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Google's New Personalization Strategy – Reactions Explored

Greetings from inside the SEOigloo,
For this post to make sense, and for you to understand what Google’s new personalization feature is all about, and how it will affect you personally, please start out the way I did by reading Danny Sullivan’s in-depth post Google Ramps Up Personalized Search over at Search Engine Land. Danny’s post deserves huge applause for its step-by-step attention to what is going on with the new personalized search function, how you can shut it off, and what this could mean to anyone for whom the Internet is a part of life.
I want to re-iterate one extremely important point here from Danny’s post. You CAN disable the search history by hitting the ‘pause’ button mentioned in Danny’s article. However, don’t misunderstand this. Google is still collecting your information. They are only agreeing not to use it to personalize your search until such time as you choose to hit the ‘resume’ button. Re-read that portion of the article again, if necessary, so you know how to do whatever you feel you need to.
Those in favor of personalized search, say ‘aye’
One of the most admirable things, in my opinion, about a writer with the experience and authority of Danny Sullivan is that he brings a clear head to the subjects that he focuses on. You don’t get the feeling of a frenzied reaction to this change in Google’s manner of organizing the SERPs. In point of fact, one of the sections in this particular article he has titled, Don’t Fear The Personal Results!. In this portion of the post, he goes on to say that personalized search is good news for searchers. Danny feels that this will result in better, more relevant results for user queries. He also feels that those websites which publish quality content will reap rewards from the new personalized search. My basic reading of the Search Engine Land post is that Danny Sullivan feels good and positive about this change, and that he supports Google’s decision. He’s basically saying, it’s gonna be okay, man.
I did note that Danny wasn’t totally pleased with the fact that the ‘turn off’ link is now gone from the results at the top of the SERPs, but he still doesn’t seem too worried.
To quote Sullivan,
“Get on the Google personalized homepages of searchers.”
He says this with the kind of ease and confidence that makes me feel he has already formulated a brilliant plan to accomplish just this…while perhaps, lightweights like us are still scrambling around saying “What does this mean? If our clients aren’t seeing the same top 10 that we are, what the heck are we going to do?”
I am envying Sullivan’s expertise and nonchalance at the moment.
Several folks have commented on this post at Search Engine Land, and on the 2 threads I’ve started about this topic at Cre8asite and over at eBay. Here are the most succinct comments I’ve seen that stand in favor of the new personalized search feature.
We need to remember that the data has been collected for a long time, and probably even for the times when the user was not logged in to his Google account. The data-collection is nothing new, it has been used internally at Google to refine search results on a larger level for a while — it would only make sense that they try to push results that generally keep the most visitors (not just clicks, but rather users that click to the result and stay there for a while) –Softplus
SEOs are afraid of losing control. A year from now, 10 people searching for “search engine optimization” on Google will likely see 10 completely different results. Is that bad for general internet users? No – actually I think it’s a big step forward. Is it bad for SEOs? Absolutely (but do I care? nope). –Halfdeck
Personalization has been inevitable, and it will absolutely improve the user experience. And for the vast majority of users, they’ll never know it’s happening. –Gord Hotchkiss

All those not in favor of personalized search, say nay
Three of the big players, Aaron Wall, Ekstreme, and Graywolf came out swinging the moment Google announced this change. If you work via the Internet, or are simply interested in what is going on with the change, I sincerely advise reading all three of the posts I’ve linked to from these fellows.
I hope the gentlemen won’t mind if I quote them:
“I don’t go to the library to see only the books the librarian thinks I should read. I don’t go to the video store to see only the movies they think I should rent. I don’t go to the supermarket to buy only the food the supermarket wants me to buy. I’m an intelligent human being and can make decisions for myself, and I don’t need search results treat me like I’m a child, thank you very much….” –Graywolf
“It’s really just spyware. Love it or hate it, Google is now explicitly tracking you, what you like, and what you don’t like. Somewhere in the many datacenters Google owns, your life is being stored without any means to access it, edit it, or better yet delete it….It’s a really bad idea and might be the thing that will bring Google down. People hate being spied on and if enough mainstream media pick this angle, it’ll be all over for the big G.” –Ekstreme
“In the past they typically placed a turn off personalized results whenever your results were personalized, but now they do not disclose when they are personalizing the results, so you don’t know when they changed, which sucks.”- Aaron Wall

