Personalized Search and the Changing SEO Landscape

Personalization in search isn’t a new concept: search engines have been finding ways to refine their delivery of relevant search results for years. Yet it wasn’t until Google formally relaunched personalization of search in 2005 that marketers started paying attention to it as a prominent online marketing factor. Today, with solutions like Google Now and the Knowledge Graph playing prominent roles in search, incorporating personalization in your company’s SEO strategy isn’t an option – it’s a requirement.

The Influence of Localization

Localization is one of the biggest influences in personalized search. When Google interprets a search query today, it looks at three aspects in order to create basic personalized results (that is, personalized results that do not involve any input from the user through the “Advanced Search” option): topic, location, and implicit context. The topic is the easiest part – this is provided by the users when they perform a search. Geolocation and implicit context are discussed below.

Localization and Context

One of the most important factors to personalize search results is Google’s Venice update. This update, which is responsible for broad searches yielding relevant local results on your SERPs today, is often forgotten, but is one of the most powerful influencers of personalized search. Local businesses that might not be relevant on a national scale suddenly gain visibility on the SERPs for broad searches, based on a combination of the user’s location and the search query itself.

Local search results on the SERPs

Local search results on the SERPs

As search moves towards personalizing results based on location, acquiring more local relevance becomes a priority in search engine optimization. What this means for you is a need to focus more on the following:

  • Contextual Presentation – You’ll need to improve the way you present your content based on what is relevant in your target local market
  • Events – Online and offline events help establish the brand you are building in the local scene
  • Local Network – Establish your connections with local online influencers and local websites
  • Micro-geography – Study not just the general location you are targeting (states, countries), but specific geographic areas (towns, boroughs, cities). This is especially useful if you are examining national/global campaigns targeting different areas

Implicit and Explicit Searches

The role context plays in personalized search doesn’t stop with geolocation. It also plays an important role in what specialists are now calling “new queries.” Using a combination of the user’s actual search and other details about the user detected by the search engines (such as location at the time of search and the device used), search engines predict what the users really want to find and deliver these results.

Entering into the personalized SERPs of your target market and successfully appearing as a search result of these “new queries” requires thorough understanding of your market. You will need content that is relevant across all three criteria – topic, location, and device. In order to understand who your market is and what they need, you’ll need a variety of tracking tools and combine the information you collect to create accurate profiles. This is where Google Analytics, Webmaster Tools, and our advanced dashboard come into play.

Search Entities and the Value of Inbound Marketing

In order to optimize for personalized search better, you’ll need to understand how Google selects which results are relevant to users. Google looks into what they call search entities – elements related to search that enable them to predict and understand probabilities.

According to Bill Slawski, search entities can include:

  • A query a searcher submits
  • Documents responsive to the query
  • The search session during which the searcher submits the query
  • The time at which the query is submitted
  • Advertisements presented in response to the query
  • Anchor text in a link in a document
  • The domain associated with a document

Check out the Knowledge Graph result that appears when you enter the generic search term “Saint Joseph”:

Knowledge Graph result for “Saint Joseph”Knowledge Graph result for “Saint Joseph”

Below this result, you will see Knowledge Graph’s disambiguation of the term “Saint Joseph.” The results that appear are based on a combination of your current location and your previous searches. In this case, I had searched for different educational institutions prior to this search, and these results came up below the knowledge graph entry for “Saint Joseph”:
Knowledge Graph disambiguation for “Saint Joseph”

Knowledge Graph disambiguation for “Saint Joseph”

What Google does with search entities is to study its relationships based on a given set of factors. The relationship of these factors can be grouped into two:

1. Direct Relationship Strengths – these are relationships that can be derived from data showing user behavior, like search history, visit frequency, and overall engagement
2. Indirect Relationship Strengths – relationships derived from direct relationship strengths

A screenshot of Google’s Web History, showing search history and activity. Search history is one of the search entities that reveal direct relationship strengths.

A screenshot of Google’s Web History, showing search history and activity. Search history is one of the search entities that reveal direct relationship strengths.

This gives them a close-to-human understanding of what users are looking for and helps them deliver more accurate results. It also shows us that despite our efforts to read into “neutral” search, the truth is that 99% of search is personalized. It’s important to look into these search entities along with the search history in order to plan a more targeted online marketing strategy. What you can derive from this is the value of inbound marketing in search: inbound tactics directly affect the search entities involved in ranking your campaigns. Improving the direct and indirect relationship strengths will reflect directly on your placement on the SERPs.

Preparing Your Campaigns for Personalized Search

Apart from what we’ve already discussed, there are other steps you need to take to prepare your campaigns for personalized search. Make sure to pay attention to the following factors as well:

  • Web Documents and Structured Data

Paying attention to the semantic aspect of search lets you improve your “probability score” by helping search engines understand what your websites are about. Adding structured data to your web documents helps your campaigns appear on SERPs that they will otherwise not rank for. Make sure to check the tags, rich snippets, and other structured data you can add from schema.org, Microdata, and OpenGraph to ensure proper implementation.

  • Social Activity

Social media’s influence over search once was limited to it having a correlated impact on rankings. With the continuous integration of social into search, social now plays a part in personalizing search results.

Google’s Search Plus Your World (SPYW) is a good example of this. While Google keeps to their statement that +1s do not affect rankings, when you are logged into your Google account, you get personalized search results based on your profile – and more importantly, +1s do matter. SERPs that have some degree of connection to your target user’s Google+ account are prioritized: for example, if a user’s friend has +1’d your article, something that does not appear on the first page of neutral Google SERPs, this will have a chance of appearing on the user’s SERPs on the first page. Building a strong social media outreach strategy is important in maximizing opportunities like this.

  • Email Marketing

It’s now possible to use emails to deliver personalized search results to your target audience. Using email marketing in your SEO campaigns is particularly useful for helping you rank for implicit searches. Solutions like schema.org for Gmail allow you to add structured data to your emails, making the information in your email available across all Google products. The search experiment Gmail Search Field Trial also uses emails to display enhanced results in your SERPs.

Google’s Gmail Search Field search experiments page, where you see email integrated into the search experience

Google’s Gmail Search Field search experiments page, where you see email integrated into the search experience

Personalization has deeply permeated search, and as online marketers, it is our job to integrate personalization into our SEO strategies as well. What it teaches us is that SEO is not enough – what you need is an integrated marketing solution that pays attention to other elements that influence personalized search. Strong content, local, social and email marketing strategies should be combined with SEO in order to achieve success in online marketing.

We’d be happy to discuss your current strategy and explain in detail how our methodology helps your campaigns rank for personalized search. Talk to us today to learn more.

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Clayton Wood

Clayton Wood

Clayton Wood is passionate about communicating the impact that technology has in online marketing, and how inbound marketing helps small and large businesses achieve their goals for themselves, their families and their communities. He’s managed thousands of online marketing campaigns across the globe, helped start ups be profitable in three different countries for over 6 years.