Google’s Matt Cutts on Personalization and the Future of SEO

Last week I talked with Google’s Marissa Mayer about the user side of personalization. This week I had the chance to sit down with Matt Cutts at the Googleplex and asked him what the impact of personalization will be on the SEO community. One thing that was interesting in the Marissa Mayer interview was finding […]

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Last week I talked with Google’s Marissa Mayer about the user side of personalization. This week I had the chance to sit down with Matt Cutts at the Googleplex and asked him what the impact of personalization will be on the SEO community. One thing that was interesting in the Marissa Mayer interview was finding out just how much impact personalization would have for most of us in our Google search experience. The fact is, right now, personalization won’t make that much of a difference in many of our searches. Mayer said that personalized results only show up in about one of every five searches and would only lift two results into the top 10, never replacing the number one organic result. So, as a factor that SEOs have to consider right now, it actually has less impact than a major index update might.

What’s significant about personalization, however, is the direction that it sets for Google in the future. Google has been very cautious about introducing personalization into the search experience but expect the degree of personalization to increase as Google gets more confident in their ability to present truly personalized and relevant results. And that signals the end of the universal or monolithic search result. As I’ve said a number of times, that has significant implications for search engine optimization.

Personalization is the topic that seems to be drawing all the attention right now, but the fact is localization may be a bigger immediate concern for the optimization industry. This is another point I touched on with Matt.

As with Marissa’s interview, I pulled out excerpts from the interview and added some commentary.

Once again I’ve posted the full transcript of the interview to my blog.

Gord: Talk about the negative feedback to personalization, much of which seems to be coming from SEO consultants.

Matt: I think that it’s natural that some people would be worried about change, but some of the best SEO’s are the SEO’s that are able to adapt, that are able to look down the road 4 or 5 years and say, “What are the big trends going to be?” and adjust for those trends in advance, so that when a search engine does make a change which you think is inevitable or will eventually happen, they’ll be in a good position. Personalization is one of those things where, if you look down the road a few years, having a search engine that is willing to give you better results because it can know a little bit more about what your interests are, that’s a clear win for users, and so it’s something that SEO’s can probably predict that they’ll need to prepare for. At the same time, any time there’s a change, I understand that people need some time to adjust to that and need some time to think, “How is this going to affect me? How is this going to affect the industry? And what can I do to benefit from it?”

Of course, the big question is how the lack of a monolithic set of search results will impact the reverse engineering that is typical in SEO. How do you reverse engineer something that’s different for everyone who sees it? Which begs the question, “does personalization mark the end of black hat SEO?

I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily the nail in the coffin, but it’s clearly a call to action where there’s a fork in the road and people can think hard about whether they’re optimizing for users or whether they’re optimizing primarily for search engines. And the sort of people who have been doing “new” SEO, or whatever you want to call it, that’s social media optimization, link bait, things that are interesting to people and attract word of mouth and buzz, those sorts of sites naturally attract visitors, attract repeat visitors, attract back links, attract lots of discussion. Those sorts of sites are going to benefit as the world goes forward. At the same time, if you do choose to go to the other fork, towards the black hat side of things, you know you’re going to be working harder and the return is going to be a little less. And so over time, I think, the balance of what to work on does shift toward working for the user, taking these white hat techniques and looking for the sites and changes you can implement that will be to the most benefit to your user.

I then asked Matt which areas might change the most. This got us on to the topic of localization, something that’s particularly relevant to us, being located in Canada but working with many US clients.

I think one area that will change a lot, for example, is local stuff. Already, you don’t do a search for football and get the same results in the U.K. as you do in the U.S. So there are already a lot of things that return different search results based on country, and expect that trend to continue. It is, however, also the case that in highly commercial or highly spammed areas, if you are able to return more relevant, more personalized results, it gets a little harder to optimize, because the obstacles are such that you’re trying to show up on a lot of different searches rather than just one set of search engine result pages, so it does tilt the balance a little bit, yes.

Of course, the difference between localization and personalization is that you can turn personalization off. You have no control over localization of search results. This brought up the question of user control.

It’s interesting, you talked to Marissa a couple times already, and from that you probably got a feel for the difficulty in making those decisions about just how much functionality to expose, in terms of toggles and advanced user preferences and stuff like that. So what we try to do is tackle the most common case and make that very simple. And a lot of the times, the functionality is such that you don’t even necessarily want someone that’s coming in from the U.K. to be able to search as if they’re coming in from Africa because it just makes things a lot more complicated. So, over time, I’d say we’re probably open to lots of different ways of allowing people to search.

For example, you can select different countries for the advertisements. There’s a GL parameter I believe, where you can actually say, “now, show the ads as if I were searching from Canada. Okay, now I’m going to switch to Mexico.” For search we haven’t historically made that as easy. It’s something that we’d probably be open to, but again, it’s one of those things where probably SEO’s are a lot more interested, but your regular user isn’t quite as interested.

So, when we talk about how Google determines what results people see, there’s personalization that we have control over and personalization that we don’t have control over, such as localization. I asked Matt if there were any more transparent personalization factors working in the background that we weren’t aware of. His answer was, “not really… yet.”

Once you’ve sort of “broken the mould” with different results for different countries, after that it’s good for people to move beyond the idea of a monolithic set of search results. If we had the ability to say someone is searching for Palo Alto or someone is searching for Kirkland or Redmond and give them local newspapers, truly local newspapers, that would be a good win for users as well. So over time, I would expect search results to serve a broader and broader array of services. The idea of a monolithic set of search results for a generic term will probably start to fade away, and you already see people expect that if I do a search and somebody else does the search, they can get slightly different answers. I expect that over time people will expect that more and more, and they’ll have that in the back of their heads.

To me, Google’s recent moves in pushing more people towards personalization is acting as a shot across the bow for the competition. If personalization makes the search experience better, as I believe it will when it’s fully implemented, it marks a dramatic competitive advantage. In a market as hotly contested as search is, I still believe that the amount of personalization that appears on the search results page will continue to grow, likely faster than Google is anticipating right now. Both Marissa and Matt served notice that personalization is here to stay and what we’re seeing today is just the tip of the iceberg. So although personalization may not be impacting search engine optimization to a great extent today, it will definitely do so in the future. What does that do for the SEO industry that has sprung up in the past decade?

I think the SEOs that adapt well to change and are optimizing for users are going to be in relatively good shape, because they’re already trying to produce sites that are really pleasing and helpful to users. It’s definitely the case that if all you care about is an algorithm, then the situation grows more complicated for you with personalization. But it’s also an opportunity for people to take a fresh look at how they do SEO.

So I’ll give you a quick example: we always say, don’t just chase after a trophy phrase. There are so many people who think if I ranked number one for my trophy phase I win or my life will be good. When, in fact, numerous people demonstrated that if you chase after the long tail and make a good site that can match many, many different users’ queries you might end up with more traffic than if you had that trophy phrase. So already the smart SEO, looking down the road, sees that it’s not just the head of the tail, it’s the long part of the tail.

With personalization and the changes in how SEO will work, that will just push people further along that spectrum, towards looking at “it’s not just a number one result for one query”, it’s “How do we make it across a lot of queries?. What value do I deliver? Am I looking at my server logs to find queries that I should be targeting? And not just search engines, how do I target different parts of the search engine? Like the Local part of Google, the Maps part of Google. How do I target Google notebook and the other properties and how do I show up well across the entire portfolio of search properties?” And that’s a healthy transition period that will push people towards delivering better value for their users and that’s better for everybody.

The problem with long tail optimization is the amount of time required to manage it. Even with a monolithic set of search results, optimizing for the long tail often doesn’t produce a return that justifies the initial investment required. And it’s here that a fundamental shift in thinking is required for when it comes to search. The problem is that most search marketers think in terms of granularity, of phrase by phrase management. When we say goodbye to a monolithic set of search results, we also say goodbye to the ability to manage search presence on a phrase by phrase basis. As Matt says, you have to start focusing on the user. Right now the basis of most search marketing campaigns is a list of key phrases. We don’t really pay any attention to the people who may be using those phrases, because we can focus on the phrase itself.

