Years ago, everyone saw exactly the same search results. Today, no one sees exactly the same search results, not on Google, not on Bing. Everyone gets a personalized experience to some degree, even in private browsing windows.
Of course, there’s still a lot commonality. It’s not that everyone sees completely different results. Instead, everyone sees many of the same “generic” listings. But there will also be some listings appearing because of where someone is, whom they know or how they surf the web.
One of the easiest personalization ranking factors to understand is that people are shown results relevant to the country they’re in.
Someone in the US searching for “football” will get results about American football; someone in the UK will get results about the type of football that Americans would call soccer.
If your site isn’t deemed relevant to a particular country, then you’ve got less chance of showing up when country personalization happens. If you feel you should be relevant, then you’ll probably have to work on your international SEO.
Search engines don’t stop personalizing at the country level. They’ll tailor results to match the city or metropolitan area based on the user’s location.
As with country personalization, if you want to appear when someone gets city-specific results, you need to ensure your site is relevant to that city.
Ph: Personal History
What has someone been searching for and clicking on from their search results? What sites do they regularly visit? Have they “Liked” a site using Facebook, shared it via Twitter or perhaps +1’d it?
This type of personal history is used to varying degrees and ways by both Google and Bing to influence search results. Unlike country or city personalization, there’s no easy way to try and make yourself more relevant.
Instead, it places more importance on first impressions and brand loyalty. When a user clicks on a “regular” search result, you want to ensure you’re presenting a great experience so they’ll come again. Over time, they may seek out your brand in search results, clicking on it despite it being below other listings.
This behavior reinforces your site as one that they should be shown more frequently to that user. Even better if they initiate a social gesture, such as a Like, +1 or Tweet that indicates a greater affinity for your site or brand.
History is even more important in new search interfaces such as Google Now, which will proactively present “cards” to users based on explicit preferences (i.e. – which sports teams or stocks do you track) and search history.
Ps: Social Connections
What do someone’s friends think about a website? This is one of the newer ranking factors to impact search results. Someone’s social connections can influence what they see on Google and Bing.
Those connections are what truly matter because search engines view those connections as a user’s personal set of advisors. Offline, you might trust and ask your friends to give you advice on a restaurant or gardening.
Increasingly, when you search today search engines are trying to emulate that offline scenario. So if a user is connected to a friend and that friend has reviewed a restaurant or shared an article on growing tomatoes then that restaurant and article may rank higher for that user.
If someone can follow you, or easily share your content, that helps get your site into their circle of trust and increases the odds that others they know will find you. Nowhere is this more transformative than Google+, where circling a site’s Google+ Page will change the personalized search results for that user.