There has been a lot of buzz lately on the topic of personalized search and the death of SEO. In a widely viewed interview at PubCon 2008, Bruce Clay discussed the implications of personalized search for search engine rankings by announcing that “ranking is dead”and urging webmasters to focus less on whether or not they have a number one ranking and more on questions like:
– Did I get the conversion I was after?
– Did I really deliver on the promise of SEO?
He is not alone in this view. Andrew Wetzler, President of Morevisibility, in a recent issue of Revenue Magazine also takes up the call for webmasters to focus on optimizing sites for conversion.
Personalized search results definitely affect the importance of ranking as a metric for search engine optimization and from one point of view, they can be considered dead as a reliable metric. After all if everyone gets a different result, ranking number one for a keyword becomes virtually meaningless. However, that doesn’t mean that the content of a website cannot influence its rankings overall.
By focusing on making the pages more relevant to the user, not only can you improve conversion rates, but it could actually lead to better rankings, even in a personalized search world. If a page is well-optimized for a particular search term and users like it, it should rank well in search engine results pages for any user that is truly looking for that product or service, even if your page is not the first one that the user finds and clicks on. By choosing pages that are similarly relevant to yours, all pages that also meet those relevancy standards are boosted in the results. Focusing the optimization of your pages for what your users want is optimizing for rankings in personalized search.
Where the idea of ranking becomes truly obsolete is with the old Black Hat practices of trying to trick search engines into giving a page a high ranking for an irrelevant search term just to get lots of hits to the site. For those of us who have been working on fine tuning our page keyword targeting and content to attract the customers that are looking for us and getting them to convert as customers, personalized search may actually make very little difference. For example, we have noted that unless you are constantly clicking on the same website for a particular search, the rankings that appear based on your search activity in Google are not all that different from what would normally appear, although over time, the sites displayed tend to focus on a particular theme to a greater extent.
The average user who clicks on the same site every time is probably just looking for that website in particular, is using search to find it and is essentially just the same as a direct traffic source. Any searcher who is really and truly searching should get roughly the same results as any other user with only minor differences in ranking. In fact, this could even be a boon for some sites where their results are mingled in with other interpretations of the keyword. After all, a search for apples could be fruit or computers. If all the results are personalized for fruit, then a site that might not have appeared on the first page in regular results pages could actually be more prominent in personalized search.
Google’s tracking of user search habits has prompted new speculation about how they may be changing their ranking factors. Some have suggested that they will be taking bounce rate into account — effectively they could be tracking searcher behavior to see if users “bounce” off a link instead of continuing on to explore the site. While this is a compelling notion, the implementation of this would be fraught with difficulties for search engines as David Harry points out in his exhaustive post on the issues surrounding the question of bounce rate as a factor. While Google would love to be able to find a metric that is less prone to spam than inbound links, bounce rate would be even easier for spammers to manipulate and is unlikely to ever become a serious factor without some kind of measures put into place to control the spamming.
That said, Google can’t help but be tempted by all of the new social network activity. After all, the basic idea behind linking as a measure of site importance was based on popularity — we often refer to those links as a vote of popularity for your site. Compared to linking, social media is a virtual cornucopia of popularity indices. This isn’t all speculation. Google has been reaching out to social media developers with their Open Social API program. This week, their Adwords group sponsored a webinar introducing their marketing partners to social media. It will be interesting to see how these new opportunities affect search engine results and the internet marketing industry in general.
As we have said before, getting visitors to your site requires promotion and keeping them there requires good quality, relevant content that will engage them and maybe even convince them to convert to become a customer. Search engine optimization, in the sense that you are trying to trick a search engine may well be on the way out, but the art of creating good web content and promoting it in a productive way is coming of age. Social media networking and interactive marketing tactics provide creative ways for websites to be found and come to prominence in the new web environment. In the old sense of the acronym, SEO is dead, but in the new world of interactive internet marketing, we’re just getting started.