We all tell and love to hear stories. Have you ever been listening to someone talk and about halfway through someone else enters the room and says “hey, what are we talking about?” Then the person telling the story or joke has to stop and catch that person up so they can continue.

This is where personalization would be beneficial. The internet is very different than real life-conversations. People will enter your website in a variety of ways, and it is important to grab their attention at every one of these entry points. If you have a specific content or buyer’s journey laid out on your site and expect visitors to take a certain path, don’t. They will likely enter on a different page or starting point. The goal is to ensure they find the CTA and convert. Personalizing content allows us to optimize each page of our website, as well as specified content journeys.

What are the SEO challenges of personalization?

I wanted to start with something different and focus on what could potentially go wrong with personalization and how Sitecore addresses these issues. When generating content that is personalized to a specific visitor or group of visitors (segment), there are several elements that could potentially hinder a website’s performance. Three elements to focus on:

  • Page speed
  • Cloaking
  • Duplication

What is page speed?

Page speed is the amount of time it takes for a particular page to load. It is also a key ranking factor for search engines when looking at performance. There are different aspects to this, such as time to first byte, first meaningful/contextual paint, and so on. The bottom line is that the longer it takes a page to load, the less likely visitors will stick around. When adding personalized content to a page, this requires running multiple pieces of content and scripts in the background. Those can become taxing on servers when trying to serve up content, increasing load times.

What is cloaking?

According to Google, cloaking “refers to the practice of presenting different content or URLs to human users and search engines.” This is a violation of their guidelines and an extremely risky practice that will damage your rankings. When personalizing content, it is common to have multiple pieces of content to show each user segment or individual. While this is not advised, there are ways to avoid issues, such as implementing canonical links to the preferred version of each page.

What is duplication?

Another use for canonical links is when you have duplicate content. This can happen often when personalizing content. While duplicate is not an actual penalty for duplication, it can cause other issues such as keyword cannibalization. This occurs when two duplicate or near duplicate pages are optimized for the same terms and are fighting for the same space. Depending on how much content you plan to personalize, it may be a good idea to implement canonical tags to avoid any issues before they occur.

How does Sitecore address personalization challenges?

Sitecore handles personalization very deliberately, so it does not negatively impact performance. Let’s look at some of the concerns mentioned earlier and see how they are handled in Sitecore.

Cloaking

Does Sitecore show search engines different content than what visitors will see?

No. We do not change the page’s purpose or its content. We only personalize messaging on a component level, the base content does not change. Our goal is to be indexed in Google, not to compete with ourselves, or worse, engage in some black-hat SEO tactics that will lead to extremely poor results. As an example, on Sitecore.com our personalization is geo-modified so images will resonate better with audiences in that region. Again, not affecting the copy on that page.

Page speed

Does personalization effect page speed?

Google has stated on their PageSpeed Insights that the time to load LCP or Largest Contentful Paint should be at or under 2.5 seconds. LCP can be defined as the time it takes to measure the perceived load speed or when a page’s main content is loaded. When it comes to personalization, different content may be served, which can slow load times.

Sitecore handles personalization a little differently. We store our content server-side, so it does not weigh down a page. Our CDN or Content Delivery Network is where the personalization takes place. Immediately after a page loads, the JavaScript kicks in to inject the personalized content that Google is able to crawl.

When getting started with personalization, it is common to employ third-party rules. These can inflate load times and create a poor experience. Sitecore does not utilize these in our practice. CDP/Personalize does not need to wait for pages to load.

How much content is typically personalized?

Does Sitecore personalize everything?

With Sitecore, personalization is delivered at the component level. While you can personalize every component on the page, best practice is to personalize only highly visible items such a headlines, introductions and recommended items. These light touches help visitors feel they are getting the content that is most relevant to them while not affecting your SEO or putting too great a burden on your content team or adding multiple points of analysis for your personalization results.

Scripts

On pages that employ personalization rules, do we have any extra scripts running that would inflate a page’s load time?

Our scripts run server-side, so they do not cause longer load times; personalization rules run in milliseconds. Sitecore builds a session in memory, includes useful items from recent visits, then serves content based on a visitor’s interest.

Storage

Where does Sitecore store its personalized content?

Visitors to Sitecore are cookied. The content is stored server-side. The cookies remember visitor’s history throughout the site. This information is then sent to Sitecore, allowing us to serve up personalized content when relevant.

What are the SEO benefits of personalization?

We have addressed potential pitfalls with personalization and how Sitecore addresses these issues. So, what are the benefits to personalizing content? Driving relevant Organic traffic tends to bring in more traffic to sites than paid (Google Ads) or any other channels. PPC requires a budget that can fluctuate depending on who you are targeting and what you are trying to promote.

Keyword relevancy is another aspect to consider. With personalization rules in play, we can target a visitor’s query no matter which stage of the funnel they are in. Earlier we had mentioned that visitors can enter your site, or story, from many different entry points. This is where and why it is important to grab their attention.

For example, we know that people searching for specific keyword will often come to a related landing page such as commerce. We can then offer them related content on that page which is relevant to that query, or tailor the intro to address that particular query. Over time, if that personalization is shown to be successful, perhaps by increased time on site or pages viewed, than we may adjust the content on that page, which also aids in our content freshness, which helps our SEO. A great example of SEO and personalization working together to achieve better results.

Focus on qualified leads

Engage with your audience. Personalization rules are based on the following:

  • Queries – specific content a visitor is looking for
  • Personal information – From a profile they created and when logged into their account
  • Previous visits – A history of viewed content is retained to offer a better experience when returning to the site
  • Relationship building – Showing personalized content shows you care. This can have advantages such as lead nurturing and building audiences for email marketing.

Improve the customer experience

A better experience means repeat business, right? So why not try to provide the best experience possible for your visitors? A good experience on a website can lead to a reduction in bounce rate, increased time on page/site, an increase in the number of pages viewed per visit, and an increase in overall engagement. All of the above are also ranking factors when a search engine crawls and indexes a website, so it is important to create an experience that will make visitors want to come back.

Joe Rega is Digital Marketing Manager at Sitecore. He has been working in SEO for over 17 years. When not optimizing he can be found playing bass or mandolin. Connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter.