Survey: People Largely Negative About Google’s Personalized Search Results

Last month, market research tool provider Ask Your Target Market surveyed 400 US adults about their attitudes toward personalized search on Google. The results were reported today in eMarketer’s email newsletter. We went back to the source to check out the survey and discovered that the majority of respondents expressed ambivalence or outright dissatisfaction about Google’s new more personalized search results.

The first question asked was about the primary search engine used by respondents.

Primary search engine:

Source: AYTM, n=400 (1/12)

Then the survey explored respondents’ attitudes toward search personalization and Google+ participation.

Do you like the idea of personalizing search results based on past searches and info from your social networking sites?

Source: AYTM, n=400 (1/12)

A minority said yes (15.5 percent) they liked search personalization. But a clear majority were ambivalent or hostile to the idea (84.5 percent). Within that majority 45 percent said they did not want search results personalized at all. Of the three types of responses the “nos” were the dominant category.

There were two other survey questions fielded by AYTM about Google+:

  • Do you use Google+?
  • Would you be more likely to use Google+ if you knew you would get more tailored search results?

To the first question (Do you use it?) 19.3 percent responded “yes,” and another 20.3 percent said they had accounts that were not really used. The other 60.4 percent said they did not have Google+ accounts or said that they didn’t know what it was.

In terms of whether more people would use Google+ if they knew it helped personalize their results, 7.5 percent said “yes” they would be more likely to use it. However 44.4 percent said “no” and 48.1 percent said “maybe.”

It’s important to point out that this is just one survey and it’s not clear how representative the survey population was of the entire US adult population. It’s also important to observe that people often react negatively to change. However these results, if they can be generalized, represent a pretty strong negative reaction to the new direction Google is headed.

Postscript From Danny Sullivan: I wanted to add that with a further follow-up, it probably would have been incredibly easy to turn the 45% who said “No, I think everyone should see the same results” into a much smaller number.

For example, if the question had been: “When searching for football, do you think Americans and Europeans should see the exact same results?,” that probably would have given respondents reason to think further about the advantages to personalization.

Of course, the personalization in that case tend to be geographically-based (Americans would be more likely to see NFL information; Europeans about local soccer teams). But there are other examples where past history and social connections can help. That’s one reason why Bing, just like Google, uses both factors.

My experience has been that no one seems positive about any company wanting to personalize things for them when you ask. I always put the blame on this to Amazon, because of that one purchase you make that Amazon assumes means you are completely interested in that product forever going forward.

In addition, I don’t think people like the idea that any company could somehow “figure them out” and somehow assume it could personalize things for them.

But emotion aside, personalization can help (and can hurt), and it’s all about getting the balance right. I’d highly recommend anyone interested in more to read a post from Google last year about why it does personalization, as well as “The Filter Bubble” from Eli Pariser, which takes a critical look at personalization in general. Also see SMX East Keynote: A Conversation With Eli Pariser.

The topic of personalization will also be covered in-depth at our upcoming SMX West search marketing conference in San Jose Feb. 28-March 1, in these sessions:

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: Google+ | Google: Privacy | Google: Search Customization | Google: Search Plus Your World | Top News


About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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  • Mary

    Great find Greg!

    I appreciate that you noted the trend the study results indicate, but tempered it with a caution about the population surveyed, and also people’s aversion to change. Many I’m sure will jump on the bandwagon and harshly criticize Google for claiming to modify search based on the user preference, while not doing so.

    It would be interesting to see concrete survey metrics on what the average Google user search habits are, and also the percent of Google users who are unaware or uninformed about Google’s recent organic search and privacy changes.

  • schikowski

    As far as I know, a survey with 400 people is not representative.

  • davep

    @schikowski Perhaps, but I bet it is 400 more non-Google people than Google asked if they wanted it.

    If Google must continue to divert attention from Search (which it used to be brilliant at); it should at least ask its users what they want – rather than building unwanted products like Google+ or just copying other successful products and then trying to force the world to use them…

  • Shari Thurow

    Hi all-

    I’m not “big” on the personalization, either, especially when Google gets it wrong (like when I travel and I get the wrong language) and I am forced to log in to get the desired language. I shouldn’t have to log in to get certain things.

    My personal observations through years of usability testing search results is that people have privacy concerns but also feel powerless to really do anything about it. Not a good brand impression….

    I do understand the opposite point of view, though. When Google does get my location right, and I do geo-based web searches, I tend to get the results I want. Personalization can and does help Google deliver better results…maybe at the cost of privacy. And maybe not.

  • George Michie

    Danny, I agree with you. Framed as: “Would you like Netflix to recommend the same movies to everyone, or base recommendations on your stated preferences…” the point of personalization would resonate more with respondents.

    DaveP, I’d be willing to bet quite a lot that Google’s done much much better than surveying people about what they’d like, they’ve done split tests to see how they react to different treatments, and adopted those elements of personalization that people respond positively to.

    Shari, just got back from the Yucatan, and I concur. Very frustrating that Google and many other websites flipped me to Spanish by default despite the fact that my browser has a long history of preferring English.

  • Durant Imboden

    A sample of 400 sounds awfully small, but in any case, the survey asked about two different things in one question: “Do you like the idea of personalizing search results based on past searches and info from your social networking sites?”

    Google “Personalized Search” based on the user’s previous search likes and dislikes has been around for a while, but social results are a new–and fundamentally different–feature.

  • Maurice Walshe

    @schikowski 400 is low but many election polls are done on samples of 1000 so 400 is not a totaly invalid sample.

  • Alex Avery

    Greg, you mentioned that the responses were mostly negative or outright hostile towards the idea of having personalized search results based on past searches and info from your social networking sites.

    However, it could be argued that the folks who chose the answer “Yes, but I do have some privacy concerns” were in fact open to the idea of personalized results. They may have been a little concerned about how personal the results would be, but still had an open mind.

    That said, when looking at the pie graph above, the majority of responses could be seen as positive. It’s interesting how these questions could leave the overall outcome up for interpretation.

    Thanks for the great article!

  • Brandon Swenson

    From an SEO perspective, I would say that the majority of individuals who would like to see results in the SERPS exactly the same, keyword to keyword, is most likely not going to happen. The search engines have done quite a good job at making it harder for websites to rank and for SEO’s to compete. There are so many factors we have to look at now to rank not just in one search engine, but regionally, socially, and organically in that search engine. Nice post SEL.

  • Ewan Heming

    I think that personalisation in search isn’t necessarily the same as for other types of website/software: A search engine needs to know what someone is looking for based on a few keywords, but context has a significant impact on meaning, so augmenting keywords with data such as history and social connections should eventually lead to a better understanding of user intent, and thus is an important step in the progress of the technology, not just a nice “feature”.

  • Pissed Off Woman

    Personalization is crap any way you look at it.  I would rather have what I’m looking for a little lower down in the search results, or have to type in two words instead of one, than have Google know all this stuff about me.  It’s called PRIVACY, assholes.

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