Okay, sometimes the temptation to say I told you so is overwhelming. Danny has a nice long post in Searchengineland about Google's changes to Personalized Search, making it more of a default and less of an option for millions of users. Danny details it more than I intend to, so please check it out.
As Danny says, he's been talking about personalization for years, but up to now, it never materialized. After interviews with head user experience people at all three engines, I felt the time was right for personalized search to roll out (check The Future of SEO in a Personalized Search Interface and The SEO Debate Continues). And it appears my sense of timing was bang on. Much as I'd like to claim to be prescient, it's really just common sense. You could see all the engines inching towards it. Now, Google has just upped the ante a little.
There are two major implications to this: what it means for search marketers, especially organic optimizers, and what it means to users. I'll deal with each in turn.
What it Means for Search Marketers
The "Is SEO Dead? Rocket Science? A Scam?" Debate has been winding it's weary way through several blogs in the past few weeks. My take was that SEO is, and will continue to be, vitally important as long as organic search results continue to be important to the user. Based on what I'm seeing, that continues to be very much the case. But, organic optimization now has a completely new rule set, which will irritate the hell out of many organic optimizers. The disgruntlement is already beginning to show. Michael Gray, better known as Graywolf, was the first to post a comment on Danny's story:
Just because I ordered my coke with extra ice last time doesn't mean I want it that way this time. I hate personalized SERP's, I despise it even more that they don't tell me they are personalized, and I loathe not being able to turn it off. I also have extreme antipathy for not being able to keep my search history on and not be part of personalized search.
Let me have it the way I want, not the way you think I do. I don't want SERP's that work like Microsoft programs that try to anticipate what I want to do, because more often than not it's wrong. Bring back truth, purity, and clarity to the SERP's.
Graywolf is complaining as a user, but I can't help thinking that the more significant pain he's feeling is as an organic optimizer who's world suddenly just became a lot more complicated. "Truth, purity and clarity to the SERP's"? In whose eyes? Come on. Personalization is being implemented because it enhances the user experience. It doesn't take a "Rocket Scientist" (sorry, couldn't resist) to see that one set of search results is not the best way to serve millions of users.
As Danny said, there's now an explosion of new fronts for the organic optimizer to consider. Right now, Google is only injecting a few personalized results into the search page, but expect that threshold to gradually creep up as Google gains confidence in the targeting of the results to the person. The days of the universal results page are numbered. Which means that the days of the reverse engineering approach to SEO are equally numbered. I'm sure people will try to figure out ways to spam personalized search, but as I've said before, reverse engineering requires a fixed constant to test against. Up to now, the results page and the other sites that appeared on it represented that fixed constant. That's gone now.
So where does that leave SEO? Well, it's certainly not dead, but it has dramatically changed. You can't optimize against a results set, but you can optimize against a user. Let's use an analogy that's often been used before to describe SEO. Think of it as Public Relations on the Web. If you launch a PR campaign, you don't target a particular position on the front page of the NY Times, you target a type of audience. You plan your release distribution and messaging accordingly. And you give reporters what you think will catch their attention. Most of all, you have to wrap your campaign around something that's genuinely interesting. Then, you hope for the best.
Now, SEO becomes the same thing. You don't target the first page of results on Google for a particular term. You target an end user. You wrap your site messaging in terms that resonate with that user. You write in their language, you give them a reason to seek you out, and you sure as hell don't disappoint them when they click through to your site. You do all this, and you remove all the technical barriers between your content and the indexes you need to be in. Then, you hope for the best.
The problem with SEO has always been that it's been treated like some magical voodoo that can be applied after the fact, like some "secret sauce". And yes, that was what the infamous Dave Pasternack has been trying to say. He just went several steps too far. The fact is, with universal search results, you could actually do this. Thousands of affiliates have made millions of dollars doing it. Link spamming, cloaking, doorway sites..the fact is, up to now, this bag of tricks has worked. It's gotten harder, but it's worked. Site owners looked to SEO to help them hi jack traffic that wasn't rightfully theirs. They hadn't done the heavy lifting to create a site that justified a place in the top rankings, and they tried to take an easy short cut.
But now, organic optimization means that you have to do the heavy lifting. It has to be integrated into the entire online presence. What Marshall Simmonds has done with About.com and the NY Times is a perfect example of the new definition of SEO. Get to the front lines, to the people who are churning out the content, and teach them about what search engines are looking for. Make sure SEO best practices are baked right into the overall process flow. Work with the IT team to create a platform that entices the spider to crawl deeper. Work with the marketing team to crawl inside the head of your target audience and figure out the who, the when and the why. Don't worry so much about the where, because you can't really control that any more. It's a tough paradigm to break. We've been struggling with our clients for the past year or so. They're still fixated on "being number one" for a particular term. We've been trying to ease them into the new reality, but it's not easy.
