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The Problem With Personalized Search: SEO Ranking Reports Are Dead!

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • The problem with Google's personalized search
  • Three ways to reach online customers despite personalized search

OK, search engine optimization ranking reports are not dead... but
Google's personalized search is making agency ranking reports less and less relevant.

Many agency clients in emerging SEO (search engine optimization) and SEM (search engine marketing) markets, such as ours (central Pennsylvania), may still be chasing the wrong metrics and using them to measure agency success. Why? Because those clients have been trained to look at unique website visits and at keyword rankings.

The Problem

Google wants to rank site content based on a person's search behaviors, preferences, etc.

Because I have frequently engaged with and its associated social profiles, especially—I suspect—its Google+ profile, the site ranks higher for my personalized search results than it would for nonpersonalized results.

So, how likely is it that a client's site will rank well for a search in the client's market, where the searcher has made repeat visits to or purchases from the client's competition (i.e., has been repeatedly engaged with that competitor)?

If the searcher is engaged with the competition, the relationship is working for the searcher and the website. Google prefers to repeat processes that have proven successful.

What does that mean for a client? When you give a client a ranking report, the report shows where the client would show up in Google if personalization weren't in effect. But that's no longer a viable scenario.

The following image is of a search for the same term, but not personalized: is no longer in position 3, and the ranking results report would tell the client its website is ranking in position 25; in fact, it may rank higher for some and not at all for others.

On the flip side, will have a ranking report showing its site ranking in position 3 for "online marketing company," but in my personalized results that is not where it shows up.

In short, ranking reports are misleading.

Personalization is now forced on users of Google and Bing if they are not logged in. When logged in, you have the option to turn personalization off—if you are aware of the possibility, and have an idea where to turn it off. (See the two paired gray buttons in the upper-right-hand corner of the screenshot? The globe icon means "un-personalized" and the person icon means "personalized").

Therefore, a ranking report is now an indicator of relevance, not a metric for judging the average click-through rate of a listing in position X or to determine what your traffic should be.

The Solution

How do you reach searchers in your market if Google is changing the way the online search game is played? The answer is... engagement—via social and website content, and via advertising.

Social Engagement

Google continues to incorporate social signals into its ranking algorithm. But how will that play into search ranking? If your competitors engage with their market via social campaigns and initiatives, and you don't, you'll be missing out on the added ranking factors that place your site in front of searchers.

Content Publishing and Marketing

More better-quality content equals more links. Why? Because content that people enjoy and find value in is content they want to share, bookmark, and come back to again and again. More links and shares equals greater page and domain authority. Greater page and domain authority equals higher ranks in search (which is now just about relevance).

Once you have published content ("built it"), you cannot assume that visitors will just arrive ("they will come"). You must have a content marketing plan and a content creation plan. Consistently providing quality content will build credibility, brand awareness, and trust.

If you create conversion goals for content pages designed to generate leads, and market that content well, you have the potential to get in front of the consumer while she is in a research phase. Content served in search results for informational queries would be informational, not transactional. Therefore, the ranking factors Google will use to serve informational content would be based on user engagement—time on site, bounce rate, and pages per visit for people who begin on that page—as opposed to e-commerce conversions.

Note: Even though ranking reports are now inaccurate like much of the data SEOs use, Google's Webmaster Tools provides your top 1000 queries each month, on a rolling 30-day period, and their average rank in search over that time. You cannot get data prior to the 30 days Google shows you, so you should download your WMT data every 30 days for your records.

Advertising: Search and Content Networks

You should be advertising online. Your ads should include a value proposition and a call to action that leads to a landing page on your site. That page should reiterate the value proposition and call to action, and it should be optimized for conversion and user experience.

If users get to your page via an ad and convert, you are demonstrating to Google that you are actively improving and care about user experience (UX), and Google will factor that into its ranking algorithm.

I don't know the formula, but if your company converts X number of users for product A, for example, and your competitor converts X or less for comparable product B, then Google could potentially consider your site a viable and relevant option to serve to a consumer who has purchased from your competitor. Google might do that because searchers may have a better experience with your site, and, possibly, your product because more people seem to be buying the comparable product from your site.

OK, but search takes up only 4% of time spent online. So how do you get in front of consumers in your market when they aren't using search? Follow customers around and serve them banner ads on a CPM (cost-per-thousand-impressions) basis to keep your brand and value proposition in front of them. Send a newsletter, or use email marketing. Use conventional offline marketing media to direct customers to your site and social profiles.

Continue to engage them in all areas, and, over time, you will naturally improve traffic and conversions on your site—no matter where you rank in search results.

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Lorianna Sprague is a search engine optimization (SEO) specialist at Web Talent Marketing, a growing online marketing company in central Pennsylvania that serves medium-to-large companies nationwide.

