Mouse trap
30 Mar 2016

Beware the Google personalised search trap

I do quite a lot of work on Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), which is the art of helping websites appear as high as possible in search engine results. Sometimes this is because a company wants to sell more of their products or services, as appearing higher in search results usually leads to more visits and sales.

Other non-profit organisations, such as unions, recognise that performing well in search engines means wielding greater influence on the internet, the dominant medium for retrieving information and news. In order to judge how well a website is performing, most people will simply search Google and see where their website appears.

However, most people don't realise that Google personalises your search results. This usually leads to your own website appearing artificially high in your search results, resulting in many people overestimate how well their website is performing in search engines. Google is the dominant search engine in the UK, with about 90% of the market share.

The search giant has been personalising results for years, and in 2009 made it the default behaviour for all users.  The most obvious way Google does this is by monitoring which websites you visit the most.

This means that if you visit your own site regularly, it will appear artificially higher in your searches. Your search results are also personalised in more subtle ways.

Google will recognise your approximate geographic location, and then serve up results based on local relevance. Even what your work colleagues are searching for can affect results.  Google will often assume that searches made from the same IP address (the addressing system of the internet), which is usually shared within an office, will have similar interests and change results accordingly.

The big problem with this is that it makes it more difficult to judge how well your website is doing in searches, and can lead to complacency if people don't realise that their website is showing up in a high position for them only.

To address this, you can tell Google to ignore your search history by adding the text ‘pws=0’ into the long search address that appears in the bar. So for example, a search for:


Rather than having to type this all the time, there are browser plugins that add the un-personalised search to your browser.

I tend to use the plugin created by Yoast (Update - this plugin is no longer available), but there are others. I’d recommend trying this out and then seeing where your website appears in search results. You might find your site is not as visible as you think.

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