Google Ramps Up Personalized Search

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:

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:

Search History Notice

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:

Search History Notice

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.

Search History

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:

Search History Page

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:

Search History Link

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:

Search History

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:

Google Search History Paused

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:

Google Search History

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:

As is standard in the industry, we use aggregate user data to analyze usage patterns and diagnose problems with our system, as well as to improve our services to users. This aggregate information is not associated with a user’s Google Account. As reflected in our privacy policy, we maintain this data for as long as it is useful for those purposes.

[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:

Google Regular Vs. Personalized Results

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:

Personalized Results

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:

Google Personalized Homepage

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.

I think we have a ways to go in really promoting those features. We’re starting to really get very healthy usage. But it’s not that obvious to me when I go to Google how to get to those things, and so I think we’ve got a lot more growth in store. Also the quality improvements we get with personalized search are also quite significant, and we’re very excited about that, and then that driving more search and more monetization and so on. So I think overall, I think we’re very excited about personalization. We’ve had a lot of significant traction in terms of users and we have a lot more opportunity in terms of promoting that very useful functionality to our huge base of users.

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.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: iGoogle | Google: Personalized Search | Google: Web History & Search History | Legal: Privacy | Search Engines: Personalized Search Engines


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.

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  • graywolf

    Just because I ordered my coke with extra ice last time doesn’t mean I want it that way this time. I hate personalized SERP’s, I despise it even more that they don’t tell me they are personalized, and I loathe not being able to turn it off. I also have extreme antipathy for not being able to keep my search history on and not be part of personalized search.

    Let me have it the way I want, not the way you think I do. I don’t want SERP’s that work like Microsoft programs that try to anticipate what I want to do, because more often than not it’s wrong. Bring back truth, purity, and clarity to the SERP’s.

  • Danny Sullivan

    Just to be clear, you can turn it off by signing out of Google Accounts. But I agree, some people are going to find that a pain. If you’re logged into AdSense, you don’t want to have to necessarily log out just to do a non-personalized search.

  • Gord Hotchkiss

    Sorry Graywolf, but you are most definitely not the average Google user. Personalization has been inevitable, and it will absolutely improve the user experience. And for the vast majority of users, they’ll never know it’s happening. Danny, thanks for the post outlining the changes. This promises to be a most interesting development. I’ve highlighted a few thoughts on my blog The Personalized Results are Coming, The Personalized Results are Coming.

  • graywolf

    >Sorry Graywolf, but you are most definitely not the average Google user.

    agreed, but “dumbing down”, limiting, or forcing power users out of the drivers seat and into the back seat locked down in 5 point harness isn’t the answer either.

  • Joost de Valk

    I didn’t see it mentioned in the article, but Google now also shows how often you’ve visited a site in the SERPs itself if you’re logged in…

  • Kat2

    The thing that worries me is that we don’t know how long and how well Google will hold to its “Don’t be evil” motto.

  • pierrefar

    It’s very simple: I don’t want Google or anyone tracking me on a personal level. Whether it will “enhance my search experience” or not is irrelevant. When I search, I’m looking for something new, so please stop trying to second guess my intentions.

    Sadly, most people on the net cannot make an informed decision like SEOs who read SEL can. I did a straw poll today of my friends mentioning that “Google is tracking your behaviour now and changing the search results based on what you’ve like before”. No one had heard of this change, and they all described that as “wrong”, but in much ruder language. I imagine that if the mainstream media picked this angle, Google will have a serious PR backlash.

    So please, let’s not beat around the bush: it’s spyware on a scale we’ve never seen before.


  • Miriam

    I started a thread on this same subject over at Cre8asite yesterday, basically expressing what graywolf has said here. I don’t like the presumption involved in Google deciding what I’ll like best. I like to make that decision on my own.

    I really appreciated this timely article, and in particular, the step by step instructions for pausing the search history.

  • Jonathan Mendez

    Thanks Danny for this great write-up.

    You can say this is about Google trying to presume what you will “like” the best or you can say it’s about delivering a higher degree of relevance to your query based on an increased number of data points.

    Are they not one in the same?

    Hasn’t Google (or any other SE) always been in the business of trying to anticipate what you want to do and where you want to go? In this regard nothing has changed, yet everything has changed.

    One size does not fit all. As digital marketers we take what we know about users to deliver relevance because we know that relevance provides great user experiences and great UX increases ROI and builds brand loyalty. Google built an empire with this formula and they understand that they will stay dominant as long as they can keep improving this formula. It looks to me like they’ve done it again.

