In the days of yore, SEO was a very different creature compared to what it is today—part panda, part penguin, part hummingbird, and let’s face it, part human. With each evolutionary development, search marketers find themselves scrambling to keep up.
Keeping up with these changes can sometimes feel like walking into a crime scene. You see the outcome immediately, but the cause is hardly ever staring you straight in the face. You first have to dig for clues (data). Then you have to try to piece them together (analysis), come up with a theory, and find the evidence to back it up (test).
One particular development that’s been causing a stir lately is personalized search. Much to most users’ delight, search engines like Google and Bing are increasingly serving up more personalized results pages than ever before.
We see personalization in a variety of ways, including the search results, query Autocomplete, and People Also Ask, which Google is testing right now. The query suggestions and results we see are not just based on what’s popular or trending; they’re also heavily influenced by our personal search history, social behavior, likes, and location. What that means is that no two people are going to have the same search experience for the same query.
To demonstrate this, I typed in the following query as myself (logged in to Google, with my history and cache preserved) and as someone who is not me, using Private Search in Firefox. You can also use Chrome incognito. Here’s what we see:
Personalized Google Autocomplete:
Private Google Autocomplete:
My personalized suggestions are more robust, based on what Google knows about me based on my search history—that I like cats, clothing, and entertainment. What’s interesting to note is that both types of searches yield “Catalina” related suggestions. That’s most likely because I happen to live in Los Angeles, and regardless of whether or not I’m searching as myself or in private, Google still knows what my IP address is.
Using a different query this time (“swimsuits”), let’s look at the SERPs. The differences are slight, but they’re there. The top seven organic results are the same, but they appear in different order, thus proving that personalization can affect page rank:
Again in this example, it’s apparent that my personal search history is affecting the SERPs. While I might not actually ‘shop’ at Nordstrom.com (too pricey for me), I do browse their site quite a bit. This could explain why Nordstrom beats out Kohl’s for the #2 spot in my personalized search.
If you try this out yourself, you may find the differences quite subtle, but that may change very soon as Google continues to push more towards a more personalized, unique search experience. In fact, Matt Cutts recently suggested that perhaps “SEO” should stand for Search ‘Experience’ Optimization because search has become so much more than it was before—it’s all about what resonates with the individual—it responds to users on a more intimate level.
So this is all great news for consumers searching online, but what does it mean for brands that want to ensure their pages are still ranking? Good question. With personalized search becoming the trend, brands should be more concerned with ‘who’ they’re ranking for rather than ‘how high’ they’re ranking. If your page is ranking #1 for the wrong audience, what good does that do you?
Here are a few pro tips for navigating personalized search:
- Get to Know Your Audience – Brands should focus their time and effort on getting to know their target audience, determining that target audience’s wants and needs, understanding how they search, and discovering what they respond to. Armed with the right information, brands can focus on crafting an SEO strategy that’s aimed at reaching the right people, in the right place, at the right time.
- Link Content with Strategy – A big part of that strategy should focus around content—on page, video, images, meta data, and so on. Every piece of content should be written with specific users in mind, which means it should speak their language, sympathize with their needs, and offer credible, tangible solutions. The desired results for implementing a strategy like this would not only be a favorable page rank, but more importantly, increased click-through and conversion rates.
With personalized search becoming the SEO trend to follow, search marketers will find themselves relying less on page rank to measure SEO success and instead transitioning toward a more holistic approach to analytics. If I may be so bold as to take Mr. Cutts’ notion a step further, when determining how effective your Search Experience Optimization is, don’t think so much in terms of page rank, but rather, brand authority.
How Google measures brand authority may always be a bit of a mystery, but what we do know is that, since its last Quality Rating Guide was released in the summer of 2014, Google is making an undeniable shift towards using brand-related metrics—expertise, authority, and trustworthiness—to determine which pages get the most visibility in the search results.
Staying connected and engaged with your existing and target customers will not only improve your online presence; it will also strengthen brand awareness as a whole. SEO aside, brand building should always be top-of-mind in any marketing strategy; whether it’s online or offline – that’s just Marketing 101. In the old days of SEO, this basic rule of thumb fell by the wayside. But the truth is, personalized search demands that we start thinking like traditional marketers again. This way, no matter what updates Google throws our way in the future, we can protect our brands, pages, and websites by ensuring we always have a solid connection with our audience.
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