What is the Personal Index and Why Should You Care?

What is the personal index?

The personal index is what we at Distilled have been calling search results that are specific to the searcher, and importantly, contain content from their own data. This is as opposed to the public index, the results of which can be accessed by anyone, from any device, although exactly which results appear can be personalised based your browsing history, or content that your friends have recommended etc..

There are a few different personal indexes that exist - Siri on iOS and Windows’ Cortana both have variations on this theme, but I’ll mainly be focussing on Google’s personal index. This exists in two different forms - there’s the personal index linked to your google account, which is device independent (as long as you’re searching while logged into your Google account) and the Google ‘Phone Search’ on Android devices, which is pretty basic at the moment.

Android’s Phone search

On Android devices, the Google App has a search section hidden away on the right hand side called ‘Phone’. This is presented as another search vertical, alongside things like News, Maps and Shopping.

The content that can be shown in this ‘Phone’ search is fairly limited, especially when compared to iOS Spotlight. The full range of apps whose content can appear in phone searches can be found by going to the Google Settings app, under Search & Now > Phone search. As an example, currently only 13 apps out of the roughly 150 on my phone which can show content in phone searches.

Google’s Personal Index

The much more interesting, and extensive, personal index is the main Google personal index. This consists of content associated with your Google account, which can appear integrated into search results, with the disclaimer “Only you can see these results”. These results appear in both mobile and desktop searches.

The types of content that we have identified as appearing in personal index searches in Google are the following:

  • Photos

  • Calendar events

  • Flights (from email)

  • Hotel reservations (from email)

  • Trips (combining flights and hotels)

  • Purchase deliveries (from email)

  • Restaurant reservations (from email)

This all makes sense - these types of things are already being made machine readable by the likes of email markup (see my colleague Craig’s post from last year). The trip results are especially interesting, as they consist of often disparate individual parts, that Google is stitching together. For example, in an upcoming trip of my own, I’m staying in four hostels in two countries, and flying into a different country to where I’m flying home from, but it’s all linked into one trip.

As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Google is applying its image identification algorithm to your photos to show relevant search results. For example, in the search in the below images, the photos do not have any context that would tell Google that the photos are of my Mum’s kittens - no title or metadata, and the photos haven’t been posted on any social networks with captions or tags that Google could pick up on. Google is simply looking at the images, and seeing cats. I think that’s pretty cool and/or scary.

The personal index results appearing on mobile.

How can you get into people’s personal indexes?

As a user this is all very well and good, and it’s interesting to see these developments happen in search, but as a marketer I’m always asking the question ‘how can I make the most of this cool thing Google is doing?’. We want to make the most of the improved user experience that Google is offering, and at the same time give our users the best chance to access our content.

The above list of types of personal index results fall into three categories that can be seen as analogous three Google apps: Gmail (or Inbox), Calendar and Photos.


The simplest way to get content into people’s personal index, as alluded to above, is to use email markup. If you are marketing something that falls into the categories that email markup is set up for (flights, accommodation, restaurants, orders/deliveries), this is the best way to not only improve users’ email experience, but also to appear in search results.


If you are holding an event (however tenuous your definition of event), attach a calendar invite to your email. This could be for a sale period, the date that an out of stock item is available, or an actual event. Basically anything with a date attached can have a calendar event, that will show up in users’ calendars (if they are using Gmail or Google Apps), and go on to appear in their personal index.


Photos are slightly trickier. Just attaching images to an email does not get them into a user’s index. The important thing is to get the images to be synced with their Google Photos account. The images that a user syncs will vary depending on the settings of their app. One potential way to get images into Photos might be to use Whatsapp, or a similar messaging platform, for your marketing. There is a decent chance that users will sync their Whatsapp photos automatically. You can then send photos that include your service or product, and there’s a chance that users will see these photos in their searches. It is important that any tactic you come up with is one that adds value to the user - if you attempt to spam/game this system it is going to backfire -  the user will immediately reject your content, and soon enough personal index searches will also filter low quality and unhelpful results.

Future of personal search

I'd like to preface this part by saying it's all speculation at this point in time. I'm simply extrapolating what I've seen so far from the personal index, and trying to predict what we might see next.

It’s all very well and good keeping up with the changes that Google makes, but why not also speculate about what might be coming next? For me, the developments in the personal index are along two main lines :

1. Google will get better at knowing what things are without being told.

At SearchLove London last October, Tom Anthony talked about five emerging trends in search. One of these was “Web search to data search”. What he meant by this was that search was moving away from the result being a website or webpage, and towards being a chunk of data, whether that be in the form of an answer box, Google Now cards, or anything else.

Personal search results are a natural extension of this. The results that you are seeing are information, not a destination. We have also seen that Google is getting very good at machine learning, with its image identification as mentioned above, RankBrain feeding into the search algorithm, and so on.

What this feeds into is that Google won’t have to rely on structured data forever. It will start to pull data out of emails, browsing and phone activity, your locations, possibly even the people you are in proximity to, and start providing you things in search results you didn’t know Google had access to.

2. As users get used to seeing their private things in search, Google will be more bold in showing it to us.

Another thing that Tom spoke about at SearchLove was that users are being trained to search differently. In the case of the personal index, users are going to grow used to seeing their own data in search results, and the novelty factor will diminish somewhat. We are already seeing Google serving personal results uninvited, as noted on Search Engine Watch.

Summing up

These two factors - Google knowing everything about you, and not being afraid to tell you what they know about you, will lead searchers to expect to use Google to find things out without having to leave the page - is this utopia or dystopia? 

Let me know in the comments what you think. Do you feel comfortable seeing these kind of results, and do you have any other ideas of how to take advantage of the situation?

Find out more on the personal index in Searchscape

If you want to know more about the personal index, and how it may affect search marketing in the future, head over to our Searchscape page. We've compiled predictions on the personal index and 13 other topics and trends, complete with videos and plenty of recommended reading.

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