Is Google Getting Too Personal?

Google products do come out of beta from time to time. In this case, one came out of beta in a big way: Google Personalized Search. Now, whenever you’re signed into any of your Google accounts when you do a Google search, your results will be personalized, getting more and more tailored as you build up your search history.

The reactions to this in the SEO community have been all over the place: gloom and doom, panic, determination, near-paranoia, and even ennui. In this article, I’ll try to point out the reasons for this kind of response, and take a look at whether it’s justified. But first, let me try to explain what exactly is happening.

I signed up to start using Google’s search history and personalized search early last year so I could do a review of the service. Since then I’ve acquired a Gmail account and used a number of other Google services for review purposes. I haven’t paid any attention as to whether I’ve been signed in to my account when I perform searches, but some of the computers I use seem to sign me in automatically (I rarely bother signing out). I went over my search history recently, and was quite surprised to see how much information had accumulated there, reflecting work, hobbies, and sudden casual curiosity.

It’s this search history that Google is going to use to influence the results you see when you do a search and you’re signed in. They’re also supposedly going to use information from Google Bookmarks and personalized Google home pages. To quote Google’s explanation of personalized search: “Personalized Search orders your search results based on your past searches, as well as the search results and news headlines you’ve clicked on. You can view all these items in your Search History and remove any items you like. Early on, you may not notice a huge impact on your search results, but as you build up your search history, your personalized results will continue to improve.”

A lot of people are not thrilled about the idea that users are signed in to personalized search by default whenever they’re signed in to a Google service. This could mean a huge change in the way SEO is done – or not, depending on whom you ask. I’ll get back to that point in a moment, though I’d like to add that personalized search has implications far beyond SEO (another point I’ll return to later on).

Okay, so the difference is supposed to be subtle or not even noticeable at first, right? Well, I wondered how big of a difference it would make to someone like me, who does a lot of searching for various items but doesn’t waste much attention on logging in. Here’s what a Google search on the term SEO looks like when I’m not logged in:

 

Here’s what the same search looks like when I’m signed in:

 

The difference is really subtle. What you don’t see in the images is that Google does indicate in the blue bar at the top whether or not your results are personalized. Anyway, what’s the difference here? The personalized result gets an extra ad (which I can do without, frankly). Also, Wikipedia is the number two result rather than the number one result, and the page on which Google explains what an SEO is has been bumped down one spot.

In my case, this is probably the beginning of a trend that makes a lot of sense. Depending on the needs of our sites, I write anywhere from one to three articles covering SEO every week; I already know a lot of the basic information about SEO, and so do my readers. It made me blink when I saw the difference, but I was not tremendously taken aback. It fits in with the example Sep Kamvar posted on the official Google blog about the change — that he, as a Miami Dolphins fan, would see info about his favorite football team when he searches for dolphins, but a marine biologist would get information about the salt-water mammal. I have to wonder what a marine biologist who is also a Miami Dolphins fan – and believe me, there are plenty of those here in Florida – would see.

There is some serious disagreement as to the SEO implications of this change. David Berkowitz writing for Media Post Publications stated the contrarian view: “I can sum up the best strategy in one word: nothing.” In short, he thinks that SEOs need to continue doing what they’ve been doing, assuming that they’re also taking into account the changes in strategy necessitated by the rise of social bookmarking, social search, and other web 2.0 changes.

He also raised an excellent point that should help quell the panicky SEO: “Most Google users won’t be logged in while searching.” We don’t know whether that’s true or not. But we don’t have any statistics as to how many people actually are logged in when they do a Google search. I certainly couldn’t tell you myself how often I’m logged in when I search Google. Given that it’s really easy to do a Google search whenever you’re online regardless of whatever else you happen to be doing (like checking email), it’s entirely possible to be logged in and not know it. Until I see some numbers, I’m going to have to reserve judgment on how much of an effect this is going to have on search as a whole.

If you are concerned – and there is perhaps some justification for it – there are some things you can do. You can prompt visitors to add your site to their Google Bookmark file. You can ask visitors to add an RSS feed from your site to their version of Google’s home page; there’s an Add to Google button you can use to accomplish this trick. You can get more information about how to do that at the following link: http://www.google.com/webmasters/add.html.

Danny Sullivan describes this change as “cataclysmic…Personalized search is now the default and none too easy to escape from either through opt-out.” He recommends working on optimizing for Google services (as I described above), optimizing for social search sites, establishing some kind of profile within social networks such as MySpace, engaging with bloggers, and similar web 2.0 tactics. “Technical skills are still needed, but imagination and knowledge of the social spaces our customers inhabit are gaining value, which ultimately means that the sky is the limit on what you can do.”

Or you could always try the approach that Google Blogoscoped discovered and Search Engine Watch reported on. It actually has the taint of black hat about it, and strangely enough, it still works. It’s a way to insert search spam into people’s Search Histories. I don’t recommend it by any means, but it certainly illustrates how people will always try to come up with a way to hack the system, even when it’s designed to make spamming extremely difficult.

In his article titled “Google Ramps up Personalized Search,” Danny Sullivan gives a very detailed description of how it works and how you can manipulate your search history, removing items individually, in groups, or all at once. You can also pause and resume your search history, or get rid of it completely. Well, almost completely; Google still keeps some form of records. When Sullivan asked why, he received the following answer:

“As is standard in the industry, we use aggregate user data to analyze usage patterns and diagnose problems with our system, as well as to improve our services to users. This aggregate information is not associated with a user’s Google Account. As reflected in our privacy policy, we maintain this data for as long as it is useful for those purposes.”

A lot of people find this less than comforting. Many of us remember the deliberate AOL leaks (they weren’t that long ago after all); that information was not supposed to be the kind that could be used to identify individuals, but it clearly was. Worse, with some of the searches that were performed, the information could even have been used to commit identity theft. So far, Google has not experienced any “information spills;” we can only hope that this good record continues. Many of us would feel better if we knew exactly what Google was doing to safeguard the privacy of this information.

Steven Bradley of Searchnewz raised a point that brought me up short. I think it deserves a wider hearing. While he acknowledged that the way Google now has Search History and Personalized Search set up will improve the relevance of search for most people, and that they will like the change, he has certain reservations. In particular, he has reservations with the idea that it is on by default when you’re signed in. How many of us will remember to sign out? For how many of us will it become a sort of unseen crutch, not unlike spelling checkers have become today (“Sure you spelled their right, but didn’t you mean to use they’re?” he notes by way of example).

This leads to Bradley’s biggest point: “My main concern is that tying search results to search history will limit personal growth and risks locking people into a set of thoughts.” He uses as an example a conservative thinker who was a big supporter of the war in Iraq and always showed an interest in information favorable to US policy when he searched. Now the same person is having second thoughts; his support is wavering, and he wants to find out why the war might not be such a good idea. “Are you going to be able to find that information easily? Or are your searches going to continue to return the same results they always have?”

That may not be so bad if we remember that we’ll need to log out to do a generic Google search. But will we remember? It’s quite possible that users won’t – especially if they’re like me, not really knowing or caring when they’re logged in. I think Google may need to make some serious fixes to this particular new service. We know it’s not afraid to make the SEOs unhappy, but it would be a bad thing if a company with the motto “don’t be evil” rolled out a service that made it more difficult for its users to think outside the box. As Bradley put it, “Isn’t the idea of searching to find something you didn’t know about?”

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