A few people at the Search Engine Strategies Conference in Chicago this week, including some panelists on stage and many influential members of our industry, made it seem like personalization will mean the death of SEO. Aside from the obvious easy jabs from paid search extremists whose model would predict growth as a result of less emphasis on organic search, others seemed to lean a little too far toward fear mongering.
There were voices of reason as well. During the "Search Industry Today" panel, SES board member (and my friend) Anne Kennedy eloquently stated something I strongly agree with: "...(SEO) is evolving, not dead. What is dead is the rankings, yet over and over people talk about top 10 rankings."
In recent discussions with some of our leading clients, it seems those marketers who have accepted that ranking alone doesn't equal SEO success are rapidly moving forward to define the importance of future organic search metrics. Perhaps, finally, broader personalization will really drive home what one commenter accurately lamented: "For SEOs, this creates additional confusion in explaining to our clients that the Google results they see in their browser are not necessarily what others see. But that already was an issue." Marketers will at last focus on traffic!
SEO Best Practices Still Required
To rank for non-branded keywords within search results, you need to have performed some sort of SEO, be lucky enough to not be in a competitive space, have an old domain with strong content, or a few other "ways in." Traffic comes from ranking for terms that are often searched.
Although Google has a lot of information from power users, the majority of "part-time" searchers will take a while to get results that have been drastically personalized. The rest of the results are then likely "backfilled" from the "regular" results (what you optimize for) for at least six months.
According to Google:
"Previously, we only offered Personalized Search for signed-in users, and only when they had Web History enabled on their Google Accounts. What we're doing today is expanding Personalized Search so that we can provide it to signed-out users as well. This addition enables us to customize search results for you based upon 180 days of search activity linked to an anonymous cookie in your browser."
How many searches does someone have to perform over 180 days for the system to really begin changing results?
This doesn't even address users who regularly clean their cookies. There is conflicting information about how many Web users disable cookies or regularly clean them. Granted, many of those may not be disabling all cookies from their systems. (In related, albeit old news, 99 percent of Web users eat cookies.)
I'm not sold on how many results will be personalized for most users, even after 180 days. Of course, we may never know. A good test would be to develop some personas and use proxies to study, but obviously this will come out after some time.
You still need to rank in personalized search to drive traffic. Why not just focus on traffic and its quality, along with improving the user experience, and just forget about rankings?
Deeper Consumer Insight Is Paramount to Success
If you want to increase your chances of appearing within the personalized results of your target audience, you need to get to know them better than ever before. You also need to provide content for them, as well as the search engines, which shows that you know them and what they're seeking.
In the past, especially in the e-commerce model, the primary goal of SEO was to get people into the purchase cycle and move them toward conversion. For branding and awareness efforts, the goal is slightly different, but still requires the same focus in order to drive qualified traffic through organic search.
Not all Web sites have the type of content that provides the answer to problems people are trying to solve through search engine use. In the past, this was often referred to as "finding the hidden keyword."
One excellent way to understand your target market needs: do deep dive segmentation research and properly classify groups. You can also find plenty of hints within your visitors keyword search behaviors, both from search engine referrals and internal search use.
Lastly, primary research of personalized results, especially using different varieties of keyword phrases, will lead us to better chances of driving qualified traffic to Web sites -- personalized search or not.