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The Impact of Personalization on Search Rankings

(How To Assemble a Winning SEO Strategy Without the Guesswork)

Personalization is the biggest single ground-moving change to search engine optimization strategies and methods that the Internet has experienced since pay-per-click advertising.  

What does it mean?  In a nutshell, the personalization of search means that there is a different ordering of search results based on your profile.  The core search algorithm is the same, but what gets shuffled to the top of a search results page is different based on the user's profile and history.  Google always has personalization turned on.  It builds a history of your behavior if you have a Google account, and if you don't it builds an anonymous profile and will hold on to it for a 150 day period, personalizing your search results based upon the behavioral history it has for you.  

There is no more "Rank #1" -- no more absolutes.  It's all relative.

Mike Marshall, SEO Expert and CEO of Internet Marketing Analysts, describes it like this:

SEO is like extreme archery.  You're the archer.  You've got 3 targets, 1 bow, and 3 arrows.  You are standing on a platform in the middle of the ocean.  The targets are each on their own platforms in the ocean, and they are spinning.  And you are blindfolded.  Hit the targets!

I recently heard Mike speak, and this article is taken from my notes of that presentation.

If you don't know what you're doing, or how it all works, then if you hit any target at all, you are extremely lucky. The same applies to search engine optimization.  

Understanding the "why" of something allows you to be innovative and creative and achieve even greater results.  If all you know is "how" or a series of steps you've got to follow, then you'll be constrained -- you'll have no way to get creative because you don't know what difference each step makes in the process. If all you have are the How To steps, when the world changes, as it has with personalization, you'll wonder why you're not getting the results you used to -- but you'll have no fundamental base from which to figure it out.

The good news is that there are things you can do to float to the top.  Most of them have to do with "more relevant content."  Building really rich content with great supporting terms will always serve you well, no matter what changes the search engines introduce.  Why?  because search engines are interested in one thing:  providing more relevant content in their search results.  That will keep them on top with their users -- so it's a number one priority.

With personalization, you want to focus on coming up in the first 100 results (before the personalization "shuffling" occurs), so you have the best chance of floating to the top of the results when your target market is searching for what you offer.

Most SEO methods (How To's) and most of the tools on the market use Top Rank methods -- which puts a lot of weight on the top 10-20 results.  These tools will now be giving you bad information -- since there is no "absolute" rank #1, the top 10-20 it finds may not be relevant for your page given how search engines are personalizing the results.

For the first time, you CANNOT believe what your eyes are telling you.  You have no idea what others are seeing -- only what YOU are seeing.  When flying a plane and visibility is zero, pilots rely on their instruments to stay on course. Now more than ever, you better have good instrumentation to help you navigate the SEO landscape.

What Impacts Your SEO Success More Than Anything Else?

[picture of power law distribution]

It's known as the Power Law Distribution, the Long Tail, or the 80/20 rule.  Small occurrences are very common, but large occurrences are very rare.  

Let's take movies as an example.  There are a LOT of movies that are made and sold.  If everyone voted for their favorite movie, you'd have a few movies at the top -- the blockbusters (i.e. large occurrences are very rare).  But you'd have many movies that a few people really like. (small occurrences are common - also known as the long tail).  In a nutshell, this is why Netflix completely unseated Blockbuster in the video rental business.  Physical stores have limited shelf space.  It's easy to stock the blockbusters.  But the majority of people have preferences for movies that the physical stores may or may not ever carry.  And there are far more in numbers who want those titles, than who want only the blockbusters.

What else falls in a power law pattern?  

  • word frequency
  • name frequency
  • citations
  • web hits
  • books sold
  • population of city
  • net worth of millionaires

 If you've got a lot of data that you want to make meaningful, then there's got to be some structure in the data.  The power law shows that there is structure in the data.  This means that you can throw math at it and learn a lot from it.

When applied to SEO, where can the power law be leveraged?

  • # visits to your site
  • # pages within a site
  • # inbound links to a page

All have Power Law Distribution.

Most people think that search engines grade on an absolute scale.  They don't.  Search engines grade on a relative scale.  So you cannot just keep to hard and fast rules about search engine optimization.

