Adapting SEO for Personalized Search

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If there’s one thing that’s made me borderline OCD (happy now Michael?) would be the world of personalized search. Probably more so, behavioural data, is an area (both explicit and implicit) that seems to be part of any likely evolution of search engines (and by extension SEO).

Now, I am not alone in this. The folks at Google have also been more than a little motivated as well. Or as Marissa Mayer said a while back, “(…) what we really want to do is search it as each individual user sees the web”. I mean, think of that for a moment. A granular level that is truly personalized. If what moves up in the SERPs is the pages and related types of pages, that you like. Through interactions, direct and indirect, results are re-ranked. Would spammers click and favourite their own sites all day for the lonely glory of only seeing it rank on their own particular computer? Fun, but not profitable.

Are we there yet? Not really. From what I understand and believe, it is still more of a user categorization than a truly granular implementation. But it is coming IMO and it’s worth looking at.

Personalization data

While there is no end to what can be tracked by a search engine, this particular Google patent (awarded last week) offers up the following;

Scalable user clustering based on set similarity (also interesting is; Personalized search methods)

Types of data that may be tracked –

  • demographic data
  • psychographic data
  • personal interest data
  • personal activity data

And what exactly are those? It is interesting to break them down. It gives you a better idea the types of things that Google (or any search engine really) might be tracking to perform personalizations

Demographic data includes;

  • age
  • gender
  • geographic location,country of origin,
  • country, city, state, zip code,
  • income level
  • height, weight, race, creed,
  • religion
  • sexual orientation
  • political orientation
  • education level
  • criminal history
  • health.

Psychographic data is any data about;

  • attitudes
  • values
  • lifestyles
  • opinions derived from demographic data

Personal interest data includes items such as interests,

  • hobbies
  • sports
  • profession or employment
  • areas of skill
  • areas of expert opinion
  • areas of deficiency
  • political orientation
  • habits.

Personal activity data includes data about;

  • past actions of the user
  • such as reading habits
  • viewing habits
  • searching habits
  • previous articles displayed or selected
  • previous search requests entered
  • previous or current site visits
  • previous key terms utilized within previous search requests,
  • time or date of any previous activity.

This gives us some insight into how the search engine might try to better understand the user in hopes of better categorizing them. I say that because in most implementations so far they do, as stated previously, look to categorize searchers for personalization. If you fit into a given profile, then grouping those interactions can make for better results and re-ranking mechanisms.

By extension we can see the implications of the social graph to this process as well. That though, is another discussion altogether.

Is there a need for SEOs to be concerned?

This of course is the core question one needs to ask at this point and the answer is two fold. Yes… and No. HA! Take that!. Ok, but seriously, the last round of personalized search research we did here on it seems to suggest that a lot of the personalization, in relatively new query spaces, are not that personalized. Before the user has actually been identified in the Art of Personalized Searchan area, there is less of a chance of the standard results being heavily modified (that may have changed as Psearch for all has propagated). To that end, I wouldn’t be overly concerned (think of more generalized ecommerce areas as opposed to a specialist informational site).

On the other hand, we can also make the leap that personalization will only get deeper and having strong grasp of your demographic and encouraging engagement will be paramount. I would suspect that this is more important for some query spaces over others as inferred above.

At the end of the day, there will ultimately be a premium on truly making the most from a user experience perspective.

A potential framework of SEO for Psearch

The next thing we need to consider is what adaptations would one make to best position themselves to get the most from personalized search implications? This is a tough one and we don’t want to put the cart before the horse while maintaining our need to future proof our SEO.

  • Demographics – know your market
  • Relevance Profile – build strong themes
  • Keyword Targeting/Phrase Strategies – tighten up
  • Quality Content – DUH
  • Search Result Conversion – work the meta data
  • Freshness – if your market demo requires it
  • Print Page/bookmark me/social – seriously, can’t hurt.
  • Site Usability – keep it user friendly.
  • Analytics – start to measure users more (SEO not just conversions)


To quote myself, not because I am lazy, but it seems to capture it, (ok, maybe just a little lazy);

If you are already knee deep in Content Strategy, incorporating Social and otherwise maxing out engagement levels, I can’t see that you have much to be concerned about. Using implicit data gives greater insight into user satisfaction (on paper at least) and those already moving in this direction should be fine. If your still pushing borderline MFA sites and link spamming for love; it may be time to reconsider the approach.

There is every chance that your SEO strategies may not need a complete over-haul.. just some conscious efforts to expand what you’re already doing.

What else should you be doing?

Work on engagement strategies – it seems that we would also want to not only work on getting the right users to the site, but also engaging them once they’re there. This can include implicit actions (scrolling, page depth, click data, dwell time etc..) or explicit (adding to favs, emailing, social voting/sharing etc…).

