Most users are unaware that Google personalizes their search results, but the fact is that almost every search result page is personalized to some extent. Not only has this been around for a while, but you should be aware that “implicit search” factors are becoming more important than “explicit search” factors.

An example of the difference between implicit and explicit search factors is that when I Google “restaurants” the search result pages shows a list of restaurants in my immediate neighborhood. Even though I didn’t search for “restaurants Hamilton”, I only see search results from restaurants in Hamilton. “Restaurants” is the explicit part of the search – what I asked Google to search for. “Hamilton” is the implicit part of the search – information assumed by Google that I did not provide.

Implicit factors cover things such as my location, the device I’m searching on, my previous search history, the demographic information Google knows about me, posts in social media by people I’m connected to, and so on.

If you use Google Now on a mobile device you are seeing the start of a new direction: information provided to you without any explicit search. Instead of waiting for you to search, Google pushes content to you based only on implicit factors. Their description of the service says that you will “see helpful cards with information you need throughout your day, before you even ask”, and that it will “tell you today’s weather before you start your day, how much traffic to expect before you leave for work, and more”. While this is still in its infancy, over time this will be expanded to include more and more information targeted to you based on the knowledge they are building about you.

My vision when we started Google 15 years ago was that eventually you wouldn’t have to have a search query at all. You’d just have information come to you as you needed it. – Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google

example search result from calendarThis vision applies to the standard Google search page as well. While you will still have to provide some explicit search information there, the implicit knowledge about you makes up an increasingly large part of the search criteria.

Here are a few examples of new features that Google is already testing:

  • Searching for information from your calendar, e.g. “When does my flight arrive?” or “Show me my agenda”
  • Searches that pull content from your email or Google Drive
  • Smarter indexing of what content represents, e.g. searching for “my purchases” will pull up receipts sent to your gmail address
  • Answering searches using their knowledge graph, e.g. “what is mom’s work address?” should be answerable by connecting you to your contact list to the information they know about that person

google search examplesIn the restaurant example Google is tailoring search results based on your location. In these examples they are tailoring search results based on your personal information or from information gleaned from people you are connected to.

There are obvious implications of this for SEO. Traditionally SEO companies have assumed that they can optimize content for explicit queries. But how do you optimize a site when some or all of the search result is based on implicit queries?

What does this mean for SEO?

  1. A website can rank in different positions depending on where a search is coming from. The variability of this depends on many factors. We should not talk about “winning a search result position” in absolute terms. You may rank well within a certain geographic area, sometimes even within a single neighborhood.
  2. A website can rank in different positions depending on who is searching for it.
  3. Social signals are important.
  4. Google needs to know more about an organization than just the text on their website. It needs to know their location, what they do, what products the offer, etc. While making sure your website works for your users is always the primary goal, it is increasingly important to make sure you are building things in a way that Google can index more meta information. Websites need to have semantic content. Organizations need to be listed correctly in Google+.
  5. Your SEO goal is not always to get people to your website; it is important that your information is accessible in many different ways. This could be a direct answer on a search result page without the user ever landing on your site.