A beginners guide to: Personalised Search (part 2)

Last time I introduced you to the concept of personalised search, explaining what it is and why it has been introduced by the big search players, namely Google. In this follow up post I explore some of the things you need to consider and actions you need to take to ensure your digital marketing strategy remains relevant in light of personalised search.

One of the main outcomes of personalised search is that, in theory, no two people will see the same set of search results when searching using the same query. To cite an example; two members of the Leapfrogg team could be sat in the same location (our office) conducting the same search. But because they are on their own computers, with their own patterns of search behaviour recorded by Google, they could each be presented with different search results.

As it stands, Google will not disclose the degree to which results differ from user to user. Neither will they disclose the percentage of listings on the actual results page that are personalised in some way. However, Google has said that it wants to keep some results similar between users. Product manager Johanna Wright said:

“We want diversity of results…this is something we talk about a lot internally and believe in. We want there to be variety of sources and opinions in the Google results. We want them in personalised search to be skewed to the user, but we don’t want that to mean the rest of the web is unavailable to them.”

It remains the case that searchers want variety in their search results. So it’s not necessarily a case of having one or two favourite sites, or themes of sites, that simply show up over and over. This means Google’s other ranking factors will still be considered, so as far as we can tell at this early stage.

So now to the question we all need to be asking…is there anything we need to do in particular to ensure our sites perform well in light of personalised search? Well as luck would have it, below we provide a list of actions we recommend you consider:

Ditch rankings as a means to measure success

Personalised search effectively makes it impossible to report rankings with the same degree of accuracy as pre-personalised search. By its very nature personalised search means there is no longer an absolute position; a website ranking number two for one person may not even be on the first page of results for another.

So if you measure your search engine marketing efforts on ranking data alone it really is time to move on. You cannot calculate ROI or make informed decisions on how to improve the user-experience of your website using basic ranking data. Therefore, if you are not already, personalised search should be the catalyst to assess your search marketing efforts against metrics that really matter.

Remember, the end goal of your search marketing strategy is not to rank number one on Google for a specific search term. The end goal is to convert the traffic that ranking generates into sales. Once you have established sales targets (or leads, downloads, newsletter sign ups, etc) you can combine Google Analytics with other tools (telephone tracking, for example) and good old fashioned CRM to calculate the most important metric of all; ROI.

Saying all of this, it is worth running regular ranking reports especially if Analytics shows a large hike or drop in traffic. Although ranking data is less reliable it at least acts as an indicator as to whether Google is favouring your website, or otherwise. For example, if your rankings appear to be remain pretty consistent but traffic from search is on the up it may suggest personalised search is working in your favour. Therefore, analyse data from your Analytics account alongside the use of ranking tools to keep track of how your site is performing in the aftermath of personalised search.

Build your brand with a holistic strategy

Some are concerned that personalised search will reward big ‘brands’ who have already received an apparent boost from Google as a result of the Vince update last year. If Google is favouring branded sites is it not inevitable they will feature in search results more prominently and as a result receive a higher proportion of the clicks?

If this is the case, you need to learn why Google favours these brands (often regardless of how well their sites are actually optimised). They tend to be looked upon favourably because they are well-established and trusted. Google is also beginning to pay attention to factors such as how often a brand is mentioned across related websites, blogs and forums. The more ‘buzz’ that exists around a brand, the more important the website is deemed.

You too can build an online brand by implementing a holistic digital strategy that combines traditional SEO activity with paid search, social media and content. So, an action point for 2010 would be to start thinking about SEO as part of a wider set of activities; a strategy that is focused on building a sustainable and reputable online presence with reach far beyond search engines.

But remember the basics

Personalised search is all about delivering more relevant results. Google will determine how relevant a result is to a user based on their behaviour i.e. when presented with a set of results, Google will analyse the sites clicked on and even how long the user spends on the site once they get there. In simple terms, if a user clicks on a site they see as relevant and then spend a reasonable amount of time on that site Google will think, ‘hey, that’s a site the person found useful – I will therefore serve that site next time…or sites that are similar’.

This being the case you need to ensure your search engine listing is highly relevant to a users search query. How do you do this? Well, by going back to the very basics of SEO; ensure your title and description tags are well written and engaging. By doing so, you may encourage users to click on your listing over and above your competitors.

User experience

In order to ensure visitors stick around once they click through to your website you need to ensure the user-experience and content is top notch. You have a small window of opportunity to grab the users’ attention so ensure your content is relevant and calls to action clear. This is integral to establishing user trust and encouraging return visits. If users enjoy their experience on your site then they are not only more likely to convert into enquiries/sales but they are also more likely to return. Therefore a goal for 2010 should be to evaluate and improve upon your site usability and build on ways in which to engage visitors.

Another interesting method of increasing your site’s visibility in personalised search has been put forward by Marty Weintraub in his article ‘How To Exploit Personalised Search For SEO’. In this article, Weintraub suggests that “the solution to optimizing SERPs, which are customized based on an individual user’s affinities, is to influence that user’s offline behaviour”. This includes tips such as asking prospects and customers to search using specific terms (presumably that you know you are going to appear for!?) and click on your website. Definitely worth a read if you have the time.

In conclusion, personalised search may cause a decrease in traffic for some sites, but in theory users will be getting more useful and relevant results. Could this lead to increases in relative conversion rates? On this note, I believe a safe assumption is that the future of search is not about rankings or even traffic volumes but more about keeping better qualified visitors on your site for longer by providing great content to engage users and encourage them to return.

Hopefully, this introduction to Personalised Search has cleared up any confusion you may have had and also helps to turn your thoughts towards actions you need to take in order to ensure your site makes the most of it.

Next time, a lesson in social search. Until then…

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