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Personalization & SEO: How to Optimize for Personalized Search

Published on: 
September 17, 2021
Updated on: 
September 17, 2021
by
Sam Torres
Sam Torres

Today, it's no secret why people are shown personalized results when searching Google. Ever since the early days of Search, plus Your World, and the short-lived social experiment once known as Google+, there’s been a concerted push towards a more personalized search experience. And while Google+ did not survive the test of the time, many of those same user-centric search features still exist today.  

Search any query like ice cream, bicycles, or yoga, and you'll see a dynamic display of local business listings, videos, images, questions/answers, blogs, and products - all filtered with you, the user, in mind. In many cases, it can feel downright eerie how accurately Google personalizes search results based on where you are, what you like, and who you’re connected to.

This is no accident. Any time an individual uses Bing or Google Search, they’re sharing information about their language, location, device, and web history — all the data that search algorithms use to provide personalized results. The only exception is when a user intentionally hides this information from Google, for example when using Chrome's incognito mode.

In turn, the organizations that can utilize ways to leverage personalization for SEO and surface their content among individualized search experiences can gain a significant competitive advantage.

Search personalization refers to Google’s ability to tailor search results to individual users based on unique characteristics, such as location, language, and previous search history either on the device in question OR via the Google account the user is logged into (regardless of device.) The extent of personalization largely hinges on prior search data, as well as how companies and content creators choose to use that data.

For marketing purposes, this means that businesses have the opportunity to utilize this search data and insight to create different variations of content for different audiences. If done properly, Google may elevate that content to appear more easily for users differentiated by the characteristics mentioned above.

What does this mean from a marketing perspective versus SEO strategy?

  • When creating a digital marketing strategy, most businesses and brands see their mission as communicating to their audience to boost sales or engagement.
  • When crafting an SEO content strategy, many professionals may see their mission as effectively translating their communication for use by Google to rank content for certain keywords.

Personalization is a happy medium where these two strategies come together.

SEO brings users to your site, and on-page personalization will help guide users to your desired action. If you’ve designed your SEO strategy to target multiple audiences, consider how content variation could address each type of user (e.g., where they’re located, what language they speak, the intent behind their search query, etc).

For instance, will you have dynamic sections on each page that change based on customized factors, like country, language, or search intent? If so, you’ll need to make sure your personalization efforts do not actually hinder your SEO performance through common mistakes like duplicate content, competing URLs, or simply poor UX.

As users become more and more accustomed to seeing search results tailored to their unique preferences and location, the demand for accurate, personalized content grows. By crafting customized content, not only for your audience but also for Google’s algorithm, you can use personalization for SEO to maximize the potential of your website content to drive conversions.

For example, let’s say I live in Canada and I need to get an oil change. If I search “oil change service near me,” Google will display the closest oil change services based on which city or neighborhood I am closest to in Canada.

If you (hypothetically, of course) operate a large chain of oil change shops throughout Canada, there are steps you can take to better reach these location-specific users.

Google local results for "oil change service near me" in Canada
Local personalization example for "oil change service near me" in Canada

The first is ensuring your website is optimized with dynamic content that tells Google (and me, the user) that you have a location "near me". The second is ensuring you have a Google My Business listing dedicated to each location you operate, which you can link to from your website.

But let’s take this one step further. Let’s say Google has learned that I’m located in Edmonton, Canada based on prior searches I’ve made and locations I’ve visited. If I search just “oil change,” I may automatically see oil change services in Edmonton even though I didn’t specifically enter those keywords. Further, Google might show me search suggestions in its predictive autocomplete feature.

Google search suggestions via autocomplete
Google autocomplete example for "oil change near me"

This example is used to communicate the weight that personalization carries in today’s digital world. If you aren’t considering the main factors that Google uses to customize search results to individual users, you may not appear for your ideal audience.

3 Ways to Incorporate Personalization Into Your SEO Strategy

Google uses three main factors to create personalized search results, and you have the power to optimize your site for each one.

1. Language & Country

It may seem obvious, but users can only engage with your website if they can read (and understand!) what’s on it - and that starts with matching the right language content with the right users. If your business wants to connect with international audiences or a multilingual audience within one country, language and country targeting should be atop your list of ways to optimize for personalization.

Don’t rely on Google Translate to bridge the language barrier gap between international users and your website’s content. Here are a few key tips for personalizing according to language and country:

  • Translate your entire site into languages relevant to your target international markets. The best UX makes it easy for users to select the desired country or language to which they can browse your site. If you include multiple languages on your site, it’s to your advantage to translate content across the board to easily lead the user to conversion. Enable users to select their language on a landing page or homepage, and also be sure to use canonical tags to avoid conflicting URLs.
  • Use HREFLANG to help guide international SEO and localization. Adding these link attributes will help Google surface the correct version of a page based on language and country. For example, if a user in Canada searches for your site in French, they’ll automatically view the French Canadian version of your site in their search results. Using HREFLANG and good strategic planning can help mitigate problems that can arise with international SEO and duplicate content.

Learn more about International SEO.

2. Location

Another more common SEO best practice for personalization is to target local audiences and sub-audiences with localized content that’s optimized for hyper location-specific keywords. Google will always consider a user’s current location (assuming location sharing is enabled) as well as location history when displaying personalized search results, and will even get as specific as the spot on the sidewalk where the user is searching with a mobile device.

