Personalized Search: Making Sense of Discrepancies in Google Search Results
Every SEO has heard this question at some point: “Why do my search results appear differently when I do _____?” Whether your client is vacationing in a different state, having a colleague search keywords from another city or browsing on an iPad instead of their normal desktop, search results can appear slightly differently. Simply saying, “Things can appear differently,” isn’t a very satisfying answer though—unless you know why.
Google’s Personalized Search, first introduced in 2005, seeks to slightly tweak users’ search results based on myriad factors like search history, location and more. This means that everyone who’s performed a Google search in the past 11-or-so years has experienced the effects of personalized search. While you can customize certain aspects of your Google account like age and interests for ad targeting purposes, Personalized Search happens automatically–with or without a Google account.
Take a Step Back
Before we dive in, let’s take a step back to think about what you’re seeing when you Google something. At the end of the day, Google is able to maintain a vice-like grip on the US (and global) search market by presenting results that users want to see. Google’s quest to be the best requires their efforts to be equal parts literal and interpretive. The organic results you see are presented in order of relevancy and quality, based upon a slew of search ranking factors like backlinks and on-page content. The majority of search results you see are simply the best results out there based on Google’s standards, with some wiggle room for personalization. In other words, if you and a friend searched the same thing from the same location, you’d get predominately the same results (think less than 3% difference on average). So, while personalization hasn’t radically differentiated our search experience just yet, there seems to be a trend towards increased personalization that’s worth noting.
Where Are You and What Have You Done?
With that knowledge in our back pockets, let’s take a look at what affects discrepancies in rankings. The majority of inconsistencies are related to three overarching themes: where you are, what you’re doing and what you’ve done. Although these seem like topics that are brought up most frequently in an interrogation room, they pertain perfectly to personalized search. Here, I’ll break it down for you:
Where You Are
- Country: It seems like a no-brainer that knowing a searcher’s location plays a big part in showing them the most relevant search results. Google predominately sorts users by country using the search domain (Google.com vs. Google.co.uk) and also sorts by IP address as a secondary measure. From linguistic nuances (think “chips” in the UK vs. “chips” in the US) to major cultural differences, Google uses your general location to provide the most relevant search experience. Therefore, differences in country lead to significant disparities in results.
- Location: Further down the funnel, Google uses your specific location, like city or metro area, to tailor your results. Since about 40% of information-gathering locally begins with a search on a general search engine, it’s in Google’s best interest to provide location-specific results. Google typically identifies your specific location using the source IP and/or DNS lookup. Knowing your location allows Google to not only bring up relevant local results, but also provide pertinent suggestions for interpretive queries like “coffee shops near me”. Searches like this have doubled in recent years.
What You’re Doing
- Device and browser: Whether you’re searching on a desktop or mobile device, which browser you’re using all the way down to what OS you’re running all seem to affect search results slightly. In light of Google’s 2015 “mobile friendly update,” mobile-responsive sites are favored in search results over sites that aren’t, which alters results slightly from desktop to mobile.
- Google account: Whether or not you’re logged into a Google account affects the kind of information Google present to you. If you are logged in, you should see personalized information based on your Google calendar, Google+ and more. For example, if you have a hotel reservation and search for your hotel or hotels in the city of your destination, Google could show you your reservation in search results.
What You’ve Done
- Visit history: There’s evidence that if you’ve searched for something many times and clicked on a particular domain, this domain may begin to appear higher in your results than it would for someone else. Beyond that, if you’ve clicked on the same link multiple times it might cause other links on the same domain to increase in your rankings.
- Bookmarks: Continual visits to your bookmarked pages can lead Google to make those links more prevalent in your search results. However, it’s not clear whether bookmarking specifically is the cause behind this, or if it’s just the same algorithm as the one associated with visit history.
- Social interactions: If you’ve shown interest in a brand before, whether you’ve liked their Facebook page or tweeted at the brand, Google identifies your affinity for the brand and can leverage this connection to show you results from the brand more often.
WAIT! But what about private browsing? While incognito browsing wipes away your embarrassing searches on Taylor Swift’s new man, you’re still seeing slightly personalized results since information about your location and device is still available. While there’s no such thing as a completely objective view, private browsing offers a close solution. If you’re interested in checking your ranks in other locations, here are a few hacks, since Google removed the location search filter in November 2015.
Aside from that, there are a number of rank-tracking tools you can invest in to identify more objective, average results. Typically, these tools use custom SERP links that factor out geographic location, browsing history and beyond.
Interesting…but now what?
As SEOs, we’re always looking for ways to match our strategy with Google’s search trends, and personalized search is no exception. It’s important to go back to the basics and make sure your site is truly in the best shape for users. Here are some questions to ensure you’re perfectly poised to take advantage of discrepancies due to personalized search:
- Is my site mobile responsive? Having a mobile responsive site is absolutely crucial to higher mobile rankings and overall user experience, especially since mobile searches are now more prevalent than desktop searches.
- Am I present and relevant in all locations for my business? Make sure each location is claimed on Google My Business, Google Maps and beyond. NAP citations should be as consistent as possible to increase your business’ credibility. Content should be optimized specifically for each location area. Note that you can rank well for a city or region much larger than the map area marked by Google.
- Is my all of my content optimized? Moz’s Rand Fishkin points out that personalized search presents the opportunity for pages you might not have intended to be SEO landing pages to rank well due to their association with other stronger pages. Ensure that all of your content is optimized properly and that you’ve optimized for all locations you’re seeking to be present in—locally and nationally.
The bottom line: If you provide a relevant, seamless and useful experience to searchers you can win people over in a heartbeat to either convert into leads or return to your site in the future. Make sure all of your basics are covered to ensure that discrepancies in search results, no matter how minor, are used to your advantage!