Google’s SearchWiki, Customized & Personalized Results

February 11, 2009
By Lisa Barone in Internet Marketing Conferences

It’s time to talk Google and personalization. Because Google is the only search engine currently doing personalization. Or so they’d like you to believe. Who’s “they”, you ask? I’m afraid that’s confidential information. Yeah. [head nod]

[It’s possible I’m slightly delirious. Don’t worry; it’ll only make these recaps more entertaining for you.]

Speaking we have Googlers Corey Anderson and Bryan Horling.  Danny Sullivan (aka DSul) is moderating, with Michael Gray taking over Q&A. Now that the gentlemen are accounted for, let’s begin! And let’s hope Michael doesn’t cause a scene by sneaking his own questions into the Q&A.

Corey is up first.

What should be the first result for [smx]?  The Web site for this conference. But that’s not the only good answer.  If you don’t live in this country, maybe SMX means something else to you.   Different people want different results even if they’re searching for the exact same keywords.

  • SearchWiki explicit changes, driven by the searcher
  • Personalized search implicity targeting the searcher


Add, remove, rerank and comment on results. These notes, aggregated, can be seen by others.   SearchWiki lets users make search better for themselves.

Why did they create SearchWiki? They talk to users all the time. They bring them in for usability studies. They learned that a large fraction of search is refinding. Users want to add, delete, rerank and comment. Or so he says. I, as a searcher, never wanted to do any of these things. I actually find all of these habits incredibly annoying and unwanted. Like people who steal my power outlets during a session. Get off it before I kick you!

SearchWiki is being used for bookmarking, improving proper name searches, collecting information, or refinding hard-to-find information. (Maybe they could make information “less hard to find” instead of giving us SearchWiki. Just sayin’.)

Bryan is going to talk about personalized search now.

Personalized Search tries to do what SearchWiki does, but inherently. Users want the right information as quickly as possible. Getting the right results sometimes requires knowledge of the user or their context. This much be done in privacy-sensitive way — transparency, control, etc.

Search Details: Whenever personalization is coming in to modify search results, Google will tell you and give you an option to click through so that searchers can learn more about what happened and why they’re seeing what they’re seeing.  It will also give them a chance to see what their results would have looked like without personalization in place.

[That answer is actually not 100 percent accurate. See Rae Hoffman’s comment later in the Q&A section.]

Web History: You can delete stuff from your history, partial or entire. You can remove the service. Lots of control for users. They think its important. Or else Michael Gray may pummel them.

Regional Localization: Get different results based on where you are. Works by state, region, country, etc.  If you’re looking for transportation in Seattle, you want results local to that.

Web History, Disambiguation: Google can learn a lot from the searches you conduct over time. Google learns what your topics of interests are as sustained over time.

Preferred Sites: You can tell Google the sites you prefer and they’ll be more “visible” in your search results.

What does this mean for search engine marketers?

  • Half Empty: This will make your lives a bit more difficult. It’s harder to collect metrics, to see how your pages  rank, etc.
  • Half Full: Helps users. Makes it easier for people looking for your service to find you. Easier to retain customers who prefer your business.

The top position is not winner-take-all.

What should you do?

Create compelling and interesting content. Make a good Web site that users will enjoy. Appeal to users, not the search engines.

You can control personalization for your searches:

  • Use search details
  • Disable it by appending &pws=0 to searches
  • Sign out (though results may still be altered by IP)
  • Firefox extension, greasemonkey script
  • Edit or turn off Web history

Question and Answer

Are you using SearchWiki to influence rankings?

They’re not using SearchWiki data to influence the ordinary search results. When they launched it, they had some ideas how people would use it but they didn’t know. Their plan was to launch it, make a good tool, and to see what kind of data they got from it. [Lies. So sketchy. So many levels of sketchy. ]    They just want to see what people are actually using SearchWiki for and could that be a usable signal. [Uh huh.]

What percentage of searches are personalized today and does that change based on geography?

Bryan: A bunch.  It does vary geographically. Not a huge amount, but there are differences.

Why doesn’t SearchWiki have an off button?

Corey: It’s something they’re looking into.  They felt SearchWiki is much similar to things like Universal Search, Site Links, Related Searches. It doesn’t make sense to turn each one of those on and off.  SearchWiki wasn’t just thrown out there. They did run experiments on it. They got feedback from users. Through that, they didn’t think it was necessary to have it turned off.  They make those decisions based on data.

That said, they’re looking into it.

What’s the adoption to SearchWiki?

Corey: He can’t say exactly.  They’re comfortable with the adoption rate.

Comments are public on aggreggate. Are all comments public to all SearchWiki users and will those comments appear in the results?

Corey: At present, you can only see 10 comments. They’re working on expanding that.  They’re also taking a look at letting people see comments in the search results. They want to do things useful to users. If they can find comments that are useful, they want to show you those. The tradeoff is that not every comment is useful or insightful.

Are you grouping users by search patterns?

Bryan: He suspects there probably is something there. It’s not something they’re doing today.

What metrics would make you use SearchWiki as a signal?

Shockingly, Corey doesn’t want to answer that question.  He says its because things change so quickly. I think it’s cause he’s in secret squirrel mode. He looks nervous. Like a squirrel.

SearchWiki was designed to be a useful tool for ordinary search uses.  He’d be worried about saying “let’s turn up the volume”. Use it for yourselves. Try it out.

Do these services place an emphasis on AdWords?


Is Personalized Search using info from Google Checkout.

Not today. [Nice inflection there from Bryan.]

If all the SERP are personalized, what happens to new pages that come into the index?

That’s not how it works. Everything has its own baseline value. If a new site has come into the system and it’s hugely valuable, it will be able to climb on those merits. Personalization isn’t coming in to replace the results with what we think are appropriate. The changes seem to be fairly minimal.

How do you infer geographical intent?

Ask the Map folks. He declines Danny’s order to elaborate any further.

Is there more engagement with SearchWiki for long tail searches or head searches?

Corey says he can’t answer the exact question. What. The. Hell.

He can say that they’ve seen SearchWiki be used for broad and targeted queries.

How do tackle malicious comments? Are you monitoring them?

If you counter a malicious comment, you can thumb it up or thumb it down SEOmoz-style. That “feedback is taken into account”.  If you hit thumb down, a link will appear that will allow you to flag it as inappropriate.  As soon as you do that, the comment is removed from your results.

If you delete your search history, does Google really delete it  or is it just removed from your account?

It’s removed from your account. Search logs are retained for things like valuing ad quality. Identifying characteristics are stripped out.

Do you ever see a time when all the results on a page are customized, where everyone sees something different?

Bryan said he’d be surprised if it’s different entirely. There may be times when the nuances are different.

How does SearchWiki and Personalized Search interact, if at all?

There are obvious challenges. On the one side, users can change things with SearchWiki, but you don’t want to let an entirely automated system have that same right to change things too dramtically.

Bryan says explicit information trumps implicit information. I, along with every usability test ever created, strongly disagree. What a user wants and what a user says they want is entirely different. Ask any male who has ever asked a woman what she wants for Valentine’s Day. Or her birthday. Or maybe just for dinner.

Rae Hoffman offers up some questions and points out that Google doesn’t always tell people when they’ve altered a search.

Bryan says that sometimes the ranking changes are so minor that it doesn’t even merit putting it there. Oh good. Now Google gets to decide when changes are “significant” enough. That’s cool.

How’d you come up with the name SearchWiki

It was a code name. The more they thought about it, the more they thought it worked. Corey thought that was an interesting question. Corey must not get out much. I kid!

It’s time for lunch, which is good because I am clearly getting grumpy.


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