SMS: Danny, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak with me. For readers who may not be familiar with your various exploits, can you please tell us briefly about your background and how you got involved in the search engine marketing industry?
Danny: Back in 1995, I was doing web development after leaving my job as a newspaper reporter, since I wanted to be involved with online. We had a client who was concerned about how he was ranking in search engines, so I started researching how they worked. I found them interesting and published what I discovered as a guide for webmasters.
In 1996, I expanded that into a site about search engines for marketers and searchers called Search Engine Watch. Even after it was sold to Jupitermedia, I continued to run it as editor for 10 years. Incisive Media took over ownership of the site in 2005. At the end of 2006, I decided it was time to move on to a fresh site on my own. Search Engine Land was launched in December 2006, and that’s where I now spend a lot of my time writing about search.
SMS: Before I dive in with some questions, I would like to congratulate you on the successful launch of the SMX conference held for the first time in Seattle in June 2007. Please tell us a bit about your plans for future SMX events.
Danny: Thanks! SMX Advanced was great to do. I was very pleased that, as we’d hoped, advanced search marketers seemed to feel they finally had a show just for them. We’ll repeat that experience, in the same mode of a small gathering with good food and great content. But we also have focused shows coming up, such as Local/Mobile, Travel, and Social Media.
In addition, we have general shows designed for those of all abilities who want a little bit of everything. These will be in London and Stockholm this year, and then we have a three-day show scheduled for California next February. The key thing with all our shows is that in addition to great content, we’re firmly focused on delivering a great conference experience, all the way from food to networking.
SMS: Let’s talk about personalized search. Why do search engines even want to pursue personalization?
Danny: Google especially is banking heavily on personalization. They just see it as a way to really improve the experience for users. They think that the more they know about you, the better they are going to be able to give you highly targeted information that will be more relevant. I also think, as part of this, they figure they’ll be able to deliver better targeted ads along the way.
Also, when it comes to search, a key aspect of personalization is that it makes it harder for search results to be spammed. Without personalization, if everybody sees the same results, there can be a lot of incentive to go through and try to change that experience by spamming results because you are going to impact millions of people. It’s almost like fighting a war where there is only one front. If I go to a personalized search situation, it’s as if there are millions of fronts, because now you have to fight to get your content positioned in front of person A, person B, person C, and so on. This makes it more difficult for spamming to work as a successful tactic.
Personalization doesn’t mean that SEO is going to go away; it doesn’t mean that SEO is spamming either. But it does mean that it becomes potentially a bigger challenge both for people who are doing SEO or people who are involved in spamming.
Are other search engines (Yahoo!, Microsoft, Ask) using personalization as well? And if so, in what ways?
Danny: None of the others are as yet personalizing results. Yahoo! has the best infrastructure in place to gather this type of refined data, via their MyWeb system where people can register, tag, and store website information and content, as well as network with others. I think that kind of a tracking system is the most sophisticated outside of what Google has.
Ask lets users save pages as well, but they don’t have some of the networking aspects to it. I suspect that the Ask system is probably a little less sophisticated than what Yahoo! has, in terms of trying to use it for personalization purposes.
Now having said that, Yahoo! is not stating that they have done any kind of personalization of results, although they recently rolled out targeted ads that track behavior and other aspects [SmartAds]. They have the capability to do behavioral tracking targeted to the searches that you’re doing, and could apply that in other ways if they wanted to.
With Google, they know who you are directly and are not just guessing. With Yahoo!, there is the ability to personalize perhaps by guessing, but they also let you register and keep a search profile. Microsoft doesn’t have any tools right now where you can register with them personally and say “now keep track of my searches.” However, they still can look at your searches based on your cookies and things like Windows registration data and start building up a profile of you anyway. In fact, I think they are doing that to some degree.
In the case of Google, besides Web History, what other factors could be involved in influencing the personalization of results?
Danny: The two other factors that Google has confirmed as involved are the items on your personalized homepage and what you are bookmarking. What you read via Google Reader seems likely to come, and Google might also try to tap into things like Google Checkout data and use aggregate reports about sites compiled from Google Analytics.
How does personalized search affect the SERPs? Are you seeing drastic changes or are shifts in the search results so far pretty insignificant?
Danny: Just slight changes. You usually see just one new thing maybe come in and something else cropped off. Some items may move slightly higher; others slightly lower. I think Google predicted that up to three of the results may be impacted by personalization, but they’re deliberately keeping it fairly restricted.
How is SEO affected by personalized search? I would imagine that it becomes more difficult to track rankings, since the SERPs might be different for everyone.
Danny: Well, it does. But even without personalization, it is already becoming harder for people to track rankings. You already have different data centers recording different results or if you’re in the US, for example, US results might be different. So, it is going to make it harder in that regard.
Then again, a lot of SEOs abandoned trying to measure the performance of ranking long ago and instead measure the performance of the traffic, or even better, of conversions. So, if you are doing that, you should still be able to tell whether or not your SEO campaign is working because you’ll see if the traffic is going up or down, independent of what the rankings are.
Now, assuming that you have quality content, how can a marketer take advantage of personalized search and try to get onto Google’s personalized homepages and into Google bookmarks?
Danny: One way is, of course, to associate your content with the options out there that are feeding into personalization. For example, write a story and then add it to Google bookmarks and Google Reader. And that’s pretty much it right now. I suppose you could go through and actively work people that you know to make sure they are subscribing to your feeds as well.
Search marketers will find they have to once again consider titles and descriptions carefully, as a way to ensure that first important click. If you’re not showing up and you’re not interesting, people are not going to click and come over to you, right? With the way Google personalized search works by measuring your clickthrough, if people are not coming over to you, then you don’t even get that advantage.
Danny, thanks for some interesting comments and observations on where personalized search is right now and where it might be headed in the future.