iGoogle, Personalized Search And You

Yesterday was “Google Personalization Day” for me and a number of others who attended a meeting at Google with Marissa Mayer, VP of Search Products & User Experience, as well as Google Personalization Technical Lead Sep Kamvar and iGoogle Product Manager Jessica Ewing.

Barry has captured much of the factual information coming out of the meeting in his post yesterday afternoon. And Danny and Chris wrote about different aspects of Google’s new personalization push earlier this year.

To recap briefly, this is what was announced yesterday:

  • The Google personalized homepage has officially been renamed iGoogle

  • iGoogle is now available in 26 languages and in more than 40 countries
  • iGoogle “themes” are being rolled out internationally
  • Google introduced Gadget Maker. Here’s the official Google post.

We spent roughly two hours touring the history of personalized search at Google, the genesis of these products and getting a glimpse of where it all might be going.

Personalized relevance and PageRank

Sep Kamvar was at Stanford and later founded a search company called Kaltix, which Google acquired in September, 2003. Kaltix, inspired by one of the original papers written at Stanford by Larry and Sergey on PageRank, was devoted to “developing personalized and context-sensitive search technologies that make it faster and easier for people to find information on the web.”

Kamvar’s theories and the technology brought to Google by the Kaltix acquisition are at the core of its personalization efforts. (I’m not a technical person so this discussion will only be at a conceptual level.)

Mayer characterized Google personalization as “one of the biggest relevance advances in the past few years.” She added that “personalization doesn’t affect all results, but when it does it makes results dramatically better.” (To clarify, search personalization doesn’t apply at all unless a user is registered and signed in to Google.)

Kamvar told his audience that various technical advances in search algorithms now permitted Google to create a personalized PageRank for every user and all sorts of other personalized algorithms, not simply around link structure.

Currently Web/search history and location are the two factors that impact personalized search results. Web history is an opt-in checkbox when users sign in (see Google Search History Expands, Becomes Web History for much more about how Web History works, including privacy issues). Location is drawn from a default location provided by users in Google Maps. (More on localized search results below.)

Even though Google, in giving users visibility and control over their Web history, is seeking to create maximum transparency and confidence in the system it won’t be clear to signed-in Google users when they’re getting personalized results and when they’re not. They will simply be more personalized. For example, Barry Schwartz, who is in New York, will get a different search result for “movie theaters” or “libraries” than I would in San Francisco.

Obviously the targeting and advertising opportunities – based on location and search history – are significant. (Gord Hotchkiss recently wrote about this in his MediaPost column, as did Danny in his AdAge column.) Kamvar and Mayer didn’t speak about that side of personalization in any depth but Mayer hinted that personalization would eventually become part of AdWords (more on that below).

Personalized home becomes iGoogle

What was “Google IG” and now is “iGoogle” apparently came out of an offsite meeting for Mayer’s group in 2004. She charged her group with mocking up what the Google homepage would look like “two years out.” Mayer showed the audience the relatively simple slide that became the inspiration for the “IG” product that was built in roughly six weeks and launched in May, 2005.

The fact that it didn’t get a proper name was a function, apparently, of Sergey Brin’s desire at the time to add “features” not “products” to Google. Mayer added that iGoogle has “in the tens of millions of users” and that, on a percentage basis, it’s the company’s fastest growing product (I meant feature).

Jessica Ewing, Product Manage for iGoogle, then took the group on a tour of iGoogle, themes and Gadgets, including the new Gadget Maker.

She pointed out that personalized homepages or start pages have been around for at least a decade but made the additional points that AJAX and content syndication have changed the products and the landscape. Ewing argued that the original personalized home pages were more about expensive top-down content deals that didn’t offer uses a great deal of personalization at all. Now feeds, widgets and gadgets make content readily available and customizable.

Ewing made the editorial comment that “feeds are boring” but “gadgets are fun” and the introduction of Google Gadgets has contributed to the rapid growth of iGoogle. (Yahoo has widgets.) She explained that when Gadgets were first introduced they were organized by her group but now they’re ranked algorithmically. Google also uses collaborative filtering to present Gadgets: people who liked Gadget X, liked other these other Gadgets.

Google also offers users feeds and content recommendations when they set up iGoogle or add tabs. For example, the name a user places on a tab will automatically deliver recommended content (e.g., news, travel, finance) based on other users’ similar content pages. Content and feeds are also localized in many cases (e.g., local news).

Ewing then addressed themes (the dynamic graphical headers at the top of iGoogle) as “a crucial element to this product.” She offered that 30 percent of users had adopted themes within a few weeks of their launch and discussed the company’s efforts to develop more culturally and internationally specific themes in the near future. Mayer added that there will be an API so third parties can create themes.

The commercial implications of this are fascinating. Bloomberg’s Jonathan Thaw asked about this very issue and Ewing stressed that Google felt the themes should be non-commercial. But an API opens the door for brands and other commercial interests to develop headers for iGoogle. While the bar is somewhat higher because themes are entirely opt-in and elective, imagine the potentially powerful impact of a dynamic, branded header that a user sees daily or multiple times daily. All that remains to be seen, but it’s a dramatic “free” display advertising opportunity out there waiting to be further developed.

