Search Benefits From Personal Touch

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As search engines expand their indexes to include a greater breadth of content, they also aim to increase the relevance of their results with personalization. This wave of personalization services will bring new opportunities for advertisers, but privacy concerns could threaten consumer adoption.

Google and Yahoo are aggressively adding personalization features, and Microsoft is rolling out new personalized services with Windows Live. Yahoo was the first to market with personalization, launching My Yahoo in July 1996 and touting it: "By introducing relevant programming to each user, My Yahoo creates a one-to-one relationship between Yahoo and its viewers."

This remains the value proposition for personalization, and the portal has expanded capabilities to include saving, sharing and blocking search results. Last year, some of these features became central to My Web and Yahoo 360, sites that mix searching with social networking. Microsoft also hopes personalization will win over consumers. Though it has offered users options to customize content on MSN for years, Microsoft is emphasizing and expanding such features with its Windows Live, now in beta.

In the past several months, Google has taken personalized search to new levels by actually personalizing the results. For users logged in with a Google account - used for Google's personalized home page, Gmail and other services - certain searches will bring up personalized search listings. For instance, a New York-based user logged in to Google searching for "New York" will find listings related to the city higher than some listings for the state, compared with someone who is not logged in.

Sponsored links in Google can even change when listings are personalized. That user searching for "franchise" could find some paid listings' copy changed to reflect New York locations when logged in. This technology is early in beta. As it improves and Google builds its database of users' search histories, expect personalization to appear more often and throughout more of Google's services.

Personalized news feeds are already available from a startup, Findory, which customizes blogs and news stories based on what each user clicks. This illustrates a powerful driver for the consumer, where the publisher provides something specific to the consumer's interests that the consumer might not have found otherwise. In the process, the advertising becomes more targeted. Contextual ads alongside the articles change based on the top news stories appearing. Such ads are not quite personal, but the incremental targeting improvements contribute to a richer experience.

All of the technological breakthroughs will be meaningless if consumers don't use them, and new threats to consumer adoption of personalization technologies are emerging. Each time the federal government subpoenas a search engine or major technology company for user data, consumers have one more reason to fear that their personal data could be compromised. A February survey by the University of Connecticut's Center for Survey Research and Analysis found that 65 percent of Americans do not support government monitoring of the public's search activities. And 60 percent oppose search engines storing users' behavior. Given that a bare minimum of behavioral information must be kept in order to make personalization effective, some consumers may forgo a more relevant online experience in exchange for allaying their privacy concerns.

Privacy fears have yet to slow engines' plans. In October, Google applied for a patent that would improve personalization both for registered users and for users not logged into Google. The patent, as reported by Search Engine Journal, even accounts for multiple users using the same machine: "Different users may move the mouse in different ways, type differently, and use different applications and features of those applications." If such technology comes to fruition, Google could personalize its services even without knowing anything of the user's profile or prior behavior.

With Google, Yahoo and Microsoft so invested in personalization, and startups such as Findory tackling specific challenges, more opportunities will arise for advertisers. Mobile Internet services will create even more possibilities. The challenge will be for these companies to keep improving consumers' online experience while safeguarding their privacy. If the threats to privacy are neutralized, advertisers will herald a new level of targeting never possible in any medium until now.

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