Why I’m not worried about Personalized Search or Caffeine (And why you shouldn’t be either)

Webmasters and SEO firms everywhere are all in a tizzy over the announcement last week about personalized search being turned on for everybody. The gist of it is that unless you expressly opt out a specific browser, you’re going to get cookied and search results will be reflective of various sites you have clicked through before.

“The possible impact to all is staggering”, they cried. “The rich will get richer”, they bemoaned. The overall atmosphere is one of woe and fear for what’s to come. Personalized search will change the whole game of SEO, and make it harder to rank and compete.

A Quick Sidebar about SEO

First let me remind everyone that optimizing for an algorithm you don’t own (aka SEO) is a game that is forever changing. The very nature of the game is that it’s always getting more complicated – what worked yesterday may or may not work tomorrow and no one really wants to share anyway. So something will always be coming down the pipeline that will “change the whole game of SEO” and the best way to deal with it is roll with the punches, monitor results, see what’s changed, test different hypotheses and make decisions according to the data/anecdotal evidence you see. If you’re running a real business, now would also be a good time to start thinking about diversifying your traffic sources and moving away from the crutch that is Google.

No Big Whoop

Personalized search will make a difference in certain verticals, primarily e-commerce and large informational sites. I personally don’t think it’s bad for the user experience – if you tend to click on Amazon or About.com results more frequently, then that’s probably the result set that’s right for you anyway.

The smaller sites and publishers who view this as a threat should instead view it as an opportunity. We tend to think in terms of search volume, but behind  most  queries, even the big ones (think [credit cards] or [web hosting]) are millions of people who have never searched for that term before. What happens when it’s your site that ranks on either competitive terms or the long tail? You’ll benefit by getting more exposure because of personalized search.

But My Ranking Software is Now Obsolete

It’s probably true: with different results being served to different people, it will make it harder to chart overall rankings. Your real guide should be your analytics software anyway – that’s probably the only place you’ll be able to monitor trends and get a feel for how you’re doing in personalized search.

Ranking Factors Haven’t Changed

Beyond all this hubbub is the fact that many things have stayed the same. Google still uses links as a large factor in rankings, and you can still make Google look stupid with the best of them.

Decaf, Please

Some comments on Caffeine: Never in the history of Google updates have they gone to such great lengths to let people know about changes ahead of time. It’s a game of misdirection that would make Sun Tzu proud. From looking at various result sets and churn, I think a large part of the new structure is live and has been live for some time now.

The thing is, it doesn’t matter anyway. The result sets on Caffeine data centers aren’t finalized, and can be influenced and optimized in roughly the same way as the “old” data sets. A lot of this stuff is smoke and mirrors to keep SEOs second guessing themselves. My advice: Figure out what works and keep doing it until it stops working.


  1. Although I mostly agree with your points here, one of them does make me want to say, “wait!”

    You said, “if you tend to click on Amazon or About.com results more frequently, then that’s probably the result set that’s right for you anyway.”

    Umm, maybe not. In my case, for instance, I absolutely hate about.com. Don’t ask why, it’s something I can’t explain. Anyway, I click on about.com listings in the SERPs CONSTANTLY, and I always want to smack myself in the face for clicking it without realizing where it was leading me. What I’m saying is that I frequently click links in the SERPs to about.com pages, and each time I’m angry that I did so. That result set is absolutely NOT RIGHT for me, and the fact that I keep clicking the danged things doesn’t tell Google I love them. (It might tell them I’m an idiot, but that’s another subject entirely).

    Anyway, just wanted to chime in on that, simply because you happened to use the one example that I despise. :)

  2. Nice Post, Ari!

    When I go to Google, I’m looking to research a product or service or learn something. I’m NOT going to Google to find out what I ALREADY know or find products/services that I already know exist (Google Personalized Search). It will be interesting to see how personalized search plays out.


  3. I agree with Ryan.

    Google is a search engine – a place to find NEW information…or maybe a different perspective.

    I don’t agree with the idea that the few big sites that are dominating search should remain dominating. The small guys deserve a piece of the pie too, and not just for long-tail.

    My thoughts on this topic: http://www.liveambitions.com/google-personalized-search-for-everyone/