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Google Alters Look, Tests Personalized Search

Google announced its first foray into tailoring Web search results based on a searcher's interests.

The Mountain View, CA, search giant changed its home page to add a link to Froogle, its product-comparison site. The search results page has been changed, with Google's paid listings now separated from its algorithmic results by a thin blue line. Previously, paid search results were contained in colored boxes.

Google also unveiled the test of a personalized search engine that tailors results based on a profile users build. For example, a searcher self-identified as a soccer fan will receive different results than a hockey fan when both search for “world's best goalies.”

The service, called Google Personalized, is available in the Google Labs section. It gives users 13 categories and 200 subcategories to identify interests. For example, the sports category breaks down into 19 sports.

On the results pages, searchers can choose the degree of personalization they want based on a slider, which dynamically changes their results as it is moved. Personalized search results that are moved up based on a searcher's interests are identified with a colored-balls logo.

Google Personalized is the result of a new algorithm Google built that reorders search results culled from its index of 4 billion Web pages. In regular searches, results are based on page-rank algorithms — Web pages linked to by large numbers of high-quality sites are given prominence — while Google Personalized adjusts results by weighting searcher interests.

The service marks the first time Google has built searcher profiles. The profile is stored on a user's computer in a cookie. It contains only the user's interests, not any personally identifiable information. A search profile is not transferable to another computer.

As a beta site, the personalized search engine does not carry advertising. Google's local search service recently graduated from a Google Labs project to more prominence on Google.

Personalizing search results is seen as key in figuring out what searchers are looking for. For example, customizing to interests can be used to determine whether an ambiguous search like “eagles” is looking for a band, a football team or birds.

Google rival Yahoo has made small steps toward personalizing search results. It lets users set the language for their results and the number that are displayed on the results page. Yahoo has spent nearly $2.5 billion on search-related acquisitions in the past 18 months, and its executives have tabbed personalization as a key Yahoo strength that can be applied to search. More than 130 million users have registered with Yahoo to personalize other aspects of their Web experience.

The initial step to personalize results could yield further advancements. Google CEO Eric Schmidt said last week that Google planned to add its Orkut social networking service to the site in the next year.

Social networks already have been used to hone the search experience. A startup called Eurekster lets searchers tap into their circle of friends and contacts to improve search results. It shows registered users which searches are popular among their circle of friends and gives weight to search results found relevant by others.

Google also rolled out a Web Alerts option that lets searchers receive automatic updates on specific searches. The search results are e-mailed daily or weekly. The tool builds on Google News Alerts rolled out last August.

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