Google Now Personalizes Everyone’s Search Results

Beginning today, Google will now personalize the search results of anyone who uses its search engine, regardless of whether they’ve opted-in to a previously existing personalization feature. Searchers will have the ability to opt-out completely, and there are various protections designed to safeguard privacy. However, being opt-out rather than opt-in will likely raise some concerns. The company has an announcement here. Below, a deeper look.

How Search Personalization Works

For those unfamiliar with how personalized search works, see my Google Search History Expands, Becomes Web History. It goes into great detail about how Google personalizes results.

The short story is this. By watching what you click on in search results, Google can learn that you favor particular sites. For example, if you often search and click on links from Amazon that appear in Google’s results, over time, Google learns that you really like Amazon. In reaction, it gives Amazon a ranking boost. That means you start seeing more Amazon listings, perhaps for searches where Amazon wasn’t showing up before.

The results are custom tailored for each individual. For example, let’s say someone else prefers Barnes & Nobles. Over time, Google learns that person likes Barnes & Noble. They begin to see even more Barnes & Nobles listings, rather than Amazon ones.

Of course, people will be clicking on a variety of sites, in search results. So it’s not a case of having one favorite that that simply shows up for everything. Indeed, Google’s other ranking factors are also still considered. So that person who likes Amazon? If they’re looking for a plumber, Amazon probably isn’t close to being relevant, so the personalization boost doesn’t help. But in cases where Amazon might have been on the edge? Personalization may help tip into the first page of results. And personalization may tip a wide variety of sites into the top results, for a wide variety of queries.

Privacy Issues

To personalize results, Google has to record what you’re doing — and that rings privacy alarm bells. Can people see what you’ve looked for? How long is the material kept? Can you just turn it off?

You can turn it off. A history is kept for 180 days. You can delete that history at any time, but even if you don’t, it can’t actually be viewed.

In particular, we now have two “flavors” of personalized search, or “Web History” as is the official Google name for it. There’s Signed-Out Web History and Signed-In Web History.

In Signed-Out Web History, Google knows that it has seen someone using a particular browser before. Behind the scenes, it has tracked all the searches that have been done by that browser. It also logs all the things people have clicked on from Google’s search results, when using that browser. There’s no way to see this information, but it is used to customize the results that are shown. It only remembers things for 180 days. Information older than that is forgotten. Google doesn’t know your name. If you use a different browser, Google doesn’t know your past history. In fact, you can’t even see your past history.

In Signed-In Web History, Google knows that a particular Google user is using Google. Behind the scenes, it has kept a record of all the things that person has done when signed-in, regardless of what computer or browser they’ve used. If they’re using the Google Toolbar with the page tracking feature enabled, then it has also kept a record of all the pages they’ve viewed over time. This information can be viewed by the user at any time, and the user can selectively delete info. They can also delete everything, if they want. If they don’t, then Google forgets nothing.

Let’s do a chart:

Feature Signed-Out Signed-In
What’s recorded What you click on in search results What you click on in search results & pages you visit, if Google Toolbar tracking feature is specifically enabled
How long is data kept? 180 days Forever, or until user deletes it
Can you view search history? No Yes
Can you opt-out permanently? Yes Yes

Can’t View History

An important aspect to the change is understanding that there’s no way for you — or anyone — to see what you’ve searched on or clicked on in the past, if you’re using the signed-out version of web history.

Google Now Notifies Of “Search Customization” & Gives Searchers Control goes into much more depth about how last year, Google began notifying searchers if it changed their results based on their previous query. Clicking on the notification would show the previous query, which might be embarrassing or worse if you left your computer and someone else saw it. To limit exposure, only the last 30 minutes of previous query information was shown.

With the change, Google’s storing much more than the last 30 minutes of previous history. However, that’s not being shown.

Let’s do some pictures. Here, I’ve done a search for spain:

Google Personalized Results

Notice the arrow pointing to Web History. This is effectively a default notification that results are being logged for personalization. Clicking on it leads to a notification page that in turn allows for opting-out.

Now here’s another search I did right after that, for travel:

Google Personalized Results

Notice I’m pointing at the “View customizations” link that has now appeared. This is another notification, an explicit one where Google’s saying effectively “Hey! You searched for ‘travel,’ but I’ve altered the results I’ve shown you based on things I know about you personally.”

So what’s Google know? In this case, if you click on the link, you get shown:

Google Personalized Results

I’ve highlighted the key part. Google’s saying that it used your search history to alter this. Almost certainly, this means it saw I had just search for “spain,” and so added that word to the query “travel.” In the past, it would have told me this specifically. But now that data is being kept longer, it’s not showing any previous query or past search history material.

This Freaks Me Out!

Don’t like the idea of your searches being recorded, even if you’re not logged in? Keep in mind a few things for perspective:

  • All the major search engines have long recorded what you search on. Google’s simply using it to refine your results, in addition to what the others do, show ads
  • Your browser itself records what you search on — and often, people fail to clear their browser histories.
  • You don’t have to use it.