  • aimclear

    Thanks for the critical detail in this article. Of course, personalized SERPS turn traditional organic prominence reporting tools somewhat sideways.

    Does this mean that we will need to get more aggressive with “beat the algorithm

  • David Dalka

    Just because you click on a site once, doesn’t mean I want it to start showing up #1 each time!
    his complicates many SEO issues it would seem.

  • DBrooks

    It seem like SEO just got a lot more esoteric and ambiguous. I am not sure I like this new direction but maybe personalized search is an inevitability; the price we will all have to pay for spam.

  • Steve Amundsen

    Thanks for a great post, Danny. As always you have a keen eye for the Intuitive Obvious. It is clear that the principles that guide intelligent SEO will continue to be even more relevant with personalized search. After all, are we not striving to provide relevant content and user experience to our optimized sites? If so, then we will see improved results from personalized search. The wannabes will disappear, and the truly relevant will emerge victorious.

  • aimclear

    Steve you are so right. At the end of the day content has been (and always will be) KING.

  • Arnaud fischer

    SEL, this is awesome, awesome social search coverage! To paraphrase smarter people, information retrieval is reaching another inflexion point. There is a shift taking place from Search engines having the power to search users getting empowered, from the head to the tail, from a “few-to-many” to a “many-to-many” publishing model. Social search is changing the rules. Another way to think of it is Social Search is the 3rd big evolution of the search business after i) algorithmic search, ii) paid search models, and now iii) Social Search. Web 2.0 trends all converge toward social search: social networking, consumer generated media, open platforms and syndication models, new user interaction models.

    At first relevance was about i) “on-the-page criteria”, then ii) about “off-the-page criteria” like meta tags, then about iv) Web connectivity and link authority like PageRank, and finally, now, about v) people, people networks and communities. Social search is the new deal and there is no turning back.

  • gene evangelist

    Thanks for the great article.
    Personalized search could be a good idea under some circumstances for the search engine.
    Is it good for the searcher?
    Ask yourself this question:
    If I’m searching again for widgets,
    obviously my first widget search left me unstatisfied, THATS WHY I’M SEARCHING AGAIN,
    do I want to be given another batch of the same unsatisfying results?

  • Chris Parente

    Great article Danny, thanks much for the level of detail. As adoption rises, how do you see this type of personalization affecting so-called professional search?

    In one sense it’s great, I’m already starting from a smaller universe of sites I’ve helped define. In the other it’s not, since when someone in researching a topic they don’t always know exactly what they’re looking for. To put it another way, does personalization decrease the chances for an “A-Ha” moment of finding something I didn’t already know was relevant to my query?

  • schachin

    I agree with the people who posted dissenting opinions about the personalized search. I have very diverse interests based on my type of work, school, where I live (vegas) and personal interests etc. The diversity of these areas are not conducive to narrowed search options.

    Also I like the point made about when the results are lacking and I conduct a new search .. I want NEW results not more of the same..

    Also, just because I use one site for many things does not mean it is good for the others… ie a list apart is a great CSS code site for lists, but not all CSS issues.. so if I spend a lot of time searching for list issues one week the next time I search for CSS code that is what will show.. ??

    I think this was a bad bad bad idea.. and not to mention the privacy issues. Some of you believe this is inevitable. I think once the average american understands that Google now has a record of every search ever performed and can associate it with your name and user account personalized search will die a very quick death..

    The bottom line is the search engine should do better on removing spam without involving a limitation on my search results. I should be able to see the plethora of information on a subject and be able to filter my own results.

    Bad Google! No biscuit for you! ;)
    If it were an opt in program or had that toggle button mentioned in this article, I might not mind so much, but right now I am very unhappy with Google.

  • Theebusinessresource

    Danny, great article – thank you!

    One major question that comes to mind is – Will the ranking, trends and behaviors of other user’s personalized search also affect my results, for the first time I search on a given topic?

    I’ve also provided my thoughts on my blog – Google’s Personalized Search Debate

  • shantanuo

    Personalized search is exactly what I am waiting for since 2004 (when google introduced it for the first time)

  • Catinka Knoth

    I’ve been dreading the day this would happen. I rely so much on unintended search results for answers and ideas. For instance I landed here looking for the meaning of the code ‘gbv’ that now appears in google search result urls. I did not find that answer but learned this dreaded news instead. It is this serendipitous aspect that I’ve found just as important in using Google. Too much predictability makes for narrow visions. I can only have faith that unpredictability will always be there, no matter what we try. It is the nature of life.

    I’ve posted about this in my blog CKnotes and linked to your article.
    Regards, Catinka Knoth

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