Ever have the feeling you’re being followed? You aren’t imagining things. Google is keeping a record of your online search history, and as a result, you’ll likely never experience Google in the same way as anyone else again.
In 2007, Google began experimenting with personalized search results – serving up a unique set of Web sites in its search engine based on patterns in your online behavior. Until last week, search results were only altered if you were logged into a Google-based service, such as your Gmail or Google Apps account. This means that most people – regardless of location or behavior – experienced the same search results. Suddenly, however, personalization is the new status quo. Unless a user actively turns off personalization – and Google hasn’t made doing so particularly obvious –search results are influenced by a variety of factors that Google tracks using cookies placed on your machine. So long as the personalization toggle remains 2-3 clicks from the home page, only a small, savvy number of people will ever see “normal” search results again.
Is Personalization Unfair to Startups?
It would be inconsistent with Google’s philosophy to stop exposing search users to Web newcomers based purely on past search habits. It will be interesting to see which portions of search results are personalized over time, and whether Google will choose to clearly demarcate them from other results.
Still, the change presents a legitimate worry for any business launching a new Web site. Consider that new sites already have a very difficult time getting found in Google search. This is because so many items that affect search results– PageRank, domain age and the quality of inbound links, just to name a few – place the advantage firmly on the side of established brands with older sites. Already, our employees have noticed our clients’ Web sites appear in personalized searches more frequently, and in higher ranking position, apparently because they have shown a propensity for visiting them in the past.
Shifting Campaign Emphasis
Depending on how far Google goes with personalization, this change could make SEO even more important than it is already, as companies find themselves working even harder to break into online search results that are dominated by larger and older companies with more popular content. It really depends on how much emphasis Google chooses to place on prior search history, and how those results are displayed.
Although search ranking position will still matter, it may matter a little less than it did before. This means that much more emphasis needs to be placed on monitoring business performance from organic traffic, such as sales and leads. This type of business knowledge can help companies focus their search efforts on areas that really pay off as opposed to just striving for more traffic volume.
How to Turn off Google Personalization
When logged out of Google, perform a normal search. On the search engine results page, click on the “Web History” link in the upper right hand of the page. Then click on “Disable customizations based on search history.”