But what Matt is talking about would be impossible to manage on a phrase by phrase basis. How do you apply a list of key phrases to Google Maps, or Google Local? How do you anticipate any query any user might use, while interacting with any property? The answer is, you can’t. What you can do, however, is gain a true understanding of user intent and user behavior for a given user. Then, if you craft an on-site experience that matches that intent, by providing the right content and the right experience, all you can hope is that the vocabulary you chose to use when developing your content matches the vocabulary the user uses when they’re trying to find that content. Then, you open up that content to Google and hope that Google’s algorithms, in their infinite wisdom and their mathematical precision, matches you with the right person at the right time. Accept the fact that with personalization, you have no control over that matching process anymore (not that we ever did, but at least we had a consistent testing ground). It’s marketing based much more on understanding and intuition than it is on absolute, word by word control.

But even if SEO’s and SEM’s change our thinking to “get it,” how do we get our clients to get it? Sometimes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Many of our clients have worked with SEO’s in the past or done their own SEO and may still harbor expectations of ranking number one in a monolithic search results set. And despite our best efforts to educate them otherwise, they seem intent on hanging on to that expectation. Matt’s suggestion:

Sometimes I think you might have to do a demonstration like find them into personalized search, do a query, sign them out, do query and show them, these are very different sets of results. And sometimes the demonstration can be very visceral, you know, it can drive home the point that it’s not just going to be this one trophy phrase. People are going to have to think and look at the entire horizon of the space.

Another interesting point that came up in the conversation was when Matt talked about Google’s evolution towards becoming a property, or series of properties, that people engage in more often, rather than a tool that is only used as needed. I commented that this sounds very similar to the Microsoft and Yahoo philosophy. When you’ve been as successful in search as Google has, how closely should you emulate your competition’s strategy?

I think one nice thing is that Google adapts very well to what users want, and also the industry marketplace. And so when our primary competition was a pure search engine, whether it be AltaVista or AlltheWeb or HotBot or Inktomi, then pure search mattered very much. Search is still a part of everything we do. It’s at the core of all the information that we organize and yet competing against sites like Yahoo Inc. okay and Microsoft involve a different set of strategies than competing against just a search engine for example. So I think competition is very good for users, because it makes all of us work hard and it keeps us on our toes. The one strength or Google ads is that we do adapt and we look at the marketplace and we said a what do we need to deliver next for our users to help them out and to encourage them to be more loyal to Google.

As a last word, I thought I’d ask Matt about the “is SEO rocket science?” debate that just won’t die. After he finished laughing, Matt offered this comment in the context of personalization:

I think there still is a place for a pure SEO consultant but it’s also true that over time those consultants have to keep adding to their skill set. A few years ago no one would have even thought about the word Ajax and now people have to think about Ajax or Flash and how do I handle some of these new interfaces to still make sites crawlable? So I definitely think there will still be places for consulting and improving crawlability of sites and advice on keywords. Personalization will add some wrinkles to that, but I have faith that, over time will see the benefit to users and if you make good site for your users, you will naturally benefit as a result. Some people spend a lot of time looking at data centers and data center IP addresses and if people want to have that as a hobby they’re welcome to it, but a lot of people don’t do that anymore and they’re just worried about making good results and yet, everything still comes out pretty well for them.

So, to sum up, it seems that change is inevitable. Nothing about the interview changed my mind about the future of SEO. It just confirmed the things that I’ve been saying in various places for some time now. There is an opportunity to move beyond the black box tactics that has typified our industry for the last decade and truly become experts in understanding how people search for and connect online with products and services that they’re interested in. But the rate of change that’s going to be required to stay on top of this is not insignificant. Personally, this is something that’s interested me for the past four to five years and I have continually been trying to push more search marketers to look at people, not tactics. It’s been a tough go, frankly. Research and behavioral panels have made some inroads that the industry shows, like Search Engine Strategies. But if you look at the type of thinking required to succeed in the world of personalized search, there are very few sessions at any of the industry shows that help give us the skills that are required. Perhaps Google’s move towards personalization will push us all forward faster.

The full transcript of my conversation with Matt Cutts is available on my blog.

Gord Hotchkiss is CEO of Enquiro, a search marketing firm that produces search engine user eye tracking studies and other research. The Just Behave column appears Fridays at Search Engine Land.

Contributing authors are invited to create content for Search Engine Land and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the search community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

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Gord Hotchkiss

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