Google’s Personalized Results: The “New Normal” That Deserves Extraordinary Attention

On Friday afternoon, Google made the biggest change that has ever happened in search engines, and the world largely yawned. Maybe Google timed its announcement that it was personalizing everyone’s search results just right, so few would notice. Maybe no one really understood how significant the change was. Whatever the reason, it was a huge development and deserves much more attention than it has received so far.

To put how little attention the change got in perspective, less than 50 news articles and blog posts were written about it, according to Google News. In contrast, nearly 1,000 articles were written about a relatively minor change to Google’s First Click Free program.

If you want to understand more about the change and how it works, see our Google Now Personalizes Everyone’s Search Results story. In this piece, I’m going to cover why this is such a significant change.

Until now, search engines have largely delivered the same results to everyone. Two different people could search for Barack Obama and get back the same set of results. In fact, the results have been so consistent that people have used them as a universal navigation tool.

For example, Sony Pictures ran an ad campaign for its 2012 movie with the tagline “Search: 2012,” apparently guessing correctly that anyone searching for that word would find the movie web site. WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg has a business card that says to find him by searching for matt on Google.

The days of “normal” search results that everyone sees are now over. Personalized results are the “new normal,” and the change is going to shift the search world and society in general in unpredictable ways.

Is a search for Michelle Obama showing a racist image? Maybe for one person, but not for another.

What are the results you get back for a search on the US health care debate? Fox News might be all set to lambaste Google for giving a liberal site top billing, only to find that CNN reports that it’s a conservative site that’s number one — and both stations might be wrong. That’s because the results each reports on will be only what their particular reporters at each station saw. Their viewers may see different results. In fact, each one of their viewers may see results different from one another.

Happy that you’re ranking in the top results for a term that’s important to you? Look again. Turn off personalized search, and you might discover that your top billing is due to the way the personalized system is a huge ego search reinforcement tool. If you visit your own site often, your own site ranks better in your own results — but not for everyone else.

Does this mean SEO is dead? No. I’ve warned for years that search results would be getting more personalized. Still, for many queries, there will continue to be “normal” results until Google harvests enough information to start personalizing them. SEO remains important to ensure that you’ve got that first shot at being considered. And the best tip in this new world of personalization remains the same. Make a good impression. Titles and descriptions are important, as is having outstanding content.

Are normal results really dead? They’ve actually been dying for some time, as Google has “group” personalized results on a country-by-country basis, then on a region-by-region basis. Those in the UK have long seen results slightly different than those in the US. Those in San Francisco have gotten results slightly different than those in Los Angeles. Some of this has been disclosed, as Google Now Notifies Of “Search Customization” & Gives Searchers Control from last year explains more.

Even with last week’s new universal personal results (now there’s an oxymoron!) rollout, where everyone is getting personalized results, there should remain many searches where two people can do the same query and get very similar to identical results. Personalization isn’t so dramatic that everyone will see radically different stuff. In particular, Google told me it doesn’t envision a future where someone who’s conservative would get only conservative results while someone who’s liberal will get only liberal ones:

“We want diversity of results,” said product manager Johanna Wright, when we talked about the personalized release on Friday. “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.”

Still, make no mistake. “Normal” is dead. This isn’t the personalized search system of old, where Google only personalized results if people were signed in. In the new personalized search, millions of Google users have been opted-in to the system even if they aren’t signed-in using a Google account. While people can opt-out of personalized results, I doubt many will do so. That also means SEOs shouldn’t get distracted wondering about hacks to view “normal” results. Even though the pws=0 technique still apparently works, it’s not like typical Google users are using it.

Should Google have required opt-in? I’m split. Last week, I was talking about personalized search in general to someone who was concerned that Google would make exactly this move, without asking. I explained that it’s a tough call. There’s some reasonable expectation that you can use what people have told you before.

Imagine you’re in a library — the classic metaphor for a search engine and how it interacts with a searcher, from when WebCrawler’s Brian Pinkerton used to explain how they worked back in the 1990s. Someone walks in and says “travel.” In a library, the librarian would ask more questions, to try and understand what they want. Early search engines didn’t do this. They couldn’t do this!

Over time, search engines tried to do the library-style conversation by offering related searches, as a way to get searchers to refine their queries. Then Google took a huge leap last year by making use of your previous query to refine your results. That makes sense and doesn’t seem to require any particular reason to ask for user opt-in. Again, imagine the librarian. It would be unreasonable to expect them to forget the last thing you said in a conversation you were having, as they tried to help you. Unreasonable and unhelpful.

But would you expect the librarian to help you by remembering everything you’d asked over a half-year period? That might be helpful, sure, but it might also be eerie. But this is what Google is doing now. It remembers everything you’ve searched for over 180 days, and it uses that information to customize your results. To alert you about this huge change, it made a blog post on Friday afternoon. That’s it.

