Google is stepping up the push into personalized search results. A new change announced today should cause many more people to take up the service. In turn, the growth of personalized search should have a dramatic impact on search marketers as the days of “same results, all around” eventually come to an end. For searchers, the change means needing to be more careful about when you sign-up to use a Google service, if you’re concerned about having your search history recorded. More about both issues, in the story below.
NOTE: See Google Now Personalizes Everyone’s Search Results for how Google has extended this service to all Google searchers in December 2009, regardless if they’re logged in or not.
Starting today, anyone who signs-up for any Google service using a Google Account (such as Gmail, AdSense, Google Analytics among others) will automatically be enrolled into three additional Google products:
You can override the decision to have Search History enabled, but honestly, you’ll need sharp eyes. I completely missed that this was added as a default choice to the new account sign-up page. In fact, I missed it twice, as I tested the system by making two different accounts.
Look under the “Re-enter password” box on the Google Accounts sign-up page:
You’ll see another box that says:
Creating a Google Account will enable Search History. Search History is a feature that will provide you with a more personalized experience on Google that includes more relevant search results and recommendations. Learn More
I suspect many people will blow right past this box and never even see this is enabled. I’d prefer if Google called more attention to the section, perhaps with highlighting, if it’s going to be checked by default.
The attention is needed because the Search History feature stores sensitive, private information. I’ll cover this more below. But Google does at least provide some additional warnings that it is on. When someone first searches with it enabled, they get a highlighted message like this:
And clicking on that message (or the Search History link at the top of the page for the first time) brings up a special explanation page, which covers topics such as pausing search history:
By the way, for those with existing Google Accounts, Search History still has to be manually enabled by visiting this page. As for personalized search, that’s now enabled for all accounts new or not, regardless of whether you have Search History running, as I’ll explain more further below. And all accounts, new or not, automatically have personalized home pages.
Let’s look more closely at Search History, which as I said is the most sensitive of the three products new accounts get. Search History is a feature introduced back in April 2005 that keeps track of every search you’ve made and page you’ve clicked on from Google search results. Here’s an example of my Search History screen, giving me access to the recorded information:
You can see how the system is keeping track of web searches I do, as well as image, news and Froogle shopping searches, sponsored links I click on and more (music is for when you get special music results like this which leads to this).
In the wake of last year’s search history leak from AOL, more and more people are becoming sensitive to what Google in particular and search engines in general record. They may not want search information stored. But now, Google’s doing it automatically if they enroll in any Google service, unless they specifically opt-out.
There are some good reasons why this is happening, as Google will explain further below. But that won’t negate some of the concerns. The good news is that it is easy to opt-out of the Search History service, if you don’t want to use it. Here’s how.
If you’re signed into a Google service and do a search, at the top of the search results page above the results count line, you’ll see some links like this:
One of these links will be “Search History.” Select that. Next, you’ll get to your own Search History page similar to what I showed above. Look over at the right hand side. You’ll see a Search History section with a bunch of boxes, like this:
See the “Pause” link near the bottom? Click that. Now a big yellow box like this should show in the middle of your Search History page:
The box says::
Your search history has been paused. This service will not collect any history until you choose to resume. Resume. Learn more.
Do this, and Search History will be disabled until you choose to switch it back on. It will stay that way even if you log out and then back in.
You have other options. See that “Settings” link below Pause? Click that, and you can individually choose which services to pause recording with. OK with a web search history but not with images? You can do that.
Below the Settings link is a “Remove Items” link. Chose that, and you’ll see these options at the top of the page:
Those allow you to clear out all items listed on a page or your entire search history, if you want. Alternatively, you can tick items individually to wipe them out. The help pages have more information.
Be aware that while deleting wipes out material from your search history (and keeps it from being used in personalized search), Google says the records are still kept in some form. That’s something I’d like to see changed. Delete should wipe the material out entirely. I asked Google about this, why delete doesn’t completely delete, and got this answer:
[Postscript: Google later told me that the some form referenced above meant server logs, which are now being anonymized. See Google Anonymizing Search Records To Protect Privacy for more on that.]
If Search History completely freaks you out, there’s the nuclear option. This help page talks about the Delete Search History option. Choose this, and you can remove the Search History feature entirely from your account. Note that this will also wipe out some of the usefulness of Google Personalized Search, which I’ll come to next.
Finally, a reminder. You can export your search history and take it with you, if you like. There’s a feed option that should allow this, though I haven’t tested it myself. More information about it is here from the help pages.
Google Personalized Search Results
Your search history records are big part of powering the second service I mentioned from Google, Google Personalized Search. I like the service a lot. The current version rolled out in June 2005, and I’ve found it often improves my results in subtle ways.
From talking with Google — and from my own experiences — personalized search reshapes your results primarily by noting the types of sites you select from the search results. That allows Google to look at those sites and then give them a boost in the rankings, especially if you visit them often. In addition, Google can determine sites and pages that seem related to those you are already visiting, in order to give them a boost.
Beyond your search history, Google also looks at the content on your Google Personalized Homepage – what gadgets you have there, feeds you are reading and so on — in order to shape your personalized search results. This is a new signal they’ve just started to use. Another new signal is Google Bookmarks. Pages you save in these also influence the results. In case you’re wondering, your email in Gmail does NOT have an impact, as Google explains here.
To get personalized search in the past, you generally had to sign-up for the service specifically. Now everyone gets it. You even get it if you disable Search History. “We’ll just have less to work with in terms of making your results better,” said Sep Kamvar, engineering lead for personalization at Google.
That “less” are the other signals I mentioned: content on your personalized homepage and any Google Bookmarks that you’ve saved. The advantage to this is that these still offer a way to get more tailored results if you’re uncomfortable storing your search history.
