Will Personalization Get ‘Too Personalized’?

There’s an interesting interview with Matt Cutts about personalized searches. He’s got some interesting things to say but I wouldn’t agree with it all. The interview was conducted by Gord Hotchkiss of Search Engine Land. Here’s a portion of his introduction:

What’s significant about personalization, however, is the direction that it sets for Google in the future. Google has been very cautious about introducing personalization into the search experience but expect the degree of personalization to increase as Google gets more confident in their ability to present truly personalized and relevant results. And that signals the end of the universal or monolithic search result. As I’ve said a number of times, that has significant implications for search engine optimization.

I think what’s significant about personalization is that it’s personalized. It doesn’t have anything to do with Google. Yahoo’s been doing it for years. The problem is, it isn’t very sophisticated – yet. It’s unclear, however, how personalization will change search or whether it will change it for the good.

Currently, Google’s personalized search feature isn’t very personalized. It’s really just a suggestion tool. Based on your previous searches, Google will suggest other items you may be interested in but in my experience, the items Google recommends don’t necessarily provide any value for me. It doesn’t really offer any categorized searches based on searches I’ve made, rather it seems more interested in offering me Google services for my personalized page.

Matt Cutts suggests that personalized search will put a dent in blackhat SEO. Is he right?

I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily the nail in the coffin, but it’s clearly a call to action where there’s a fork in the road and people can think hard about whether they’re optimizing for users or whether they’re optimizing primarily for search engines. And the sort of people who have been doing “new” SEO, or whatever you want to call it, that’s social media optimization, link bait, things that are interesting to people and attract word of mouth and buzz, those sorts of sites naturally attract visitors, attract repeat visitors, attract back links, attract lots of discussion. Those sorts of sites are going to benefit as the world goes forward. At the same time, if you do choose to go to the other fork, towards the black hat side of things, you know you’re going to be working harder and the return is going to be a little less. And so over time, I think, the balance of what to work on does shift toward working for the user, taking these white hat techniques and looking for the sites and changes you can implement that will be to the most benefit to your user.

I don’t think blackhat SEO will go away. People will always find a way around your rules. Implement a new rule, there will be a new technique that gets around it. I’m not saying those techniques will be overly effective. I’m just saying there’s a war going on.

The war is between the search engines and the axis of evil – no, not that axis of evil. The axis of evil that is blackhat SEO: Paid links, keyword stuffing and server-side web page illusions. Personalized searches may make some of these techniques irrelevant but blackhat types will find a way to use other techniques that are relevant. I do believe, however, that Matt is right about one thing: The new SEO, link baiting, social media optimization, etc., and the people involved in these areas, will be the big benefactors of personalized search. Social media sites, especially, will win big time.

Matt again:

I think one area that will change a lot, for example, is local stuff. Already, you don’t do a search for football and get the same results in the U.K. as you do in the U.S. So there are already a lot of things that return different search results based on country, and expect that trend to continue. It is, however, also the case that in highly commercial or highly spammed areas, if you are able to return more relevant, more personalized results, it gets a little harder to optimize, because the obstacles are such that you’re trying to show up on a lot of different searches rather than just one set of search engine result pages, so it does tilt the balance a little bit, yes.

This brings up the question in my mind, “What if I’m an Arizona journalist who wants to see what European athletes think of U.S. football players?” If I type in “football” and “European athletes” I will likely get stories on soccer. If I just type in “football” all the search results will be reflective of my geographic location. I lose some element of control there, don’t I?

Gord must have been thinking along the same lines. Hence, his question:

Of course, the difference between localization and personalization is that you can turn personalization off. You have no control over localization of search results. This brought up the question of user control.

Here’s Matt’s response:

And a lot of the times, the functionality is such that you don’t even necessarily want someone that’s coming in from the U.K. to be able to search as if they’re coming in from Africa because it just makes things a lot more complicated. So, over time, I’d say we’re probably open to lots of different ways of allowing people to search.

So what does that mean? Is Matt telling us the search engines don’t necessarily want to facilitate a complete user experience? Well, he tells us:

For example, you can select different countries for the advertisements. There’s a GL parameter I believe, where you can actually say, “now, show the ads as if I were searching from Canada. Okay, now I’m going to switch to Mexico.” For search we haven’t historically made that as easy. It’s something that we’d probably be open to, but again, it’s one of those things where probably SEO’s are a lot more interested, but your regular user isn’t quite as interested.

I beg to differ, Matt. I think the regular user would be interested if they knew how your algorithms work. I mean, if I’m Joe Schmo and I want to know how the attitudes in Australia and South America differ with regard to climate change because I’m researching the topic for my college class on Environmental Science, I’d like to know that I can go online and get that information. I don’t want to retrieve information on what U.S. sociologists think about the differences in attitudes between the people of these two foreign countries. I want to go directly to the source. It sounds like Matt Cutts is telling me that won’t be a possibility. I don’t think I like that.

The Internet is an information medium. It always has been. It always should be. No one should have so much control over the information that they get to pick and choose what end users have access to. It just goes against the grain of the Internet’s nature.

The idea of a monolithic set of search results for a generic term will probably start to fade away, and you already see people expect that if I do a search and somebody else does the search, they can get slightly different answers. I expect that over time people will expect that more and more, and they’ll have that in the back of their heads.

Again, I’m not sure I agree. If I want to search for local newspapers then I should be able to type in a zip code or a city name and “newspaper” and get the results I want. Much like what we have now. But based on what Matt Cutts is saying, if I type in “newspaper” without a geographic reference then I will likely return results that are specific to my geographic location whether that is what I want or not. There has to be a way that we can allow users who want a broader search to make that search. If I don’t want a “personalized” search, can I just opt out? Currently, I can. But will I always?

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