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Personalized search hits a bump in the road

I’ve written before about personalized search—several times. I think it is the biggest change to come to search marketing since pay-per-click. But what once promised to be a marketer’s dream of knowing eternal behavioral histories of every searcher is being sharply curtailed. Each week another search engine announces some retrenchment due to privacy concerns. (Here’s a good recap of recent personalized search privacy announcements.) What’s going on?

Simply put, the search engines have not made a case to average searchers as to what’s in it for them.
Personalization is a dance between the marketer and the customer. The customer has information to give and the marketer wants to get that information to use it to provide more targeted (and hence more lucrative) offers. The better the targeting, the higher the response.
But why should customers give up the information? They’ll only do so if they see what they are getting. In a talk I gave last night, I got a question from the audience—Why would anyone register at a site? I turned the question around on her by asking whether she has ever registered at a site, and of course she had. Even someone who is dead set against giving up information sometimes sees value in providing that information.
What the search engines are doing is no different from what Amazon has always done. Customers happily register with Amazon to get the convenience of one-click and the personalized recommendations (even if they like to complain about them when they are wrong). Customers see value in this and have rarely questioned the privacy implications of Amazon looking at every move they make on the site.
Is it because the benefits are made explicit by Amazon? Customers see exactly what they get.
Personalized search has so far hidden the benefits. I wonder if the best way to proceed would be for search engines to explicitly note certin results that come from personalization. This is tricky, to be sure, because every part of the relevance ranking algorithm has an effect on results, but perhaps Google and company could make an effort to note those results that were largely driven by personalization and put some kind of icon on them.
Or maybe they could spur advertisers taking advantage of personalization to improve their offers and to note that they are personalized. So, if an advertiser is taking advantage of demographic knowledge or search history to present an offer, why not present an excellent offer? 10% off now! And show that the ad is a result of sharing personal information?
By taking these steps, the search engines would be making the value of personalization explicit to the searcher. If the searchers believe that they are getting real value for giving up their privacy, they may do so willingly.
Search engines are retrenching because searchers are complaining about privacy, but my opinion is that complaints about privacy are usually about lack of value—if searchers understood the value they might be happy to give up the privacy. Because the value is so vague, they are more concerned about what they are giving up.
I wonder if some smart search engine will try this. It would be interesting to see what happens if they do. Until then, expect to see more vague privacy fears until search engines wise up and give back some of the value they are getting from personalization.


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,, most recently as the Manager of 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 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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