Google has been personalizing search results since 2012.
Google can show one set of results to user A, and a different set of search results to user B.
Simply knowing that Google has this capability is one thing, but understanding how personalization is performed and how to optimize for it is a completely separate matter.
So let’s break down some of the most significant ways Google can utilize user data to personalize search results (and how it affects your traffic amounts).
Your Search and Browsing History
Believe it or not, the information stored in your web browser has a heavy bearing on your search results. This data includes not only the keywords you've searched, but also your browser history and the links you clicked on. This helps Google collect data and build a unique profile with which it can personally customize search results.
Oh, and as a side note, if this is a revelation that makes you cringe, be aware that there are alternative solutions to drastically increase your privacy. For instance, you can use DuckDuckGo for private search, or use a private browsing feature in your web browser to prevent it from saving your history. More and more people are going this route.
At any rate, you may be wondering how browsing history personalization affects your ranking. The problem is that you may not be able to see where your website really ranks in an unbiased search results page. After all, if you pull up your own website in a browser, Google will hand tailor the search results to show you your own website. But how can you get a truly objective snapshot of how well your website or pages are ranking?
The key is to de-personalize your search. Make sure you aren’t logged into any Google services, and that all of your web browser’s caches and histories have been purged. Then enable your web browser’s private or incognito mode, and perform a search to see how well you are really ranking. The results may surprise you.
Your Device Type
Naturally, device type has a heavy bearing on the search results that are presented to any given user. It just makes sense that matching mobile websites to mobile devices (and vice versa) provides a better user experience. If you’ve ever visited a non-mobile web page on a mobile device, you know how frustrating it is trying to resize text and scroll left to right – it’s far too challenging for an audience that wants quick answers to their questions and a path of least resistance to follow.
It should be no great surprise, but the best way to adapt for personalized search with regards to device type is to ensure you have a well-oiled mobile version of your website. Actually take the time to try pulling it up on multiple devices with different screen sizes. And for those of you who don’t already have mobile versions, well...you’re really shooting yourself in the foot until you implement mobile-friendliness.
Naturally, Google makes use of a user’s location when curating search results. Not only does it know in which country a user resides (which can be circumvented on a local computer with a proxy server or VPN tunnel), it also knows from which city you sent the query, right down to the zip code.
Local search is huge, and as much as 43% of Google searches are local, and the staggering majority of those local searches are performed on a mobile device.
To be fair, there are some websites that really aren’t affected by location. For example, an online repository of information, like a recipes-centric website, would rarely be searched for with the searcher's location in mind.
But other websites, especially those with brick and mortar stores, are heavily influenced by local search. Furthermore, law offices that practice in a particular city, state or region will want to take advantage of local search as well.
The best thing I would recommend doing is making sure you are listed in Google My Business. This will put you on the map whenever someone searches for your business specifically or generally. For instance, if you’re a restaurant chain, you would appear on Google Maps if a user entered something vague, like “places to eat.” If you don’t already have a business listing, you’re missing on traffic and leads, plain and simple.
Google's Products and Services
Google will collect data from just about anywhere it can to improve and personalize search results, and all of Google products and services seem to be interconnected. Google+, Gmail, GooglePlay, GoogleMaps, GoogleCalendar – the list goes on. Google certainly pulls data from these systems to help construct a profile of data that influences the search results.
To be honest, I do think it’s unlikely that these sources of data play as big of a role as the previous factors, but it is something to consider. If you don’t want Google collecting or storing this information about you, I highly recommend pulling up your Google profile, going to My Activity, Manage Your Activity, and Activity Controls. From this page, you can control what data Google saves about you including web and app, location, device information, YouTube search history, voice and audio activity, and YouTube watch history.
There's No 'Static Ranking' Any More
Google simply doesn’t generate a static SEO score and award the highest ranking site the number one slot anymore. Dynamically generated search results offer the benefits of personalization and a better user experience, but for website administrators and SEO professionals, it creates a lot of work.
You need to make sure that you’re ticking these boxes to ensure you’re setting yourself up for the best chance of success. A failure to optimize your site for personalized search is a brilliant way to lose streams of traffic and, ultimately, customers.
If you don’t know the best ways to optimize your website, I recommend reaching out for professional help. The success of your digital marketing strategy depends on it!