February 12, 2008

Does Google’s personalised search suggest a shift from intention to attention?

If you’re a Google account holder (e.g. you use a Google service like Gmail, AdWords, Analytics etc), you may have noticed a slight change to your Google search results in recent times. If you’re signed in and search for something, the blue bar at the top of the results will likely start ‘personalised results for…’.

I won’t go into the full detail of this here (there’s a good article at Searchengine Land that explains it very well) but the gist of it is this: Google monitors your activity and start customising search results based on your personal browsing preferences. That means that if you tend to go to Sky Sports (rather than, say, the BBC or the Guardian) for your sports news, you’ll see Sky Sports start to climb the rankings in your search results, even if the terms are more precisely matched by another site.

The effect may only be small at the moment, but to my mind this ties in with a discussion we’ve been having internally recently about a ‘marketplace of attention’. The phenomenon of Google and others’ advertising centred around search has been marked out as a ‘marketplace of intention‘ — that is to say, when you search for something, your exact intention is made clear and results, content (and, yes, adverts) can be served up to match that intention. Thus it was that the most successful search engine was the one which was the most accurate.

However, there have recently been signs of moves away from this focus on sheer accuracy, with other factors being brought on-stream (see, for instance, the talk about social ratings of search results). In the case of personalised search, the factor being added in to the equation is centred around sites that you like and frequent. We are tentatively calling this idea of compelling destinations a ‘marketplace of attention‘; it’s key to making successful virals because virals are something you discover or are sent, rather than search for (have you ever tried searching for something to make you laugh?) and it is, to get finally to the point, one of the reasons we’ve set up our Viral Ad Network.

Essentially, people are increasingly looking for things online to capture and hold their attention (like good virals), bringing interesting things to them rather than demanding they go out and find them (like good sites) — this is part of what I think Google is recognising with the shift set out in its personalised search. To be able to take advantage of this shift, advertisers need to push their good content out to trusted, well-read publishing destinations and publishers need to have ready access to new, interesting content to hold the attention of their readers and keep their destination compelling. By bringing the two together, the Viral Ad Network facilitates the brilliantly mutually beneficial supply and demand of attention.

Posted by Ben