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Friday, February 3, 2023

Google Ramps Up Personalized Search

Google is stepping up the push into personalized search results. A new change
announced today should cause many more people to take up the service. In
turn, the growth of personalized search should have a dramatic impact on search
marketers as the days of “same results, all around” eventually come to an end.
For searchers, the change means needing to be more careful about when you
sign-up to use a Google service, if
you’re concerned about having your search history recorded. More about both
issues, in the story below.

NOTE: See Google Now Personalizes Everyone’s Search Results for how Google has extended this service to all Google searchers in December 2009, regardless if they’re logged in or not.

Starting today, anyone who signs-up for any Google service using a
Google Account (such as Gmail,
AdSense, Google Analytics among others) will automatically be enrolled into
three additional Google products:

You can override the decision to have Search History enabled, but honestly,
you’ll need sharp eyes. I completely missed that this was added as a default
choice to the new
account sign-up page
.
In fact, I missed it twice, as I tested the system by making two different
accounts.

Look under the “Re-enter password” box on the Google Accounts
sign-up page. You’ll see another box that says:

Creating a Google Account will enable Search History. Search History is a
feature that will provide you with a more personalized experience on Google that
includes more relevant search results and recommendations.

Learn More

I suspect many people will blow right past this box and never even see this
is enabled. I’d prefer if Google called more attention to the section, perhaps
with highlighting, if it’s going to be checked by default.

The attention is needed because the Search History feature stores sensitive, private
information. I’ll cover this more below. But Google does at least provide some
additional warnings that it is on. When someone first searches with it enabled,
they get a highlighted message like this:

personalized googleAnd clicking on that message (or the Search History link at the top of the page for
the first time) brings up a special explanation page, which covers
topics such as pausing search history:

Search History Notice

By the way, for those with existing Google Accounts, Search History still has
to be manually enabled by visiting
this page
. As for personalized search, that’s now enabled for all accounts
new or not, regardless of whether you have Search History running, as I’ll
explain more further below. And all accounts, new or not, automatically have
personalized home pages.

Search History

Let’s look more closely at Search History, which as I said is the most sensitive of the three
products new accounts get. Search History is a feature

introduced
back in April 2005 that keeps track of every search you’ve made
and page you’ve clicked on from Google search results.

You can see how the system is keeping track of web searches I do, as well as
image, news and Froogle shopping searches, sponsored links I click on and more
(music is for when you get special
music
results
like
this
which leads to

this
).

In the wake of last year’s search history

leak from AOL
, more and more people are becoming sensitive to what Google in
particular and search engines in general record. They may not want search
information stored. But now, Google’s doing it automatically if they enroll in any
Google service, unless they specifically opt-out.

There are some good reasons why this is happening, as Google will explain
further below. But that won’t negate some of the concerns. The good news is that
it is easy to opt-out of the Search History service, if you don’t want to use it. Here’s how.

If you’re signed into a Google service and do a search, at the top of the
search results page above the results count line, you’ll see some links.

One of these links will be “Search History.” Select that. Next, you’ll get to your own Search History page similar to what I showed above. Look over at the
right hand side. You’ll see a Search History section with a bunch of boxes.

Look for the the “Pause” link near the bottom. Click that. Now a big yellow box like
this should show in the middle of your Search History page.

The box says::

Your search history has been paused.
This service will not collect any history until you choose to resume.
Resume.
Learn more.

Do this, and Search History will be disabled until you choose to switch it
back on. It will stay that way even if you log out and then back in.

You have other options. See that “Settings” link below Pause? Click that, and
you can individually choose which services to pause recording with. OK
with a web search history but not with images? You can do that.

Below the Settings link is a “Remove Items” link. Chose that, and you’ll see
options at the top of the page. Those allow you to clear out all items listed on a page or your entire search
history, if you want. Alternatively, you can tick items individually to wipe
them out. The help pages have more

information
.

Be aware that while deleting wipes out material from your search
history (and keeps it from being used in personalized search), Google
says the
records are still
kept in some form. That’s something I’d like to see changed. Delete should wipe the
material out entirely. I asked Google about this, why delete doesn’t completely
delete, and got this answer:

As is standard in the industry, we use aggregate user data to analyze
usage patterns and diagnose problems with our system, as well as to improve our
services to users. This aggregate information is not associated with a user’s
Google Account. As reflected in our privacy policy, we maintain this data for as
long as it is useful for those purposes.