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  • by Lisa Sat May 19, 2012 via web

    Thanks for writing this very informative article. However, I am a little confused about one point you made:

    "Personalization is now forced on users of Google and Bing if they are not logged in."

    According to Google:
    "When signed in, you can receive personalized results and recommendations based on your web activity."

    I verified this myself. If I am logged out of Google, I don't get personalized results; if logged in I do (unless I choose not to).

    So am I missing something here? Of course this nuance in no way negates any of the other great points you made. :-)

  • by Jimmy Moscoso Sun May 20, 2012 via iphone

    Laura you are correct, personalized search results works only when the user is logged in (with Google that is). To turn it off they must follow a couple of steps through the settings menu. Also one can turn to general results while logged in on a search-per-search-basis if the user wishes to keep the personalized search results option on at all times. Great article overall!

  • by Anna Sun May 20, 2012 via iphone

    So how should agencies adjust their reporting since clients will demand them?

  • by Amber Sun May 20, 2012 via web

    To Lisa and Jimmy, Google personalises and tailors search results whether you are logged in or not, it uses your cache to see where you have been before and it also builds on previous search queries. Eg, if I search for 'builders', the 'lifestyle'; 'builders' query still appears in the string. People on their own computers searching in the same room are more and more seeing different results. Logged in, the personlisation is even more comprehensive using social media accounts etc... Reporting on rankings needs to include information about how and why they aren't overly accurate or relevant, but they really should be a fairly small part of a broader set of reporting metrics.

  • by Vahe, MarketingProfs Mon May 21, 2012 via web

    Thanks, Amber, for pointing out that personalization occurs even when a user is not logged in. Lisa, perhaps that sentence would have been clearer if the word "even" were included, as follows: "Personalization is now forced on users of Google and Bing even if they are not logged in." Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

  • by Lorianna Sprague Mon May 21, 2012 via web

    Hi Lisa -

    There are two kinds of Personalization that Google serves its users, the second kind would be called "localization". They are still changing results based on something about you. Also, in SXSW in the session with Matt Cutts where he discussed the "over aggressive SEO penalty", both he and the guy from Bing said that search results are personalized by default for all users whether signed in or not. Perhaps this was incorrect information on their parts? I will have to look into this a little more and see if they meant something else.

  • by Lorianna Sprague Mon May 21, 2012 via web

    Thanks Jimmy!

  • by Lorianna Sprague Mon May 21, 2012 via web

    Hi Anna, one of the biggest changes to make is client education - you have to treat your clients as intelligent partners in the SEO process. By informing them about what is happening in search, and allowing them to feel like they are a part of what is happening, they are more likely to respond to the following changes with an open mind:
    -change your KPIs from rank and unique visits to landing pages (mapping to the keywords you are using for link building and content) - # visits, # referring domains (good link building brings ppl from other domains), engagement (bounce, time on site, pageviews, etc.), and goal conversions (ecommerce or otherwise)

  • by Lorianna Sprague Mon May 21, 2012 via web

    Hey Amber, thanks for adding the cache info. I think something that people are not doing is tying cache and localization into the "persoanlization" they are seeing from Google+ annotations, which is simply Search +Your World. Google began personalizing search in 2005, and rolled out personalization for logged-out users in 2009.

  • by Aaron Mon May 21, 2012 via web

    Good article Lorianna. I agree completely that SERPs are far less relevant than they once were. Now you have to ask "Page One for WHO?" But as others have noted, even if you are not logged into Google (and we mean ANY Google property, not just G+) results are still different.

    But the issue is even bigger if you look back over the last year or so of changes that Google has made. If you are interested, I am giving a free webinar on this exact topic on Wednesday the 21st. Register here:

  • by Lorianna Sprague Mon May 21, 2012 via web

    Thanks Aaron! I will certainly check out the webinar!

  • by Lorianna Sprague Mon May 21, 2012 via web

    Also, I think a big change happening now with Siri, S Voice, and Google's possible "Majel", the move from making a site work in Google, to making a company visible in multiple databases is so much more important. SEO has changed from "How to Game Google" to Website Engineering/Best Practices from development/platform, design, to CRO, content and marketing/branding. The SEO agency now needs to grow up into handling a brand's identity and presence on the web.

  • by Aaron Mon May 21, 2012 via web

    Thanks Lorianna, It will be interesting to see what will become of the traditional old-line SEO agencies. My sense is that many of them already transformed themselves into more social/digital agencies, but the staple SEO rankings component clearly has shifted dramatically. There is no doubt that content marketing--telling a good story across as many channels as possible--has taken on increasing importance!

  • by Derek M. Mon May 21, 2012 via web

    I've found that signing of my Google account and changing the default location assigned in the left column of your search screen (from where Google detects your IP) to the generic United States location seems to work well for unbiased results.

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