How to Exploit Personalized Search For SEO

Posted in SEO

Since the onset of personalized search, frustrated SEO sharpshooters have sought tactics to somehow get a grip on the ensuing chaos.  Now that most users  get uniquely-customized search results (SERPs), the days of search engine optimization measurable in the SERPs are long gone.

This post offers a useful method to optimize for micro-demographics in a way that, not only neutralizes, but also assertively exploits personalized search to the SEO’s benefit, one user at a time. Even better: there is no way Google or any other engine will ever defeat this tactic.  Got ya’ interested? Read on for an accidental antidote: SEO for personalized search.

Background Before Goodies
At SES New York 2007, Danny Sullivan interviewed Marissa Mayer, Vice President, Search Products & User Experience at Google.  The SEO world was turned upside-down that memorable March morning by her long-anticipated announcement that Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs) were now “personalized,” meaning every user receives customized results based on Google’s data mining of users’ behavior.  We had noticed subtle changes in the SERPs prior. It was early but there were “over 10 million personalized results” at the time. Yahoo & Bing followed suit.

SEO as we knew it was no longer possible because it wasn’t feasible to run ranking-reports to quantify success. Previously we all ran ranking reports like WebPosition Gold, which yielded absolute documentation of where a keyword ranked in relation to a specific page in the SERPs.

Genesis of a Guerrilla Tactic
In 2006 we started linking out to other people’s blog posts when creating quotes for services for prospective clients. Little did we know the tactic would ultimately lead us to a killer technique to circumvent serious problems presented to SEOs by personalization.

1-quote-for-services

The tactic solved a number of problems. First it helped us solidify concepts for customers. Search marketing has a ton of tiny details, which often need explanation. Linking out to articles to clarify  served the purpose of client-empowerment well because it took little of our time. We also learned that our requiring study of our new business-leads,  as a prerequisite to our taking the job, is a cool method to vet prospective clients’ compatibility with our shop.

Our thinking was that any potential customer unwilling to read background material to explain things would make a rotten client in the end anyway.

2-SES

In time we got tired of giving away our brand, to other bloggers’ posts,  as we linked out from proposals. The result was that we started aimClear Blog, initially as an FAQ destination URL for service pitches.

This proved even more effective when we started to tag proposals at the individual pitch level (?source=who-we-pitched-first-name-last-name). It does not matter if our blog got a lot of traffic.

We only cared that the right visitor saw our stuff–the prospect we sent from out proposal.  Using the blog as such also branded the agency as a thought leader and our “close rate” went up significantly.

When chatting on the phone or across the table, I started telling customers to Google keywords in combination that pretty much guaranteed they’d see our post as the number 1 result. Here’s an example: “Search for aimClear reputation monitoring.” Then I’d say, “OK now, click on the first result.”

3-SERPs

Then we would discuss the post.  It almost always worked as the most efficient method to lead folks to a post anyway. Even if we did not own the personalized #1 for a certain phrase, we could always feed people some 3-4 word phrase that got us to the top of their SERPs. After all, we’re SEOs :).

4-aimclearblog

Actually I’d been doing this for years, mostly because it’s the easiest way for me to find our content, which I’ve lost track of by and large.  Ever since we’ve sent all sorts of people to their very own personalized Google SERPs to click on our blog. It’s so easy.

The Big “Ah Hah” Moment!
In September we trained a company in Detroit for 4 days. Over the course of each day it made sense to use aimClear Blog to clarify concepts like Universal Search, Personalized Search,  Facebook PPC, etc… Time after time I’d invite all 6 people in the room “Google aimClear this” or “aimClear that.” It’s probable that each trainee Googled and clicked on between 25-30 blog posts to locate posts intended to clarify content.

