Anatomy of a Personalized Search Result: Interesting Localized SERPs & Google Bidding on the Term "SEO"!


The evolution of Google's search engine results page is pretty well documented in the search engine marketing space. The reality is getting a clean, pure, consistent ranking in organic search is nearly impossible because of:

Recently when I Googled the term "SEO" I saw a number of things I found interesting (DISCLAIMER: these are my personalized SERPs, your mileage may vary and the same query may be doing something different for you):


(Click the image to enlarge.)

Specifically I think the things of interest here are:

  • PPC is taking up a lot of this SERP, and we see a service that really can't (or at least shouldn't) be sold with a simple credit card swipe using the Google Checkout icon to grab some of the searcher's attention.
  • Google is pushing their place pages in an SEO SERP!
  • Since this is a broad subject and a not a trending query we see Google news featured prominently, but not above the organic listings.
  • There are two interesting localized SERPs -- we'll come back to these.
  • Google reminds me of how often I've logged into SEO Book.
  • There are some nice keyword ideas surrounding the SERP (for both depth and breadth) and the vertical search options, despite the icons, still blend in with the background because they look like navigation.

Now while the non-bolded items are important for SEOs and PPC managers to take note of, they've been fairly well talked about other places. The two items I thought were of particular interest here were the bolded pieces: Google's use of this SERP to push their place page listing and the localized search listings.

Localized Search Listings ...That Aren't At All Local

The interesting thing about the two SERP results highlighted in red in the image above is that they don't live on a local domain. One is sitting on a YouTube URL (not a universal listing, but a static listing from and the other doesn't seem to have a physical address on the site, and only mentions the term SEO on their home page once (and not at all in the title tag).

So What in the World is Going On Here?

Obviously these results have been personalized. Some information worth noting:

  • I live near Lowell, MA, and am logged in as having Lowell for my location.
  • I have, believe it or not, visited before. I haven't ever visited that particular page of the site.
  • I've never been to the Promoter Local site before, but again as you might imagine I frequent a number of SEO/SEM/marketing sites.

It's obvious Google is treating SEO as a semi-local query. Let's take a quick peek at what happens if I tell G that I'm located elsewhere. First let's try nearby Boston: 


If we look for major cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, etc. we see similar SERPs to this second screenshot. But what about small towns? My home town of Billerica didn't show any local listings in the SEO SERP when I changed my search location to that town.

So let's recap:

  • Big Cities - Plenty of listings for domains with a local focus.
  • Smaller Cities - Some listings for weaker results on non-locally focused domains.
  • Small Towns - Not at all localized.

The question now becomes what is triggering these listings? It's worth noting that Google is showing an ad for Google places through all of these SERPs.

It seems as though, at a high level, there are two likely culprits for the bigger cities getting better local results:

  • Query Demand & Volume of Searches from the IP - More people look for Boston SEO than Billerica SEO, I would guess, and a greater number of people searching for SEO do so from the city than Billerica. Google could be seeing that a lot of people search for "Boston SEO" and when people perform a Boston search, blend in some of the results from their Boston SEO SERP.
  • Lack of Results - Largely because of the lack of query demand, there aren't a lot of pages optimized for Lowell SEO or Billerica SEO (effectively none).

It's likely impossible to tell which of these is actually driving the results displayed (and quite possibly it's a combination), and the fact that the YouTube listing is shown here likely means they are starving for content in the locales that don't have any, and subsequently are willing to take a very thin page on a domain that isn't local (but is very trusted...wink wink) to offer some localized content.

Why is Google Places All Over These SERPs?

Since Google is blending in local results AND has decided this term is prime inventory to push their local search services they clearly view this as a local query. If you look at the "something different" and related searches suggestions you don't see any geo-modifiers. That's because while they know that in aggregate a lot of people are searching for {town name} SEO, they also know that geo recommendations would create a bad experience for people in different locations. 

But the fact that they are pushing places so aggressively into *all* of these SERPs that I checked likely means that Google percieves a lot of local intent attached to that query (and who would know better, right?).

OK: So What Do I Do With All This if I Have an SEO Company?

