://h3sean.com Sean

    I think the starred results are quite unnecessary. Plain and simple. You knew them before that’s why you bookmarked them. Why do they have to pop up now in your SERP?

  • http://www.theokaynetwork.com Adsense Publisher

    I applaud Google for letting us customize the search with options such as pulling up more recent results to filtering certain types of sites in or out of the results. It really does give a more focused search and helps me find things easier, but to throw up anything but the organic results and a few ads is just going to make people hate Google more.

    I don’t need more search results to my search, I need better search results to my search.

  • http://www.lexolution.in/blog Maneet

    Google its stretching itself too much… much beyond user comfort! The idea of starred bookmarks and all of that is fine until it influences my search results. If I am searching for something online, I am looking for unbiased information.. and not something that depends on how I have behaved on the web in the past.

  • http://seo.tolafamakinwa.net Tola SEO

    I’m of the opinion that if you want to personalize your result you should be given the opportunity to do so. For me that’s where the starred results would come in. I personally couldn’t care less for both but I believe the starred result is more relevant to the User experience.
    What if you clicked on a site by mistake more than once, it’s not what you want but Google is just gonna assume you prefer that page. However with the starred result you’re the one telling Google I prefer THAT result. And I’m not just saying this from an SEO POV, but then again, I guess it is because I’m into SEO that I know what I want and what I don’t want when it comes to searching…

  • http://www.metwebsitedesign.com Troy

    I work heavily on the web every day due to my job requirements. When I am searching for results, I want pure, organic results. Not Googles suggestions based on what I may have viewed in the past. I often work on websites for other people and need to view related websites. I dont need to see my own work displayed up front. Also, when optimizing websites for clients, it throws the search results off and makes it harder for me to get a real idea of how well the site is performing.

  • Guest

    I want new results all the time based on actual search results and untainted by prior searches. I don’t want to look at what I didn’t like yesterday AGAIN!

    I’ve started using other search engines to get good results.

    Goodbye Google!

  • Guest

    My customers have been complaining about the personalized search. The ask me why “Google yields the same results day after day?”

    I just tell them to use Yahoo, AOL, or Bing if they want real results. Their happy when I tell them. They say “Oh good… something still works!”

    My personal feeling is that they are using the local workstation cache to cache search results to take the load off their data center servers. While you’re at it, why not keep customer customer profile information in the cache as well!

    It’s good Google1 did this. It will level the search engine playing field.

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