[Postscript: Google later told me that the some form referenced above meant server logs, which are now being anonymized. See Google Anonymizing Search Records To Protect Privacy for more on that.]

If Search History completely freaks you out, there’s the nuclear
option.
This help
page talks about the
Delete
Search History
option. Choose this, and you can remove the
Search History feature entirely from your account. Note that this will also wipe out
some of the usefulness of Google Personalized
Search, which I’ll come to next.

Finally, a reminder. You can export your search history and take it with you,
if you like. There’s a feed option that should allow this, though I haven’t
tested it myself. More information about it is

here
from the help pages.

Google Personalized Search Results

Your search history records are big part of powering the second service I
mentioned from Google, Google Personalized Search. I like the service a lot. The
current version rolled out in June 2005, and I’ve found it often improves my
results in subtle ways.

From talking with Google — and from my own experiences — personalized
search reshapes your results primarily by noting the types of sites you select
from the search results. That allows Google to look at those sites and then give
them a boost in the rankings, especially if you visit them often. In addition,
Google can determine sites and pages that seem related to those you are already
visiting, in order to give them a boost.

Beyond your search history, Google also looks at the content on your Google
Personalized Homepage – what gadgets you have there, feeds you are reading and
so on — in order to shape your personalized search results. This is a new
signal they’ve just started to use. Another new signal is
Google Bookmarks. Pages you save
in these also influence the results. In case you’re wondering, your email in
Gmail does NOT have an impact, as Google explains

here
.

To get personalized search in the past, you generally had to sign-up for the
service specifically. Now everyone gets it. You even get it if you disable
Search History. “We’ll just have less to work with in terms of making your
results better,” said Sep Kamvar, engineering lead for personalization at
Google.

That “less” are the other signals I mentioned: content on your personalized
homepage and any Google Bookmarks that you’ve saved. The advantage to this is
that these still offer a way to get more tailored results if you’re
uncomfortable storing your search history.

Many people won’t mind building up a search history. That’s good, because it
makes personalized search much better. Here’s an example:

377936297_b73415e8a0_o

Above I’ve shown regular results on the left, personalized ones on the right.
These are both from a search on
search engine
marketing
. The arrows show how two sites I often go to,
ClickZ and
SEMPO
, move up in the rankings. You can also see how another site I’m often
at, Search Engine Guide, jumps into
the top results (it was on the second page or regular results).

My search history makes all this happen. As I said, it’s subtle, not massive.
Many queries aren’t changed at all, Google said. For those that are, there are
generally slight shifts in the rankings.

“What
we’ve been doing before is taking two or three results that were suited to your
tastes and injecting them. That’s unchanged,” said Marissa Mayer, vice president
of search and user experience at Google.

I
always joke that personalized search is also a good ego search reinforcer. People tend to go to their own
sites often. That helps make your own site rank better in the results. This
would happen to me with Google Personalized Search, and I’d get excited. Then I’d see the “Personalized Search”
message and wonder if I’d still be there in regular results when I switched the
results off.

This brings me to the search marketing aspect. It used to be only
some searchers got personalized results at Google. Now everyone who is signed in
to a Google service is going to get them, as I explained above.

This means the days of everyone seeing the same results for any particular
query are growing more numbered. What’s number one for one person might be
number three for another and not even show up in the top ten for yet another.
The SEO “fronts” as I’ve
called them
in the past will grow:

In Eurekster’s system, only those within your search network can directly
influence you. This effectively creates hundreds, thousands and even millions
of different possible results for the same search.

Click spammers suddenly face many different “fronts” in the war to be in
the top ten, and they only get to fight in that war by invitation — if
someone they know asks them to be part of their network. Eurekster assumes
“friends don’t spam friends,” and it’s a pretty safe assumption….

Will marketers find a way to spam personalized search? That remains to be
seen. History so far has shown that each improvement eventually gets less
effective. Heck, the
Google My
Search History Spam
from May shows how you can spam entries easily into
someone’s search history at Google. It’s still working. But while you can
leave entries, you aren’t generating clicks — and so you aren’t impacting the
personalized search results. I’m sure personalization will lose some spam
resistance over time, but there’s no doubt it will make spamming results much
harder.

