Search Engine Personalization – The Fallout
There has been a lot of discussion recently about search engine personalization, with search engines such as Yahoo! and Google experimenting with factoring in profile information to adjust search results based on relevance to a specific user rather than just giving the exact same results to every user who searches for the certain keywords.
As I see it there are two major areas of fallout related to search engine personalization. The first is quite obvious and has IMHO received more attention than is necessary, while the second seems to have been completely overlooked but could have far-reaching effects within the search engine optimization (SEO) industry.
The obvious problem that people seem to be concerned about is privacy, fearing that use of personalized profiles would mean search engine operators could track everything an individual does on the Internet.
That could actually be less of a problem than many people think. Depending on how the search engines set up their systems, it’s quite possible they could do it in an anonymous way. For example, they could set a ‘cookie’ in your browser that just contains an ID code, allowing you to complete a personal profile at the search engine site without entering any details that can identify you as an individual. All they would end up with is a profile that says something like “user 9et5C4o9Pyn likes 70’s rock, dislikes sport”. They don’t need to ask for your name, or email address, or anything else. All their system needs to know is that when you go to their search engine, they recognise you as user 9et5C4o9Pyn and therefore factor that profile into the search results in order to give you a more relevant answer to your search. In fact Google have a proof-of-concept system almost exactly like that already: to try it for yourself just go to labs.google.com/personalized.
There are downsides to the anonymous approach and no doubt the search engines *want* your personal details so they can market to you more effectively, but whether people are prepared to give them out is another matter. That’s an issue which no doubt will be debated very publicly in months to come.
However, there is a totally different side-effect of search engine personalization that is also very important but has been overlooked so far. That side effect is a total revamp or maybe even the potential death of the SEO industry.
SEO consultants are hired by companies to tune their website to get better search engine rankings. Typical activities involve re-wording pages to achieve better keyword prominance, adding pages dedicated to specific sub-topics, tweaking page titles and image ALT tags, and adjusting link text. It’s a game of second-guessing what rules the major search engines use to determine their rankings, and then tuning the site to match those rules so the site appears as high as possible in search results.
A major industry has grown up around theorizing about those rules, testing theories using dummy sites, using statistical software agents to measure rankings and ranking trends over time, predicting what the next big change will be and when, and always tweaking, tweaking, tweaking. Whole armies of people sit around in online forums discussing the relevant rankings of their clients’ websites, and what date the next Google PageRank calculation update might take place. These are smart, dedicated, and obsessive people who are totally focused on making sites rank as highly as possible in search engines by adjusting sites to suit the ranking algorithms of each search engine.
But what happens when search engines get personal? What happens when the results delivered to one person searching for “eagles” consists entirely of Glenn Frey fan pages, while another user doing the exact same search at the exact same time is given a list of Philadelphia Eagles NFL club fan sites?
Suddenly SEO consultants don’t have a reference platform to work from. Suddenly there’s no definitive SERP (Search Engine Results Page) for specific search terms. Discussions like “my site was ranking 15 for our keywords until yesterday, when it dropped to 27” have absolutely no meaning. Ranked 15 for whom? With what profile? Located in what geographic area?
Search engine personalization is all about empowing the user. It’s about search engines finally delivering what they have always tried to do: results that are relevant to the individual performing a search, given their specific psychological profile. Not results based on a global average.
I don’t seriously expect the SEO industry to collapse overnight because of this. No doubt the industry will come up with methods to capitalize on it instead, and will take another leap in professionalism that will leave the amateur page tweakers behind. Standard profiles will be developed for different user demographics, and SEO consultants will start using those when discussing relative rankings. Demographic and psychographic profiling will become standard tools of trade. Discussion will change to something like “my site was ranking 15 for our keywords with profile Boston/ITWorker until yesterday, when it dropped to 27”. And of course “Boston/ITWorker25” will mean they’re measuring with an industry-standard demographic profile called ITWorker25, testing from a Boston location since geographic location will be factored in as well.
So the job of an SEO consultant is about to become a whole lot more complex, but for end users the result is going to become a whole lot more useful.
Bottom line? What I’ve been saying for years is to optimize sites for people, not machines. If you create a site that is genuinely useful to real people, with content they are interested in and good usability, that will be of far greater benefit than creating a site that’s optimized totally for search engines at the expense of human usability. The day is coming when search engine ranking algorithms become so complex and personalized that when a search engine does site ranking it will do it as an extension of the psyche of the end user, with their preferences and interests. Good search engines will almost become a transparent layer between users and sites, so when you optimize a site for end users you will also be optimizing for the search engines that represent those users. As far as site owners and SEO consultants are concerned, users and search engines will almost become one and the same.
And that is a very interesting future for users, for site developers, and especially for the SEO industry.
Guest Columnist Jonathan Oxer is Founder and Technical Director of Internet Vision Technologies, an Australian company which has been developing web applications for more than 10 years. He is also author of “How To Build A Website And Stay Sane“, is currently working on “Running Debian GNU/Linux” for O’Reilly, and is a regular speaker at Open Source conferences and events.