How Will Personalized Search Affect Your Marketing Strategy?

Sweeping and fundamental changes to online search are in full swing. Google announced on January 24, 2012, that it will begin collecting and sharing user data on just about all of its sites – and users will not have the ability to opt out.

One consequence of this move will be Google delivering users search results that are exponentially more personalized than anything we are used to seeing. Because our activities on YouTube, Gmail, Picassa and Google+ will be factored in, when we do a Google search it will feel like a Facebook news stream experience – we will see more content from our connections and based on our own behavior and preferences.

Google has already taken big steps in the direction of personalization, so the January 24 announcement came as little surprise to industry insiders (although the heavy-handedness of the no opt-out provision was a disturbing, if not eye-popping, wrinkle).

Much of the groundwork was laid in 2011. At that time, Google+, a Facebook-esque social platform, was rolled out, and today has at least several million active users — with forecasts as high as 400 million users by the end of 2012. And personalization already exists, although not on the scale Google is preparing us for.

At the moment, Google+ content, which consists largely of social conversations and links, appears prominently in Google search results when users opt to display their “personal results”. The personal results option, introduced to many users in early January, includes and orders content based on factors such as content published by your connections on Google products, social search, your Web history, and people in your Google+ circles.

While it’s much too early to sort out the Internet marketing and SEO implications of all this, there are a few adjustments that every business should make now.

First, a company’s digital strategy must include a fully integrated and active social media presence. For a company’s online content to be optimally visible in Google search, it will need to be commented upon, tweeted, Liked, and perhaps most important, “Google-Plussed.”

Second, companies will need quarterly rather than annual strategic plans for SEO and social media in particular, and Internet marketing more broadly. Besides the ongoing attention required to evaluate and adapt to Google’s new strategic direction, several other unknowns loom, including:

  • Whether and to what extent privacy concerns drive users away from Google.
  • How other search engines, Bing in particular, will be affected in terms of their response and popularity. Will they resist personalization as a point of differentiation, or embrace it? Will users abandon Google en masse or learn to love it in its new form?
  • How Facebook will adapt. Although Google has pushed it off the front page lately, we should remember that with a user base approaching one billion, Facebook is already a potent search platform with the capability of disrupting a search market unsettled by a Google in transition.

Third, new metrics will be needed to evaluate SEO programs. Less important to search visibility will be pure, “objective” rankings; more important will be social shares and the quality of social shares. Another factor playing into this equation is that Google has begun to hide organic search data from logged-in users, making fewer facts available to SEO strategists.

With paradigms truly shifting and measurement tools in flux, a company’s ability to be nimble and creative has never been more important – and never more directly tied to its marketing results.