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Webmasters fume as Google profiles signed-out searchers

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Google is now "personalizing" results even when users have not logged into its web-dominating search site. And SEO types aren't too happy about it.

Personalization is a euphemism for a Google-controlled practice that involves tweaking your search results according to your past web history. Mountain View was already doing this with users who had signed in to a Google account so they could use non-search services like Gmail and Google Calendar. But now it's targeting results for all users - whether they're logged in or not.

The way Google tells it, this will make your life better. "Now when you search using Google, we will be able to better provide you with the most relevant results possible," reads a blog post from the company. "For example, since I always search for [recipes] and often click on results from epicurious.com, Google might rank epicurious.com higher on the results page the next time I look for recipes."

Of course, this is also a way for Google to build a better profile of your web activity - and target ads accordingly.

The Chocolate Factory has always hoarded the search history of everyone visiting the site - whether they were logged in or not. But this is the first time Google has massaged results for users who haven't signed in. This is just one of the many reasons Google likes cookies.

The company's new cookie-based personalization is based on 9 months of stored data. And it's completely separate from account-based personalization.

Google does let you turn off personalization off. But it's on by default - and we all know that most people will leave it on.

It's a particularly worrying prospect for search engine optimizers (SEOs) and other webmasters seeking to influence Google's results. With results changing from user to user, convincing Google algorithms to push a particular site to the top of page becomes all the more difficult.

"Does this pretty much make checking your place in the serps [search engine results pages] meaningless?" asks one poster in the ever popular forums at Webmaster World.

Another is confident that SEOs will still have their place in Google's world. But he questions whether the Chocolate Factory will end up preventing users from finding things they may not know they're looking for.

"There's something about always getting personalized search results that is socially troubling," he says. "I can see it creating a kind of ostrich phenomenon, where the average user is less and less exposed to anything new. I noticed this happening in my own online news consumption several years ago, and took intentional steps to make sure I got out of my own preferential areas."

But others phrase their concerns in a manner that's a bit less, shall we say, level headed. "GOOGLE IS NOT YOUR FRIEND. THEY VIEW YOUR BUSINESS AS AN ENEMY and ONLY have their OWN interest at heart," says one SEO. "THIS ANNOUNCEMENT SHOULD BE THE FINAL WAKE UP CALL to what Goog's about."

"Welcome to the GORG," says another. ®

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