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Beauty Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

A friend (lets call him Smurf) recently wrote to me with some great news, after doing some SEO on his site and it was now ranking in #1 or #2 positions for some heavily contested keywords on Google’s UK SERPs (search engine result pages). Great stuff! Or was it? When I went to see Smurf’s results for myself I found that I couldn’t duplicate them. For many of his terms he was not even on the first page of results! What was happening here? Was Smurf being mental and imagining what he wished to be true was reality? Could Google have tweaked their search algorithms between when Smurf had checked the SERPs and when I was looking. Both scenarios are possible, but not likely. No, what what was happening was an effect of Google customising their SERPs on a per user basis, providing tailor made results for Smurf and me.

You see, Google’s fine engineers know that not everyone is the same. Knowing this they have realised that if they could serve up results customised to each user, the user will have a better experience. And these same engineers know that knowledge of past behaviour is useful for predicting future behaviour. So  Google had some way to know your web browsing habits, then they could customise their SERPs just for you. If Google had this sort of information they could put your favourite sites higher in the SERPs presented to you. If Google could see that you visit a site regularly, they would know that it must hold a certain appeal to you, more appeal than to others who don’t regularly visit that site. If only there was a way for Google to know which websites you liked visiting :-(

We're watching you, but don't worry! It's for your own good.

Oh well, that’s a pie in the sky dream as there is no way to track web surfers movements, Google would have to enlist the help of millions of websites, and get them to let Google know when people visited their sites. And there is know way anyone (not even lovable Google) could convince more than a small portion of websites to violate their users privacy like that. And Google wouldn’t do that because a scheme like that would be a invasion of privacy on a scale of Orwellian proportions, and they’re all about not invading privacy right? “Do no evil” and all that. Not to mention the public outrage that would ensue.

Evil Plans Afoot

Actually, Google and a number of others have been doing just that with great success for a number of years. Yes, google is watching you. It watches what searches you commonly make, it watches which links you click on, it watches which pages you visit. And hundreds of millions of website owners happily help them do it. How is this possible? The anwser is Google Analytics.

Google Analytics is a set of great tools for helping site owners analyse user behaviour whilst visiting their site. These tools allow site owners to see which pages were visited, where the user came from, what links they clicked on, vistis broken down geographically, length of the visits, what search terms were used to find you. These tools will tell you all sorts of interesting stuff, stuff that is really helpful when running a website.

Website owners love these tools. They don’t even have to run the software themselves. Google takes care of everything, all you have to do is place a html snippet (also known as web bugs) in your pages and away you go. Now whenever someone loads one of your pages, Google can tell you about it. The tools are really powerful and smart and provide really valuable insights into your websites visitors. And the best thing about the tools is that they are all free! They won’t cost you a red cent, how could anyone resist? Something for nothing, where do I sign up?

There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

So these tools are free in the monetory sense as it doesn’t cost website owners $$ to use them. But what some site owners probably don’t realise is that they are actually paying Google for these tools, not with money, but with valuable information about their users.

Dr Evil

First I'll explain my scheme to my nemesis in great detail, then I'm going to place him in an easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death. Then I'm just gonna assume it all went to plan. What?

You see, to get access to the Analytics data the web site owner has to allow Google to track their visitors. And this information Google can do all sorts of interesting things, including serving up customised results based on your past surfing history.

So my friend Smurf, like most people with a website that they hold dear, visits his own website frequently. Undoubtedly more than anyone else would. Google knows that Smurf does, because he runs Google Analytics on his site. And since Smurf recognises the importance of SEO, he is constantly running searches on his targeted keyword phrases to see where his site ranks. Now, what google (probably) doesn’t realise is that Smurf is running these searches wanting to see where his site appears in the SERPs for most people i.e. someone who has never been to his site. However what google probably thinks is that Smurf is actually looking for a site, why not present him with this website that he obviously loves visiting.

Blend In With the Crowd

So how can Smurf avoid being fooled by the mirage that is the customised SERPs. How can he and other website owners test the results of their SEO efforts and know that they are seeing what others are seeing? Well, he told me that he resorted to running his searches incognito by up lugging his wife’s laptop down to the local wi-fi cafe. This approach worked but there are other ways to achieve anonymity on the web. Web based proxies are a good option, one of my favourites is HideMyAss, and there is also Proxy.org1.   These sites allow you to surf anonymously, hiding your IP Address, tracking cookies and most things that can be used to identify you. In fact, is actually a better option for testing SERPs if your business is geographically bound, as you can choose a proxy with an IP Address that is located in the same location as your target market, thus allowing you to not have your results skewed because you are located in a different part of the world to those you are trying to appeal to.

All Things Must End

Like everything, this post must come to an end.  So let’s end how we started. Now Smurf has got Google to serve up unbiased results he has found that things are not as rosy as he originally thought – a pity for sure. But far better to know the truth than to go living in a Google created “reality”, thinking you are at the top of the pops. At least Smurf now knows that he needs to keep at it with his SEO as he has yet to hit the mark. And what about you dear reader? Do you check your sites ranking in the SERPs? Have you been happy with where your site is listed? Could you also be living in a fantasy world fueled by the opiate that is Google’s customised SERPs? It’s time to go and break the spell and have a reality check. I hope you find the truth is as rosy as you think it is.

Good luck!

-Jimmy McGrath

Have you been fooled by customised results? How do you like knowing Google is watching you? Let me know by commenting below!

1. A word of warning – don’t use these proxies to access sites that require you to provide a password as the way these proxies work the supplied passwords can easily be read by the proxy maintainers using a man in the middle attack.

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