Personalized Search Results Are Probably Deceiving You

Google's default personalized search features may prevent you from seeing how your website is really ranking in the organic search results.
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David Victor

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Personalized Search Results are deceptive

I have an embarrassing admission to make.

Up until recently, I hadn’t bothered to check my “Do not use personal results” in my Google Search settings for several years. 

I naively presumed that my request was still being honored from when I set it all those years ago.

(To be fair, I had sort of taken a sabbatical from 2010 until late last year.)

Recently, a client and I were discussing his rankings, and I responded that after a quick search, I thought he was doing — pretty well. Better than we might have hoped.

Maybe you can see where this is going.

In my quickie little ad-hoc search, his site was ranking near the top of my search results.

Google was showing me personalized search results

A Brief History of Personalized Search

In the beginning, Google search results were unbiased. However, as of early 2011, Personalized Search results were shown to all users of Google Search, unless you knew how to turn them off.

Personalized Search results are based on your own behaviors and interests which Google tracks, as well as on the people with whom you connect online. 

In a nutshell, personalized search results give a ranking boost to the information that Google decides is more relevant to you, based on what it knows about you. 

Today, when I searched Google for “google turn off personalized search results”, the first article that surfaced was a “rich snippet” from the website Forbes.com, dating back to January 13th, 2012

This is an eternity in the internet age!

However, for a time, this method worked.

Of course, the advice is now hopelessly out of date, and references functionality that disappeared many years ago. 

Turning off personalized search now is now more difficult.  

There are no simple “switches” anymore, at least from what I could find. Perhaps Google hopes that people just give up.

After a bit of sleuthing, I came upon an article by Google that included a sequence of steps to take to supposedly depersonalize your Google search results, and escape your personal informational echo chamber. 

How to Supposedly Turn Off Personalized Search Results in Google in 2020

Presuming you are logged into your Google account, here’s the formula:

  • Click your Google Account icon at the top right of a Google page.
  • Click: Manage Your Google Account
  • Click: Data and Personalization
  • Click: Activity Controls
  • Web & App Activity 
  • (vague right arrow)

Here, there’s a semi-mysterious switch:

Web & App activity switch in Google

On my browser, I had recently set Web & App Activity on. Why? 

Well, after much back-and-forth with Google Support, apparently having my Web & App Activity set “on” is the only way for me to edit my own personal Knowledge Panel on Google

However, to depersonalize Google search, apparently I need to have Web & App Activity set off.

(A curious Google “carrot-and-stick” approach: If you want to control the primary way you are represented on the web, you must let us track your searches, app usage, location, etc.)

At this point, I also suspected that I needed to delete my activity until I saw a cactus and a tumbleweed.

Google's promise that they don't have any record of your search activity.
Google’s promise that they have no activity saved about you. Hmm….

There’s also an unsatisfying Auto-delete setting. Here you are presented with three choices:

  • Auto-delete activity older than 3 months (who came up with this number?)
  • Auto-delete activity older than 18 months (what happens in life after 18 months? Except perhaps, showing a client defensible SEO results!)
  • Don’t auto-delete

Next, I went back to Google and did the search I’d done before.

Google was still showing me personalized search results!

So how do you really turn off personalized search results in Google?

How to Really Turn Off Personalized Search Results

It’s slightly difficult. 

One way to turn off personalized search results is to do your search in a browser in Incognito Mode and use a VPN.

Unfortunately, incognito mode and using a VPN is a bit of a pain-in-the-arse. 

Firstly, you need to go through yet another PITA to enable all your favorite handy-dandy extensions while in incognito mode. Then of course, you must fire up yet another browser window (not a tab) and do your search. 

And do you really want to be in incognito mode for all the rest of your work? Maybe. Maybe not. 

Same goes for using a VPN. Many times, you end up breaking the functionality of many websites by connecting using a VPN. 

So, I fired up a browser window in incognito mode and using a VPN. I hit google.com, and repeated my search. 

Finally! 

I’m seeing depersonalized search results. But, again, it’s definitely not convenient.

The Easier Way to See Depersonalized Search Results

Fortunately in the course of writing this article, I came across a brilliantly handy and free Chrome plug-in called SEO Search Simulator by Nightwatch.

The Nightwatch SEO plug-in allows you to do a completely depersonalized search, and save your searches to allow you to recall them easily at any time.

One other really nice feature is that you can include in the saved search, the URL that you’re actually interested in.

We’ll get back to the embarrassing part here. This was the personalized search for my client in San Ramon, a financial advisor:

Personalized search result for "financial advisor san ramon"

Here’s the depersonalized Google search:

Generic, non-personalized search result for "financial advisor san ramon"

As you can see, my client is not ranking in the Map Pack in the depersonalized search, but is in the Map Pack in my special, personalized SEO echo chamber! 

Right at the bottom there, you can see he’s the third organic result.

Not All Is Lost

Allow me the dignity to gloss myself and complete this article with a little SEO victory.

Here’s a Nightwatch search I did for a bicycle shop client I’m working with in Pleasanton:

Google search for "bicycle service pleasanton"
Unbiased search for “bicycle service pleasanton“”

Naturally, Superfly Wheels is at the top of the Map Pack for their favorite keyword, and third behind Yelp in the organic listings. 

Nightwatch SEO Search Simulator is the SEO’s best friend. 

Who Actually Sees Depersonalized Search Results?

So that’s the stark search reality, seen by…uh, who sees these results again? 

Probably not too many folks. At least, not more than a few times, until Google figures out what they like to see most often.

However, this is likely the most balanced view of Google for an SEO professional

Most people see something like these results, most of the time.

What about the second most-used search engine in the world, Bing.com, you ask? 

Perhaps you don’t ask, if you’re reading this article. 

In any case, you can forget about the first Google search result for depersonalizing Bing too: again, hopelessly out of date. 

In fact, Bing’s personalized search results switch is difficult enough to find that I gave up after multiple loops through their Bing Search Settings, Microsoft’s Personal info settings, now text me a code, now give me the last four digits of…blah, blah, blah.

I couldn’t find the magic switch.

Yes, I know about Duck Duck Go and the many others. 

I keep coming back to the stats: Google currently processes at least 75% of all the searches done worldwide. At least, according to Google. Naturally, repeating my search on Bing surfaces a different article that suggests Google processes 70% of all searches worldwide.

In any case, the current reality is that Google currently handles most searches, most of the time. 

The Echo Chamber: Personalized Search Results

I’ll finish up here with this whopper of a question: “Do personalized search results make us worse off as a society by decreasing our awareness of the scope of knowledge?”

This is a huge topic for another day, but in the meantime, there’s a fantastic article in Slate, also from Ancient Times, about the problem of the “filter bubble”. 

The idea is that, due to rampant personalization, we are all getting more information that we agree with, and less information that challenges us to think on our own. 

Personalized search results massage away cognitive dissonance

I see this information, and so does everyone else! That makes me feel confident, smarter and safer.

I fell victim to it too. 

Now we, and I, know that it’s hard to escape the filter bubble. 

However, it’s important that we know that this “filter bubble” and search personalization exists, and that we know how to escape it.

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