Personalised search is a topic we’ve been touching on quite a lot recently because it’s having a significant impact on how most people see search results. If a search marketing agency’s role is to deliver targeted traffic and business through the search channel, we need to completely understand the potential implications this has.
What follows below, I hope, is a good overall introduction to what personalised search is, what it means and what you can do about it.
What is Personalised Search
Put simply, Google has over the last few years changed the order of their search results based on a number of personalised results. Initially this re-sequencing only occurred for people signed in to Google accounts, but more recently this has also been applied to people who are not signed in.
Theoretically this means that no two results pages are the same; If I search on my computer for the same term as you, I get different results. Though it has to be said, from the various experiments I’ve read, the actual variations are not always radically different.
Does it matter?
One important thing to understand when thinking about personalised search is that it is most likely to only really affect areas we search on frequently. Assuming someone is researching a new area of interest, their search results will be based on traditional algorithms as they have no data points to influence the results.
What does this mean if you operate in an industry with a mature marketplace? You will now find it hard to outperform incumbent market leaders for their existing customers. However as new customers enter the market place you’ll compete on a more-level playing field.
This also increases the importance of multi-touch marketing. The onus is to receive visits to your site as early and frequently in the buying cycle as possible.
Also given the rolling 180-day cookie length, high volume viral marketing techniques become more appealing. Typically these types of campaigns could face criticism for a scattergun approach which would put your website in front of less well-qualified visitors.
Personalisation makes this type of marketing more appealing if at some point in the next six months this visitor has the potential to make a commercial search query.
Difference Between Short Term Personalisation and Long Term Personalisation
It is worth noting that there are often two very distinct different types of personalisation taking place. The first, which I refer to as Short Term Personalization, is where keyword patterns in the same search session influences the results of future search results in the same session.
i.e. if I’m searching for ‘wedding venues’ and then search for ‘photographers’, Google is more likely to favour websites which contain the keywords ‘wedding venues’ and photographers.
You can also see this increasingly in PPC keyword adverts based on the same principle.
This doesn’t have a huge impact on how you go about your SEO but may cause problems if you relied only on very generic branded traffic, as these changes may artificially be rewarding website which perform better further down the long tail.
As always, Search Engine Land has a very illuminating piece on this very subject.
Longterm Personalisation will look at websites you’ve looked at and return them higher and/or more frequently in future searches. Also it will make thematic changes in the results. If you look at web development sites, Java will return different results to someone who has been carrying out searches about worldwide travel.
Localisation and Other Kinds of Personalisation
Personalisation isn’t only taking place based on behavior and usage, it’s also happening on a number of other different fronts. Localisation is one such example. If Google knows I’m based on Brighton, based on my profile, maybe my GPS signal or even i.p. address, and I search for National Health Dentist they can return more targeted results with this knowledge.
You’re also beginning to see device specific personalisation, a search on a mobile will very often have a very different intent to the same search terms on a desktop device. So when talking about personalisation don’t forget these other types as they form an important part of the search landscape.
Historic SERP CTR really important
Like most search marketing agencies, we’ve got projects which involve both PPC and SEO. And while the two disciplines share a lot in common there are some differences in approach.
PPC Marketing is far more comfortable with testing and success measurement. Personalised search relies on more of these skills being part of the SEO process. Now ensuring a click-through on a potential customer’s first search is more important given its impact on subsequent searches.
This means learning from the best performing advert copy and tailoring meta descriptions accordingly. Also you may like to explore Title tags more concentrated around calls to action like buy, find, search, read or download.
This is all best practice stuff that may well be part of the process already, but personalisation has probably bumped this up the to-do list
You Should Be Sending Other Signals To Google
For a long time the people who make themselves hats out of tin foil have talked about how Google know everything about you and how they put people who spend money on PPC higher in the natural search results. Largely these types have been barking up the wrong tree, but with the personalisation changes they might not be that wrong.
If they are looking at how well trafficked a site is by an individual and returning the site more frequently in SERPs then perhaps it’s not too far-fetched to assume that buying a PPC advert now will help your SEO in the future.
This also means you should be paying more consideration to the data points Google might have that could pick up personalised trends. If someone has subscribed to your RSS feed in Reader, then it would make sense for you to appear in their search results more prominently.
Google have dozens of these touch points, like mentions of a site on Google Buzz, subscriptions to email mailing lists in Gmail and purchases through Google Checkout. It’s likely that not all of these are active ranking factors at present but it does seem to encourage further efforts to participate in Google Infrastructure.
But I have Thousands of Visitors, How Can I Think About Them Individually?
Something we’ve been doing a while, that we’ve borrowed from traditional marketing, which we find really useful, is persona development. It’s hard to think about every visitor as individuals with unique personalisation paths, but you can use personas and demographics as a short hand.
People who take similar routes through the buying cycle will be very closely linked in terms of personality and background. For example here at SV we have some of our prospects come through the blog and podcast. They tend to be passionate individuals who are acting as advocates of digital within their own organisation. They are going to take a different route to a buying decision than a more traditional senior marketer who might attend conferences and read whitepapers when researching agencies.
These two different personas will take a different route, and your personalisation strategy needs to be comfortable dealing with both.
Clever Changes in Search Strategies.
The good news about any shift in technology is that it rewards the inventive. Personalised search offers these kind of opportunities. Like SEOmoz suggesting maybe you should you be encouraging users to search for your brand, as this will register with Google a visit to your site. People like AimClear have been suggesting this type of tactic as well.
And with a little thought I’m sure you can come up with even more inventive ways to to benefit from these changes.