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What does Personalized Search mean in SEO?

The introduction of Personalized search has had a dramatic effect on SEO so what is it, why do you need to know about it and how it works, and how can you escape it if you need to

What is personalized search?

Most major search engines employ personalized search. This is where they take into account factors such as your geographical location and what pages or websites you have visited before in order to provide you with what they believe are 'better' search results for you.

It is the simple reason why someone searching 'italian restaurant' in Los Angeles will get completely different search results to someone carrying out exactly the same search in New York.

Its why you can sit next to someone and both carry out the same search but find different websites at number one in the SERPs especially if one of you has visited certain related websites in the past.

Yes, search engines know it all. The more information they have, the more they can personalize your results so, for example, if you are logged into your Google account you may well see different results in Google compared to when you are logged out.

The myth of being #1

The introduction of personalized search was rolled out globally by Google in 2009 and other major search engines followed. From that day anyone promising that they could rank you #1 on Google was talking nonsense unless they are:

  • Offering to rank you for a keyword with virtually no competition - this page ranks #1 for "Iglefiknuckle" - go on, try it!
  • Offering to rank you for your brand name and your brand name is unique (like "Iglefiknuckle") but if this is the case you probably already rank #1 for it.
  • Offering to use Google Ads (and your wallet) to get you to the top.

Your true average ranking position for any particular keyword or phrase, globally and by country, can only be found in Google Search Console once you have it set up and your website registered. This is the place that will tell you if your rankings are improving, not Google's search results. (Find out more about Google Search Console)

Bing also has a similar service - Bing Webmaster Tools - for Yahoo and Bing.

How to avoid seeing personalized search

Obviously as someone who does SEO you might not want your search results skewed all the time. You might want to see the search results the way someone in New York sees them even if you are based thousands of miles away.

Here's how:
  • Sign up to a Virtual Private Network (VPN) - I use StrongVPN but there are plenty out there
  • Use your browser's "Private Window" or "Incognito" option to hide your history

But you're not totally out of the woods yet. You would think that if you used a VPN and logged onto the internet via New York and you were using a private/incognito browser Google would say "OK, you're in New York".

Not quite. Google is like a rabid dog that won't let go if your trouser leg - it really, really wants to know your real location. It sometimes falls back on previous IP addresses you have used to access the web. It sometimes misunderstands the IP address of the VPN. In short you need to do a double check.

Once connected via VPN and in incognito mode open Google and carry out any search. Then scroll down to the bottom of the page and look in the left hand corner where Google will tell you where it thinks you are located. You may have to disconnect and reconnect via your VPN to several different locations in the country you are targeting before Google settles down and accepts your claim!

So personalized search is something used by all major search engines now and it is supposed to make our experience better. I think in many ways it does but it also obviously complicates the lives of a search engine optimizer. Don't rely on what you see in the search engine results pages as an indicator of your rankings, use Google Search Console for that.

And if you want to get yourself out of personalized search get a VPN and switch your browser to private or incognito mode but do double check where Google thinks you are is where you want Google to think you are before getting down to work!

I'm Tim Hill, a Search Engine Optimization and Online Marketing specialist. I created this site to help others understand that SEO is not a mysterious black art!.

If your a newbie try the Getting Started in SEO page, otherwise feel free to dig around and learn more.

Find me on Facebook or get in touch if you need help.

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