Google recently announced that it will be going ahead with personalized search results. There is no need to underestimate the potential of this change. It is really the beginning of a new era in search. What has begun as a default personalized search for every Google account holder can extend up to personalized search for every single browser. There has been criticism of the move from some SEOs saying that Google is becoming the Orwellian Big Brother of the web. Thus Google decides which sites are good for you (Google Search), provides products and services to buy (Google AdWords) and the way to pay (Google Checkout). Now this implies that Google completely dominates the whole process involved in web services.
But Google is not alone. In a recent interview Microsoft Live Search's Justin Osmer indicated that MSN is the next one to move in the same direction. Thus personalization might be a Google initiative but it is not limited to Google. Other search engines will soon follow suit, whether you like it or not. In fact, many users will be happy with the changes, if they are aware of them in the first place. But so long as there is a choice to opt out, I am all in love with it. Danny Sullivan has already explained the way to opt out of it.
Now the major concern for SEO firms is that what happens to natural search results? I completely agree with Rob Garner of Mediapost when he says that:
The future will be in knowing what your target audience wants, knowing the language they speak and knowing how they find what they seek. Provide the content and experience they are seeking, and you will naturally match your offering to the key aspects of the personalization algorithm, such as click-through rate, time-on-site, number of page views (or in a rich app, back to “time-on-site”), internal site clickstreams, repeat visits, bookmarks, etc. Engage your target market, and the search engines will engage your site.
Thus online market research is getting closer to offline market research where you no longer research on keywords, you research on actual user patterns, what they like, what they don't, how they purchase, what really turns them on. Basically, what is the user's real need? And that is where the business will be. There will be less of search engine optimization and more of user-requirement based site optimization.
The shift is essentially focused on moving from a “page-based” paradigm to a “pageless” paradigm; one that treats the Web more as an application, rather than a book. Ajax is driving the change.
Truly, a new era has begun. None of the SEO firms will go out of business now, not yet. But the focus is changing significantly from websites to utilities and there are no options other than joining it.