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More on personalized search

My recent column in Revenue Magazine has prompted some interesting responses from around the blogosphere, but I think my favorite is Mike Marshall’s in WebProNews. Mike gives a real example of the personalization that is creeping into results today and speculates on what becomes of hoary search engine optimization techniques when every searcher can get a different result for the same query. I think the result will be a back to basics approach.


In my column, I talked about how the search engines might become the ultimate source of rank-checking data, because only the search engines will know for what percentage of queries your site ranked #1. Or for what demographic groups. So far, however, the search engines don’t provide (or sell) this information.
So what’s a search marketer to do?
You may need to get back to basics. Even without personalization muddying the waters, search rankings are a blunt instrument at best, showing you where your page ranks at this moment. What you really want to know is not whether you are #3 right now, but how close you are to being #2, or how far ahead of #4 you are. You want to know if your page has a strong position or one that could fall away easily.
To find out that answer, you need analytics tools that weigh the factors that search engines use to produce their ranked lists, such as the strength of your inbound links, the use of keywords on the page, and other factors. Tools that measure pages based on these factors abound, but they frequently work in isolation, making it hard for the search marketer to put together the whole story.
Worse, different search engines weigh the factors differently—and different queries use different factors even within the same search engine. A query with few results is more likely to emphasize on-page factors, such as where the keywords are placed, while a hyper-competitive query such as “digital cameras” demands link strength with little regard for what’s on the page.
How do you figure out the strength of your pages?
I’ve spoken recently to someone who claims to have the answer. Mike Marshall, the author of that interesting piece, also heads up Fortune Interactive, which offers tools that analyze the results for each query in your campaign and provides insight into how strongly each search result is entrenched in its position. It literally shows you who is strongly staking out a position and who can be easily had.
To me, this is the future of search marketing—to go beyond simple rank checking to measure the intrinsic strengths and weaknesses of your pages against your competitors for the queries you care about, keyword by keyword and page by page. I’m still not sure if this is the ultimate solution for coping with personalized search, but it is an improvement. Anything that gets deeper than simple rank checking provides deeper insight.
I asked Mike whether using the top results in his analysis was problematic when personalized results could bring in new pages that were not being analyzed. Mike told me that his tool aids search marketers in personalized search situations because “search engines usually move around the results” but don’t produce completely new lists of pages when personalizing. So, #12 for one person might become #4 for another, but #300 doesn’t move to #1. His theory is that analyzing the top pages of generic search results is still the most useful thing to do for personalized search.
I think there’s no doubt that this approach beats traditional rank checking—expect to see more innovation in search result analysis, both from Fortune Interactive and from others. Search marketers need to use deeper analytics techniques to learn how they are doing, if search engines don’t provide the information they need. Just be careful not to fall into the trap of “chasing the algorithm”—your pages need to reflect what your company and offerings are about, not just what makes them popular with search engines. And your pages must first and foremost appeal to people, because getting a #1 ranking with no sales does you no good.
So, continue to use the same approach you’ve always used to write for people first and search engines second. But it’s OK to use these tools to assess your strength so that you can make sensible changes that might improve your search visibility, as long as you use your judgement about which changes really provide value to the searcher. Not everything that gets you a higher ranking (personalized or not) will be more relevant to the searcher, which is what really improves your sales in the end.
As search changes, the tools must change with it. I like the idea of going beyond simple rank checking and expect to see more innovation as search marketing comes of age.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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