I beat the drum about this coming years ago. Gord Hotchkiss recently started
a new conversation about it in his

The Future of SEO in a Personalized Search Interface
and

The SEO Debate Continues
posts. Nice and timely, because this change from
Google makes those multiple fronts much more a reality.

Don’t Fear The Personal Results!

The change is good news for searchers. It’s also good news for site owners with good
content, who should get rewarded by visits. That’s especially so if you try
these tips:

  • Titles & Descriptions are crucial: You need the clickthrough more than
    ever. Clickthroughs get your site as seen as possibly important to a
    particular person’s profile.
  • Get on the Google personalized homepages of searchers. That means
    offering them a feed or a
    gadget and
    encouraging take-up with an
    Add To Google buttons.
  • Put Google Bookmark buttons on your site, such as the one
    offered by AddThis.
    Getting bookmarked also helps you be seen as important.

By the way, you used to know if personalized results were happening if you
saw this message at the bottom saying to “Turn OFF Personalized Search (Beta).”

That “Turn OFF” link above the message let you switch off the results and see regular
ones. Now the link is gone, with only the “Personalized Results” message remaining
next to the match count number. If you see it,
Google has personalized your results. If you want to see regular results instead, you
have to log-out of the system.

I miss the Turn OFF link. I liked being able to toggle and see if Google was making
things better or worse with personalized search (I like it, but occasionally it
does push down sites I think should do better). Heck, I even wanted to see
personalized results flagged in some way, so you could easily spot what was
changed. How about it?

“We could badge those results. We’ve been hesitant to do that because of
confidence and quality concerns and also because they can be distracting. But
that’s an ongoing dialog,” Mayer said.

Kamvar also noted that I’m pretty unusual in wanting to go back-and-forth, which is true enough: “Most people
want the best results, and it doesn’t matter the signals we use to get the best
results.”

Google Personalized Homepage

The Google Personalized Homepage is the easiest of the three features to
understand. Everyone gets this when they open a Google Account now, something
that’s unchanged from before. To use yours, just look for the Personalized Home
link at the top right-hand side of the home page, after you sign in.

By the way, Mayer said that the personalized home page feature was the
fastest growing Google product in 2006. She couldn’t release the actual
percentage those using the service. She did say it’s less than the majority of
users but still a substantial number.

Why The Change?

Now that I’ve covered the features, I wanted to spin back with the reasons
behind the move. We already got a hint of this in Google’s earnings call this
week. Personalization was touched on many times, probably most extensively by
Google cofounder Larry Page, who
talked about trying
to increase it:

We’re very excited about personalization. Actually, in my comments, I
mentioned personalized homepages and so on and use of gadgets there, which we
have been really excited about our growth in those areas and the usage of those
products and how excited users are about them.

I think we have a ways to go in really promoting those features. We’re
starting to really get very healthy usage. But it’s not that obvious to me when
I go to Google how to get to those things, and so I think we’ve got a lot more
growth in store. Also the quality improvements we get with personalized search
are also quite significant, and we’re very excited about that, and then that
driving more search and more monetization and so on. So I think overall, I think
we’re very excited about personalization. We’ve had a lot of significant
traction in terms of users and we have a lot more opportunity in terms of
promoting that very useful functionality to our huge base of users.

Unfortunately, one problem Google was having with personalization was helping
people know what they could personalize.

“People would come from Gmail but wonder if they had a personalized homepage.
They did, but only if they put stuff on it,” said Mayer. “There were too many
questions. The
decision tree was too complicated.”

Indeed, one funny story she passed along was that of Google CEO Eric Schmidt
wondering if he had personalized search enabled. After it was explained to him
all the steps to ensure he was signed up, “He just blinked his eyes and shook
his head,” Mayer said.

With the new change, Google hopes personalized take up — especially that of
personalized search — will grow. That’s
important, because personalized search is seen as a key way to improve search
quality.

Google’s also hoping that making these services active when you are signed into
any Google will also encourage growth. However, Gmail
poses a special situation. Many Gmail users often log-out after reading their
mail. That means with the new system rolled out today, they also get logged out
of their personalized homepage, personalized search results and search history. Mayer
said Google might consider making Gmail a special case where signing out there
doesn’t sign you out of Google Accounts systemwide.


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