This is the second time Google widely expanded personalized search on an opt-out, rather than an opt-in basis. Google Ramps Up Personalized Search covers how in 2007, Google enrolled anyone with a new Google Account into personalized search. At least then, it also showed a big notice on the search results page to alert you that personalization was happening. With Friday’s change, you have to spot the “Web History” link in the upper-right hand corner of search pages to understand logging is being used to customize your results. Or you have to spot the “View Customizations” link.

When Google can expend some of its precious home page space to shill its Android phones, it’s not unreasonable that it might consider alerting searchers to the personalized search change in this visible area. It’s not unreasonable that rather than immediately opting everyone in, it might have considered giving people 3 to 6 months notice that the change was going to happen.

Don’t get me wrong. I think personalized search is a good thing. I think using the data in this way makes plenty of sense. It will help improve search results (see Search 4.0: Social Search Engines & Putting Humans Back In Search and Eye Tracking On Universal And Personalized Search for more). In addition, it’s not like Google or the other search engines weren’t already logging it this way.

Still, the shift deserves more attention than it received through a Friday afternoon rollout. The passing of old “normal” results deserves a better obituary than that. Attention must be paid. Searchers, site owners and others — take note.

Related Topics: Channel: Consumer | Features: Analysis | Google: Personalized Search | Top News


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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  • Alysson

    I’m certainly not surprised to see Google adopt a “Friday News Dump” strategy here. The search industry may not be the White House press corps, but the theory still holds true. And the small amount of attention paid to this story serves as further evidence to support it.

    I would suggest that perhaps people aren’t discussing or losing their minds over it because they want to investigate further before angrily jumping up and down on their “jump to conclusions” mats, but I think we all know that isn’t the case. :)

  • Greg Bogdan

    As a marketer I am generally opposed to this as it presents yet another unknown that we need to be concerned about. Now we will have even less confidence that our customer’s SERP will look like ours. Defaults are very powerful. Less than 1% of searchers will disable personalization. Regional personalization is one thing, behavior personalization adds a completely different dimension.

    As a searcher and content consumer I am also concerned that Google makes the diversity decision based on what they calculate about me and my online behavior. Talk about black boxes. What is the Google definition of diversity? How will they keep diversity in the mix? I will toggle personalization on and off out of curiosity, but most others will not.

    Would love to see more examples of how SERP are differing in the same locations. I assume that the Google Ads preview tool can also be used to investigate this, which might be easier then toggling personalization off and on.

  • spacejazz

    The problem is even bigger than search engine experts expect.

    Why? It´s simple…
    A global player like google is able with personaliced search to trac and save personal surf behavior, likes and dislikes, political and religious views and much more by analcing the search terms and link clicks of every Google user worldwide.

    So, it´s possible to get a good picture about the character of every Google user and give this users, search engine results – matching to their profile.

    What is Google?
    A Company – linked to financial and politcal interests of this world – it´s not a independent institution from outerspace – that does nothing evil.

    Most Internet users – thrust in the Google results and use Google as Search Engine. But what happen´s when your personal privacy gets lost by the ability to give every user personalized search engine results?

    Scenario One:
    How easy is it – find individuals by this very personal database of searchbehavior, that are not in political therms liberal or the opposite site? How easy is it to send them only search results, to manipulate the information resources?

    Scenario Two:
    How easy is it – to change the opinion of a hole country of a goverment or individuals in our community, by manipulating SERPs?

    It´s about control – and it´s about freedom – and of corse – it´s about you.

    Think about it.

    A Company – linked to financial and politcal interests of this world.

  • seoword

    I don’t think automatic personalized search changes things for SEO’s that much. The real measure of sem is new traffic and the leads it generates. Getting sites to come up prominently on serp’s doesn’t change due to personalized search. A client might not see what the SEO employee sees, but the traffic numbers shouldn’t be negatively affected.

  • Jon

    Thanks Danny, nice write up. And I agree the Search landscape just changed.

    seoword – You don’t think this changes things for SEO much? You sure you understand what Google just changed? Maybe re-read this article. Or get back to us in a few days when your clients start reporting that they get different search results than you do.

  • paullwolborsky

    This is a freaking disaster! An important part of Google’s social relevance is it’s reproducability. Lose that and worse, not know about it degrades people’s ability to share this tool.

    But it’s an important feature, so Google needs to offer 2 modes of search, public or personal, and make it VERY clear which mode you’re in.

    Paul Wolborsky

  • Dan3

    This changes a hell of a lot. Here’s a real world example that’s less than two hours old. Just left a client meeting where we searched on the same terms from the same wi-fi. Our results had them at number 2 on our laptop; their results had them at 140 on their desktop. We’ve been making site structure changes and searching the same terms a lot lately, so clearly the results showed high for us. We walked in proud as peacocks because a half hour earlier we checked some of our terms and all were top 10. We walked in announcing it in fact. To say that we left the meeting flushed with embarrassment is understating it.

    I agree with Jon: seoword – this changes the SEO game entirely.