The above are just a few of the comments I gleaned from the numerous posts going up about this. Needless to say, Google’s latest decision is causing controversy. They are billing this as a fine new service that will make the results you get better-geared toward your needs. Responses to this pitch are all over the map – rage, confusion, fear, complacency, happiness. I should also add that the comments are already coming in from marketers and black-hats who are sure that the new system can be ‘gamed’. Don’t ask me to explain that. We’re not in the ‘gaming’ business, but I sense the wheels are already turning in the minds of the smarties who make a living by work of this kind.
My own feelings about personalization
I want to preface this with saying that Google has always been my favorite search engine. Not just because ranking with them counts most. Rather, I like the bare bones style of Google, while I absolutely loathe the cluttered, commercial, ads-in-my-face approach of Yahoo! and MSN. When I want to search for something, I want a box to use for this. That’s all. I don’t want news articles, video clips, fluff headlines distracting me. Give me plain old Adwords any time over this, in their binder paper colors and orderliness. They don’t scream for my attention, and I’ll rue the day when they start to. In point of fact, I don’t even want to make use of personalizing my Google page. I don’t want those nifty weather and news features. I just want to search!
Google – I think you guys are cool because of your plainness, and I’ll be sorry to see that change, which it inevitably will. But, at present, you rank #1 with me.
However, here’s what I don’t like about personalized search.
1) It’s going to make my job harder. If my clients aren’t seeing the same results as I am, it’s going to be a pain in the neck. Dear Google, if you know who my clients are, you know we’re the little guys. This change is going to confuse my clients and I’m going to have to try to explain what’s happening, every time they search for their own results on Google. I just know it will be like this, and I’m not looking forward to it. I don’t think I even understand yet what the implications of this will be. Will I be saying to my clients “Well, in general, you rank well for this. But, specifically, on that IP, you don’t.” How can I work with this and continue to provide honest, sensible assistance to the small business folks who come to me for help? I need to learn more about this.
2) I do not like being spied on. I know Google needs to collect my data. I know they are honestly committed to building the best possible search engine. I know that the results I see are already based upon popularity in the various ways Google judges that. I’m okay with all that. What I am not okay with is the presumption that you know what I’ll like better than I do. Just because I look at birding sites a lot doesn’t mean I want you to determine which ones I like best. I have bookmarks for that. I don’t need help with this. I appreciate the service your search engine provides me in finding a selection of things to choose from, but I object to you ranking the results based on a judgement you are making about my past behaviour. Just because I was in love with the Golden Eagle last week doesn’t mean I can’t be in love with the American Goldfinch next week. I don’t like the presumptuousness of my computer pretending it knows me. It’s a machine…I’m a human being. I’m not going to be fooled into thinking differently about my relationship to a tool, even if it starts sending me flowers on my birthday.
3) The first two objections to personalized search are on account of my own comfort. My third one is on account of Google’s reputation. I am already seeing the “hey Google, don’t be evil, remember?” comments out there. I feel like Google is crossing a line in the sand here. Users who are aware of data collection, to date, are probably educated enough to understand that search engines depend on data collection. There can’t be too many hard feelings about this, if we want services like Google to exist. However, I fear that the onward march of personalization is moving Google away from the likeable position of servant to the dubious one of master, and that public attitudes toward the fellows in Mountain View are likely to change accordingly. I honestly don’t want to see this happen. I want to keep saying proudly that Google is the search engine…not just because of my job, but because of Google’s style.
I’m trying so hard to take the broad view of this; to read everything I can from as many commentary sources as I’m finding. I don’t want to run around in a panic. I want to feel good about the future of search. Right now, I’m not feeling so good. Any feedback on this much appreciated.