The Inevitability of Personalized Search

First published February 15, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Google’s announcement a little more than a week ago that it would be showing personalized search results to more people through a change in the sign-in/sign-out default signaled perhaps the most significant change in search marketing in the past few years. Fellow Search Insider David Berkowitz dealt with some of the SEO implications in his column on Tuesday. Today I’d like to deal more with the user side of the story. Although Google’s announcement heralds a relatively minor change in terms of user experience, at least for the present time, it represents a step down a path from which there is no return. This path marks a dramatically different direction for search that will have far-reaching implications, both for advertisers and users.

Google Gets Personal

First, a brief recap of Google’s announcement and what it means to users right now. Here are the details: Now, everyone signing up for a Google account gets Search History enabled by default. The opt-out box is positioned so that most people would likely not even notice it during the sign-in process.

Whether or not you have Search History enabled, you get personalized search turned on by default. This means that Google will subtly change your results, based on various “signals,” like what you have on your personalized Google Homepage and what sites you’ve bookmarked as Google favorites. Of course, if you have Search History enabled, this is the main “signal” for personalized search

 

Finally, and probably least significantly, everyone gets his or her own Google Home Page when s/he signs up for a Google account.

The End of One Page for All

Let’s leave aside the privacy issues of Search History right now. That’s a topic that deserves a column by itself. It’s the end of the universal search results page that I want to touch on today.

There has been significant dissent voiced about Google’s move to personalized search, and it’s coming primarily from one source: search engine optimizers. In opposing personalized search, they’re saying it degrades the user experience. I responded by saying that it was the wrench that personalized search throws into their SEO plans that was raising their ire. But let me set aside my jaundiced view of the search world for a moment and chronicle its concerns (excluding privacy issues), as near as I can understand them:

 

  • Taking control away from the user by making personalized search a default and making it more difficult to toggle on and off 
  • Fear of anomalous browsing patterns (i.e. going to visit a number of humor sites on a whim or the invite of a friend) unnaturally biasing search results 
  • The “machine learning” algorithms that power personalized search not being smart enough to really provide more relevant resultsI’ve come out as saying that personalized search is inevitable; the day when all of us see the same page of search results is rapidly coming to a close. To me, this just seems obvious. But still, there are those that protest. Here’s one example from Michael Gray, a well know SEO Blogger: “I’ve never met a business owner who’s said, ‘Man, you know what, I wish the search engines could create anarchy by making sure no two people got the exact same results for the exact same search — that would be the best thing since sliced bread.'”

    In fact, Michael’s beef seems to be a consistently recurring theme among the dissenters, that a move to personalization suddenly seems to open the door for chaos on the results page. I believe the opposite is true.

    Every Search is an Island

    I am an individual, with unique interests, experiences, values and goals. My intent when I search for hybrid vehicles, or New York hotels, or Smart Phones, or any of the hundreds of other things I search for monthly, will be significantly different than all the other people that launch those same searches. I want a search engine smart enough to know that. I’ve always said that humans are complex, far too complex for a simple search box to get it right. That’s why personalized search is inevitable. If we want search to move to the next level, to get smarter, more intuitive, more relevant, we need to leave standardized search results behind.

    Does this mean Google will get it right out of the box? No. It will take baby steps towards what personalization eventually needs to become (although I believe those steps will be in rapid succession, because Google can hear the competition hard on its heels). Yes, there will be many who find that in the early stages, personalization may be more frustrating than it is useful. But for search to mature, these are growing pains we’ll have to endure.

    I’ve been labeled as an early proponent of personalization. I’m not sure this is necessarily the case. To me, it’s not a question of liking or disliking the recent moves by Google. To me, fighting search personalization is as pointless as refusing to accept today’s weather.

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