Personalized Search: A Boon to Small Business




How many times have you heard – or perhaps asked yourself – “How can I get on the first page of Google”?  It used to be that that was the holy grail of SEO (Search Engine Optimization).  In fact, it was the sales pitch that many SEOs used to lure in clients.  And with the right keywords (a little stuffing here, a little stuffing there), and enough links ( a little buying here, a little buying there), you could come pretty close to guaranteeing that top spot in the SERPs (Search Engine Results Page).

Guess what?  The world has changed.  There is no first page of Google anymore!  It started with the Panda and Penguin algorithm changes and is continuing with Hummingbird in a big way. Keywords and links are still with us, but are in the process of being overtaken by increasing weight given to social signals.

No first page of Google??!!   What does that mean for me if I own a small business?  What do I do now?

The answer in a nutshell:  Get social.  Build relationships.  And more specifically, get social on Google+.  If you’re knocking it out of the park on other social platforms, you certainly should continue your efforts there.  But it is to the advantage of EVERY small business owner to be active on Google+ in order to have the best chance of showing up on the first page of Google, and possibly #1 on the first page of Google.

I know what you’re thinking.  I just said that there was no first page of Google.  Actually, a more accurate statement is that there is no single first page of Google –  each person has their own first page due to a little thing called Personalized Search.

Where did Personalized Search come from?

Google has been quietly and diligently collecting data on all of us who use Google Search while logged into our Google accounts (which is the default setting) for years now.  

Some people may not even know they have a Google account.  But if you’ve ever used Gmail or had a YouTube account, then you automatically have a Google account, even if you’ve never signed up for a Google+ – which is a pretty large percentage of Internet users.

By now Google’s databases are sufficiently expanded and indexed so that it has a pretty good idea of who each of us are:  our search history, our location, our social connections – and if we’re on Google+, which is Google’s ultimate identity platform, it has an even better idea.

Couple that with semantic search in which Google is getting better and better at understanding natural language and the intent behind your search query, and you have personalized search.

So how does Personalized Search work?

It can work in several ways.  For instance, geolocalization, where Google uses your location to determine your search results:

1.  Using voice search:   If  I ask, for example,“where can I get a good cup of coffee?” Google will give me  personalized returns depending on where I am:  walking down the street while on vacation, or sitting on my living room sofa at home.

2. Using desktop search:  Let’s say I’m interested in remodeling my home and I’m considering hardwood flooring.  In personalized search (the default setting) – i.e. when the little blue  silhouette of the upper body of a person is highlighted, also known as Search Plus Your World (S+YW) – if I have in my circles any business that would relate to my hardwood floor query, they are likely to appear higher in my search results than if I am logged out of my Google+ account.


In a recent post by Eric Enge, he explains how in personalized search, search results are affected by:

1. the people who circle you onGoogle+ (and the people in their extended circles)


2. people who follow those who have +1ed your content.

That could be a lot of people very quickly!  If you had just 10 people in your circles, and each of them had just 10 people in their circles, already that’s 1000 people!

This can have a significant impact on search results, and even more so if any of those people are influencers.

I decided to do a bit of testing,  

Voice search: Using voice search on my iPad I asked “where can I get hardwood flooring”.  I found that I got very accurate results for several locations nearby in my area. 

I also tried searching “where can I get a good cup of coffee” and got similarly accurate results.

Mobile search on my phone:

When I typed in my search query for the hardwood floors, I was given an autosuggest to include San Diego. That gave me results in the same county where I lived but not very convenient to my home.

I used my “where can I get a good cup of coffee” query, and got articles on how to brew a good cup of coffee, not where I could get one.

Desktop search

I used my hardwood flooring query again, and this time I got locations in Los Angeles, which is about 2 hours away from where I live.

When I used my “coffee” query, the only results I got on the first page were again articles on brewing coffee.  The exception was the last entry on the first page which was for a coffee store in Santa Barbara, over 3 hours away.

None of these queries specifically related to a Google+ post, so I tried a search query that would.  

I typed in “how does personalized search work” while in S+YW, and on the first page I got a result for a post by Gianlucca Fiorelli (an excellent article, by the way and one I recommend you read), shared by Mark Traphagen, that was reshared by Heidi Bouman.  Now I have circled all of these people, but my assumption is that Heidi Bouman’s reshare showed up on my first page because I have had numerous interactions with her, and much fewer with Mark Traphagan, and almost none with Gianlucca Fiorelli.  

When I clicked on the globe icon to take myself out of personalized search, I no longer saw Heidi’s share.

I did one final test.  I happen to have in my circles a company called Archways and Ceilings Made Easy.  I typed into the search box “are there DIY kits for domed ceilings”.  In S+YW (personalized search) this company came up in the first position on the first page.  When I took myself out of personalized search by clicking on the globe, they still appeared on the first page, but farther down in the results.


Currently, if there is a specific Google+ post that will answer your search query, your connections in Google+ will have a direct influence on whose posts you see.

If your search query is of a nature that might not be answered specifically by a Google+ post, but you have circled a company that would answer that query, they will most like appear higher in your search results.

For other searches involving geolocalization, voice search in my experiment, was much more accurate than mobile or desktop searches.

Personalized search is evolving.  David Amerland states that “currently it [personalized search] informs only a small percentage of search results”, but clearly that is the direction that Google is headed.

In the case of ranking specific Google+ posts the effect is much more direct.

This is very important for small businesses because, as Al Remetch noted in a hangout on air, it is harder to get a website to rank # 1.  After all, there are only 10+ spots.  But you can get a blog post to rank high, especially with personalized search, on at least some people’s first page of Google.  Blog posts can be a micro-niche, a gateway, for your business.

Creating content that specifically answers questions that people are looking for, including naturally using keywords, is a critical way for small businesses to be found.  This bias towards your content seems to increase if there is also consistent social engagement (+1s, comments, reshares), as in my earlier example with Heidi Bouman’s share. Other factors affecting search results for your content include the numbers of followers, and/or influential people engaging with your content. Building influential networks is key.

Of course, in order to attain this level of engagement with your content,  you must first engage with other people and their posts.  It is a very holistic approach to marketing.

Personalized search is an important way for small businesses to compete on the semantic web. As Joshua Berg said, “Using the power of G+ on personalized search results can be an amazing shortcut to high rankings …” This is truly a boon to small business  and its ability to compete with larger companies.  But more than that, it is also a sign that the shared values of businesses and customers are fundamental to success in the era of personalization and the semantic web.

Bottom Line

Personalized search opens the door for small businesses, especially those who are active on Google+, to show up higher, potentially much higher,  in search results for people who’ve circled them or people who follow those who have plus 1-ed their content.  One word:  Amazing.


What have you noticed?  How has personalized search affected your rankings for your blog posts or as a website?

Credit and thanks to:

Eric Enge, “Google+ and SEO: How Google+ Impacts Search Results”, Search Engine Watch,

David Amerland, Google Semantic Search, Que Publishers

Rand Fishkin, “Using Google+ to Appear to Appear in the Top Results Every Time – Whiteboard Friday, Moz,

“SEO and Semantic Search”, Hangout On Air, hosted by Carol Doddsley with Al Remetch and David Amerland,

Joshua Berg,  comments in his share of “Using Google+ to Appear in the Top Results Every Time”.

Gianluca Fiorelli, “SEO in the Personalization Age”, Moz,

Mark Traphagen, comments in his share of “SEO in the Personalization Age”.

Heidi Bouman, reshare of “SEO in the Personalization Age”.

photo credit: Nemo/pixabay


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