I guarantee this will create an identity crisis for the SEO industry. As recently as a few months ago I was moderating a panel that was talking about analytics, and in the Q&A someone asked the panel, who had a few very well known SEM's on it, about what they used for ranking reporting. The names of various options were thrown out and people started scribbling them down. I saw this and thought I had to comment.
"You know, the whole concept of ranking is quickly becoming irrelevant"
Nobody lifted their head, they were still busy writing down tool names. Maybe they hadn't heard.
"As search engines move to personalized results, there will be no such thing as ranking. It will all be relative to the user."
That should get their attention. Nope, nothing.
One of the search marketers said, "Yes, but knowing how they rank is still important to people."
Huh? Am I speaking a different language here? I shook my head and gave up.
So, does this mean SEO is dead? Absolutely not. It becomes more vital than ever. Here are a few things that remain to be true. Preliminary results from the new SEMPO survey say SEO continues to be the number one tactic in search marketing. Yes, people want to bring it in house, but they recognize it's importance.
Why do they think it's important? Because it kicks ass in ROI. Here are the results from another recent study by Ad:Tech and MarketingSherpa, asking advertisers about the return they get from various marketing channels.
The biggest jump from year to year? SEO. Now, let's look at where marketers plan to spend more money in the next year.
SEO, from flatlined last year to looking to spend 25% more this year. So SEO definitely isn't dead. But it is moving to a new home. Here's some early results from the SEMPO State of the Market Study (by the way, final results should be available next week. Look for them):
It's true that most companies would far rather bring SEO in house, if they could. And when we consider the new definition of SEO, it probably makes sense for SEO to be integrated into the internal work flow. But the problem is that there's not a lot of SEO expertise out there. If SEO was so easy, why don't more companies do it, or do it well? Contrary to Pasternack's argument, it's not a "set and forget" type of tactic. It requires a champion, buy in and diligence.
I think the future is bright for SEO as a skill set, but we're talking a modified set of skills. I talked about this in a recent SearchInsider column and a follow up online debate with Andrew Goodman. My view of the future for the really good SEO's out there fall into three categories:
Get a (Really Good) Job
As companies bring this in house, there will be a firestorm of demand for skilled SEO Directors, but ideally as employees, not consultants.
Broaden Your View
Become an expert in how consumers navigate online and help your customers with the big picture, including the new reality of SEO.
Adapt and Survive
Find a new online niche where your search honed skills give you an advantage.
Okay, this is already a much longer post than I intended, so I should probably talk about personalized search from the user's perspective now.
Personalized search is a big win for the user. Don't judge by the first few tentative steps Google is taking. Personalization is a much bigger deal than that. Google is easing us in so the experience isn't too jarring. By the end of 2007, all 3 of the major engine's results pages will look significantly different than they do today. Personalization will be like a breached dam. Right now we're seeing the first few trickles, but there will be a wave of much deeper personalization options over the next several months. Search will become your personalized assistant, tailored to your tastes. As you search more, your results will draw more and more away from the universal default and closer and closer to your unique intent. Immediately after your query, you'll be dropped into a much richer search experience. Disambiguation will become much more accurate, and you'll find that you will pretty much always find just what you're looking for right at the top of your page, without having to dig deeper. Here's how I see it playing out at each of the big three:
Google has a religious devotion to relevance, and as they gain confidence with personalized search and their ability to disambiguate, this will manifest itself with a laser focus on relevance above the fold. They will continue to maintain a good balance of organic results, but these results will not just be the current web search results. They could be local, image, news or a mix of each. And ads. Yes, you won't escape ads, but Google will be the most judicious in what they show. Expect more stringent quality scoring, down to the landing page level and a high degree of relevancy in the ads that do show. Google will be the most concerned of the three in disambiguating intent.
Yahoo will put their own spin on personalization by wrapping in Social Search. They will continue to leverage their community, as they currently do in Yahoo! Answers so when you're logged into Yahoo, you'll be plugged into their community and that will impact the search results you see. Relevancy will be determined more by what the community finds interesting than what you find interesting, although it will be a mix between the two. Yahoo will target two types of searches, serendipitous search, where you're looking to discover new sites, and what I call "frustrated" search, where your own efforts to unearth the data online have come up empty and you want the help of the community. When it comes to monetization, Yahoo will be the most aggressive, pushing more ads above the fold into Golden Triangle real estate. These ads will trail Google's in terms of relevance
Microsoft will use their targeting capabilities and probably tie in some behavioral targeting to personalize their search results. Also expect personalization in the Microsoft product to be integrated at a deeper, more ubiquitous level, into apps and OS. This probably won't happen in 07, but it will be a long term goal. When it comes to ad presentation, Microsoft will fall somewhere between Google and Yahoo in both the number and relevance of the ads being presented. The heaviest investment will be in building out the platform to manage and model the ad program, rather than in policing the quality of the ads themselves.
It promises to be a very interesting year in the Search Marketing biz!