After months of talking, personalization seems to have arrived big time with the major search engines.
- Yahoo just gained it (see Yahoo Introduces Personal Search).
- Last month, Ask Jeeves and Amazon's a9 added it (see Ask Jeeves Serves It Your Way and Amazon's a9 Launches).
- Last week, a search preview in the UK that Microsoft quickly pulled down showed a "My Search" button, suggesting personalization is coming there as well.
What's all this mean for search marketers? Below, a look at what's happening now and what's to come.
Personalized Results Not Here Yet
First, it's important to remember that the personalization features rolled out recently by these major players do not, in most instances, change the actual results someone views. In other words, while search is more personalized, the search results themselves are not.
For example, just because you save a listing on Yahoo, Ask Jeeves or a9, it doesn't change the order of the results you see. In contrast, this is exactly how things work at Eurekster, which launched earlier this year. Pick something you like there, and that listing gains a boost.
This type of boosting almost certainly will come, however. Yahoo's not doing it for the moment, because testing so far has found that applying a boost to "favorite" sites for any search done makes for less search success.<
"The larger the personal web becomes, the more cautious the search engine needs to be in order to avoid false positives in the algo results. For now, a more explicit approach towards personal search seems to strike the right balance between potential utility for the user and the overall quality of the experience," said Jeff Weiner, senior vice president of Yahoo Search and Marketplace.
The data is irresistible because as I explained in my Eurekster Launches Personalized Social Search article, it opens hundreds if not millions of fronts in the search engine war against spam. It's hard to spam a search engine when the relevancy may be different for each individual person.
Site Blocking Has Arrived
While Yahoo and the others aren't using personalization to boost sites, Yahoo is using personalization as a way to help block them. My Yahoo features a "Block Site" link below any listing. If someone clicks on that, ALL pages is the host domain are banned from ever showing up in ANY search result that person gets in the future.
For example, let's say you search for "new york hotels" on Yahoo. You see a spammy looking site with the page name of www.findcheaphotels-in-new-york.com/new-york-hotel-jump-page.html. Click the "Block Site" link below the listing, and that page -- or any page from within the findcheaphotels-in-new-york.com domain will never show up for any search you do in the future.
For the marketer, this makes it essential that your pages don't invite "Block Site" clicks. One bad spammy page that pulls this type of click from a searcher will get your entire site banished from ever appearing for that searcher again.
Of course, if a site is blocked from results, this will be flagged at the bottom of the results page via a "Blocked results - Show blocked" message. In other words, if there were supposed to be 20 results and one was blocked, only 19 will be listed and the message will appear saying that 1 has been suppressed.
Clicking on the message will show the site on a one-time basis, so all is not lost for the marketer who may have been blocked by a particular user. However, you'll still be relying on the user deciding that they want to view you through this extra effort, rather than moving on to something else.
Once Again - Get Your Own Domain!
Freak out time? Certainly, if you've been feeding out low-quality pages. It's also a time to freak if you haven't been using your own domain. For example, say you use Yahoo's GeoCities service and stick with the www.geocities.com domain that will be part of your site's address. If anyone else on that domain gets blocked by a My Yahoo user, your site will get taken out for that user as well, because you're within of the www.geocities.com domain.
Similarly, say you have a blog through Radio Userland, like Microsoft blogger Robert Scoble does. If you stay with the default domain of radio.weblogs.com, then your blog would be blocked if any other blog at that domain is blocked.
It has never been a good idea for anyone serious about being on the web not to have their own domain. Now it becomes even more important. Domain names and dedicated web hosting is inexpensive -- get your own name.
Right now, blocking only impacts the results of the particular person who blocks a particular site. However, Yahoo is considering that this is something that might be used to influence results in general. In short, if enough people block a particular page, that can be seen as a collective spam report.
This is NOT happening now. Yahoo admits it could be prone to abuse, if it does become used in the future. A competitor, for example, might try to block your quality page. But the fact the competitor has to be register with Yahoo to do this makes it much, much more detectable.
Google, by the way, has had a somewhat similar collective spam reporting feature built into its toolbar since 2001 (see the Google Adds Spam Reporting Features article). However, the happy/sad faces offered are not on buy default nor as readily available as is the case with the Block Site links in My Yahoo results. I'd expect the My Yahoo experience to be used more.
Google, of course, also has its own flavor of personalized search. As with Eurekster, results there change based on your profile. However, the program is a beta project tucked away and not really visible to regular Google users. In comparison, the take-up at Yahoo should be much more significant, given that it's immediately available to millions of registered Yahoo users.
Tips For Success
How to prepare for the coming of personalization? My view is to do the same thing I've always written about. Focus on having the best content you can. Build a great site that's so compelling on your topic that search engine success will still come naturally.
The basic factors will remain important. Have good, descriptive HTML page titles, a tip that has remained helpful since the mid-90s. Good body copy, same thing. Gaining quality links will remain important (for tips, see the Link Analysis And Link Building page for members).
These things should continue to help get you visible in the unpersonalized results. That's the first step. The new second step is getting people to save you as a preferred result.
For success with this second step, the key factors are likely to again be your title, then your page description and finally the quality of your web site.
Your page title will be crucial. If it doesn't succinctly describe what your page is about, no one's going to care about your page even if you do rank well.
For instance, if you wanted to rank well for men's running shoes, you might construct a title like this:
men's running shoes, running shoes for men, men's shoes for running
Maybe that will help you get a ranking, but it looks terrible. In contrast, a title like this might help you get the ranking yet it also looks attractive and enticing with a call to action:
Best Prices On Men's Running Shoes!
As for descriptions, like titles, good ones may attract clicks to save your site. Unfortunately, unlike with titles, there's relatively little you can do these days to control exactly how your page description will appear.
My Revisiting The Meta Description Tag article from earlier this year takes you by the hand on how things work -- but you might as well skip to the conclusion. Use a meta description tag that seems to sum up the main theme of the page and hope for the best.
Last, but not least, is page content. Good, gripping page content will help ensure people want to bookmark your site via personalized systems. Bad, low quality pages designed only to get the initial ranking aren't likely to do this. Focus on the good content, and that should reward you in the long run.