Use these local SEO tips to effectively target users by their location:

  • Get your Google My Business listings in order. Make sure your GMB profile (what shows up when users search for businesses on Google Maps) stays up to date with an accurate description, address, and hours.
  • Design landing pages for individual locations. If your business has multiple locations or targets more than one area, create landing pages that include location keywords, business details, and embedded maps that signal to Google that it should prioritize these local pages for nearby users.
  • Strategically include dynamic content. Dynamic aspects of a page will change based on certain user characteristics. Including these page features can help you target users by location, as well as language and search history. Remember to utilize sitemaps and canonical tags to prevent Google from seeing duplicate content or redundant URLs when it crawls dynamic content.
  • Curate high-quality localized content. Don't depend on dynamic content to do all the heavy lifting for local customization - especially if you can't leverage advanced data & engineering resources to do it particularly well.

Here are some specific ideas for localization personalization (manual or dynamic!):

  • Localize URLs, titles, descriptions, headers/subheaders, page copy, image alt text, etc. for the neighborhood/city/state of that location. (This does NOT mean keyword stuff everything!)
  • Localize images. Take pictures of your building's storefront, or utilize images of recognizable local landmarks.
  • Incorporate user-generated content - from local users. That means UGC photos, featured reviews from residents of that specific area, and the like.
  • Embed a map that displays that location's name, address and location. Consider including written directions, especially for confusing or hard-to-spot locations.
  • Utilize phone numbers with local area codes.
  • Use local business markup.
  • Curate specialized information for that area - eg if you're targeting Denver, Colorado, you could break out local neighborhoods, activities, or tips. See Airbnb's Denver, CO landing page for specific examples of this work in action.

3. Past Searches & Click History

This is where understanding search data and knowing how to choose the right keywords for SEO takes center stage. In order to be included in a personal search result, your content's search terms need to line up with the searcher’s intent and Google’s perception of their interests. In-depth research into your audience, competitors, and industry trends can help you identify what will constitute valuable content for your ideal customer and which keywords will attract organic traffic.

If you’re new to SEO keyword research and content optimization, consider:

  • Evaluating your existing content and updating existing pages based on current SEO performance and keyword rankings, to ensure relevant results.
  • Incorporating long-tail keywords that reflect vernacular searches, like Google voice search.
  • Creating audience personas to better direct your marketing efforts. By defining the exact type of person you’re trying to attract to your website, you better position your content to resonate with that particular user - their demographics and psychographics - thereby leading to more conversions.
  • Potentially using Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence tools for content optimization, like Outranking, Clearscope, SurferSEO, and Frase.
Women under a twinkle light umbrella under a night sky and shooting star
Personalized SEO is unique!

Additional Considerations for Your Personalized SEO Strategy

SEO is a multi-faceted, complex undertaking that can be affected by a multitude of factors. Keep these tools in mind when developing a personalized SEO strategy.

  • A/B Testing - When done right, you can conduct A/B tests that don’t negatively impact SEO. Keep in mind the mistakes mentioned further below to make sure your testing efforts stay on track.
  • Dynamic content - As mentioned above, this is custom content that dynamically changes based on certain user factors, like location or search history.
  • Social media - Consider how you can leverage social media content to enhance your overall SEO strategy. Use search trends as clues as to when certain topics and content is most desired, and vice versa.
  • Device type - Approximately 80% of location-based searches are completed on mobile devices. Ensuring responsive, mobile-friendly site design and indexing is imperative for personalization.
  • Reporting: Pay close attention to the results of your efforts relative to your target metrics (KPIs). For example, a local eCommerce retailer may want to monitor the rate at which users successfully seek a product, verify that it's at their local store, and subsequently pick it up or get it delivered.

SEO Personalization Mistakes to Avoid

When implementing new copy and code to improve your SEO for personalization, you always want to avoid diminishing your existing rankings or - worse - damaging your SEO by making major errors along the way. To avoid making mistakes, make sure you pay attention to:

  • URL & content duplication - Avoid this error by using sitemaps, canonical tags and robots.txt files to your advantage. Additionally, never swap an entire page’s content for dynamic content. Keep some original content to maintain rankings, and vary the rest to avoid direct duplication in the eyes of crawlers.
  • Redirects - Avoid using the wrong type of redirect when sending users to URL variations in A/B tests for page versions. Generally, a 302 (temporary) redirect request will be most helpful to search engines (instead of a 301 - permanent 0 redirect).
  • Load time - As always, keep your site’s load time fast to keep both users and Google happy. You can use tools like GTmetrix or Google’s PageSpeed Insights to measure and optimize for faster load time.
  • User experience (UX) - Personalization should enhance user experience, not hinder it. Avoid bloating your site with redundant pages, distastefully stuffing copy with location keywords, or creating a confusing user journey with too many customization options. Always prioritize the human element of every page. Learn more about UX and SEO.
  • Black Hat SEO - In a general sense, Google can easily detect “black hat” tactics, such as cloaking, keyword stuffing, and sketchy link building. Sites that get caught using such strategies can be penalized, creating a steep uphill battle in reversing the situation. Cloaking, for instance, involves creating two versions of a page: one for Google, and one for users in an attempt to manipulate organic rankings. Dynamic content can run the risk of appearing as cloaking, but as long as you include consistent, human-focused content on these pages, you should be good to go.

It’s no longer a matter of if search results are personalized, but to what extent they're personalized. And the extent to which largely depends on search data and how companies choose to use it.

As a savvy marketer, personalization presents an opportunity for you to enhance your SEO strategy, improve your Google search results, and outpace your search competition. By creating content that reflects diligent research into your target audience’s trends, searches, and location, you elevate your overarching digital marketing strategy to achieve a higher level of potential success.

To consult with an expert on developing your SEO for personalization, get in touch with our team today or explore our services to learn more.

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