SEO Test: Default Personalized Search is a Myth – It Doesn’t Work

During the recent three weeks I have performed a very simple SEO test to determine the influence of the newly introduced personalized search feature by Google. This one allegedly works with cookies only and it personalizes your search results by default even when you’re not logged in.

Google claims that the sites you visit via their search results most will show up higher up in search results the next time.

It doesn’t work though.

Default personalized search is a myth.

That’s the more than surprising result of my empirical test.

To find out about personalized search or personal search as I prefer to call it for the sake of simplicity I took the searcher’s perspective. I did not yet want to test the SEO consequences of personalized search.

I just wanted to see how much and how quick the results get personalized and whether the actions I’d perform would lead to the personalization I’d expect.

My assumptions where threefold:

  1. Clicking a website’s search results repeatedly in a matter of days or weeks will make it climb in my personal Google results.
  2. Searching for a particular keyphrase will push the matching result of the site I click significantly upwards.
  3. Once the results get personalized in favor of the site I use to click they will stay the way and the results won’t drop significantly.

All three assumptions have been proven wrong by my test. Personalized search used in the way described above is useless and offers no additional value for the searcher.

How did I test?

  • I chose one keyphrase, “seo news” (without quotes) and one site to click the search result of, Search Engine Land.
  • I chose SEL for several reasons. This is a highly reputable authority site with stable rankings. This way I wanted to ensure that random movements don’t spoil the results of my test. Also Search Engine Land offers SEO news without really ranking for the term correctly. You’d expect SEL to be at least in the Top 10 in for seo news but it ranked at #15 on the first day of my test.
  • To make sure I took I tested with a browser I don’t use normally. A browser that I use only for web development to cross check or some private web browsing. This way I wanted to ensure that the sites I click on in search results usually don’t spoil the results.
  • To be certain that Google counts the clicks I did not bounce but stayed on SEL for a while and often read some articles clicking on the respective pages.
  • The test took approx. 3 weeks and I took 10 screen shots to document it. I made a mistake once taking a screen shot of the wrong set of results, page one, where the Search Engine Land results can’t be seen.
  • I clicked only the SEL result each time. On the first day I mistakenly clicked Search Engine Watch as well but that didn’t happen anymore. I wanted the test to stay as simple as possible. thus I ignored all the results.
  • Cookies were enabled with no exception.
  • I didn’t log in to Google once during the testing time period.
  • I added a date to the file name of the screen shots: It started 20100116 (January 16th, 2010).

On the screen shots I can see how Google highlights different portions of text. On some days articles including the term SEO or news get highlighted while on other not or different ones. My impression is that the on page factors (mentions of the keywords) had a much higher impact on the results than personalization if there was any at all.

The actual results of the personalized Google search of “seo news” (without quotes) and Search Engine Land:


date ranking
16/01/2010 15
18/01/2010 13
20/01/2010 13
23/01/2010 12
29/01/2010 32
01/02/2010 33
02/02/2010 33
04/02/2010 –*
07/02/2010 11
09/02/2010 11

* Screen shot of the wrong page


While on the other hand you see any upwards movement of plus 4 in three weeks there was a seemingly complete random drop of minus 20 in the middle of the test. So the rankings were quite unstable for no apparent reason other than maybe the keyword density on the front page.

You could argue now hat the personalization works to some extent as the result I’ve clicked ten times moved upwards albeit slowly.

Imagine the average searcher: Does this kind of personalization really help? Do you have to click more than 10 times in three weeks or over a longer period of tie to see any significant personalization?

My goal was to see Search Engine Land in the top 10. This takes one click in Google SearchWiki.

Does it make sense to take more than clicks in default personalized search to personalize them a bit? No, it simply doesn’t work.

I would be maybe more positive about the results but the huge drop of minus 20 positions rendered all the previous personalization useless if there ever was one.

On that day I really had to check the Google cookies: They were still there and the date of last visited was correct. So they got found and updated. There is no doubt about that.

I’ve proven other Google statements wrong. They’ve indexed “nofollow” links from Twitter for instance before they officially bought the data from Twitter. Also they claim to filter #hashtag spam in Google real time results but I as able to place spammy three hashtags in a row for “hot searches”.

Also remember that Google will discontinue some search features without telling you or only telling you afterwards, like they did with PageRank sculpting support. They have announced it month afterwards they had discontinued it.