Web personalisation involves tailoring Web content directly to a specific user. This can be accomplished by having the user provide information to the Web site directly, or through tracking the user's behaviour on the site. The software on the site can then modify the content to the user's needs.
Are you getting the most out of the Web, or is the Web getting all it can out of you? That's the question the e-commerce industry is wrestling with as Web personalisation technology takes off.
The potential is great: With Web personalisation, users can get more information on the Internet faster because Web sites already know their interests and needs.
But to gain this convenience, users must give up some information about themselves and their interests - and give up some of their privacy.
Web personalisation is made possible by tools that enable Web sites to collect information about users.
Matching users' needs
One of the ways this is accomplished is by having visitors to a site fill out forms with information fields that populate a database. The Web site then uses the database to match a user's needs to the products or information provided at the site, with middleware facilitating the process by passing data between the database and the Web site.
An example is Amazon.com's ability to suggest books or CDs users may want to purchase based on interests they list when registering with the site.
"Customers tend to buy more when they know exactly what's available at the site and don't have to hunt around for it," says Chris Locke, an editor at Personalization.com, a Web site dedicated to Web personalisation issues.
Cookies may be the most recognisable personalisation tools. Cookies are bits of code that sit in a user's Internet browser memory and tell Web sites who the person is - that's how a Web site is able to greet users by name.
A less obvious means of Web personalisation is collaborative-filtering software that resides on a Web site and tracks users' movements. Wherever users go on the Internet, they can't help but leave footprints. And software is getting better at reading the paths users take across the Web to discern their interests and viewing habits: from the amount of time they spend on one page to the types of pages they choose.
Collaborative-filtering software compares the information it gains about one user's behaviour against data about other customers with similar interests. In this way, users get recommendations like Amazon's "Customers who bought this book also bought . . ."
Corporate information technology professionals may find that Web personalisation cuts the time it takes to purchase IT equipment because vendors' Web sites may already be tailored to their needs, says Laurie Windham, CEO of consultancy Cognitiative.
"Customers can order whenever they want, and they have more control over how the relationship with their vendor works," she said.
Windham cites Dell Computer's practice of allowing users to create their own personal "Dell sites", which allow the company to offer special prices and deals to users based on the information about their computing needs and interests they provide when they set up their sites. Users can then buy exactly what they need at their leisure without having to call a representative, hunt down the products available and then try to work out deals.
But right now, the privacy issue still hangs over industry players. Some companies abuse the information they receive from users, resulting in that most hated product of Internet commerce: spam.
Because of junk e-mail, "people are getting increasingly sceptical about what's happening with the information they provide to some Web sites," Windham said.
But Locke said he doesn't think privacy concerns will be a problem for very long because companies that abuse user information won't see long-term success - word travels fast on the Internet about these types of practices.
"The larger issue is, what will convince people to put up with and voluntarily engage in Web personalisation is going to be the value they receive back for the information they provide," Locke said.
In the future, observers like Locke and Windham said they expect to see more advanced technology like neural networks helping e-commerce sites learn even more about their customers' behaviours.
And sites are creating whole new ways for users to share and gain information, Locke said. Amazon.com, for example, offers "purchase circles" where users with similar tastes can hook up and discuss books and music they like.