Many people won’t mind building up a search history. That’s good, because it makes personalized search much better. Here’s an example:
Above I’ve shown regular results on the left, personalized ones on the right. These are both from a search on search engine marketing. The arrows show how two sites I often go to, ClickZ and SEMPO, move up in the rankings. You can also see how another site I’m often at, Search Engine Guide, jumps into the top results (it was on the second page or regular results).
My search history makes all this happen. As I said, it’s subtle, not massive. Many queries aren’t changed at all, Google said. For those that are, there are generally slight shifts in the rankings.
“What we’ve been doing before is taking two or three results that were suited to your tastes and injecting them. That’s unchanged,” said Marissa Mayer, vice president of search and user experience at Google.
I always joke that personalized search is also a good ego search reinforcer. People tend to go to their own sites often. That helps make your own site rank better in the results. This would happen to me with Google Personalized Search, and I’d get excited. Then I’d see the “Personalized Search” message and wonder if I’d still be there in regular results when I switched the results off.
This brings me to the search marketing aspect. It used to be only some searchers got personalized results at Google. Now everyone who is signed in to a Google service is going to get them, as I explained above.
This means the days of everyone seeing the same results for any particular query are growing more numbered. What’s number one for one person might be number three for another and not even show up in the top ten for yet another. The SEO “fronts” as I’ve called them in the past will grow:
In Eurekster’s system, only those within your search network can directly influence you. This effectively creates hundreds, thousands and even millions of different possible results for the same search.
Click spammers suddenly face many different “fronts” in the war to be in the top ten, and they only get to fight in that war by invitation — if someone they know asks them to be part of their network. Eurekster assumes “friends don’t spam friends,” and it’s a pretty safe assumption….
Will marketers find a way to spam personalized search? That remains to be seen. History so far has shown that each improvement eventually gets less effective. Heck, the Google My Search History Spam from May shows how you can spam entries easily into someone’s search history at Google. It’s still working. But while you can leave entries, you aren’t generating clicks — and so you aren’t impacting the personalized search results. I’m sure personalization will lose some spam resistance over time, but there’s no doubt it will make spamming results much harder.
I beat the drum about this coming years ago. Gord Hotchkiss recently started a new conversation about it in his The Future of SEO in a Personalized Search Interface and The SEO Debate Continues posts. Nice and timely, because this change from Google makes those multiple fronts much more a reality.
Don’t Fear The Personal Results!
The change is good news for searchers. It’s also good news for site owners with good content, who should get rewarded by visits. That’s especially so if you try these tips:
- Titles & Descriptions are crucial: You need the clickthrough more than ever. Clickthroughs get your site as seen as possibly important to a particular person’s profile.
- Get on the Google personalized homepages of searchers. That means offering them a feed or a gadget and encouraging take-up with an Add To Google buttons.
- Put Google Bookmark buttons on your site, such as the one offered by AddThis. Getting bookmarked also helps you be seen as important.
By the way, you used to know if personalized results were happening if you saw this message:
That “Turn OFF” link above the message let you switch off the results and see regular ones. Now the link is gone, with only the “Personalized Results” message remaining next to the match count number. If you see it, Google has personalized your results. If you want to see regular results instead, you have to log-out of the system.
I miss the Turn OFF link. I liked being able to toggle and see if Google was making things better or worse with personalized search (I like it, but occasionally it does push down sites I think should do better). Heck, I even wanted to see personalized results flagged in some way, so you could easily spot what was changed. How about it?
“We could badge those results. We’ve been hesitant to do that because of confidence and quality concerns and also because they can be distracting. But that’s an ongoing dialog,” Mayer said.
Kamvar also noted that I’m pretty unusual in wanting to go back-and-forth, which is true enough: “Most people want the best results, and it doesn’t matter the signals we use to get the best results.”
Google Personalized Homepage
The Google Personalized Homepage is the easiest of the three features to understand. Everyone gets this when they open a Google Account now, something that’s unchanged from before. To use yours, just look for the Personalized Home link at the top right-hand side of the home page, after you sign in:
By the way, Mayer said that the personalized home page feature was the fastest growing Google product in 2006. She couldn’t release the actual percentage those using the service. She did say it’s less than the majority of users but still a substantial number.
Why The Change?
Now that I’ve covered the features, I wanted to spin back with the reasons behind the move. We already got a hint of this in Google’s earnings call this week. Personalization was touched on many times, probably most extensively by Google cofounder Larry Page, who talked about trying to increase it:
We’re very excited about personalization. Actually, in my comments, I mentioned personalized homepages and so on and use of gadgets there, which we have been really excited about our growth in those areas and the usage of those products and how excited users are about them.
Unfortunately, one problem Google was having with personalization was helping people know what they could personalize.
“People would come from Gmail but wonder if they had a personalized homepage. They did, but only if they put stuff on it,” said Mayer. “There were too many questions. The decision tree was too complicated.”
Indeed, one funny story she passed along was that of Google CEO Eric Schmidt wondering if he had personalized search enabled. After it was explained to him all the steps to ensure he was signed up, “He just blinked his eyes and shook his head,” Mayer said.
With the new change, Google hopes personalized take up — especially that of personalized search — will grow. That’s important, because personalized search is seen as a key way to improve search quality.
Google’s also hoping that making these services active when you are signed into any Google will also encourage growth. However, Gmail poses a special situation. Many Gmail users often log-out after reading their mail. That means with the new system rolled out today, they also get logged out of their personalized homepage, personalized search results and search history. Mayer said Google might consider making Gmail a special case where signing out there doesn’t sign you out of Google Accounts systemwide.