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Personalized Search

Search engines have become a modern paradox. While intended to make the Web more accessible and easier to use, all too often they end up generating more questions than answers as they return thousands, if not millions, of links and advertising with little or no relevance for the user. Search engine results have improved over the past couple of years; but these improvements represent just a tiny fraction of what’s needed, and what’s possible, in the world of search.

The real gains in terms of search relevance and, importantly, search-related revenue are on the horizon now with the advent of "personalized search." Recently, there’s been a lot of attention placed on personalized search with announcements from Yahoo!, Google, Eurekster, MSN and Amazon. So, what exactly is personalized search and how can it be used to drive revenue?

Personalized search is the fine-tuning of search results and advertising based on an individual’s preferences, demographic information and other factors. Presumably, the better a search engine understands a user’s interests and preferences, the better able it is to target search results, advertising, sponsored links, etc.

For example, suppose a user searches for information to help him plan a vacation to Aruba. Without personalized search, the user receives thousands of content links and ads based purely on their global relevance -- i.e., how relevant they are to consumers in general -- without regard for this individual consumer’s lifestyle and interests. With personalized search, the results take on an entirely new level of relevance. Results returned to a budget-conscious traveler vacationing with his wife and children are different from those returned to, for example, a more upscale traveler who vacations with friends. These personalized results are first filtered according to a search engine’s basic criteria, such as popularity, keyword relevance, etc., and then they are automatically tuned to meet the individual’s specific needs. 

It is easy to see how consumers benefit from this new technology: They receive targeted search results, ads, sponsored links and more that are tuned to their particular needs and interests. What is less obvious is the benefit of personalized search to agencies, advertisers and site marketers.

Generating results for users … and advertisers

The reality is that personalized search drives financial benefit to all of these constituencies -- both in the short term and long term. In the short term, advertisers increase revenue by targeting ads and promotions at the users who are most likely to click and buy. In the example above, advertisers could target value-oriented hotels, flights and other promotions to the budget traveler while offering an entirely different set of ads to upscale, sophisticated consumers. As the relevance of ads and sponsored links to the user increases, so does click through and conversion.

These increases in click throughs and conversions, in turn, drive revenue for site marketers/publishers as well. Publishers now have a differentiated offering for which they can charge a premium over un-targeted ads and sponsorships. But, perhaps even more importantly, publishers gain critical leverage in the never-ending effort to build consumer loyalty and retention.

Studies show that consumers want personalization and are more willing to stay with sites and services that ‘know’ them and respond to their specific lifestyles and preferences. Sites that employ personalized search automatically filter the Web for consumers based on their individual preferences. This saves consumers time and frustration, and bonds users to the site.

Personalizing search results

The same techniques used in personalizing Web content are now being used to personalize Web search. It is a difficult process -- one that requires technology to learn a user’s preferences and then automatically apply that knowledge to the universe of Web content, advertising and sponsored links. There are different ways to do this, but they all require, at a minimum, the ability to:

  • Extract preference and demographic information from users in a way that does not interfere with their online experience.

  • Determine which content and advertising characteristics are the best predictors of relevance for consumers.

  • Categorize and filter content based on those characteristics.

  • Present results in a way that is easy for consumers to understand.

The end result of applying personalization to search technology is an enhanced search experience with:

  • Sponsored links that are targeted at users based on their tastes, interests and recent search histories to increase the likelihood of a click through.

  • Advertising that conditions ads based on user preferences as well as terms entered by users.

  • Premium paid inclusion that minimizes “wasted eyeballs” by targeting search results at high quality prospects.

  • Web search results that can be organized by style, meaning, category, etc. and can be presented under a “My Results” tab so as not to displace unfiltered results.

Internet users want it, advertisers need it

A recent Personalization Survey conducted for us last spring by Zoomerang found that more than 80 percent of Internet users want Web sites and services to personalize content for them to make their online experience more relevant, more useful and ultimately more rewarding. Many of the big players on the Internet are responding to this need by providing a more personalized experience for their users -- particularly with respect to search-related content and advertising.

The key for agencies and advertisers is to recognize the opportunity this new type of search brings and position themselves to take advantage of it. That means getting ahead of the curve in terms of understanding how different search services produce their results, actively seeking out sites that offer this type of targeting, and creating more flexible campaigns that can take full advantage of it.

Additional resources:

Steve Johnson is CEO of ChoiceStream. Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., ChoiceStream develops personalization solutions for online consumer services, search services, e-retailers and iTV providers.

Prior to founding ChoiceStream, Steve Johnson was Vice President of America Online’s Software and Technology Development division. While at AOL, Mr. Johnson led the development of AOL 4.0, You’ve Got Pictures™, as well as all...

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