After the session, I was on the phone with one of the trainees re-explaining the term “Content Marketing.” She blew me away by offering that she had “just searched for ‘content marketing’ and aimClear Blog had the #1!  Dude, we had barely ever written using those words as a blog title or built anything to achieve high organic prominence for this competitive phrase.  Google was skewing her results based on the dozens of times she had searched and clicked at my direction. Obviously her history indicated to Google that she was very interested in our site.

The Antidote: SEO for Personalized Search
The solution to optimizing SERPs, which are customized based on an individual user’s affinities, is to influence that user’s offline behavior.  Think of AOL back in the day. They’d advertise where the call to action was to “visit AOL, keyword = ________.

Getting users to click on your website’s listing in the search engine results teaches the search engine that the user “likes” your site.  After very few clicks, Google learns that the user looks to your site as an authority for that and closely related topics. Use this to your advantage!

  • During phone calls say “search for THIS and click on It.”
  • Tell potential customers at meetings & pitches.
  • Email links to unpersonalized SERPs with instructions to click on the results.
  • Put SERPs link in blog Posts (we do and it works :)).
  • Never miss a chance to direct folks to content by way of  SERPs/click.
  • Making up words usually works, I.E. tell people “Go to Google and search for something like,  “The Mighty Rankinstanker.”  Say, “Click on the first result.” In this case the user has demonstrated to the engine he/she ‘likes” SearchEngineLand.
  • Go mass market. Make the call to action. Advertise:  Put “Go to Google.com, keyword ________ in your radio ad.

Personalized search was inevitable. There are various arguments as to why it’s good or bad, but obviously there are inherent challenges for SEOs.  A great way to attack the issue is to influence users in how they use search engines. Google and other engines will never be able beat the approach of optimizing users pre-click behavior instead of only web pages.

  • Dave Davis

    Brilliant Marty.
    This post should have been posted a long time ago. I think there’s a lot of reading between the lines to be done here too. There are so many ways to “exploit” this seeing that they don’t fall into the “Google has control” category of tactics.

    Everyone needs to start taking organic SERP CTRs seriously and start coming up with creative ways to improve them.
    Fantastic article. Great job.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @Dave Davis: Thanks for the kind words. This has been on our mind for some time but finally had a moment to write about it…such an obvious thing.

  • Dave Davis

    The concept is obvious but coming up with creative ways to get onto a users preference is key.

    • Marty Weintraub

      It was an accident that turned into an intentional technique. Dude, it almost always works. It’s about impelling human behavior. The search engines can never stop it. We could put a dollar amount to the tactic. :)

  • Patrick Murphy

    Hi Marty,

    Great Post,

    Should point how some of the way that they do personalise your search:
    1: Your Location,
    2: Looks at your time history, so what you are search for during the day
    3: What your device is. If is a mobile or pc.
    4: what you clicked on previously
    5: Groups based, what did similar people click on for the same search

    There could be more, any other ideas?

  • Mark Attwood

    Great article Marty. Thanks for sharing this. It has dawned on me that I’ve been telling people to google this and that for years, which may now be a factor in some successes :-)

  • Ed Kohler

    That’s a slick way to demonstrate your expertise while building some search benefits down the road. I dig it.

    • Marty Weintraub

      @Ed Hohler: Cool, I’m glad it resonates.

  • Chris

    Thanks for the overview of the personal search concept. I think that this will continue to be growing area as Google gets more personnel with its results and people start finding that the results are different for each person.

  • Jeffrey L. Smith

    Great Insights Marty:

    I remember a few years back, there were automated spiders out snatching up predetermined keywords and funneling click throughs back to a target site which skewed the search / popularity authority metric.

    Little did we know that the big G would latch on to those click stream paths and start to order SERPs as a result. The pre-click segmentation that occurs as a result of preference never ceases to amaze me. IP tracking, the semantic footprint, what’s next “psychic auto suggest” based on brain wave patterns?

    Guess we will have to wait and see…

    • Marty Weintraub

      @Jeffrey L. Smith: The thought has crossed me mind…”brainwaves.” The reality is no matter what Google dials in, it won’t matter if you get to the user before he/she searches and clicks :). Thanks for stopping by.

