Personalized Search Brouhaha

Predictably, Google’s announcement late last week about pushing more users to personalized search results has created a lot of buzz in the blogosphere. There’s a lot of “what the hell does this mean” questioning going on out there. This will continue for the forseeable future as more engines move down the personalization road.

Normally, I’d be right in there swinging, but I have been on vacation this week, so I’m somewhat looking from afar. However, I do think that we can debate personalized search all we want in the SEM/SEO circles, but Google is going to do what Google is going to do. So, to that end, I’m reaching out to the two people who really have a say in this. Matt Cutts and I have been chatting about this for some time, but Matt wanted to defer an official interview until later this month (due, no doubt, to the timing of Google’s recent accouncement). I’m just confirming a time with Matt now. More details on this soon.

The other person I need to speak to is Marissa Mayer, on what this means for the Google search experience. Again, the wheels are in motion and I’m hoping to jump on this as soon as I get back (next week, reluctantly–I mean reluctantly returning to work, not reluctantly interviewing Marissa, which is always a delight!).

Which leads me to a lot of the buzz that’s currently happening. There’s a lot of talk about user experience. Honestly, most of the opposition I’ve heard to personalized search results are coming from SEO’s, and I have to question whether their motives are pure as they take up the UI banner here. Graywolf has been one of the most prolific critics, including posts on my blog. Here was one:

Let’s take personalized SERP’s a bit farther, let’s imagine we have something like digital books that can rewrite themselves based on user preferences. Instead of Hermione Granger being a brown haired slightly bookish student at Hogwarts, she’s a buxom blonde in a mini-skirt because I’ve demonstrated a preference for that in the past. For someone else she’s a raven haired gothic princess, for another she’s more of a debutante prom queen.

Sure the example is bit over the top but that’s not that far in concept to what they are doing. The top 10 listings in a SERP are pretty similar in concept to the main characters of a book, making them different for everyone is like having a different book for everyone.

Not sure I get the analogy here. It’s a stretch to try to compare SERP’s with a book. It doesn’t work on a number of levels. The average person spends a few seconds on a SERP, several hours with a book. And the goal is to spend as little time as possible on the results page.

Also, the nature of engagement is totally different. I’m looking for one link, the best one, on a SERP, not delving into the nuances of a character, whatever her appearance.

I do agree that Google is making it more difficult to know if you’re signed in, which is not ideal, and the current level of personalization is pretty watered down, but ultimately if personalization increases relevance to me, that’s a good thing.

Here are the challenges for Google in the personalization path they’re going down. Right now, the introduction of a few organic listings doesn’t really make a significant difference for the user. To significantly change the user experience, someone has to be bolder with personalization. And that means you have to be pretty confident that you’ve disambiguated intent. Google currently uses sites you’ve visited in the past as the indicator. As Danny said in his post, the net effect of this is your own sites, which you visit regularly, will enjoy a boost but other than that, I don’t really count this as personalization, at least not to the level I want.

What if you use the immediately preceding clickstream, as in behavioral targeting? What if you start identifying themes in the clickstream data and become bolder in grouping related search suggestions. What if you do, as Marissa Mayer suggested in her interview with me, and start mixing in contextual relevance based on your current task, as determined by Google desktop search or another Google plug in. And what if you use all this to drop the user into a much richer experience?

Let me give you an example. I’m currently on my way to Kauai, Hawaii. I’ve been doing a lot of searching for things to do, especially in the area around our hotel in Lihue. We’ve been looking for family beaches, places to go snorkeling, places to rent a bike, local events in the time frame we’re there, etc. This could have all been captured in my search history. Now, let me go to Google and launch a search for Kauai Restaurants. What would be cool is if Google presented me with restaurants close to my hotel, preferably with maps. Also, it could suggest other geographically targeted results or suggested searches. That’s personalization.

I do believe Google needs to allow users to toggle any type of customized results, with clear controls. One of the current user issues I have with Google is their transparent geo-targeting of results in Canada. When I search using a non-geographically specific query, as in “search engine marketing”, I see different results in Canada than I would in the US, favoring sites based in Canada. But 99.9999% of users in Canada would never know this, as there is nothing on the results page to indicate this. I only know it because we need to see results as they appear on both sides of the border and so use US based proxies a lot to fool Google into thinking we’re searching from the US.

For a lot of searches from Canada, it probably makes sense to push Canadian based sites higher in the result set, but for others, it doesn’t. Whatever the search, Google needs to be clearer when they filter results based on a criteria the user might not be aware of, such as personalization or geographic location.

For the search user experience, it comes down to two significant issues, and whoever can do this best will win:

Relevance Aligned to Intent: I’ve always said that search is the connector between intent and content. The more successful you can make that connection, the better. Take my intent and by whatever means necessary, personalization, demographic targeting, behavioral targeting, social targeting, give me links to the content I’m looking for. Be the best at doing that and you’ll win. And you simply can’t do that with universal search results. Personalization is inevitable.

User Control: If I have a quibble with what Google is doing, it’s in the taking control from the hands of the user. What we don’t want here is the “Google knows best” attitude that the company has been guilty of in the past. Always leave clear options for the user to navigate and tailor the results to their preferences. If you go to personalized results as a default, indicate how the user can toggle the option on and off.

We can debate whether personalization is a good or bad thing. Honestly, I think it’s a moot point. The next generation of search is impossible without personalization, in one form or another. In three interviews with usability people at Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, when I asked them about the biggest challenge to overcome, they all pointed to getting away from the current paradigm of a query box and a standard set of results. Everyone acknowledges that search is in it’s infancy. By saying that we shouldn’t go down the personalization path, it’s like saying we always want our baby to remain 9 months old. Sure, they’re easier to control at that age, but it makes it a little difficult for them to realize their potential as a human being.

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