Google Personalized Results Could Be Bad for Search

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Google announced that it is expanding personalized search results. Google will provide tailored search results customized based on individual search history. It has potential benefits, but may also exclude newer Web sites or companies, and limit the diversity of search results.

Tailor-Made Results

Personalized search results sound like a great idea at face value. Instead of having to sift through pages of results you have no interest in, Google will custom fit the results displayed based on your past search history and general Web surfing habits.

In theory, you will find sites you are interested in and information you are looking for more quickly and easily, and you will feel like you are getting superior search results. Combined with other technologies such as social networking, Google could also increase page ranking for sites frequented by your friends and contacts, ostensibly providing results that feed off of the social nature of the Web.

Big Brother is Watching

There is also a down side though. First of all, there are privacy concerns--as there are with virtually everything Google does. Google is relying on a cookie to monitor Web usage even when the user is not logged in with Google, which has some organizations and individuals worried.

Another issue, though, is that personalizing search results in this way fundamentally changes the playing field for search. Depending on how Google implements personalized search, it could reduce the impact that SEO (search engine optimization) has on search results in favor of simply displaying the sites the user visits most frequently.

Search Engine Philosophy

Andreas Pouros, chief operating officer at Greenlight, has been involved in search marketing for almost ten years, and he has some issues with the concept of personalized search. "This might restrict the breadth of sites that are delivered to the user leading searchers to only see sources of information that they typically agree with, which deals with cognitive dissonance in a detrimental way for society at large. Consider how this might affect search results for Barack Obama if he searched for ‘health care reform' or Al Gore if he searched for ‘climate change'."

Pouros goes on to explain "One of the great benefits of the Internet was that it would allow for a multitude of sites to be presented to a user, broadening his/her horizons and forcing him/her to question their positions and beliefs. Search, philosophically at least, should accentuate that and not diminish it."

Unfair Playing Field

Philosophy and cognitive dissonance aside, ranking search results based on past search history creates a difficult 'chicken and egg' paradox for new sites. Even with the best SEO possible, new sites on the Web will have a hard time reaching the first page of Google search results.

Greenlight's Pouros notes "Small businesses that aren't as well known as the bigger brands won't be clicked on as much and won't then get the opportunity to appear in results in future searches."

The reality of how, or to what extent, the Google personalized search impacts the scope of diversity of results returned, or the relevance of SEO for smaller sites is dependent on how Google implements it. If, for example, only a few listings on the first page are based on personal Web history while the rest are based on the traditional SEO-based algorithms, perhaps some of these concerns won't really be an issue.

Tony Bradley tweets as @PCSecurityNews, and can be contacted at his Facebook page.

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