Is There An Echo In Here?

By Richard Hughes on October 01, 2010

I couldn’t help a wry smile this week when I saw that Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook was quoted as saying that:

in the next three to five years, a website that isn’t tailored to a specific user’s interest will be an anachronism

imageBroadVision, of course, have a bit of history around personalization. Back in 1997, when I first became aware of BroadVision, I was hugely inspired by the vision of Pehong Chen to help companies create personalized web sites, in exactly the way Sheryl Sandberg describes. Looking back at Pehong’s presentations from this time, I came across a quote from Josh Bernoff, an analyst at Forrester, who said:

Much of the Web’s future will come from delivering individualized experiences

That was in May 1996; the future has been a long time coming. Indeed, this was the point I made in a presentation at the BroadVision user conference in November 2007, shortly after Tapan Bhat at Yahoo! had predicted:

the future of the web is about personalization. Where search was dominant, now the web is about ‘me’. It’s about weaving the web together in a way that is smart and personalized for the user

So why is it taking so long? It’s certainly not because of the technology – BroadVision had a great personalization engine back in 1997, enabling all the things Sandberg talks about.

No, this has little to do with technology. To do effective personalization, you need two things. Firstly, you need enough information about the user to be able to select relevant content for them. Secondly, you need their trust to use this information in this way. And trust is a funny thing – it seems that just around the time when a company acquires enough information about you to create an effective, personalized experience, they start to lose your trust. Facebook, of course, have discovered that in a very big way this year.

For years and years, I always considered Amazon to be the best example of web personalization, because they always appeared transparent about how they used information. When they recommended a product, there was a little link saying “why is this recommended for you?”. But even Amazon have fallen into the trust trap – I have had more than one conversation along the lines of “I don’t like browsing around Amazon these days because I know they’ll send me endless emails about the products I looked at”.

So, is web personalization an unachievable utopia? No, I don’t think so. Social networking has made people more relaxed about giving personal information in return for a better web experience. Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Google and Amazon have all advanced the cause of personalization. But none of them have cracked the trust issue yet. Once a sufficiently large amount of user data is acquired, there is always a temptation to use this to generate revenue in a way that may well be compliant with the privacy policy the user signed up to, but is not in line with what a user considers acceptable.

Arguably, once trust is lost, it is never fully regained. My favourite observation about Facebook’s recent privacy troubles was from Andrew Brown who noted that we are not Facebook’s customers, we are their product. Facebook’s customers are the advertisers using our personal data to target their message to a very specific audience.

So it may require a completely new breed of company to build and retain the trust required for large scale personalization; one that understands where the line between acceptable and unacceptable use of personal data lies, and takes care to never cross that line. And that may take a little longer than 3-5 years.