Remember I mentioned that opt-out page? Let’s see what it says:

Google Personalized Results

See the link I’ve pointed at? Click on that, and you’ve turned off logging for personalization purposes. Google will no longer keep track of what you’ve searched on in the past, in association with your browser, in order to perform personalization. In addition, Google remembers that you don’t want to be logged in the future. For the technically inclined, this is nice. It means you can have a Google cookie that knows you don’t want to be logged, rather than having to access Google without a cookie at all.

Note that even if you opt-out, Google will still be logging what you search on as it always has done. It just won’t personalize using that information. And after 180 days, even this logged-but-not-used information is deleted automatically (see Anonymizing Google’s Server Log Data — How’s It Going? for more about this).

Change your mind? Click on that Web History link I mentioned earlier. It will oddly still show, even if you’ve opted out and nothing is being logged (plus, “Web History” is a bad name, since for signed-out users, it’s not really tracking what you do on the web). Click Web History, and you can enable custom search.

What About Diversity?

Interestingly, I’ve spoken on the subject of Google’s preexisting search personalization feature three times over the past week, and each time, a key question has arisen. If Google rewards the sites you like, does that mean eventually you’ll only see stuff you like? Would a conservative see only conservative web sites? A liberal see only liberal web sites?

No, Google says. Annoyingly, the company will not give any metrics about what percentage of results a typically searcher gets back that are personalized in some way nor the percentage of the results themselves that are changed. IE, are 85% of queries personalized? And if you get a page of personalized results, are 20% of the links on that page personalized? I couldn’t get any such figures.

However, Google did say it want to keep some results similar between users:

“We want diversity of results,” said product manager Johanna Wright. “This is something we talk about a lot internally and believe in. We want there to be variety of sources and opinions in the Google results. We want them in personalized search to be skewed to the user, but we don’t want that to mean the rest of the web is unavailable to them.”

Again, I’ve written about personalized history and notifications in the past, as well as how all this is part of what I call Search 4.0, an area that Google’s way ahead it. This takes them further down the Search 4.0 path. Be sure to read those background pieces below. It will be interesting to see how this integrates into the new privacy dashboard, also described more below:

Also see Google’s Personalized Results: The “New Normal” That Deserves Extraordinary Attention, a follow-up piece looking more at the potential impact on search marketing and society in general on this quiet rollout.

Related Topics: Channel: Consumer | Google: Personalized Search | Search Features: Search History & Personalization | Top News

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://searchmarketingcommunications.com Tim Cohn
  • http://www.beginnerblogger.com/ Sarge

    Wow, this is really going to screw around with SEO workers!

    I’m sort of mixed about it. I think most people have their own computers
    I think it would be better if the personalisation was OFF by default and you had the option to turn it on.

    Not everyone is going to know that google is doing this. Having said that though, they won’t even notice the difference and hopefully the algorithm is good enough that the users will get the desired results they’re after without missing something that would appear on the old traditional search that everyone would get for searching for a particular keyword.

    I’m in mixed minds about it!

    Sarge | BeginnerBlogger.com

  • http://incrediblehelp incrediblehelp

    All this means is your desktop has its own identify according to Google versus being signed as a user, Google account. Nothing more and nothing less.

  • drunkonvinyl

    this is basically what the onion predicted a while back with this gem:

    http://www.theonion.com/content/video/google_opt_out_feature_lets_users

  • http://www.texasenergyrates.blogspot.com Shadab Malik

    Danny,

    Even if you get answer to the ‘%age of personalized results’ question, it isnt going to be any help to a regular user. He will always unknowingly get some weird personalized results even when he doesnt want them at all.

    Also, small time researchers will face the biggest problem since many of them may not even know there is any such feature released.

    Imagine after 5 yrs (or less), almost 75% of googlers will be browsing through personalized results without knowing it! Then, as an SEO you would just sit and hope that visitors click on your website (which may be clinging to the first page somehow). If they dont, your website may never make it to the top even with best SEO done.

    Finally, if Spain and Travel could be related and customized as in your example, I am assuming that this is through Latent Semantic Analysis? Spain could be related with so many other keywords. Personalization will be exponential.

    Personally, I am against this feature. As you mentioned, it will definitely benefit PPC advertisers & Google is right now focusing on only that. But what happens to SMBs that depend on Organic results solely.

    Time to click on that “Disable” link.

  • http://www.razorlightmedia.com John Crenshaw

    Shadab, you make a good point about this change benefiting PPC advertisers at the cost of organic SEO-dependent sites.

    This seems like a pretty major issue to me for any SEOs working on organic rankings. How can you possibly work to improve a site’s rankings when those rankings aren’t consistent from user to user? I wonder just how much “personalization” will be taking place.

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    About the best thing people in the SEO community can do right now is tell as many people as possible about what Google is doing, explain how to disable the Personalized Search, and let the users decide for themselves what they want to do.

    But I think Google should have held a press conference for something of this magnitude.

  • http://www.twitter.com/GregBogdan gbogdan

    A new wrinkle for sure, humans influencing personal search results, beyond local. Perhaps over time Google may use this to influence results for everyone (a new factor for the algorithm, good and bad,). And this may make PPC advertising even more desirable since organic result rank is no longer something that you can totally trust.