The Success of Multivariate Analysis

If you have five elements, with three different versions, you can test them simultaneously, and you can learn what each element contributes to the results and why.

Multivariate analysis works because it throws math at the problem.  This can also be done with search engine optimization.  You don't have to know the math.  You just have to know someone who knows the math (or have tools that apply the math to your SEO efforts).  

The Age of "SEO Forensics"

Applying math to your search engine optimization efforts allows you to

  • minimize trial and error through SEO Forensics
  • know when you are vulnerable
  • learn what top competitors are doing right
  • learn what top competitors are doing wrong and exploit it

What matters in getting rankings varies from one keyword phrase to the next.  It all depends upon what people are doing on that keyword.

Remember:  everything is graded on a curve.  What your competitive landscape is doing determines everything.

You need a way to know what the most important factors are, and what ranges you need to be within for each of them, while leveraging the strengths, weaknesses, and threats of your competitors.  This will ensure you will not be blindsided -- or at least you'll be able to tell who is about to blindside you.

Here's an example of using this approach:

A company who came up regularly in position #6 in the search results for "Pet Supplies", inexplicably dropped to #12. They spent 7-8 months using standard SEO methodology with no improvement.  They called Mike Marshall for help. He applied "SEO Forensics" and found 3 factors.  For each of those factors, he gave them parameters to work within. The company put together a plan, and within 1 month of executing, they were at position #4, and now they are consistently at #1 or #2 for that keyword.

Most people are afraid of search engine optimization because it will take too long.  But if you know the things to work on, there's no fear.

When you get to #1, then what?  Using standard SEO approaches, most would say "do nothing, leave it alone."  But if you knew what you were doing, then you'd keep doing the things you needed to do to stay #1, wouldn't you?  If you do nothing, it's because you don't actually know what go you there.  You don't know the "why", so you don't know "what" to do.

To apply some numbers to what this sort of an approach can garner: the difference in traffic from position 12 from position 4 in the natural results, if you had to buy that traffic (i.e. using Adwords), would be around $7 million per year.  It's a great way to determine the value of the SEO ranking.

Imagine if you could make that BOLD claim?  Save $7 million per year in two months.

If you want to know how you come up in the CORE algorithm results, with personalization turned off, just add "&pws=0" to the end of your search results URL.  Using that parameter in the URL line will turn of the filtering.

Implementing SEO Methods That Work

To compete in a search engine optimization world that includes personalization, you MUST have natural language analysis and you MUST look at the competitors.

It's always conceivable that you will get knocked down -- because competitors are changing what they're doing.  So you need to be constantly moving, analyzing and ensuring you're strong in your positioning.

This is NOT algorithm chasing.  DO NOT engage in algorithm chasing.  It's mathematically impossible, and a waste of your time.  It's like trying to unscramble an egg, or reverse engineer a cake.  Focus instead on building better precision and accuracy with your efforts, by applying the principles at work in the data.

Applying what I'm labeling "SEO Forensics" gives you an edge -- a repeatable edge.  If you look at opportunity cost, it can save you both time and money.  And it's very different than standard SEO methodologies that you may be familiar with.  SEO doesn't have to take a long time to accomplish if you know what you need to work on specifically, and can develop and implement an action plan to address those factors.

Website traffic goes up and down.  You need to make sure you leverage the ups!  That is particularly important with seasonal businesses, when you need better results faster.

Mike Marshall's company has developed SEO tools that you can use to implement the practice of "SEO Forensics" to your site pages.  They run in the Windows environment.  To find out more about these tools, follow the link:

SEO Sniper, SEO Scout, and SEO Recon and use the Code: Genoo if you choose to order (you must enter a code to purchase the tools).

Mike also teaches at the Search Engine Academy of North Carolina.  You may be interested in taking his courses, and getting solid in the entire method and practice of SEO Forensics.

It is possible to implement this approach without these tools -- note that it's not for the feint of heart... and will involve collecting all the data in a spreadsheet in three different ways, and purchasing the SatistiXL addon for Microsoft Excel (which does the multivariate analysis on the data).  

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