Consumers have come to expect personalized online experiences. In the past, Google had a fairly robust personalized search feature for several years. Recently, though, the world’s largest search engine has dialed it back. Now it says it uses only “very limited” personalization in search results. A deep level of personalization proved to be problematic for the local search customer experience.
In truth, how personalized search results were tailored and delivered was problematic from a privacy perspective. As user concerns over cookies and tracking became widespread, search engines and businesses alike had to look at alternatives.
Yet, consumers say they crave personalization. A recent research shows 71% of consumers expect companies to deliver personalized interactions – and 76% get frustrated when this doesn’t happen.
This begs the question, how can you personalize your local customer’s search experience without being invasive? In this article, you’ll find tips and strategies to help you meet local customers on major search engines in their decision-making moments with relevant, engaging content and offers. First, let’s take a look at how we arrived at the personalization landscape as it is today.
A Brief Overview of Google’s Personalized Search
Google launched Personalized Search in beta in 2004. However, according to Sep Kamvar, then a Software Engineer on the Personalized Search Team, it was a concept the Google team has been working on since grad school at Stanford.
In 2005, Kamvar wrote on the official Google Blog, “We shared an office, which happened to be the same one Sergey had used before, and we were pretty familiar with the research he and Larry had done. Related to their work, we thought building a scalable system for personalizing search results presented an interesting challenge. We’ve still got a long way to go, but we’re excited to release this first step.”
In April of that year, Personalized Search came out of beta but was a separate service from Google Search. In November 2005, it was integrated with the Google Search experience but only for those logged in to their Google account. And, in December 2009, it was expanded to signed-out users worldwide, as well. Google explained, “This addition enables us to customize search results for you based upon 180 days of search activity linked to an anonymous cookie in your browser.”
Of course, not everyone appreciated being tracked around the web. Cookies were used not only for Personalized Search but for paid ad targeting, as well.
The Move Towards Cookie Regulation
In the years since, governments worldwide have introduced cookie-related legislation to regulate and limit user tracking, giving searchers more control over who collects their data and why. Now, search engines, ad networks, and the businesses who use them have all kinds of anti-spam and pro-privacy laws to deal with. The EU’s cookie laws are perhaps the best known. Despite there being no federal regulation in the U.S., several states have their own cookie laws. This includes the California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA) and Virginia Consumer Data Protection Act (VCDPA), for example.
By 2018, Google had greatly reduced the impact of user history and behavior on search results. Google executives revealed to CNBC that “there is very little search personalization and what exists is focused on a user’s location or immediate context from a prior search.”
As of August 2022, Google’s documentation for logged in users states that:
“When you search on Google, your past searches and other info are sometimes incorporated to help us give you a more useful experience.”
Depending on your Activity Controls, recommendations are based on activity saved to your Google Account such as:
- Your Search history on Google
- Results or ads from Search that you click
- Discover content you like or dislike
To this point, we’ve been talking about search traffic from Google’s organic Search. It’s important to note there are entirely separate algorithms that determine which businesses appear and in what order in local search – that is, in the Map Pack.
Which Factors Influence Local Search Personalization?
The specific factors in Google’s organic algorithms are a closely guarded secret. However, the company is much more transparent about how local search results are ranked.
Google Business Profile help states, “Local results are based primarily on relevance, distance, and prominence. A combination of these factors helps us find the best match for your search.”
Let’s look at each of these and see how your brand can optimize each location’s online presence to improve its visibility in local search.
Google advises, “Relevance refers to how well a local Business Profile matches what someone is searching for. Add complete and detailed business information to help Google better understand your business and match your profile to relevant searches.”
To demonstrate relevance to the queries local customers use to find products and services like yours:
- Complete all sections of each location’s Google Business Profile as fully as possible.
- Make keyword research a regular and ongoing part of your local marketing strategy. The keywords and terms used by your customers can vary widely across locations. Your first-party data will be an incredibly valuable source of insight here. Ensure that your local reporting solution gives you both a high-level overview and lets you dig into regional and individual location insights.
- Optimize local pages with more in-depth, descriptive copy than is available on the business listing in search, and add photos with alt text. Local pages are not only able to rank on their own in organic search but provide a logical next step for those who discover your brand’s listing in search and need more information before they’re ready to convert. Show that you understand the user intent behind the search with answers to your audience’s most relevant FAQs.
According to Google, “Distance considers how far each potential search result is from the location term used in a search. If a user doesn’t specify a location in their search, we’ll calculate distance based on what we do know about their location.”
Errors or outdated information about the physical location leads to a negative user experience. It also erodes the search engine’s trust in your brand. Make sure you:
- Use a technology solution to bulk verify location data. Leaving this important task up to local managers and franchisees can result in great inconsistency across the brand.
- Automate monitoring for duplicate listings so these can be caught and fixed quickly. There are many ways for duplicate listings to appear and new ones can pop up anytime, confusing search engines and searchers alike.
- Make sure map pins are accurate for every location across the brand. Having a user request directions to your location only to end up at the wrong location results in a negative customer experience and can result in bad reviews, too. You can also add “GeoCoordinates” local schema to business listings using JSON-LD to specify the latitude and longitude of each geographic location.
- Add information to local pages about each store or office’s neighborhood or proximity to local landmarks. Help search engines and local customers understand the exact location.
Google states that “Prominence refers to how well known a business is. Some places are more prominent in the offline world, and search results try to reflect this in local ranking,” and adds, “Prominence is also based on information that Google has about a business, from across the web, like links, articles, and directories.”
- Make local link building a part of your ongoing marketing strategy to build a robust profile of quality, locally relevant backlinks.
- Push accurate, up-to-date location data to all relevant directories and data aggregators, especially when a change occurs.
- Create hyperlocal content for your own web properties and find external opportunities for publishing, as well. For example, you might write an article for a local service organization’s website, or a relevant trade association.
More Optimizations for Local and Organic Search Personalization
Put yourself in the shoes of your ideal prospect. What do they see and experience when encountering your brand in search results?
Whether in local (Map Pack) or organic Google Search results, customers are looking for information that can help them determine whether your business is the best solution for their immediate needs.
You can offer more satisfying, personalized experiences by meeting searchers in your Google Business Profiles and local pages with:
- The correct language. This goes beyond broad languages such as English, French and Spanish to text that reflects the lingo and terms used in each region.
- Photos. Help searchers understand the experience they may have at each location with a combination of interior and exterior photos, pictures of your team, product shots, etc.
- Video content. Take it further and tell a story with videos embedded in local pages, on your business listing, and shared as Google Posts.
- In-store products. Show searchers you can meet their immediate needs and have what they need in stock by adding Products to your business profiles.
- An active local reviews profile so the searcher to see the experiences others are having at that location. Make sure you monitor for new reviews and respond within a day.
- Accurate hours of operation including holiday and special hours so searchers can plan their in-store visit or appointment.
- Posts. Create relevant Posts for holidays, events, special offers, and other seasonal promotions.
In the current environment, personalizing your local customers’ search experience means providing options along your customer’s journey that enables each one to choose their next step. Whether they discover your brand in an organic search, Image Search results, the Google or Apple Map Pack, in social media or anywhere else they’re searching for information, you can offer personalized experiences via the relevant content you make available in each channel.