Lime in the coconut

Rocking How Personalized Search Results Affect Ranking

I’ve seen numerous instances lately of people not understanding why they don’t see the same results as someone else for the same search query, so I thought a little clarification might be in order.

There are a number of reasons why two people will see different SERPs for the same term, but they basically fall into two categories: geographic and personalization.

Geographic Location

The location of the searcher is one. If you’re located in Cleveland and your SEO is in Los Angeles, the search results are bound to be different, unless one of you spoofs the search engine to make it believe you’re both in the same location.

Simple, right? In the first place, Google will normally try to deliver results that are more pertinent to the location of the searcher. Then, there are a number of data centers from which the results may be drawn, and the state of the index can vary somewhat between them.

But that’s not really all that this is about. The differences in search results because of other aspects of personalization can be much more pronounced. That is the second cause for different results being served to various users.


Personalized search results simply refers to a SERP that’s filtered by means that deliver a particular set of results to a user, based upon factors that are particular to that person. It may involve a great many factors besides geographic location, such as previous search history, items that the user has shown previous interest in via Likes, Shares or comments, items of interest to other users with whom the user has had interaction and social media connections.

While any two users will have some items in their SERPs in common, there will nearly always be differences in the results served to them. This makes it difficult for two people to compare rankings. They can log out of Google, of course, and opt for incognito search, but there is still the question of whether or not anyone that is active on the Internet (particularly on a variety of Google properties) can ever be truly “logged out”.

Google Plus, Gmail, YouTube, Picasa, Panoramio, Postini, Google Earth, Blogger… the list of Google-associated accounts you might remain logged into is long… very long. It may, indeed, be virtually impossible to be simultaneously on-line and totally off the grid, from Google’s viewpoint.

Are you confused?
Are you confused?

The point, of course, is that if you’re logged in, you will definitely see results that are tailored for you. Logged out, you may see generic or unfiltered results. Consider what Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google had to say on the subject:

“It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.”

How Rankings can be Affected

As a result of geo-location and personalization, rankings are a questionable metric for a site owner and the SEO. But more importantly, the results displayed to each searcher will be similarly affected, making the SERPs ranking a questionable metric. With all the variables considered, ranking simply isn’t something that can be taken seriously any longer, since essentially very few people will see similar SERPs.

This doesn’t mean we should ignore keywords or stop trying to ensure our pages rank for them, by any means. It simply means that we should be writing about concepts, not words. Ensure that your document focuses clearly on a particular topic – simply sprinkling keywords throughout the content is not the most effective way to accomplish that.

Knowing that the SERPs will vary from user to user does present some opportunities for some sites, though. For instance, in local marketing, content will normally be tailored to a particular geographic location. Since users are often served results that are heavily filtered in accordance with the user’s location, Google already tends to serve them results that are more geographically focused. If your content shares a similar geographic focus, you may get a leg up on much of your competition.

Some Tips

There are also ways in which you can take advantage of social connections to target users. Remember that social connections can influence the results that users see. Coupling that with laser-targeting users that already have a demonstrated interest in your pages’ topics can sometimes have a dramatic effect on your conversion rate.

  • Facebook – For instance, if you sell cameras and photography supplies, you may want to consider joining a photography group or two on Facebook. I don’t mean so you can spam the other members with promotions, either… you need to be much more subtle than that. Join in and interact with other members, gradually begin to send out friend requests to people that may have real interest in your offering.

If you’re actually engaging them in interaction, there’s a good chance they’ll accept your friendship request and BAM! – you have an inside track to getting things that you like and share into their SERPs. This won’t tick people off like promoting within the group or sending friends spammy messages. In fact, it will normally just build a more lasting impression of your name and help establish your brand in their minds.

  • Twitter – You could do something similar on Twitter by doing a hashtag search for #photography or #cameras and select some users that have employed that hashtag and seem to be possible customers. Begin watching their Twitter stream and interact with them a bit. After a few exchanges, they may follow you, at which time you should return the favor. If they don’t, then make the first move. If your interactions have been well handled, they’ll likely follow you back. Again, BAM! Just don’t bombard your stream with a lot of self-promotion… they can unfollow you just as easily.
  • Google+ – Here, you can employ both the above tactics, engaging with other users and provided useful posts and comments, until they finally put you in their circles, as well as joining communities that are relevant to your offering. BAM – BAM! Just as in any social media platform, remember to be social, not promotional – remember, you’re trying to attract people, not drive them away.
Geo Location

Depending upon what products or services you offer, there may be other social platforms that can help get you into the SERPs of other members. (Hint: If cameras or photography is your gig, surely you’re already doing this on Pinterest!)

So although the advent of personalization has presented us with some new challenges, it’s also made us look at new opportunities. Take advantage now and put your (or your clients’) social connections to work, without taking the social out of social media.

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6 Responses

  1. These personalized search results and ads are actually why it’s becoming more important than ever to create a business Google+ page. As far as social media goes, G+ has the biggest impact on your search engine results. Facebook likes and shares help, as do Twitter followers, etc., but Google is the one putting the results on the page, and if someone is logged into G+, it’s going to have the biggest impact. As you mentioned, there are just so many factors that go into search results, and making sure you’re in control of as many as you can will help you rank higher.

  2. Google+ has questionable motives but is now catching on – nearly 350 million active users. There’s no denying that Google likes to see its Google defined authors posting content and seems to give preference to them in the serps – even if people don’t like this its going to continue to make G+ and its personalized results more the norm than the exception.

  3. Aahna, Google + is one of the worst social media platforms around. Anyone who really uses it knows that it is yet another way for Google to track everything you do on the web, and is an invasion of privacy. I specifically looked up this article to find a search engine that “Doesn’t” personalize my search queries.

    1. Hi, flip, thanks for dropping in. I agree that G+ exists primarily to track interactions and relationships. If “authority” is ever going to be a real metric, both are essential. I don’t know that I’d classify it as an invasion of privacy, really… but by no means can we think that our privacy is their primary concern. 😉

  4. Hi Doc,

    As per my experience with Google+, I would say it’s more productive than other social media platform. The reason is simple “Communities” here are more engaging and useful info generally receive good appreciation.

    1. Hi, Aahna- While I’d tend to agree that G+ communities are normally more focused and informative, I still don’t consider G+ to be a “social media platform”… it’s just a data harvesting platform. Thanks for commenting – don’t be a stranger.

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