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When Personalized Search and Relevance Collide

Not everybody is a fan of the increasingly personalized search results they get from Goo...
When Personalized Search and Relevance Collide
Written by Chris Crum
  • 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.

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