A common thread I’ve been finding on a lot of boards recently is incorporating more human input into the way the SERPs come back from Google, Yahoo, etc. Google especially has been experimenting lately with taking into account a user’s search history when deciding which pages are most relevant. The way it has been working so far is that if Google, for example, knows that you like to visit a particular widget site, it will be more likely to return that site in future searches that are widget-related, somewhat regardless of the overall relevance of the pages. The idea is that the sites that are popular to you are also more valuable to you for those terms.
What many SEO are saying is that this is the first step towards a search system standard that is more geared towards quality of content, giving people what they want, “change is good,” blah blah blah. But what I don’t see too many online marketing professionals airing (some are brave enough to question this new search direction) is the fact that any system that personally skews results based upon the popularity of a particular site is inherently flawed. What seems like a good idea at first can become a fairly large problem later on. Let me explain further.
At first, the search engines that integrate more user feedback into the results will see a significant return on their investment in terms of making searchers feel like they are being catered to. The sites that they have always found helpful will get pushed up in the rankings. And before you know it, the entire first page may be filled with familiar places to find information on widgets of all sizes, types, prices and so on. So everyone’s happy, right?
Well, what kicks in later is the fact that websites won’t be pressured to offer as fresh of content any more. Once they’ve gotten in with a high percentage of surfers, there’s no incentive for them to continue to build their site. So long as their readership continues to visit, they won’t slip in the “personal” rankings because they are popular. And the search engines will likely boost any site that’s massively popular in the natural rankings, leading to other sites with superior content getting the first page boot.
What’s wrong with this is that search engines should return results relevant to what the user searches for, not what they searched for in the past. If Google wants to remember the sites I visit, that’s fine. But here’s my declaration of search independence: allow me the choice to decide when I want Google suggesting ‘my favorites,’ because most of the time I don’t want the same old stuff.