It’s a stunning achievement that a bunch of computers – mostly across the Atlantic – can respond in a split second and take me to the “Washington memorial” from just two words. But I was searching for the war memorial in Washington Tyne and Wear – not the George Washington monument in Washington DC.
Web users pose search engines with Herculean tasks. With just two words we expect a relevant answer to "Jersey England", but is that the island or the garment? Why don’t we give search engines more clues? After all, they’re only machines!
The holy grail of search engines is to understand users’ intent and most solutions involve knowing more about the searcher. How else can they deliver effective results? Personalising users’ results isn’t new. But until now users balked at signing up for the service, so its impact has been small. In early February that all changed as Google plugged in personalisation for all users who sign up for an e-mail or alert or a Google account. You don’t have to take the personalised results – but now you have to opt out, not opt in.
How does this personalisation work and what are the implications for marketers? The key is the search history. Sign up for any Google account and you will see (look closely) an "Enable Search History" box, with a ticked box next to it. Leave this ticked and Google records all your search activity. When you next search, your results are influenced by results recorded in your history. Your search history tells Google more about what your intent might be – with clues about what might be truly relevant to you. So the results are not the same as for someone else making the same query.
Google says the degree of change in the results is relatively small, "Personalisation is subtle – at first you may not notice any difference. But over time, as the search engine learns your preferences, you’ll see it," says Google personalisation engineer, Sep Kamvar. What is clear, is that being "number one" now takes on a whole new meaning – there’s a significant advantage for the brand leader in search.
For other search engines, presenting relevant results without Google’s search history knowledge will be difficult. Personalisation creates a powerful barrier to entry for competitors and newcomers.
Google hasn’t released figures indicating how many will see personalised results yet, but the shift in emphasis at the beginning of February will bring many more into the fold. Personalisation is here to stay.
So are site rankings no longer important? It’s true that if you have a very strong offline brand with a poor search engine presence, personalisation could help loyal followers to find you. But to recruit new customers or reach a wider audience, your site will still need to be compatible with the search engines and you will still need to improve and refine your content. Otherwise, you will never appear in the users’ eyeline and receive the clicks that pull you higher in their personalised results.
Personalisation is a kick in the teeth for the so-called "Black Hat" search engine optimisers who exploit loopholes to push irrelevant sites higher up the rankings. It will also benefit geographical targeting which hasn’t been the greatest success. But if you’re looking at personal results, you’re more likely to see that war memorial in Tyne and Wear than the Washington Monument in the US.
It is key to offer content of value – nothing new – but this will become more critical than simply a good idea because some Web market consultant says so. For advertisers using the pay-per-click systems, their results will, for now, remain the same in response to the user’s search query – but that may change. Presently, the benefit to the advertiser is a more loyal Google user-base becoming even more dependent on Google search than before.
What strategies will be important for marketers going forward? You will want users to have every opportunity to click on your site within the natural search results. Focus on adding useful changing content such as news feeds, introducing forums and discussion areas, building your site into a knowledge centre – not a sales pitch – and ensuring content is on a consistent theme.
Bluntly, your competitive edge is offering sites that users find useful in their daily lives – clever tricks are the stuff of yesterday.
Andy Atkins-Krüger is managing director of Web Certain