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Google Relaunches Personal Search - This Time, It Really Is Personal

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Google has released a new version of Google Personalized Search, this time in a format intended to constantly monitor what people select from search results and shape future queries based on their choices.

The new service is linked to the My Search History feature that Google unveiled last April (see our Google My Search History Personalizes the Web for more on the feature). Google Personalized Search uses My Search History data to refine your results based on your searching habits.

The service hasn't been formally rolled out via Google Labs, something that should happen later today. But it is starting to show up in search results pages for some people, as Dirson's spotted here and here, with a screenshot here.

When it does appear, you should be able to access it here: Google Personalized Search. I can reach that page myself, but it currently generates errors if I try to do a web search. Similarly, the Personalized Search help area has yet to go up.

Here's what I can tell you so far. Google hasn't explained exactly how the My Search History data is used. The service is literally brand new, and I'll be doing a follow-up to hopefully provide more details later in the day. However, it's pretty likely that a profile of what you like is created based on the pages you visit via the search results, rather than the actual searches you do.

Huh? Google gives an example (not yet posted live) that says:

For the query [bass], Google Personalized Search may show the user results about the instrument and not the fish if that person was a frequent Google searcher for music information

How would Google know you are a frequent music information searcher? It could monitor the types of queries you do and use various methods to tell if you seem to be searching for music information often. But another method -- and one using technology Google has already has demonstrated -- is to monitor what you click on in the results.

(FYI, a Google patent on personalization based on bookmarks that recently came to light is covered in this SEW Forums thread and in great depth in this Cre8asite thread. Another recently discussed patent also covers things like using clickthrough measurements to refine results. In addition, Google has personalization technologies and patents from past acquisitions, such as Outride).

Google Personalized Search 1.0 - Pages By Topic

The previous incarnation of Google Personalized Search that opened last year let you create a profile used to customize your results. By selecting categories, you could tell Google you were interested in things like movies, radio and music. Then by using a slider, you could "personalize" your results to skew them toward your particular interest areas.

More about how that service operates is covered in my past review of it, Google Gains Personalized Search Results. In it, I explained that Google was classifying pages across the web into topics. The "personal" results were simply those skewed more toward the topics areas you were interested in, a profile you had to manually create.

In the new system, a profile is created automatically. As said, exactly how isn't explained yet by Google. But almost certainly, it's measuring what you click on and then skewing your results over time to favor sites that fall in particular topics areas seems part of it.

Turning Off Personalization

What if you don't want the skew? There's a "Turn OFF Personalized Search for these results" link on the search results page you can use. If you see that link, it's a sign that the results HAVE been personalized. No link, then no personalization happened. And if you get the link, clicking on it will bring back regular results on a per result basis.

Want regular results all the time? You'll need to sign out of Google, if you've signed in. Signed in? When did I sign in! You logged into Google any time you used a service that can range from Gmail to Google Sitemaps. Anything that requires a Google Accounts sign-on is a service that logs you into Google. And if you activated My Search History, then that gets switched on along with personalized results once you've logged into ANY Google Accounts service.

Pausing Search History Recording

Understanding that signing-in automatically activates these features is important. Google's My Search History and Privacy from The Unofficial Google Weblog from a few weeks ago explains how some might not have realized that My Search History went active just because they went to check their email. So be aware. If you've enabled My Search History, it's going to switch on if you log into most anything at Google.

Dislike that? You don't have to sign-up for My Search History, of course. That will block the recording of your searches and the personalization now happening. But you can also pause the service.

When I tested today, a pause will be retained even if you sign out and then back in. It's an easy way to stop your history from being recorded unless you specifically want it to be. But remember, pausing will not stop personalization from happening. If you have any recorded search history at all, then Google will try to personalize your results, whenever you are logged in. There's no "Pause Personalization," as of yet.

Finally -- SEO Faces A Thousand Fronts

When Eurekster kicked off round two of search personalization last year (why round one died in 1999 is covered here), I explained in my review for Search Engine Watch members that personalization was appealing to search engines as a spam fighting tactic:

Link analysis itself is facing problems. Link spammers and others overtly manipulate links. Links are also created naturally in ways much different than in the past, polluting their usefulness in search. Personalization poses a potential next leap forward -- and clickthrough measurement can provide that.

In addition, past uses of clickthrough measurements never delivered personalized results by default. Anyone was allowed to influence the results that everyone else saw. In Eurekster's system, only those within your search network can directly influence you. This effectively creates hundreds, thousands and even millions of different possible results for the same search.

Click spammers suddenly face many different "fronts" in the war to be in the top ten, and they only get to fight in that war by invitation -- if someone they know asks them to be part of their network. Eurekster assumes "friends don't spam friends," and it's a pretty safe assumption.

Since then, we've seen the major search engines add search history features but not actual personalization of results, as I explained last October in my article for Search Engine Watch members, Search Personalization: A Marketer's Perspective.

That was written when Yahoo's "My Web" search personalization features came out, including the ability for searchers to block sites and the issues and workarounds this poses for site owners. Now that Yahoo's My Web is offered to anyone as part of the regular search experience, search marketers are taking more notice of the "Block" and "Save" features that appear next to every page listed.

And so they should. While these features don't rerank results yet, the Block can certainly make pages disappear. In addition, the data could be used at any time as a way for Yahoo to decide what users may like or dislike. In fact, that Search Personalization: A Marketer's Perspective article covered how this was something Yahoo said it was considering.

Since then, Yahoo's dropped heavy hints that it will create a social search service where communities may create reshape results in different ways, as Yahoo Wanted Flickr For The Tags (& Tagging Community) from last week covers briefly. Meanwhile, Google's gone and done it. Personalized results have come firmly come to the major search engines, a third generational step toward improved relevancy and the beginning of the end of everyone seeing the same results.

Will marketers find a way to spam personalized search? That remains to be seen. History so far has shown that each improvement eventually gets less effective. Heck, the Google My Search History Spam from May shows how you can spam entries easily into someone's search history at Google. It's still working. But while you can leave entries, you aren't generating clicks -- and so you aren't impacting the personalized search results. I'm sure personalization will lose some spam resistance over time, but there's no doubt it will make spamming results much harder.

Postscript: If you log out of your Google Account, then you'll see the Personalized Search home page with this text:

Personalized Search is an improvement to Google search that orders your search results based on what you've searched for before. Learning from your history of searches and search results you've clicked on, Personalized Search brings certain results closer to the top when it's clear they're most relevant to you.

Part of Personalized Search is the Search History feature, which lets you view and manage your history of past searches and the search results you've clicked on. As you build up your search history, your personalized search results will continue to improve over time.

Want to discuss? Visit our forum thread, Google Getting New Personalized Search


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