    I am also concerned that diversity and selection will suffer. This month I may not be inclined to investigate something, but next month I might or I would like to at least be exposed to new or different ways of thinking. How Google will mix and move results presents a big unknown.

    The power of default options is overwhelming. Very few people will bother to change a default. Search enthusiasts will play with defaults and settings, 99.9% remaining will not.

  • http://www.levelanalytics.com levelanalytics

    I’m not sure I understand the benefit to the end user here. Clearly, the benefit to Google is the proliferation of AdWords clicks if regular Google users want to see something new.

    If I wanted to buy something at Amazon, wouldn’t I just go to Amazon? And what product specifically would I end up seeing in SERPs through Amazon that I would say “Oh! I didn’t know Amazon carried that!” I mean, they carry everything!

    @Google: My browser already supports bookmarking. Show me fresh and interesting content. Don’t be a new fangled BHO.

  • http://canadian-web-site-promotion.blogspot.com canadafred

    Just when the playing field starts to level out between the on-site SEO experts and the link schemers, Google comes up with a brand new way to breed search engine spammers and creates a fantastic opportunity for marketing scammers. Way to go Google! Huge improvement.

  • http://writingferret.blogspot.com writingferret

    I’m really not sure quite what I think of this. I very much agree with levelanalytics…they said exactly what I was thinking. Very anti-Google to AVOID introducing new content to the end user. They just might work themselves into a hole where people go to Google for the familiar, and elsewhere for the new, which would not at all be good for Google.

    On the flip-side, people might start instinctively skipping the first few entries if they see them on nearly every search. I mean, consider how many topics will have a relevant page on Amazon, or eBay. Pretty much anything? Eventually people are just going to skip those, I would think.

    I fail to see, though, how search engine spammers could really take advantage of this.

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    “On the flip-side, people might start instinctively skipping the first few entries if they see them on nearly every search….”

    I would expect their clicks to cause the listings to churn a bit if that happens; or else they’ll just figure out other queries to use.

  • http://www.evilgreenmonkey.com/ evilgreenmonkey

    Has anyone confirmed whether &pws=0 still overrides personalization in the signed-out search results?

  • http://www.suzukikenichi.com/blog/ suzukik

    @evilgreenmonkey,
    Matt Cutts confirmed it on twittter.
    http://twitter.com/mattcutts/statuses/6356230570

  • Dr-Adam

    From an SEO provider standpoint, I am thinking it is going to really change things for clients who like to look up their sites and click through in the SERPS. Suddenly they will be ranking better and better! (however that will not be reflected in any kind of traffic increase of course). Lets just hope none of our clients are clicking through to their competition…..I am thinking a company memo to them is in order!

  • Pamela Falle

    It’s definitely nice to know that finally we can see how google really make it up to increasing its subscribers. Thus, we can easily improve our sites’ ranking.

  • jimmcbean

    @Dr-Adam – good point.

    Broadly speaking from an SEO perspective, depending on how big a factor history plays, I guess this consolidates sites / pages popularity that have built up a high SERP in the past making it more difficult for smaller players to break in. In this way, my search is progressively becoming less diversified the more and more I search where Google assumes that all previous searches that were clicked were essentially ‘good’ or noteworthy for the future. How does Google decide if this click decision made simply by remembering what I clicked on was a good one?

    Hasn’t personalised search just heightened the importance of SEO overnight and the need for webmasters to rank highly this second / minute / hour / day / week because locking in a high rank today means increasing your chance of a returning visitor tomorrow.

    From a usability perspective, I can see transaction cost advantages to this as it helps me to quickly find pages that I may have forgotten from previous searches, or didn’t bookmark – much like just integrating my history onto page results for easy access. I would like to know how in effect my search is being influenced by my history.

    I much preferred the wikisearch idea where diggs were used instead. This to me seems like a much more sensible way to at least influence rank to help find the best results as diggs are aggregated and positive experiences are validated. This doesn’t chain the little man either because if he has something better to offer then the merits of her offering will presumably emerge over time and bubble to the top.

    In addition, perhaps this decision may flutter a few hearts in the domaining world where high-ranked domains on G are now worth more in the second hand market.

  • http://nl.linkedin.com/in/berthuizing sailingbert

    Have done some research about differences in results with and within signed in.
    Results:

    http://sailingbert.wordpress.com/2009/12/18/google-personalized-search-nothing-personal-about-it-sofar/

  • http://www.easyseosolution.com zoe

    I also find this feature recent days. I enter a query in Google search box and after I login my Google account, I enter the same query. But the two results are different. The feature may be convinent to ordinary people, but it influences your perception of search engine rankings.

  • littlelake

    Zoe, I also realized this. Without knowing I was logged into my google account, I was all the sudden #1 for all the sites I do SEO for. I logged out to do some reporting, and went to compose the reports on the sudden rise in ranking…when I quickly realized that the results were way off when I was not logged into my google account. Very confusing for SEO folks that periodically check google results for the sites we monitor…because of course the one we take care of will always show top results since google see those sites as our preference.

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