How Personalized Search Continues To Challenge Marketers, Consumers


Intent matters. Search marketing execs insist that's the key to successful campaigns. Turn on personalized search in Google, Bing or Yahoo and type a keyword phrase in the search query box. Hit "enter" to search. The engine learns from the searches and serves up content that it deems worthy. But do you learn from the results, or does the query serve up the same old stale content?  

Can you find new products and services you don't know exist? As the old saying goes, "you don't know what you don't know until you know it." If a search engine knows me well, it returns content that I am familiar with. But what if I want to learn about a new product or service? Or what if advertisers want to reach out to someone like me who is looking for something new? Search experts at the top three engines tout the technology's ability to serve up new content on like items. I'm not so sure.



For me to find new items unrelated to past purchases or searches, I turn off personalized search, clear browser cookies, or query content on an engine that is not familiar with my browsing history. I often turn to Bing to find new content, but on Wednesday the engine said it would now rely on "hidden context" to improve its understanding of what searchers want -- whether it's picking a movie to see or figuring out the correct bus to take.

Earlier this year, the Bing engineering team began to work out the kinks in personalized search by tailoring results based on physical location and the ability to pull in information from previously visited Web sites. On Wednesday, the Bing team began to roll out Adaptive Search, which relies on previous searches to inform Bing on search intent. The more someone searches, the more Bing learns and uses the information to alter query results on the page. The idea is to reduce ambiguity in search results.

Microsoft's Aidan Crook explains in a post on the Bing blog that someone might decide to search for information on Australia, most likely looking for Web sites specifically about the country or travel information. But if recent searches have been about movies, the query results might include movies on Australia.

While some consumers might like the change in personalized search, it will likely make the ability to boost rankings in organic search results a much more involved and complicated task. In fact, some SEO experts have been tackling issues surrounding personalized search for more than a year.

In a detailed post about personalized search written in 2010, Dave Harry, Reliable SEO founder, describes how it operates, some of the difficulties in ranking, and what it means for SEO experts. Some of his insights -- gained from mining information in patent filing -- keep the ideas fresh, according to some in the Dojo Chat Room.

2 comments about "How Personalized Search Continues To Challenge Marketers, Consumers".
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  1. Christopher Stephenson from Insight InSite, September 15, 2011 at 4:35 p.m.

    Dead on Laurie. It seems to me that the big search players will continue to adapt and evolve their algorithms, but they will ultimately hit a glass ceiling: personal privacy. Technology can only get you so far - especially in the tricky world of identifying intent for fickle humans who want to find new things and learn things that they didn't even know they didn't know! How can you identify intent if the user doesn't even know it?! Improvements in search algorithms used in traditional search engines (where consumers enter a search terms into a box and hit Return) will slow naturally over time as the ceiling is approached. Better ways are emerging. Stay tuned...

  2. Stefan Weitz from msft, September 16, 2011 at 7:18 p.m.

    Hi Laurie - good article. A couple of things tho - much research has been done on the effect of personalization on serendipity and in fact some of this research actually shows that people are more likely to have serendipitous encounters when results are more personal. ( In another field of study there is something called the "zone of learnability" which states that people are more likely to believe or learn something new if there is a shred of the familiar contained in the new piece of information. Thus, showing some sets of results that may be personalized could actually help people discover and learn new things. Last, its important to remember that it's not just about personal web results: the magic of getting to know people better is that it enables a whole host of scenarios on devices, both at home and mobile, to enable you to do more with higher levels of confidence.

    So while there is certainly a risk of over personalizing results, we feel like the work we're doing to carefully and selectively show information and services that are most likely of interest to the user has great benefit.

    Stefan Weitz

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