Planning for Personalization

First published June 7, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I should have known as soon as I saw the speaker roster. Google’s Matt Cutts, Yahoo’s Tim Mayer, Atlas Web Service’s Michael Gray and myself on the same panel. Guess who got the lion’s share of attention in the Q&A and after-session scrum? Michael and I might as well have checked out early and hit the Google Dance before the crowds.

The title of the panel at the inaugural SMX in Seattle was “Search Personalization: Fear or Fear Not.” (Discussed from an attendee’s point-of-view in yesterday’s Search Insider.) As moderator Danny Sullivan often does, he set the panel up to generate a little debate: Michael Gray vs. Google, Yahoo vs. Google. I was like Switzerland, in neutral territory. Danny did get his conflict, with Michael taking a few shots at Google and Tim Mayer throwing down the gauntlet about the lack of transparency on Google’s personalized search results.

Guess What? SEOs are not your Average Search User!

To be honest, I was a little taken aback that the audience didn’t jump all over how personalization was going to change SEO. Most of the questions from the crowd centered on how you opt out of personalized search and why personalization wasn’t good for them. I have some issues with that, which of course I’ll share in this column:

  • First, this crowd was trying to argue from a user’s point of view. Okay, they’re SEOs (this was the organic track) and most of them have been using search since Lycos was a little baby spider. Just how typical do you think these users are?
  • Second, I question their motives. Do they hate personalization as a user, or as an organic optimizer? My guess is the latter, but it doesn’t seem very noble to joust with Google because the company is making your job harder. Far better to cry foul as a user than as a PO’d organic optimizer. As somebody said to me after the session, do you really think Marissa Mayer is losing sleep because the Google user experience for SEOs isn’t all the SEOs want it to be?
  • This was a perfect opportunity to start planning for the new world of SEO, post-personalization. There’s a ton of value we can add, as smart, proactive practitioners, but I didn’t see anyone take the opportunity to delve into this. Perhaps the really smart ones were keeping their mouths shut, content to let their competitors bitch about the inevitable while they plotted their takeover.
  • I found everyone fixated on the current threshold of personalization on the page, taking comfort in the fact that it’s only impacting a small number of searches. I reminded them that this threshold is a totally arbitrary one set by Google, and could (and will) change at any time.
  • Everyone is taking a siloed view of personalization, looking at the organic results in isolation. It’s almost as if they’re assessing the amount of damage control required. I’m not sure they realize the import of personalization. This is a rule changer, a paradigm-shifter. This is the new generation of search functionality. It changes the game dramatically. Whatever happens on the organic side will roll over to the sponsored side. It will drive universal search. It will drive everything.
  • Finally, this is not happening just on Google. Microsoft’s recent comments made it very clear its strategists are thinking long and hard about personalization. Tim Mayer cautioned me not to make the mistaken assumption that just because Google was first out with personalization, it’s the only one working on it. In fact, Matt was quite delighted when he found an article in Times Online discussing how Yahoo Vice President Tapan Bhat confessed at the Next Web conference in Amsterdam that personalization was the future of the Web, including search. You can define personalization in a number of different ways, but however you do it, it dramatically changes our online experience.

So, I leave you with this. I went into the SMX session ready to discuss four fundamental changes I see emerging from personalization that SEOs and SEMs have to think about, right now. No one asked me for the slide deck after the session. There was not one question about strategies for leveraging personalization. Everyone was more interested in grilling Matt on why the opt-out link had disappeared from the results page.

Although I’m tempted to join the smart and silent search marketers, I think I’ll make one last attempt to share this information with the SEM/SEO community — perhaps in a white paper, perhaps a future column. But I’m only going to do it if you’re serious about pushing the envelope into this new opportunity. Reply to the blog below and let me know. Otherwise, I’ll just shut up and nod my head while you bitch about the fact that it’s too hard to opt out of personalized search. You’ll excuse me if I don’t answer; you see, my mind is on something else.

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