How to unpersonalize search results

The world beyond GooglePeople often ask how they can get an “unfiltered, unpersonalized view” of their “rankings” on Google. The short answer is, you can’t.

Unpersonalizing your Google results is a useless exercise
You can remove some personalization from your results, but from an SEO standpoint, there is absolutely no reason to monitor slightly less personalized Google results. Just like you, your customer/audience is getting personalized results in Google, and unless you figure out a way to recreate each visitor’s Google SERPs, then the only real way you have to gauge SEO success or failure is monitoring visit totals from search engines to your site and a handful of other web traffic metrics. The Google Hummingbird update was so extreme that it’s taken personalization to the point where rankings and keywords are irrelevant for gauging Google success, but other traditional search engines like Bing, Yahoo, and Baidu also personalize results to varying extents. Personalization is the future of commercial search.

Getting less personalized Google results is possible

However, you may have a real need to get results that do not include the same results you already saw. For example, when you’re doing research on a topic and want to gather as much new data as possible, seeing the same top pages you already visited is not helpful when you want to know MORE, not just just reinforce your previous search choices. This is exactly how personalization fails. (This is also true for paid search — clicking on an ad increases the likelihood you will see that same ad again.)

There are many great posts by respected SEOs with step-by-step instructions on how to depersonalize your searches, as well as FireFox and Chrome plug-ins that will give you less personalized results. I haven’t ever found one that I could say with absolute certainty stripped all the personalization from my Google searches, but there may be one out there. This article on from 2011 covers some of the most basic hacks, Google’s Un-Personalized Search. Tools to Hack the Code. Searching for [disable personalized search] may give you more options (many of which no longer work).

How I get unpersonalized results

Although I know I will never see absolute rankings for Google, I do have a couple of methods I use when I want to exit my own search history echo chamber.

Most recommendations for getting less personalized results in standard Google recommend multiple steps (many of which I don’t bother with):

  1. Log out of Google account
  2. Clear your search history
  3. Depending on your browser, set your privacy settings to not personalize, etc.
  4. Wait until the full moon and at midnight shout, “GoogleJuice! GoogleJuice! GoogleJuice!”
  5. Append &pws=0 to the end of your search URL
  6. Expand or change your location by also appending &gl=us or whatever country code you want to search in, to your search URL

You will end up with a URL that looks something like this:

Here are my results:

Attempting to unpersonalize Google results with code

Attempting to unpersonalize Google results with code (click to embiggen)

All these results are local except for one. This isn’t really working for me, perhaps because I’m too lazy to change all my browser settings every time I want to get a purer search. A better method for me is to use the Google Adwords preview tool . Most likely you will need to sign in to use it. Follow these instructions to set up an account if you haven’t already. Then just input your search terms in the search field and see what you get:

Unpersonalizing Google results with Adwords preview

Unpersonalizing Google results with Adwords preview (click to embiggen)

You can adjust your results to see what people in different locations, languages, and devices might see. Here are my results:

Unpersonalized results from Google Adwords preview

Unpersonalized results from Google Adwords preview (click to embiggen)

Again, this is not useful for finding the absolute ranking unless your target audience has no search history or location but it is good for looking for other answers to questions you may be trying to answer with Google. Also, you do have to choose some personalization options to get the results (language, country, device) so it is not completely unfiltered.

Using truly impersonal search engines
The best option I have found for getting unfiltered search results is to use a truly anonymous search engine like DuckDuckGo. Because DuckDuckGo is a completely different engine, it should not be used as an SEO tool to be used to compare “ranking” against Google. It’s just a good search engine that does what search engines do best — find things on the web. Here’s my query:

Truly impersonal dentist offices on DuckDuckGo

Truly impersonal dentist offices on DuckDuckGo (click to embiggen)

The deep web option
If you really want to get not just unpersonalized, but completely anonymous search results outside the traditional web, you may want to try exploring the Invisible web, via TOR or other anonymizing networks. This is not a comparable alternative to Google searching on the Open web, but a completely different option to be approached with caution.

Google rank checking is a complete waste of time

Rank checking makes kittens angry

Angry kitten used with Creative Commons license from flickr

The goal of a website is to help humans use your site to take an action. The website may inform people where your business is and how to contact you, it may have a goal to create leads via registration, it may actually sell a product on the internet, or have another goal completely. The website should be built around creating a desired result for whatever the goal is. Rankings are not a result and should never be your goal. Because rankings are personalized, it is impossible to know what your baseline is, and even if you could know whether you had #1 rankings for all your favorite keywords, high rankings don’t translate into visits. Rankings are meaningless in 2013 and should not be considered a metric, much less a KPI.

Ranking is not a KPI
If you are working on marketing or optimizing a website and you become obsessed with the results of your tactics and start believing that your tactics are your KPIs, then you are doing it wrong. Consider this a gentle intervention for rank checkers (I know how it is, I used to be a rank checker myself). SEO/SEM applies digital tactics to the website, that website should be part of a much larger content marketing strategy, which is in itself a smaller part of the overall marketing effort of a company. The goal of marketing yourself or your business with a website is not #1 rankings, so the goal of SEO should not be to get #1 rankings, or even to get massive traffic from Google — the goal of SEO is to support the wider marketing goals of your personal brand or business.

Google gives you the #1 results you asked for
Keep in mind when you are tempted to report #1 rankings as a success metric (and it is so tempting because it looks so good in a powerpoint) that Google is probably serving you your favorite web page as #1 because you keep searching for it and keep clicking on it. But if you present this to your exec and he or she has not been obsessively searching and clicking on that same keyword and URL, you may have some explaining to do when the executive does not get that great looking #1 result.

Ranking does not exist
Manual Rank checking does not exist anymore as anything more than a way to spot check what Google is serving you in your personalized results. Your results have been personalized for years, as I noted in this 2011 post Manual Rank Checking in the era of Google Personalization. This has not changed.

Jill Whalen explains very clearly and much more in depth Why Running Ranking Reports Is a Fool’s Errand. Even if you don’t have time to read the whole thing, scan through the bolded text. All this is true.

Auto rank checking violates Google’s TOS
And automated rank checking is also useless and is a violation of Google’s TOS and can get your IP blocked. This has been the case for many years — I know this because I dabbled in automated rank checking tools in my early wild years of SEO and Google blocked my IP. But I made a recovery and vowed never to rank-check again. And as Jill Whalen reveals in her post, Google may even be looking into penalizing the web sites of companies who do automated testing. So not just your IP, but your actual web site could get dinged if you are autorank checking.

But even if you could get a true ranking report for your site and know to the minute what your rank in the SERPs are for all keywords for your URLs, what does it get you? Nothing. Rankings do not equal visits and even visits do not always equal success. Before you rank check again, stop and think about the goals of the business and then step away from the Google.