Regardless, Google’s emphasis on themes shows real marketing savvy. As Ewing commented, “personality goes a long way.” She’s absolutely correct. The personalized homepage segment has quickly grown crowded and even “generic,” with competitors offering a similar look and feel and functionality. Google, through themes, is building an emotional relationship with the user, something that none of iGoogle’s competitors are really currently doing (even and maybe especially My Yahoo).

Gadget Maker and user-generated content

Google came late to the “social media” game but has lately been accelerating its efforts. Most recently My Maps allowed users to create their own simple mashups on Google Maps. Google’s new Gadget Maker is an equivalent development for iGoogle.

There are seven content modules, from personal profiles, pictures and lists to a dynamic “greeting card.” They are very simple to create and can be emailed to friends and family. They can also be private or public. If public, they’ll be integrated into Google’s larger Gadget gallery.

Gadget Maker came out of “Eric [Schmidt's] challenge to the team to make it viral,” explained Mayer. And while other personalized start pages offer the capacity to email modules or pages to friends, here again “personality” stands out.

I would expect Gadget Maker, which was partly inspired by a conversation Ewing had with her mother, to drive viral adoption of iGoogle. Non iGoogle users who receive Gadgets via email are able to see the content and are then prompted to create an account (or sign in) on Google. The process has very little friction.

Mayer and Google see Gadget Maker as a way to drive the next phase of iGoogle’s growth and achieve a “network effect.” And the growth of iGoogle will be one of the several factors that, in turn, enables personalized search.

Personalized search results and ad targeting

For the bloggers and reporters present one of the two big “elephants in the room” was the question of whether and how personalized search might bring enhanced targeting capabilities to marketers on Google and perhaps more broadly on the larger Google network. So I had to ask the question.

Enquiro CEO Gord Hotchkiss in his column argues that behavioral targeting is coming to Google. When presented with my question, Mayer and Kamvar focused on the user experience. They said that’s what they want to work on and get right. This is a traditional Google response in any new product rollout. However, Mayer did suggest that personalized results would eventually extend to sponsored links. “We want search and ads to mirror one another,” she said.

She also spoke about Gadgets as a potential form of ad syndication or distribution. This is something that Netvibes’ Tariq Krim has also spoken about extensively as a new form of online advertising. Like my discussion of branded iGoogle themes, it forces advertisers to create value or “content” that users opt to receive.

As someone who covers local and geotargeting, it’s clear that the second layer of personalization here – location – is potentially quite significant for Google. There’s empirical evidence that shows, and I’ve argued previously, that lots of local search is obscure to the engines because of a lack of geographic modifiers or other factors.

Currently Google uses IP targeting to serve geographically relevant ads in cases where no geographic modifier is included in the query. Default location targeting will help Google not only offer more locally relevant organic results but ultimately to offer locally relevant ads even when IP targeting fails to accurately identify user location. Thus both organic and commercial local search will ultimately get a big boost from personalization.

Data privacy: the other elephant

The second “elephant,” which a number of reporters asked about, was privacy. Mayer and Kamvar throughout the presentations outlined various efforts to give users control and protect privacy. Among them:

  • No commingling of Gmail and Web history

  • Web history is opt-in
  • Ability to pause Web history
  • Ability to delete selected aspects or all of Web history
  • No retention of specific user data upon deletion of Web history

While some are inclined to be very skeptical of these assurances I believe that Google is sincere in seeking to protect users’ privacy. However, there was the 2006 AOL search histories disclosure debacle and last year’s Bush Administration subpoenas of search records. In the first case disclosure was a mistake that Google probably wouldn’t allow to happen. The second case was an unscrupulous and probably illegal government demand that Google correctly resisted.

But the issue of domestic spying or inadvertent disclosure makes the whole question of massive repositories of personal search data dicey as a general matter. I will be following up with Google’s legal department to explore the issue in more detail later.

My opinion on the matter is that as Google moves more deeply into gathering personal search data, the company, because of its market position, must go to extraordinary lengths to assure users that their information will be protected even against the U.S. government. Assuming, however, that Google is able to maintain the confidence of its registered users and increase their ranks, personalized search does offer the potential for a much improved consumer experience and a glimpse into what is undoubtedly one very powerful dimension of the future of search.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: iGoogle | Google: Maps & Local | Google: Personalized Search | Google: Web History & Search History


About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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  • http://cohn.wordpress.com Cohn

    Lost three of my tabs / pages and stuff with the iGoogle upgrade.

    Its pulling old data can’t seem to get my latest
    pages back.

    Any suggestions?

  • http://stanblog.jojoyao.com/ stan

    Really like the new themes and the fast page loading performance, but not really crazy about the new brand “iGoogle” which sounds like an apple follower. Isn’t google supposed to be more creative? :)

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