Personalization and personal data

I just followed the trail from John Battelle‘s note about Yahoo’s launch of Mindset to Greg Linden‘s post comparing it to Google Personalized Search and MSN Search, then to Greg’s company Findory.com and his history at Amazon helping develop recommendations and personalization features there.

Personalization of search results, news and blog stories, product recommendations, or anything else depends on “stuff about the user,” namely preferences and interests. Different services take different approaches, but they all have to grapple with two questions, each of which has three possible answers:

(1) How will the user’s data be obtained?

(A) by asking
(B) by tracking behavior
(C) by matching the user to separately collected data

(2) Where will this data be stored?

(A) it won’t, it will only apply to one action
(B) in a cookie on the user’s computer
(C) in a user account set up at the site

Let’s check out the approaches taken by the above services:

– Amazon lets you create an account that is automatically populated as you buy or rate products (1A, 1B, 2C)
– Findory lets you create an account which is automatically populated as you click on articles and blog entries or search using the site (1B, 2C)
– Most search engines let you specify search options either per search (1A, 2A), or as “saved” preferences, which are saved as a cookie on your computer (1A, 2B)
– MSN Search automatically fills in your location by extracting it from your IP address, and saves it as a cookie on your computer (1C, 2B)
– Google Personalized Search lets you select general interest areas and saves them as a cookie on your computer (1A, 2B)
– Several search engines offer further personalization features if you create an account with a search history (1B, 2C)

An example of how to avoid both questions is Yahoo Mindset, which lets you filter search results by using a slider that governs the influence of two preset preferences, whether you are “shopping” or “researching.” Thus no data is obtained or stored, but the personalization is very limited.

There seems to be no doubt that knowledge of user data can enable improved services, but the options above lead to several concerns, at least for me:

– If my behavior is tracked or my identity is matched to any other data, I want to know about it
– I always want to be able to view, modify, and/or delete any information associated with me
– If my data is stored in a cookie, it has less usefulness, since it only then works for that computer and browser, and may be deleted (accidentally or otherwise)

So I’m looking for personalized services that store my data in a user account, let me know explicitly how data ends up there, and then let me view, modify, and/or delete any of that data at any time. This is why Amazon (and Findory, which adopts its methods) are to me the most useful and comfortable to use.

But even this solution leads to some problems. If my data is stored in an account at the site, then:

– The data can only be used to help personalize services at that site; all the work I put into training Amazon won’t help Findory or anyone else
– Different sites offering similar services aren’t really competing; the first to get to me (Amazon) “owns” my data, and I can’t transfer, synch, or share this data with other services that might use it more effectively, I have to start from scratch
– I have yet another username/password to remember for each personalized service

To me, the essential fact is that I should “own” and control my own data; if my preferences (or purchase history, email address, etc.) are requested by a site for personalization or any other service that I value, I’d like to be able to exchange my data for this service (in some way that I can modify or revoke).

This reminds me of the “infomediary” concept John Hagel introduced in the book Net Worth back in 1999. But whether or not a third entity mediates the exchange, such a functionality would lead to a more level playing field and, I think, an increase in innovation associated with personalized services.

5 Responses to “Personalization and personal data”

  1. Sal S. Says:

    For once, someone starts to see the light and where they are all wrong. That said, you are still wrong as well.
    There is a revolution coming the way of personalization and at this moment, none of these companies are on the right path.
    Personalization is going to be completely private, scalable, and natural for the user. You will be able to use it as you indicated at different sources with no privacy risks whatsoever, none.
    There’s something fundamantally wrong with sharing information for personalization. It’s a trade off that should not be there however, as users and companies still don’t know any better it is the mindset they have that it’s ok, it has to be this way. Well, it’s not.
    Cheers
    Sal.

  2. Richard L. Says:

    Will it be private? Or will “personalized search data” (PSD) be more akin to the “personal credit info data” that is stored by the big three credit bureaus?

    Sites like Amazon and Findory may contribute your PSD to a large “search bureau” where your info is amalgamated with other websites contributions to your PSD. You will be granted a once per year request to view your PSD at the Search Bureau (like you are with the Credit Bureaus). You may even be given the opportunity to edit/delete certain amounts of your PSD.

    Who owns the data? Even if it is decided that you own your own PSD, what if you “give” that away?

    Given the choice between Dancing Pigs and Privacy/Security, most users will choose Dancing Pigs.

    It’s a Dancing Pigs world. It doesn’t have to be this way, but I think most users will accept the trade off in order to get to the Dancing Pigs.

  3. Adam Says:

    Sal, I’d love to hear more about your ideas and how services can be personalized without sharing information. The information can certainly be anonymous, but if you don’t tell a service about yourself, how can they personalize their service?

    Richard, very interesting point on the comparison with what happened with credit data. Thinking about it, it seems to me that there are a few important differences:

    – lenders supply credit data to credit bureaus so that they can access credit histories before granting credit; what would motivate personalized services to supply personal data to a central bureau?
    – when you go to a lender, they are taking a risk on you (that you might default); when you use a personalized service, you are taking a risk on them (that they might misuse your personal data)
    – borrowers have a motivation to lie about their credit data; it’s hard to see what motivations users would have to lie about their personalization data

    Nevertheless, it’s certainly a good point that since people are used to the credit bureau model, such an outcome could become possible if motivations aligned correctly — but I sure hope not. I understand the need for the credit bureaus (to improve the efficiency of the credit market), but their customers are lenders, not borrowers. Because of this, only public outcry and government regulations force them to allow you any access to your data, which otherwise they would have little motivation to provide.

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