How Does Google’s Personal Search Affect Your Business?

Thomas Fox is president of Tech Experts, southeast Michigan’s leading small business computer support company.

Consider this statement: “On Friday afternoon, Google made the biggest change that has ever happened in search engines, and the world largely yawned.” That quote is from a December 7, 2009, post on Search Engine Land, a website that covers Google, Bing and the other Internet search engines.

Don’t worry if you didn’t read the post. Since it was early December when Google announced that it would start personalizing all search results, we were getting ready for the holidays.

It isn’t clear at first glance just how significant this change will be. A closer look, though, reveals nothing short of a revolution in the making.

Here is what Google did, according to Google: “Today we’re helping people get better search results by extending Personalized Search to signed-out users worldwide, and in more than forty languages. Now when you search using Google, we will be able to better provide you with the most relevant results possible.”

A real world example: I do a lot of searches for recipes, and often click on results from Knowing this, Google might rank higher on the results page the next time I look for recipes.

Other times, when I’m looking for news about the University of Michigan’s football team, I search for “Michigan wolverines.”

Because I frequently click on, Google might show me this result first, instead of search results about the animal.

Google is able to do this because they are now cataloging all of your searches for over 180 days. It then uses your search history to customize your results.

If you’re not signed in to your Google account, a cookie on your browser keeps a record of your queries.

Sounds pretty innocuous, doesn’t it? Better search results? Tailored to exactly what I need? I like this change! Others, however, might squirm at the Orwellian aspect of an omniscient Google knowing exactly what you want. Whether the change is good or bad is debatable, but it’s certainly going to be big.

Until now, search engines have largely delivered the same results to everyone. Two different people could search for Barack Obama and get back the same set of results.

The days of “normal” search results that everyone sees are now over. Personalized results are the “new normal,” and the change is going to shift the search world and society in general in unpredictable ways.

How might this change shift the world? Here are a few scenarios:

Narrowing your Internet experience
This change could curtail what we’ll call “search-engine serendipity.” Search-engine serendipity happens when you search Google with a preconceived notion of what you’ll find, but instead you end up exploring new ideas and virgin territory. Personalized results may repeatedly channel you through the same grooves, limiting your exposure to things outside your experience.

Confirm your personal biases
Search Engine Land’s Dan Sullivan picks up on this possibility in his post: “Is a search for Michelle Obama showing a racist image? Maybe for one person, but not for another.”

For the xenophobic Googler, every search may reinforce his xenophobic worldview because personalization filters sites that don’t jibe with his tastes. Another example: Once Google has you pegged as a bleeding heart liberal, it may serve up Huffington Post for every query.

Polarize our political system
You can see where we’re going with this. If personalized results reinforce our beliefs, we’ll soon have Google red and Google blue. The folks in Mountain View have tried to comfort people by saying that it wants “diversity of results.” But that poses another troubling question: Who will define diversity? Google?

It could reduce the visibility of your website
Since no one but Google knows how its personalization algorithm works, it’s hard to know how far-reaching the change will be. But it’s plausible that a business’ website would no longer rank for certain keywords among certain prospects. If, for example, a person went on an book-buying spree, Google might take note and start displaying for a majority of product-related queries, which is great … if you’re

It could skew your SEO efforts
Since there is no longer a ‘normal’ set of results, it becomes more difficult to optimize your website. There isn’t one bull’s eye to aim for anymore: there are millions of them and they’re moving all the time as Google refreshes its 180-day cache of your search terms.

Personalized Search for Everyone