  • JHardy

    I have a couple of questions that I can’t find any answers to:

    1) Do AdWords count? If someone clicks on one of our AdWords ads does it then make us more likely to appear in their Personalized Search results?

    2) Is this keyword or niche specific? e.g. if someone searches for “locationxyz history”, does it make you more likely to appear highly when that same person next searches for “locationxyz travel”?

  • JamieKitson

    What a lot of fuss over nothing. If it doesn’t deliver the results people want they’ll stop using it, internet users using free services are fickle, and/or google will fix it. And I think you’re wrong in your assumption that people want impartial results, I don’t read the Telegraph because I wouldn’t like what it told me, I prefer to have by preconceptions confirmed by reading the Guardian. Maybe the reason why this story hasn’t been reported much is because it isn’t much of a story. Wait, SEOs and marketers are going to have a harder time? Oh boo hoo! My heart bleeds.

  • seoword

    I do understand what Google has changed. Even after listening to your concerns, I still don’t think this changes the landscape that much. Obviously SEO changes constantly and this is another development we have to deal with, but it’s not that big a deal. Personalized search has been around for years. Expanding the people who get personalized results changes things some, but it’s not revolutionary. As Danny mentioned, search results positions have fluctuated due to geography and other factors already.
    Getting embarrassed in a meeting because you are surprised with search results fluctuations does not mean the end of SEO. Educating them on the reasons for variations would help.
    The point I made earlier still applies, qualified traffic and the leads it generates is the measure of effectiveness. What a client sees on his office computer can make you feel good (or bad) but it doesn’t increase the client’s revenue numbers.
    I agree with Danny that this development deserves more than a Friday news release. We need to be able to explain this to the public. But the fundamentals of SEO haven’t changed.

  • Infoserve Marketing

    Great post, and 100% correct about it not getting as much attention as it should. I made my own post on my blog about it, just to try and spread it further.

    I’m still sceptical about how much impact this is going to have on search results, will it just be part of the ranking algorithm and also what types of searches will it appear mostly for. I think the big winners here are companies like Amazon.

  • stepintothelight

    There is a solution to all of the debate here. Use, and encourage others to use a non-personalized search engine ; ).

    The funny thing here is that, although Google has complete control over what information is conjured up in its results, and personalized results spoon feed us even more, people are smart enough to know whether or not they have found what they are looking for in a search.

    So if Google presents 10 “options” based more on our past search behavior, so what? If a searcher doesn’t see what they need, they will continue down the results, refine their search, or go to another source.

    If I am searching for an “internet marketing company”, how might google apply personalization to that? Let’s assume it is a non-geo search. $10 says they can’t apply much or any useful “personalization”. Might they determine I am looking for U.S. only companies? Might they determine that I have searched specifically (and clicked on) local search marketing companies? So does that mean I will be served up only local search marketing companies in the future when I broaden out to “internet marketing company” again? Perhaps. But if I don’t get the results I want, I refine search or bail.

    I don’t think personalization is useful for much of the common user’s search behavior. I also don’t think Google is nimble enough or clever enough to really serve up tailored results that exactly fit its users.

    Cutts says personalization will happen in about 20% of searches. 20% can mean a bunch of money for a bunch of people (one way or the other). But it also means that 80% is not affected (yet). So we’re talking about varied rankings (possibly) for 20% of the searches out there. Those of us who still think it is useful to associate rankings with traffic will merely add “personalization disabled rankings” to our ranking reports, along with the existing caveat for local search results.

  • pleer

    Why has Google not made things easier for the searcher to let them understand that their search results are personalised now? There is no easy way for a computer illiterate to simply toggle between personalised and generic results. If this was made clearer then people may indeed use both options to see what results are output.

    However, aren’t we just theoretically facing a similar task when we try to optimise results for two different search engines like Google vs Bing?


  • jebbiii

    If I was Bing I would consider trumpeting this fact to the world: “BING HAS UNFILTERED RESULTS”, “NO BIAS”, “GET THE REAL RESULTS” (that is until I started doing it too)


  • adproducts

    With the advent of personalised search and other related things, SEO becomes more of a challenge but no less relevant. In fact it is right now very relevant and even urgent!

    No matter the level of personalisation Google offers, it can only vary result listings when people search for the same thing multiple times, and will generally only change results listings when a lower than top link has been clicked on more than once.

    Although people are creatures of habit, millions of people every day search for things they have not yet searched for, giving raw results. And even personalised results will not be completely different to raw results – there will be some variation, but not a completely different set of listings!

    I think for basic SEO each business needs to ensure they are near the top of listings for a raw (un-personalised result), and then not worry about who may be getting different personalised results – there will still be enough people getting all or some of the standard raw results to make it worthwhile. Also, two or three years down the track when google has for some people a couple years worth of cookie data, it will be harder to break into a person’s personalised results – right now when the data banks are smaller it’s easiers, to most important to get found now.

    It does however mean that SEO is not the be all and end all – it means that a wider online and social marketing focus is also required in order to achieve business success.

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