Universal elements – another interesting aspect of personalization is in the universal SERPs. As some secondary anecdotal evidence has suggested, there is also an element of personalization taking place in the when and where of universal elements in the SERPs, (local, shopping, video, news etc..). This also does seem to indicate the being more intimate with your query space and demographic will be important in a granular Psearch world. Know what they like and give it to them.

Don’t forget Android – we might also want to start paying a little more attention to elements outside of the standard web search. In particular the world of Google Android which is powering not only the mobile world, but Google TV as well. This means a larger behavioural data set and new ways to engage users.

Qualitative Research in SEO – given the premium on better understanding your target market, it may also be advantageous to do some qualitative research into the target group(s) that you may be after. Find ways to better understand your demographic and mould your content programs accordingly. (learn more about that here).

Don’t discount PPC efficacy – another twist we might throw into the mix is that users actions with PPC adverts could also be a factor. To that end one would want to ensure good engagement with any ads being run as it may just affect which user types are shown


the Caffeine Connection

And one last thing before we go; deeper personalization would require more power. Or at least that has been my belief for many years. With the prospect of getting more power, more specifically through the recent Caffeine infrastructure update, we may be one step closer any of this really being of importance to us. One can’t help but look at this, coupled with the interest in the social graph, to see that this is now, more than ever, an area SEOs should be seriously considering.

How deep and how much personalization is having will be something that requires more research. For now it may be prudent to start programming with the concepts in mind where they over-lap good webmastering, marketing and optimization techniques already in play. Future proofing your SEO is part of the art. Learn it well.

/end time travel experiment



I would be remiss if I didn’t leave the adventurous with a whack of extended studies;

On the Trail;

Marie Claire-Jenkins recently posted; 10 research papers on Personalized Search


From Google


Google Patents –

Microsoft Patents –


Yahoo Patents –

David Harry
David Harry is an SEO and IR geek that runs Reliable SEO, blogs on the Fire Horse Trail and is the head geek at the SEO Training Dojo.
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  • mvandemar

    I am surprised that the privacy white knights out there haven't already started on a rampage about the levels that Google wants to take this. Google is going to require storing what amounts to your psych profile in order to pull this off. Think about that… they are going to know that you are OCD David… Google will *know* it.

    Personally I think Google needs to work on improving relevancy and quality first, since in many cases that appears to be suffering, before they start adding in elements that require more processing power… especially if their past efforts are any indication of what personalization means. I don't think that the results that I have seen that were based on my previous searches, for instance, were any more relevant to my interests… just different than non-personalized ones. It would be interesting to see some sort of actual user poll from a large pool of non-seo/non-search/non-webmaster users, who were allowed to see personalize searches side by side with non-personalized ones, without knowing which was which, and what their take on the “improvement” of them was.

  • theGypsy

    Hiya Michael, thought I had to at least share the OCD humour hehe… good to see ya.

    Anyway, I have no idea man. I've been writing many tin-foil laden posts about the problems with a lot of the behvioural stuff for years now. Doesn't seem to resonate. My fav patent of all time for this is by microsoft which uses bloody biometric signals (skin temp, heart rate yada yada) from a component such as the web cam etc…. Thought they should name that one HAL, “I'm sorry Dave, I sense you aren not pleased with these search results”

    As for improving, I am also a fella that believes they should be doing more with the semantic analysis elements, something I wrote about here last month. Personalization (user feedback in general) can be a useful tool. And it's not (from what we know now) as prominent at changing results wholesale nor having much personalization at all when you're in a new query space or performing tasks that you haven't a lot in the previous given time period (180 days etc…). I know that they do use focus groups and gather real world qualitative data. It would be interesting to see THAT data… hehe…

    The privacy stuff is always the most concerning, or as I like to say, 'behavioural targeting is one small step from behavioural modification'. The Google TV patents are equally interesting considering they look at shows watched, times of day… what commercials U watch partiall, fully or not at all. On and on. Running on Android. So from your computer to yer phone to yer TV… massive profiling capabilities. Interesting few have connected the dots to such an invasive system…

  • alanbleiweiss

    It's sad really. Not only do I have to walk around wearing this butt-ugly tin foil hat, but now I have to wrap my TV in the shiny silvery crinkly stuff…

    As much as I love bailing out of things for my own privacy sake, the fact remains that if I am to truly provide the best services to clients, the evolution of personalized search can not be ignored…

    But Dave – psychographic data? now THAT calls for an extra 3 mil layer of foil! wow.

  • Jimmy Carter

    Well i read you article well i like your article of how you define the personalized search well their are some thing that i dont understand now but i think i will get grip of things with the experience

  • Madden 11

    I think you have good experience & thanks for sharing such kind of updates & it might be very helpful for SEO purpose.

  • Apartments Kiev

    Hi, I'm new here and found this blog via search for SEO articles. Wow, I think it is a great survey that must to be read.
    But as for personalized search I think there is not everything so clear and good. Providing Google with too much info about yourself will surely improve the search but on the the other hand it seems like someone (like Big brother) will always have an eye upon everyone. This scares a bit.