If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.
That’s what Google CEO Eric Schmidt said when responding to concerns raised about internet privacy and recent updates to the search engine. The comment created a mini firestorm, with internet industry blogs and forums lighting up in discussion… And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Over the last couple of weeks Google has made quite a few announcements that are rapidly changing the game for users and search marketers alike – and they are doing so pretty much under the radar.

The most noticeable change for the average user was Google’s inclusion of Real-time Search, currently in the form of “relevant” tweets. You can read Google’s official announcement for the basics, the general idea being that users can now get an idea of what is happening right this second in regard to any given subject. Seems like a good idea in theory, but check out this post from Rae Hoffman of Outspoken Media for a surprisingly scary look into how Google’s solution could go very very wrong.

The second change was the universal roll out of personalized search. Until very recently, Google returned pretty much the same results for everyone. Meaning, if user A ran a query and user B ran the same query, they would get back the same results. This simply isn’t the case anymore. Again, I’ll point to Google’s official announcement of this to explain how it works. In a nutshell, Google now keeps track of your search history (for 180 days) and uses that to customize your results, whether you are logged in or not. Sort of makes you view Eric Schmidt’s glib comment about internet privacy in a whole new light.

Now, personalized search results are not new. They were available previously as an opt-in service for those users with a Google account, this change makes personalized results the norm for every user, or, opt-out. The problem with this is that the only mention of this change was a blog post, the one I pointed to above…that’s it. No space on the search pages announcing the change, no easily identifiable opt-out button, nothing. A user would have to spot the ‘View Customizations’ link, or the ‘Web History’ link up at the top to realize that tracking is being used to customize – neither are particularly visible, and the average user won’t be that clued in. To me, and to many others in the industry blogging about these changes, it seems a little too ‘Big Brother’.

So what does all this mean for your SEO campaigns?

Rest assured, the ‘normal’ search results are dead. For better or worse, the way Google handled this announcement ensures that very few users will opt-out of personalized results. However, the reality of the situation is that ‘normal’ results have been dying for a while now, and many of us saw these changes coming in one form or another.

The main strategies of your SEO campaigns won’t drastically change. At least in the beginning, there will still be tons of queries that return ‘normal’ results – until Google gathers enough data for users to personalize them. Even when results are personalized, Google will still use their algorithm to rank those sites, and you’ll want to optimize so you have a chance of getting that top spot for any user. First impressions are now more critical than ever, as the more a user clicks on your site from their results, the more likely it is you’ll jump to the top of that list.

There’s a lot of debate right now about whether these changes have Google moving down a dangerous path. In response to the privacy issue Mozilla’s Director of Community Development put up a blog post inviting users to switch to Bing. It’s a big deal. But it can be (and has been) argued that Google has a monopoly on the search industry, and as such I don’t see many users jumping ship because of these changes – especially when you consider the fact many won’t know about them.