The personal touch

How retailers can leverage Google's new fortified personalized results.

Paul Demery

High-tech "action sports" gear retailer Evolucion Innovations Inc. sells equipment shoppers are unlikely to find at mass-market merchants, for instance a $1,299 pair of Volkl skis with iPT bindings.

So when it comes to buying paid search ads, the retailer, which is commonly known as evo, bids high for keywords related to those kinds of niche products—a tactic that helped to more than double its sales over the last several years, to close to $30 million last year from less than $12 million in 2008. "For products that are less distributed, we have less competition," says Will Swales, the retailer's customer acquisition manager.

But the Top 500 retailer doesn't bid as aggressively on keywords related to other skiing-related products, such as popular The North Face ski jackets, that are more readily available at larger, big-name retailers not known as places to gear up for the winter sport. With national apparel and general merchandise retailers like Macy's Inc. and Amazon.com Inc.'s Zappos.com bidding up search terms for The North Face, evo has long figured its money is best spent marketing specialized gear.

But as it plans to expand its sales of popular and relatively higher-margin outerwear brands to complement its gear sales, evo is sharpening its search marketing tactics to get its outerwear offerings in front of the consumers who are most likely to buy. To do that, it's taking advantage of Google Inc.'s efforts to personalize search. In early 2012, Google started to include in search results content from its Google Plus social network, along with other personalized content based on a consumer's geographic location, as well as her search and browsing history, search marketing experts say.

For instance, evo has placed a Google Plus icon on product pages, and encourages shoppers to "Plus One" the brand on the social network. Those moves make it more likely that a consumer with friends in Google Plus will see posts by them about evo and its products in search results, Swales says.

With the changes underway at Google, experts say retailers and other online marketers have little choice but to follow a path like evo by broadening their marketing exposure with pertinent content across social media and other web venues—or be left out of consumers' personalized search results.

UNDER GOOGLE'S "SEARCH PLUS YOUR WORLD" feature, which is the default search setting for Google Plus's 190 million users, search results may show a consumer's friends' Google Plus posts. Those messages can influence whether a consumer clicks a particular link, Swales says. "If a consumer searches for a particular pair of K2 skis on Google, and sees her friend 'Plus-Oned' our K2 page on Google Plus that makes our site super relevant and may increase our click-through rate," he says.

Consumers' actions on Google Plus help Google determine what to return in its search results, says Jeff Oxford, founder of online retailer BeerPongStadium.com and a former e-commerce consultant to other retailers. "Any web pages that my connections share or post on Google Plus will rank higher in my search results," he says. "If a friend I follow on Google Plus shares a link to a pair of Nike running shoes and I search 'running shoes,' there is a good chance that specific pair of Nike running shoes will rank on page one."

Oxford adds that it's difficult to cite content on Google Plus as a source of a retail site's increased rankings in natural search, but that among his retail consulting clients it appeared that it did. "Correlation data suggests that the efforts made on Google Plus likely had a positive effect on organic traffic," he says.

Swales says he can't comment on how working with Google's personalized search results have impacted specific metrics for evo like conversion rates and sales, but says the retailer's overall Google strategy has helped evo grow sales.

In addition to Google Plus content, Google's personalized search results may also show local store listings related to a search term based on the consumer's IP address, says Danielle Leitch, executive vice president of search marketing firm MoreVisibility. They may also show a preference for video content and either paid or natural search listings according to what a consumer has searched and browsed in prior Internet sessions, adds Kevin Lee, CEO of search marketing firm Didit. Personalized or "private" results are indicated by a highlighted symbol of a person in the top right corner of every Google search results page; a consumer can hide the private results by clicking an adjacent symbol of a globe.

Google's changes are forcing retailers to adjust their search marketing tactics, Lee says. "You can't rely on one kind of search engine marketing program—such as organic, paid, video, news, local," he says. "Some searchers will see different levels of visibility of your listings based on Google personalization."

Google may produce search results for a particular type of query that emphasize natural results or paid ads based on what a consumer has clicked in prior searches, or it may include news or video listings in place of a general range of natural results. It may also feature local results, or a tightly related group of searches, instead of a more diverse group within a single query's results, Lee says. An effective search marketing tactic, he and other experts say, should consider blogs and social media posts, as well as other content that can be tailored to fit among one or more of these areas.

A retailer of outdoor apparel, Oxford says, could blog about popular hiking trips and link to his personal Google Plus page. That ensures Google that it's the author's original post, which makes it more likely to show up in the private search results of someone connected to the retailer through Google Plus. "As these types of blog posts get shared on Google Plus, they will rank better for anyone who is connected with the blogger on Google Plus," he says.

THE LEVEL OF PERSONALIZATION a consumer sees varies based on whether he is logged into a Google service, such as Google's Gmail e-mail system, YouTube videos or its Google Drive web-hosted applications, says Mark Ballard, director of research for search marketing firm The Rimm-Kaufman Group LLC. Including some 190 million people who are active on Google Plus, there are about 390 million active users across multiple Google programs including Gmail and YouTube, a Google spokesman says.

Google doesn't publicly break out the number or percentage of search results served up in personalized and global results, though experts say the share that are personalized appears to be increasing. The reason, Oxford says, is simple. "Google knows that the more they personalize the results, the more relevant the results are to users."

Going forward, evo also has its eye on Google's Remarketing Lists for Search Ads program, which Google recently brought out of a beta test. When customers shop evo.com and buy skis but then leave to search elsewhere for The North Face jackets, for example, Google's remarketing program, through a cookie in the shopper's web browser, enables the retailer to reach the same shopper in searches for outerwear with an ad in personalized results. That ad could emphasize that evo is a great place to shop for The North Face and other clothing brands. "Now paid search ads can be more cost-effective, because we'll be promoting to folks who are aware of our brand," Swales says. "If they've already shopped with us, they know us and trust us."

Google's paid search remarketing program can complement its display ad remarketing, helping a retailer reach a shopper during early and late stages of the search and purchasing process, says David Weichel, director of paid search at search marketing firm CPC Strategy. If those consumers respond to those remarketed display ads as well as search ads, Google will up a brand's relevancy and ranking in personalized search results, he says.

"There's a bigger emphasis on holistic marketing, doing things like blogs, social media and other ways of marketing to and interacting with consumers," he says. "The more Google sees consumers reaching a web site through multiple ways, including Google Plus, it's a plus for personalized search rankings."

With Google's ongoing efforts to provide consumers with more personalized relevancy in search results, it behooves online retailers to consider the multiple ways they can show up in those results.