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Google Universal Search & Personalization - The Future of Search?

Recently, Google made some big announcements that will affect every Google user on the planet eventually, and placed Google firmly in the lead in terms of search.

One has to do with search "personalization" while the other is referred to as "Universal Search".

Both will have interesting implications in the world of search but will also lead to a bunch of questions.

For example, in terms of personalization, why didn't Yahoo, MSN or AOL do this first? They all have large user bases and, in fact have had larger user bases than Google up until a few years ago yet they failed to act for whatever reason.

Aside from that though there are many Google related questions as well.

Universal Search – a Definition

Let's start by defining what universal search is. The short answer is – having all results on one screen. That means if you search for "Charlie Sheen" you will not only see regular web results, such as his IMDB profile, or his top fan sites but you may also see direct links to image results, video results and even applicable local and news results all on one screen. No more having to switch between "images", "video", and "news" tabs and performing another search.

The writing has been on the wall for this for months, if not years. Google has been experimenting with the SERP (Search Engine Results Page) for quite a while. Just a few months ago we saw them add a section to the page for more generic terms. For example, if there was a term that had multiple potential results they would insert a section in the middle of the page with results for that alternate term.

And of course there have been "onebox" results showing up in Google's search results for some time. These are the small boxes that occupy the top of the screen when perhaps a map or news headline is more applicable.

But universal search takes this concept a step further by assuming all content could appear on the SERP and not just news, maps or more traditional search results.

In reality this is something that should have happened a long time ago but for various reasons it did not. And it will be interesting to see how the average Google user reacts. My feeling is that right now most users won't even see the new navigation bar that universal search generates. Mostly because it is a light colored bar that appears just below the search box but above the spot where users generally begin scanning search results.

But my feeling is, this is just version 1.0 of universal search. As time goes on we'll begin to see those extra links replaced by actual results. Instead of seeing "images" "news" "video" links above the SERP we'll actually see top news, images and videos as they pertain to that search.

And that leads to the next major upgrade to Google: Personalization

How does personalization work?

There are a variety of ways this will work depending on how comfortable you are with allowing Google access to your browsing habits. If you give them more complete access you will get much more personalized results, however if you limit them to cookies, then the personalization will be less complete. So let's look at those 2 scenarios:

Let's say you are a Google fan and have a Gmail account or Google account and have allowed Google to keep track of your online history. Google will use your web surfing habits along with their other proprietary algorithms to help them determine on the fly what search results you should see when you perform a search on Google.

For example, I am a Linux fan. I've been using it exclusively for quite a few years now, so when I search for “software” Google should be smart enough to know that my history has been to visit Linux software sites and should then therefore filter out any Windows or Mac OS based software sites.

As an aside this brings up another interesting question. I don't click on Google Ads. In fact, I'm so used to them I block them out of my periphery entirely. Does that mean that I will start seeing less and less ads in my searches? Would I stop receiving ads altogether?

As you give Google less and less access to your online habits, your results should be less and less personalized. If you only allow them access to your cookies and not your entire browse history then your search results will only be as personalized as Google can pull together from previous searches you've used Google for.

But still, that's a pretty impressive database they can pull from to help personalize your search experience.

What does the future hold for personalization?

The whole reason for writing this article was because an idea struck me. In order for search personalization to evolve over time (as it must to remain useful) it must be able to change. Not only should it learn that when I search during the day it's primarily for work and when I search in the evening its for non-work related items, but it also needs to better understand my intent.

Further, as my search habits change (both because I age and because I become more online savvy) Google's personalization algorithms should adapt to realize this.

So that makes me wonder – will Google's personalization algorithms grow with me? In fact will I ultimately have a set of Google algo's so tuned to me that they are in fact my own?

One would think that they'd have to be. If that's the case then perhaps a computer can learn, to an extent, because it can begin to understand my habits.

Regardless of whether the algorithm can rebuild itself as I change (essentially learning), or not, it does have to change. Otherwise Google's search can never be truly personalized.

Rob Sullivan
Search Engine Marketing and Brand Development Strategist
Get In Position


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