The point here isn't really that some SEO company should be doing something in response to all of this. The point is that by really analyzing our SERP here and digging in to try to understand not only who ranks for SEO according to rank checkers or clean browsers but also how people actually see the SERP (because after all: we're optimizing to get people to our site, not to rank as high as possible in an abandoned SERP) we've identified:

  • A high volume opportunity - It certainly appears lots of people are looking for SEO locally.
  • A content gap - Google is gobbling up some pretty weak local results where it can find them here, and in some instances when it would be logical that they would want to return a result, they're punting altogether and no one is pushing content into the SERP.

You probably have some ideas for how you might exploit this, but the point here is mainly that SERPs are very fluid -- you have to try to understand how your query space is actually being seen by searchers so you can find weaknesses and opportunities.

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Richard Kraneis
Mar 21, 2011

Thoughtful Merits Thoughtful Reply

Some days, reading the posts at WordStream makes me realize how little I know: today was such a day.

It's not that the article was overly complex or mathematical, it wasn't. I could compare your first screen snapshot and its observations to a fishing guide looking at a depth map, looking at the weather, sniffing the wind, knowing the season, and then deciding where to fish.

Perhaps its similar to Malcom Gladwell's book named Blink where countless hours of experience amount to "the power of thinking without thinking". But I believe it does take you a while to look at a SERP page and see opportunity for you or a client.

All I know is that beyond Google Analytics, bounce rates, website visitors, ROI and such fancy phrases is the old/new way of going to Google and doing a search for "SEO". And learning from what you see.

Today I did a search for a past client on Google and found that a major competitor was again poaching on their keywords (despite possible lawsuits).

I can look at a Google SERP and see simple to moderate complexities in the results of the page. It's good to know there are people out there (like yourself) who can look at a Google SERP and see online marketing opportunities.

Even if I don't know how to do it, I know who knows.

Thanks Tom.

Tad Chef
Mar 22, 2011

I think this has real ramifications for SEO companies beyond knowing that rank checkers are not sufficient anymore. You can change your optimization strategy by focusing on major keywords again like [seo] or [seo company] because you'll rank for them in your area. Until now you'd rather try to rank for niche keywords as [seo] itself was too competitive.

Richard Kraneis
Mar 23, 2011

Question for Tom,

If Aaron Wall's free Rankchecker indicates my Google SERP is #5 (page 1, position 5), do I still need to check the actual position on a Google page?

Is Aaron's Rankchecker highly accurate (I know he does excellent work) in actually measuring Google, Yahoo, Bing SERPs?

Do I always need to verify Google SERP type tools to see if they accurately measure reality? Thanks.

Tom Demers
Mar 24, 2011

 @Tad Great point - the aggresive personalization is a very, very big shift that I think gets somewhat under-talked about.
@Richard - Aaron's tool is accurate in so far as it measured what *many* people see, but the idea is that no rank checker can measure the actual aggregate ranking of your keyword, because they can't log in as every single searcher from every single IP and normalize rankings across all of the impressions. Rankings are directionally useful, but rank checkers can't really tell a totally, comprehensive story any more.

Kathy Long
Mar 27, 2011

Appreciated this post, Tom. Interestingly, here in San Jose, CA, which is in Google's backyard, I'm not getting local results at all. I'm getting good old organics with a bit of google news pulled in. That's it. But what I did find that was humorous to me, especially after Google's promise to pull the plug on scammers, was a SEO specialist on that first page who is a scam artist riding on the rails of artificial, black hat link building techniques. It was interesting to do a link: search on his url and see exactly what he has been up to. Nothing new or clever there if you're a Black Hat SEO, but fascinating that Google still can't filter out link scams when it sees one. Well, actually in this case, I'd have to say, it doesn't see.

So, apparently, it in it's attempts to give relevant results -- and in line with your blog post here, that means giving you local results because it thinks you want it -- it's not keeping its eyes open to what's coming in the back door and then, in fact, giving you results you really shouldn't see. Back to business, Google.

white label seo
Jul 20, 2011

Really great thoughts about personalized search results, every business wants to be on top and that's why they would pay to do that. The more money you have the more links you have.

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