I have a problem with Personalized Search. I want it to stop defining me.
So, for those of you who don’t know, the approach of personalized search is to take your search patterns, and provide you results, based on those patterns, that are relevant for you. Specifically you. Based entirely on how you have searched. It is pretty amazing stuff, when it works. Like behavioral targeting with banner ads, the targeting can be spot on. But there’s a big difference with behavioral targeting for banner ads, and results targeting based on previous results. One is an ad that may or may not be acted on presented in concert with several other page elements – content, pictures, other ads. Search results are the sole reason I’m on a search engine. And if those results are tailored well, then excellent! If, however, my intent has changed, my interests have evolved, or I simply have “become a different person”, personalized results may be behind the times.
The trick that some personalization algorithms haven’t taken into consideration is personal evolution – a good personalized search result factors in shifts and ebbs in your search patterns that are representative of who you are and how you are changing, and doesn’t cast you in one light forever.
Take for example photo-social platform Instagram, in all its sepia-toned glory. It’s a great platform – providing both photo filters as well as uploading and sharing. I’m not a big picture guy. I try and remember the moment as opposed to remembering the moment in an image. In fact, I almost never use the camera on my phone – let alone the camera that gather’s dust on my desk. I signed up so I could follow a friend’s trip in Southeast Asia. When I downloaded the app and signed in, I noticed the “Popular” tab on the app – clicking it, I viewed through a few screens of photos, tapping on one occasionally as I recall, though I can’t recall what images I tapped on.
Well, based on that little bit of tapping around, and following my friend, I’m pretty sure that Instagram has personalized its results for me going forward – forever. Now, whenever I open the app (generally on Saturdays. At the mall. Whilst sitting in front of J. Crew while my wife parties) the majority of the images I get are South Asian landscapes and pictures of people’s pets. And I’ve opened it a lot. And I’ve tried to adjust its personalization settings for me by clicking on any image that is not a pet or a Thai sunset. I feel like I’m making progress, but its slow. Less pet pictures, more pictures of fashion week (another friend’s images, I swear), but still a lot of jungle landscapes.
Personalized search can be a scary thing – it doesn’t allow you to factor in positioning as much. In the instance of Instagram, your results may be completely eliminated from many people’s “SERPs” because they’ve been shoehorned in another direction.
For businesses, SEO, personalized or not, is still a matter of best practices – strong content, good-linking, scannable architecture. You will be found, but trying to adjust for every variable that could go into a personalized search is too much – at least now. There aren’t good roadmaps that show the decision trees of the algorithm, and the reality is deployment is limited, with sites getting plugged in as “wild cards” based on their prominence within the algorithm – not necessarily because of personalization (which tend to be more significant for smaller niche sites and searches).
The advice for developers in smaller scale environments (such as Instagram) is straight-forward – build less prediction and more wild card into your results. This will prevent your results from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy – of the same thing over and over. Just because I looked at trees does not mean I will always and forever want to look solely at trees. While Google has toyed with personalized search for years, we only occasionally see a broad deployment of it. I suspect part of the reason is the wild card factor – for the smartest engineers in the business, it’s still a difficult task to personalize and wild card – for everything.
We will see more personalization – that is inevitable. As the engineers mine the data, they will see trending elements of what wild cards to include, and what personalizations are immutable. The trick in the short term is making sure that you aren’t in that self-fulfilling prophecy – if your search results are predictable – regardless of where you search – you may be stuck in a personalization loop of no return. I recommend rebooting. Or, at the very least, clearing your cache.