Loren Baker started a thread on the SearchEngineWatch forum stating that Google filed for an organic search patent. Titled Personalization of placed content ordering in search results, this patent may potentially enable Google to serve organic search results based on user profiles.

The abstract states the patent is "a system and method for using a user profile to order placed content in search results returned by a search engine." Does this mean that Google is going into behaviorally based search personalization after all?

Search Personalization

In my article, "Search Marketing Then and Now," I talked about search personalization and behavioral targeting, indicating that Google had the capability but did not currently include behavioral data in its algorithm. That may be about to change, as Google becomes more and more commercially focused. In further describing the patent, the abstract summary continues:

"The user profile is based on search queries submitted by a user, the user's specific interaction with the documents identified by the search engine and personal information provided by the user. Placed content is ranked by a score based at least in part on a similarity of a particular placed content to the user's profile. User profiles can be created and/or stored on the client side or server side of a client-server network environment."

This certainly suggests that user profiles will be used to manipulate organic rankings in a new algorithm. If so, it may create havoc for search marketers. To quote Chris D on the SearchEngineWatch Forum, "...User targeted advertising using user profile data. Yes - it's a Marketeer's dream - and a privacy nightmare.... "

At this point, it's hard to say whether the patent will actually be used to manipulate organic listings. There are mentions of "a respective bid" and "a respective click through rate" in the paragraphs quoted below, which are paid search terms. Potentially, the protocol could be used for either organic or paid listings.

"5. The method of claim 4, wherein the ordering includes assigning a score to each of the set of placed content in accordance with the user profile and a respective bid for the placed content.

6. The method of claim 4, wherein the ordering includes assigning a score to each of the set of placed content in accordance with the user profile and a respective click through rate for the placed content."

Privacy Nightmare

You may recall the DoubleClick privacy fiasco when it merged with the database firm Abacus Direct back in 1999. Privacy advocates went into frenzy after their attempt to block the merger failed, causing DoubleClick to blink first.

DoubleClick planned to match users' web activities (tracked by cookies) with the names in the Abacus database, targeting relevant ads to users on a massive scale in its ad network. Users could opt-out, but privacy advocates said this was unfair to users, who didn't realize their personal information was being shared. So much for best-laid plans. The privacy debate sparked criticism from consumer groups and got the attention of the FTC. Ultimately, DoubleClick shelved its plan to use personal information for ad targeting.

Behavioral Targeting Redux

The search industry continues to explore ways to use behavioral targeting because the technology can be used to meet user needs while achieving advertiser objectives. Google has indicated it believes that sponsored listings improve the overall search experience. Ideally, it should be a win-win � users see only ads of interest and advertisers get exposure to a targeted audience.

The current focus is to stay away from using identifiable personal information. For instance, RelevancyRank uses search technology that ranks sites based on behavioral indicators gathered by Claria adware (formerly Gator). That is, indicators like repeat visits, time spent on the site, user click rates and so forth.

Yahoo! uses behavioral targeting in a program that targets display ads based on a visitor's recent search activity. Yahoo! Impulse allows advertisers to serve banners based on search behavior that follows a query entry. Such targeted ads can be served for 48 hours. Advertisers sign up for the program but users don't have an opt-in option. While users aren't asked for permission to be served targeted ads based on their search queries, Yahoo! discloses its behavioral targeting practices in its privacy policy.

I for one would always want to set my own personalization criteria and profile. You've all seen Yahoo! Mindset: Intent-driven Search, right? If you haven't tried it, you should -- it's cool. Mindset is a form of personalization search:

"The demo provides a slider widget for users to explicitly specify their intent. Leaving the slider in the middle means they want to use the original Yahoo! search result order. Moving the slider to the extreme right means they want the top results to be those which the classifier is most confident are "non-commercial". Putting the slider in between those two positions means a blend -- somewhat faithful to the original ordering but also tending to bring the more obvious non-commercial pages to the top. Similarly, sliding into the left half indicates blending of commercialness confidence vs original ordering."

MSN adCenter (Beta) promises powerful tools for better targeting although it does not include behavioral targeting at present. adCenter currently offers targeting by age, gender and geography. Behavioral targeting is the magic bullet because it achieves the kind of targeting those advertisers will pay more for.

What Does "Placed Content" Mean for Algos?

Can you imagine what will happen to search marketing vendors when their clients see organic listings moving all over the place with less predictability than ever before? The question is: How will Google use this placed content capability?

Andrew Goodman suggested a way to temper variable user interests in organic results manipulated with personalization data � just mix generic and personalized results alternately on the results page.

The effects of personalization can be far reaching, as placed content can affect organic search results in many ways. Andrew suggests that "Google's algorithmic thinking" applies to all placed content, such as "...organic search results, ads near organic search results, ads or related headlines near email, or ads on content pages."

Other than a privacy issue, if any, I do not believe there is a problem with respect to organic SEO and Google's patent request. Knowledge based services will always be in high demand and ethical search engine optimization practices are all about knowledge transfer.

Any robot, Googlebot included, will always have a difficult time interpreting data from a website for several reasons:

  1. No two websites are technically identical.
  2. No two robot crawlers are technically identical.
  3. HTML and other programming languages used to create websites produce text that is not viewed in the same light by humans and robots.
  4. Until robots like the Googlebot can imitate human behavior, intellect and intuition, there will always be a disconnect.
  5. Human knowledge and intervention is greater than any robot, even with AI.
  6. Facilitating a website's data to be properly accepted and consumed by robots will always be an important process that the robots have difficulty doing on their own.
  7. No robot will ever be human.
  8. No mathematical algorithm will ever represent a person's or a business' intention as accurately as a human being.

Personalization of search will have a big impact on the way ads are placed and displayed. Again quoting Andrew, this will "...have a dramatic impact on the opportunities available to advertisers, and the price they may pay to gain visibility." Look for a sea change in marketing when the personalization train hits.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
November 8, 2005

Paul J. Bruemmer has provided search engine marketing expertise and consulting services to prominent American businesses since 1995. As Director of Search Marketing at Red Door Interactive, he is responsible for strategizing and implementing search engine marketing activities within Red Door's Internet Presence Management (IPM) services.

Search Engine Guide > Paul Bruemmer > Is Google Messing With Organic Algos?