  • Alister on search engine optimisation

    This only applies if the user is logged into Google, I would think that not many people use personalized search just yet.

  • Lauren

    I agree- brilliant findings, and thank you for sharing them. While I was reading “The Big ‘Ah-ha’ Moment,” I literally said, “ah-ha!” myself. And I love this: “influence users in how [users] *use* search engines.” That certainly is the direction in which we’re headed, huh. It’s like a parallel to e-Commerce and social media – influence through interaction rather than behind the scenes tech manipulation. Well, obviously there has to be some level of manipulation in there…

  • Flamex

    Question is how effective will this be on competitive keywords?

    How much do search engines weight personalised search compared to other signals? Anyone done some tests showing a positive outcome?

    Can this be implemented on a large scale…? after all it is unethical so you would have to be careful with your strategies. not maybe worrying about Google banning you but by harming your brand in a ever social web.

    Will you see a positive ROI? will all that hard work pay off? is their too much noise involved, as in your 100% work would only be x% effective depending on whether the end user has a Google account?

    its obviously getting tougher for SEO’s, search engines are doing everything in their powers to deliver relevant and authority content. It will need creative strategies to continue getting good level of traffic from organic searches.

  • Chris von Nieda

    Interesting post Marty bravo. I have been looking for information like this ever since personalized search went opt out. Now that we are a few months in to it do you or anyone you know have any further data or research on how this is working? The question in my office is, does this actually impact the authority of the domain in Googles eyes or just the likelihood that a website will rank higher in the serps for a particular user?

    • Marty Weintraub

      @Chris von Nieda: Thanks for the kind words and we’re glad that the post resonated. We appreciate you stopping by. Both potential answers to your question have the same end-results…users who see your pages rank higher in their personalized SERPs.

      I have a rock star musician friend who always used to say that “to be famous in every small town is the same as being famous nationally.” In other words, who cares if it pumps the domain? Change the SERPs one user at a time by influencing individuals search patters. Tweak them in other channels. Dude…”Go to Google, Keyword “[keyword].” There are other tactics like “search Google for domain.com/brandedDirectory.”

      The rest is semantics. The real question is “how does YOUR behavior affect others’ personalized results. Well, SearchWiki bombed and we thought that was where we were goin’ with that one. Ultimately social votes are where we’re going in some form or another. Exactly how the socio-behavioral grid and behavior of individuals influences other users’ SERPs is conjecture to you and I. @mattcutts knows :).

      I believe the actions of others does already or will shortly impact SERPs. Google rolls stuff out overnight sometimes without nary a peep. They only say out loud what QTeam PR says to say, using the sound bytes all (or most on the teams) agree will be least inflammatory and disruptive to the Google ecosystem. Art the end of the day, I expect that social influencers broadcasting and rebroadcasting your stuff, will help the specific content and the site.

  • Chris von Nieda

    Marty: thanks for the reply…I have been putting a lot of thought in to this since I read it and have been evangelizing the concept to come extent around our office here at Vertical Measures. I can tell it’s going to be a tough sell but the owner Arnie Kuenn did say he thinks there is merit in the concept and I respect his opinion. He seemed more sold in using search queries in actual contextual links versus the spoken word. Not sure why.

    I also agree that the direction things are heading and (we both know Google is tooling up for this) is social mentions as votes.

    Good stuff! Fun to talk about it. I was thinking I may write a blog post on this topic over at Vertical Measures Blog :) and one other tidbit I stumbled across this week as well. If I do I will surely drop you a link and credit for the inspiration.

    – Chris

    • Marty Weintraub

      @Chris von Nieda: Heck, just tell folks to Google “this” or Google “that” when you’re on the phone with them. Move the needle for THOSE people. One by one.

  • Chris von Nieda

    Trust me I hear ya Marty…Just have to get them all thinking this way now!