User Behaviour
& Google Site Profiles

StepForth's methods of providing search engine optimization services for
Google rankings have evolved significantly over the past year. Since the
release of Google's March 30, 2005 patent application, "Information
retrieval based on historical data", our SEO and research departments have
made site usability and understanding user behaviours a priority.
After reading, analysing and writing about information found in the patent
application, we correctly predicted user behaviours were becoming critical
factors in Google's estimation of the relevancy or importance of documents
in its index. To meet what we see as the major challenges for our search
engine advertising clients in the coming years, we have spun off a SEO
friendly web site division, moved to provide several levels of SEO
consultancy, and accessed the services of website usability experts.

A growing number of others in the SEO community are sensing, testing and
talking about issues central to how Google perceives user behaviours and how
that perception affects search engine placements.

A discussion thread at WebMasterWorld, "Google algo moves away from links,
towards traffïc patterns", has been mentioned in several SEO/SEM related
news sources and blogs this week. Started on April 4, the thread has been
picking up steam with discussion generally ranging towards Google's tracking
of user behaviours and how that data might affect search results.

The term "user behaviours" describes any number of actions taken by people
while using a Google branded search tool, while visiting a particular site
in Google's index, and while moving from site to site or document to

Basically, Google wants to know what its users like and dislike. Those
user-judgements have become important factors in how Google ranks sites in
its index and in personalized search results shown to registered users.

Hundreds of millïons of Internet users subscribe to or otherwise use Google
products every day. Google tracks each of their actions to one degree or
another. For some, a simple cookie feeds basic data back to Google's
servers. For others, products such as the Google Toolbar, Bookmarks, News
Alerts and even Google Analytics feed large amounts of online behavioural
information to Google.

Google pays attention to what its users do when they visit a particular
website, page or file listed in its index, keeping an active record in order
to compile historic profiles of those documents. If a visitor accesses a
document while performing a Google search or from a bookmark file, Google
notices and takes note. If visitors find a document by following a link from
another, that action (or behaviour) is noted. How long visitors tend to stay
on a document is counted, as are the actions taken by those visitors after
they are finished viewing the document.

It does so for a number of reasons. Search is increasingly becoming
personalized. Google is experimenting with personalized search results for
registered users, showing ads that match location; results from Google Base
that match user locations registered with searches performed using Google
Local. The goal of search is to deliver the most relevant set of results
possible, and Google is trying to account for the fact that relevance is
relative to the searcher's personal needs. Google also views user-behaviours
as a way to filter out sites that a mass of users might deem less useful.

Google's core ranking algorithm, PageRank has long used links as an
indication of the relevance of unique documents. One facet of user-behaviour
tracking looks at how site-visitors use those links as a factor determining
the relevance, or importance of those links. It is also interested in
knowing which documents its users take seriously by gauging the number of
visitors and the time each visitor spends examining the document, and other
documents associated by domain or link.

User Behaviour has become an important pillar supporting the PageRank
algorithm. A short note in the discussion thread from WMW admin Brett Tabke
suggests Google has been tracking a wide range of information supplied by
its users, along with a wider array of information supplied by the web
documents in its index since November 2003's Florida Update.

Data supplied by user-behaviour is included in a largër and more important
profile Google keeps of each document in its index. As it visits and
revisits documents in its index, following and evaluating every link it can
from document to document, Google forms an evolving impression of each
document. It records that impression in document-specific historic profiles.
These profiles are thought to generate a reputation score for each document
that acts as a major factor in its algorithm.

Google also pays attention to any changes made to documents in its index. It
finds site or document changes during its normal spidering cycle. It notices
when new text is added to a document and when text is deleted. When a new
link, or set of links, is added to a document, Google notices and follows
the links, recording the date of insertion and its impression of the pages
or files the new links lead to.

It adds all this data to a profile that already includes specific details
about the history of a URL, historic details on document and site content,
and an evaluation of all links leading to and from the document. User
behaviour forms a fourth pillar of PageRank's overall relevancy formulas.

It should be noted that Google takes interest in user behaviour for a number
of reasons but with the exception of specific personalized search data, it's
nothing personal, it's only data. There is no reason to think that Google is
playing Big Brother by tracking user-behaviour. It might use specific
personal data to serve advertising, as is the case with Gmail and with
personalized search results but it appears to have acted ethically to
protect user data from various governments over the years. Google recently
earned a notation from the Thomas Jefferson Center for "strenuously"
resisting the US Department of Justice's request for user data.

The writing has been on the wall, (or on the server at any rate) for over
two years. After several algorithm changes and a four-month infrastructure
upgrade, Google results are starting to show the direct influence of its
users as they vote with their mouse-buttons. User-data is an important
factor in search engine placement, making website usability an important
factor in SEO services.

Jim Hedger


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