Understanding Personalized Search’s Impact on Ranking and SEO

By Bruce Clay

Have you ever noticed that your search results usually differ from another person’s search results — even when you both type the same query into the same search engine? Before you think this means that search engine optimization is completely futile and throw your hands up in exasperation, read on. Here’s what’s really going on.

To make each searcher’s results as relevant as possible, it makes sense that search engines would want to continually improve their capability to understand the intent, context, and all the other clues related to each search. That involves getting to know the searcher, the query, and the results better.

Search engines use a combination of techniques to personalize the results page for each searcher and each query. One primary method that search engines use to know the searcher part of the equation better is called behavioral search, which refers to customizing a results page based on the user’s previous search behavior.

Behavioral search tracks the searches you’ve run, sites you’ve visited, and files you’ve downloaded, so the search engine can adjust new search results to include items that will interest you. But behavioral data is only part of the complex set of signals that contribute to personalized results.

Search engines can individually customize search results based on the user’s

  • Recent search behavior

  • Location

  • Web history

  • Demographic information

  • Community

Personalization means that the major search engines use a lot more than just keyword ranking to determine the order of results.

Behavioral targeting particularly affects the paid results you see. For instance, if you run a search for [coffee mugs] followed by a search for [java], the search engine throws in a few extra paid results for coffee-related products at the top or sides of the page.

Even if you’re not logged in, the data from your search history may influence your search engine results, making your search results different from what you would see if you were a new searcher for [java]. Your previous search for [coffee mugs] influenced the search engine to assume you meant [java] as in coffee, rather than the computer language.

Personalizing results by location

Thanks to some fairly simple technology, search engines can tell where you are! Your computer’s IP address identifies your approximate city location to a search engine, which can then personalize your search results to include local listings for your search terms.

This technique, often called geotargeting, comes into play the most when you search for items that involve brick-and-mortar businesses or services that need to be provided locally (for example, searches for the terms [furniture reupholstery] or [house painters] would bring up some local businesses mixed in with the other results).

Personalizing results by web history

Search engines can further understand searchers’ intentions by looking at their personal web history, or the records of their previous searches and the websites they’ve visited or bookmarked. How far back the records go is unclear, although Google once stated that it anonymizes the data after 18 months. It’s important to note that Google can only track your web history between sessions while you’re signed in to your Google account.

Because the extra services like free email and customizable home pages are truly wonderful, many people have these accounts and may not realize their surfing behavior is being recorded.

Google does give you ways to delete your web history or block the data collection; however, there is no way to prevent Google from personalizing your results within a session. A session is any time you perform multiple searches from within the same browser window without closing it entirely and clearing cookies.

Want to see your own web history the way it’s stored in Google’s database? You might be surprised at how much of a trail you’ve left behind. Here’s where you can go to view your private web history.

Personalizing results by demographics

Search engines often know demographic information about you, such as your gender, age, home address, or city, as well as your interests. You may provide this information to them when you first sign up for an account. Search engines can’t get this data without your consent. However, lack of direct input doesn’t mean they’re not going to try to infer information about you based on what you have told them.

They also learn about you by tracking what you do within their site. For instance, if you do a search on their map and, for map-searching convenience later, mark your home address as your starting location, the search engine reasonably assumes that that’s where you live.

Personalizing results based on Google products

If you’re signed in to your Google account while searching, Google may include information relevant to your search query that is pulled from:

  • Gmail

  • Google Calendar

  • Google+

This has practical applications as well as one very powerful SEO opportunity. First, on a practical note, it might be convenient for you to see upcoming events pulled from your own personal Google Calendar within search results. You can query [my events] to see a SERP full of your own private events, or type [what time is my next flight] to see flight information, to give just two examples pulled from Google Calendar.

The integration between Google Search and Google+ (the engine’s social network) creates powerful community building and SEO benefits. The way your Google+ activity can impact SERPs is this: Your results can include any relevant content that’s visible to you in Google+, such as posts from people in your circles and links that those people recommend (by clicking +1).

These results show up only for you; however, consider the ripple effect. If someone who has a lot of followers on Google+ recommends your post or web page with a link, anyone who has that influencer circled may see your listing show up in his or her personalized results, assuming that the person searches for a relevant query.