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Personalization: Too Much?

Search engines and digital properties in general are making more and more of a push towards personalization, with the idea that customizing information to the user’s previous behavior will create a more relevant digital experience.  Just this quarter alone, there have been major releases from the top trafficked properties pushing towards a more personal experience.  Google, for example, began integration between search and social via the Search Plus Your World Initiative, and followed that by adjusting it’s privacy policy on March 1st to cover all Google-owned properties so that user behavior data occurring on one, can potentially be used to personal the experience on another.  More recently, Facebook announced it’s new Premium Ads formats which build upon the idea of the “Sponsored Stories” integrating friends comments and activities into brand advertising.

With all of these developments towards a more personalized experience, often touted as being founded in “we’re listening to our users”, I was a little bit surprised to see the results of  a recent Pew Internet and American Life Project Report entitled “Search Engine Use 2012”, which indicates that while users are generally satisfied with search engine performance, they do not have a positive feeling towards personalization.  The study is based on telephone interviews performed by Pew in January and February 2012 with 2,253 adults ages 18 and over.

On a positive note, search engine use in general is viewed favorably.  Some of the key findings are:

  • 91% of respondents said they always or most of the time find the information they are searching for.
  • 73% of respondents indicated that most of the information they find is accurate and trustworthy.
  • 55% feel that quality of search results is improving over time.

When it comes to personalization, however, the views are far less positive:

  • 65% of respondents have a negative view of search engines collecting search history to refine future displayed results, and they feel it will limit the amount of information shown.
  • 73% are not ok with previous search data being stored to refine future results because it is an invasion of privacy.
  • 68% do not like targeted advertising because they don’t want their online behaviors tracked and analyzed.

There are some variances in the results based on demographic.  Generally, the report shows that lower income (HHI less than $30,000), younger (ages 18-29) users are more likely to be okay with personalization than older more affluent demographics.

It should also be noted that 93% of users feel either very or somewhat confident in their search skills.  However only 38% said they are generally aware of how they can limit the amount of information being collected about them by websites.

So what do these results mean, particularly, as they seem to be in contradiction to the developments in the search industry?  To me, it’s a question of “how much is too much”, and I see this as something that will need to be defined in the next 6-12 months as advertising results based on the most recent moves towards personalization become apparent.  There will need to be a convergence towards some common ground between the goals of search engines and web publishers, advertisers, and users that will satisfy a majority if personalization is to stay around.

Search engines and online properties in general make their money mainly from advertising.  Therefore, their stake in personalization resides in trying to find the audiences that will be most likely to respond to advertising, so that favorable metrics prompt brands/companies to allocate marketing dollars.

Agencies and advertisers are after ROI.  Therefore, theoretically, personalizing or targeting an experience seems to be a desired tactic towards spending dollars on users who have a displayed interest in a given product or service.  Focusing on the users with the higher propensity to convert is likely to yield better ROI.

Users want a relevant experience.  However, relevancy and personalization may not necessarily go hand in hand when questions over privacy and information control come into play.

In the short term, search engines and publishers will inevitably continue to refine their technologies and algorithms towards personalization.  However, I would caution advertisers that just because a targeting method is available, doesn’t mean it should be used.  Advertisers will need to evaluate their goals and objective, as well as their audience, and define tactics that will drive an acceptable ROI, while not alienating their customers.  For example, frequency settings in display re-targeting can define the perception of an advertiser being a “stalker” or one that is savvy and offering a personalized experience.

And as for users, I think the key here is education.  The industry needs to work on educating users on how to limit the information being collected about them in order to build a certain comfort level with the likes of personalization.  Give them a choice to be targeted.  I feel that facilitating a feeling of control could go a long way to eliminating fears about abuses of privacy.  If personalization is perceived as forced by the general public, then it may not survive in the long term, no matter what sort of ROI it drives for brands and engines.

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